Most of all beware ignorance

Scotland must stand against tuition fees and preserve universal state-supported access to higher education or risk a return to Dickensian darkness, argues Kate Smith

December 28, 2010

“Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it.” (A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens)

When the Scottish government set out its Green Paper on tuition fees two weeks ago, the rest of the UK watched with interest. Michael Russell, the Scottish National Party education secretary, told the Scottish Parliament that introducing tuition fees for Scottish students was “off the table”.

Russell said: “Our universities deliver tens of thousands of graduates into the world of work every year and carry out not just world-leading, but world-beating, research. It is because of this ‘greater good' that we believe the state must bear the primary responsibility for funding our universities.”

The argument against upfront tuition fees in Scotland was successfully made when they were abolished 10 years ago. Instead, in a post-devolution context, the debate is about how to finance university education sans tuition fees.

The Green Paper has found many supporters but has also provoked a political row among the parties, which are jostling for position in early campaigning ahead of May’s Scottish Parliament elections. Without budgetary underpinning, there are many who say the document raises more questions than it answers. The SNP has responded by saying that it will set out its policy pre-election and recommended that the other parties do the same.

Of the six proposals by Russell, it is the option of students from the rest of the UK paying to study in Scotland that is attracting most attention, because it presents a challenging anachronism for the UK. The blogosphere and social media are cheeping with discord along the lines of “English students face paying £9,000 at home or £6,500 in Scotland while Scottish students face paying nothing at home or £9,000 in England” with some veering towards jingoistic cries of racial discrimination. But the proposal is an extension of the existing system where students from the rest of the UK pay fees to study in Scotland. Russell proposes £6,500 per year to other UK students in a bid to head off “fees refugees”, who can already be seen heading over the Cheviots.

This is not to argue for imposing tuition fees on Scottish students, rather to make anew the argument against tuition fees across the board. Scotland faces a choice on higher education, either to give up the battle for its tradition of democratic pedagogy and social justice or to struggle and prevail.

We may be struggling to fund our university sector, but can we pay the price of an even more elitist country, a return to Dickensian class strictures? Perhaps they never went away. The shoeless children in winter may have gone but the UK still has one of the lowest levels of social mobility in the developed world. Research shows that, for the past 35 years, Britons have largely stayed where they were born. In 2002 only 10 per cent of the poorest 20 per cent of the population attained a degree. An even deeper inequality in access to higher education will degrade the situation and cause further civil unrest. If the fees are the predicted average of £7,500 or even £9,000, how many will be able to sustain a university degree of three to five years?

Students across the UK are already finding it difficult. From 2012, with the fees cap lifted and assuming they can find finance to pay upfront, it will take a single person on the breadline (with no dependants) 18 months of total net income, after housing costs), to pay each year of tuition fees of £9,000. A three-year degree will take four and a half years of total income. Parent students will take longer. Those in severe poverty will take a lifetime. With rising unemployment, inflation and stagnating wages, many more public sector workers than present would be unable to afford to send their children to university.

Tuition fees will be a blight on this generation for decades to come.

If anything, in times of austerity, education needs to be foregrounded and prioritised. Universal access for all, for the benefit of all. Out of progressive policies grow prosperity. Education and social justice precipitate talent and economic growth.

The wealth of a country is not measured by the gold held in reserve, its strength not by its weapons of mass destruction. Richness and enlightenment comes from the education and character of a people. Universal access to university education is imperative to avoid what Scrooge called “the shadows of what may be”. The Scots are showing this is not just a fairy tale; they are leading the way.

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