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Scottish Labour turns against free university education

Johann Lamont's declaration that free higher education is "effectively regressive" is a significant moment.

Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont. Photograph: Getty Images.

Following her speech earlier this year in which she questioned the future of universal benefits, Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont has gone further and declared that free university education in Scotland is "not sustainable".

Not only did Lamont argue that free higher education could not be maintained at a time when college funding was being cut, she also declared that a no-charge system was "regressive" since graduates got "higher lifetime returns" and a "disproportionate number" also come from well-off backgrounds. In the speech, which marked her first year as leader, she said:

There is no such thing as free higher education: under a completely tax funded tuition system, everybody is forced to pay for it, including those on low incomes.

Labour believes in extending the chance of a good university to all who are capable of undertaking study.  However, university education is costly, and faces competing claims on limited public resources.

This represents a significant departure from Scottish Labour's traditional support for free, tax-funded higher education. Lamont is preparing to move to a position of support for tuition fees or, more likely, a graduate tax.

In England, of course, Labour abandoned its support for free university education as long ago as 1997 and Ed Miliband has only promised to reduce the cap on fees to £6,000. But the debate is similar to that currently taking place in Westminster over universal benefits. In his speech yesterday, Nick Clegg argued that benefits for the elderly like the winter fuel allowance, free bus passes and free TV licences should be means-tested.

There are some in Labour who believe Miliband should adopt a similar stance and pledge to use the money saved to fund social care or cheap universal childcare. Earlier this year, Liam Byrne, the shadow work and pensions secretary, said: "There has always been a balance in the welfare state between universal benefits and targeted benefits and I'm afraid as part of Ed's zero-based review that balance has got to be looked at".

He was swiftly slapped down by Labour HQ, but such is the fiscal mess that the party will inherit (the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that the defict will be £99bn in 2015) that it will almost certainly reconsider its position.