Scottish Labour’s “direction of travel” is to rule out the introduction of tuition fees north of the border, according to the party’s shadow education secretary.
Kezia Dugdale said she was “very hopeful” she would be able to pledge to keep undergraduate study free but cautioned that this would only happen if sufficient funding was also available to widen access and to reduce the student drop-out rate in the country.
The MSP struck a different tone to that previously adopted by Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont, who said in 2012 that it was “not viable” to fund a mass participation higher education sector using only public funds and claimed that such a system was “essentially regressive” because it helped a disproportionate number of graduates from privileged backgrounds.
If “no fees” policy is included in Scottish Labour’s manifesto for the 2016 election to the country’s parliament, it would appear to secure free university tuition in Scotland for the foreseeable future, given that the party’s main rival, the ruling SNP, has made free higher education a cornerstone of its administration.
The Scottish government also announced yesterday it would offer a £4,500 loan to postgraduate students on certain courses to assist them with their living costs from 2015.
Speaking at a conference in Edinburgh yesterday, Ms Dugdale claimed Scotland had the worst record among the home nations for student support and widening access and also expressed concern about the drop-out rate.
If Scottish Labour is unable to commit to tackling these issues, the party “cannot commit to the top line policy about free tuition”, Ms Dugdale said, but she added that she was “very hopeful” this pledge could be made. She said a party review of the issue was “coming to a close”.
Pressed on whether this meant Scottish Labour was poised to rule out introducing tuition fees, Ms Dugdale added: “That is the direction of travel we are committed to going in.”
While Scottish-domiciled students attend university in the country for free, they are charged up to £9,000 a year to study elsewhere in the UK. Students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland are charged up to £9,000 to study in Scotland but European Union students also study for free in Scotland because of EU rules.
There had been warnings that, had Scotland had voted for independence in September, the country’s universities might have been forced to offer free tuition to students from across the UK – with potentially significant financial implications.
Speaking at the same “Reimagining the University” conference organised by trade unions, Scottish education secretary Michael Russell warned that, if tuition fees were introduced, the people who would suffer the most would be the poorest students.
Alice Brown, chairman of the Scottish Funding Council, said that higher education nevertheless remained a “closed fiefdom” for part of society, either due to economic poverty or poverty of aspiration.