Hugh Reilly: Free tuition for all, but far fewer places

When chatting up cruising divorcees in The Ubiquitous Chip and other ideal West End venues for the older, more discerning gent, the lushettes find it scarcely credible that I am only 54 years old.

It would be easy to claim that genetics are to blame for my battered phizog; indeed, my wallet carries a creased picture of my craggy-faced mother should anyone doubt that particular assertion. However, it is far more likely that fault for the lines on my face lies with the Argyle Street branch of Marks & Spencer.

Let me explain. I was the first person in my family to go to on to higher education. As someone who had worked in the big wide world for three years before matriculating, I was entitled to an extra payment, the Mature Students Allowance, on top of the student grant. There were, of course, no trifling tuition fees. After paying for transport, books and a regulation, rebellious camouflage jacket from an Army & Navy store, there was nothing left to give to my parents.

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In the years I had been working before entering tertiary education, I had handed in "keep" money, a small sum that had allowed them luxuries such as, erm, food. Ever the dutiful son, I began working part-time in the delivery section of Marks & Spencer.

To avoid tardiness in meeting my 6am start, I rose at 5am, scoffed some toast and slept on the bus (quality time). After three hours of transferring food trolleys from refrigerated trucks to the store's freezers, I ran up the road for the first politics lecture of the day at Strathclyde University. If my fellow students smelled chicken, chocolate clairs or pepperoni pizza on my clothes, they never let on.

More often than not, thanks to the early reveille and the hard manual labour, I fell asleep during the final lecture of the afternoon - to be fair, most people did if it were Dr Mackie droning on. But the fruit of my hard work meant I finished my degree course, debt-free - a temporary state of affairs that much changed when I married later that year.

A university education is a privilege. But these days, unfortunately it comes with an expensive price tag. I am horrified that students in England will be asked to stump up 9,000 per year.

On a TV news item, I heard Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander endeavouring to put a positive spin on his coalition government's proposal to financially rape university students.

"Twenty-five per cent of students will be better off," he said, staring into the camera, displaying a steely resolve I hadn't seen since Laurence Olivier laid out his dental plan for Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man.Admittedly, Mr Alexander is more qualified to speak about economics than me - he studied economics at Oxford - but by my amateur reckoning 75 per cent of students will be worse off.

Maybe it's only me but I find it a tad ironic that politicians who enjoyed a free university education - no, who actually took money from the public purse to study - are even considering the proposition that today's undergraduates should pay until they bleed.

On Thursday, Michael Russell will publish his Green Paper on university funding in Scotland (on Friday, an excitable Andy Kerr will doubtless put forward a motion of no-confidence).

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Alex Salmond, normally a chipper, forthcoming chap, has clearly come under the spell of that great philosopher, Kenny Dalglish, with his mumbled "mebbes aye, mebbes naw" retorts when questioned regarding the possibility of students paying for their education.

Worryingly, a paranoid-schizophrenic, drug-addicted shoplifter being interviewed by police in the back room of the local Spar is proving to be less evasive than Labour's Iain Gray when he is quizzed about university funding should his party triumph at next year's Holyrood election.

My position is that higher education should be funded from general taxation. I also believe, however, that the number of university places and the number of courses should be significantly curtailed.

Charging students for a university education is a political choice, not an economic necessity.