I wrote recently about some of the challenges and opportunities facing Academia in the context of both the independence referendum and in the drift toward an economistic approach to higher education more generally.
One of the ideas regularly turned to by the Better Together campaign is the idea of Scottish research excellence being inhibited through withdrawal of UK research funds and in the more abstract but equally important concept of somehow being external to the research community.
It is not without irony that the President of Science Europe is the St Andrews academic Paul Boyle, an Englishman working in Scotland who now resides in Brussels. He is also head of the ESRC, the body responsible for allocating state funding to economics and social sciences in the UK.
Science Europe exists as part of the European Research Area, an initiative of the European Union designed to facilitate a single market in higher education research. The use of the word market in EU parlance is slightly misleading, as the ERA exists to increase the movement of academic labour and knowledge exchange over encouraging universities to shop around. It is designed to facilitate a Europe-wide knowledge economy in which the benefits of world class research can be spread across Europe as well as providing support for Europe’s existing research capacity.
Furthermore, there is a long and noble tradition of academics moving away from the UK to work at leading centres elsewhere, whether it be the Max Planck institute in Germany, MIT in America, Sciences Po in Paris or Asia. For what it is worth the University of Edinburgh currently occupies 17th position in the QS World University Rankings, due in large part to its consistently high research impact as typified by the recent Nobel Prize award to Professor Peter Higgs. As the jokes went around the internet with Alex Salmond and his magic pocket flag superimposed on Peter Higgs, they illustrated that knowledge is not bound by national borders. This can be applied to both to the hypothetical new Scotland and the watertight, unitary British state that opposes it. That Professor Higgs’ work on particle physics was proven in an international underground superlab that actually straddles an international border is a case in point.
There is another truth not told here too. Both Oxford and Cambridge keep their reputations and mead cups topped up via huge amounts of private funding. Don’t tell anyone, but Edinburgh also has a lot of money down the back of the sofa and the University of Aberdeen has in recent years proactively pursued sources of income external to the British state funding model with a high degree of success. The amount of funding allocated by the state to universities in the UK is also below other countries. Denmark spends 2.4% of its GDP on research compared to only 1.7% in the UK.
We are also, it is to be hoped, entering an age in which the open provision of scientific and intellectual knowledge can lead to an international commons. The neo-liberal model of globalised university education assumes that knowledge and its producers exist in a Malthusian universe of finite elites who can be bought and sold. The structures of knowledge creation, however, can be replicated. Scotland’s enduring commitment to publicly funded education means that it is slightly further toward advancing that generalist dream of the knowledge commons in which everyone might participate.
The knowledge economy is a misunderstood concept which in its clumsiest articulation makes it sound as if you can put a direct price on research skills. Although it can be monetised in some cases, academic research does not take place on an investment and returns basis, and both the Scottish and European knowledge economies rely on their citizens spending money on things they do not understand in the belief that there is a good to be had in facilitating such output.
Paul Boyle summed up the challenges and potential of Europe-wide research in a recent editorial for the journal Nature, writing “The European Research Area should be an evolving, flexible and creative space in which researchers, ideas and knowledge can circulate freely to respond to society’s challenges. At its heart will be trust.”
So in this new Scotland we may have a social contract, and hopefully a renewed working relationship with both The United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland alongside the rest of Europe. All will be relationships built on a belief and trust in the ability of intangible things to produce tangible benefits that go beyond the bottom line. That’s an educational paradigm we should all believe in.