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The SNP’s big lie and the heavy price higher education is paying for it

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‘THE BIG LIE’ (die große Lüge) is a propaganda technique used for political purposes; defined as “a gross distortion or misrepresentation of the facts, especially when used as a propaganda device by a politician or official body”. And Scottish politics has been labouring under its own ‘große Lüge’ since 2007.

Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have anchored the SNP in power for the last 14 years with the claim of representing a progressive nationalist politics; tapping into the recurring myth of Scottish exceptionalism. Eine ganz große Lüge – that is the big lie.

The repetition by nationalist politicians, and their sympathisers across civic Scotland, that the SNP represents a ‘progressive nationalism’ is endemic. Repeated often, repeated regularly – never giving the Scottish public, especially on the soft-left, a chance to cool off to reconsider the truth of it.

It is time to reconsider SNP claims of representing some mythical ‘progressive nationalism’.

It is a big job to expose the SNP’s big lie. Brian Monteith has sought to expose it by highlighting their chronic mismanagement of the economy. Others, such as Gordon Dean focus on the abandonment of the poor by the SNP. But I am writing about the SNP record on higher education. And there is little evidence of any ‘nationalist progressivism’. Unless you count their outlandish rhetoric – and I do not.

The SNP website boasts “we’re proud to support students by enabling access to education based on the ability to learn, rather than the ability to pay”. This is a cloak of progressive rhetoric disguising a regressive reality.

The SNP has insisted on capping the number of places available to Scottish domiciled students wishing to attend university. A consequence of this capping policy has been an increasing number of students wanting a place, on merit deserving it, but not being offered it. That is hardly progressive.

Audit Scotland noted in 2017 that Scottish students demanding a place increased by 23%, whilst availability of places rose by only 9%. In 2019 (latest figures) the picture remained grim: 14,000 applicants from Scotland were denied a university place. This represents around 60% more than before the SNP chose to scrap the graduation fee in 2008.

So, in gaining university access on merit, the country has regressed, not progressed.

The offer rates for Scottish domiciled students plummeted from 70% in 2008/2009 to an average of around 53% for the subsequent decade. Last year it was revealed that in 2019 only 55% of university applications from Scotland resulted in a place offered. The equivalent figure for England was 74%. Scottish students are being squeezed out of places they have earned, due to the SNP cap on places. A cap which only exists due to the SNP’s increasingly broken funding system for universities. Scottish Conservative MSP Liz Smith said “These statistics show why there needs to be a reform of higher education funding in Scotland. The current system is discriminatory (with) many well-qualified domiciled Scots squeezed out.”

The SNP rhetoric about access to higher education based on ability to learn sounds hollow when confronted by the truth of their record. “The SNP continues to champion Scotland’s students” they tell us, but it is all eine große Lüge – a big lie.

They are not ‘standing up for Scotland’s students’ if they’re imposing capping policies. Ironically, capping is denying Scots opportunities available instead to their English counterparts.

When the SNP first came to power in 2007, the number who failed to win a place was 8,280. I remind you, as of 2019 it was 14,000. Forgive me if I scoff when reading the SNP manifesto line claiming “we will widen access further” for Scottish students.

We have thousands of Scottish students who have proven their ability to learn, but the SNP is denying them a place to learn. And the brain-drain of talented students heading south to England has accelerated as a consequence.

Make no mistake, the SNP’s flagship ‘free tuition’ depends upon capping the number of places for Scottish students. And that capping policy is not in any way progressive, fair, or sustainable.

The SNP pivot is to talk about their 20% target. Where Scottish universities must accept 20% of their intake from most deprived communities. Page 64 of the manifesto reads, “a record number of students from the poorest backgrounds now attend university”. Whilst nobody disagrees with widening access, this SNP 20% target is rapidly becoming unglued.

Not least since it is predicated on the assumption that everyone in that 20% wants to be at university. This automatic assumption ignores the fact that many might prefer other college or training courses, just like better off students might. But the SNP has imposed a decade of cuts to colleges, so other options are harder to pursue for poorer students.

Additionally, if the SNP do not provide more university places, then people will be squeezed out who are just outside of that 20% category. Alistair Sim, Director of Universities Scotland since 2009 explains, the SNP’s ‘widening access’ quantitative approach will “shut off opportunities for pupils in the middle.”  Of course the 20% policy is an attempt to deflect attention from the SNP’s failure to close the attainment gap, whereby only 26% of kids from deprived areas make it to university, as opposed to 60% of kids from better-off areas. Fixing the gap was said by Nicola Sturgeon to be her “sacred responsibility,” which she has needless to say completely failed to carry out[PY2] .

Of course no account of the appalling state of higher education under the SNP would be complete without discussing the chronic funding crisis.

Page 65 of the SNP’s manifesto claims, “the financial sustainability and viability of Scotland’s colleges and universities is vital for our national mission of social and economic recovery from the pandemic.” It is once again a case of eine große Lüge – a big lie; not least since the SNP does not mean one word of it.

It has been its higher education policies that have left Scottish universities dangerously exposed to the financial consequences of the pandemic.

Professor Iain Gillespie, new principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Dundee explains, “Two successive Audit Scotland reports have shown the level of funding provided by the Scottish Government (through the Scottish Funding Council) to teach the nation’s students has for many years fallen significantly below the full costs associated with delivery.”

He has a point. Audit Scotland’s 2019 report reveals the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) cut funding to the sector by 7% (£91 million) in real terms, from £1.2 billion in 2014-15 to £1.1 billion in 2017-18.

“Tuition fees replaced SFC grants as the single largest source of income for the sector in 2017-18” explains Audit Scotland, and the tuition fees they are referring to are the huge ones paid by international students. The universities in Scotland, underfunded by the SNP government via SFC, and forbidden to generate any tuition fees revenue from Scottish undergraduates have thus become over-dependent on international student’s enormous fees.

You can see the danger more clearly when a health pandemic comes along and cuts off revenue flows from international students.

The financial sustainability of Scottish universities has been of concern long before the pandemic. “More than half of all universities were in deficit in 2017-18 and the position was worse than in 2014-15 for most modern and chartered universities” explains Audit Scotland.

The SNP might sermonise in its manifesto about financial sustainability of universities, but its policies were creating a financial sustainability crisis long before the pandemic came along.

So, when the Scottish Funding Council warned “Scottish universities face a collective operating deficit of £383.5 million in academic year 2020-21” back in April 2020; perhaps it might have been a good idea not to have slashed SFC funding to the sector by 7% previously? And perhaps more people can begin to better appreciate the logic of Scotland’s now abolished Graduate Endowment fee?

The big lie of Scottish politics is of an SNP nationalism somehow qualifying as progressive and exceptional. But it is not merely the policy mistakes themselves that qualify as proof for die große Lüge – the big lie. It is also the consequences of the SNP denying the failures.

The most egregious example of post-truth politics is to be found with the SNP government frantically trying to convince our hearts of things we know in our minds to be lies. With the election less than a week away, perhaps the nationalists will discover their day of judgement? Perhaps they shall be asked by Scotland’s students to account for the big lie they have peddled, and the damage the SNP has inflicted on them consequently. Our students have paid a heavy price for the SNP’s big lie.

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