The Scottish government is under pressure to abandon its commitment to free higher education after an independent review concluded that Scotland could no longer afford to offer universal public services.
The Independent Budget Review, the final report of a review panel chaired by Crawford Beveridge, says that the Scottish government must respond if tuition fees are raised south of the border following Lord Browne of Madingley’s review of fees and funding, which is expected to report in the autumn.
“The Scottish government will need to respond to ensure that universities in Scotland maintain their competitive position,” says the report, which was published yesterday.
“In the context of the current financial challenges and the recognised benefits of higher education for individuals, there is an even more pressing need to have an open debate in Scotland on the contributions which students and graduates make.”
Earlier this year, Mike Russell, the SNP education and lifelong learning minister, confirmed his commitment to free higher education. He rejected calls from the opposition for an independent review into the funding of Scotland’s universities.
But Mr Beveridge’s panel says in its report that the issue is no longer “one of desirability, but of affordability”.
It calls on both the Scottish government and the Scottish Parliament to reconsider whether to introduce tuition fees or turn to alternative funding schemes such as a graduate contribution.
The University and College Union Scotland rejected the panel’s findings, claiming that any call for tuition fees was beyond the remit of the review, contrary to public opinion, and risked propelling Scotland into a double-dip recession.
“The three members of the review are completely out of touch with the people of Scotland and have simply used the review to espouse their own agendas,” said Mary Senior, UCU Scottish official.
The umbrella group Universities Scotland said that making changes post-Browne would not benefit Scotland in the short term, during the current spending review period, and it argued that government investment in universities must be maintained.
“The report makes clear there is no simple, quick-fix solution to higher education funding for the immediate future other than essential public investment,” said Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland.
However, the group is understood to be already considering alternatives to free higher education for all in Scotland.