University Research Funding (Independence)

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 6 June 2013.

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Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

3. To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s position is on how an independent Scotland would maintain research funding for universities. (S4F-01440)

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

University funding is not exactly the Conservative Party’s strong suit today. In The Daily Telegraph only yesterday—I know that Murdo Fraser reads it every day; I must confess that the article was pointed out to me—there was an extraordinary piece that showed the financial pressure on universities in England as a result of the collapse in student numbers that has been caused by the Conservative Party’s policy on tuition fees.

In contrast, Scottish universities are in a strong financial position and Scotland has maintained a world-leading position on research quality. We have four universities in the top 200. We are committed to maintaining that research funding and excellence in an independent Scotland.

Of course, unlike Murdo Fraser’s colleagues south of the border, we have demonstrated our commitment to university research. Most recent, just two weeks ago we announced an additional £13.7 million for key, world-leading research.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

We have 8.5 per cent of the United Kingdom population but our universities win 15 per cent of UK public and charitable research funding. A host of figures and bodies have expressed concern that the situation could be put at risk by independence, among them Professor David Bell of the University of Stirling, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Royal Society of Chemistry, and Professor Louise Richardson, principal of the University of St Andrews. Professor Richardson said:

“If we were cut off from national research councils, it would be catastrophic for this institution”.

Without guarantees from the First Minister about the future funding of research in our universities, surely our academics would be better to conclude that we are better together.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

That is why I just pointed out that this Government is committed to university funding and to university research funding, unlike the Conservative Party south of the border. Incidentally, I have dozens of quotations from university principals south of the border saying what they think of the Westminster Government and its treatment of the universities.

As Murdo Fraser suggested, we contribute to research funding—incidentally, more research funding for the universities comes from the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council. We contribute to the research funding from the various science councils.

Murdo Fraser seems to be giving a one-sided view of these matters—[Interruption.] Well, it is a one-sided view with the Conservatives and the Labour Party; I should say that it is a two-sided view in the better together campaign.

On 13 April in The Times, Professor Tim O’Shea, from one of the most successful universities—the University of Edinburgh—asked that very question. He said that there was no reason

“why any form of constitutional change should preclude participation in higher order research councils”,

which of course make research grants on the basis of merit, as they will continue to do, backed by the Scottish Government.

I would think that it would be virtually impossible for the Conservative Party to find a single university principal in the whole of England who would tell them that universities are being properly funded under the tutelage of the Conservative Party. Let me repeat: university finances, according to that prime source, The Daily Telegraph, are collapsing, and student numbers are in free fall as a result of the student fees policy.

I merely mention those things to warn the Labour Party that its association with this lot—the Conservatives—will cost it dear.

Photo of Linda Fabiani Linda Fabiani Scottish National Party

Does the First Minister agree that in an independent Scotland, Scotland’s universities would not only continue to be world class but no longer face the threat caused by Westminster’s damaging student visa policies—[Interruption.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Order. We must hear the question.

Photo of Linda Fabiani Linda Fabiani Scottish National Party

—which have been described by the Scottish Council for Development and Industry as

“a huge challenge to universities socially and financially and to Scotland economically”?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

I do agree with that, which is why I gave the assurance that I did. I agree with the university principals who say that English universities and, indeed, universities across Europe would kill for the funding settlement that this Government has given to Scotland’s universities.

Quite rightly, the member points to the evidence to the Education and Culture Committee from the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, which drew attention to another Tory-Labour-Liberal threat to our university system—the student visa policy. The SCDI said that the biggest source of concern for research in Scotland is Westminster’s tightening of student visas and that the policy is

“a huge challenge to universities socially and financially and to Scotland economically.”—[Official Report, Education and Culture Committee, 2 October 2012; c 1514.]

I agree with that. It is high time that the no campaign found someone who is prepared to speak up for the real interests of Scottish universities.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

The Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Royal Society of Chemistry have questioned whether universities in an independent Scotland will be able to access research council, charitable and European Union funding. Does the First Minister believe that those bodies are guilty of scaremongering?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

No, but I certainly think that the constituency MSP Liam McArthur is, given his mention of EU research funding.

Incidentally, the scientific adviser to the European Commission is the former Scottish scientific adviser, which gives an indication that we are well integrated into scientific research across the EU.

I thought that it would be dawning even on the constituency member that the threat to Scotland’s position in Europe comes not from the SNP benches but from his colleagues on the benches at Westminster. The way to preserve Scotland’s position in Europe and access to research funding is for there to be an independent Scotland, not for us to be dragged into an in-out referendum by his coalition partners in London.