Why Scotland's free university tuition fee policy is less progressive than the supposedly ‘immoral’ English system – John McLaren

Despite charging fees, England has seen a larger rise in the overall number of students and the share of those coming from poorer areas than Scotland
The Scottish Government's policy of free tuition fees for university students has had some adverse knock-on effects (Picture: Chris Radburn/PA)The Scottish Government's policy of free tuition fees for university students has had some adverse knock-on effects (Picture: Chris Radburn/PA)
The Scottish Government's policy of free tuition fees for university students has had some adverse knock-on effects (Picture: Chris Radburn/PA)

The Scottish Government’s commitment to maintaining ‘free’ higher education – as in no tuition fees – is lauded by its supporters for a variety of worthy reasons. Some, like the First Minister, maintain that such education should be accessible to all, regardless of income and background and “based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay”. Fine words but do these claims actually stand up to scrutiny?

Looking at basic statistics after over a decade of differing policies, we can compare the situation in Scotland with that in England, which is often portrayed as the ‘bad’ alternative that current policy helps avoid. Ucas numbers for 18-year-old university entry rates show that Scotland has the lowest figure of any UK nation, at 30 per cent in 2022, while England stands at 38 per cent. The proportion of 18-year-olds from the top fifth most disadvantaged areas shows that Scotland is again well below England, 15 per cent compared to 24 per cent in 2020.

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In terms of trends, both the overall number of students and the share of those coming from poorer areas have increased over the past decade but the rise in both has been greater in England than in Scotland. Admittedly, these figures are not definitive. For example, they omit students studying higher education courses at further education colleges, of which there are more in Scotland. However, even if adjustments are made for this then the above findings remain valid. Equally, any such adjustment could be seen as a red herring as it is access to universities – free vs paid for – that is the key assessment being made.

Based on these figures, fairness and equality arguments for the implementation of the more generous, in financial terms, Scottish policy fall down. In terms of being “accessible to all, regardless of income and background”, the Scottish system has a negative impact as a university education is less accessible in Scotland than in England.

In terms of being “based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay”, the English system does not put off potential students in general, nor with regards to those whose families have the least means, at least when compared to the Scottish system. A similar story could be told in comparison to Wales and Northern Ireland, which also charge tuition fees.

So why does Scotland’s free tuition policy lead to fewer students and also fewer students from more disadvantaged areas entering universities compared to England’s fee-based policy? The answer is two-fold.

First, English students and their parents recognise that a university education is still a very solid financial investment – at least in most cases and more so than studying a higher education course for free at a further education college – regardless of the debt built up by getting a degree. And for those from poorer backgrounds, support packages can be put in place that make participation a viable option. Hence, the English system has not led to a decline in participation, at any level of society, in fact the opposite.

Second, without access to tuition fees, Scottish universities are more dependent on the Scottish Government for funds, where they have to compete with schools, the NHS and benefit payments. In times of tight budgets, as has often been the case since the policy began in 2008, any funding increases are hard to come by. Hence the cap on the number of Scottish students – growing but still capped – as well as the cap on the level of support per student, which has been flat in cash terms since 2009, and so falling in real, inflation-adjusted terms by more than 40 per cent. This, in turn, has put substantial pressure on universities which are being increasingly underfunded, with potential knock-on impacts on investment in staff and course resources.

Taken together, the maintenance of demand in England to study and the fiscal tightness in Scotland in the absence of tuition fees have led to a slower rise in Scottish student numbers, including fewer students from poorer backgrounds, compared to England. So the moral claims about the subsidising of university graduates have proved to be false, in that free tuition is not needed to ensure participation, especially for those less able to afford it.

In fact, the ‘immoral’ English system has led to higher participation across the board. Nobody is claiming that the English system is perfect, there are some obvious flaws, but it seems to work better than the Scottish one, even when using defenders of free tuition’s own criteria for success.

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So what is all of this really about? Politics of course, and it seems that the “rocks will melt” before a political party ends a policy that it sees as a vote winner and a high-profile exemplar of one that differentiates Scottish politics from English politics. In truth, the policy is basically a perk for middle earners, couched in terms of helping lower income families – in other words, an unneeded subsidy for those who were going to study anyway and who are very likely to earn relatively high incomes throughout their lives. What is progressive about that?

An alternative would be for the £200 million that this policy costs each year to be spent on greatly enhancing early years investment initiatives, a far better route to achieving the ambition of greater equality across society. In terms of funding alternatives, there are many to choose from, including Reform Scotland’s recently proposed variant, or a revisiting of the Cubie report from 2000 on student funding options or the numerous examples from around the globe.

None of them would be costless but each has the potential to release a substantial sum of money to go towards pushing forward an anti-poverty, pro-equality agenda.

John McLaren is a political economist who has worked in the Treasury, the Scottish Office and for a variety of economic think tanks



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