Higher education in Scotland, the devolution settlement and the referendum on independence

This research has made a major contribution to the debate on Higher Education policy during a period of extensive constitutional change for Scotland and the rest of the UK.


Research hub

Social Justice and Inclusion

Research experts

Professor Sheila Riddell

Professor David Raffe

Dr Elisabet Weedon

Dr Linda Croxford

Sarah Minty

Susan Whittaker

Dr Grace Kong

Research centre

Centre for Research in Education Inclusion & Diversity (CREID)

What was the problem?

Access to Higher Education (HE) has a significant impact on individual life chances, social justice and many other areas of public policy.

Education is a ‘devolved matter’ in Scotland, and the Scottish Government has characterised HE as a flagship policy; one which exemplifies central differences in its welfare regime, compared to that of the rest of the UK.

The Scottish Government’s White Paper on independence, published in 2013, claimed that HE in Scotland reflected the principles of social justice rather than, as in England, those of the market.

This research has explored the relationship between political rhetoric and social reality, investigating the extent to which increasingly divergent funding regimes have produced a fairer system in Scotland compared with the rest of the UK.

What did we do?

In March 2013, Professor Sheila Riddell was awarded an ESRC Senior Fellowship to undertake research into Higher Education (HE) in Scotland.

The work formed part of the funding council’s Future of the UK and Scotland programme and, at the same time, was closely inter-related to studies by fellow members of the Education, Social Justice & Inclusion research group at Moray House School of Education and Sport.

Across various projects, the team looked at patterns of participation in different types of HE institution across the UK in relation to social class, gender and ethnicity; divergent funding regimes and their impact on the distribution of student debt; cross-border student flows; and the recruitment of international students across the UK.

They also looked at young people’s perceptions of student debt, and what counts as fairness in access to Higher Education; and policy makers’ perceptions of policy similarities and differences, and the emergence of different approaches to HE governance.

In addition to funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), including an Impact Acceleration Award, the work was variously funded by Universities Scotland, the Equality Challenge Unit, the University of Edinburgh’s Reach programme, the Sutton Trust and the Robertson Foundation. 

New research by Sheila Riddell... demands that we look afresh at our assumptions - both social and political - about this touchstone issue of Scottish education

Leader in The Scotsman, 31st May 2013

What happened next?

The Scottish Independence Referendum was the first election open to 16 and 17 year olds, an age group for whom Higher Education (HE) is a key issue. To provide this audience with easy access to their findings, the researchers produced teaching materials and a film featuring policy makers, students and school leavers; the film in particular was widely used and praised by Government.

The research has been extensively used by policy makers and politicians, for example in the Scottish Government’s Widening Access Commission, the Welsh Government’s HE funding review, in EU discussions on the position of disabled students in HE, and in the UK Annual Report of the Child Poverty and Social Mobility Commission. It has been discussed by Select Committees at Westminster and during First Minister’s Questions in the Scottish Parliament.

Through events and associated briefing papers and press releases, it has also caught the attention of the wider electorate, bringing policy discussions into the realm of public debate. The prominence of its media coverage, for example, has prompted televised responses by politicians, online analysis by political journalists, opinion pieces and editorials in the Scottish and UK broadsheet and financial press, including extensive coverage in The Scotsman over a number of days.

Having highlighted young people’s lack of awareness of student funding, Sarah Minty was awarded a grant to produce a 'users' guide to student finance' in collaboration with NUS Scotland and other partners. The Leadership Foundation and the Higher Education Policy Institute, both influential independent organisations, have commissioned further reports from the team on HE governance and ownership.