I’m packing for another international trip. Another meeting of colleagues from across Europe, talking about collaborative projects, about funding applications, research and teaching. I’ve been doing this kind of thing for much of my adult, professional life. Working ‘beyond borders’ is part and parcel of contemporary academe. Constantly seeking funding opportunities, exchanging ideas, dealing with a range of people and systems. It’s hard work. There’s little ‘romance of travel’ in waiting in airport terminals and bus stations, in delayed connections and the constant drone of air conditioning in cheap hotels; of leaving family behind and working late and ‘beyond the borders’ of the working day. But we do it because it seems necessary and perhaps because we’re self-exploiting victims of our own passion for our disciplines or research areas! But, when it comes together and a new project emerges, the excitement overcomes the hassle, and if we’re lucky enough for the project itself to succeed, for data to pour in, ideas to evolve, publications, research students, a little (very little, usually) further pushing of the boundaries of knowledge, then it seems worth the minor discomforts and inconveniences.
And when academics gather around a shared dinner at the end of a day’s work, the commonest topics of conversation are often budget cuts, uncaring management and what our respective governments and politicians are doing to our education systems. For those of us who have worked in Scottish institutions, we’ve often had the dilemma in such conversations of either correcting our English (we’re even worried about using such a label, loaded as it is with ‘othering’) colleagues and others when their ‘UK’ generalisations are inapplicable or just keeping quiet lest we be seen as a pedantic, nit-picking bore (or, worse, some sort of nationalist with a grudge). Sometimes we do have to make our point, especially if the projects under discussion are about education where there is no ‘UK education system.’
But we (in UK institutions) usually have strong agreement when it comes to concerns about austerity’s impact on higher education and research, about the scale of actual and threatened cuts and the mismatch between the public’s perception of UK international research excellence and the declining share of public expenditure being spent on such in comparison to other countries with different priorities. We all have stories (just read theTimes Higher any week) of departments being closed, of redundancies, of the pressures of the research assessment regime, of an increasing focus on short-term, commercially-exploitable research in a narrowing set of fields, and of the increasing socio-economic divide that’s echoed in our education systems.
For me, these days, things are indeed different. I no longer work and live in the UK, but in a small country with much in common, but also some fundamental differences. That experience affords a change in perspective, of being outside looking in and what I see is a strange, parallel world in which the accepted norms look increasingly like a constructed social imaginary that is as arbitrary as any alternative. It’s hard to explain, to put your finger on it, but what was ‘normal’ now, often seems distinctly ‘weird’ or at any rate, not quite right.
Nothing illustrates it better than watching the British media on satellite TV, hearing totally different perspectives on stories, particularly anything involving Europe these days. Noticing differences in inflection, emphasis, when describing political priorities or international events. It’s as if, by pointing my dish up to space, I can pick up the transmissions from a parallel world where things are just that bit different. The people look the same, everyday life is similar, but something is adrift.
And curiously, that BBC motto of ‘nation speaking unto nation’ seems so inappropriate as to the external viewer it becomes apparent that it is very much more ‘nation speaking internally’. The BBC, ITV, and the newspapers are effectively what passes for the border; every news item having its papers checked before it filters through, of being adapted and customised, translated and re-branded to fit the local audience. And it is through these media that the citizens (subjects?) of this parallel world construct their view of those furth of their borders. Travel, of course, as the cliché goes, broadens the mind, but two weeks shuttling between bland, cloned airport terminals, converting currency (they still have to do that in such places) and fumbling through phrase books, is not the same as living, settling, working in a different country. It’s only after that extended period that perspective gradually shifts. And it’s that shift, that leads to so many of us who now live ‘abroad’ having a very different idea of constitutional issues back ‘home’.
