Leaders: Universities equation will not get easier, Mr Russell
THE Scottish Government can argue, with a reasonable case, that it has a strong mandate to pursue its policy of “free” university education.
The Scottish Government can also claim some vindication for this approach. Data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service shows that Scotland is the only part of the UK that has seen a rise in university and college admissions for the coming year.
However, when rejecting the model of student tuition fees followed in the rest of the UK, the SNP Government singularly failed to grasp the anomalies that would result. An EU member or devolved region cannot charge students from other EU states more than local students. That has led to the hardly fair situation where a student from England attending a Scottish university pays full fees but one from France does not. Another anomaly has appeared. Students from Northern Ireland are eligible for dual Irish citizenship, meaning they can escape tuition fees at a Scottish university. Evidence suggests that around one in five Northern Ireland students might use this device, saving £36,000. The Scottish Government has now moved to close the loophole, and another by which students born in England, but with a parent from another EU country, might also claim dual nationality. From next year, anyone seeking the fee exemption will have to show they have spent time in the other country for which they claim citizenship.
Given the circumstances, the Scottish Government had no real option but to close the dual nationality loophole. But the words horse, stable and door come to mind. The education secretary, Michael Russell, has proved a competent minister. But he should be spending more time on improving Scottish educational standards rather than worrying if students from Bangor or Belfast are paying correct fees.
There is a greater problem with Scotland’s free university education: its cost. Mass higher education is expensive and growing more so. English universities now receive £9,000 per student per year. Scottish universities do not. Filling that gap is Mr Russell’s problem at a time when Holyrood’s budget is being cut. Of course, the Westminster coalition wants to axe central government grants to English universities, so ultimately tuition fees are not additional funding. But fees do give universities, not politicians, control over their own income, and that flexibility could prove decisive now higher education has become a globally competitive industry.
Mr Russell will argue that universities in Denmark and Sweden don’t charge fees. In the latest world rankings, there are three Scottish universities in the top 100 – with Edinburgh at number 21. Sweden and Denmark have only two each and none in the top 50. Scotland’s university benchmark is not Scandinavia, it is Oxbridge and the American Ivy League colleges. The Scottish Government needs to act on that.
The piggie must go to market
Governments are bad at picking industrial winners, but occasionally they do rescue commercial disasters and turn them around. A case in point was the rescue of bankrupt General Motors in the United States in 2009. GM is back in the black.
Hall’s of Broxburn, which slaughters 75 per cent of Scotland’s pigs, may not be in the same league as GM, but its 1700 workers still fear for their jobs. In July, the factory’s owner, Vion UK, announced it intended to end production, claiming the plant was inefficient and losing £79,000 every day.
Enter the Scottish Government, which formed a taskforce to find a way of saving Hall’s. Unfortunately, Vion has rejected a proposal for the Government, West Lothian Council and Scottish
Enterprise to buy the site and lease it back to provide investment cash. Vion says this is not enough money.
What next? It is simply not possible for any government, certainly not cash-strapped Holyrood, to bail out every endangered business. There is still an outside possibility that a private sector white knight can be found for Hall’s, but the odds are long. In the absence of an outside bidder, the Scottish Government must help the workers at Hall’s to retrain and find other employment. It should not be tempted to do more.
Instead, the Government should concentrate its limited funds in trying to stimulate private investment in sectors that offer high growth. A case in point is the new mortgage indemnity scheme announced this week by Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, which should boost housing construction. It will be sad if Hall’s closes. It will be sadder still if we do not grow the economy
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 17 C
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Wind direction: West
Temperature: 8 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 14 mph
Wind direction: West