Is higher education looking too much like banking in 2007?

In some important ways, English universities are behaving like banks. They are selling big loans to students, almost half of whom will not be able to fully pay them back. But like the pre-2008 banks, universities do not face the moral hazard of their bad debts. The rewards of having more students are enjoyed by university staff. Their numbers grew last year to more than 380,000, in spite of a 6% drop in students. But when students do not pay back their loans, the cost falls to the taxpayer. And of course most taxpayers have not been to university themselves, but are required to pay for others to have this experience. When many of those taxpayers are poorer than the former students, it is a regressive tax on them. Whether it is students or taxpayers who foot the bill, there is a pressing case for more Government intervention to protect them both against poor decisions in taking on these financial liabilities. Right now, it is clear that too many students are attending universities or following courses which have unsatisfactory completion rates, offer limited chances of graduate level employment and cost students more than they gain financially. And as this means that they won’t be able to pay back their loans, the bill for these particular students falls to the taxpayer. 

But wasn’t the (highly controversial) student loan system meant to shift the full cost of a university education onto the students who receive it and weren’t they then going to decide whether it was worth it or not? Well, “Yes” and “No”. One key issue is that repayment is linked to future earnings. On the “Yes” side, someone who earns enough over a 30 year period after they complete their studies will repay their loan in full. So, for example, doctors who work continuously are likely to repay their loan after 25 years. But on the “No” side, a typical teacher who works for 30 years will only every repay about half of their loan. Indeed, even the doctor will not repay all the costs of their training, as their fees are subsidised by the government. When the new loans system was brought in, the Government estimated that 35% of money lent would not be repaid. But recently, the National Audit Office has suggested this is likely to be at least 50%. On top of this level of non-payment, there are substantial subsidies for the poorest students who receive maintenance grants and for higher cost courses. All in all, it means that the taxpayer will be paying more for university education than it did before the loans were introduced. In these terms, it is hard to believe how much political capital has been spent on the loans controversy. Armed with these facts, I suspect that political history will label the introduction of student loans as one of the presentational failures of the century. Income-contingent repayment is a brilliant innovation. But rather than branding it a debt and stressing that all students will end their studies having to payback £40-£50,000 (which has cast such a negative pall) surely it would be better to say that the taxpayer will cover the full cost of the education, unless students earn enough to start paying it back. This could be made concrete through a simple graduate tax, with a percentage premium on the basic rate  of income tax for those who pay it and then a further percentage premium on the higher rate for the highest earning graduates. The obligation to pay such a tax could be time-limited, as in the current 30 years. Such a graduate tax could be constructed so that the full costs of university education fell on those who benefited from it, not on the, by definition, poorer taxpayers who were not lucky enough to have the experience themselves. A variant would be to share the graduate tax between employees and employers, e.g by putting it on National Insurance rates rather than income tax as these are paid by both sides. There is clearly a logic to asking employers to pay for the benefits they gain. These options have the advantages of fairness and transparency (those who benefitted pay all the costs, those who can pay more do so, but those who didn’t have the experience don’t pay at all). However, it could remove the incentive for universities to innovate and / or offer different prices for courses. One way to tackle this would be to allow variation in fees, but convert this into a differential and personal premium on income tax or National Insurance for the individual. So those who spent more would sign-up to a higher tax rate. 

However, whilst this new approach has benefits, it does not tackle the level of failure in the system. To use the financial analogy, too many sub-prime loans will still be made (courses which predictably lead to high levels of default) but this time the cost will borne by other customers (graduates who will pay a higher level of tax to cover the costs of the bad debts) rather than general taxpayers. Of course, the equivalent of the bank employees and shareholders (university staff) still bear no personal risk – they take their income up front. If we want to reduce the level of failure, it’s worth looking at existing “lending” in some detail. 

Now, if universities were a financial institution this sale of a credit product would now be strictly regulated. The university would be expected to advise the individual on whether the product really suited their needs, its previous performance and the financial returns versus costs. If they didn’t do this effectively, they would be guilty of mis-sellling. As the guarantor of hundreds of billions in loans (the NAO says unpaid loans will total £200 billion in 30 years time), one would expect a government to clamp down on irresponsible lending, i.e. selling courses to students where completion rates are poor, graduate job prospects are low and future earnings may be no better or even worse than not going to university. If one applied this analogy from the financial services industry, then there would be an arguable case that some universities are mis-selling to individual students and governments are failing to protect the taxpayer from massive liabilities. 

