Brian Monteith: Alex Salmond’s hubris over ‘free’ tuition ruins lives

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There is a commemorative stone sitting in Heriot-Watt University that is a testimony to the hubris of Alex Salmond – and the cost to his own people of his flagship tuition fee policy. This week the failure of that policy was exposed for all to see and it is a heartbreaking sight.

University tuition is not free. It never has been. Universities are independent institutions. Someone, somewhere – be it the churches that founded the oldest colleges, the governments that expanded their number, or the students who studied – has always had to pay for the teaching.

Alex Salmond's free tuition fees pledge is set in stone at Heriot-Watt in 2014. Picture: SWNS

Alex Salmond's free tuition fees pledge is set in stone at Heriot-Watt in 2014. Picture: SWNS

There are large costs for the ­lectures, tutorials, field trips, laboratories, libraries, sports facilities and all the staff to be paid for.

Overseas students – other than those from the European Union – pay what could be described as a ­commercial rate, although many are sponsored through various bursaries or scholarships.

Up until 1997, tuition fees for ­British students were paid to the ­universities by the UK taxpayer on an average cost per head. The Conservative government expanded significantly the number of places, which increased the cost of this “free” service. To afford this huge expansion the means-tested maintenance grants that covered living costs for undergraduates were replaced by student loans – repayable through a higher tax rate only once graduates earn above average salaries.

With the election of Tony Blair’s government came two decisions the Conservatives had avoided – to start charging British students for tuition and to establish a Scottish Parliament that would have included the management of higher education.

Predictably university tuition fees were unpopular; charging for something that once appeared free was always going to be controversial. When the first Scottish Parliament elections came along charging tuition fees was a dominant issue.

Once elected, the Labour-Liberal Democrat Scottish Executive brought in a new scheme, called the graduate endowment, which ensured the tuition fee for Scottish students (which technically would still exist) would be paid out of its education budget. In return, funds raised from the modest sum that students would ­contribute after graduation (and ­getting a well-paid job) would fund a bursary scheme open to students from poorer backgrounds.

Because of European Union rules, any students from the rest of the EU would also have their tuition fees paid for, while students from the rest of the UK would have to pay themselves – the unified education system across the UK was being broken up.

When Alex Salmond and the SNP came to power eight years later he abolished the graduate endowment and cut back on the bursary scheme, claiming that tuition fees for Scots (and EU students) were now free.

Technically it was correct, but as the taxpayer had funded Scottish ­students’ tuition from 2000 it was really the graduate endowment that was now free (and correspondingly the bursary was progressively harder to obtain.) For those that doubted it before – an ever-decreasing number – the SNP’s so-called free tuition fee can now be seen to have been highly ­damaging to Scotland’s young people with good qualifications and an ambition to learn more.

To control government spending the number of funded places for Scots students is limited (capped). Now, with exam results issued, Scots students are finding in the clearing process that places are being given to students from the rest of the UK – because they pay three times as much, no matter how well qualified they are.

Imagine inventing a scheme that in theory discriminates against the rest of the UK but in practice discriminates against Scots, and all the while students from the EU are paid for by the Scottish taxpayer (and according to Nicola Sturgeon will continue to be even after Brexit)?

The SNP’s “free” tuition fees is ruining Scots kids’ life chances. It is time for it to be scrapped and bursaries for the less well-off to be brought back while others can use their ­student loans to pay their way.