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politics. scotland. tuition fees.

Tuition fees – the argument continues.

 University principals have been up in arms again over the abolition of university tuition fees.  “It’s a catastrophe for the university sector” said one university head, “how will we improve teaching and infrastructure?”  Industry leaders have warned that graduate standards might deteriorate.   Familiar sentiments.   However,  these are  objections to the abolition of university tuition fees, not in Scotland, but in Germany.   Hamburg has become the latest regional government to abolish tuition fees in Europe’s leading industrial nation, leaving only three out of the 16 German land governments sticking with fees.  The argument has prevailed there that, when times are tough, the tough get learning – and that it is essential to eliminate barriers to entry into higher education. 

    I can’t understand why this argument is rejected by so many in the educational establishment in Scotland.  Is it simple academic self-interest?  Don’t university principals ever ask why he rest of Europe is scrapping fees even as they are energetically lobbying for their restoration in Scotland? There is a conventional wisdom that Scotland is in some way out of step with other industrialised countries in deciding not to introduce a graduate contribution. Not so.  If anything it’s the other way round.  Scotland has joined the range of Northern European countries, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, in abandoning charges for higher education.

    Even before the raising of the fee cap, university fees in England were among the highest in Europe.   In France the cost of tuition for students is nugatory.  The debate in the UK has almost entirely been conditioned by the unique system of university funding in America, where fees are often astronomical. To attend relatively unprestigious-sounding establishments  like New York University costs around $50,000 a year in tuition fees and other expenses. But it’s not as if the American system is actually thought to work well: quite the reverse.  There is furious controversy in America about how the escalating cost of education is creating divisions in society.  The middle classes feel they are being priced out of higher education altogether.  

   So, why are Scottish university principals so attracted by the idea of university fees?  That’s a question that is increasingly being asked increasingly in Holyrood, where politicians of all parties are starting to wonder just whose side the Scottish universities are on.   There has been growing resentment at the remuneration of university vice chancellors, who seem to think that the First Minister’s salary is a kind of minimum wage.  But it’s not just the politics of envy.  There is also a feeling among MSPs that Scottish university principals are out of sympathy with the educational traditions of Scotland, summed up by the phrase the “democratic intellect”.  They may act as if they are CEOs of multinational companies, but they are in charge of state-funded institutions.   Which is why the education secretary, Mike Russell, in his statement to parliament yesterday called for the governance of Scottish universities to be made “clear, open transparent and accountable.”   That sounded just a little ominous to me.   

   However, Russell also promised that, though there will be no “up front or back-end” tuition fees in Scotland, the universities will  not lose out financially.   “Any funding gap will be filled”, he told parliament yesterday,  meaning that Scottish universities will not be allowed to fall behind fee-charging English counterparts.  This is an admirable commitment, but it is not one that will easily be honoured.  Even if you take the relative funding gap at the lower end of the scale at around £100m a year, there will have to be some creative accountancy to make it work.  The proposal to charge all students service charges for things like libraries, and then to reimburse only the Scottish students, leaving EU students paying a kind of backdoor fee, sounds a little too clever by half.  It is a way of getting around the EU rules that students from other european countries should not be discriminated against in Scotland.  But even if it worked it would only raise around £25 million.  The government is right to seek to find ways of charging EU students, if only because the number coming to Scotland has doubled in ten years.  But this may not be the way.  Less contentious is the decision to charge English students the equivalent of tuition fees, since they are already paying fee for their tuition in Scotland.  This would raise around £62m,leaving £38 unaccounted for..

   Now, it is not unreasonable to ask the universities themselves for a contribution to the cost of keeping higher education free.  Universities Scotland has created the impression that the “funding gap” represents an actual cut in their funding.  This is not the case. The Scottish universities are the only public bodies outside the NHS to get a commitment to increased real terms funding for the next parliament.  At a time of unprecedented cuts in public spending, that’s a pretty good deal.  

