Blend of policies

June 9, 2016

The authors of the Sutton Trust report into access to higher education in Scotland make it clear in their report that the purpose of their paper was “not to enter the debate on the rights and wrongs of tuition fees” (“Benefits of free university tuition in Scotland ‘not evident’”, News, 2 June). However by its choice of focus and headline, coverage in Times Higher Education (like elsewhere in the media) has perhaps implicitly entered this debate in a way that casts a negative slant on the rationale for the no tuition fee policy pursued in Scotland.

This is unfortunate, as the no fee policy is only part of an approach that sets Scottish higher education apart from the English model, where the marketisation and privatisation of education continues apace, with its latest incarnation being the Green Paper/White Paper and soon to be bill.

The no fee policy, in the view of the sector’s trade unions, is a good principled approach that must be continued – but it ought not be seen as the sole mechanism to encourage wider access for students from less well-off backgrounds. To do this involves a whole raft of measures, some of which will now be tackled by the Scottish government under its specific widening access agenda. This may include the creation of ring-fenced university places for students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds and the further expansion of sub-degree programmes in colleges.

Another reality we need to note is the higher level of targeted financial support in England for those from less affluent backgrounds – which was seen at the time by many as a cynical approach adopted by the government of the day in order to undermine opposition to the original introduction of fees south of the border.

Together with the retention of the no fee approach, there are many other measures that the report acknowledges will contribute to reducing social inequality in higher education in Scotland. These include undergraduate student support to cover living costs, better use of contextualised admissions policy, more encouragement for widening access programmes at national and institutional level, and a shift back towards maintenance grants rather than to repayable maintenance loans.

Linking a no tuition fees regime to difficulties in improving wider access looks in the wrong direction for the cause of the problem.

Douglas Chalmers
President, UCU Scotland


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