A typical student loan for an English student will now total £43,000, including fees and maintenance. The average student expects to have other debts as well (up to £10,000). But they will also have foregone a salary for 3 years as well. If we assume that this was £19,000 per year, then they will have foregone £57,000. After tax on income, this means that a degree costs a student about £100,000. Against this cost the proponents of higher education like to cite the extra earning power of graduates. The Government says this is £168,000 for men and £253,000 for women. (The women’s figure is so much higher as non-graduate women earn such low wages). These figures suggest that a university education more than pays for itself. But these earnings figures are a cruel deception for many – they are an average which masks that some degrees (e.g. medicine) have an earnings premium of more than double the average, whilst many subjects have a very low premium and indeed some result in making graduates worse off than those who didn’t go to university at all. For those who want their degree to be profitable, there is a rhyming couple of acronyms to remember – STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) and LEM (Law, Economics, Management). These are the subjects which really boost future earnings. By contrast, the arts and humanities produce a poor return in terms of future income. But the problem for many students is much worse than this. A fifth of students don’t complete their chosen degree; many do not get the 2:1 or 1st which gives access to better jobs; a university education was not appropriate for a significant number of students. 

This is not about academic snobbery. Many of the newer universities offer very good value to their students. And many of the more prestigious universities offer individual subjects which deliver the student and the taxpayer poor value. Some of these subjects are well established and sound like a good bet to prospective students. A classic example is English. This is a popular subject, with 60,000 students across 100 universities. But only half of them will end up with a graduate level job. I can speak from the heart on this subject. I did a degree in English. It was a relaxing way to spend 3 years – savouring fat novels, pondering pious poems and learning enough Anglo Saxon to decipher fragments of monastic propaganda. But it was utterly lacking in intellectual rigour, vocational preparation or engagement with the contemporary world. And that was at the country’s top university! For me the degree was preceded and succeeded by a love of literature. In the same way that it was preceded and succeeded by a love of Premier League football, hillwalking and American TV drama. I was about to say and “But thankfully the taxpayer doesn’t pay for people to study those subjects…” when I realised that in fact the taxpayer does just that. The point is that we don’t need university departments funded in large part by the taxpayer in order to have a vibrant culture in the arts and humanities. Many of the most voracious consumers of the arts studied science and engineering; many of our top historians are not academics; the best political thinking comes from think tanks not universities; the most important reviews of the arts come from specialist journalists, not academics. 

If we are to protect students and taxpayers from wasting time, effort and money, then we draw some lines in the sand about which universities should be attended and which courses should be followed. One way of doing this would be to say that universities will only be accredited for student loans if they achieve a range of minimum standards:

(1) Completion rates – The very best universities have a drop-out rate of less than 1.5%. The worst have drop-out rates approaching half of all students failing to complete the degree they start, with more than 20% dropping out in year 1. It would seem reasonable to say that no state funded university should have a drop-out rate which is more than 10 times worse than the best – i.e. 15%. But if we set the minimum standard at this rate (i.e. 85% of those starting a degree should finish it), that would disqualify more than one-third of UK universities. We could consider a lower rate, e.g. if we tolerated a drop-out rate of 20%, then this would still disqualify 20 out of 121 UK universities (17%). 

(2) Job prospects – It seems reasonable for students  to expect that more than half of the students on their course will get a professional or graduate level job. But this standard is not met in many cases. The very best universities get almost 90% of their students into this level of job. But if we set the minimum standard at 55%, then 20 out of 121 UK universities would fail the test. If we set the standard at 60%, then a third (40) would fail this test. 

(3) Entry qualifications – The standard of education achieved before university is critical to both success at university and in future employment. The top university requires over 600 UCAS points. It seems reasonable to set a minimum entry requirement at half this  level, i.e. 300 points. But more than a quarter of UK universities would fail to meet this standard. 

(4) Quality of degrees awarded – The proportion of degrees classified as 1st class or 2:1 is a good measure of relative quality, as standards are moderated across universities. It is also critical to getting a graduate level job, as many employers specify it as a minimum qualification. The earnings implications are clear – getting less than a 2:1 costs the average student £80,000 in lost future income – almost the same again as the cost of doing the degree. The top university achieves 90% at 1st or 2:1 ; the bottom university achieves 45%. If we set the minimum standard at 60% of students getting a 1st or 2:1, then 29 out of 121 universities (a quarter) would fail the standard. 

