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.


Rebel, Rebel….

Today belonged to the rebels.  Today rebels emerged in many guises.  Today might well have signalled a new direction in UK politics.

The expected rebels were the Liberal Democrat MPs who thumbed their noses at their Coalition government’s efforts to hike up tuition fees for university students to quite eye-watering levels.  In the end, the Lib Dems split three ways – those Ministers in the Government who helped to vote the fees through on the tightest of margins, those backbenchers who abstained and those honourable souls who stuck by their pre-election pledges and voted against the proposals.   They included two former party leaders, Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy, and the current President, Tim Farron.  In the process, two parliamentary aides resigned, including one Scottish MP, Mike Crockhart.   In total, 21 rebelled and a further 8 were posted missing, either legitimately or because their conscience demanded they abstain.

But there was another less predictable and therefore, more surprising rebellion.  Six Conservative MPs voted against their Government, including the well signposted action of former leadership contender, David Davis, and a further two abstained, including one parliamentary aide, Lee Scott.  His reasoning on Radio 4’s PM programme was passionate and articulate.  He left school at 15 and had to go to nightschool to get an education.  He would have loved the chance to go to university and delivered it for his five children.  But if fees had been at the level proposed, they would have been denied that opportunity.  He did not want to inflict such debt on nor deny such opportunity to others’ children.  A real working class Tory who has clearly not forgotten his roots.

This is the real story of parliamentary rebellion.  The Lib Dems always had an opt out from this measure and their rebellion was somewhat expected.  But eight Tories?  Who foresaw that?  It is a small rump, granted, but it certainly signals interesting times ahead.  As Nick Robinson at the BBC points out, how MPs voted today defines which tribe – loyalist or rebel – they are in.  And once in the rebels’ tribe, few go back.  Rather they become emboldened, feted and come to enjoy the status.  In short, eight Conservative rebels at this relatively early stage in the government’s term could mean a lot of trouble over future controversial issues.  David Cameron might come to regret his relaxed accommodation of his rebels today.  The burd, for one, looks forward to it.

But by far the most staggeringly stunning rebellion has been that of young people.  The burd is writing this while listening to the blah, blah, blah of the grown ups on the news.  And how the “hard core minority” of trouble makers has derailed the legitimacy of students’ protests.  And that people watching will be horrified and upset at the scenes of flag burning, statue defacing and – shock, horror – attacking the Royal Family! 

Yes, some of the scenes from today’s protest are shocking and indefensible.  But they are also exhilarating and many folk will be silently cheering these so-very-young protesters on.  In one summer, the ConDem government has managed to politicise a generation indelibly, way beyond anything mainstream politics could ever hope to do.  This is the rebellion that might well change the face of politics as we know it.  Effectively, young people all over the UK – for student occupations have taken place in Scotland too – have realised how little they have to lose, and how much they might have to gain by defying conventional wisdom and expectations.  You want to price our future beyond our reach?  Bring it on.  And realise that we have nothing left to lose.  For an outstanding observation and analysis of who participated in today’s rebellion, go read Paul Mason’s blogpost: Dubstep rebellion – the British banlieue comes to Millbank. 

The ConDems, and indeed the entire political elite, should be very afraid at what these tuition fee proposals has awakened, both within the parliamentary tent and without.  Rebel, rebel indeed.

Value not cost should be subject of higher education review

Isn’t it fun watching a political bunfight from the sidelines?  The Browne report has exposed the faultlines in the coalition, introduced the Lib Dems to the agonies of realpolitik, and reminded Labour what the point of opposition is.  Wonderful.  Best of all, a close vote on the proposals threatens to re-introduce the West Lothian question if the sole Scottish Tory and the 11 Lib Dem MPs inflict the new regime on students in England while their own constituents are unaffected.  

This is currently England’s little problem but make no mistake, it’s heading to Scotland soon in the form of the promised green paper on higher education funding.  It behoves us to take a serious interest.  So I will. 

First though, allow me to declare my potential conflict of interest. Yes, I have a university degree and also a post graduate diploma.  The first was paid for by my parents and myself, though my fees were paid.  The second was paid for partly by a hardship bursary and partly by myself.  And this was all in the days when higher education was supposedly free, pre loans, pre graduate tax, pre tuition fees.

Which is possibly why I am particularly bothered that much of the debate and reaction today has centred on the cost of higher education, rather than its value.  Surely that should be the starting point of any review of a higher education system?  Its purpose, and what we want our young people to gain from it, should determine how the system is established, operated and funded. 

Currently in Scotland there are 215,495 students in higher education.  Not all of them are Scottish of course, but roughly this equates to about a fifth of our near one million population of 16 to 29 year olds.  Apparently half of all 18 – 23 year olds are attending university.  It begs the question, why?  What purpose is served by all these young people going to university?  To improve our economy by ensuring the next generation of workers has appropriate skills and knowledge?  To give our young people wonderful experiences where they learn about life, broaden their minds, make the transition to adulthood?  All that and more surely.  

It is disappointing then that the current system is not really delivering.  Scotland prides itself on its egalitarian approach to education but it is a reputation no longer borne out by the facts.  There has been little improvement in the numbers attending university from deprived areas; only 7% of all students have a disability;  the numbers moving into employment and graduate level employment after university are in decline – in other words, graduate unemployment is on the rise; thanks to the student loan system, outstanding student debt amounted to £2.227 billion or an average of £5,765 per student.  Apparently, this is less than the amounts owed by students elsewhere in the UK, which is a small comfort.

In summary, despite record investment under devolution in higher education, access has not widened, employment outcomes for graduates are deteriorating, and even without fees or graduate tax payments, record numbers of young people are entering adulthood saddled with debt.  The system is not working nor does it appear to be delivering value.  Surely the starting point of the forthcoming review of higher education in Scotland should be to determine what our society wants, nay needs, it to deliver, what its purpose is, and what value we expect it to deliver for our young people, our society and our economy.  Then – and only then – should we determine how to fund it.

(Lesley Riddoch wrote a first class article analysing some of the problems and potential solutions for the university funding conundrum in the Scotsman – sadly, it’s behind the paywall)