Scotland needs a university system for the many
Scott Arthur says he had better educational opportunities under Thatcher in the 1980s than children growing up in the same street do today, and that can’t be right.
As parents, my wife and I are quietly relieved to be having a break from the stress of waiting for exam results this year. We know the huge pressure on children to perform well if they want to go on to their dream job or place at university/college.
And as a dean of one of Scotland’s best universities, I know the huge benefits that come with gaining a place at college or university. It is something we often take for granted, but it is always humbling to hear the sacrifices people make to attend university.
As well as good news, however, the exam results texts and e-mails often contain bad news for some young Scots who hoped to attend university. For those who narrowly missed the entry criteria, rejection can be a bitter pill to swallow. It can be life changing. Traditionally, Scots in that position could enter the clearing system and find a place elsewhere. However, the SNP cap on university places means many Scottish universities will not enter clearing for Scots students. Those that do may only do so to find students from deprived backgrounds in order to meet Scottish Government targets.
That’s right, education is free in Scotland but bursaries have been cut and places are limited by the SNP. If you are English and want to study in Scotland, it is a different matter. Scots students were told last week that our universities are full, but this week room will be found for English applicants entering clearing for a place in Scotland – phone lines will stay open all weekend for them. However, unlike students from the EU, the SNP force universities to charge English students fees.
This is important as the link between education and deprivation is clear. Kids from poor backgrounds tend to do less well at school. This key factor is part of why we see poverty being passed down from generation to generation in Scotland. We know that under the SNP this problem is getting worse. Their cuts and indifference are holding back a generation, and this can only result in worsening inequality in Scotland.
I grew up in one of the most deprived areas of the UK: a council estate in Kirkcaldy during the miner’s strike in the 1980s. I can remember the struggle my dad faced to provide me and my brothers with a school uniform, and the bigger challenge of feeding us over the summer when there were no free school meals.
My route out of that background was to work hard at school and go on to complete a degree and eventually a PhD. This solid educational base has led me to a career which has taken me around the world – from Australia to Brazil, and from Japan to Dubai. It breaks my heart to say that I had a better deal under Margaret Thatcher than kids growing up in my old street in Kirkcaldy have today. That’s utterly depressing.
My experience tells me that education is fundamental to reducing inequality in Scotland and elsewhere in the world. As a professor who manages one of the UK’s leading engineering programmes at a Scottish university, I continually come across students who must leave university because they simply cannot afford to support themselves.
When elected in 2007 the SNP abolished the “graduate endowment”, a £2,000 fee paid by students after graduation. Alex Salmond quickly claimed “The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scottish students”. In a typically modest move, he even had his words literally carved in stone and unveiled in a university’s grounds.
The problem is that fees are only part of the cost of attending university. The second part of the equation is living costs. If you come from a wealthy family there’s a good chance that the “bank of mum and dad” will help with living costs. Poorer students, however, must rely on a bursary from the Scottish Government. Currently the SNP offers the very poorest students a bursary of just £1875 per year. In a household where both parents earn only the minimum wage, this is cut by SNP means testing to £500. By comparison, ten years ago Labour offered the poorest students a bursary of £2,455 (worth around £3,000 today).
This means that while all students benefit from abolition of the £2,000 graduate endowment, the books have been balanced by cutting £4,500 from the bursary awarded to the poorest students on a typical 4 year degree programme. Poor students must fund their studies via debt and/or work.
To be clear, this movement of money from the richest to the poorest at a time of “austerity” is the action of a government that says its number one priority is cutting the attainment gap. There are letting Scotland’s poorest kids down.
A few years ago I came across a student from one of the most deprived areas in Edinburgh who, as well as studying full-time, managed a small supermarket full-time. He was one of the very best students I have encountered, and was evidence that while Scots growing up in poor communities may lack opportunity, they don’t lack commitment, intelligence or ambition. As a country, we must do more to support them. To do this, we need a university system for the many, not the few. It’s not good enough to simply target kids from poor backgrounds for entry to university, we need to fully support them once they get there.
Despite the wider constitutional maelstrom Scotland finds itself in, it was our failing education system that drove me to joining Labour in 2014. If I’m honest, however, I thought our policy then was good, but not bold enough.
By 2016, however, I was proud to see Scottish Labour make a commitment to protect education spending in real terms. Above all else though was a clear commitment to “keep university tuition fees free and reverse cuts to student grants”. For people leaving the care system even more support was offered – their grant would be boosted to almost £8,000. To end the system the SNP created whereby recent graduates on lower incomes are saddled with disproportionate loan payments, Labour said it would raise the repayment threshold from £17,775 to £22,000.
These were not policies designed to be carved on lumps of stone. This was about using the power of shared societal responsibility to melt the rock of inequality that holds Scotland back. This was about making sure that those who had the ability got a place at university and the support they need to see them through their studies. This was about designing an education system that met the needs of the many, not the few.
We have seen the impact having a clear policy on university access had on UK Labour’s election result in June 2017. The challenge Scottish Labour faces now is cutting through the SNP’s empty rhetoric on university funding and framing the debate on our terms – fairer access and support for all.