So there is a choice here about the level of challenge to be set. If we set the minimum standards at a high level, then one-third, some 40 universities, would not currently meet the standards. If we set an unchallenging test, then 20 universities (about 1 in 6) would currently fail to meet the standard. If we said that a failure to meet any one of these standards disqualified a university, the numbers failing the tests would be higher (as some fail on one, but pass others). These minimum standards could be set by university (so that they could have some subjects below the standard, so long as they were balanced out by others above it) or for each individual course. The logic suggests that every course has to meet the standards – otherwise, large numbers of students would still get something below the minimum. Why would that be fair or acceptable?

In spite of tightening up on the quality of education which is supported by student loans, there would still be a proportion of the student loans which are not repaid because people do not earn enough during their career (e.g. school teachers). This cost falls to the taxpayer – whether that is the graduate-tax payer or the general taxpayer. The level of this subsidy is an important and material fiscal question, which will no doubt be revisited in coming years. However, whoever pays (student or taxpayer) we should be looking at reducing the cost of undertaking a degree. In doing so, it would be a false economy to cut academic pay or to reduce the facilities available to students. But there are two big opportunities to reduce cost. The first is to reduce the time taken to complete a degree. For most undergraduates, they only attend university for half of the year. It is hard to see why a first degree could not be completed in 2 years, rather than 3 years. That would still leave students with quarter of their time on leave. Whilst it may not reduce tuition fees by that much, assuming the need for similar amounts of tuition, it would reduce the typical student costs for a degree by at least a quarter (given that they would have one less year of maintenance and one more year of earning a wage). The other game changer on costs must lie in technology. At some point in the next 5-10 years, there will be a complete digital revolution in our universities. It’s hard to see how teaching, learning or research will not transformed by technology from top to bottom.  The change has clearly started, but the acceleration has not yet reached the escape velocity needed from the gravitational attraction of a traditional education. I am not saying that we all we need is global websites full of MOOCs – the fact that only 7% of them get completed tells us something about the need for a more structured mix of learning. Using its student loan leverage, Government could seek to reduce the cost of degrees by saying that it’s funding assumptions are based on undergraduate degrees lasting 2 years and online content being a certain percentage of the teaching and independent study in degree courses. Even on a targeted basis, applying these criteria to just the courses which have lower economic returns would reduce the debts faced by students and taxpayers, whilst improving the value for money for all involved.

I know these arguments won’t be popular with everyone, especially many in universities. It’s easy to retort that education should not be measured in such utilitarian ways – that we need the arts and humanities; that we need to offer the chance of higher education to everyone who wants it; that this is turning the clock back to a time when fewer people went to university. If universities and current degrees were the only education on offer then I would concede these points. Indeed, one of my favourite quotes from one of my favourite philosophers, John Dewey, is that “Education is not preparation for life; it is life itself”. But as Dewey implies, firstly, education comes from many sources – from our work, our training, our private study, our curiosity, our reading, our travel, our friends. Secondly, not all education is an investment, much of it is consumption. (My ongoing self-taught science being a good example). Thirdly, if the minimum criteria were put in place, universities would fight back with new degrees that met the standards required. But what is clear that is education has a cost – it takes up our time and the people who provide it usually want paying. And if the great financial crisis has taught us anything it must be that someone always has to pay – whether it is those who borrow, those whose lending goes bad or taxpayers who pick the tab for the other two. The same is true of education. But, to use the banking analogy,  there is clearly a need for Government intervention to make sure that lending is responsible, that repayment is fair, that costs are kept to a minimum and that consumers triumph over suppliers. 

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Would it be better if our top talent emigrated … for a while, at least?

 

If (or as I fear, when) England fail to make the final stages of the World Cup in Rio, the post-mortem is predictable:  “We need fewer foreign players in the Premier League. We need quotas so that the majority of the players are English. Something must be done, and done immediately.”. Without being defeatist, it is worth heading off this knee-jerk response before the plane leaves for Brazil. Partly because it would be disastrous for one of the UK’s greatest success stories – the modern Premier League. But more importantly because this debate illuminates some important, but little talked about aspects of migration policy. 