It’s not that living elsewhere somehow transforms you into a nationalist, rather that it makes you realise just how nationalist is the (UK) state you left behind. The use of language, of tone of expression, of nuance in argument that seemed, when you were ensconced within, so normal, so value-free, instead looks oddly narrow-minded. Those media, those opinions that were seen as ‘liberal’ begin to jar, particularly when, as is the case now, the political temperature begins to rise. People whose views you used to respect, indeed agreed with, begin to sound shrill, their arguments bending more and more to accommodate a worldview that actually, when measured as objectively as possible, is not ‘liberal’ nor ‘left leaning,’ but rather, when seen from another country, defensive and with more than an hint of disdainful cultural superiority.
The real question, that of the choice of constitutional future for Scotland, is obscured by compartmentalising it into some sort of extremist nonsense, a combination of shrugging off the preposterousness of any alternative to the status quo (although there is no such thing), letting the loudest voices shout it out in ‘debates’ set up to be unilluminating and confrontational and portraying anything remotely in support of the alternative as being idealistic or juvenile posturing; journalists using ‘braveheart’ in every story and cartoonists scrawling be-kilted, drunk and violent racist stereotypes. Oh, sorry, you might not have noticed too much of the last one or two, but here we get to see not just the press inside Scotland but also the ‘wider UK’ editions, where as the weeks and months have gone by there has been little holding back in some quarters.
.But aside from all the argument over media bias (and for which the evidence, by the way, is overwhelming in case you doubt it) the real heart of the matter is not just the views held, but why people hold those particular views. For citizens of other countries, there’s disbelief that anyone could vote not to manage their own affairs but to outsource them to a remote (politically, not just geographically) government and system.
But the inclusive myth of Britishness has worked well in the past and it pervades every aspect of everyday life. For so many people who are ‘left-leaning,’ it has been absorbed into their own narrative and construction of self. Eschewing of course (until recently, perhaps) the tasteless union flag waving (that was from the 60s through to the early 2000s, the preserve of the Ulster unionists and far-right) and Jerusalem-singing crowd, Britishness was portrayed as being defined by the great social institutions such as the National Health Service, the Welfare State, the public utilities and nationalised industries. The fallacy of course is in believing that these were unique achievements; that other countries lacked such systems and that we should have pride in what essentially were delivered by the first postwar government despite the fact that we’ve seen serious erosion of almost all those achievements since the 1970s onwards. But yet, these are the sorts of political echoes that some in the pro-Union campaign are claiming that Scots will abandon, will lose out on, post-independence. Facts, such as that the NHS in Scotland was always (since its foundation) a completely separate entity and that only the Scottish Parliament with its limited powers has managed to stave off (temporarily) the worst excesses of the Westminster obsession with privatisation, just get treated as noise in the argument, swept under the carpet of myth.
And of course it would be totally disingenuous of me not to admit that many Scots have done well in the UK system. Of course they have. I don’t mean here the politicians such as those MPs and Lords (including a whole raft of Labour Lords) whose current arguments do probably owe at least a fraction of their energy to the potential prospect of unemployment, but ordinary people who have progressed in their careers south of the border, in companies and institutions, colleges and schools. I’ve spoken to many such people over the past year or so and its a little sad to see how some of them have a genuine fear of independence, believing that there might somehow be some sort of backlash against them in terms of further job prospects if they are now regarded as ‘foreign’. For some, their way of coping is to join in the pooh-poohing and belittling of the pro-independence argument as some sort of ranting from embarrassing family members back home, who you’d wish would just keep quiet.
Such a perspective might be understandable, but it’s wrong. Worse, it is an implicitly ungenerous view of their host country and its people. There would be no such ‘backlash’ (except, I’m prepared to concede, amongst the ranks of political aspirants, whose carpet will be pulled from under them). And as to the nonsense about becoming ‘foreign’ overnight? We know that isn’t so in this country in which I’m currently resident. We travel back and forth to the UK, can vote in each other’s elections, work in each others institutions (including the media, in case you hadn’t noticed!) and are legally not even defined as ‘foreign’.
