The SNP rolled back student tuition fees legislation in 2008 by passing The Graduate Endowment Abolition Bill (Scotland). This established the right for Scottish-born citizens, or legal residents within Scotland, to receive a free higher education at any of the Scottish Universities. However the policy prevents those born in other parts of the UK from enjoying similar privileges at Scottish institutions, whilst, thanks to EU interstate policy, allowing students from other EU countries to benefit from financially unfettered access. In the light of increases in tuition fees expected at most of the English, Northern Irish and Welsh Universities in 2012, questions are beginning to be asked as to whether the Scottish policy is fair and tenable.

 

On the 28th February 2008 the Scottish Parliament, led by the SNP for the first time, flexed its new-found muscle and abolished the Education (Graduate Endowment and Student Support) Act 2001 (Scotland), that had been implemented by the initial Labour/Lib Dem coalition in the Parliament’s inaugural term. The 2001 Act had been a response to the Cubie Committee’s report on higher education funding in Scotland, that suggested a fee repayment model post-graduation, rather than the up-front fee delivery and loan system required by the 1998 UK-wide Teaching and Higher Education Act, introduced by Tony Blair’s Labour government (but originally recommended by The 1997 Dearing Report, commissioned by John Major’s Conservative government). By passing the Graduate Endowment Abolition Bill (Scotland), the SNP were further emphasising a growing schism between Scottish Parliament legislation and Westminister-initiated UK policy.

The vote to pass the abolition legislation was a tight one, with the SNP and its allies pipping a Conservative and Labour coalition, by 67 votes to 61. It mirrored an equally tight vote to ward off an inquiry into the issues of tuition fees abolition, which was won by the SNP 65 votes to 63. Critics of the policy, such as then Labour shadow minister for Education and Lifelong Learning, Rhona Brankin claimed that there was no conclusive evidence that scrapping the charge would increase access to University places, particularly for those from the poorest communities within Scotland. Furthermore, there were early warnings that such a policy could only have serious financial repercussions for Scotland in the long-term.

Recently an article by Scott MacNab in The Scotsman, detailed “a looming £263million financial timebom”’ in the Scottish economy, if the SNP didn’t urgently review their policy on tuition fees. These gloomy projections were based on the idea that a funding gap would naturally emerge between Scottish and English academic institutions as a result of the massive increase in UK tuitions, outside of Scotland. Until recently the SNP has claimed that free-access to higher education for Scottish citizens is a central tenet of their manifesto and a crucial electoral pledge. Questions over funding have been partly addressed this year, with new policy in June, enabling Scottish institutions to charge English, Northern Irish and Welsh students increased fees (in line with UK-wide tuition increases), being broadly supported by Universities Scotland, the lobby group set-up to defend the interests of Scotland’s higher education institutions.

Intriguingly the SNP’s actions in Scotland have not led to increased pressure for the repeal of student tuition fees in other parts of the United Kingdom, aside from within the already active NUS and other student bodies. Rather than a debate about the legitimacy of charging tuition fees, what has instead occurred is increased criticism of Scotland’s two-tier approach. This criticism has now become focused upon the issue of English, Northern Irish and Welsh students being forced to pay fees, that not even a Greek or Portuguese student has to pay, seeking to emphasise the absurd hypocrisy of the Scottish Parliament’s position. As pointed out in a recent NS Leader, Phil Shiner, of Public Interest Lawyers (a law-firm representing Callum Hurley and Katy Moore, two students who have brought about this action), believes that Scottish Ministers have “misinterpreted the law” and “the Scottish fees system contravened the European Convention on Human Rights and could be in breach of Britain’s Equality Act”. Disturbingly (or not as the NS is after all a Labour rag) the NS Leader doesn’t highlight the fact that this lawsuit being brought against the Scottish Parliament is merely an adjunct to a legal action that Shiner, Hurley and Moore have been pressuring the coalition government with. In effect Shiner has drafted a similar Judicial Review against the UK government, and in particular Vince Cable, back in February, arguing that the increase in tuition fees contravenes the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 14, as well as failing to promote equality under the Race Relations, Sex Discrimination and Disability Discrimination Acts. Thus, the Scottish Parliament is being served with an almost identical legal action, not necessarily as a result of their two-tier approach to fees application, but rather as a result of having introduced the same fees policy as the rest of the UK, toward non-Scottish citizens. The NS’s scandalised pronouncement that “It is absurd that EU students receive a free University education in Scotland while UK students pay full fees”, seems a little less scandalous when one of the central linchpins of their argument is duly contextualised.