Let’s look at the football situation. It’s clearly true that English players are a minority in the Premier League. They played only 32% of the total minutes played last year. 68% of players are not English. The foreigners come from all over the world. The largest contingent is the French and the Spanish, but they only have 10% each. The UK is not unique. If we look at the European nations most likely to make the World Cup final, then their percentage of overseas players has been growing. In spite of being the biggest country in Europe, only 50% of the minutes played in Germany’s top league were played by Germans. The equivalent figure is 59% in Spain. The high performing European nations and leagues are big importers of global talent. (If, however, we look at countries that didn’t make the world cup, the story is the opposite. Close to home, we can see that in Scotland 85% of the minutes played were from Brits.) Clearly it wasn’t always like this. In 1992, there were just 11 foreign players in the Premier League. Today there are more than 11 Brazilians playing in the same league, and even more Belgians. The other way to tell this story is to look at the various national teams. In 2013, 9 of the Spanish squad played abroad, 23 of the Uruguyans, 11 of the Dutch, 16 of the Portuguese and the Brazilian and 20 of the Belgians. By contrast, the English squad had 1 who played outside England – Fraser Forster and he played in, ermm, Scotland! And it is this last point which speaks volumes about  England’s failure to participate in the global economy of football. Across all the European leagues, I can think of only 3 English players earning their living by playing in Europe! It is incredible that of all the thousands of young men who crave a career in professional football and who bemoan the lack of space in the Premier League for English players, only 3 of them have gone abroad!

The wider lessons of the Premier League for our migration debate are:

(1) On the immigration front, when we attract the best people in the world to come to the UK, they push up wages, they drive exports, they create global brands and they attract investment. They bring money into the country, as overseas spending follows them around. Much of the Premier League’s value lies in its ability to pull in overseas payments for TV rights, replica kit, etc. Nearly 1m football tourists visit the UK, spending more than £700m a year. The League and its clubs pay over £1bn in taxes and the overseas players spend part of their earnings in the UK. This impact is replicated in other key industries where countries compete to attract a footloose global elite of professionals. The desire and need for the world’s elites to cluster together means that virtuous (or vicious) circles are created as locations rise (or fall) as global magnets for talent. We can readily think of the UK’s success in the glamourous worlds of science, advertising, architecture,fashion design, academia, investment funds, film and theatre, Formula 1 engineers, top surgeons, pop music, TV formats, etc. But is is also true of the less glamourous elite pools which are vital to our comparative advantage as a nation – actuaries,  data scientists, accountants, agronomists, car part designers, aerospace engineers, etc. 

(2)But this is only half the story. There is a big difference between having a Premier League at home through importing talent and becoming World Cup Champions by a having a big enough national talent pool which earns its living at home and abroad. This is true for the other global elite talent pools where, to use a footballing term, UK talent needs to play away as well as at home. If we want the best talent pools in the world, then we need to start worrying about getting the right emigration as well as immigration. This sounds counter-intuitive – why would we encourage our best people to leave the country? Well, much of our emigration is short-term – to count as emigration, people need to leave for 12 months or more. But the majority come back after working or studying abroad for a number of years. 90% of emigration is of working age adults. In 2011, for example,150,000 British citizens emigrated but 100,000 also returned, leaving a net migration of 50,000. Interestingly, British emigration increases in the good economic times – it is something people do when they feel strong, not weak. So when we say more emigration of our elite people is a good thing – it’s about them getting experience and opportunities they can’t get in the UK, before coming back again as even greater talents and wealthier than when they left. And if they don’t come back, we should see them as a ready source of global contacts to assist our international trade and liaison.

So if emigration of our best people can be a good thing, do we have enough of it? Compared to other countries we actually have lots of emigration. About 5m British born people live abroad. Of the high income OECD countries, the UK has the largest number of citizens living abroad, far more than those born in Germany or the US, for example. By proportion, Portugal, Greece and Ireland have higher percentages living abroad, but from smaller populations. If we look at countries with large numbers of immigrants to the UK, it is interesting to note that Poland and the UK have the same proportion of their population living abroad, whilst the number of Pakistanis living abroad is about the same as the number of British. But it is salutary to look at where the Brits go. The biggest destination is Australia – approaching half of all emigration in 2010, with the US coming second. Indeed, two-thirds of British born citizens living abroad are in the Anglophone countries. (Unfortunately, these countries are not very good at football, or we’d be fine for the World Cup!). About 15% of British born citizens are in Spain, France or Germany. Beyond this, the numbers per country are small. Why this matters is that the numbers are tiny in the emerging economies, which have the highest growth potential. The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China) countries have about 80,000 British born people living there, less than 2% of those Brits living abroad. There are 10 times as many Brits living in New Zealand as in either India or China. The same is true of the MINT countries (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, Thailand) with some 70,000 or so Brits, over half of whom are in Thailand. So whilst we have lots of emigrants, we don’t necessarily have the right sort of emigrants in the right places.

