It is one of the most cherished myths of Scottish national identity: the lad o’ pairts. The image of proud Jock, of peasant stock, striding out of the kailyard with his bag of meal in one hand and his bible in the other. Whistling a Man’s a Man while preparing to take on the upper classes thanks to the free Scottish university system. Like all myths, the “Democratic Intellect”, as George Davie described the Scottish tradition of open access higher education, involves an element of pure fantasy. Scottish universities in the 19th Century weren’t free, for a start, though fees were very low and most students received bursaries courtesy of the Carnegie Trust.
Nevertheless, there was some truth in the lad o' pairts myth, and cynics ridicule it at their peril. At the end the 19th Century, nearly 25% of Glasgow University students came from manual working class backgrounds, something inconceivable in the English system, which was the exclusive preserve of the upper classes. The belief that higher education should be based on ability learn rather than ability to pay is deeply ingrained in Scottish culture. Universities have been seen here as national public institutions which should be mainly financed out of general taxation. This is confirmed in opinion polls, such as the recent Scotsman/panelbase poll of 1001 Scots which this month showed that two thirds of Scots reject a graduate tax related to earnings.
This attitude may seem anachronistic to some, but it is rooted in Scottish history. The Scottish system was intensely meritocratic, elitist even, but it embodied a powerful social ideal: that everyone should have the opportunity of going to university, regardless of their background and regardless of wealth, because higher education is of benefit to society as a whole. The education of some is the education of all, hence the "democratic intellect". Lord Robbins, whose report in 1963 laid the foundation for the massive post-war expansion of free higher education in the UK, said he was inspired by the Scottish tradition. The Scottish system of centralised funding was the model for the University Grants Committee set up to fund UK universities.
This long-established national consensus on higher education ensured that the abolition of university tuition fees was one of the first steps taken by the Scottish parliament when it reconvened 1999. But ten years on, the principle of free higher education is under assault today as never before. It is my personal view that tuition fees are almost certainly on their way back in Scotland, though probably under another name. Vice chancellors like Prof Anton Muscatelli of Glasgow University and student organisations like the NUS increasingly favour some form of graduate contribution, and so do most politicians though they are very reluctant to say so openly. But they would be well advised to clear their throats and speak clearly because the longer they delay the more they risk a backlash from Scottish voters. Any attempt to introduce fees by stealth will be counterproductive.
It’s no secret why fees are back on the agenda. A financial hurricane has hit Scottish higher education following the banking crash. Public spending cuts of 25% were always going to pose a serious challenge to institutions reliant on government funds. But the situation has been compounded by the lifting of the cap on tuition fees south of the border, which is expected to be the announced the Westminster government when it responds to the recommendations of Lord Browne’s Report on English higher education. Currently, the Scottish government compensates the Scottish universities for the £3,290 in tuition fees that Scottish students don’t pay. But what now if fees increase to £6,000, £10,000 £15,000? Where’s the cash going to come from when the Scottish budget is already facing £3.7bn of cuts in the next four years? Without matched funding, Scottish universities say they they will be unable to compete anymore, and will be relegated to the second division. Course might have to be axed, universities merged, degrees truncated. The best staff and students will drift south.
Vice chancellors have been making increasingly desperate noises. The principal of Glasgow, Professor Anton Muscatelli has suggested that his university will actually run out of cash as early as 2013 - though no one is sure quite whether or not universities can declare themselves bankrupt. He has said that only a graduate tax paid for by students when their incomes reach a certain threshold could fill the funding gap. However, the problem is a graduate tax proper could not be introduced in Scotland under the existing powers of the Scottish parliament. A graduate tax would also be a powerful incentive for Scottish graduates to leave the country. Universities Scotland, the umbrella body that represents the Scottish universities, is about to issue a call for a form of graduate contribution, related to ability to pay, though the universities can’t quite agree on how to present this or how it would be collected.
Influential figures in Scottish higher education like Lord Sutherland the former Principal of Edinburgh University are not so shy. He wants to go the whole hog and introduce unlimited variable tuition fees, following the example of American universities, where fees of $30,000 a year are not uncommon. The Scottish Conservatives have taken up this theme and are arguing for a an uncapped graduate contribution, paid for by student loans - though they have been careful not to specify how much these loans would cost.
The Tories insist, bizarrely, that they aren’t proposing the reintroduction of tuition fees, but their spokeswoman, Elizabeth Smith, admitted in the Scottish Parliamentary debate last month that her party is proposing a “deferred fees system.. a variable fee hat reflects the cost of the individual course and the ability of the university to set the fee”. In practice, this variable contribution, repaid in income-related loans, is unlikely to be very different - from a student’s point of view - to the system being proposed for England, which is also a deferred fee system financed by income-related loans. Rather surprisingly, the National Union of Students in Scotland appears to be going down the contribution route,. Labour are calling for another review which avoids them having to spell out their own increasing preference for the graduate tax - which is of course their new UK leader, Ed Miliband’s choice.
