Offering free tuition fees for higher education in Scotland clearly isn’t sustainable, the Liberal Democrat leader has said.
Sir Vince Cable said funding free university tuition via “raiding” the budgets of further education colleges is “perverse and socially damaging”.
He said: “There is clearly a downside from the way in which universities are financed in Scotland and the system in England, which I was involved with as secretary of state, was controversial at the time and a lot of people predicted that one of the consequences would be that fewer people would want to go to university, but in fact the exact opposite has happened.
“The evidence suggests that the number of students has risen and the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds has risen, and the opposite appears to have occurred in Scotland.
“No doubt there is a mixture of reasons but my understanding of how the Scottish tuition fee story has played out is that in order to finance universities the Scottish Government has had to raid the budget of further education colleges, which is a very perverse and socially damaging way to proceed.”
Questioned on a solution to the situation, he declined to provide an alternative saying it is up to Scottish parties to find their own model, but he added: “It’s clear that the system that operates here, although it had a certain populist appeal at the time, clearly isn’t sustainable.”
His comments follow figures released by admissions service Ucas on A-level results day on Thursday which showed 18-year-olds from deprived areas in England were more likely to have secured a university place than their counterparts in Scotland.
Ucas statistics indicate 16.5% of 18-year-old applicants from England accepted to university were from the poorest areas, while the rate for their Scottish peers was at 12.3%.
However, the Scottish rate had grown faster year on year than England at 1.9 percentage points compared to 0.4 and the Scottish Government said the number of students from Scotland’s most deprived areas who have been accepted to university was at a “record high”.
Sir Vince sparked a tuition fees row earlier this week when SNP deputy Westminster leader Kirsty Blackman accused him of having made a “major gaffe” by saying voters were becoming disillusioned with the Scottish Government partly due to a realisation of how the free tuition fee policy has been financed.
A Scottish Liberal Democrat spokesman said at the time the party does not favour a return to tuition fees and has outlined to the Scottish Government how schools and colleges can receive adequate investment without them.
A spokesman for Further Education Minister Shirley-Anne Somerville said: “Vince Cable’s blundering comments show he clearly doesn’t know the first thing about education in Scotland.
“The reality is that the number of students from Scotland’s most deprived areas have been accepted to university - as well as the overall number of Scottish students getting a place at a Scottish university - are both at record high levels.
“As the cabinet minister in the Tory-led Government, Vince Cable was the architect of the tuition fees disaster in England - and the policy proved so popular with students that he lost his seat.”