Siol nan Gaidheal
University Challenge

With the advent of a devolved government and the continuing move towards widening access to higher education, it seems pertinent to examine again the proportion of non-Scots studying and indeed teaching at some of our most respected and famous Scottish universities. This issue has been raised many times over the last ten years, highlighting the fact that while a problem has been perceived by vast swathes of the public, nothing has or is being done to address it either by the government or by the institutions themselves.

Every year after the Higher results are published, the full applications process is set in motion with telephone helplines, web sites, information on courses available published in newspapers and now television programmes on where to find the course that suits YOU. In fact in general terms this would seem to be a smokescreen more than anything else as most places at the more renowned universities are already accounted for and in many cases the number of Highers you have is of very little importance as these venerable institutions prefer the information to be on the number of A-levels you may have. Universities answer this bias shown in favour of A-level qualifications by saying that there are many schools in Scotland which offer these courses to their students. This is absolutely true, but these schools are invariably of the fee-paying variety and one would imagine that the number of ordinary Scots at Gordonstoun, Strathallan or Merchiston Castle is not very high. This lack of interest, nay disdain for Highers also extends to universities in England - Wot No A-levels!! putting a further block on Scottish students wishing to pursue their studies. One can't however, blame the English if universities in our own country ignore them just as readily.

The simple fact is that although the figures for the number of people pursuing courses in Higher education are higher than ever before, at least three of the big five universities in Scotland have fewer than 50% of their students from Scotland. The description of Scots students is also open to question as the only qualification for being Scottish seems to be residency. Therefore if you were born and raised in England but are in your final year of study and have been here for three years, magically, you become Scottish. While residency might well be considered one of the qualifications necessary, it cannot be the only qualification of nationality. There are not many Scots in England who after three years there would consider themselves English. Manipulation of figures seems to be the only reason behind the use of residency as a prime indicator of relative student numbers. Why should this be? Surely our most hallowed institutions have nothing to hide and if they are not concerned about the public reaction to the lack of Scottish students within their halls why bother with calculations of such percentages in the first place?

Most people would agree that to take one's education as far as one wishes to go in one's own country and within the parameters of one's own culture constitutes a basic civic right. It does seem, however, that obstacles are being placed within the university system in Scotland which in many cases prevent Scots from even aspiring to this supposedly inalienable privilege.

In the academic world the exchange of ideas and the discussion and dissemination of information are considered of vital importance and rightly so. A diverse and multinational student population is therefore essential in enhancing the general work and research of any seat of learning. Such openness and accessibility should indeed be the ambition of every modern thriving seat of higher education. In many subjects perhaps most demonstrably in languages and the teaching of other countries' histories it is self-evident that natives of those countries and native speakers of the languages in question present an understanding and insight of nuances and complexities within these subjects which a Scot would find difficult to obtain by learning and study alone. The same diversity of approach and experience of course benefits the general academic climate of most faculties, perhaps most relevantly in arts and the humanities, but also in science which does not always command universality of approach, method or understanding. The entirely predictable accusations of "parochialism", (the old war cry of the institutional colonist), is of course levelled against the proponents of higher numbers of Scottish students at our own universities. This is absolutely not what the argument is about. If it were suggested that Scots attended our universities in exclusivity then this would be fair criticism but the problem is that it is not large numbers of students of many nationalities and diverse cultures which are being seen but the preponderance of students from one particular country, England, which causes us to question the low percentages of Scots within our universities.

We should not delude ourselves either that it is the esteemed and justly famous Scottish education system which is attracting so many English students trying to shake off the shackles of a restrictive and narrowly focussed education system, rather it is the case that many see the chance of longer courses as reason to take it easy for a few years in a fairly pleasant colonial outpost where the natives and surroundings are sufficiently exotic to maintain a sense of adventure without the inconvenience of having to learn tiresome foreign languages or miss out on good-old British Varsity-subsidised beer culture.

Much facile comment is made about the alleged parochialism of those who merely seek the vindication of national rights. It is revealing then that no-one dares level such accusations at the entirely normal and legitimate arrangements extant in the rest of Europe whereby the vast majority of students from Leyden are Dutch, those in Uppsala Swedish, Göttingen German, Coimbra Portuguese, Louvain Belgian or the Sorbonne French. Might it not also be the case that a clear majority of Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, Leicester or Exeter students are after all nothing other than English?

The very fact that students from this country are in the minority is problem enough but tensions and problems arise when the vast majority of non-Scots students are from England. Age-old tensions and rivalries rear their heads whether we like it or not. These feelings exist, it must be said, on both sides. Witness the amount of anti-Scottish graffitti on toilet walls and library desks throughout any of the universities where this situation has been allowed to develop and it is only too plain to see why resentment and occasionally outright hostility have become the unspoken dynamics of Scottish-English relations in our seats of learning.

