In a new documentary on 20 years of devolution, Professor Sheila Riddell, director of Edinburgh University’s Centre for Research in Education Inclusion and Diversity, says that despite no tuition fees for Scottish students becoming a “real flagship” of devolution, it cannot be demonstrated that “it’s the right policy”.
However, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon defends the policy introduced by her predecessor and says widening access to higher education is not possible with a “financial barrier in the way”.
Speaking to BBC journalist Allan Little in the second part of his documentary Children Of The Devolution, Riddell says while free tuition is “always presented as a very progressive policy”, “the system in England is actually more progressive because nobody pays while they’re going through higher education and only begin to pay back after they’ve graduated”. She says: “When you look at England and Scotland, until very recently a higher proportion of people from disadvantaged backgrounds in England were going to university than was the case in Scotland.”
Asked if making tuition free has widened access to higher education, she says: “I don’t think you can demonstrate that it’s the right policy. That’s the problem.
“If we were doing markedly better than England in terms of attracting students from poorer backgrounds, then we could say ‘yes, this is really the right policy’. The problem in Scotland is actually the attainment gap between those from poorer and wealthier backgrounds. It is still the case in Scotland that if you come from the rich parts you are three times as likely or even more to go to university than those from the poorer areas.
“And when you compare the four home nations, the better-off students from Scotland end up absolutely at the top, they’re in pole position, because they don’t pay anything for their higher education and, in addition, their parents often pay their living costs.”
She is backed by Professor James Mitchell from Edinburgh University, who says: “It is Scotland’s middle-classes – those who are more likely to send their children to university – who have gained the most from devolution.”
Children of the Devolution is on BBC Scotland, Tuesday from 10pm.