Free university tuition in Scotland has not benefited the poor, say academics

They argue that Scotland’s universities have been 'prioritised' by Holyrood at the expense of schools and colleges

The Scottish Government’s long standing policy of offering free university tuition for domestic students has not benefited the poor and has led to existing social inequalities becoming more entrenched, academics have claimed.

The conclusion, which challenges the assumption that the abolition of tuition fees in Scotland 15 years ago has improved people’s opportunities and made the country a fairer place to live, is set out in a new book edited by three education specialists at the University of Edinburgh.

The authors argue that Scotland’s universities have been “prioritised” by Holyrood at the expense of schools and colleges, where existing inequalities have become further embedded.

Public money currently diverted to universities should be redirected to schools, they say, suggesting that a fairer way to pay for tuition fees would be through a “graduate tax”.

“A progressive graduate tax, as well as means-tested student support, might be a more effective way of promoting social equality in higher education.

The SNP has long supported the continuation of free tuition fees and the policy was highlighted by Nicola Sturgeon as one of her party’s core beliefs during her speech to its conference in October. “For as long as I am First Minister, there will be no tuition fees in Scotland,” she said.

Her predecessor as leader, Alex Salmond, has also described free university tuition as the policy of which he is most proud. Last year, he unveiled a taxpayer-funded monument at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University inscribed with his 2011 promise: “The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scottish students.”

But the new book, entitled Higher Education in Scotland and the UK, suggests that the glowing words from politicians have disguised the fact that the policy has not actually made the country fairer. “Despite political rhetoric surrounding free higher education in Scotland, the system has failed to produce more egalitarian outcomes compared with the rest of the UK,” says the concluding chapter by Professor Sheila Riddell, of Edinburgh’s Moray House School of Education.

Alex Salmond has described free university tuition as the policy of which he is most proud.

“Universities in Scotland have flourished over the past decade, but the fact that they have been prioritised for funding over schools and colleges has had some unwelcome consequences in terms of reproducing existing social inequalities.”

Arguing that the most important factor affecting the success of students from different social classes is their school attainment, she points out that Scottish councils have been forced to cut school budgets while university teaching grants have enjoyed greater protection.

“There is strong evidence to suggest that if Scotland wishes to improve university participation by students from the poorest backgrounds, the most effective way of doing this is to target resources on schools in the most deprived neighbourhoods. This may call for a re-examination of funding priorities across the entire education sector,” she added.

“A progressive graduate tax, as well as means-tested student support, might be a more effective way of promoting social equality in higher education. However, this would involve greater critical scrutiny of universal free higher education and...this has not been encouraged.”

Responding to the book’s claims, the Scottish Government said young people from deprived areas in Scotland were now more likely to take part in higher education by the age of 30 than they were in 2006/07. “Our commitment to free tuition, the prospect of the lowest average debt and the best graduate prospects in the UK saw a record number of Scots accepted to study at Scottish universities in 2015/16,” a spokeswoman said.

“But we recognise there is more to do to engage all children and young people in education and improve literacy. That’s why we launched the Scottish Attainment Challenge, backed by the £100m Attainment Scotland Fund. We have been very clear that we want every child, whatever their background, to have an equal chance of benefitting from higher education if that is their choice.”

The Scottish Government has also set up a new commission on widening access to universities. In its interim report last month, it suggested the current application system was unfair and that universities should consider accepting poorer pupils with lower grades than their wealthier peers.