If we accept the counter-intuitive argument that we should encourage our best people to leave the country for a while, what might this mean:

(1) Should we be encouraging more of our students to study overseas? If we want our talent pool to be the best in the world, then shouldn’t we make sure that our best students go to the best universities in the world? Other countries do just that (e.g. a quarter of international students at US universities are from China). If we look at the all important STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths), then in almost every subject the UK has 2 of the top 20 universities in the world. On the one hand, this is a good achievement. On the other hand, in most subjects the US has between 14 and 18 of the top 20 universities. So why wouldn’t we want our best students to go to those universities to be a part of the global elite? But in 2011, whilst the UK had a a Premier League performance in attracting overseas students here (13% market share, second only to the US on 23%) and 2m UK residents were registered students with UK universities, only 6,000 UK residents went abroad to study. If we see higher education as a global product for sale (as many other countries do), then why are so protectionist about keeping UK demand in the UK? In other markets, we see global competition as good for UK consumers and good competitive pressure on UK suppliers. So, maybe we should worry about being under-represented in the world’s best universities and push our best HE consumers to buy overseas?

(2) If we want to sell more services to the emerging economies, how do we get more Brits to emigrate there for a while? Selling services overseas is hard work. Unlike making a car in Sunderland and putting it on a ship, services often have to be delivered, at least in part, in the other country. They require cultural insight and adaptation. Sales rely on personal relationships and interaction with the overseas buyers. And, like football, they rely on having the best global talent. It also means that much of the revenue from sold services stays overseas, paying for local delivery. Many economists are dismissive about the potential for services to pay our way in the world. But we don’t have any choice. Unlike Australia, Russia or Canada, we don’t have masses of natural resources to export. Unlike Germany we don’t have enough manufacturing exports (yet, at least) to buy what we want from the rest of the world. But we are good at services. Just think (in terms of A-Z), of the services beginning with an A, where we are world class – architecture, advertising, accountancy, actuaries, agronomy, arts, academia, etc. The UK share of global exports of services is 6.4%. Not too bad? But our share has fallen by 20% since 2000. Meanwhile Germany has increased its share by 10%. And our share of trade more generally with the growing emerging economies is under pressure. For example, our share of India’s imports has halved in the last decade. There is a need to have plenty of Brits on the ground in our export markets. As outlined above, we lack these numbers in the emerging economies. And in our mature markets and popular destinations for our emigrants, the emerging countries are themselves are pushing us out of place. 60% of permanent resident visas in Australia are now granted to Chinese, who will soon replace the British as the biggest immigrant group. Indeed they already have in Sydney. Even more strikingly, the emerging economies are rapidly populating the next generation of emerging economies. In the last 10 years, more than 1m Chinese workers have moved into sub-Saharan Africa working for 2,000 Chinese companies. Do we need a concerted campaign to encourage British talent to spend time abroad? “Go East Young Man”? Should we offer grants, tax breaks, remission from student loans, etc to individual British talent who go on time limited economic visas to our target countries? Should we offer similar assistance to UK employers who are exporting British talent into our target countries?

