It’s time for the Scottish Government – and our own party – to bite the bullet on student tuition fees, says TOM HARRIS

 

We bottled it.

Labour and the SNP made the same promise to the electorate in May: that we would maintain free higher education for Scotland’s students.

And that was a mistake. Because we can’t. And even if we could, we shouldn’t.

The Graduate Endowment which the previous Labour-led Scottish Executive introduced in response to tuition fees being introduced in England was a silly, messy compromise of which no-one can be proud – a half-way house that raised nothing for universities but still managed to antagonise students. The SNP abolished it to great fanfare after they came to power in 2007 in order to cement the principle that all education, at whatever level, whether mandatory or voluntary, must be free.

Except it’s not free, is it? Someone has to pay for students to get their degrees and go on, we hope, to successful and economically beneficial careers as a result. As an MP, I am simply not prepared to justify cuts to my local services – to schools, to community groups, to nurseries – by telling concerned citizens: “Don’t worry, this may be painful but the good news is that students won’t have to pay any money back for their degrees once the’re earning enough.”

And this isn’t about simply copying England in order to impose a uniform higher education structure across the UK. But at the same time, we would be foolish as a nation to turn our backs on a solution just because our larger neighbour has gone down that path.

And the result of tuition (and top-up) fees’ introduction in England is that their universities will be far, far better funded than Scottish ones, if not now, then certainly in the long run. The funding gap simply cannot be met by the public purse once all those £9000-a-year courses start to bring in the cash. Unless, of course, we impose even greater cuts than are already planned by the Scottish Government in order to continue subsidising Scottish universities. Would that be politically acceptable? Or even morally acceptable?

When the Commons was preparing to introduce top-up fees in 2004 (though they weren’t actually introduced until after the following year’s general election), we were warned that student numbers would plummet as a result. Even worse, students from working class backgrounds would be deterred from applying to university for fear of plunging themselves into debt they could not repay.

And yet the opposite has happened. Not only did student numbers rise, but so did the proportion of full-time students coming from state schools:

Source: Higher Education Statistics Agency

So what makes opponents of tuition fees believe that Scotland is so different from England that an expansion in higher education here would not attract more students, would not disproportionately benefit state school pupils as it has done south of the border?

Let’s remind ourselves about the rules as they apply in England: no-one has to pay up-front fees, and you don’t have to pay back anything until your salary has reached a certain level (currently £21,000). Scotland wouldn’t have to go down the same route as the UK government (who rejecting Lord Browne’s recommendation that the annual cap on fees be lifted to £6000; they raised it to £9000 instead). Ministers could decide what the Scottish cap should be, in consultation with student organisations, employers and the universities themselves.

Yes, tuition and top-up fees were about governments trying to cut their public spending commitments. But it was also about allowing universities to open up new revenue streams so that they could compete internationally. And it’s the fear of not being able to keep up with their British – let alone their international – competitors that is keeping Scottish university principles awake at night. Sure, they’re keeping quiet publicly for the time being, but many of them are desperate for the Scottish Government to see sense, and to bow to the inevitability of charging for higher education.

And yes, it is inevitable. Whether we blame the UK government (and the SNP will) or the economy or whoever, at some point, sooner or later, the Scottish Government will introduce tuition and top-up fees. There will be much protest and demonstrations and gnashing of teeth. And after the deed is done, university provision will expand, student numbers will increase, more pupils from working class homes will find themselves with letters after their names, and slowly – ever so slowly – Scotland’s universities will reassert themselves in their rightful place as international beacons of academic excellence.

Tom Harris is the Labour MP for Glasgow South.