Explaining Scotland: Education

With less than a  month to go before millions of Scots make what may be the most important political decision of their lives, it’s important to take a look at the political and ideological realities that have brought this country to the point where it asks itself whether it’d be better off going it alone.

To some Americans, the concept of Scottish independence seems a single-malt-induced folly, one based in a stilted, kilted nationalism.

This view however, is as unrealistic and two-dimensional as most other American attempts at depicting Scotland.

Braveheart comes to mind, which had excruciatingly little base in historical fact and was shot predominantly not in Scotland, but in Ireland, which gives lucrative tax incentives and allows the use of their army as extras.

The argument for Scottish independence, like the Scots themselves, is far more nuanced than meets the eye. One the most compelling and immediately obvious ideological differences between Scotland and its neighbors lies in the prioritization of free and universal education.

In the first televised “Yes”/”No Thanks” (it’s a polite discourse) independence debate, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond (the de facto head of the “Yes” campaign) hailed the invention of universal free and open education as the greatest contribution Scotland has ever made to the world.

In this video Salmond addresses students at Harvard in 2008 discussing education in Scotland.

On my first trip to Scotland, I met a young lady named Roberta who attends the University of Glasgow. Most Americans would be shocked as I was to discover that after nine years of college, she will graduate as a licensed dentist, without a single pound of debt.

Roberta is not the recipient of a lucrative scholarship due to high scholastic performance, nor is she the benefactor of some generous philanthropist.

The concept of free and universal higher education may seem completely alien to a citizen of a country which has crippled its youth with over $1 trillion in student loans to be paid back with interest as ransom for the privilege of being permitted to educate themselves, but tuition fees were not implemented in the UK until 1998, when a £1000 per year charge began.

The Scottish government, which had recently been given some control of its own country back from Westminster in the form of a devolved parliament, was less enthused about the plan. In 2001, they created an alternative by which Scottish students, and those from the EU, would pay a flat £2000 fee at graduation rather than the annual upfront tuition. Their counterparts from the rest of the UK would continue to pay tuition fees as prescribed outside of Scotland.

In 2008, a law was passed in Scottish Parliament abolishing the graduation fee altogether, effectively making higher education once again completely free in Scotland.

Today, tuition fees in the rest of the UK have risen to £9000 per year (a 900% increase in just over a decade) while Scottish citizens attend university for free. (usually in 4 year programs, compared to the general 3 of their English counterparts)

There is much grumbling at the fact that residents of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland still have to pay their £9000 to attend Scottish universities, but the blame for thisrequirement lies upon the funding realities of an increasingly austere government in Westminster rather than some perceived Scottish xenophobia or nationalism.

Salmond’s claim that Scotland “invented” universal education is not unfounded.

During the 16th century, Scotland was gripped in the throes of a religious revolution known as the Scottish Reformation. Inspired by humanism and the theories of Martin Luther, backlash against the role of the Catholic church in Scotland resulted in major reforms in Scottish religious life.

The battle was hard wrought, was full of intrigue, and is quite fascinating to learn about if you’re so inclined. The leader of the movement was a preacher by the name of John Knox, who, among other reforms, advocated for the use of English rather than the traditional Latin in religious ceremonies and studies. He felt every human should be educated enough to read the bible, and have the opportunity to do so in their native language.

As a result, Scotland became one of the first places on Earth where education became a universal right. Long the province of the wealthy elite, education had been (and in some places still is) used by the rich and powerful to remain the rich and powerful through maintaining exclusivity.

Universal education for every citizen led to a great period of Enlightenment in Scotland, earning Edinburgh the nickname “The Athens of the North.”

From philosophers like Hume and Adam Smith, to writers like Robbie Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson,  open education allowed brilliant minds in all subjects to contribute thoughts, philosophies, writings and inventions which still affect us all today.

It’s important to remember that Scotland is a country with roughly the same size and population as the state of South Carolina. The impact this wee country has had upon the rest world and toward the advancement of humanity at large is incomprehensibly disproportionate.

Anesthetics, antiseptics, air filled tires, Capitalism, Dolly the sheep, fax machines, golf, hypodermic needles, the Kelvin scale, logarithms, penicillin, Peter Pan, Sherlock Holmes, the steam engine,  the telephone, and even television are just a few of many creations that have roots in Scotland.

Even Harry Potter was written here in Edinburgh, admittedly by an anti-independence English woman.

No one in Post-Reformation Scotland knew just what would happen if every citizen was guaranteed access to education. It’s easy in hindsight to see it was a brilliant idea, and likewise makes for compelling evidence at the necessity of continuing the tradition today.

Many Scots believe that their voices will be lost in the discussion, and their hands will be forced to make cuts as Westminster continues its march toward austerity and privatization.

Hume wrote:

Every wise, just, and mild government, by rendering the condition of its subjects easy and secure, will always abound most in people, as well as in commodities and riches.

Indeed a sense of government’s role in bettering the lives of its citizens is central to the ideals of many Scots today.

Those that advocate independence believe that having the decisions that bind them made here, by themselves, in Edinburgh, rather than in London at the rest of the UK’s discretion, will help their government to better serve its purpose, and consequently render their lives more easy and secure.

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