Holyrood must stand firm on free university education for it represents a far more valuable principle
PERVERSE, hypocritical, mean-spirited, divisive and illiberal. They're not pleasant words; and they have all been used, over the past 48 hours, to describe the decision of Scotland's SNP government - announced on Wednesday by the education secretary, Michael Russell - to allow Scottish universities to charge annual fees of up to 9,000, the same figure as the maximum recently set in England, to students coming from other parts of the United Kingdom.
Scottish-based students remain protected by the government's own guarantees of free university education; and other EU students will benefit from an ill-drafted European law which compels equal treatment between EU countries, although not within them.
For students from England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, though, there is no such protection; and while the Welsh and Northern Irish will generally be supported by their own devolved governments, students from England seem set to become the cash-cow which the Scottish Government will use to bridge at least some of the alleged 200 million current funding gap between Scottish universities, and their English equivalents.
As a result, the traditional four-year Scottish honours degree could cost incoming UK students an eye-watering 36,000, before they even start trying to raise money for living costs.
To say that this is a regrettable situation is to understate the case. As many commentators have pointed out, it is deeply divisive, is bound to cause serious resentment, and may have a strong negative effect both on the numbers of English-based students attending Scottish universities, and on the range of social backgrounds from which they are drawn.
To regret the situation, though, is not necessarily to lay the blame for it at Michael Russell's door; for in truth, as everyone connected with higher education knows, the fate of students from the rest of the UK wishing to study in Scotland was effectively sealed on the day last November when the Westminster government introduced their own maximum 9,000 fee, shifting the whole UK university system sharply towards the American model, and finally slamming the door on the postwar concept of free higher education for those able to benefit from it.If there are legitimate doubts about the ability of the Scottish Government to continue to afford free higher education for all Scottish-based students, then it would clearly be impossible and impractical for it to extend that guarantee to all "fees refugees", and to everyone choosing to study in Scotland.
What most of the critics of the Scottish Government's action are really saying, in other words, is that it is "unfair" of the SNP to try to maintain free education for Scottish-based students, when English-based students are now having to pay through the nose for it. And what they want is for the Scottish Government to "bow to the inevitable", to accept that free university education is a thing of the past, and to impose high fees on Scottish and non-Scottish students alike; just as the same opinion-makers want workers in the public sector to accept declining pensions on grounds of "fairness", because so many in the private sector now have no real pension provision at all.
And it's at this point that the debate about university fees intersects with the whole narrative of the SNP government in Scotland, and the meaning of its recent election victory. For if there is one thing that is clear about the intentions of the Scottish electorate, it is that most of them did not vote for Alex Salmond and his team so that they could hear them parroting the same neo-liberal mantras about market-style "reform" of the public sector that we can hear any day of the week from Tory ministers, Orange Book Liberal Democrats, and apologists for the project formerly known as New Labour. It is the failure of that political class properly to represent the interests of ordinary people that has driven Scottish voters increasingly towards the SNP; and it is therefore essential that the SNP should not join the dreary centre-right consensus about the future of collective provision and public service that is currently driving enraged millions onto the streets across Europe.
Whether the SNP has the strength, the ideological coherence, and the sheer inventive power to stick to its position remains to be seen, of course. The pressure on the SNP government to buckle, and to be seen to accept the economic establishment view on the future of the public sector, will become intense, as the impact of spending cuts deepens.
In the specific area of higher education, only a radical reassessment of the structure and purpose of degree courses will give us even a chance of tackling the huge structural problems that have developed over the last two decades of fast-expanding numbers, and drastically reduced expenditure per student.And in general, it will take immense courage and intellectual energy to begin to create a future for the Scottish public sector based, for example, on the imaginative and humane thinking of this week's Campbell Christie report, rather than on the self-serving "flog it" ideology of our now-discredited economic elites.
When the chips are down, though, that political project - the effort to formulate a real, progressive, 21st century alternative to the failed prescriptions of the last 30 years - is so immensely worthwhile that the SNP must be right to take up the challenge.
A society which allocates goods like higher education on the basis of wealth, rather than ability, is doomed anyway; unjust, inefficient, and morally unsustainable.
And as young people in streets and squares across Europe begin to challenge the presumptions on which our economic consensus is based, and to debate completely new ways of organising our economies and saving our planet, surely any party with a heart and a future would want to be on that side of the argument; rather than sealed up in some stuffy chancellery, whining about how the great social goods we could once afford are no longer to be had - not because we really lack the money, but because we no longer choose to believe in one another, and in our willingness to care for the society we live in, as well as for ourselves.