Scotland’s free tuition policy questioned amid political turmoil

Will waning power of Scottish National Party fracture the consensus around one of its most closely guarded policies?

May 17, 2024
A sign outside the Scottish parliament
Source: iStock/jax10289

Scottish universities are hoping to see a renewed commitment to investing in the sector as the country emerges from a period of political turmoil, but some have warned that the crisis is far from over, necessitating a rethink of even the country’s hallowed free tuition policy.

John Swinney, a former Scottish education minister, became the country’s new first minister this month after the short reign of his predecessor, Humza Yousaf, ended abruptly when he was forced to resign having terminated his coalition with the Scottish Greens.

Mr Swinney faces the challenge of attempting to run a minority government with apparently dwindling public support, with signs that the Scottish National Party’s long grip on power is waning as it heads into a UK general election this year and a Holyrood election by May 2026.

James Mitchell, professor of public policy at the University of Edinburgh, said the state of the public finances in Scotland meant that the country was going to have to ask itself some difficult questions about what it was prepared to cut, with its commitment to free university tuition one of the things he would be looking at.

The SNP has repeatedly signalled that it will make no such move – recently pledging to include it as part of a constitution should Scotland ever become independent – but the former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale recently echoed Professor Mitchell’s comments on the podcast The Power Test, sparking a fierce backlash from SNP supporters.

Ms Dugdale is not close to the current Scottish Labour leadership and the party was quick to distance itself from any suggestion it was not committed to free university tuition. Professor Mitchell said this was indicative of how difficult it was to have a conversation about the fees policy.

Student groups were also quick to react. Ellie Gomersall, the NUS Scotland president, told Times Higher Education that free tuition was “non-negotiable” and any move to roll it back “will not stand”.

She said the policy had “opened many doors and benefited the whole country”, and “politicians should concentrate on removing barriers to education, not bringing back old ones”, calling for action on student poverty and the “hidden costs of studying”.

But Professor Mitchell said free tuition was now disadvantaging many Scottish students who could not get into Scottish universities because places were capped and were forced to either not go at all or pay fees in England.

He said the reluctance to address the fees question was leading to cuts being made in “easier” areas instead, with spending on the NHS and local government starting to fall.

Many university leaders agreed in private that something had to be done, he said, but none had been brave enough to speak out

Instead, vice-chancellors had concentrated on repeating demands for more funding since Mr Swinney’s rise to power, after the last budget left them £48.5 million worse off.

Claire McPherson, the director of Universities Scotland, said that in his previous Cabinet roles Mr Swinney had “shown he understands the outstanding work universities do” and had “seen first-hand the sector’s significant contribution to the social, economic and cultural development of Scotland”.

But now universities were facing a “decade of budget cuts”, Ms McPherson added, plus “unprecedented challenges” in international student recruitment, and the new first minister should recognise that a “well-funded higher education sector is integral to the successful delivery of all aspects of his government’s agenda”.

The Scottish government will “continue to support the sector, including through investing in free tuition”, a spokesman said.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (1)

There's a fundamental confusion common in England-dominated UK media about the constitutional position of the Scottish Parliament. This is betrayed in articles like this when it talks about the next elections must be held "by" May 2026. No! A Scottish Parliament general election WILL be held in May 2026. Unlike general elections for the Westminster Parliament, there's no legal power for the Scottish Parliament to bring forward the election date. There is a power to call an extraordinary general election by a two thirds majority vote of all MSPs, but that is just what it says - an extraordinary election, and the general election in May 2026 still goes ahead. The recent Labour calls for an immediate Scottish general election create a lot of UK media column inches, but would mean the chaos of three major elections in less than 24 months, and are self-evident hypocrisy because Labour previously changed its Scottish First Minister twice without a general election and has also recently changed its own Party's First Minister in Senedd Cymru without an election. Unlike Westminster, First Ministers of the devolved governments are elected by the legislature on an eliminating ballot, so unless Labour vote for a Tory FM or Tories vote for a Labour FM (not going to happen!), and the SNP are the largest Party there will be an SNP FM and there won't be an extra Scottish general election. While Labour looks set to win a majority overall at Westminster, probably a landslide in England, they are also committed following a Commission led by Gordon Brown in 2022 to giving the Sewel Convention statutory powers. This would mean that even if Labour wanted to change the rules of Scottish Parliament elections shortly after a change of UK government, a constitutional prerogative held by the majority of MPs representing constituencies in England, it would be utterly hypocritical and politically disastrous for them to attempt it. And even if Labour did emerge as the largest party in the Scottish Parliament in May 2026, they could only pass legislation changing tuition fee policy with the support of another large party - and the only candidate for that is the Tories, a coalition with which would destroy Labour and probably the current UK state forever. The second feature often completely ignored in commentaries on the politics of Scottish HE in UK media is that 16 and 17 year olds have votes in Scottish Parliament elections (and those for Senedd Cymru). Those who will have a vote in May 2026 have just turned 14 years of age. Their views are ignored in current Scottish Parliament polling, which in any case indicates a continuing majority for the SNP and Scottish Greens, despite a likely Labour revival among the different Westminster electorate for later this year (many EU nationals who are against Brexit and other foreign nationals are debarred from Westminster elections but have a vote for Scottish elections - Labour's tailing of the Tory stop the boats fiasco and its support for Brexit does not play well). Again UK media assume very different electorates and electoral systems will result in the same outcome - the stark contrast of the UK general election in Scotland in 2010, when Labour won 41 out of 59 seats, and the Scottish Parliament election 12 months later, when the SNP won a majority of 69 of 129 seats, is indicative of the complexity of Scottish politics. The real challenge for the question of tuition fees policy is the absence of a fiscal federalism arrangement and further significant taxation devolution beyond the income tax band/rates currently devolved. The well past its sell-by date Barnett Formula ties Scottish government budgets to spending in England, and Labour's Chancellor-in-waiting Rachel Reeves plans to apply the current Tory budget framework, which as the IFS has pointed out conceals massive cuts in public expenditure down the line, which will make Labour very unpopular in both England and Scotland. Such cuts will be contested and people should remember it was Scotland that led the way with direct action and protest over the Poll Tax in 1990 ... but England followed suit and Thatcher fell in a wave of unpopularity. Starmer will have a difficult tightrope to walk if Labour want a second Westminster term and it won't take much of a swing in Scotland against Labour's fiscal cuts to tip a large majority, already strongest among younger voters, into support for outright independence. A lot of water is going to have to flow under a lot of bridges before the tuition fee policy changes. My guess is that Swinney will have to reexamine his government's neglectful policy on the College sector and a move to a stronger 2+2 US-style model, with perhaps up to 50% of HE in the college sector (it's already one third) focussing on skills based higher level courses with mandatory articulation processes to universities, is more likely than abandonment of free undergraduate tuition.