Holyrood debates fees in anticipation of post-Browne changes in England

SNP minister canvasses ideas for higher education funding solutions but rejects Labour and Tory calls for independent review. Hannah Fearn reports

June 7, 2010

Scottish politicians skirted around calls for new solutions to the problems of funding for universities and the potential for a yawning funding gap between Scotland and England.

Leading a debate on tuition fees in the Scottish Parliament last week, Scottish education secretary Mike Russell said it would be crucial to hold a cross-party discussion on the issue following the independent review of fees and funding south of the border.

The review, led by Lord Browne of Madingley, could lead to a rise in tuition fees at English universities, while Scotland remains committed to free education.

“We have to be aware of what is on the horizon in terms of threats to our position,” Mr Russell said. “We are now operating in a very difficult economic environment…we cannot hide from what Lord Browne may say.”

Mr Russell said he wanted the debate to generate “suggestions for future funding”, calling for “a Scottish solution…to maintain the reputation and the effectiveness of Scottish higher education into the next generations”.

But while politicians of all creeds agreed that tuition fees should not be imposed on Scottish students, the debate failed to produce suggestions for alternative sources of income.

Scottish Labour and the Scottish Conservatives called for a committee to carry out an independent review of university funding, a move already ruled out by Mr Russell and the Scottish National Party.

Elizabeth Smith, Conservative MSP for Perth, accused the SNP government of “ranting on about saying ‘no’ to top-up fees” when a contribution of some kind must be discussed.

“Scotland cannot afford to rule out students making a contribution to their education once they have graduated,” she said.

Meanwhile, Claire Baker, Labour MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife, warned that change would be necessary to ensure that Scottish universities did not fall behind internationally.

“Our departments don’t just compete with those in Cambridge or Manchester, but also with those in Boston and Tokyo,” she said.

Also calling for a funding review, Ms Baker said a formal investigation would be preferable to “whispers from the minister’s office” and closed meetings with university principals.

But Mr Russell compared Labour to “a group of arsonists who, having laid waste to the Scottish budget, now run about complaining about the heat and the fire engines”.

David McLetchie, Conservative MSP for Edinburgh Pentlands, condemned the “great sophistry of language” in the debate over fees.

“We need to look seriously at what we can continue to afford to finance out of taxation and what students or graduates should pay, however that contribution is determined,” he said.


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