Making deals in Holyrood

May 14, 1999

Will (and should) tuition fees for Scottish students be abolished? Three key players give their views.

Malcolm Dickson

Last week's historic elections to Scotland's first parliament in 300 years fundamentally altered the political map of Scotland. The elections, fought under a system of proportional representation for the first time in mainland Britain, resulted in no single party having an overall majority.

Labour, the largest party with 56 seats, finds itself in a position of having to rely on the votes of at least one of the other major parties to ensure a working majority in the Holyrood legislature.

The result: negotiations between Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats to thrash out a coalition deal. The Liberal Democrats' block of 17 seats would allow a joint administration and a comfortable working majority. The two parties involved in negotiations thus have a vested interest in making them succeed.

One of the principal implications of devolution is the very real possibility of a separate policy agenda in Scotland. There would be no point in the devolution process if that were not the case. It is likely, then, that on the issue of higher education, Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom will swiftly begin to diverge.

As part of their negotiating stance, the Liberal Democrats have said that any coalition deal will be predicated on the abolition of university tuition fees in Scotland. The problem for the Labour Party is that that bargaining position is a strong one. All of the opposition parties in Scotland, including the Scottish National Party and the Conservatives, oppose tuition fees.

There is a natural majority in the new parliament for their abolition, and there would be little the Labour group could do to stop the opposition parties from bringing forward legislation to achieve that end.

Nonetheless, Labour would like to strike a compromise deal that does not involve scrapping fees. Already Labour officials have suggested raising the combined income threshold at which students have to pay fees from Pounds 16,000 to Pounds 18,000. This would increase the number of students exempt from paying fees from 40 per cent to 50 per cent. It has also been mooted that extra money could be found for an increase in hardship provision.

Abolishing fees would cost the Scottish purse Pounds 40 million out of the current higher education block allocation of Pounds 14 billion that the parliament now controls. Any attempt to claw back the shortfall from elsewhere in the higher education budget would be politically unacceptable.

There is a worry this week in Scotland that tuition fees have become a political football.

The Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals is warning that caution is needed. Coshep has also joined with some student leaders to suggest that the political parties should consider reintroducing maintenance grants as an alternative to abolishing fees. The implications of scrapping fees could be far reaching, not only within Scotland but across the whole of the UK.

Already the new politics in Scotland is providing a strong challenge to the old decision-making in Scotland.

Malcolm Dickson is lecturer in politics, University of Strathclyde. He acted as commentator on the Scottish elections to The Herald, The Sunday Times, BBC Scotland and BBC Radio 4.

Andrew Pakes

For the past few weeks everyone has been playing a "will they, won't they" guessing game on whether the Labour party would get an overall majority in last week's elections to the Scottish Parliament.

Now the guessing is over and we know that Labour has fallen nine seats short. But a new round of "will they, won't they" has erupted around the question of whether or not higher education tuition fees for Scottish students will be abolished by the new coalition parliament.

The Liberal Democrats interpret this to mean an end to the payment of fees to any UK university by any Scottish student.

My feeling of great excitement is tinged with a real sense of worry. I and my student colleagues in Scotland have been in touch with both Labour and the Liberal Democrats in an attempt to get tuition fees killed off. Now that we seem so close to victory I want to sound a note of caution.

Jim Wallace, the Liberal Democrat leader in Scotland, has insisted that tuition fees will be top of the coalition negotiation agenda - but he may yet be swayed in his resolve by the promise of two, perhaps even three, ministerial posts. Another possibility is that Labour's Scottish spokesman Donald Dewar may strike a deal with Mr Wallace which would rule out the abolition of tuition fees in favour of some compromise - such as raising the threshold that triggers fee payments from the current Pounds 16,000 combined income for a student's parents or partner.

The deals between the political parties in Scotland will not be made in isolation. Whatever is decided in Scotland may influence the debate in Wales where the Welsh Assembly also has no overall majority.

So there is much still to play for. Whatever the outcome I hope politicians in Westminster are listening to the new voices of consensus in Scotland. The timing of the Dearing Committee report in 1997 meant that tuition fees were not an issue in the last general election. They will be in the next one, just as they were last week in Scotland.

Andrew Pakes is president of the National Union of Students.

Graham Hills

The Liberal Democrats may be insisting that the price of joining new Labour in a coalition government in Scotland is the abolition of tuition fees, but if they have any sense they will settle for something less. The cost to Scotland of doing otherwise would be great. If there is to be extra money for education under the new Scottish Parliament it should go to secondary education and teachers' salaries. That is where the shoe pinches in Scotland, as elsewhere.

Most university students are comfortably off. Since their university education will not only be enjoyable but guarantee them a well-paid job and high social status, they should be prepared to make a financial contribution towards it.

Britain's curse is not just that its higher education is too expensive but that too few gain access to it. We still have the lowest age-participation rate of any civilised country and pay for it in a disaffected underclass and poor industrial performance.

Of course there are students from poor backgrounds who find the fee the last straw, but they are few. There are also mature students who see the fee as an unwelcome obstacle, although the Open University, which charges for its services, is not short of applicants. Once upon a time, local authorities and universities themselves gave scholarships to the deserving.Why not more soft loans? Why not more part-time jobs?

But all of these problems and their piecemeal solutions could be swept aside if students could enjoy, as of right, one life-time entitlement to the basic costs of a first degree course to be taken where and when they like.

This would not cost a penny more. It would open the doors of further and higher education to everybody and would ensure that universities and colleges worked to satisfy their customers, be they students, parents or employers. The device to be used would be a voucher that would be given to all to cover the costs of a first degree.

Will Scottish universities be free to adopt a voucher scheme - or do anything else for that matter? It seems unlikely as long as the Treasury is the paymaster. Would Scotland's universities want to be free to do this?Probably not. The last time they were asked - in the mid-1980s - they voted, by six to two, to remain with their English counterparts under one organisation for teaching and research.

So what will be the effect of a new Scottish Parliament on Scottish education? Sadly, very little, if only because Scotland already has an independent system of education in its schools, colleges and universities. Unless the politicians do something silly, it will be business as usual.

Graham Hills was vice-chancellor of the University of Strathclyde.

* Should tuition fees for Scottish students be abolished? Email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk

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