I’m a candidate in a council by-election in the Hillhead ward in Glasgow. I’m a Liberal Democrat, and the ward has a big old university slap bang in the middle of it. You’d think I’d be bricking it, wouldn’t you? After the tuition fees betrayal, students hate the Liberal Democrats, don’t they? Well they might do, but I’d like to explain how the real villains in Scotland are the SNP.
The SNP are in fact imposing thousands of pounds of up-front fees on each and every Scottish student and their families. “But the SNP have preserved free tuition!” I hear you cry. Yes they have. But how important are the level of tuition fees to students and their families? And how important is maintenance funding to the opportunities available to disadvantaged young Scots?
The SNP aren’t the only ones trying to fool you. What happens if UK fees are reduced from £9,000 each year to £6,000 each year as the Labour party have recently suggested? With the repayment structure as it is currently, then the wealthiest graduates are the only ones that would benefit. Labour say that higher earning graduates will pay a higher rate of interest. Ok, so essentially it’s a tax cut for the richest, while raising the amount they have to pay back. In other words, it’s cosmetic bullshit, that does absolutely nothing for students.
Let’s examine the SNP position. Free tuition. No fees to be paid at all. Again, relative to the current English position, it is a further tax-break for the successful graduates. When did tax-breaks for the wealthiest become so popular in Scotland? And how do the SNP pay for this? Well, you only need to examine the available maintenance funding for students to find an area where they are saving an awful lot of cash.
A Scottish student from a fairly typical family with a household income of £50,000 would have received a £2,164 loan for the year just finished. The equivalent English student would have received a £52 grant and a loan for £4,924. This leaves a £2812 gap that the Scottish student has to work part-time to fill, or that has to be produced by their parents in order for them to reach the English level.
When the household income gets to £60,000, the Scottish loan has dropped off to £915, the English one only to £3,564. I put it to you that free tuition is a smokescreen, behind which the SNP is screwing over Scottish students and their families, and ruining the chances of kids from poorer backgrounds both getting to university and staying there.
The Liberal Democrats fought to preserve and improve maintenance funding levels in England because we know how important it is that everyone who wants to go to university is not prevented from doing so by reasons of financial poverty. We should proudly defend our achievements in making higher education funding as fair as possible given the electoral arithmetic and the Conservative position.
But we should reject policies that concentrate wrongly on tuition fees as a barrier to access. Fee waivers for the poorest students will only benefit them long after they have graduated and are earning sufficient money to have repaid their reduced fee. Placing part of the burden of paying for these fee waivers on universities surely encourages them to accept fewer young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds as they would receive typically £18,000 instead of £27,000 over the course of their degree.
We urgently need to replace this idea with one which would genuinely address the issue of access to the most elite universities. The idea of a levy on high fees — lost between the Browne Review and the Government’s proposed policy — could be re-incorporated into the system as an access levy.
Oxford, Cambridge and others would be set a challenge to admit students that are suitably representative of society. The further they are from their target, the larger the chunk of fees the government recoups from the next year’s fee pot. Fee levels might have to be reduced and replaced with more funding from general taxation in order to reduce the incentive for universities to go private, but if that tax cut for the wealthiest graduates means that the smartest kids from the toughest estates in Glasgow can genuinely aspire to go to the best universities in the country, then maybe that’s a price worth paying.
There is one last niggling worry that I need to share. I’m worried that Scottish students who see the high fees being charged in England will refuse to broaden their horizons by studying there. Ordinary Scottish youngsters who will limit themselves to the “free” options in Scotland, will likely not live in England until much later in their lives, and so might be more likely to see the English as “other”. With Scots applying in Scotland, the increase in competition for spaces at Scottish universities, coupled with the incentive for universities to take in more English, Welsh and Northern Irish students for the fees they bring, could lead to even more Scots missing out on higher education, and might breed resentment of the other UK students that take their place.
I do so very much hope that I am wrong, but there is a real risk that preserving free tuition could create a generation of Scots for whom higher education is less accessible, who are restricted in the quality of their choices, unfamiliar with our English neighbours, resentful of their presence on our campuses, and more disposed towards the separation of our nations as a result.
With an SNP government at Holyrood you have to hope that if this happens it is by accident and not by design. We might just be sleepwalking to educational apartheid. If the SNP are deliberately leading us there then they should hang their heads in shame.
* Ewan Hoyle is a a Liberal Democrat member in Glasgow.