Away from these legal distractions and shenanigans there is actually a more pertinent  and pressing discussion to be had. Is it possible to fund “world-class” academic institutions, in the highly competitive global environment of the 21st Century, from central government coffers? Also, is the Scottish approach to funding, one that can be justified considering the trend toward increasing global mobility amongst relatively affluent national populations?

It has taken a long time for many European nations to even consider the notion that Higher Education, at University level, needs to be paid for by the student utilising the service. This is in part down to the fact that with often prohibitively high levels of taxation, it would be seen as a particularly hard sell to an electorate. There has also been a culture within many European nations, post-World War II, to see the expansion of University education as a direct correlative to an enlightened and socially mobile society. The trend, therefore, has been toward viewing a University education as not just a desirable asset in the jobs market, but as a prerequisite of good, solid career and personal development (with all the meritorious benefits that faith in such a system may bestow).

The rapid expansion of Universities in the United Kingdom has led to the situation where there is now over a hundred such institutions throughout the country. Some of these institutions will undoubtedly provide specialist courses only provided by a handful of Universities, however the vast majority of these institutions replicate the core subject areas of the Arts, Humanities and Sciences, with varying levels in teaching standards and facilities. Going back to the pre-1998 model of University funding is it genuinely credible that central government would have been able to fund such a vast array of institutions, whilst competing with the very best universities around the world and ensuring that year-on-year increases in student numbers were catered for?

A considerable concern was expressed in the Dearing Report with regard to the continued provision of a quality educational experience in circumstances that saw a rapid expansion in student numbers, a 45% increase in public funding requirements for higher education costs (not related to the already dwindling grants and bursaries scheme) and no significant ‘positive’ effect being felt in terms of GDP, as a result of higher educational standards. The decision by the Labour government to follow the suggestions of the Dearing Report and implement an initial £1,000 tuition fee, combined with a larger low-interest government loan, helped to relieve central government of some of the burden of spending, but only deferred much more important decisions indefinitely.

With approximately 115 Universities in the UK by 2009, the academic year 2009/10 saw 2,493,420 (2,087,615 domestic, 125,050 EU) students involved in some course of study at higher education institutions in the UK. These figures meant that over half of UK citizens aged 17 to 30 were in University education in 2009/10. Despite considerable budget cuts, lay-offs, staff restructuring and other cost-cutting measures approximately 20% of universities were running an annual deficit. The new Conservative/Lib Dem coalition government came to believe that there was an urgent need for Universities to have more flexible means of acquiring funding. The decision to dramatically cut Higher Education funding by central government (slashing £450 million from annual university budgets), was balanced off with the possibility for institutions to charge up to £9,000 per year, for a degree from the 2012/13 academic year. Since the government announcement of a tuition fee increase in November 2010, there has been notable unrest and continued demonstrations from students and activists, although this hasn’t deterred some academic institutions from charging the maximum available fee. For some this appeared to be a Conservative government barricading off the hallowed halls of academia to a those incapable of finding the finances to afford a University education.

