One of the late Jimmy Reid’s favourite maxims was that poor children were never so well fed as under war-time rationing. Everyone was guaranteed a minimum and maximum, rich and poor. The same principle applies to means-testing. The term acquired a bad name when identified with denying poor people means-tested National Assistance payments. It would have benefited from re-branding when applied to more recent debates around reduction of disadvantage.
In that context, means-testing should become the friend of the poor, rather than a trap to deny their needs. The alternative is “universalism” which means scarce resources are shared with those who need them least. So nothing much changes.
“Universalism” fits pseudo-progressive Scottish politics like a glove. It sounds like a high-minded principle which, in practice, does zero to close the gaps which characterise our society – attainment, aspiration, life expectancy or anything else. It is an illusion with which Scotland seems comfortable.
One conspicuous example is university education. The principal of Edinburgh University, Sir Peter Mathieson, has put his toe in dangerous waters by suggesting Scottish students from wealthy backgrounds who happily pay tuition fees to English universities might be allowed to do so in Scotland.
This was immediately ruled out by Humza Yousaf on the grounds that access to universities should “be based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay”. Worryingly, it is possible Mr Yousaf actually believes that this piety reflects the reality in Scotland’s universities.
There are regiments of young Scots with the “ability to learn” being denied access to courses because the number of Scottish (non-fee paying) students is rigidly capped. Scottish universities accept 55 per cent of Scottish applicants, compared to an equivalent proportion of 74 per cent in (fee-paying) England.
These are distortions driven by the starting point of “free tuition”. Yet it is a myth that this protects even the most disadvantaged Scottish students from debt. There is a lot of data about which mix of loans, grants, fees and means-testing produces the most egalitarian outcomes. If that was what motivated us, rather than slogans, we would want to learn from them all.
In practice, “free tuition” means the Scottish Government pays universities a fraction of the actual costs. This deficit is balanced by taking fee-paying students from wherever they can get them, including England but, most lucratively, by the plane-load from China. How this accords with “the ability to learn, not the ability to pay” is unclear.
Holyrood’s education committee has warned that higher education is “structurally reliant on international fees, with this source of revenue forecast to overtake Scottish Government funding as a percentage of total income in 2023-24”. It can’t go on like this without limiting opportunities for more young Scots.
I would argue the only true key to equalising opportunity lies in a sustained commitment to early intervention which would gradually expand the building blocks of literacy and numeracy. Without addressing that societal challenge for deep-rooted change, adjustments thereafter are mainly cosmetic – but that is a wider debate.
The most urgent point is made by Universities Scotland which says: “The Scottish Government needs a plan for universities, staff and students. It cannot keep expecting to have world-class universities on the cheap.” But it does.
There is no perfect, principled answer to how higher education is funded, though the façade of “universalism” is certainly not delivering sustainable outcomes. The mantra of “no tuition fees plus loans” should be weighed against other models, based on experience and comparison. Alas, that debate won’t happen in Scotland.
The last politician who tried was Johann Lamont, when Scottish Labour leader. For her trouble, she was brutally misrepresented by one Nicola Sturgeon, who managed to persuade the poor, whose children will never see the inside of a university, that “means-testing” was a threat rather than a redistributive device to benefit their own families.
No Scottish politician has gone near the subject since, nor is likely to. Capping potential for increasing numbers of young Scots, gross over-dependence on foreign wealth and serious underfunding will continue as our “progressive” model. Until one day, the bubble bursts or the planes stop delivering.