   However, the relative funding gap could get a lot larger if the English universities introduce £9,000 fees more or less across the board. The Scottish government’s numbers are premised on English universities charging an average of £7,500 a year. Any more than that and the gap yawns wider.   Filling that will be a big test for any incoming government after the Holyrood elections in May and there is a suspicion,  in nationalist circles, that the Labour leader, Iain Gray’, recent conversion to free higher education has a strictly limited shelf-life.  That after the election, if Labour win, they will say that the SNP’s numbers did not add up, and that – reluctantly – they were going to have to break their election pledge and introduce a graduate contribution.  We’ll see. 

    The universities  continue to claim that they will fall behind in the league tables if they don’t get their way on fees.  There’s no actual evidence of this, and even if there was, Scottish parents,  who fund universities through their taxes, might accept a slight dip in the university pop charts if it means they could afford to send their children there.  The choice is between an essentially privatised system of higher education, which is the English model, and the Scottish tradition of open access. This is still the choice before the Scottish voters in May.   


About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


5 thoughts on “Tuition fees – the argument continues.

  1. I suspect there is an element of self interest, perhaps even hubris involved; University Principals are, after all, only human.The prospect must have crossed their minds, that one day, if they keep their noses clean, they might find themselves elevated from being simply plain MR/MRS to SIR/LADY.I will never forget, as a conscript, a particular announcement coming over the public address system at a sports day gathering – that went like this.'Wiil officers and their ladies, Senior NCOs and their wives, airmen and their women -please proceed to….etcUnfortunately Our First Minister, Alex Salmond hasn't the power to confer titles – it isn't a devolved power.However PM Cameron has and no doubt will look favourably on University Principals as he does with unionist political leaders – as long as they remain 'on message'.An eminently forgetable Nicol Stephen, one time leader of the Scottish Liberals, who gave up the position to 'spend more time with his family' now finds himself elevated from Mr to 'His lordship'.Not to forget Jack McConnel, a former First Minister.One suspects Henry Mcleish has expectations of being 'elevated' in the not too distant future.As for our Wendy Alexander. Her expectations may be a slight more tenuous. Never-the-less she has cleared her desk at Holyrood. Which goes to prove 'Hope springs eternal' as they say.I suggest the Principals keep out of politics and take our government at it's word.Should it renege then that's the time to go for the jugular.

    Posted by Anonymous | March 21, 2011, 11:33 am
  2. And what of the story in today's Herald about the University of Aberdeen.The New Principal started his job in April. A house goes with the job – as it does for a lot of the Principals. The new man for Aberdeen said he did not want to use the house so his salary was raised accordingly. When he took over in April he changed his mind and said he wanted to use the house (7 bedrooms etc).So the University duly did it up for him: cost £100,000.

    Posted by CWH | March 21, 2011, 7:53 pm
  3. With regard to the funding of EU students who come to Scotland to study. Why not introduce a scheme whereby the money follows the student? If an EU student comes to Scotland to do their degree then it is only fair that his/her home country makes a contribution to their education rather than leave it wholly to the host country which in this case is Scotland?

    Posted by CWH | March 22, 2011, 5:00 pm
  4. It was really sad to see that the Principal at the University of Glasgow, a preeminent economist, is unable to negotiate with student protesters and instead resorts bully-boy tactics and sends in the heavy mob to 'evict' them. And where do 80 policemen suddenly appear from on an otherwise unremarkable Tuesday morning. There is obviously much more to this than meets the eye.

    Posted by Anonymous | March 22, 2011, 9:48 pm
  5. The forcible eviction of the protestors by the Glasgow University authorities can now be seen for what it was – 'A blatant abuse of power'.But who colluded with them to make it happen ?The Scottish public have a right to know. But,also, the incident should be a timely reminder to us all: 'Democracy is not God given, it has to be fought for, nurtured and defended'And at its core is the upholding of our civil liberties.

    Posted by Anonymous | March 29, 2011, 10:01 am

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