(3) If we want to tackle our skill gaps, rather than relying on short-term imports should be relying on long-term exports? The Home Office publishes a formal list of very specific shortage occupations, where it will allow immigration from non EU countries. Looking at the 2013 statement, it is clear that the shortages largely result from sporadic historic demand for those skills in the UK domestic market. It is equally clear that that there has been and continues to be demand for those skills overseas. If there had been more people willing to work overseas as well as in the UK, then we could have had a much larger British talent pool in these shortage areas. For example, we don’t have enough railway signals engineers. We get into a circular argument about spending more on railway engineering, where we keep spend low because skills supply is low. But if we increased total demand for these skills by more people working overseas for periods of time, then the supply pool could be increased.The 2013 Home Office statement lists similar examples – geologists and drilling engineers for oil and gas; tunnelling skills; electricity transmission engineers. UK infrastructure spend will increase over the next 5-15 years. But it will dwarfed by massive infrastructure investment in Asia and Africa. Total demand in the world will grow sharply. But will our supply of skilled people increase so that we can go out and fight for our share of this overseas investment, as well as deliver what we need here? This means signalling this demand to our workforce, so that they get themselves skilled and gear themselves up for overseas work. It also means unblocking constraints on numbers getting trained (e.g. university places, professional regulation, etc) and preparing our talent for the world, rather than UK, market. Clearly, the point of exporting talent is to have more of it, not less, so more emigration of our best people only makes sense if we make sure that the total number of British people participating in global elites increases.

(4) And finally, of course, it means more British footballers getting in their Bentley (for the established ones) or onto Ryanair (for the less established ones) and playing overseas. That would give us a bigger pool of talent playing at the highest level across Europe.

The current migration debate is very focused on net immigration. But we also need to look at the other half of the equation – the emigration. In the same way that we measure and debate the numbers coming in, do we need to measure the participation rate of British citizens (vs our competitors) in the elite opportunities open to British talent around the world – whether those opportunities are in medicine, constructing infrastructure, studying at the top universities, data science, pop music or …. football? Let’s hope that in terms of the wider economy by 2018, we have got on top of immigration so that we have a Premier League in all chosen industries. But let’s also hope that we are winning the World Cup in those chosen industries because of the size of our talent pool, which has grown by enthusiastic, time limited emigration giving us access to overseas markets.

Scottish referendum – it’s the time to change the game, not be complacent.

Please can we forget about the EU referendum in 2017 for the next 8 months and focus on the referendum in hand. The one in Scotland. I have 3 ideas to defeat the “Yes” vote. But why we should bother doing anything when the polls have never shown a majority for independence? Well, I have a horrible gut feel that come September the undecided in Scotland may just think “Why not?”. If they do, then that’s it. Unlike other elections, the losers can’t wait 5 years and win next time. We should remember what happened when Quebec voted on independence from Canada in 1995. Up to 6 weeks before the vote, two-thirds of voters intended to vote “No”. It looked hopeless for the “Yes vote”. But as the phoney war ended, voters focused on the choices and charismatic leaders swayed their audiences. And it all changed. Just 3 weeks later, it was too close to call. Two weeks before the vote, polls showed a lead for the “Yes” vote. In the end, the final vote , with a turnout of 94%, 50.6% “No” and 49.4% “Yes”. It doesn’t come any closer than that. Can I suggest that this is a big wake up call for those who are complacently assuming a “Yes” vote in Scotland in September, given current polls? If you’ve now woken up, I think there are 3 ways that the “Yes” vote could take a different tack.

The first approach is to show some emotion. I passionately want Scotland to stay in the UK. Not because I think it will bad for the Scots to go alone. That’s up to them. I care because I think it will bad for the rest of the UK. It will destroy my sense of Britishness, which is much stronger than my sense of Englishness. By a ratio of 2:1, the non-Scots Brits feel the same. We don’t have a vote. But we do have a voice. And we need to start using it. There is now just 8 months to go. But why are the English, the Welsh and the Northern Irish so silent? Well, I think its because we have totally mis-handled devolution. Union is a marriage. There are 3 stages to ending a marriage – living separate lives, formal separation and divorce. We have all known people embark on the earlier stages of living increasingly separate lives but wanting to stay married, only to find themselves on a slippery slope of estrangement and resentment towards divorce. It comes from drifting apart, not talking openly, not creating a new union of stronger equals. Marriage can cope with strong individuals living their own lives, but only if they find new ways to refresh the union. Sometimes estranged couples hold back from divorce because splitting the house or pension fund is too hard. But the love has gone and only financial risks hold them together. To students of UK devolution, this sounds depressingly familiar. As the three smaller nations have become more independent, the UK has not found, or even sought, new ways to refresh the union. The old bonds have weakened, but new ones haven’t been forged. Estrangement has crept up on us. The English haven’t felt able to talk about relationships – as ever. Northern Ireland and Scotland have become more insular. Wales (like Northern England) depends on the Southern English breadwinner and the economics doesn’t allow them to consider breaking away. But Scotland is different. Scotland can pay its own way. It may be a bit worse or a bit better off (depending on how things go). But it can up and leave. After 15 years of devolution and the passing of the financial crisis (the equivalent of the children growing up?), there are only two reasons for Scotland and the UK to stay together. Either splitting the financial assets and liabilities (e.g. oil versus pensions, etc) is too hard. Or we rediscover our love and consciously enter a new period in the marriage. In choosing between these two options, I get enough accountancy in my day job, so I opt for love!

