“The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scotland” reads the monument sitting in the campus of Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh. The quote is from Alex Salmond and his taxpayer-funded shrine has now been standing for two years. As things stand, the rocks still haven’t melted.
That monument has irked me for a while. This is not merely because of the obvious narcissism involved in its conception, or the fact that education policy hasn’t been “imposed on Scotland” since devolution in 1999, but because Scotland’s free higher education policy is simply not working. Boasting about it is woefully arrogant.
Since 2010, the wave of outrage over the last UK government’s tuition fee hike has been gleefully ridden by the SNP, fashioning themselves into righteous defenders of the principle of free higher education. This stance seems ill-founded when you look at the figures; it is disproportionately the poorest in society who are being shut out of university by the SNP’s obstinacy over tuition fees.
If you are poor and Scottish, you are now half as likely to go to university as a teenager who is poor and English. Only eight per cent of 18-year-old Scots from the poorest areas go to university, compared with 17 per cent in England.
The reason behind this fact is simple. The SNP’s no fee policy is barely affordable, and is only kept afloat by the cap placed on the amount of students that Scottish universities can take from Scotland and the EU, meaning more and more students are coming from England and overseas. Money generated by fees from international students and those from the rest of the UK has now reached £94 million in Scotland, and accounts for 45 per cent of the sector’s teaching income.
Herein lies the problem. Young people from Scotland are being squeezed out of attending university because they will not be contributing financially, causing increased competition for places. This means poorer students are increasingly unable to compete with the grades of those benefitting from better, and sometimes more expensive, education.
At Glasgow University, the proportion of Scottish students fell by nine per cent between 2011 and 2013, and continues to fall. What’s more, in 2012 a total of £100 million was paid out in bursaries, while in 2014 the figure was just £63.6 million. This can be explained by the fact that the Scottish Government has effectively cut university funding by six percent over the last five years.
This all paints a rather stark picture of the state of higher education in Scotland. University currently works for middle and upper class students who get a free ride through their degrees, graduating with little to no debt. Those from disadvantaged backgrounds continue to face huge structural barriers to entering university, further exacerbated by the SNP’s reticence to invest in education across all age groups – just take the budget underspend last year that saw Scottish schools miss out on £165 million of funding.
It is easy to forget that during last year’s general election the SNP called itself a progressive party. I had the pleasure of interviewing Alex Salmond during that election season and I can recall his determination to put across this left-wing image of the party, going so far even to brand Labour as “austerity-lite”, a position the party took consistently throughout their campaign.
Nonetheless, we have seen time and time again the SNP government failing to live up to its promise of progressive politics. The government is guilty of an irresponsible disregard for social mobility and education among the poor from a policy only held from an obsession to stand in self-righteous opposition to Westminster.
Free education does not mean progressive education. It certainly hasn’t made it easier for disadvantaged children to find their way into university. Poorer students still need to pay rent, eat, and buy textbooks, significant expenses not solved by keeping tuition free, but from more generous grants. The SNP could improve access to university for the most disadvantaged, but to do so it needs to start charging those who can afford it. With the cash generated by tuition fees, the cap on Scottish students at university could be lifted and bursaries could become more readily available to those who need them.
If the SNP genuinely wants to be progressive, then perhaps it is time for those rocks to melt after all.