by Vicky Gunn
My life has entered a period of dramatic change. I am not referring here to my imminent move from an institution in which I have worked for nearly 18 years (Glasgow University) to a new adventure at Glasgow School of Art. No, the dramatic change I refer to here was my intellectual discomfort around the Scottish independence referendum. For me, the last few months have involved a growing realization that the fragile imaginary social fabric (to adopt a phrase of Maurice Bloch’s) which is stitched together to tailor the United Kingdom was being unpicked by two seamstresses of quite different hues: one focused on the holistic ‘sew the patchwork quilt together but slightly differently’ argument, the other on the ‘unpick the lot and start again’ one. Both have seemed wanting in my mind, because both appeared to come from an ultimately misleading question: should Scotland become an independent country?
I say misleading because the word independence is received by many as a way of removing one’s country from a centralised system of government that is disliked or distrusted to replace it with a better, more local one. The idea of such separation is truly misleading in the highly interwoven practical realities of any country’s life in the 21st Century. The inappropriateness of the idea of independence is that Scotland operates in a web of global, European, and British social, political, and economic ecosystems. Our government (whether devolved from or out with the UK) cannot be entirely free of either the influences that play out across this web or the paradoxes inherent in it.
Embedded in the referendum question is an underlying assumption that Scottish independence via self-governance is possible if not preferable. In which case the answer is quite simply yes. Scotland has a governance infrastructure in place. Extending this is not as difficult as folks in Westminster might like to think. Yet, I couldn’t help feeling that considerable wisdom around the interconnectedness of our human communities that is facilitated by social movements through technologies across national boundaries was being lost. And living with the paradoxes generated in an environment in which the global and local simultaneously demand attention was being smoothed over by contradiction-closing polarisation.
The loss of our contemporary paradoxes in the debate was manifested in the media’s reporting of academic commentaries about the position of Scotland’s universities after a Yes vote. Instead of critiquing the question and rephrasing it as a less misleading one, academics got tied into media headlines around whether or not research budgets would collapse. This was an unedifying spectacle of academic self-centredness, particularly in the face of a strong swell in voters’ hopes to make Scotland a better place (on both sides of the campaign). It was also a symptom of the absence in the public domain of the scholarly hearts and minds to which I have been exposed in my three decades at Glasgow University, firstly as a student and then on my return as an academic.
This latter absence was the real ignominy because, if any collective of people in an identifiable system of institutions understands that the question solidifies misleading assumptions about our contemporary society, it is academics. If any group comprehends the transnational and interdependent nature of economic investment, political processes, land ownership, energy resources, social engagement, religious beliefs, knowledge generation, information technologies, and the intellectual intimacies that can and should be shared across countries’ borders for the greater good, it is those of us in higher education. And what did we end up debating, at least in the public’s mind? What would happen to our research money. Oh, and behind closed doors, much less reported in the media, how we would cope with losing the revenue from the rest of the UK students.
The fallout from the vote is just beginning to gather pace and, in that space, I want to reset the debate around some alternative questions. How can Scotland’s universities do interdependence better and how can doing this assist other countries’ higher education systems in doing so too? How can we use our intellectual hearts and minds to challenge and critique collective memories centred on aggressive and passive political separatism and the them and us mentality with which they seem to be inevitably accompanied? And then instead, how can we lead towards a sense that higher education helps everyone understand contemporary paradoxes, the dissonances they generate, and why, in the dissonances, contradiction-closing can be problematic?
For a start perhaps we could address some of the following questions in the policy arena and share the answers in a comprehensible way through knowledge exchange, community engagement, and the Press:
1. Is there such a thing as a national higher education system in an increasingly interdependent arena or is it just a phantom of the funding structures?
2. Is higher education best governed locally or centrally and how does this relate to the demographic, social, economic and political context that has emerged inside and outside of the south of England in the last two decades? If, for example, the south east of England is actually a de facto city-state and Scotland’s people are reacting against or for that, then the debate is less about nation-state than something more complicated. Can universities, which have a long history of operating in such fuzzy bordered, complex environments, assist in how we understand the tensions between local and global needs when it comes to governance structures?
3. Is the financing of research and teaching in higher education appropriate and how can this be made more just and effective in a manner that manages the paradoxes of simultaneous pulls: collective history-based identities and futuristic globalization (and the tensions between imaginary and lived realities these pulls generate)?
4. How can interdependence be harnessed to identify learning and teaching approaches with learning gains that manifest locally, regionally, and transnationally and can these all be achieved in one institutional mission or do we need collaboration between institutions of different missions across different countries?
5. And finally, if the UK is to truly federalise, how can academics and their institutions (which, after all, represent functioning, interdependent networks of knowledge) help identify the processes most likely to have the best outcomes for all the areas of the UK in its specific socio-cultural mix? This needs to occur at the same time as providing forms of robust, organic evaluation to enable people and the designers of their governance structures to take the agenda forward. And this journey into the future needs to foster the peaceful manner of debate that the majority of the registered voters in this Scottish referendum demonstrated is possible.
SRHE member Professor Vicky Gunn will leave the University of Glasgow to take up the post of Head of Learning and Teaching as a member of the executive group at Glasgow School of Art on 31 October 2014. Her first research project at GSA will be on studio pedagogies. Follow her on Twitter: Vicky Gunn @StacyGray45.