The Scottish Education Secretary, Mike Russell, has also been desperately trying to avoid mentioning the 'T' word, aware that the restoration of fees could turn into the ultimate SNP u-turn. He is planning to publish a green paper before Christmas “outlining the options”, including graduate tax. This is intended launch a discussion that will last until “the middle of 2011” which just happens to be after the Scottish parliamentary elections. The SNP minister says he is not ruling in tuition fees but that he is also “not ruling anything out” and has called for a “uniquely Scottish solution” to the problem.
But he knows, and the universities know, that the universal principle is living on borrowed time. At the very least, the Scottish public have a right to know this too. It is understandable that the politicians don’t want to frighten the voters. Any party that goes into the Holyrood campaign next May with an open commitment to reintroduce fees is likely to suffer heavily at the ballot box. But the present conspiracy of silence on the issue is deeply dishonest and risks damaging the fabric of Scottish higher education.
My own personal view is that he Scottish people, who after all pay for the existing system, are likely to be shocked when they discover what is in store. If Scottish universities start charging the kind of fees that Lord Browne’s report envisages south of he border, the cost of tuition fees would rocket. Scottish graduates on a four year course could easily find themselves landed with debts of £55,000, including living costs, even before they get their first job. And if Scottish universities are to compete with the English universities, they may have to charge fees to match. This going to punch a much deeper hole in the incomes of the middle classes than the means testing of child benefits. And students from poor families are likely to think twice about devoting four years to study with the prospect of a massive debt at the end of it and no guarantee of a job. There is strong evidence that students from poorer backgrounds are already deterred from going to university because of debt.
Moreover, the character of Scottish higher education could change dramatically. The ancient Scottish universities could, in due course, become more like private schools, financed by fees and with scholarships for able students whose parents cannot afford them. Some say that this could make them more accessible for poor students, but Scottish universities do not have the large private endowments that allow some American elite universities to give scholarships to any student able to meet entrance requirements. Make no mistake: if a system of cost-based variable fees is introduced in Scotland it will likely leave higher education as the preserve of the better off.
Of course, the argument for tuition fees is based on the financial advantage conferred by a university degree. Why should people on modest incomes pay through their taxes for the education of middle class students who will go on to high-earning jobs? Actually, a degree isn’t worth nearly as much as most people believe. In 2004, during the intense Westminster parliamentary debate on variable tuition fees, the government quoted a figure of £400,000 as being the career average benefit of a university degree. But the figure was challenged and the government now quotes a figure of only £100,000 over lifetime earnings. That isn’t a lot of money - over forty years it’s about a tenner a week. Are students going to take on mortgage-sized debts for such a modest salary advantage? The reintroduction of fees is likely to present a disincentive for students from less well off background. This does none of us any good. Scotland’s ‘knowledge economy’ requires more graduates rather than fewer, because the jobs available will increasingly require degree level education.
And this is why, in my personal view, the Scottish system is worth defending. The curious thing about this debate is that the case for free higher education is actually far stronger today than ever. Now that more than half of school pupils are expected to go on to higher education, it is much easier to justify paying for their fees out of taxes than in the days when only 10% went to university, most of them from middle class backgrounds. When I went to university in the 1970s, I not only received a grant that paid my tuition and living costs, I was able to claim social security benefits during the university vacations. It never occurred to me to apply for a student loan. It seems hard to believe now, but the argument then was that students were giving up four years of earnings and should not have to emerge with a massive debt dangling from their degree.
Indeed, if a graduate tax is deemed to be the only solution for Scottish higher education, I’m rather inclined to argue that it should be paid by existing graduates rather than future ones. Why not a levy on all those-fifty something baby boomers who have benefited from free higher education, as well as house price inflation and final salary pensions. They’ve got all the assets, so let them make a contribution in the form of a higher education surtax. But somehow I doubt if this idea is going to win much support from legislators, most of whom are of that generation.
But we should be very careful about loading ever greater debts on students. They already have hefty student loans to pay and are entering a an employment market were degrees are no longer a guarantee of a career, or even, in the present climate, a job. Everyone accepts that higher education has to be paid for, but the system of variable fees that exists south of the border, and that some clearly wish to see introduced here, is not only incompatible with Scottish academic tradition and the “democratic intellect” it is also an inefficient and divisive mechanism which risks turning universities into a branch of private education. The various forms of graduate tax and graduate contributions which have been floated so far do not seem very different from the system in England. There, fees are already paid for by Tuition Fee Loans related to ability to pay.
Perhaps someone will come up with that “uniquely Scottish solution. But in the meanime, we already have a graduate tax, related to ability to pay. It is currently levied at 20%, 40% and 50%. and there’s no need to set up any costly new bureaucracy to collect it. It’s called income tax, and it remains the most progressive way of paying for public services. As for the democratic intellect, well - once it's gone, it's gone.