University leaders are wary of calling for the introduction of tuition fees in Scotland because they fear being punished by the Holyrood government if they do, according to one vice-chancellor.
Craig Mahoney, principal and vice-chancellor of the University of West Scotland, said that charging for higher education would provide much-needed income for institutions and encourage students to adopt a consumerist approach.
But Professor Mahoney told Times Higher Education that fees were “not talked about very often” among principals. In a “close-knit” country like Scotland, he said, “opposing government policy isn’t always welcomed”.
The Scottish National Party has made maintaining free higher education a cornerstone of its administration – going as far as erecting a monument to the policy at Heriot-Watt University.
Professor Mahoney, formerly the chief executive of the Higher Education Academy, said: “I believe this is a conversation we have to have; I believe there is an appetite to discuss this. But the concern is, if you are seen to be affronting current government policy, that may cause problems.”
Professor Mahoney complained that grants from the Scottish Funding Council provided the equivalent of about £8,000 per student at best, leaving his institution with a multimillion-pound shortfall compared with English institutions.
In addition, about 1,600 UWS students are classed as “fees only”, meaning the university receives only £1,820 per student and does not receive the teaching grant element from the funding council – leaving another £10 million gap.
More funding would be invaluable in improving UWS’s facilities and providing more student support, Professor Mahoney said.
He added that learners would be more demanding if they were paying for their education and argued that this would be a good thing. He described Scottish universities’ “variable” performance in the National Student Survey as “disturbing”.
Among the options Professor Mahoney is considering at UWS is offering refunds to non-European Union and English fee-paying students who fail to complete their courses.
A Scottish government spokesman said that student satisfaction levels were above the UK average, adding that the fact that 120,000 students at Scottish universities did not have to pay fees “is important for them, their families and the economy”.