FREE tuition for university students in Scotland is “not sustainable” and a return to the graduate contribution must be considered, Labour leader Johann Lamont has said.
The former teacher marked her first year as party leader with a sweeping critique of the country’s education system, saying it once led the world but has now “fallen behind”.
She warned schools were failing those who need them most and said change was needed to halt the country’s universities from sliding down global league tables.
Opposition to tuition fees for Scottish students has been a flagship policy of the SNP administration. Students in England, including those who come north of the Border to study, face annual fees of £9,000 for three- or four-year degrees.
Ms Lamont warned that the Scottish system was underfunded, in a speech in Glasgow’s Mitchell library. “We don’t support up-front tuition fees, because people perceive that as a barrier,” she said. “But we also have to recognise that, currently, the tuition-fees policy is being paid for by colleges.
“That is simply not sustainable and I think we need to have an honesty about how we perhaps make sure that those with the broadest shoulders bear the greater burden.”
Ms Lamont, who is spearheading a review of Labour’s policy on universal services such as free prescriptions, suggested a return to the graduate endowment was “the most obvious option” to address inequalities in colleges and universities. Under that system, graduates start to make repayments after finishing their degrees and once their earnings hit a set level.
Graduates usually earn more and a “disproportionate” number of university students are from privileged backgrounds, she said. “These two points taken together mean that a no-charge system is essentially regressive,” she said.
But Labour insists there will be no return to up-front fees. A spokesman said: “It will always be based on ability, never ability to pay.”
Ms Lamont said Scotland had been the first nation to aspire to universal elementary education, with the School Act 1696, passed shortly before the Act of Union, but said the country “must face up to the fact that, in recent decades, we have fallen behind”.
“We are no longer top of the table and a smug regard for past glories is damaging and dangerous,” she said.
The “achievement gap” between school pupils in the richest and poorest areas of Scotland was also a “scar on the country”, she said, with poorer areas seeing higher truancy rates and lower exam passes. “The school system, in truth, is failing those who need it most,” she added.
But education secretary Michael Russell attacked the Labour leader’s speech.
“Johann Lamont has now shown her true colours and they are Tory blue,” he said.
“There is barely a scintilla of difference between her plan to abolish free education and the disastrous fees regime introduced by the Tories south of the Border.
“If Johann Lamont had her way, more than 3,300 students accepted to university this year would not have gone. That is the reality of what Labour are now proposing – thousands of students denied the opportunity to go to university.
Robin Parker, president of NUS Scotland, said: “The idea that introducing charging for university is somehow progressive, when it puts off the poorest students in Scotland, just simply makes no sense.”