Scottish Tory split over tuition fee policy

Ruth Davidson made a pledge matching the SNP's free prescriptions policy in 2017
Ruth Davidson made a pledge matching the SNP's free prescriptions policy in 2017
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A split has emerged within the ­Scottish Conservatives over the ­party’s opposition to free university tuition, with a group of parliamentarians ­privately arguing for a historic U-turn on the policy before the next Holyrood election.

A split has emerged within the ­Scottish Conservatives over the ­party’s opposition to free university tuition, with a group of parliamentarians ­privately arguing for a historic U-turn on the policy before the next Holyrood election.

Several senior elected figures are understood to be unhappy with their party’s stance on tuition fees and believe it must change for the Tories to challenge the SNP for power.

“There are a number of us in the party that believe the policy should change as things stand,” one Scottish Tory parliamentarian told The Scotsman.

Backing free university tuition would mark a dramatic departure from Conservative orthodoxy and draw the clearest dividing line yet between the Tories in Scotland and in England.

Asked whether the party was ­committed to its existing policy on introducing a £6,000 “graduate fee”, a Scottish Tory spokesman said a review was developing policy ahead of the next Holyrood election.

Three weeks before the 2017 general election that saw her party gain 12 MPs, Ruth Davidson embraced another universal “giveaway” at the heart of the SNP’s identity, announcing that the Tories would no longer seek to reintroduce prescription charges. Now senior party figures want her to make the same call on tuition fees, the Tory source said.

“Ahead of the last election, we made the announcement on free prescriptions,” the source said. “The other big policy is tuition fees.

“When voters decide on a change of government, it hasn’t been because the winners have offered total, radical change, but because they’ve represented a degree of continuity like Tony Blair in 1997.”

The source added: “There’s the issue of unfairness, with many young people not able to get a university place because of free tuition. People are waking up to that, but it doesn’t look like a decisive shift will happen by 2021.”

The SNP’s defining policy of not charging tuition fees for undergraduate courses remains popular. A poll ahead of the 2016 Holyrood election found voters gave it a rating of 8.1 out of ten, behind only pledging to increase funding for the NHS.

However, critics say it has failed to improve access to higher education for all. The participation rate on degree-level courses for 18-year-olds from the most deprived areas was twice as high in England in 2016 as it was in Scotland.

And opponents claim there is growing evidence that a cap on university places for Scottish and EU students means pupils with top marks are being unfairly shut out.

Figures for 2018 show 15,150 Scots failed to get a place at a Scottish university, equivalent to three in ten applicants. The figure is 71 per cent higher than when tuition fees were abolished.

Responding to the figures yesterday, Tory education spokeswoman Liz Smith said: “The fundamental problem of the SNP’s free tuition remains the fact that there is discrimination within the system and an unfair capping system, which means that a ­significant number of extremely well-qualified, Scots-domiciled students are unable to get a place.”

Brexit could allow future Scottish Governments to end free tuition for the more than 3,000 EU students accepted at Scottish universities each year, easing that pressure.

A policy review is being carried out by Tory MSP Donald Cameron to prepare a manifesto for 2021 that can put Ms Davidson into Bute House. However, the source told The Scotsman that university tuition policy was unlikely to change while Ms Smith remains in place, as she is considered a strong supporter of the principle of fees.

An SNP spokesman said: “Just like on prescription charges, the Tories have railed against SNP policy for years, but now seem to be realising that their plan to whack a price tag on education is deeply unpopular.

“The SNP scrapped tuition fees – in contrast with the Tories’ record in England where young people face tuition fees of £9,000 a year.”

A Scottish Conservative spokesman said: “As with every party, we are undertaking a policy review and we will set out our proposals in the run-up to the 2021 Holyrood election.”