Leaders: University access | Oil review

Picture: Jane BarlowPicture: Jane Barlow
Picture: Jane Barlow
ABOLISHING the remnants of student tuition fees in 2007 was the proudest act of the first minority SNP government and hailed as a highly progressive act that would remove the financial barrier believed to be the main factor stopping school-leavers from poorer families from going to university.

But it now turns out that this policy simply has not done what was said on the tin.

Research by Edinburgh University’s Centre for Educational Sociology has found that the social inequality of relatively few university students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds has changed little from the pre-fee era.

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The study is comprehensive. It covers the period between 1996-2010 which, for Scottish-domiciled students, covers the period when fees were payable up front (1998-2000), as a form of graduate tax (2001-7) and when no fees were payable (since 2008). It also looks at what has happened in the rest of the UK, where fees first became payable in 1998 and have been steadily increased since then.

Across the whole period and the different payment regimes, the result is broadly the same – social higher educational inequalities that existed in 1996 still exist today. The absence of fees in Scotland has not reduced them and neither has the existence of fees elsewhere in the UK increased them.

Coming hard on the heels of another study that said much the same thing, the evidence now seems to irrefutably confound commonsense – the costs of, and individual debts associated with, undertaking a university degree are not the main cause of inequality of access. These findings also agree with much international research. In Ireland, for example, tuition fees were abolished in 1996 in order to achieve similar social equalisation, a goal which has gone equally unrealised.

The Scottish Government needs now to accept that it cannot cling to the view that the absence of tuition fees is a driver of significant social change. It may be that the policy has won the SNP votes and that fear of other parties introducing fees should they win power continues to have that effect. But the reality seems to be that the major social benefit of abolished fees is a financial one received by the middle classes and not by poorer working classes.

Rather than stick to a well-intentioned but now discredited theory, the Scottish Government should decide how it really can improve access to university for those from disadvantaged backgrounds and set about it. At present, it seems Scottish universities are being disadvantaged with regard to their competitors down south for no real reason. That cannot be a sound policy.

The sign of a mature and ambitious government would be to accept that change is necessary and outline its case for the changes it wishes to take. Sticking with a shibboleth with no real societal benefit makes no sense.

It is surely in all of our best interests to improve access. At the moment we are failing.

Oil review welcome – but long overdue

Companies involved in extracting North Sea oil are so big and the rewards from success so enormous, that many may think there is little need for the government to get involved in order to ensure that the best is made of a resource which is still a rich one.

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But the increasing frequency of shutdowns caused by equipment failure and maintenance shutdowns that overrun is evidence that there are also big problems which need addressing.

Thus the announcement by the UK government that it has asked Sir Ian Wood, perhaps the most respected figure in the industry, to conduct a review aimed at maximising exploration production has received a broad welcome from the industry.

In true, business-like fashion, Sir Ian aims to produce an interim report in October with a final version complete with recommendations out by next January. The timing is interesting. If it presents a blueprint for achieving – as many in the industry think possible – an increase in daily production from 1.5 million barrels to 2 million barrels, then that might present Alex Salmond with just what he needs to boost his independence campaign. On the other hand, the sums involved in the incentives and reliefs needed to make it happen may be so large that the UK government could argue that only it has the capacity to make it happen.

However it turns out, it does seem that the motivation for having such a review stems from the unusually close engagement between the industry and UK government as part of its strategy for gaining a better understanding of North Sea oil’s relevance to the independence debate. A pity it took a referendum to do that.