Scotland is a nation of romantics. Through celebrating our great poets, artists and playwrights we have always took pride and pleasure in our nations stories and myths. We rightly champion our Scottish identity and our intrinsic values of which kindness and compassion are just two of many. However, there is danger in delving too deep into the pool of mythology, of becoming too intoxicated by our own self-proclaimed values that we lose sight of both evidence and the modern world. That is what has happened in the debate around free tuition in Scotland. A policy, which perhaps more than any other, is held aloft, Lion King style, as a symbol of the kind of country Scotland is. With progressive soundbites such as the “ability to learn, not ability to pay” who can argue? Not many. A few sentences ago I wrote the word debate. This was a mistake as there is no debate. A policy which is emblematic of the SNP’s flawed and lazy approach to governance – image over substance – has been embraced across the political spectrum. A policy which entrenches inequality and handicaps aspiration is celebrated.
The issue of tuition fees evokes strong emotion. When I posted my thoughts on this policy on Twitter, I wasn’t surprised to be immediately labelled a “Red Tory”, or told to “join the Tories” (even though free tuition is now Scottish Tory policy), or to be criticised by fellow Labour members. It is indicative of how pervasive the mythology around “free” is. The logic dictates that if a policy is free then it must be good, which of course completely ignores the reality of budgets, choice and consequence.
When discussing this I often hear a variation of “I couldn’t have afforded to go to university if it wasn’t free”. This is wrong. With tuition fees, nothing is paid up front and they only begin to be repaid once the graduate earns above a certain threshold. They are actually the definition of progressive taxation. Despite the many feel good myths surrounding free tuition, people from poorer backgrounds in England are actually more likely to go to university than people from similar backgrounds in Scotland. Meanwhile, middle class students graduate with significantly lower debt than worse off students as financial support has been steadily axed. Budgetary choices also mean that cuts occur across other sectors, including colleges, which poorer students are more likely to use as a launchpad to university. Free tuition, touted as a great leveller, is actually entrenching economic and social inequality.
As a consequence of free tuition and the subsequent funding limitations, university places for Scottish students are capped. This means that a prospective student who meets the entry criteria may not receive an offer due to the limited number of places available to Scottish students, whilst a student from elsewhere in the UK with fewer qualifications could be accepted. It also has the effect of potentially increasing the entry requirements for courses due to supply and demand, penalising students who went to a lower performing school and achieved fewer qualifications. An interesting observation from a report by SPICe notes that even if a Scottish student who misses out on a university place due to this cap wanted to pay the same rate as non-Scottish students to guarantee their place, there is no current mechanism to do this. It turns out, despite the talk, there is very much a ceiling on Scots aspirations.
There is not a particularly large amount of public sympathy for the university sector, especially following the charging of students for accommodation and lectures during Covid. However, as a result of the low fees paid by the public for Scottish students, there is a genuine fear that Scottish universities will be left behind by their rivals in other parts of the UK, who are able to charge higher fees and invest that money in teaching and research. For a nation with such pride in the pioneering history of our universities, we should be ensuring they remain competitive and that means properly funding them.
It is increasingly clear that if we want to see a redistribution of opportunity so that those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds can reach their potential and that no Scot who has the ability for university loses out due to the SNP’s cap on aspiration, then we must urgently reform tuition fees in Scotland. Reform Scotland has proposed the implementation of a deferred fee which would be payable once graduates earn over the average Scottish salary, arguing it is important for a greater balance between the taxpayer and the graduate and vital for university funding; an issue which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. The report also envisages a scheme which would reduce the payments required if graduates worked in certain sectors in Scotland. In Wales, universities can charge up to £9,000 in tuition fees to be repaid after you earn over £27,000, but this is offset by having the most generous funding package in the UK for students who need it most -including non repayable grants- overcoming a barrier that puts many poorer students off higher education, an issue Scotland has long struggled with.
Reform won’t be easy. Cutting through the spin of “free” will be difficult. It will not be an obvious vote winner. The argument that education is a right and should be free is persuasive and personally I understand it; in an ideal world it would be completely free, but we don’t live in an ideal world, we live in the real world where budgets exist and choices must be made. The future of education is too important to be left to the whims of a misguided idealism that ignores all evidence.