Scottish Independence: What Happens to Us Students?

Scottish independence was never something I thought much about, at least until I came to St Andrews. As a French expat, I never identified with this particular issue, and always viewed it as more of an identity crisis than a serious movement grounded in hard debate. However, meeting one of my second year Scottish friends studying International Relations greatly affected my view on independence. He has an impressive talent for going on rants about independence and for retaining my attention, despite their frequency. I realised that living in Scotland, independence would have an impact on me directly. What would be the effect on education if Scotland became independent and what would be the implications for those international students enrolled in the system?

Image courtesy of _skynet, © 2009, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of _skynet, © 2009, some rights reserved.

The first sets of questions that an international or an EU student would think to ask would be related to fees, and the possible rise of fees. 2012 saw massive changes to UK education as a whole with fees being dramatically raised in response to the Great Financial Crisis. Despite these major changes, EU citizens – provided they are resident in Scotland or in an EU member state other than the UK – will continue to have their fees paid by the Scottish Government through SAAS. English/Welsh/Northern Irish (rUK) students, however, will have to pay £9,000 for the majority of courses. Scotland has always valued free education for Scottish people, and thus Scottish students are granted access to a free higher education. International students, who make up approximately 30% of the St Andrews student body, have much higher fees, of £15,460 for Arts/Divinity in 2013.

If Scotland were to become independent, and assuming that she gained EU membership, rUK students would no longer be citizens of the same members state and the Scottish government would have to treat the rUK citizens like any other EU citizen. The implication would be that the government would either have to charge Scottish students or subsidise the rUK students. With so many rUK students studying in Scotland, the financial impact on the Government would be huge, but not necessarily insurmountable.

Angus Millar and Ailie Corbett, two students from St Andrews who support the pro-independence YES-Scotland campaign, have highlighted the importance of free education in Scotland. They both believe that Scotland becoming independent would mean the Government would be free to pursue its own education policy from a stronger fiscal position. Ailie Corbett states that “Scotland receives 9.3% of UK public spending to run its service but Scotland generates 9.9% of all UK taxes. This works out as £4.4 billion from 2011 to 2012!” With that money gained, Scotland would perhaps invest more in higher education to improve its accessibility. They believe that education policies have been much too focused on England and the fallout has not been in Scotland’s interest. Indeed, with independence, Angus Millar predicts a fairer society where Scottish people will be able to make their own decision regarding what is best for them. He ardently believes that Westminster has been imposing a “brutal agenda of austerity though cuts and unpopular policies”, with, for example, millions of pounds being spent on nuclear weapons which Scottish people do not want as well as money being spent on the Iraq War in 2003. With policies in concordance with the needs and wants of the Scottish people, he believes a lot of money would be saved to implement their own decisions.

Although, these talks for a fairer society are heartfelt, it is possible they stray in to the realm of idealism when it comes to education. I agree that free education should take precedence, it is however unrealistic to think that rUK students, with their new EU status would all get subsidies by the government as they represent an important revenue source for Universities, especially in St Andrews. Although the rises of fees in 2012 are considered by the proponents of independence to be ‘brutal’, they were a result of a global economic crisis, not as a way to punish Scotland. An independent Scotland would have to obtain as much funding as it could, and thus it is more likely that the Scottish students would be asked to pay the same as the rest of the UK and EU citizens. Some would argue that nothing would change fees wise, but with Scottish independence, it would be unfair and, more importantly, probably illegal to have English/Welsh/Irish students pay different fees than those asked of other EU citizens. With the Scottish education system becoming one of the most expensive in Europe, and despite its relative strength in global rankings, it’s likely applications from the continent would decline.

The second problem and arguably easier problem that Scotland would have to face with independence would be the establishment of an application system. At the moment, the UCAS system is the one undergraduates use to apply to Scottish Universities. It specifies that students can only apply to five universities in the whole of the United Kingdom. If Scotland becomes independent, it is likely that the UCAS system would exclude Scottish universities and a new admission system would have to be put in place. An individual system would complicate admission systems, and in all make Scottish universities more competitive as students would be able to apply to however many Scottish universities they desired as they would not be part of the UCAS anymore. If an admission system similar to UCAS would be implemented on a domestic level (perhaps called ScotCAS), it would still mean an increase of competitiveness in universities, as students could apply to more universities cross the British Isles. Overall, St Andrews is already a competitive university that lacks the proper infrastructure to accommodate more than a limited amount of students. It is already often criticized because of its elitism, so making it more competitive would perhaps increase that elitist aspect and make the university more unpopular.

Finally, another issue that needs to be raised is what would happen to the study abroad programs. With Scotland becoming independent, English universities would thus become part of the study abroad program of Scottish universities. This would perhaps be a positive influence, as it would diversify study abroad programs and perhaps encourage students to apply to ERASMUS. However, the point of ERASMUS is to discover a new culture, a new education system. Is the English system or Welsh system really more different than the Scottish ones? I agree that the Scottish undergraduate system offers four years of study, instead of the three in England, because the Scottish system places an emphasis on a broader education. With the high presence of English teachers in St Andrews, we can say that overall, the higher education system does not differ greatly. However, is Scottish culture that different from Welsh culture or English culture? Angus Millar states that “culture is not important to him” when it comes to Scottish independence, even though Scotland has a different history and can be considered more Celtic, there are not major cultural discrepancies between cultures in the United Kingdom. Therefore, would a study abroad program in England defeat the purpose of ERASMUS that has the sole purpose to promote discoveries of other cultures, languages and education systems?

I can understand how the YES movement would desire independence, but regarding education, we can see that it would have more of a negative effect on Scottish higher education in the long term. I think it is an extremely idealistic viewpoint on Scottish finances to assume that an independent Scotland would be able to sustain the free tertiary education sector that they so highly value. Regarding an admission system and study abroad programs, it would simply complicate the latter. The only certainty is that t is that it is likely that with independence, the EU status will definitely change with either English/Welsh/Irish students becoming EU students if Scotland gets EU membership, or if Scotland does not acquire EU membership, with EU students becoming international ones.