Brian Wilson: Scotland can ill-afford free tuition

Places for Scots students are under threat. Picture: Colin Hattersley
Places for Scots students are under threat. Picture: Colin Hattersley
Share this article
Have your say

LABOUR is right to highlight the inequality of the current tuition policy, but the response has been disappointing, writes Brian Wilson

JOHANN Lamont marked her first anniversary as Scottish Labour leader by making a speech about education. Good. We have heard enough about the constitution to last us through several Christmases.

There are real dangers in the fact that this ludicrously protracted argument about independence is diverting necessary political attention away from things that matter much more immediately – jobs, economic decline, health care, education.

In his characteristically blustering response to Lamont’s speech, the education minister, Michael Russell, made that point eloquently if crassly. An intelligent speech about education funding priorities automatically equated, in his considered view, to a “Tory cuts agenda” and the answer was “to vote Yes in 2014”.

Heaven help Scotland’s children, never mind Scotland’s politics, when this is the only level of debate that the education minister is capable of engaging in. If he does not realise that there are choices to be made, rather than boasts to gloat over, then he is even less well endowed with wisdom and humility than previously suspected.

At its best, Scotland’s education system is superb – witness Strathclyde University’s recognition as the UK’s University of the Year. The real question about university funding is how to maintain and extend that kind of success in the face of financial pressures, for the benefit of students from all backgrounds.

The idea that Mr Russell or anyone else has a monopoly of wisdom on that issue seems unlikely. Political rhetoric will not fill the teaching and research coffers of universities. Far less will it bridge the extraordinary attainment gap which exists within our small nation, and shows absolutely no signs of going away.

Lamont was unapologetic about her belief that it is unsustainable in terms of either quality or fairness to cherry-pick the single criterion of “free university tuition” and then define it as the sole measure of social justice within the education sector. Not just unsustainable but ridiculous when, so obviously, other needs are being sacrificed to pay for it.

Broadly speaking, there are three categories of school-leavers. Group A contains a substantial, privileged minority which pretty much assumes access to a university education. Group B has the ability to access higher education, requires financial support to do so and must not be discouraged through any charging regime. Group C, the largest one, will never see the inside of a university – but might well depend upon further education.

The political trick which Mr Russell and Co. try to pull is to persuade Group B that its interests coincide exactly with those of Group A. They most certainly do not. The people who benefit disproportionately from “free” university education are those for whom it is a mere bonus. They will go anyway, just as they do in other countries. Group B are the ones who will increasingly be squeezed out in order to fund that bonus for Group A, as is already happening at the more fashionable Scottish universities.

That is the enigma which Johann Lamont is rightly trying to address. Already, we know that hundreds of courses at Scottish universities this year remained open to fee-paying students from England and elsewhere while Scottish students with better qualifications were turned away because the quota of Scottish-government funded places had been used up. There will be a lot more of this to come.

Then let us consider the interests of Group C, for whom Mr Russell has very little time indeed. For them, the debate about “free university tuition” is an abstraction. In the statistically improbable event of them considering a university education, they would only benefit from any redistributive scheme which Labour is likely to bring forward. Is it now a Scottish political crime to take a little from the rich in order to support the poor?

And what is the current reality? Under Mr Russell’s regime, hundreds of further education courses are being lost and, at the last count, more than 20,000 potential Scottish students turned away. In a particularly contemptuous turn of the screw, the bursaries on which lowest-income further education students depend have been cut by £1,700 a year. This from the party of “universal free education”.

Ian Graham, the retired principal of John Wheatley College in Glasgow, whom I once worked with closely as education minister, welcomed Lamont’s speech because the further education sector is being “virtually dismembered”. To me, the success of that college over the past decade represented one of the great symbols of what our educational priorities should be. A fine new campus in Easterhouse and 12,000 students a week going through its doors, their teaching linked directly to vocational opportunities. But who cares about any of that? Certainly not Mr Russell.

Johann Lamont rightly linked the myth of “free” university education with the massive cut-backs that are taking place in further education. But of course, the debate that she is seeking to encourage in the face of Mr Russell’s jeers and denigration should go much wider than that. The much bigger questions lie in the totally unequal prospects for educational attainment which exist virtually from birth in this ultimate post-code lottery.

During my own stint as education minister in the late 1990s, I became utterly committed to the concept of Early Intervention. I remember my introduction to this subject was through the late Elizabeth Maginnis who chaired Edinburgh’s education committee at that time. From the mid-1990s they had pioneered an Early Intervention programme which embraced the parents as well as young children in areas of social deprivation and under-attainment.

The results were startling and I became convinced that if we were ever to attack the social consequences of inequality, as well as the causes, then the best hope lay in this kind of approach. It is largely a waste of breath to bemoan the small numbers of school-leavers from less well-off backgrounds who enter university, because by then we are dealing with symptoms rather than causes.

For a brief period, we led the UK in Early Intervention programmes but, under all Holyrood administrations, that approach has been diluted in deference to other funding priorities. Is it possible to have any intelligent debate about the relative merits of these priorities without it turning into a slanging match about “Tory cuts” and how “a Yes vote in 2014” can cure everything? I doubt it and despair.