And I do love Scotland. The best proof is that I spent my honeymoon in Glasgow! The best date in our family calendar is our annual week at the Edinburgh festival. I yearn to return to the magic of Sutherland’s pink beaches and sandstone fantasy mountains. But I also love the cultural impact of Scotland on Britain and beyond. I commend Arthur Herman’s compelling book “The Scottish Enlightenment – The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World”. This US historian, without a Scottish gene in his body, tells the compelling story of what Scots got out of union with Britain. They were transformed from the poorest country in Western Europe, bankrupt and ruled by medieval feudalism, by access to the British economy and Empire. But he also tells of what they gave back – so much more than they took. The historic impact of Scots is clear in education, engineering, medicine, economics, literature and philosophy. The biggest part of the impact came from the diaspora, as Scots impacted on the rest of the world, but especially the rest of Britain. It continues today.

So if we need to express our love, it has to get emotional. It’s time to move on from the statistics and the dossiers. I don’t think either side can win this on hard data and known facts. Scotland is a perfectly viable independent nation. And the rest of the UK would survive without Scotland. So I think this vote will be decided on emotions. That’s where the “Yes” vote has all the happy tunes. And bagpipes have a strong track record of men following them into battle. The “Yes” campaign cries “Freedom from Westminster”. Well, who wouldn’t be in favour of that? Most of the UK would echo that cry. Meanwhile, the “No” campaign relies on the ominous tunes much loved in horror movies to signify bad things around the corner. The campaign gloomily reminds Scots that Westminster comes in handy when disasters are too big for small countries to handle on their own. The dividing lines then are liberation, freedom and destiny on one side (piped in with all the tartan pomp) versus risk aversion on the other (spoken in sombre Sunday sermon tones). This paints the “No” campaign into a dark corner – defending the status quo and talking only of threats and things going wrong. Banks collapsing, fish wars with Iceland, the return of the Vikings, plagues of locusts! All scary, but hardly up-lifting visions of the future. So first, let’s let the Scots feel the love and then excite them about our better future together. On feeling the love, let’s return to Quebec. What swung the vote in Quebec in the final days? Well, on 27th October, just 3 days before the vote, there was a Unity March in Montreal. 100,000 Canadians came from all over to ask the Quebecois to vote “No” and stay with them in Canada. Plane, train and bus companies put on cheap travel to get them there. It’s widely agreed that this made the difference. People felt the love. Why doesn’t the “No” campaign ask those English, Welsh and Northern Irish who love Scotland to attend a mass Unity March this summer. I suggest a march through Edinburgh, from the port of Leith, around an outer estate, up through the magnificence of the historic core and ending with an evening of torches and beacons on Arthur’s Seat.

The second approach is to out-trump the “No” campaign and make a better offer on independence. But a different sort of independence. It is clear that “freedom from Westminster” is an effective rallying point. But the “No” campaign should adopt a better slogan “Freedom from Westminster … and Holyrood”. It should urgently put forward a vision of radical decentralisation – not just of Uk powers but also those already held by the Scottish Government. An offer that if Scotland stays in the UK, there will be a dramatic decentralisation to Scotland’s distinctive cities, islands, highlands and lowlands. Let’s mainline into the diversity of Scotland and the different identities and needs of its communities. This is an offer that would never be made by the “Yes” campaign, which comprises too many centralists, too many Statists. But let’s give those who want more devolution, more independence, a more exciting choice. I mean real power – taxes, benefits, public services, business regulation, planning policy, etc. The sort of power that US states have. Like nothing else we have seen in the UK. Let’s go further and offer them the chance to ask for whatever they think will work. But let’s not be shy to offer things which currently belong to Holyrood. The UK Parliament can still legislate to impose a devolution within Scotland if the Scottish Government is against, but the people are for it. It is for the Scots to suggest the geographies. But’s let’s sell a vision of freedom from Westminster and Holyrood. Let’s talk of powerful, independent cities governing their own future. A Greater Glasgow as a magnet for highly skilled migrants rapidly becoming the UK’s second city. A Greater Edinburgh retaining its 90,000 students and turning them into the entrepreneurs and experts who make it Europe’s knowledge capital. An Aberdeen that is free to reinvest its current prosperity into a future other than oil and gas – just like other energy capitals around the world. Orkney and Shetland gaining the same status as the Channel Islands, becoming an oil rich boom location. The Highlands free to make the most of its wonderful natural resources. A Lowlands that finds its own balance between conserving its quiet ways and revving up a more dynamic economy. Different school systems. Different approaches to health. New financial incentives to crack endemic poverty. A local freedom to compete in the world to attract the best people and the smartest investment to Scotland. A freedom to compete with each other in Scotland. A better and more attractive chance for to seize control of your destiny.