It’s not about borders and passports, about flags and armies. There is a strong, undeniable historical and social union amongst all of the peoples of these islands and this will always continue. The change proposed, though, is a necessary one if we believe that we need to build a better society and economy on either side of the ‘border’. The likelihood is that whatever government emerges in an empowered Scottish Parliament is one that will hold progressive views and give the lie to the story that has been peddled for too long by all the major Westminster parties (once they are in office) that ‘there is no alternative’.
For those of us in higher education and research, there has also long been a strong sense of British coherence, even if constitutionally the various parliaments and assemblies have local jurisdiction. Research councils, professional bodies and charities work across the UK and this is one of the perceived threats or risks with independence. Of course, if you are immersed within a system and know how to perform well within it, any change will be viewed with caution. But again, it’s a question of framing, or perspective. Stepping outside and looking more critically at the state of play and doing so in an international context, then a different picture might emerge. There are plenty of examples of research funders (government agencies and charities) working across borders even in the local context of Britain and Ireland, and it is simply inconceivable that working arrangements cannot be developed that would ensure funding flows to excellence (in the jargon). Further afield, other countries have multi-national funding schemes and, of course, financially the biggest of all is that of European funding.
Uncertainty about the future is a legitimate source of concern, but the irony in this part of the debate is that the greatest uncertainty lies in the future decisions of the Westminster government (and that counts for whoever is in office since Labour has repeatedly confirmed its intention to adhere to significant budget reductions). I’m not talking here about the more extreme possibility of a withdrawal from the European Union, since that would be completely devastating for the economy and research, but just the current plans for funding within the UK. No one working in British higher education is under any illusions that the future prospects are bleak. We are already witnessing cuts to jobs, closures of departments, threats to entire research programmes. More and more, researchers are having to turn their attention to European and international sources, having to live on short-term contracts and abandon any notion of a ‘work-life’ balance. If you’re in a field that is not seen as commercially relevant, then you’ll continue to struggle. Sure, politicians are proud that UK institutions do well in the international league tables, but in part the UK is ‘reaping the benefit’ of having one of the most ‘measured’ systems on the planet, being able to readily yield the statistics around which the tables were first constructed. How higher education is felt on the ground by students and by staff might be quite a distance from these disembodied data.
The maintenance of the ‘status quo’ for those on contracts, in institutions which are preparing to axe posts and for students in that part of the UK that has the highest fees in Europe (and which are set to increase again) is not necessarily an attractive prospect. Nor is there much protection for those in Scotland, since the Barnett formula and other budgetary structures promise significant reductions across the board in the coming years, forcing whichever party is in local power to implement desperate measures.
Independence is not a sudden switching off of the lights. It is about the beginning of a negotiated, shared future in which, for once, an alternative perspective is not just given voice, but given an opportunity to prove itself. It is a process which should be embraced by all those who work within higher education as a means of redressing some of the imbalances and distortions which the current system has imposed on the sector, a means of building a richer, more dynamic set of relationships across these islands and beyond and in which funding crises can be challenged by those who prioritise education and economic investment through the development of joint funding protocols, shared facilities and research centres.
One of the stereotypes of the professoriate is someone who uses the cover of ‘academic freedom’ to express their views in areas far beyond their professional competence and who, when sitting in presentations or on Academic Senates, feels they can instantly spot the flaws in any argument even if those presenting have been working in the most intricate detail for years. Dismissiveness is a trap that we should avoid falling into when the issue of independence comes up in conversation.
There are many people working, sometimes behind the scenes, with years of experience of government and governance, of funding mechanisms and policy research across the world, who are willing and able to build a new system of supports within and beyond the confines of these political borders once the broader constitutional injustice that is an elected Parliament denied the right to legislate in the majority of areas including key economic affairs has been resolved. We have talented, experienced people ready to begin the process in Scotland and London, and of course, the Scottish diaspora has been learning the ropes and we’re only a Ryanair ticket away 😉