Robin Parker: Let’s clear the way for fairer tuition fees system
READING some of the more excitable coverage this week about clearing places at Scottish universities, you’d think somehow that hordes of students from outside Scotland were coming and “taking our places”.
“Foreigners stealing places” might make a good headline but the truth is that Scottish and EU places have been entirely protected this year. What’s changed is the new fees system for English, Welsh and Northern Ireland students in Scotland that will see students from the rest of the UK pay up to £36,000 for their degrees.
We’ve always said that fees are wrong wherever you’re from. This is true of the disastrous decision at Westminster to charge £9,000 fees, which set the ball rolling in the first place, and it’s true of the Scottish Government’s decision to charge fees of English, Welsh and Northern Irish students in response. Last week’s events –with the announcement of clearing places only for students from the rest of the UK at many universities – have merely gone to show that the potential for unfairness exists under this new system, not just for those paying for their education but for Scottish students too.
I can entirely understand why students in Scotland will feel aggrieved at the sight of universities opening their arms to fee-paying students from the rest of the UK, while clearing is closed for them. However, the suggested response from some quarters has been strange to say the least. When we see students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland paying fees and accessing clearing, the solution isn’t – as some would have it, in some kind of equality of unfairness – for Scottish students to pay fees too, the solution is to expand places for Scottish students and fight fees for students from the rest of the UK.
Buried in the coverage this week of A Level results and clearing opening in Scotland were some really revealing and positive statistics. This year saw the highest number of Scottish students accepted to study through UCAS we’ve seen in years, up around 3 per cent on the year before. This is great news, and this is the clue to the correct response we should have to pressure on places for Scottish and EU students. At the same time in the rest of the UK where fees are in place, and in particular where they’ve increased, numbers have gone down. This is a clear vindication of abolishing tuition fees, and something we should be extremely proud and protective of.
Over the coming months, with the Scottish Government, we’ll be working extremely hard to make the new fees system for rest-of-UK students much fairer. We need to see protections for the poorest English, Welsh and Northern Irish students paying £9,000 to study in Scotland, just as we see protections for Scottish students paying the same to study in England.
We also need to think again about the dangers of embracing market forces in our universities, when it comes to recruiting students from across the Border. It’s bad for students, but it can be equally bad for our institutions too. It hasn’t escaped my attention that the large numbers of clearing places for students in the rest of the UK could be as much a sign of a failure of universities in setting fees too high, and leaving themselves short on students from the rest of the UK (as we warned universities at the time), as a sign that universities are expanding their student recruitment in the rest of the UK, and trying to cash in. Time will tell which is closest to the truth.
This week has shown two things. Firstly, it’s shown the unfairness of fees, both for students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as, potentially, for students in Scotland too. Secondly, it has shown that pressure on places from Scottish students is as high as, if not higher than, ever.
We need to fight in Scotland for a fairer fees system in the rest of the UK and we need to make the argument for additional places for Scottish students. NUS Scotland will be making both arguments forcefully over the coming months, and in doing so I hope we don’t see the same clearing system next year as we have seen this year.
• Robin Parker is president of NUS Scotland
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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