Tom Peterkin: Free universities for all is a laudable electoral pledge, but the bill must stop somewhere

THE vexed issue of higher education has posed enormous political problems, tearing apart the Liberal Democrats and acting as a catalyst for violent public disorder. In Scotland, Michael Russell has attempted to come up with an overtly political solution to the challenge of funding of Scotland's universities.

Mr Russell's green paper does not lay out any formal recommendations yet it signals a approach designed to allow the taxpayer continue to foot an ever expanding universities' bill.

It is a document driven by political motives and the SNP's desire to go into next year's election as the party that is promising to keep higher education free for students based in Scotland.

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Such a policy would create another clear line dividing the SNP from Labour, who argue that the reality is that public funding alone cannot sustain Scottish universities.

Over the summer, Russell was looking at the situation in England and observed George Osborne's plan to slash 40 per cent from higher education teaching budgets south of the border.

The Chancellor duly confirmed the 40 per cent cut this month in his Comprehensive Spending Review.

Meanwhile, the Institute For Fiscal Studies calculated that students studying in England would have to pay an average fee of 7,000 simply to plug the gap caused by Mr Osborne's 40 per cent cut.

So while the coalition government was proposing its highly contentious plan to raise tuition fees from 3,300 to 9,000, the SNP's analysis was that the vast majority of the cash would be to cover the hole in the teaching budget.

That led Mr Russell and his advisers to conclude that the funding gap between Scottish and English institutions would not be nearly as severe as the "apocalyptic" half billion first estimated.

Factored into the calculation will be the extra revenue gained from English, Welsh and Northern Irish students, who will pay up to 6,500 to study in Scotland Mr Russell has also assumed that not every institution in England will decide to charge a 9,000 tuition fee.

Universities such as Oxford and Cambridge may well do so, but less illustrious counterparts may charge less.

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It is not until the average English fee becomes clear over the coming months leading to the election that Mr Russell will calculate the precise difference in funding north and south of the border.

That is why Mr Russell cannot yet rule out a graduate contribution. But it is seen as a last resort. Fighting an election as the party of free education is a nakedly populist ambition.

Whether it is the best policy for higher education establishments trying to remain competitive against their well-funded counterparts across the world, is another matter entirely.