In a recent blog, Professor Iain Gillespie, Principal of the University of Dundee, reflected on the changes to research funding which Scottish universities would like to see in the wake of Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation as First Minister.

He suggested that Nicola Sturgeon’s unexpected resignation should make us question “what next?”, as the office of First Minister of Scotland has an undeniable impact on the policy and direction of Scotland’s universities.

There have been serious and well-known concerns that university Research and Development (R&D) was not a priority for Sturgeon. So, her resignation (after 8 years in office) creates real speculation on the role that university R&D will be given, as part of wider Scottish Government economic and social policies.

In terms of creating a catalyst for economic growth, Scottish universities should be seen as a huge asset, and will willingly assist the new first Minister in driving progress. Therefore, regardless of who is elected as First Minister by the Scottish National Party membership, continuity in developing existing policy is expected by academics.

While Scottish Government key documents such as the ‘National Strategy for Economic Transformation’ and the ‘Inward Investment and Export Plans’ include universities as part of this narrative, it is hoped that the Scottish universities R&D community will now be included in a forthcoming strategy. However, there is real need for the New First Minister to connect this framework of narrative into positive action and meaningful investment.

There is much in these strategies which demands exploration and expansion, and there is new thinking surrounding potential investment and entrepreneurship. And these new research and development opportunities will bring real benefits to Scottish cities and regions.

Gillespie then identified the key opportunities which merit further consideration.

  • There needs to be a greater concentration on the foundations of the research base itself. Current strategies acknowledge a strong research base as key, but these are not sustainable in the face of global competition. And within the Home Nations of the United Kingdom, Scottish universities have already fallen behind their UK counterparts.
  • Over recent years there has been a noticeable decline in the share of Research Council funding won by Scottish universities. From a peak of 15.7% of the UK total in 2012-13, it fell to 13.4% in 2020-21. This serious concern was reflected in the Scottish Universities Funding Council 2021 report ‘Review of Tertiary Education and Research’ which identified that “the trend indicates that Scotland’s research base is increasingly being out-performed by other nations of the UK in terms of our Research Council funding share and we should consider whether we are positioned appropriately to win new types of funding flowing from UKRI”.

Gillespie believes that the funding is not the only way to recover Scotland’s former position as group a of top R&D universities, it is vital when competing within the UK landscape. He believes that current Scottish government funding has not made this possible. Gillespie acknowledges that whilst the current public finance landscape is a difficult one for any government, the current Scottish university situation was compounded by the decision making of the First minister and her Finance Secretary.

As a result, over the past decade the ability of Scotland’s universities to contribute economically, culturally, and societally, to the nation’s growth has been impacted negatively.  Recent research by London Economics highlighted that Scottish universities deliver an 8:1 economic impact for every £1 invested in R&D.

Gillespie therefore argues that the case for a serious reappraisal of Scottish university R&D is critical, and that this needs to be embedded into the (previously mentioned) new Scottish Government strategies, which will shortly be implemented.

He also argued that strategic policies should allow universities to engage with a wide range of industry and charitable partners. He noted that Scotland’s business base is very different to the rest of the UK and that for universities to be a catalyst for change, they need to be allowed to engage with regional growth plans, which will impact positively on local communities.

Gillespie noted that Scottish universities have a higher success rate in securing lead partner status in Innovate UK project bids (30%, compared to 10% by Southeast of England universities). Therefore, the Scottish Government’s financial policies which seek to grow the nation’s economy, must also be tailored to local initiatives, exploiting this proven lead partner success, and enabling universities to play a leading role where needed.

The new First Minister of Scotland will have three years before they face a general election. Gillespie believes that this is sufficient time to impress the Scottish electorate with successful initiatives, and that growing university R&D, and developing innovation which positively impacts upon the nation, will have great social and financial benefits for Scotland.

Gillespie’s article is a timely reminder that Scotland has its own education system, but at Education Advisers, we would point out that they offer great undergraduate courses and include some of the most prestigious (and oldest) universities in the UK.

So, whether you aspire to study in Scotland, the rest of the UK, or rest of the World universities, Education Advisers can assist with your pathway. We have a multitude of resources on our University Advice website.


Steven, our university consultant with 35+ years of senior leadership and educational experience, leads our University Advice Service and can provide comprehensive bespoke advice, or one-off university services as required.

As always, please feel free to email  or call +44(0)1622 813870. We'd be delighted to hear from you and see how we can help.



Gillespie, Professor Iain. ‘What next for research in post-Sturgeon Scotland?’ 21st February 2023,