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Can a leopard truly change its spots? Or is this a thinly veiled attempt to win young votes from the SNP?

In 2008, the SNP made higher education completely free for Scottish and EU students. Since 2007, the Scottish Tories have opposed this policy. So, it came as a surprise when Douglas Ross MP, the new leader of the Scottish Conservatives, announced at a Young Conservative fringe event at the UK party conference that his party would back free tuition fees at the 2021 election.

The National Union of Students in Scotland have welcomed this change, with its president stating: "Today's announcement from the Scottish Conservatives is a victory for students and prospective students across Scotland with all the main parties committing their support to free tuition’’. Of course, this shift in policy is in the best interest of students, who can be assured that they won’t be burdened with student debt regardless of who is in power at Holyrood.

However, with 13 years of opposition, this change of direction comes across more as pandering to a younger demographic which they have previously largely ignored, than as a principled move. The Tories have thus far consistently opposed the SNP policy on ideological grounds. Indeed, there are valid conservative arguments to be made against free tuition fees: loss of university funding, capping of university places, and raising taxes. And with a looming recession, and polls showing majority support among the general population for the introduction of tuition fees, there would appear no better time for them to make these arguments.

Yet, unsurprisingly, tuition fees remain unpopular among students. A recent poll commissioned by UCU Scotland showed that two in three university applicants would defer their place if they were introduced. Perhaps it’s an attempt to win over this voting bloc in which the Tories consistently underperform that has prompted this policy change; a YouGov poll showed that only 28% of 18-24-year olds in Scotland would vote Conservative in an election, in contrast to 41% for the SNP. Given the strong unionist message of Ross’ campaign, this policy change may persuade some young voters who have never voted Conservative before to reconsider.

No doubt, the SNP’s consistent defence of this policy is a factor in their popularity among the young. Only recently, a Scottish Government spokesman stated: “We remain committed to free higher education for Scots domiciled students and access to university being based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay.” This reassurance came amid a review by the Scottish Funding Council into the sustainability of the policy. Ross echoed the SNP stance when explaining this surprising U-Turn: ‘‘This group of young people have had their education disrupted like no other. They’re losing out on life-defining experiences and they’re going to be entering the job market at the most difficult time. We cannot burden them any further.’’ 

That burden the Scottish Tories sought to impose in their 2016 manifesto was a graduate contribution of £1,500 per year which graduates would start paying when they earned a salary of at least £20,000. Given that young Conservatives champion conservative tenets such as limited government, low taxation, and individual choice, a graduate contribution is a burden they would willingly bear if they were hopeful of securing such a salaried job upon graduating. Hence, the most salient point of Ross’ speech to any young Conservative was not the hope of a free education, but the reality of a contracting job market.

While there is much to hold the SNP to account for regarding the handling of the pandemic, few could argue that the UK Conservative government have paid much regard to the wellbeing of young people. From encouraging students back to university while proceeding to limit their social interactions, to then blaming them for the rise in cases, the government has continually dismissed the mental wellbeing and economic burdens that have been placed on the younger generation. Ross has, for the most part, spoken out in support of the actions of Westminster. This tuition fee policy change may, therefore, be an attempt to stabilise students’ wavering support for the Conservative party.

The SNP have described this shift as ‘‘the least convincing U-turn in modern political history’’. MSP Clare Adamson stated: "They have never backed free education and always defended privilege for the few, over education for the many.’’ This is a reductive narrative that ignores the regressive outcomes of the SNP policy, such as the cutting of grants to less advantaged students. Nevertheless, her assessment of Ross’ strategic move rings true: "Now, facing a disastrous showing at the election, the Tory leopard is claiming to have changed its spots. No one will believe a word of it".

The previous Conservative argument about tuition fees may have been unpopular among students, but made economic sense. Ultimately, this U-turn is incongruent with the party’s ideology and can only be interpreted as an attempt to garner votes from students who have been let down throughout this crisis.


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