Northwestern students can understand the desire of people at elite universities to preserve their school’s top status. Some students at Scottish universities felt that same pressure in light of last week’s referendum vote, which determined that Scotland would remain a member country of the United Kingdom, alongside England, Northern Ireland and Wales.
Last Thursday, more than 1.6 million people cast a vote for Scotland to secede from the United Kingdom, but that was not enough to surmount the 2 million “No” votes opposing Scottish independence. For students at Scottish schools like the University of Edinburgh and the University of St Andrews in Fife, Scotland, this means life will continue as it did before – not at a Scottish university, significantly, but at a U.K. school. Jane Madden, an American student at the University of St Andrews, said she was relieved to learn anti-independence group won the referendum, “for selfish reasons.”
“I didn’t realize until it got really close to the vote how my North American friends would have transferred,” she said. “They had already planned for it and talked to their parents about transferring – because graduating from a Scottish university wouldn’t be impressive, whereas graduating from a top UK university is impressive.”
In the same way that, on paper, a “top school in the United States” looks better than a “top school in the South,” so too with schools in the United Kingdom versus schools in Scotland. St Andrews generally ranks among the best schools in the United Kingdom, and it is Scotland’s oldest (third oldest in the U.K.) founded in 1413.
Jane said one reason her friends would have transferred was that a Scottish split would have jacked up tuition prices at St Andrews. Currently, non-U.K. international students, like herself, who attend the school for a full academic year, pay a little over 16,000 pounds, or about 26,000 dollars, annually.
“I heard rumors of up to about 60,000 dollars a year,” she said.
Research Councils U.K. (RCUK), a U.K. government research institution, annually provides hundreds of millions of pounds to Scottish universities, most of which qualify as charities, disallowed from fundraising from private donations in the same way that American universities do (see Northwestern’s We Will campaign, for example). David Willetts, who was the U.K. Minister of State for Universities and Science until this past summer, said in March that, if Scotland seceded, the RCUK would continue providing financial support to research activities only in what remained of the U.K.
Furthermore, independence would have required Jane’s English friends (as well as Welsh and Northern Irish students) to become international students, losing their access to UK financial aid, “and they would have had to pay the international fees that [North American students] are paying, whereas they could easily transfer to a good school in England, like Oxford, and they wouldn’t be paying that,” Jane said.
When a university doesn’t have the resources to meet the needs of all its applicants, that university loses out on a range of potentially brilliant minds that might’ve otherwise given back to the university in coming decades. Success begets success, and likewise, failure often begets failure. Hence, a shift of intellectual talent away from an expensive, unsubsidized Scottish university to an RCUK-funded English university would have hurt a newly independent Scotland and the world of Scottish higher education.
A survey aimed at St Andrews students and conducted by the university’s campus newspaper, The Saint, found that a majority of respondents intended to vote against independence, whereas less than a quarter intended to vote in support of it.
The university’s Yik Yak page seemed to back the survey’s findings, if not indicating an even higher majority of “No” voters, with posts like, “The question the referendum is really asking – are you an idiot?” “Tried to think of something funny to say about ‘yes’ voters. Gave up once I realised they weren’t worth my time...and probably couldn’t afford it. #voteNo” and “Will shag anything but a yes voter right now.”
But for all the concern for the preservation of the university as a cosmopolitan campus financially accessible to students from around the UK and the rest of the world, not everyone at St Andrews cheered for independence. One of Jane’s friends on campus, Cameron Newell, a Scotsman from Edinburgh, voted for independence in the referendum.
“I was definitely a minority yes voter around here,” he wrote in an email. “There were a lot of passionate pub debates over the last month, but all in good fun."
“On referendum night, we split the price of a bottle of champagne before the results came in and said whoever won would get to drink it,” he said. “That sucked because I had to watch them drink all my champagne when all I wanted was a drink after the yes campaign lost.” Jane was there, too.
“Cameron was a little bitter,” Jane said. “But it was one of those things where all of our friends knew he wanted it to happen so badly, so nobody was like ‘Ha ha, you lose.’”
And he didn’t lose – at least not entirely – since a win for the “No” camp didn’t just mean a win for the United Kingdom. It meant a win for this Scottish university, too.