Who said protest never changed anything? The bill to introduce £9,000 tuition fees in England may last week have passed in Westminster, despite the demonstrations by students, lecturers and school pupils. But Scotland is another country, and it look as if the students have had a result here. The SNP government has now unofficially committed itself to keeping Scotland fee free. No up front fees, no graduate contribution, no endowment no graduate tax. Zilch. In Scotland, higher education will remain open to all, on the basis of ability to learn, not ability to earn. That is the substance of briefings given by Alex Salmond this week.
The Education Secretary, Michael Russell published the promised green paper giving the options for higher education funding including a graduate contribution. But the Scottish government has already made its choice. This means that the May election could become a defining moment for Scotland. Rejecting fees would be a decisive blow against the attempt to create a market in higher education and to turn the clock back to the days when only relatively wealthy families could contemplate the cost of university education. The SNP are to be congratulated for sticking to their guns, and reaffirming the Scottish tradition of open access higher education. The democratic intellect will not be extinguished on their watch.
Of course, the SNP have always been opposed to tuition fees, so in a sense this is just the status quo ante. SNP election manifestos since 1999 have all promised free higher education. But we all know what happens to manifestos. The truth is that the Scottish government had been under intense pressure from the Scottish university vice chancellors to reintroduce fees to Scotland under the guise of a ‘graduate contribution’. For months, the universities have warned that there would be a crippling £300m shortfall in funding for Universities from 2012/13 onwards if fees were not reintroduced. It is no secret that Mike Russell, the Scottish Education Secretary, had given the university vice chancellors a fair hearing and appeared to be moving, however reluctantly, towards a graduate contribution, if only to prevent Scottish universities from falling down the international league tables through inadequate funding. Had it not been for the unprecedented student protests, the SNP would almost certainly have tried to keep the funding issue open until after the next election. Had it been re-elected, I suspect it would have bent to the pressure from Universities Scotland to introduce some kind of graduate contribution - though this would not have been the first choice of any SNP minister. If nothing else, the students put the lead back in their pencils.
First, it was no longer credible to remain stum until May - it would have been ridiculous for the SNP to have had no policy on this crucial issue in the Holyrood election campaign. Second, the protests forced civil servants and ministers to look again at the numbers. The £300m funding gap turned out to be, at best, an exaggeration, at worst, “scare mongering”. There are people in and around the Scottish cabinet who now take a rather dim view of university arithmetic. There is still a funding problem, but not an apocalypse. This changed the game. If the Scottish government were to stop subsidising English, Welsh and - possibly - EU students to come to Scottish universities, then the numbers become more manageable.
The third thing the student protests achieved was a reassessment of the electoral arithmetic. The sight of thousands of Scottish students bussing it to London to protest about tuition fees reminded the Scottish government of the virtues of its own policy. After all, it was the SNP who abolished the graduate endowment in 2007 - though they rashly promised to abolish student debt also, which was a pledge to far. There is now an opportunity to make amends, and to get the students and their parents, back on side. There are fifty thousand students in Edinburgh alone. Students across the land have promised to use the May Scottish election to punish the Liberal Democrats. The SNP’s reaffirmation of its policy on fees will ensure that the student groups advise their members to vote Nationalist. This could be crucial to the SNP who are behind in the polls and need every ounce of support they can get if they are to revisit their victory in 2007.
Labour have accused the SNP of electoral opportunism, but this really is a difficult charge to stand up. After all, the SNP have always been committed to free higher education. All they are promising is that they will not do a Nick Clegg-style U-turn and abandon their flagship policy. That is the opposite of electoral opportunism. Labour also insist that it is wrong to play politics with the future of Scottish universities. However, the universities have clearly been playing politics themselves and have been found out. Their lobbying has been intense and sustained. Vice-chancellors like Anton Muscatelli of Glasgow University, have been giving dire warnings of universities going bankrupt without fees. About the only people who haven’t had a say are the Scottish people themselves, and polling evidence suggests that the Scots are massively in favour of keeping universities free. This is not just because they don’t want to see their children landed with £50,000 debts before they get a job, but because education has always been a touchstone issue in Scotland. It is embodied in the myth of the “lad o’ pairts”, the youth from humble origins who uses education to better himself and overcome class divisions.
Labour’s Scottish education spokesman, Des McNulty, has a real problem now. He has already said that he believes free higher education, on the existing Scottish model, is “unsustainable”. The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, has called for a graduate contribution. Will Labour continue to call for the reintroduction of fees, or will they do a hasty u-turn of their own and back the SNP’s policy? We will find out pretty soon. But either way, the students will have reason to be well satisfied. At the very least they have given more power to the elbows of SNP ministers who never wanted to reintroduce tuition fees, but felt that there might be no alternative. It shows that democracy, argument, protest can still work. In Scotland, at least.