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19 January 2024

The SNP has been mugged by reality on tuition fees

The Scottish education minister Jenny Gilruth has opened the door to change on university funding.

By Chris Deerin

Are the rocks at long last beginning to melt with the sun? Alex Salmond once promised this would have to happen before the SNP would reconsider its opposition to university tuition fees (with his words engraved on actual rock at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University). And yet on Wednesday, the Scottish education minister Jenny Gilruth admitted that the policy may not be the triumphant success its advocates boast of. 

Gilruth was facing uncomfortable parliamentary questions about a line buried in budget documents revealing a cut of 6 per cent in funding for universities’ “core teaching activities”. There were “additional savings to be made in the sector including from reducing first-year university places”.

This will affect Scottish students, whose numbers are already capped due to the current funding mechanism. Starved of income from any sort of fee structure and reliant on a fixed budget from central government, universities are accepting increasing numbers of foreign students to expand their coffers.

The cap means that perfectly well-qualified Scottish children are having to seek a university education elsewhere – since 2006 this has led to an 84 per cent increase in the number of Scottish-domiciled applicants refused entry to a Scottish university.

In England, of course, they will pay fees, money that might otherwise have supported a Scottish institution and allowed the student to stay closer to home. University bosses are worried not just about their economic position in actual and relative terms, but about a possible brain drain of Scottish talent.

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Scotland’s tuition fees policy is now little more than an opportunity for the SNP to luxuriate in its precious principles – and, as always, to differentiate Scotland from England – while denying opportunity to Scotland’s youth. The government was warned this would happen but has repeatedly portrayed proponents of any kind of tuition fee or graduate tax as a mixture of Milton Friedman and Pol Pot.

On Wednesday, Gilruth finally said what had previously seemed unsayable. The “cross-fertilisation of Scottish places” (ie, the mix of foreign students paying high fees and Scottish students paying none) “has been the case for a number of years and bluntly it relates to my party’s policy of funding free tuition for our students,” she said. “I think that’s a good policy, it’s a policy I will stand by, but it does create challenges for our universities, I recognise that.”

A university is a faceless thing, but a teenager forced to study far from home in, say, Bristol because they couldn’t get into Edinburgh, is a person. People must cope with these “challenges” too.

I recall a conversation with a former SNP education secretary a number of years ago in which I raised the issue of tuition fees. The minister made it clear they shared my concerns, but pointed out the fraught nature of the politics involved: “If you can tell me how to get from here [no fees] to there [some form of repayment], I’d be glad to hear it.” 

It’s certainly true that if you say “tuition fees U-turn”, every politician immediately thinks “Lib Dems” and turns a ghostly shade. Even the Scottish Conservatives have given up trying to force a rethink. But this is the fault of those ideological obsessives in the SNP and elsewhere who have landed us in this non-negotiable position.

At some point, surely, for the sake of our universities, our students and the government’s budget, there will have to be a reconsideration. I’d bet that within the next decade or so, reality will force a compromise – perhaps a sensitively calibrated graduate repayment scheme along the lines proposed by Reform Scotland, the think tank of which I am director.

I doubt Gilruth will be the minister to deliver it, or that she would be allowed even if she was of a mind to. By now, this greying, whiskery Nat administration is too long in the tooth, and too compromised after adopting a series of easy but wrong positions. It now faces the consequences of all this posturing – in areas such as education, health and the economy – in the form of cold, hard, damning data.

The education secretary has plenty more to deal with in any case. The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) figures that were released shortly before Christmas showed the performance of Scotland’s schools declining across maths, science and reading. This is another consequence of the SNP’s refusal over so many years to face reality, embrace reform and face down the vested interests of the McBlob.

I find Gilruth an interesting minister. She is a former teacher and appeared genuinely distressed by the Pisa data. I believe she retains something of a teacher’s view of education – as opposed to the unions’ – which is more pragmatic and understands that the Curriculum for Excellence has not worked. 

Gilruth might not be able to fix Scotland’s tuition fees problem, but if anyone can begin to change how we are teaching our children, it’s her. It would require her to take on the education establishment, which has been wrong about so much for so many years, and show real political courage. But if she wants a legacy worth the name, it’s here she can find it.

[See also: The SNP has resorted to scattergun policy]

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