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The beginning of the end for free education

January 5, 2011
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(Following on from our mention of the Scottish Government’s Green Paper on Higher Education funding, we’ve reproduced an article written by GAEC member Liam Turbett last month going into a bit more detail about the proposals. Originally published at SSY.org.uk)

Screwing English, Welsh & Northern Irish students, screwing Scottish students (but after they graduate!), turning over education to big business, slashing spending, or relying on charitable donations – that’s the spectacularly shit choices for the future of our universities and colleges outlined in today’s long-awaited Scottish Government review on higher education funding.

It’s the first steps in undoing what’s gradually become accepted in Scotland over the past decade – that education should be free. In 1999, it was, ironically enough, the Lib Dems who oversaw the abolishing of fees, and then in 2007, it was the SNP who got rid of the graduate endowment, a one-off sum paid after completing studies. It’s put Scotland miles ahead of the rest of the UK in providing access to education for all, and is one of the best achievements of the devolved administration. Today’s announcement now sets the ground for its gradual reverse.

There’s little in the way of surprise in the proposals, coming just one week after the House of Commons vote which will see tuition fees at English universities rocket to between £6-9000 a year from 2012, largely to substitute a dramatic fall in state funding. Given the knock-on impact that the changes in England will have on Scottish funding via the Barnett Formula, the argument being put forward by the Scottish Government, and Scottish unis themselves, is that something is going to have to give.

However, what’s put forward in today’s report is only tentative at this stage, with the SNP to line up their concrete policy in the coming months, prior to May’s Holyrood election. As such, the paper is more a list of possibilities rather than any definite policy proposals, but nonetheless it does point in a direction which has worrying implications for future Scottish students.

While much is being made of the fact it rules out “up-front” tuition fees, this is a virtually meaningless phrase – no one, in England or elsewhere, pays up-front tuition fees. Almost everyone gets a student loan to cover their fees, which is then paid back (with interest) in the decades following graduation. This is why it’s a total myth that a “graduate contribution” is somehow a progressive alternative to fees – they’re the same thing. Yet a graduate tax is exactly what the Scottish review lays out.

In all, there’s six different proposals in the review, in order to “stimulate a debate” over the coming months on the best solution for the future of Higher Education. In reality though, most of them are complementary and in all likelihood we’ll see a mixture of them being implemented in 2012, to coincide with the changes in England. To summarise, the main policy ideas in the paper are:

  • for the state to keep its role as the main source of education funding
  • for the state to remain as a funder of education, but alongside a graduate contribution
  • increasing fees for English, Welsh & Northern Irish students, who currently pay just under £2000 a year, to £6,000
  • increasing income from donations & charity
  • increase investment from businesses
  • “efficiency savings” – a.k.a. cuts

We need to be clear that all of these – with the exception of the first (ie. the status quo) – are regressive measures that seek to bring individual contributions into the fray, negate state funding and add to the overall marketisation of education. The idea that business contributions can replace state funding is particularly dangerous; while there’ll be plenty of money from the likes of BAE Systems for cutting-edge bomb making and Glaxo for profit-oriented medical research, what about every other subject that isn’t worthy of corporate investment? Only last week, staff at Glasgow Uni had to come together to vote down management proposals to allow business members onto the university court.

The SNP will argue that they’re only implementing these measures through necessity, and that unlike the Tories in Westminster, they’re not hellbent on privatising education. But this doesn’t change what they’re trying to enact – we need ‘Scotland’s Champions’ to stand up to the Coalition, not cower and implement the cuts, fees or backdoor privatisation on their behalf. As for making students from the other parts of the UK pay more – in a bid to quell overblown fears about thousands of “fees refugees” pouring over the border seeking cheaper education – it’s divisive and unfair.

We’ve already seen thousands of students on the streets and university, college and school campuses across Scotland – while our ‘representatives’ in NUS Scotland might be happy to settle for a graduate tax, let’s make it clear that we won’t. A huge fight to defend the principle of free education is on our hands, but we’re entering it in good stead, with even today’s announcement made in virtual secrecy – its date made public only yesterday due to the fear of student protests at its unveiling. Ahead of the Scottish election, maximum pressure must be placed on every party to not go down the road of a graduate tax or fees – and after their election, to stick to their fucking promises.

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