Michael Fry: We must pay for excellence

Glasgow University. Picture: Robert Perry
Glasgow University. Picture: Robert Perry
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Scottish universities risk their academic standards falling unless we return to charging students fees, as our ancient institutions did well into the 20th century, writes Michael Fry

Education is expensive, and higher education is highly expensive. Yet most countries are prepared to invest heavily in it because the return on the money is so obvious in economic and social terms. A well-educated country is likely to be a rich and a happy country.

That was a lesson Scotland learned long ago. Even before the rise of modern higher education, it was sending an impressive proportion of its brightest sons (always sons) through its five ancient universities, from which they emerged to spread the blessings of their learning round the rest of the world, or to make their contribution to the rapid progress at home.

Since Scotland was at the outset a poor country, the system ran on a shoestring. The professors earned a pittance and the students lived off the sack of porridge they brought with them at the beginning of term, or so legend says. There was a cheerful, ramshackle, mend-and-make-do air about the business that prepared intelligent and adaptable Scots for any circumstance they might meet from the Canadian Arctic to the African jungle, let alone from the East End of Glasgow to Auchtermuchty.

The Scottish system was cheap because it had to be. A good deal of Scottish ingenuity went into keeping it cheap and, therefore, open to as many as possible of those who might be able to get something out of it. The contrast with the English system, where languid, well-born young chaps sat dreaming – or more often drinking – among their spires, and at great expense to their fathers, was striking. But the Scottish system was not free. We may nowadays like to think it was free, and First Minister Alex Salmond keeps saying it was free. But, as a matter of fact, it was not free.

To see that we need only take a look at the life of Adam Smith, the father of economics who started out as a poor, fatherless boy from Kirkcaldy. He got first to Glasgow University and then on to Balliol College, Oxford, which he hated. The complaint of the earnest young Scotsman was that he did not learn anything at this lavishly-endowed institution. The opulence ought to have made the education available there superlative, but the truth turned out to be the opposite: the tutors were idle – as idle as their students.

The reason for all the idleness, Smith later wrote, was that the students did not pay fees to their tutors. Not having paid any money, the students had no incentive to learn. Not having got any money, the tutors had no incentive to teach. Contrast that with Glasgow, where the students did pay fees: there they wanted value for their money – and the professors had to provide it. It was an early lesson in the validity of capitalism for higher education, too.

The Scottish universities carried on charging fees right into the 20th century. They charged students for matriculating in the first place, charged them again for their exams at the end of their courses and charged them once more for graduating, if they passed their exams. Along the way, most individual professors charged for attendance at their classes.

The fees charged by the Scottish universities might have been low by comparison with Oxford and Cambridge, but they were far from negligible, as can be gathered from the universities’ calendars. I am grateful to John Cairns, professor of civil law at Edinburgh University, for supplying me with this information from his own research on the subject.

At Edinburgh in the 1850s, matriculation cost £1 and after that the fees varied from three to four guineas for each course in arts. They were four guineas for each course in law and medicine. Divinity was cheaper at two guineas for each course. The charge for graduation in medicine was £25 and in divinity £10, though only £3 in the arts.

By the 1880s, it cost a total of 26 guineas to take all six courses necessary for graduation in law, together with three annual fees of £1 for matriculation and three guineas for examination.

By now, higher education was not a cheap proposition at all. The fees were equivalent to the entire annual earnings of an apprentice to a trade or of an elementary teacher or of a junior clerk in a bank. They would have cost even a suburban bank manager a quarter to a third of his salary.

In terms of access, these financial requirements look a great deal more restrictive than anything we know today. There was a range of bursaries – hotly contended for – to benefit poorer students. But they could hardly have redressed the bias in a system that, basically, only the better off could afford.

It did not really change until after the Second World War and the establishment then of the welfare state, under which Scottish universities were effectively nationalised (not to say subsequently anglicised).

Only now, and for a limited period of two or three decades, was more or less free higher education available to anybody clever enough to meet its standards.

Along with the First Minister, who personally benefited from that happy state of affairs, we may look back with nostalgia on this. It came to an end as higher education expanded and the British state could no longer afford to keep it free for so many. After all, standards are just as important.

The UK has an excellent system – among the best in the world. It is not only great for our youngsters but also a big economic asset in its own right, earning the country billions. But it costs an awful lot of money, too. The state’s resources are not infinite, so in England it calls on the beneficiaries to pay part of the expense themselves.

Scotland differs, and is entitled to. But our policy on higher education lacks coherence. While shutting off any stream of income in the shape of fees from Scottish students, the government has also drastically cut its own budget for the universities. They are getting poorer and, before long, something will have to give.

Let it not be the quality of education, because then the rest goes for nothing.