University principals have been up in arms again over the abolition of university tuition fees. “It’s a catastrophe for the university sector” said one university head, “how will we improve teaching and infrastructure?” Industry leaders have warned that graduate standards might deteriorate. Familiar sentiments. However, these are objections to the abolition of university tuition fees, not in Scotland, but in Germany. Hamburg has become the latest regional government to abolish tuition fees in Europe’s leading industrial nation, leaving only three out of the 16 German land governments sticking with fees. The argument has prevailed there that, when times are tough, the tough get learning - and that it is essential to eliminate barriers to entry into higher education.
I can’t understand why this argument is rejected by so many in the educational establishment in Scotland. Is it simple academic self-interest? Don’t university principals ever ask why he rest of Europe is scrapping fees even as they are energetically lobbying for their restoration in Scotland? There is a conventional wisdom that Scotland is in some way out of step with other industrialised countries in deciding not to introduce a graduate contribution. Not so. If anything it’s the other way round. Scotland has joined the range of Northern European countries, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, in abandoning charges for higher education.
Even before the raising of the fee cap, university fees in England were among the highest in Europe. In France the cost of tuition for students is nugatory. The debate in the UK has almost entirely been conditioned by the unique system of university funding in America, where fees are often astronomical. To attend relatively unprestigious-sounding establishments like New York University costs around $50,000 a year in tuition fees and other expenses. But it’s not as if the American system is actually thought to work well: quite the reverse. There is furious controversy in America about how the escalating cost of education is creating divisions in society. The middle classes feel they are being priced out of higher education altogether.
So, why are Scottish university principals so attracted by the idea of university fees? That’s a question that is increasingly being asked increasingly in Holyrood, where politicians of all parties are starting to wonder just whose side the Scottish universities are on. There has been growing resentment at the remuneration of university vice chancellors, who seem to think that the First Minister’s salary is a kind of minimum wage. But it’s not just the politics of envy. There is also a feeling among MSPs that Scottish university principals are out of sympathy with the educational traditions of Scotland, summed up by the phrase the “democratic intellect”. They may act as if they are CEOs of multinational companies, but they are in charge of state-funded institutions. Which is why the education secretary, Mike Russell, in his statement to parliament yesterday called for the governance of Scottish universities to be made “clear, open transparent and accountable.” That sounded just a little ominous to me.
However, Russell also promised that, though there will be no “up front or back-end” tuition fees in Scotland, the universities will not lose out financially. “Any funding gap will be filled”, he told parliament yesterday, meaning that Scottish universities will not be allowed to fall behind fee-charging English counterparts. This is an admirable commitment, but it is not one that will easily be honoured. Even if you take the relative funding gap at the lower end of the scale at around £100m a year, there will have to be some creative accountancy to make it work. The proposal to charge all students service charges for things like libraries, and then to reimburse only the Scottish students, leaving EU students paying a kind of backdoor fee, sounds a little too clever by half. It is a way of getting around the EU rules that students from other european countries should not be discriminated against in Scotland. But even if it worked it would only raise around £25 million. The government is right to seek to find ways of charging EU students, if only because the number coming to Scotland has doubled in ten years. But this may not be the way. Less contentious is the decision to charge English students the equivalent of tuition fees, since they are already paying fee for their tuition in Scotland. This would raise around £62m,leaving £38 unaccounted for..
Now, it is not unreasonable to ask the universities themselves for a contribution to the cost of keeping higher education free. Universities Scotland has created the impression that the “funding gap” represents an actual cut in their funding. This is not the case. The Scottish universities are the only public bodies outside the NHS to get a commitment to increased real terms funding for the next parliament. At a time of unprecedented cuts in public spending, that’s a pretty good deal.
However, the relative funding gap could get a lot larger if the English universities introduce £9,000 fees more or less across the board. The Scottish government’s numbers are premised on English universities charging an average of £7,500 a year. Any more than that and the gap yawns wider. Filling that will be a big test for any incoming government after the Holyrood elections in May and there is a suspicion, in nationalist circles, that the Labour leader, Iain Gray’, recent conversion to free higher education has a strictly limited shelf-life. That after the election, if Labour win, they will say that the SNP’s numbers did not add up, and that - reluctantly - they were going to have to break their election pledge and introduce a graduate contribution. We’ll see.
The universities continue to claim that they will fall behind in the league tables if they don’t get their way on fees. There’s no actual evidence of this, and even if there was, Scottish parents, who fund universities through their taxes, might accept a slight dip in the university pop charts if it means they could afford to send their children there. The choice is between an essentially privatised system of higher education, which is the English model, and the Scottish tradition of open access. This is still the choice before the Scottish voters in May.