Scotland's 'learning nation' widens its reach

July 20, 2007

As the new Scottish Executive takes charge, Fiona Hyslop sets out her vision for fees-free higher education.

Education from nurseries through to schools, further and higher education and lifelong learning is a critical driver in our bid to build a smarter, more successful Scotland. This new Scottish Government intends to build a learning nation for the future.

We are committed to maintaining a competitive university system that generates education, science and research ideas that make Scotland a magnet for economic growth.

I am determined that our universities will retain their well-deserved reputation as among the world's best. We must make more of the excellence that already exists in our colleges and universities, creating the connections and incentives that will turn highly skilled people and innovative research into economic productivity. Scotland's universities already punch above their weight and size in international comparisons.

Our country faces demographic challenges over the next 20 years that mean that we must make the most of the opportunities for all of our people and give everyone the chance to make the fullest possible contribution to both economic and civic life.

The Government believes that access to education should be based on ability to learn and not on ability to pay. We also believe that opening up access to higher education for everyone - irrespective of their location, background or personal situation - is a key component of fully releasing the potential of Scotland's people.

We took the first steps towards our aim of relieving the burden of student debt just weeks after coming to power. With Parliament's support, we will abolish the inefficient graduate endowment fee with immediate effect, helping 50,000 current students as well as generations to come.

We are doing this because fear of debt acts as a brake on the aspirations of those from our poorest and most disadvantaged communities, deterring them from even accessing higher education in the first place. We believe it is wrong that graduates begin their working life encumbered by financial pressures, and abolishing the graduate endowment fee is an important first step.

Clearly, our universities can only remain world-class if they are well-funded and they can compete against universities internationally.

Partly as a result of pressure from the Scottish Parliament, the previous administration invested significant sums in our universities, ensuring that they could continue to compete with those in England when top-up fees were introduced. It is generally recognised that Scottish universities are currently well funded.

Fears that top-up fees in England would spell economic disaster for Scottish universities have proved largely unfounded. That's because the gap was filled by extra government investment and because top-up fees are not really the cash bonanza that some have suggested.

The real issue at stake now is the timing of any review of top-up fees in England and the implications of that for universities in Scotland. However, the review is not even due to start until 2009, which means that the first year when any lifting of the cap can take place is 2010-11.

Even then, we're unlikely to find ourselves looking at a free market free-for all with individual universities setting their own fees. That's because the cost of fee loans will have to come from the Government in the first place, so we can expect the Treasury to keep a firm grip on the purse strings. There simply cannot be a bottomless pit.

Just as the vast bulk of Scottish students used loans to finance their graduate endowment fee, the same is true of top-up fees south of the border. This is an inefficient and expensive funding method and that is why there will have to be a cap on top-up fees, determined by what the Treasury can bear.

I'm not suggesting that here in Scotland we can afford to sit back and do nothing - but the issue is not immediate. What we do need to do now is to plan strategically to support and position Scotland's universities for the long term in a global context.

There is the immediate task in the coming weeks of examining the impact of a very tight comprehensive spending review. I have asked Universities Scotland to present a detailed case so that the Government can clearly establish funding needs over the next three years.

Scotland has been a learning nation in the past and Scots who have benefited from a university education have contributed to economic success the world over. A Scotland that is a learning nation of the future must draw on all of its talents.

Fiona Hyslop is Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning in the Scottish Executive.

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