Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Should I stay or should I go now?

Last night’s TV debate between Alec Salmond and Alastair Darling brought home to me that the prospect of Scottish independence is possibly very real.  I’m not foolish enough to prognosticate publicly on the rights and wrongs of the question, but it is worth looking at what Scottish independence might do to higher education in the UK.  For this post I’ll look at the student side; research comes another day.

It’s a moot point as to whether there is a single UK higher education sector.  Funding and oversight has been through national funding councils (or similar mechanisms) for some time. And being a devolved matter, quite different approaches to funding of institutions and students have developed in the four UK nations – England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.  On the other hand, the mission groups (the Russell Group, Million+, University Alliance and the now-departed 1994 Group) and Universities UK, the sector umbrella body, have always worked on a UK-wide basis.  

HESA publish data on undergraduate student mobility between the four nations (the raw data is in a table at the end of this post), and these show what looks like a politically and sociologically interesting pattern.  For starters, here’s the absolute numbers (2012-13 data) in each of the four nations who choose to study in their home country (‘stay’) or study in one of the other UK nations (‘go’):

2012-13 HESA data; first degree students only

The disparity in scale between the four nations is clear here: England has 85% of student numbers. Not surprising really: it has more universities and more people anyway.

But when you look at percentages a striking picture emerges:

2012-13 HESA data, first degree students only

On this view, England and Scotland are very similar: 95% of students from England and Scotland stay in their home nation.  And Northern Ireland and Wales are also similar: about two in three students from Wales and Northern Ireland stay in their home, but one in three go elsewhere (mostly to England, by the way.)

It’s possible to make broad historico-political points here, about Scotland and England being sustainable polities, and Wales and Northern Ireland being places from which that some people see the need to leave to thrive. But I’m going to refrain from that. 

The balance of trade is interesting too (that is, the difference between total numbers of students from the nation studying the UK, and total number of places taken by UK students in that nation). England and Northern Ireland are net exporters of students, and Wales and Scotland net importers. Also, despite the vastly different sizes of the sectors, the actual numbers have a very similar order of absolute magnitude – between 11,000 and 13,500 for each of the four nations.

Balance of trade Students:
From In Balance
England 924,680 912,615 12,065
Wales 51,095 62,180 -11,085
Scotland 95,930 109,450 -13,520
Northern Ireland 41,370 28,830 12,540

Overall, if Scotland left the UK, the HE sectors in England, Wales and Northern Ireland probably wouldn’t be much affected. The blunt truth is that compared to the whole, not many Scottish students leave (a short 5,000), and most of these go to England, where their number is but a drop in the ocean. Scotland might notice a change more: 16% of home students at Scottish universities – over 18,000 - come from other UK nations.

I don’t imagine that the vote on 18 September will be swayed by the impact on the university sectors. Nor, by these data, should it.

Here’s the raw data I promised:

Nation of institution
Origin of students England Wales Scotland NI Total
England 880,210 29,610 14,195 665 924,680
Wales 18,725 31,955 400 15 51,095
Scotland 4,515 165 91,200 50 95,930
Northern Ireland 9,165 450 3,655 28,100 41,370
Total 912,615 62,180 109,450 28,830
The numbers are from 2012-13 HESA data (did I mention this?) and refer to first degree students only.

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