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31 August 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 6:01pm

Free university can’t hide Scotland’s “Upstairs, Downstairs“ education system

A watered down report nevertheless shows that scrapping tuition fees has done little for further education. 

By John McKee

In July, Nicola Sturgeon’s own poverty adviser, Naomi Eisenstadt quit, citing the “fundamental unfairness” which still permeates Scotland’s education sector, where the socio-economic position of your birth still determines too fully how you will live and die. This might be surprising given the Scottish National Party’s bold 2007 pledge to end student debt. At a time when a Conservative-Liberal Democrat government shackled its youngsters to US-sized education debts, the SNP resisted pressure from vice-chancellors to maintain free tuition for university students. As Alex Salmond unveiled a stone monument at Heriot Watt university on the day of his resignation as First Minister, he declared abolishing fees his “single biggest achievement”. Inscribed on the stone is this:

“The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scottish students.”

This apparently radical edge on education helped to curate an image of a different Scotland. The plutonium radioactivity of the Tory party and a close embrace of Labour since the days of Poll Tax protests had already given Scottish politics a social-democrat hue, which the SNP’s embrace of egalitarianism in education only seemed to deepen. The policy also helped the carefully nurtured argument for “Scottish exceptionalism” which went on to characterise the Yes campaign of the 2014 referendum. For the young, on both sides of the border, few policies could exemplify this moral chasm more starkly than tuition fees.

The SNP have aggressively marketed themselves to “Middle Scotland” – voters who do well for themselves, but remember the struggles of their industrial-era parents and like to think of themselves as retaining communitarian decency. Yet unlike Scottish Labour or the Liberal Democrats at the last Holyrood elections, the SNP refused to use tax-raising powers (essential for Scotland’s autonomous economic path until, you know, Westminster actually devolved them) to fund education. Sturgeon feared hitting nation’s better-stuffed pockets would dissolve misty-eyed notions of egalitarianism. Perhaps she was right. Instead, though, the SNP have dissolved egalitarianism itself, and the chances of the worst off would-be students in Scotland.

As Eisenstadt discovered, the glittering prize of “Free Education” for university students has been bought, discreetly, with a tithe of further education college places. In June, the economic watchdog Audit Scotland seemed to lambast the record on colleges; students at their lowest levels since 2006/7, the deficit swollen to £8m and overall financial performance down. But this version, it transpires, was more watered down than a Scottish summer. This week it was revealed that the Scottish government had leant on the watchdog in the name of “balance” to remove such damning points as the fact that the number of students in college has dropped by 41 per cent.

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Like some Downtown Abbey mansion, Scotland now has an Upstairs, Downstairs education system. Its universities are minted for the public as bastions of social mobility, but the embarrassing fact of impoverished colleges is hidden from public consumption.

Of course, many a working-class kid secures her UCAS place in a Scottish university sector of world renown, but there are far fewer middle-class students populating the FE sector. College places dominated by poorer students, a traditional incubator of the unemployed during recessions, were cut following the financial crises. Even the façade of a fair university sector is not so real on inspection. The attainment gap for the poorest students is larger than in England, with students from disadvantaged backgrounds less likely to get to university. Given that colleges in Scotland often provide a qualifications bridge between school and university (20 per cent of pupils go to university via college) the failures in FE and HE sectors may not be unconnected.

Often overlooked, student debt is not just about tuition, but the means to live through grants. This is critical not just for getting the disadvantaged students to higher education, but keeping them there. Yet grants too have been cut, hollowing out any meaning to the promise to “dump the debt”. What grants do not cover, loans must. The amount lent to HE students in financial year 2016-17 was an increase of 5.2 per cent when compared with 2015-16. University students’ final debt since 2007, when the SNP took office, has more than doubled to £11,740.

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Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Tories have used these trends to hammer the SNP. Yet  it is hard to do so convincingly when the Tory-Lib Dem tuition fees policy drips with even more abject failure. Pro-fees commentators like to point out that more underprivileged kids attend university in England, but gloss over the fact the the disadvantaged are dropping out at higher rates than they have done in years – 2014-15 saw an 8.8 per cent jump in these students dropping out after their first year. And when they do drop out, they have a colossal debt.

Even conservatives like ex-Theresa May adviser Nick Timothy have branded the policy an “ultimately pointless Ponzi scheme”. Andrew Adonis, no ideologue and the designer of Labour’s original £3,000 fees policy, has been similarly withering about a system where not only top universities charge the full £9,500 whack, but everyone does it, because they can. The almost complete withdrawal of the state has led to a “fees bonanza”, while vice-chancellors fatten themselves on excessive pay.

A working-class student who gets to university ought not to spend their working lives in debt to avoid other working-class students being banished from further and higher education altogether. Government is about hard policy choices, but this invidious trade-off is avoidable. Young Scots who once flocked to the banner of a bright Yes movement now favour Jeremy Corbyn’s radical plan, which proposes not just the abolition of fees, but paying for it in taxes instead of college places. If the SNP wants young Scots, in Canadian writer Dennis Lee’s oft-quoted words, to “work as if you live in the early days of a better nation”, then they must not yoke them to the deprivation of their peers. It may be that the rocks will burn in the sun before the SNP impose fees, but if they could stop burning college places instead, that would be better still.