Paying for a University education is nothing new if you happen to live in the United States, where the average domestic tuition fee is approximately £4,000 per annum (many of the most prestigious institutions charge much greater sums, with a four-year degree at Harvard totalling $50,000). Tuition fees are also charged in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany (with, funnily enough, a few regional exceptions), Ireland, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland (amongst others). If you look at the countries where the greatest tuition fees are charged (the US and now the UK) you should see a significant number of academic institutions in these countries ranking high on the annual QS World Rankings (bearing in mind that tradition, the international spread of the English language and prestige also play a significant role). Within the top 100 Universities in the world 32 are based in the US and 19 within the UK, meaning that fee-charging institutions make up around 50% of the best academic institutions in the world (remembering that Scotland’s Universities no longer contribute to this tally). Of countries that do not charge tuition fees, only China (5, including 3 former HK institutions), Denmark (2), France (2), Finland (1), Norway (1) and Russia (1) appear on the list. It should be noted that both Norway and China charge considerably higher rates of annual taxation than the UK, whilst countries such as Belgium charge comparatively low annual tuition fees (totalling around 500 euro in most cases). Tuition fees would appear to have the benefit of not only unburdening the central government of the need to fund continual academic expansion, ideally freeing up money to be focused on things like healthcare, but they also seem to help institutions compete globally in terms of research and innovation.

If you have private businesses that are willing to pay astronomical wages to get the best designers, technicians, specialists, theorists and practitioners working within their organisation, how on earth can a state-funded academic institution compete? If Universities cannot compete in terms of wages, then what they can attempt to deliver are the more relaxed and ‘liberal’ conditions in which certain types of research are more likely to thrive. The kind of infrastructure that is required needs high levels of funding, something that is frequently overlooked when focusing too intently on the cost accrued by a student.

How else is a University to find necessary funding than by introducing a fee for the services it provides to the clients that utilise them? Here the Scottish funding model actually offers a possible alternative solution, but one that goes against are current concerns, within Europe, for an equality of access that is international, rather than national. If the nation-state were to take care of the educational opportunities of its own citizens, by offering a free, or heavily subsidised University education, then all other nationalities wishing to utilise these services would have to front a fee cost, that they wouldn’t otherwise contribute in the form of taxation. This sounds quite similar to how things operated post-grant, but pre-fee, back in the UK of 1997. What this system relies upon too heavily is that there is enough money in central coffers to handle educating 50%, or more, of the national population (between the ages of 17 to 30) at any one time, so that in the event of a lack of ‘International’ student funds the Universities do not run a shortfall.

Perhaps a more coherent policy approach would be to dramatically restructure the UK Universities. Is there really a need for 115 academic institutions? Clearly the fact that 20% of them are running an annual deficit, even with the injection of fees, suggests not. Would it not be more beneficial to curb the financial failings within the higher education system itself, by closing institutions that are running deficits, or by merging successful institutions with failing neighbours, where possible? Yes, there are arguments to be made about the unique regional role that certain academic institutions provide, but how many of these institutions are running a deficit?

The partly difficult nationalist position that the Scottish Parliament may appear to have taken, vis-a-vis University access, certainly can be read as going against much of the EU’s ethos about free movement and parity of access amongst member states. However, a more careful reading than that put forward by the belligerently Labourite NS would have noted that the issue here isn’t really that Scotland is penalising the English, Northern Irish and Welsh, but that in fact the Scottish Parliament is being hindered in implementing a broader fee-charging system for foreign nationals, by ill-fitting EU legislation. The SNP have actually proposed that if Shiner’s legal action is successful, then they will have little option left than to question the validity of the EU’s policy on ‘discrimination between states’.

One possible solution here would be to review the EU legislation, making the necessary amendments so that ‘discrimination’ was not viewed as originating from the actions of the state to which a person was moving in the EU, but rather as part of a comparative analysis of conditions between member states. In such a case, Scotland may continue to provide a free education for its own nationals and any EU nationals who come from countries in which they would also be provided with a ‘free’ (i.e. state-funded through taxation) education. However, as would be the case with many of the nations within the EU, Scotland would be able to levy a comparable fee for education within Scotland’s Universities, to those students coming from an EU member state that does charge student tuition fees. This system seems to take into account the fact that discrimination must be based upon depriving someone of the ability to do something that they would have otherwise been able to do within their own nation, not something that they would have been unable to do. Of course, there is still the issue to be resolved as to how England, Northern Ireland and Wales relate to this proposal, seeing as Scotland has used the loop-hole of non-EU status so effectively in its current policy. I’d like to think that this issue may well be resolved by the end of this Scottish Parliament, but I guess we will have to wait and see.

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