Duncan Hamilton: Scotland must face reality on paying for university

PASSING through Waverley Station, I caught a glimpse of the newspaper headlines. To the untrained eye they read like a Scottish declaration of war on England, a vicious onslaught on the youth of England by a predatory northern neighbour.

On closer inspection, it became apparent that, despite the breathless prose, all that had really happened was that the SNP government had published a green paper on university funding.

Not that the relatively lowly status of this green paper stopped the flow of invective. The plans were decried as "anti-English" and even "tuition fees apartheid". Punchy stuff.

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The proposal that caused so much angst was the prospect of Scottish students not paying tuition fees when those from outside Scotland but within the UK will. To me, that policy is not anti-English; it is pro-Scottish. In fact, it is precisely the kind of differential policy devolution was designed to create. The absence of uniformity across the UK on this vexed question appears to have taken the London media by surprise as first Wales, and then Scotland have parted company with Westminster.

But what on earth would "Scottish solutions to Scottish problems" mean if not to reflect mainstream Scottish opinion on the burning issue of the day? That is not to say that English students wouldn't prefer to be treated as Scots - I'm sure they would. But the object of their ire should remain with their own elected representatives, not the Scottish Government.

There is no suggestion that English students will pay more to attend Durham University than they will to attend Edinburgh. It is just that they won't pay less by simply hopping on a train and crossing the Border. Many will still come here by choice (currently 10 per cent of students), and that is terrific. In doing so, they will suffer no loss, no discrimination and no additional financial penalty beyond that imposed by David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

Do not also be deceived into believing that this differential between how Scottish students and those from the rest of the UK are treated is new. Payment of fees was introduced by Labour in 1998, and the later increases in levels of tuition fees in England have inevitably led to an increase in the fees for those same students coming to Scotland - which today already stands at 1,820. That happened partly to avoid the gross distortion of the UK university student "market" leading to "fee refugees" heading north.

That such a policy has been implemented by Labour and the Lib Dems previously at Holyrood nails the lie that the SNP is doing anything remotely sinister in that aspect of funding. Remember also that this is not just about students. It is about ensuring Scotland has academic institutions worthy of the tradition of excellence developed over centuries. In the scenario where Westminster hikes fees for English students and potentially increases the wealth and income of universities south of the Border, standing still up here is not an option. Funding research, attracting top staff and linking with business require a level playing field. Artificially depressing the income of Scottish universities by ignoring the developments in England is unsustainable and destructive of one of our greatest national assets.

The point is really this - we didn't start this process but we must respond to it. The budget cuts announced at Westminster necessitated a rebalancing of the way university income is generated in England. The only cold, hard policy choice for Scotland is to face that challenge and try to develop a response which protects the position of Scottish students and Scottish universities. That is the sole remit of the Scottish Government. That, put short, is their job.

There is some frustration that the Scottish Government has not specified precisely which of the options in the green paper it supports and what exactly each option would cost. That clarity will indeed be required but given that this is plainly going to be a massive election issue, I suspect the SNP is happy to have this argument up to and through May 2011. In fairness, it is a debate which demands detailed scrutiny rather than a response driven by political pressure. For example, it would plainly be difficult to announce fee levels for non-Scottish students until English universities have themselves done so. They are, after all, the benchmark.

Equally, the maintenance of a "level playing field" for Scottish universities depends on how much additional cash the new fee arrangements actually generate for English universities. If, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests, the vast bulk of new income is simply to replace the impending cuts in direct government funding, then the additional "advantage" for English universities may be limited and the need to raise additional funds in Scotland consequently reduced.

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And what about the graduate contribution? I have long thought it unwelcome but inevitable. The Scottish Government says it is a "last resort", which I suspect means much the same thing. But Holyrood does not have the power to introduce that tax. Moreover, by the very nature of a graduate tax, any income stream would be deferred until graduates emerged through the new system. That delay means another funding gap, at least in the short term. These details are complex but they matter. On any view, they deserve far more of our attention than the inflammatory and inaccurate ranting of an ill-informed London media.