I attended a seminar yesterday considering the impact of the Referendum result in Scotland. As UCISA is a UK wide organisation it is important to understand the range of views across the UK and the potential impacts on the devolved nations. In Scotland, along with Northern Ireland, the majority cast their votes in favour of remaining in the EU. Nicola Sturgeon has made the Scottish Government view clear – they wish the majority view in Scotland to be respected and for Scotland to remain in the EU. To what extent that can be achieved isn’t clear, partly because the new cabinet at Westminster is still defining its approach to leaving the EU.
The lack of clarity stems from before the referendum. There was no White Paper to outline the proposed action in the event of a vote to leave – this contrasts with the approach taken with the Scottish independence referendum where options for both outcomes were known. Further it has become evident that there were no plans or contingencies for a leave success. It isn’t clear how the exit will be triggered or who needs to be consulted – and this might not be clear until a number of legal challenges have been addressed later in the year. Finally, the notion of leaving the EU means different things to different people – there remains a great deal of negotiation between constituents within Government for a clear picture to emerge.
What are the options for Scotland? Given that there appears to be reluctance to hold a further referendum on independence, it will probably be limited to trying to influence a move to a least worst option. David Davies, in his address to Parliament on 5 September, stated that the devolved administrations would have an important role to play (but that they would have no veto). So Scotland will need to lobby hard for a softer Brexit with continued access to free trade against the hard line Brexiteers within the UK Government. An alternative might be for Scotland to build stronger relationships with the EU post exit in certain areas such as agriculture or higher education. However, this may require a further Scotland Act to devolve more powers to Holyrood in order to be achievable. A further option could be for Scotland and Northern Ireland, as the two nations within the UK that voted to remain, to take over the UK’s EU membership but the constitutional challenges that would present within the UK makes that extremely unlikely.
The result of the Referendum on June 23 will have an immediate impact even before negotiations begin. The demands placed on the Civil Service to inform the negotiations and manage the process will cost, both financially and in terms of time spent away from business as usual. So it may be prudent for those organisations that receive direct or indirect Government funding to budget for a reduction in income. Further, it may mean that some issues that might have occupied parliamentary time will be pushed further down the queue.
So what will be the impact on higher and further education in Scotland? Whilst education remains a priority for Holyrood, it is way down the list in the Westminster Government’s Brexit considerations and it will be some time before the full impact is understood. The risk to research through the loss of EU funding and collaboration opportunities is well documented. In the short term, there is the risk of further reduction in central funding and a risk to student numbers. Brexit has given added impetus to the Home Office perspective on international students and the potential damage to applications from beyond the EU. EU student numbers may also decline amidst the uncertainty.
UK universities and their representative bodies will need to be effective in lobbying and influencing Government over the coming months and years. In the short term this will be needed to remove uncertainty (for example, reassuring EU students applying now for 2017 that their fees won’t rise during their course); longer term it will be needed to ensure the continued global success of the sector. What is clear is that the uncertainty means that universities will need to plan for a range of potential scenarios – the need for quality data and systems to support this has never been greater.