Scotland universities: Bill for the SNP's free university tuition policy hits £3bn

The figures have been revealed amid a fresh debate over the future of the flagship pledge

The SNP Government has spent close to £3 billion of taxpayers money covering free university tuition since coming to power.

The figures emerged as questions are raised over the future of the flagship policy in the wake of ongoing higher education budget cuts.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Sir Peter Mathieson, the principal of Edinburgh University, said this week the reintroduction of fees should be considered for students from wealthy families.

First Minister of Scotland Humza Yousaf spoke at the All Energy conference in Glasgow on Wednesday.First Minister of Scotland Humza Yousaf spoke at the All Energy conference in Glasgow on Wednesday.
First Minister of Scotland Humza Yousaf spoke at the All Energy conference in Glasgow on Wednesday.

The proposal came amid fury at the Government’s U-turn on a promised £20 million budget uplift form universities.

Graeme Dey, the higher and further education minister, was asked by Labour MSP Alex Rowley how much the free tuition policy had cost since 2007.

In response to the written parliamentary question, Mr Dey highlighted a Scottish Government analysis of data from the Student Award Agency Scotland (SAAS) and the Treasury.

It shows the total amount spent in cash terms since 2007/08 is £2.65bn. The figures only go up to 2021/22, meaning the bill by the end of this financial year will be close to £3bn.

In real terms, if the cost of the spending each year is calculated based on 2021/22 prices, the total price is already just more than £3bn up to 2021/22.

Last year, the cash bill was £188.5m, down from £192.9m on the previous year. In real terms, the cost has decreased in each of the past six years, from £209.6m in 2015/16.

The most expensive year for the policy in real terms was 2010/11, when it cost £217.5m.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

In addition to free tuition through SAAS, the Scottish Government also provides a block teaching grant to the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) to support universities to provide free tuition.

Within hours of Sir Peter’s proposal on Wednesday, First Minister Humza Yousaf rejected the idea of wealthier students paying tuition fees again.

“I don’t agree,” he told journalists at an energy conference in Glasgow. “I have a lot of time for the principal of Edinburgh University, but I believe that education, university education in particular, should be based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay.

“There will be no movement at all from the Scottish Government in relation to free tuition.”

The introduction of free university tuition has been a flagship commitment from the SNP, with legislation to scrap the graduate endowment introduced soon after the party came to power in 2007.

The policy was championed by former first minister Nicola Sturgeon and her predecessor Alex Salmond, who said “the rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scotland’s students”.

The pledge was inscribed on a stone as a monument when he stepped down from office.

Sir Peter said in The Herald the existing system, in which Scottish students do not pay tuition fees if they study at institutions north of the border, results in “talent and money leaving Scotland”.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

His comments come after think-tank Reform Scotland last year called on the Scottish Government to abandon its long-standing policy, suggesting instead that graduates should “pay the Government back for a proportion of their university fees when they earn enough money to do so”.



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.