Fees were abolished by the current Scottish Government because access to education should be – and always has been in Scotland with the exception of a period during which charges were levied by the last Labour-Liberal Scottish Executive – based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay.
This Scottish Government stands firmly in the Scottish tradition of seeing education as a societal benefit, not just an individual good.
I therefore agree wholeheartedly with Alan Milburn, chairman of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, when he says we ought to spend more of our GDP, not less, on higher education. That is in fact exactly what we are doing by increasing our investment in universities and one of the mechanisms used in that task is the payment by the Scottish Government of the fee that would otherwise be charged to each Scottish domiciled student.
However, no study I have seen links widening access solely to the issue of free tuition and it would be foolish to do so.
The issue is much more complex than that and the belief that lack of fees on its own will change years of discrimination against poorer students is wrong-headed – a point made well by Professor Ferdinand Von Prondzynski, principal of Robert Gordon’s University, in an interview last week.
But imposing fees would most certainly add to that discrimination, not diminish it.
In reality, we will only make significant progress on widening access when we add to the fee-free regime with some carefully chosen, comprehensively planned and determinedly implemented other policies.
We need to regularly promote educational aspiration throughout the educational journey. We must take effective steps to recognise potential and improve attainment across the board and we will need to ensure every university and college is aware of, and working on, the issue with real vigour and enthusiasm.
This process must start in the early years and continue throughout school days.
In that regard, Curriculum for Excellence is a key tool, helping to develop – as it does – more confident and aspirational learners who know not just what they are learning but why they are learning too.
We must also continue to develop the widening access arrangements which are already going into the outcome agreements negotiated with every college and university and which will be legislatively underpinned by the Post-16 Bill currently before the Scottish Parliament.
And we can help the whole process by providing places specifically targeted at widening access – such as the 700 new widening access places being funded by the Scottish Funding Council next year – and introducing (as we are) the best and simplest student support package in the UK.
No-one has ever said there is a simple panacea for this age-old problem.
We need a mix of strategies. But any assertion that introducing up-front tuition fees will somehow fix the problem flies in the face of common sense.
It is pleasing to note that the latest outcome agreements will see more than 700 university places offered to students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds (12 June). As a coalition of Scotland’s leading third-sector and independent children’s service providers we have made representations to the Scottish Government and parliament over proposals in the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill to widen access to university for those from so-called “under-represented” socio-economic groups.
While we welcome the provisions in the bill for “widening access” agreements for these groups, there is a clear need to expand the definition beyond one based simply on deprivation and for this to include children and young people with complex needs, including learning difficulties such as autism, ADHD and those who have been in care.
In this context we welcome the amendment to the bill that will go before parliament later this month and will see this definition widened to groups that are currently “under-represented”, including those young people with whom we work.
Children and young people with such needs face additional barriers to entering higher education, and addressing such obstacles through widening access to “under-represented groups” is a welcome addition to the bill and will, in fact, greatly strengthen it.
The bill provides an excellent opportunity to ensure the widening of university access to those who don’t just come from financially disadvantaged backgrounds, but includes those with complex needs who face considerable challenges to entering higher education.
The Scottish Children’s Services Coalition:
Spark of Genius
Who Cares? Scotland
Falkland House School