There’s no such thing as free tuition fees

glasgow university main building grounds

Credit: Taylor Robertson

Joseph Holland

Joseph Holland discusses the invisible price tag attached to Scotland’s “free” university tuition fees.

Free. It’s a nice word. Everyone loves something for free. Buy one get one free. A free gift with a purchase. A free fiver from your parents for lunch. Except, none of those things are really free, are they? They all have some underlying cost where you or someone else has to fork out, that’s what makes it free. 

Who then, carries the cost of free tuition? To put it simply, it falls to those who don’t go to university like apprentices, college students, or those who go straight into employment. It falls on straight-A students who still can’t get into university because the number of places for their course has been capped. And, it falls on international or other UK students, whose tuition we have become so dependent upon that we are educating the rest of the world before Scotland. 

I know this sounds like some crazy oxymoron, but I believe free tuition costs us more than sensible tuition rates ever would. Sure, in theory, the very idea of free fees looks to open doors, create more equal access and promote social mobility; who doesn’t want that? But in reality, free fees have actually restricted university access and have barely helped working-class families.

I won’t lie to you, I chose to stay in Scotland for uni partly because I didn’t want to pay the enormous fees in England, but I still think I should pay something, as unpopular as that may be. I’m a Politics and Public Policy student, important subjects, granted, but I don’t think they’re so vital I should get a free ride. No, I think students studying education, medicine or nursing are the ones who should get it free to incentivise enrolment. I should at least pay just a couple of thousand. Not some extortionate rates, but still something. Student debt is paid back at a tiny fraction and is wiped after a number of years anyway. Plus, government figures from last year show that in England, graduates earn on average £10,000 more a year than their counterparts without degrees anyway, even after adjusting for student loan repayments. So then, why should I benefit from a higher salary whilst someone who’s not necessarily chosen the university life foot my bill through their taxes in the meantime? In the end, are we not paying for a service? Universities help us reach our end goals and, as the figures show, generally help us attain a higher standard of living. University is not compulsory, it is a choice. I think I ought to foot my own bill. 

And sadly, the myth persists that the free tuition policy is universally beneficial and that it does wonders for the poorest students aspiring for a degree. Sutton Trust, an educational charity, has argued that free fees have even served to entrench social divides, with some of their figures outlining that Scotland is now twice as bad as England at getting disadvantaged students to uni. Why you might ask? An example is that funding is being diverted from non-repayable bursaries to pay for free tuition, meaning many Scottish students are still leaving uni with debts of around £20,000, up from just £12,000 10 years ago. Audit Scotland shows a 55% reduction in real terms bursaries, yet a 111% increase in the number of student loans, with total Scottish student debt skyrocketing from £2.4bn to £5.5bn from 2010 to 2019. This debt is shouldered mostly by the poorest students. This supposedly “free” policy begins to show its hidden class laden costs if you just scratch the surface.

What other restrictions are there? Well, due to the costs of the policy, severe caps on the number of Scottish students being admitted have been imposed. Since free fees came about, the total number of students missing out on places has leapt up by 60%, with UCAS showing that just 55% of Scottish applications result in offers. Such restrictions actually decrease university access due to increased competition for places. These rejected students will no doubt move elsewhere for an education or simply don’t receive one at all, leaving Scotland with a brain drain. Plenty of Scottish students are now missing out, rich or poor. As are universities. A recent article from the Times laid bare that Scottish universities are facing financial ruin due to the coronavirus as their dependence on foreign student’s tuition fees is now greater than tax-payer funding. Those fees may very well soon dry up. Yet again, this shows that free tuition is a policy built on stilts.

And if this were not enough, Edinburgh University’s Director of Research in Education, Inclusion and Diversity, Professor Sheila Riddell argues that one of the main benefits of the English system compared to Scottish system is that despite its high fees, it invests heavily in widening access programmes to help disadvantaged students. She points to figures from 2010-11 showing that Scotland invested just £10.4m in these programmes compared to England’s £371.5m. In reality, the real root of a quality education lies in nurseries, primary schools and secondary schools, the places where the attainment gap can really be narrowed. Prevention is better than cure. 

It would also appear, tragically, that the government believes that higher education only exists in the universities of Scotland, with college courses being slashed and apprenticeship schemes lying underused and lacklustre. We need to start appreciating that university is not the sole route into gaining employment or valuable skills. The government are so fixated on the actualities of university life for the purposes of point scoring and vote-winning that they have neglected the path to get to it for so many Scots. They have left too many barriers in the way that free fees can never realise their purpose. There’s no way that we can ever create equality of outcome, but we can certainly try creating some semblance of equal opportunity. Free fees, as great as they sound in ethos, have failed to offer this.

But still, I must applaud the successes of the Scottish system where credit is due. Scotland does have the lowest rate of student debt of the four UK nations, a figure readily proposed to defend free tuition. And in answer to paying for the service we are getting? Some would argue that since a university education statistically leads to a higher salary, graduates will be paying more tax, thus paying for their tuition in a round-about way. Even so, I must also point out that 20% of students in England are financially disadvantaged after going to university, with the courses they have taken not proving fruitful in gaining a higher-paying salary. Furthermore, one of the successes of free fees is that it takes a price tag off education, going some way to recognising universities also provide much social and personal growth for individuals and wider society. Of course, it is honourable that we should strive for an educated society and a society which does not discriminate based on the household or background you were born into. But, it just feels that in practice, free tuition fees have done little to facilitate this. Debt is still rising, university acceptance rates are comparatively poor and other areas of the education system lie lacking. A more sensible approach to re-introducing fees would, ironically, resolve this.


Yet unfortunately, no Scottish politician would ever dare try scrap free fees, even if it would fix these problems. The very act is a poisoned chalice as it appears to punish social aspiration. In reality, as I’ve argued, it would do exactly the opposite. It would lift the cap on the number of Scottish students being admitted, it would allow for a greater number of bursaries to help poorer students, and it would free up funding to go elsewhere to help those most disadvantaged attain. 

But as long as the chalice remains poisoned and the myths of free tuition continue to stand tall, nothing will. We need an honest debate. It’s time the Government stopped playing with the educations and aspirations of thousands of young Scots. 

It’s time we saw the true cost of free tuition.


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