The prospect of tuition fees being reduced to £6,000 in England have been boosted by the Scottish National Party’s decision to support the policy, which is thought to have been motivated in part by anticipation of a significant funding windfall.
It is estimated that Scotland could receive in excess of £200 million under the Barnett formula for distributing Westminster funding north of the border if a Labour government were able to implement its £2.7 billion plan to compensate universities for cutting their fee income.
The SNP, which announced in its manifesto on 20 April that it would support lower fees south of the border, is expected to make major gains in next month’s general election and could hold the balance of power.
Lucy Hunter Blackburn, a former civil servant in the Scottish government who headed up higher education, said that the SNP’s move would likely guarantee any minority Labour administration a significant bloc of votes in favour of lower fees.
“Previously Labour could probably have counted on being outvoted by the Tories and Liberal Democrats,” she said. “Even if they formed a minority government, the Liberal Democrats might have been tempted to vote against a decrease, so at a very basic common sense level it surely must make lower fees more likely.”
Ms Hunter Blackburn said that since the SNP was committed to maintaining free university tuition in Scotland, it was “quite a sensible position” to support lower fees elsewhere in the UK.
And she agreed with John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, that the prospect of additional Barnett money was also likely to have been a key factor. Professor Curtice said there were “Barnett consequentials” if more university spending was “on balance sheet” and came from direct public funding, making it “easier for the SNP to try to maintain the policy of free tuition in Scotland”.
However, the lowering of tuition fees in England could also have a significant impact on the revenue of Scottish universities, some of which draw substantial income from rest-of-UK students.
Institutions north of the border are unlikely to be able to charge more than their English counterparts, and the SNP is yet to state if it would share any funding received for higher education under the Barnett formula.
Voting in favour of lower fees in England would likely increase the pressure on the SNP to pass on any windfall to universities and Ms Hunter Blackburn said that Holyrood ministers would “have some really hard explaining to do” if they did not.
But working out how to distribute that money could prove to be complex, with some research-intensive institutions drawing particularly large sums of tuition fee income from undergraduates domiciled in England.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, highlighted that Scottish universities already felt that they were underfunded per student compared with England. “This is a matter of concern, but it is one of a number of concerns I would have about the medium- to long-term consequences of having less income for teaching,” Mr Hillman said.
He argued that the SNP’s decision should not overshadow the fact that the protection of free tuition in Scotland had been accompanied by student support being switched from grants to loans. This meant that Scotland was the only part of the UK where the poorest students took on more debt than their richer peers, Mr Hillman said.