Ewan Crawford: Free university pays dividends for the nation
LABOUR’S call for tuition fees is an ill-advised import of UK policy, not least because graduates more than make up for the costs in taxes, Ewan Crawford
IN SCOTLAND in 1951 – a time some people seem to think was a golden era of Scottish education – nearly nine out of ten people in their early 20s who were working had left school at 15 or younger.
Quoting this figure, the social historian TC Smout has famously written that the system defined the overwhelming majority of Scots as stupid.
Given the social composition of the country we can assume the small minority who stayed on at school, and who were presumably defined as clever, would have come disproportionately from better-off families.
Applying the new logic of the Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont, the idea of free school education for those over the age of 15 in the early 1950s (an age of austerity don’t forget) starts to look a lot like “the poorest paying for a tax break for the rich”.
After all, as she said last week in relation to university tuition fees, what was progressive about people on low incomes paying for the wealthy to further their education?
Under the Lamont doctrine it would have made sense to introduce a general charge or means test to ensure that those on higher incomes, if they chose to use the state education service, made a contribution over and above their regular tax bill.
The alternative was to recognise the transformational benefits for both individuals and wider society of universal free education.
In this respect, it is important to recognise that the threat to introduce tuition fees last week was not presented only as a response to the dire public finance situation.
The idea of fees was not depicted as a last resort that would inevitably be damaging but could not be avoided. Instead, the idea of not charging students to attend university was used as an example of a flaw in Scottish society – the “something for nothing” culture – based on the assertion that people from higher incomes were benefiting from some public services at the expense of the poor.
Moreover, it was stated as fact, but with no evidence, that university standards are on the slide despite the internationally recognised quality of our leading institutions.
There is no question that at present the student body at many, although not all, Scottish universities does not reflect the make-up of the population at large.
That is why the Scottish Government is to legislate to ensure a minimum income guarantee for the poorest students and to ensure widening access agreements are enforced.
Although there is clearly more that some of these institutions could be doing, they also have a point when they say the admissions statistics reflect earlier inequalities in educational attainment from pre-school through to Higher.
This inequality is truly shocking and sadly reflects the fact that the UK is now one of the most unequal of the world’s rich countries.
But it is beyond me how introducing tuition fees and saddling potential students from all backgrounds with even bigger levels of debt can be presented as part of the solution.
In fact, the Lamont doctrine now appears not to have been a Scottish initiative but part of a UK Labour strategy which means the party will be, in the words of the shadow chancellor Ed Balls, “ruthless” about public spending.
The suggestion on tuition fees also seems to have been informed by the debate south of the Border, where fees are now supported by all the main Westminster parties.
But research into the new fees regime in England has revealed that some families on middle incomes are set to be hit by a poverty trap because of excessive marginal tax rates, as high as 99 per cent in one case.
Analysis has also shown that fees in England are the third highest in the developed world behind Korea and the US. Is this really the system we want to replicate here?
A by-product of Westminster’s continued political control over Scotland is that far too much of the debate over public services is confined to comparisons between UK and Scottish government policy.
If we look across Europe, however, we find that a number of other European countries are far less keen on slashing public university teaching grants. The House of Commons library says Austria, Finland, and Denmark are among the countries that either do not have fees, or have abolished them.
It is particularly revealing that few independent northern European countries of Scotland’s size are following the Westminster model.
Perhaps that is because they recognise, like the SNP government, the importance of higher education both to the country as a whole and to individuals.
A recent OECD study into the education system in the UK said: “Tertiary graduates generate an extra £55,000 by paying higher income tax and social contributions – far outweighing the public cost of their education.”
These figures make a nonsense of the claim that too many young people are going to university.
Clearly, a university education is not for everyone but, working myself at an institution that has a strong social inclusion mission, I see every day young people taking advantage of new opportunities. It is therefore a little sad to hear some people who have benefited from a free Scottish university education seeking to pull the drawbridge up behind them.
These are indeed tough financial times, thanks in no small part to Westminster economic mismanagement.
Education policy on its own will never be enough to tackle inequality or economic underperformance. For that, we in Scotland need control over our abundant natural resources, tax and benefits policy and, most importantly, greater powers to boost private sector job creation.
Surely it is those things we should be campaigning for – not the abandonment of a cherished educational principle.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east