Throughout their time in government, the SNP have sold themselves as the only party who is steadfast in rejecting the idea that the university debt burden should be placed on the individual student. They support the idea that it should be seen as an investment, so our young people are prepared for a successful career which will enable them to pay back the investment they have enjoyed through taxes later in life. A noble and common sense approach, which is also taken by the vast majority of other European nations. They also claim to be the only party who refuses to allow university to be elitist, only for the few from privileged families, and that a introduction of tuition fees would bar bright students from applying. The 2007 manifesto was essentially a love letter to the university sector; loans to low income students were to be replaced with grants, more funding for places, and still free tuition! . The First Minister herself regularly trots out the line that she would not have been able to attend university under a English style tuition fee system, as the fear of the mountain of debt would be a barrier for her.
Sturgeon said in a speech at the LSE: “I would not have had that opportunity [to go to university] if there had been a policy of tuition fees in place, because even if there had been a policy of paying them back later, the prospect of accumulating that scale of debt would have been enough, I think, to lead me not to go to university.”
This seems odd, considering Scottish students from low income families have seen their debt burden soar throughout SNP rule. Last autumn saw the bursaries and grant budget for Scottish students being slashed by 35.5%, with the average loan per student rising by 61.4% to compensate. We can only assume the FM is arguing that as a student in 2015 she would be able to live for a year on the maximum £1,750 grant she would receive from SAAS.
But Scottish students get free tuition, surely that’s at least proof of the SNP removing barriers to low income students?
No, it isn’t. Whilst state funded tuition is clearly the sensible, cost effective and most fair way to fund the nation’s higher education, in Scotland it has not been properly subsidised by government. Funding for widening participation programmes and institution specific grants is a third lower per student for Scottish students compared to their UK cousins, which allows for grants such as the UK Access and Excellence Bursaries, worth up to £4,000 in year 1, and £3,000 for subsequent years. Scottish universities are starved of funding from Holyrood, forced to spend resources attracting fee paying UK students, and those from the highly lucrative non-EU student market. The English language competency level required to study at Glasgow is embarrassingly low, but seen as necessary by university management to bring in high fee paying non-EU students. Even the UCAS playing field isn’t fair, with UCAS routinely advertising University of Glasgow places in Clearing, but not if you’re Scottish. There simply isn’t the funding for them. So long as Scottish students are not attracting the premium of other students, they will continue to be sidelined.
The answer to the Higher education funding gap isn’t raising fees and shifting the burden further onto students. Nor is the answer to simply reduce places and institutions (a devastating policy decision by the SNP inflicted on colleges, which traditionally train students from low income families). The sector needs hard cash from Holyrood, and fast. This is hardly a unreasonable proposal, the SNP have consistently under spend their budget and are forcing a freeze on Council tax rises, however moderate or desperately needed they may be. The funding can be found if there is the will and the pressure. It’s time the SNP stopped simply spouting left wing rhetoric and then legislating as Tartan Tories.