One of the questions regularly raised in discussions of independence is what would happen to Scotland’s globally prestigous universities.

Senior figures at my own place of work, the University of Edinburgh, have voiced concerns about the impact of being cut off from UK government research funding. More publicly Louise Richardson, the American-inspired principal of St Andrews has attacked elements of Scottish higher education policy as unsustainable and believes that universalism and universities do not go together.

What many people do not know is that, although higher education is devolved to Holyrood, the research funding which keeps many universities topped up and allows them to employ some world class academics is still allocated from Westminster. In the early days of the Cameron government there were attempts to politicise university research through directed funding of some of the main research councils, Arts and Humanities, Economics and Social Science, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences,  Medicine, Natural Environment and Science and Technology. Thankfully, a great many academics resisted such efforts and despite the crisis of tuition fees the structures of research funding are still relatively intact.

Now given that Scotland’s universities are already regulated and funded at an undergraduate level by Holyrood, the research funding pool is the one remaining structural link to Westminster. People such as Louise Richardson buy into the idea that severing this link would be a disaster for Scotland’s universities, and the forensic and nuanced Labour MSP Malcolm Chisholm pointed out the benefit of large research pools in this week’s independence preview debate in the chamber.

This is not something the Yes campaign can just ignore, and being a Scottish university is not a virtue in itself without the funds to back up the country’s claims to be at the top table of world education. You would hope that the future of higher education in Scotland, which is crucial to the country in terms of both its economy and its ability to meet its aspirations as a highly developed state, receives a significant amount of attention in the Scottish Government’s forthcoming white paper. In Scotland being the education minister also involves safeguarding and developing crucial national institutions for the benefit of all.

Nothing, however, is impossible, and there are various options for Scotland’s universities to take after independence.

The first would be to propose a joint research pool with Englash, Welsh, Irish and Northern Irish universities that would better allow specialisms to flourish and facilitate cross border academia. There is already a limited cooperation agreement between the UK and Ireland on pooling of research resources, whilst a great deal of higher-end science research now happens within the context of European funding organisations and research networks anyway.

The other option is that Scotland, in line with the aspirations of some SNP and Green thinkers to seek membership of the Nordic Council, should attach itself to the Nordforsk research pool which coordinates funding and specialisation across Northern Europe from Iceland to the Baltic states and Western Russia. This would move Scotland away from what Scandinavians term the Anglo Saxon educational tradition and integrate the country more closely with its Nordic neighbours. This might seem a horrific idea to the Ivy League obsessives in the country’s top universities but would apparently be more in line with the collective mood in Scotland generally.

The third option is that Scotland goes all out in developing itself as the go-to country for education by mixing high levels of access and participation for its own citizens with state backed research. It could aggressively pursue international funding and utilise the advantage of having several top class universities within a few hours of one another to create a world-leading research cluster across a range of disciplines. When Voltaire fell over himself to praise the Scottish intellectual climate he did so in a world without research councils and American exchange students. Ideas, and not oil or Scotland the brand, could be what comes to define the first century of a reconstituted state.

The last of these three scenarios is probably the most fanciful, but it is also the most enticing. Given the increasing dysfunctionality of universities in England independence might give Scotland the chance to develop a distinctive educational paradigm which could become a national cause celebre to dwarf flogging golf hats and whisky to wealthy tourists.

Separatism Voltaire us apart