More insidious still may be the fact that not only are our students in the minority but it appears that increasing numbers of staff at many universities are English. This in the main applies to lecturers and professors but at a time when academics are inclined to bring their own groups of staff and researchers with them this can lead to a whole host of jobs being taken by individuals with unquestionable academic or administrative credentials but with little and, far more likely, no feeling for, allegiance to or understanding of the complex matrix of historically constituted societal, institutional and cultural dynamics which together form the Scottish worldview. A university which does not have or even aspire to a Scottish worldview is, quite simply, not Scottish. This situation would irrefutably never be tolerated elsewhere.

There may well be a valid argument in saying that these are the best people for the jobs since they are familiar with the groups they bring with them. Since however, many Scots never even get the chance of getting in the door because of this type of exercise, does anybody really know who is best qualified for the job? In many universities it is also the case that the administrators cannot perceive any problem with the situation, they have a "we're all British anyway" type of attitude which is perfectly understandable considering they are in many cases English also. The lack of understanding or of even attempting to comprehend such public feeling on the minority of Scottish students at our own universities shows a fundamental and indeed worrying lack of awareness in individuals appointed to such positions of power and influence. Could it simply be that the system serves "the rest of the country" well so "why should it need to change in Scotlandshire?"

Stereotypically, Scots are seen as clannish and homeloving and many students do not wish to travel to other countries to learn; this is not a crime and they should not be pushed into lesser seats of learning merely because there are droves of English students with A-levels who would rather have a little jaunt to Scotland. On the other hand, and equally stereotypically given our past, many Scots students have absolutely no wish to study in their homeland; this does not make them any less important, their views and experiences of other countries and cultures which they return from can only enrich our academic circles and indeed this very debate. The basic fact, however, is that the number of students studying outside Scotland is comparatively small and there is no record of any English University suffering complaints, press comment and political concerns being expressed about the numbers of Scottish students studying there.

Many graduates of universities find jobs in the areas close to their university, they know the area well, possibly have a flat, find the life to their liking and decide to stay. While this might only be the case with a minority, and notwithstanding the very clear legal principles set out by the European Union on freedom of movement within and accross national boundaries, such settlement does help to perpetuate the whole process of anglicization and lead to more in-migration and its attendant cultural levelling. No parallel exist anywhere in Europe whereby the universities of one country are swamped with stundents from over the border. Just imagine the uproar if the University of Salamanca had a majority of French students, the University of Warsaw was predominantly German in its intake or Athenian academia was a largely Turkish affair. If then we agree that Scotland is a genuine nation and that for example English-speaking Trinity College, Dublin does not countenance being overrun with English undergraduates, then the argument is clearly one of colonialism, whether concerted or not.

Change is required but the means to do so are very much dependent on national confidence and the political will to effect meaningful progress. What is definitely not suggested is that there should be some sort of Scots-only university that no one else can enter. Scotland has, since the Middle Ages, had a long, proud history of academic exhange with every country in Europe. The Scots colleges in Paris and Rome as well as the secular universities of the Low Countries, France and Germany attracted generations of Scottish students, from Duns Scotus to Kenneth White. These links should not only not be broken by introverted navel-gazing but indeed should be strengthened and forged anew to give us a more expansive view of the world. Obviously there are subjects that can be studied most fully in Scotland, including our own language, culture and history and students from all over the world should be encouraged to study here. The cosmopolitan nature of our universities is not the problem, it is the mass of one nationality to the detriment not only of the Scots but other nationalities of students wishing to come to study here that is the difficulty. The Union has made the Englishing of Scottish academia an unquestioned part of national life. It is neither inevitable nor a mark of openness. Siol nan Gaidheal is of the opinion that we in Scotland need not take lessons in internationalism from English or anglophile apologists of Union whether in academia, the media or any other part of the British establishment. Either diversity matters or it does not. We at Siol nan Gaidheal do not wish to see, nor will we allow the erosion and hence destruction, of our distinctive contribution to such diversity.

As nationalists it is therefore somewhat disconcerting to find oneself in agreement with some of the arch-unionist Labour politicians who have recently raised similar concerns, however indirectly and inadequately, but this in itself surely shows that positive discriminatory action should be taken to ensure the days of the minority Scots "yahniversity" are a thing of the past.

Return to Education Return to Index

On-Line Copyright © Siol nan Gaidheal 1995-2020, All Rights Reserved