Mike Russell, Scottish Education Secretary, has ruled out the introduction of top-up tuition fees to Scottish universities in his first major speech on higher education since being appointed to the role.
Addressing delegates at the annual NUS Scotland conference in Dunfermline, Russell acknowledged that although university funding will come under increased pressure in the coming years, the Scottish Government did not see tuition fees as the solution.
He said: “We have to acknowledge that [a report on higher education funding in England and Wales due to be published shortly] will pose difficult questions for us in Scotland on how we fund our university and university students in the future. But this government does not believe that the answer to those questions is tuition fees.
“This government has re-established the principle of free education by abolishing the graduate endowment and will not introduce tuition fees.”
Since coming to power, the SNP administration has scrapped the £2,000 graduate endowment fee but have yet to implement their manifesto commitment of replacing student loans with grants.
Russell told delegates that alternative solutions to tuition fees should be fully explored in a debate involving the government, universities and students about how Scottish higher education should be paid for in the future.
He said: “I want to hear the views of the students, student leaders, university principals, unions and the entire stakeholder community about what we might do in Scotland to provide a long-term and sustainable solution — a uniquely Scottish solution — to funding universities in the future.”
The Universities and College Union (UCU) backed Russell’s tuition fee commitment, as well as singling out the business sector’s lack of investment in the higher education sector.
A spokesperson for the UCU explained: “Increasing the financial burden on students and their hardworking families is unfair, particularly as a number of recent reports have exposed the failing of British business to pay its fair share for the numerous benefits it receives from higher education.”
SRC President Laura Laws welcomed the move, arguing that university education should be free to those who wanted it.
She said: “We fully support Mike Russell’s commitment not to introduce tuition fees to Scotland — a university education should be free.
“It is essential that Mr. Russell’s commitment will extend to ensure our universities and colleges receive proper funding by persuading the Scottish Government to make higher education a priority in years to come, ensuring that a free education is still a quality education.”
Russell’s announcement comes as Scottish universities have received an extra £42.9m for teaching and learning in the 2010-11 budget compared to their budget for 2009-10, bringing total university funding in Scotland to over £1bn.
The increase in funding for Scottish universities comes at a time when English universities are facing cuts of nearly 5% in their central government funding.
Russell said that the budget increase signifies the Scottish Government’s commitment to fund education during the recession.
He said: “This budget comes during an incredibly difficult economic climate. It follows a recession neither predicted nor in our control and a budget slashed by Westminster by more than £500m.
“This settlement is more than fair in the current climate. It is a real term increase; it’s the highest budget since devolution; and it recognises the pressures on colleges and universities as more turn to further and higher education during this time.”
“Scotland’s colleges and universities are central to our ambitions for economic growth. They are the front-line of building the skills, society and economy we need for the [economic] recovery and beyond.”
UCU also believes that universities will pay a key role in re-shaping the Scottish economy.
A spokesman said: “If Scotland is to build a new economy after this recession to replace the discredited financial economy, we must invest in higher education.
“To match the knowledge economy being developed elsewhere, Scotland needs more graduates and greater investment in research and development.”
Anton Muscatelli, Convener of Universities Scotland and Principal of Glasgow University, welcomed the budget increase.
He said: “The announcement, which protects university funding, is very welcome, as is the crystal-clear recognition made of the crucial importance Government attaches to universities.”