Brian Wilson: Pay is price of ‘Tartan Tory’ policy

While SNP boast of 'free university places', it has come at the cost of 140k fewer FE places. Picture: Jane Barlow
While SNP boast of 'free university places', it has come at the cost of 140k fewer FE places. Picture: Jane Barlow
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Universalism and council tax freeze help the rich at poor’s expense, and education bears the brunt, writes Brian Wilson

Just over two years ago, Johann Lamont made a sensible speech about the fact that the Scottish Government’s largesse over “free” things for well-off people, under the high-minded cover of “universalism”, would increasingly lead to spending cuts which penalise the poor disproportionately.

She was repeating what had already been warned against by a commission on the future of public expenditure, established by the Scottish Government itself and led by Campbell Christie. The emphasis on universal free provision was, it said, “unsustainable” and would need to be reviewed, sooner rather than later.

When Ms Lamont articulated this within a political context and set up her own review, the Nationalists saw an opportunity based on gross misrepresentation. Nicola Sturgeon was particularly active in cackling about a “Cuts Commission”, and the SNP’s media propagandists shed crocodile tears over the electoral folly of Labour’s plan to charge poor students £9,000 and take away bus passes from the vulnerable elderly.

Of course, the polar opposite was the truth. Except in a world of open-ended resources, universalism is the enemy of an ability to redistribute wealth through public provision and most certainly not its ally. The motivation for not charging even the wealthiest households for services they could well afford, while refusing to increase their contribution through taxation, owes everything to right-wing populism and nothing at all to social justice.

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The trick, of course, is to con the people paying for this munificence (ie, the less well-off) into believing they are its beneficiaries – hence the downright lies that were told about the implications of what both Christie and Lamont had the courage to recognise. Unfortunately, the former is now deceased and the latter retreated pretty quickly in the face of widespread, undeserved derision.

Two years on, the truth may finally be dawning. We have the cuts without the commission. And, exactly as predicted, it is those who most depend upon public services who are paying the price for the priorities pursued by the Scottish Government, not to mention the two years wasted on a referendum. On education, in particular, the chasm between their rhetoric and the realities confirmed over the past couple of weeks is nothing less than contemptible.

The record on achievement is bad enough. There has not been one millimetre of movement in closing the attainment gap in Scottish schools, which stubbornly reflects the economic status of the areas in which they are located. Pupils leaving our leafiest suburban schools are seven times more likely to do so with qualifications that guarantee university entry than those in areas where the Nationalists’ new “radical independence” comrades-in-arms peddle their wares.

Three thousand fewer – repeat, fewer – children from these schools went to university in 2012-13 than when the Nationalists took over at Holyrood. This is hardly surprising, since there are also 5,000 fewer teachers in Scottish classrooms while class sizes have grown – repeat, grown – rather than fallen. And guess where these depressing statistics have mainly manifested themselves? Not, I assure you, in the leafiest suburbs.

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Over the same period, there are 140,000 fewer students in Scotland’s further education (FE) colleges. Under the guise of rationalisation, the sector has suffered brutal funding cuts – 24 per cent over three years – and job losses. Yet every indicator shows that FE, particularly for young women, is by far the best avenue for self-improvement leading to employability. But what do the architects of this vendetta against FE care for any of that, so long as the myth of “free university tuition” can be boasted about?

It is in the territory of student finance that the hypocrisy is at its most offensive. Borrowing by Scottish students increased last year by an astonishing 69 per cent for one very simple reason – the Scottish Government had cut grants and bursaries by 40 per cent. As I pointed out at the time, the bursaries paid to low-income FE students were cut by £1,700 a year without an announcement even being made.

We only know about the impact of the SNP cuts because of excellent work done by Lucy Blackburn Hunter, a former civil servant who has taken it upon herself to track the truth behind the spin. “These are startling figures,” she said. “Surely we’ve reached the point now where we take the debate about student grants as seriously as the debate about fees and free tuition”. Surely – but which of the terrified principals or Nationalist placemen in the higher and further education sectors is going to back her up?

As Ms Hunter points out, the debt burden is carried disproportionately by low-income students – £5,610 a year as opposed to £4,340 for those from better-off homes. This is another huge disincentive to youngsters who cannot tap their mums and dads for at least part of the funding shortfall. Transferring the emphasis from grants to loans is a blatantly regressive policy which is having exactly the effect that its authors must have anticipated.

In response, the education minister, Michael Russell – whom the Nationalists wisely kept in a cupboard for the duration of the referendum campaign – refers to “a minimum income of £7,500 a year through grants and loans” as if there was no difference between the two. Tell that to a young man or woman from a low-income background who faces a debt burden of more than £20,000 in the very unlikely event of them accessing and surviving a four-year course.

If ever there was a Tartan Tory education policy, it is the one that the SNP is now pursuing. It has failed to improve the educational prospects of the disadvantaged and accords no obvious priority to doing so. It robs tens of thousands of Scots of a second chance through further education. It shovels scarce resources towards the best-off through “universalism” and the council tax freeze, which give the poor little or nothing. And just in case anyone makes it through that minefield, it heaps debt upon them while cutting the grants and bursaries on which Scottish students from less well-off backgrounds traditionally depended.

Perhaps the worst indictment of Mr Russell’s tenure is that the real Tories in England are now delivering more evidence of progress both on attainment and in widening access to universities. Stands Scotia where she did? Discuss.

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