Division Over Education Options

Scotland's campuses have been sharply divided over the future of higher education under independence.

Both sides in the referendum debate have stressed the globally important role of Scotland's universities - the country has five in the world's top 200, more per head of population than any other nation.

But while supporters believe independence will put Scottish institutions in a stronger position on the world stage, detractors say the sector benefits more from remaining in the UK.

With control of education policy already devolved to Scotland, university funding has emerged as a flashpoint.

In its white paper on independence, the Scottish Government set out plans to maintain its current policy of free higher education for students who live in Scotland while charging fees of up to £9,000 for students from other parts of the UK.

The paper says the fees are comparable to what students in England would be charged to attend university there and are necessary to prevent Scottish institutions from being flooded by students from the rest of the UK.

It maintains that under independence there would be an "objective justification'' for continuing with the status quo but opponents have criticised the move, claiming it would be illegal under European law.

Students from other European Union (EU) countries are entitled to free tuition in Scotland and continuing to charge those from the rest of the UK would be discriminatory, pro-union campaigners say.

Another fiercely-debated issue is whether an independent Scotland would continue to have access to the taxpayer-funded UK-wide research councils.

The Scottish Government is the largest single source of university research funding, with money from the Scottish Funding Council accounting for a third of research income in 2012/13 and a further quarter drawn from the research councils.

Scotland currently attracts a disproportionate amount of research council grants - amounting to £257 million or 13% of the UK total in 2012-13, despite the country having 8% of the UK population.

The white paper says that in the event of a Yes vote, it would be in the interests of Scotland and the rest of the UK to continue to have a "common research area'' with shared research councils and access to facilities.

But the UK Government argues independence would cut off Scottish universities from a significant source of research funding, pointing out there is little precedent for sharing such a system across international borders.

Access for Scottish researchers to UK institutions and international facilities such as the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) would have to be negotiated and could not be guaranteed, UK Government analysis concluded.

Respected scholars have lined up on either side of the debate, represented on one hand by the pro-independence group Academics for Yes and on the other by the pro-union Academics Together.

The former argues independence offers an opportunity to "reinvigorate and renew'' higher education while the latter says the "brightest and most secure'' future for Scotland's universities is as part of the United Kingdom.

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