Leader: Free university tuition may no longer be affordable

For a small country, we have always punched above our weight in Scotland in terms of higher education.

But it seems that the funding of our ancient universities is increasingly being borne by overseas students, at the expense of young Scots.

As we reveal today, our most revered institutions are more likely to offer places to fee-paying international students than Scots in most subject areas. The majority of schools and departments at Edinburgh and St Andrews universities made a higher rate of offers to prospective overseas undergraduates last year compared to those from Scotland, who benefit from the Scottish Government’s free tuition fees policy.

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The figures suggest an increasing reliance on fees from international students to cover the cost of cuts to government teaching grants for the tuition of Scots.

The squeeze on public finances is increasingly apparent and, in these straitened times, free university tuition may well be a luxury we can no longer afford.

There is surely a strong case to be made for some form of means-testing, whereby Scottish students who go on to earn well are required to make some contribution to the cost of their university education.

Former first minister Alex Salmond famously declared: “The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scotland’s students.” Indeed, he was so adamant on this point that he had the words engraved on a rock that was placed in the grounds of Heriot-Watt University, near Edinburgh.

But that was ten years ago. Mr Salmond is no longer in government and much else has changed since then. In some cases, it seems the funding mechanism in place is preventing Scottish students from studying their chosen subject at their preferred university.

Some form of means-testing once graduates have started earning might help redress this balance.

And the principle could perhaps be extended further for other “free”, or state-funded, benefits, such as prescriptions and bus travel.