Brexit is the biggest threat to Scotland's further education

Yesterday, the Scottish Government released new figures highlighting that the number of Scottish domiciled students that have been offered a place at a university in Scotland is at a record high. Indeed, this year, the figure has risen 10% to 31,070. Furthermore, UCAS data has suggested that the number of acceptances from the 20% most deprived areas in Scotland to universities across the UK has increased by 7% to 4,700. This is another record high statistic.

However, the matter of concern that arises from this data is the number of applicants from EU countries. Indeed, this year’s statistics highlight a 56% decrease, on SQA results day, in the number of acceptances to universities in Scotland from people based in EU countries. These figures, once again, suggest that Brexit is the biggest threat to Scotland and our education system, not independence. Therefore, throughout this article, we will consider the potential of Scotland’s education system and recognise the importance of education and skilled individuals in helping an independent Scotland to prosper. We will then look further into the damage that Brexit is causing to the education sector.

Scotland’s successful and growing further education sector

Firstly, let’s look at some of the successes of Scotland’s education sector. As the figures above demonstrate, Scottish Universities are becoming increasingly popular among individuals who reside in Scotland. This is unsurprising with Scotland holding 4 of the world’s top 200 universities, as well as many excellent colleges. 

The success of Scotland’s education sector extends beyond university and college, however. For example, in 2019, the number of apprentices benefitting from work-based learning rose for the 8th consecutive year with more than 28,000 people in Scotland starting apprenticeships between 2018 and 2019. While this was slightly lower in 2020 as a result of the pandemic, employers demonstrated their commitment to Modern Apprenticeships during the second half of the year when, despite the economy going back into lockdown, demand increased four-fold. This resulted in the end of year Modern Apprenticeship figure for 2020/21 being 18,655.

As a result of these fantastic opportunities, Scotland has the most educated population in Europe. Indeed, the most recent figures, demonstrate that 47% of the population, aged 25 to 64, have obtained either a university, college or vocational qualification. This is 4% above the UK average and 15% above the EU average.

How would education support an independent Scotland?

So, one may ask why these successes are so important to Scotland and why, here at Believe in Scotland, we suggest that the education sector would help an independent Scotland to thrive? Well, first of all, a prosperous nation requires a skilled population. Indeed, educated people, in turn, produce high quality research, excellent teaching, and carry out the skilled professions that are critical to the development of a nation and a thriving economy. 

This is evident in Scotland, with the higher education sector contributing massively to the Scottish economy. Previous research recognises that the higher education sector has an annual economic impact of over £11bn GVA. This means that with every £1 of public investment, the further education sector multiplies it into £11 of economic impact.

This sector also employs nearly 44,000 people and significantly, 69% of those jobs are located in the most deprived decile of local authorities in Scotland. This shows how important this sector is not only to those in training but also for individuals in employment, particularly those living in more deprived areas of the country. 

In terms of higher education research and development, Scotland is internationally recognised and respected for its quality and its innovative and collaborative nature. As a result, Scotland HEIs receive over 15% of the total UK Research Council competitive investments. This reflects the high quality of the research carried out by these institutions. This suggests that Scotland’s education sector already has a strong research base and would continue to develop as an independent country.

Overall, it is clear that Scotland’s further education system, and the country’s skilled population, would be critical in supporting Scotland’s move to independence. It is evident that with Scotland holding the most educated and skilled population in Europe and already acquiring a strong and internationally-admired research base, the education sector in an independent Scotland would continue to thrive.

The real danger to our education sector – Brexit

However, the real danger that faces Scotland’s higher education sector is Brexit. Firstly, as recognised at the beginning of this article, there has been a 56% decrease in the number of applicants from EU countries. In 2021, only 1200 EU students accepted a place at a Scottish University. This compares to 2730 in 2020. The National Union of Students (NUS) Scotland has said that this is because of the excessive fees that EU students have to pay as a result of Brexit.

Although EU students did not pay tuition fees in Scotland prior to Brexit, these students supported Scotland and the economy in many other ways. Indeed, financially, both EU and non-EU international students spend money on accommodation, travel and other living and recreational expenses. This amounts to tens of thousands of pounds for each individual student, contributing hundreds of millions of pounds to the Scottish economy. For example, a report by Oxford Economics in 2017 on the economic impact of UK universities estimated that every EU student would generate approximately £44,000 in gross output. These figures do not include tuition fees or some other forms of on-campus spending, including university accommodation.

Other benefits of welcoming EU students to Scotland include improving the range and quality of education provision. A multicultural, multinational learning environment is hugely beneficial for all students and helps to raise cultural awareness and a global perspective among domestic students. Furthermore, EU students often stay in Scotland longer-term and are therefore, a valuable asset to Scotland’s workforce.

Lastly, before Brexit, Scotland was a valued partner in many EU research collaborations and often secured significant funding from EU research programmes as a result. For example, between 2015 and 2016, Scottish Universities received £97m from various EU sources, equating to 10.1% of their total research income. With Scotland being unwillingly dragged out of the EU with the rest of the UK, the loss of such funding will be a huge blow to the education sector.


Overall, it is clear that Scotland’s education sector is thriving and would support the economy in a move towards independence. However, what is also evident is that Brexit poses the greatest threat to Scotland’s education sector and is already causing huge damage, with a dramatic decline in EU students and a loss in funding for research and development.

By Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp