SNP urged to re-evaluate fees

Opposition calls on Holyrood to consider option in wake of Budget report. Hannah Fearn reports

August 12, 2010

The opposition in Holyrood has called on the Scottish National Party-led government to think again about introducing tuition fees to avoid chronic underinvestment in Scottish universities.

The call for change follows the publication of an independent report that says the country can no longer afford to offer free universal public services. Scottish Labour and Conservative politicians labelled the government's promise to keep tuition fees off the agenda "unrealistic".

Both parties have asked the SNP to commission an independent review of university funding, but the ruling party has so far refused.

The education minister, Mike Russell, has come under increasing pressure after the recent publication of the Independent Budget Review. It says that the fees question is no longer a matter of "desirability, but of affordability".

It suggests that the government consider tuition fees or an alternative to ensure the competitiveness of Scottish higher education.

Murdo Fraser, deputy leader of the Scottish Conservatives, said that with health spending ring-fenced, universities would bear the brunt of fiscal cuts in the country. "Higher education in Scotland is looking at an anticipated 20 per cent real-terms cut, and it's going to have a devastating impact on the sector," he said.

"The urgency of the situation has become even more acute on the back of the publication of the government's Budget report. There is a head of steam building up that will be impossible to ignore."

Claire Baker, Scottish Labour's higher education spokeswoman, said the SNP's policy would leave a devastating legacy for higher education.

"Its approach has been to stick its head in the sand - it's not being realistic. We have concerns about the long-term sustainability of the sector. That will have consequences for Scotland and where it will end up in the long term."

She said attempts to address the issue had been "kicked into the long grass", with the Joint Future Thinking Taskforce, currently discussing the future of universities in Scotland, unable to cover the major question of funding. "The government set-up has failed to take up and tackle this issue and we think there needs to be a proper independent review," she said.

A spokesman for the Scottish government said: "The Cabinet secretary has made clear he wants to encourage all sensible ideas, no matter how radical. Only one measure has been ruled out - the introduction of tuition fees - which of course the Independent Budget Review did not actually recommend."

The National Union of Students Scotland was set to meet with the SNP this week to discuss the future of the academy's funding.

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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