Free Higher Education and the most expensive degree in the UK – a contradiction too far?
So Edinburgh University has made the decision to charge £9,000 a year fees for rest of the UK students, the most expensive degree in the UK. Recently rated 20th in the QS World University Rankings, they clearly think they’re worth it. And possibly they are. Edinburgh has worked extremely hard to achieve this rating, makes a significant contribution to the Scottish economy, and is the ‘jewel’ (in terms of world ranking at least) in Scottish universities’ crown. But that crown is becoming a bit tarnished as day by day more Scottish institutions announce £9,000 fees for RUK students.
But are we surprised? Not really – but disappointed? Undoubtedly. Prior to the Scottish election, the University Scotland Technical Group on HE – established by the Scottish Government to look at determining the funding gap and then how to fill it – estimated variable RUK fees would be set in the range of £5,250 – £6,375. Making the announcement post-election to the Scottish Parliament, Mike Russell said that we could “expect a range of fees for other UK students – from £1800 to £9000”, a predication that is looking increasingly unlikely.
We all accept the need to increase RUK student fees. Initially introduced by the Labour-led Scottish Executive at the time they abolished tuition fees in Scotland, RUK fees were set at £1,850 for most students and were designed to guard against an influx of ‘fee refugees’ to Scottish universities squeezing out places for Scottish domiciled students. I accept that as the Tory-led UK Government lifted the cap to £9,000 the Scottish Government had to respond. Although the decision to remove the teaching grant for RUK students is a tactic enabling the Scottish Government to protect places for Scottish domiciled students (though they still have the tricky issue of EU students, but that’s for another post), it left Scottish universities having to charge increased fees or face a funding gap.
So I accept the inevitability of what had to be done but there were still choices to be made – whether the fees would be a flat rate or variable, what kind of appropriate access programmes and bursaries would be introduced, whether the fees should match the excesses of the rest of the RUK system pound for pound – even go beyond – or whether they should try to better reflect the principles that the Scottish education system is founded on. The fees being set so far show little restraint or sympathy to the Scottish funded education system which is supported by the majority of the Parliament. But I suppose it comes down to do we care? Do we care how Scotland treats rest of the UK students, do we care about the impression given to those outside Scotland about what kind of county we are, and what our values are? We may feel that the UK Government has set the conditions but do we really have to replicate and exceed the faults in their system? It may be that it is the principals that are letting us down on this point, but for a Scottish Government which is so concerned about Scotland international standing, it is a question they may have to answer too.
Claire Baker is Scottish Labour’s Shadow Minister for Further & Higher Education and a Regional List MSP for Fife.