"Free" Scottish universities are discriminatory and unsustainable

by Elizabeth Smith
article from Friday 24, August, 2018

I AM SURE l am not the only MSP in recent days to receive letters from parents of young people seeking a place at a Scottish university but who are being turned away. One parent cited the case of her daughter achieving three strong A passes and two Bs which, she had been told, would be more than enough to put her in a very good position to win a place at the university of her choice. Sadly, her dreams were shattered.

The mother fully recognised that university entrance is a matter for the institution itself and that no place is secure until it is actually offered but she was astonished to learn that the decision to reject her daughter had not been made because of anything related to proven academic ability or potential for the future but because she was “not English” therefore not paying fees. 

This girl, like so many others, has fallen foul of the SNP’s “capping system” which severely limits the ability of universities to take domiciled Scots students even when places on the relevant courses are still available. If ever there was evidence which proves the unfairness of the current higher education funding structure in Scotland it is this. It simply cannot be right that very able Scots domiciled students are being turned away from courses for which there are still vacant spaces. 

The SNP constantly tells us that access to higher education is based on the ability to learn not on the ability to pay. Try telling that to the parents who have written to me.

Try explaining to them that, in an age when we are desperate for more GPs or radiologists, Scottish universities do not have the flexibility to offer places to these talented young people? Even worse, how bad is it that you are being turned away because you are Scottish – and by a Scottish university?

I am not going to argue for a minute that everything is rosy in the higher education sector south of the border – far from it. Indeed, some of the current debate in England about clearing places, about the level of fees and interest rates and about the enormous increase in unconditional offers is just as serious as the debate in Scotland but it does not have inherent discrimination as its root cause.

Allowing the current system to continue in Scotland will fuel understandable resentment amongst young people who have worked their socks off to get top grades yet find they can’t get in despite the existence of available places. That resentment could grow even more if the problem is exacerbated by widening access – a process which can see young people getting into university ahead of those who have better grades. It is not only the families themselves who will be resentful but teachers too, and rightly so.

There are so many issues to debate in higher education but let’s be very clear the main issue is how to secure long-term financial sustainability of a sector which needs to be seen to be both fair to students and staff and wholly transparent. We do not have that in England just now and we certainly do not have that in Scotland.

Universities Scotland craves a situation where it has reliable and sufficient funding. They do not want to be increasingly dependent upon on large-scale bond issues such as that undertaken by Oxford University in 2017 when it was raising £750m. Nor does it want a situation whereby it is reliant on the whims of political parties.

Instead we need a system which will deliver an additional level of funding that is secure over the long term otherwise our universities – which have been the jewel in the crown in Scottish education for the last two decades – will start to suffer. We need a properly informed and well evidenced debate about the choices we face of which there are really only four; Should taxes rise, should public spending be cut in another portfolio to assist universities, should there be upfront fees or, if you don’t believe any of these is acceptable (as l don’t), should there be a graduate contribution system. 

What is certain is that the present system in Scotland with so-called “free” higher education is both discriminatory and unsustainable. These letters from parents are surely even more reason to have a national debate about reforming the funding structure of higher education in Scotland. Our young people deserve nothing less.

Liz Smith is Shadow Education Secretary and a Conservative & Unionist member for Mid Scotland and Fife.

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