A fudge on university funding that could result in electoral sludge

It’s a complex one, this higher education funding debate.  Mike Russell, Education Secretary, hopes to resolve it with his Green Paper on “Building a Smarter Future” setting out options to create a sustainable Scottish solution for the future of higher education.  Yet, the title is a misnomer:  we cannot have a purely Scottish solution because of the impact of the changes in England.  

There is a sensible blogpost to be written on the efficacy or otherwise of some of the longterm options but this ain’t it.   With the electoral clock ticking and all eyes on the Holyrood prize, there are votes to be won and lost.  The last thing the SNP Government needs is a dubstep revolution on its doorstep.  The anger uniting current and future students down south has been a beguiling sight.   Seeing the door of opportunity and prosperity slammed in their faces, instead of shrugging and sloping off, young people have decided to get angry.  And behind every angry young thing, are the serried ranks of fuming parents and grandparents.  Whose votes really do count.

So suggesting a graduate contribution as a “last resort” may well be principled politics but it is also pragmatic.  The position and ultimately, the Green Paper are a fudge which do little to address the immediate funding quandary.

State funding support for higher education in the next and subsequent years is on a downward spiral.  Yet, the aspiration is to continue providing the same level of access to approximately 50% of young people leaving our schools.   The prospect of tuition fee refugees from England adds potency to the cocktail.  Already, we are told, they will face higher fees to study in Scotland, yet that may still prove a more attractive financial option than attending a university south of the border.  An easy option for our universities would be to increase the number of fee paying English students at the expense of Scottish ones.   Whether it wants to or not, the SNP Government will have to apply a quota to the numbers allowed into Scottish universities.  This may result in more visceral accusations across the media of anti-English bias, and it is certainly no base for a mature discussion about our relationship with our closest neighbour.  The SNP tries hard to avoid ending up in this territory, for obvious reasons, but this time, it may have no choice, if it is to avoid electoral sludge in May. 

Already, it has tied its colours to the mast of “free” higher education, creating a supposed clear dividing line between the SNP and Labour.  I know that the principles behind such a policy are keenly felt by the SNP, from the leadership down.  But, returning to a familiar theme for the burd, these ain’t normal times and universality is probably something we can no longer afford.  In any event, it’s a joke. 

The current system has not worked to increase access for young people from poorer backgrounds.  We still have a two tier system where the old universities are seen as somehow more credible than the new ones.   University entrance is dominated by the tiny private school system in Scotland, followed closely by the “best performing” schools in areas like East Renfrewshire and Edinburgh.  In fact, it’s probably harder these days for young people like me to get to and stay in university, and emerge out the other side with a decent degree and some options on the career front.  The argument that Scotland gains from the financial contribution graduates make is pants.  Of my circle of friends at university, only a handful of us currently live, work and pay tax in Scotland. 

Keeping higher education “free” for all simply perpetuates inequality in our society.  But it should be free, for some, and possibly the majority.  There are some very rich families in Scotland whose children benefit disproportionately from the taxes paid by much poorer ones.   One way to help bridge the funding gap would be to create an incremental fee system based on the ability to pay.  The idea of means testing children according to their parental income is not one the burd is entirely comfortable with.  But when we do it for school meals, for access to leisure services and for families with disabled children requiring adaptations to their house so they can provide adequate care for their child, then it is clear we are not operating with a consistent approach on this anyway.  Is the answer to an anomaly to widen and exacerbate it?  Probably not.  But it’s that extraordinary financial times thing again.

Am I arguing for fees or a graduate contribution?  There might be other ways of creating an income related system that takes the money from the parent and not the child, but that would require tax raising powers not currently in the equation.  So, yes I probably am.  And the burd is astonished to find herself in such a place.

Education is a right not a privilege.  But this will ring increasingly hollow if Scottish students are denied the chance to better themselves, because cash strapped universities opt for the cash cow of fee paying entrants from England.  In any event, the Scottish system has only extended the right to certain sections of our population.  If we are to create a more equitable and socially just economy and society then radical change is required.

And here’s a thought – ratcheting up the fees for those who can afford to pay in order to create wider, free access further down the income pole need not only be made available for Scots.  The biggest losers from the English measures – no matter what they say or how they package it – will be poor young people from the worst areas and the lowest performing schools.  A truly compassionate Scotland might consider offering them free access.  Now that would be a tuition fee refugee policy worth pursuing.

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