A snapshot of a first class debate – a Scottish persepective on higher education

This week has seen Vince Cable and Nick Clegg adopt a position on tuition fees which is at odds with long held and much loved Party Policy. It remains to be seen how many of our MPs will go along with any recommendations to increase tuition fees.  Already, MPs like Greg Mulholland, Julian Huppert, Tim Farron, Ming Campbell and Charles Kennedy have already stated that they will honour the pledge they signed during the Election campaign to oppose any increase.

In Scotland last weekend the positions were almost reversed, with the Holyrood Front Bench anxious to support our policy of free university tuition in the face of an amendment written by two students calling for a Graduate Contribution.

The Education Working Group, chaired by former Education Minister Euan Robson, had recommended that free tuition should be maintained, stating that:

Scottish Liberal Democrats led the way in ensuring that our students pay no fees, and the EWG backs continuing free tuition for further education students and undergraduates.

The EWG recommended measures such as merging institutions, moving to a 3 year degree norm and working towards a matched funding programme for universities.

Glasgow University students Ruairaidh Dobson and Sophie Bridger proposed an amendment which stated:

“Conference is concerned that undergraduate tuition without any form of graduate contribution is unsustainable in the current financial climate. Conference rejects the unfair, regressive and illiberal idea of tuition or top-up fees but accepts that a level of graduate contribution towards education is fair, so long as students are not disadvantaged while studying.”

I have to congratulate Scottish Conference Committee for not shying away from the debate. We’ve always been a Party proud to have our policy discussions in public and it was right that Conference was given the chance to decide on such an important issue, especially when it led to one of the best debates I have ever seen.  The most important thing for me is that it was conducted in a completely respectful manner by both sides. I’m concerned that anger, however justifiable, is getting in the way of our discussions on the Browne Report. Light is always preferable to heat in these circumstances.

I want to give a snapshot of that debate – it won’t cover every speaker but I hope most of the main issues.

Anyway, back to Saturday, proposing the amendment, Sophie Bridger said:

It is time that we faced up to the fact that universal free undergraduate education is no longer sustainable. NUS Scotland accepts the need for a graduate contribution in the current financial climate. And in Westminster, our own Vince Cable has more realistic solutions for HE funding.

This doesn’t mean for a second that we embrace unfair and illiberal tuition fees. We stood against them when they were introduced, as we stand against them now.  But we can’t afford to be closed-minded about this. We owe it to our universities, to young people, and to our students to consider this issue pragmatically, and with an open mind.

We need to work out a system of graduate contribution that ensures neither students, nor low paid graduates, are disadvantaged. A fair way for graduates to contribute towards their education.A way of sustainably funding our Universities, to ensure their continuing success.

Understandably it was this issue which attracted most speakers’ cards. Session Chair Kevin Lang joked at the end that he’d risked his political future by failing to call Government whip Alistair Carmichael – something which reminded me of the time I  called Kevin Lang for the last space in a debate over a then Scottish Minister.

SanneDijkstra-Downie, who works in university funding, used her conference debut to argue for the agenda, outlining the financial pressures universities faced and her worries that our universities might lose their global reputation for excellence. She felt that a graduate contribution was the only realistic alternative.

Others echoed the same points, concern that the best academics would leave our universities, in search of more abundant and secure research funding. These are legitimate concerns.

Candidate for Edinburgh Central, which includes the University,  Alex Cole-Hamilton, argued that it was wrong to suggest that the graduate is the main beneficiary of the degree. Those skills learned benefit the whole of society. He pointed out that people’s success in later life may also not have anything to do with the subject they studied at university. He cited the example of Labour’s justice spokesman, Richard Baker, with whom he’s shared a flat at university and joked that he highly doubted he’d be using his English degree by writing draconian, authoritarian legislation in iambic pentameter if he ever became the Minister.

Ruairaidh Dobson in his summation for the amendment said that he had had support for the amendment from many people who worked in universities and students alike because the current system is unsustainable.

Finally, Education Spokesman Margaret Smith MSP passionately restated her view that asking graduates to pay would be inherently unfair and quoted figures from either Australia or New Zealand which suggested that there was a 38% drop in men from lower socio-economic groups going to university when they introduced a graduate tax. She also quoted the example of a graduate in a minimum wage job having to pay a higher rate of tax than the person beside them doing the same job.

The amendment was defeated, by a larger margin than the reaction to the speeches indicated, a sure sign that the Conference was impressed with the quality of the arguments on both sides. We understand that there needs to be a solution to the problems in university funding, but are clear that it’s not students who should be asked to bear that burden.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds and Scotland.


  • Stuart Smith 14th Oct '10 - 3:42pm

    As Chief Steward and a co-opted member of Scottish Conference Committee I’d like to thank you for your kind comments. Taking the amendment was a tough choice but several members of the Committee feel that as long as an amendment is competent it must go forward for debate. The quality of debate vindicated the decision taken. I spoke to several members afterwards, one said she kept changing her mind on which way to vote as each person spoke, others want more of that standard of debate.

  • Stuart Smith 14th Oct '10 - 4:25pm

    The two people who voted against accepting it were hopefully feeling a bit sheepish after the debate.

  • “we….are clear that it’s not students who should be asked to bear that burden.”

    Hi Caron, upon who should that burden fall? Realistically, we cannot simply say “the bankers, the corporations, Trident, the rich” etc etc.

  • Richard Huzzey 14th Oct '10 - 7:07pm

    Brilliant article and not just because of the particular issue. It would be great to see more reports like this on a variety of debates and meetings.

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