The third approach is offer some new forms of union. Union that gives Scotland what it can’t get on its own. Here are just a few examples. Firstly, let’s not be frightened about dealing with cultural integration. I’d start with sport. Scots cheering for Mo Farah in the London Olympics said everything about what a modern union should look like. Football is the national game of Scotland. It is also the national game of England. Let’s agree now (before the miseries of Rio) that we will enter a Great Britain team in the 2018 World Cup. At least that means that Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish players can get to the World Cup …. and that we might just make it beyond the quarter finals. Let’s also open up the English Premier League and the Championship to Scots football clubs. Nothing has helped refresh the Anglo-Welsh relationship as much as the promotion of Cardiff and Swansea to the Premier League. Being in the EPL is probably the best global awareness raiser for UK cities. Let’s have Celtic, Rangers, Hearts and others on the newly renamed British Premier League and Championship fixture lists. Secondly, let’s invest in our joint future. We need to combine our forces to help our premier universities. The UK has 17 out of the world’s top 100 universities in the QS rankings. Three of these (Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews) are in Scotland. But we face fierce competition to maintain or improve on this position. Only massive UK-scale investment in science and technology will realise our potential to attract the very best academics, to recruit the most financially attractive overseas students, to finance spin-out businesses and to retain the best graduates in the city in which they learn. If Scotland goes independent, its universities will be ruled out of this investment. If Scotland stays, then the excellence of its universities means it quite a disproportionate share of this investment. We have to massively increase our investment in science and technology research over the next 10 years. So let’s announce it now and create a big carrot to stay and access the UK funds. Another area to tackle together is immigration. Whilst the scale of recent immigration is a major public concern in England, it plays differently in Scotland. All countries in the UK want immigration to be better controlled. But the English often forget that Scotland has been fighting against population stagnation and decline. In 2002, it faced its lowest population for 30 years. The last decade, however, has seen a 5% increase in the population, with immigration being the biggest reason. The second biggest reason is incoming English residents. With a recent tail-off in the birthrate, an ageing population, depopulation in a number of local areas and a lower life expectancy than the UK as a whole, Scotland has different immigration needs to the wider UK. It doesn’t take independence to solve this. It is entirely possible that geographically-limited visas could be issued for people to live, work and study in Scotland, without the same rights in England, Wales or Northern Ireland. For example, Scotland could be more generous than England in letting students extend their stay beyond university (when it currently loses large numbers of highly talented young people) if they have a job or further study in Scotland. It’s the same as an employer sponsored work permit. These are just 3 examples. In remaking the relationship, we need to think creatively and collaboratively along similar lines.

Maybe it was spending my honeymoon in Glasgow that always make me think of the Union as a marriage. But let’s not kid ourselves that if Scotland files for divorce in September that England and Scotland will just carry on, as independent states, as “best friends”. There are so many people who started on amicable divorces and, after the lawyers and the disputes, ended up with lifelong resentment and feuding. Just imagine how ugly the break-up will be – what happens to vital military bases, who gets the bad bank liabilities, who is able to use sterling, who gets access to the EU, etc. Often people say that after the divorce process there is just no love left, only ill-will.

Who is up for my 3-point plan – a Unity March in Edinburgh this summer, an offer of freedom from both Westminster and Holyrood, plus some creative new ways to refresh our marriage? This will be a debate settled by the heart, not the head. So Brits, let your love out…. A “Yes” vote for that at least?