Alex Salmond loved to proclaim that “the rocks will melt with the Sun” before he would allow tuition fees to be re-introduced in Scottish universities.
It was a flourish of bombast which the former First Minister was never short of during his time in office. But it also fed into something more fundamental about the devolved system of government in Scotland, and the UK.
One of the first things the Scottish Parliament did after its foundation in 1999, under the then Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition, was to abolish tuition fees. A one-off graduate endowment of £2000, paid by students after they qualify, was then introduced, only to be scrapped by the SNP after gaining power in 2007.
This is one area where Holyrood has chosen to do things differently from the rest of the UK – perhaps even the flagship example of where Scotland stands apart. This policy lies at the heart of the wider principle of universal benefits in Scotland, which means that citizens north of the Border enjoy free prescriptions, free personal and nursing care and free bus passes for over-60s.
But this unique approach has been called into question in recent weeks. Former justice secretary Kenny MacAskill suggested the re-introduction of some kind of fee may be a “sensible trade-off” for the introduction of a grants system to help the poorest get into university. The Lib Dems’ UK leader Vince Cable went even further last week when he claimed the free tuition policy in Scotland “despite a certain populist appeal clearly isn’t sustainable”.
The fact that college funding and student numbers have been drastically reduced, apparently at the expense of universities, was branded perverse by Cable.
It seems strange that the Scottish Government should find itself on the defensive over this policy. Scotland has always been at the forefront of free education, stretching back to the early 12th century with the emergence of the first church schools. It should be a strong platform for any government in Scotland to stand on.
English students will see their fees rise to a whopping £9250 a year this year. At the end of a three-year degree, after interest, this would see graduates start their working life with a debt of £33,500. It would rise to £42,000 for English youngsters studying north of the Border, on a four-year course.
As one from a generation which not only escaped fees but was actually paid to attend to university (I got a grant), it seems a daunting prospect. Surely keeping universities free for all should encourage the widest possible participation and encourage greater social mobility by getting in more youngsters from working class backgrounds? Surprisingly that’s not what the university entrance figures suggest.
It emerged last week that in England 16.5 per cent of those securing a place at university were from the least wealthy areas. In Scotland, the equivalent figure was 11.9 per cent. The same pattern was seen in those pupils from the second poorest areas.
Scottish ministers insist that free tuition was never directly about helping youngsters from disadvantaged areas into university – rather, it removes a potential barrier to allow them to make it. But with that barrier removed for everyone, it seems youngsters from more comfortable families are more inclined to knuckle down and secure a place of study.
In fact, 11- to 16-year-olds in Scotland are less likely to believe they will go on to higher education, despite the absence of fees, a survey by the Sutton Trust recently found. About two-thirds blamed cost concerns, slightly higher than in England and Wales.
Perhaps the real worry about the system is that it’s getting harder for Scots to get into university here. There is a cap on the number of places available to Scots, otherwise the numbers would spiral out of control. The cost of the free tuition policy was put at £200 million in 2010 and is likely to have risen considerably since then. The number of Scottish youngsters may be at a record high but this isn’t keeping up with a soaring number of applications.
It also means there is an increasing reliance on attracting lucrative fee-paying students from the rest of the world. Worrying anecdotes have emerged about the measures being taken to attract these high fee-paying students who foot a growing chunk of the bills.
Writing in The Scotsman yesterday, Rev Dr Jasper Kenter, who has lectured at the universities of Edinburgh and the Highlands and Islands, said such institutions are now more “market-driven” and focus on fancy new buildings and gyms to attract such students rather than investing in staff. He even recounted a chilling tale of when he failed a “high fee-paying” student in Scotland after two incidents of plagiarism, only to see the result reversed by university bosses keen to avoid a complaint.
As austerity politics shows little sign of a let-up and the prospect of even more economic gloom in the years ahead as Brexit takes its toll, questions are emerging about just how sustainable Scotland’s “universalism” approach really is. Ministers are already consulting on the prospect of a crackdown on eligibility for the free bus pass while the chronic problems facing the NHS have prompted calls to reconsider the practice of giving free prescriptions to, among others, bankers and judges.
Of course, much of the criticism stems from the notion south of the Border that these benefits are being funded by English taxpayers, who are propping up Scotland’s beleaguered public finances still reeling from the impact of the oil price crash.
Free education has been the standard- bearer for a distinctively Scottish approach at Holyrood. But it faces a crossroads. If the Scottish Government believes it can meet the long-term affordability of the policy, it should provide the foundations around which Nicola Sturgeon can build the anticipated relaunch of her administration later in the year. If devolution was about anything, it was about doing things differently based on particular needs in each nation of the UK.