Tim Luckhurst: Scottish universities will sink without top-up fees

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When top-up fees pushed the Government's parliamentary majority closer to collapse than whether or not the country should go to war, a powerful odour of sanctimony could be detected in Edinburgh.

There would be no recourse to the vile new funding mechanism in fragrant, progressive Scotland. The faithful taxpayer would continue to subsidise all who qualify for higher education.

With characteristic chutzpah, MSPs ignored the inconvenient truth that the taxpayer in question is more likely to live in London than Glasgow and that, actually, he is already subsidising Scotland's university sector to an unreasonable extent.

The boast that Holyrood abolished tuition fees is a lie. MSPs are impotent to eradicate the liability imposed by the sovereign UK parliament. Abolition actually means that, since 2001, the UK taxpayer has paid the fees of Scottish students but not their English contemporaries.

It was a nice deal for Scotland's 21 universities and colleges of higher education – one that helped them to meet and then exceed the target of getting 50 per cent of the peer group into higher education. Few complained until the advent of top-up fees. Then recognition dawned.

Of course, Scotland's university sector did not complain that it was being cosseted at the expense of English universities. But astute academics detected disadvantage to come.

They feared that the consequence of dismissing top-up fees in Scotland would be a massive shortfall in investment. From its temporary position of advantage, Scotland's higher education sector would fall far and fast. There would be a brain drain to England. The finest minds would be drawn towards higher salaries and enhanced facilities. Talented undergraduates would follow them.

Scotland's universities would be reduced to also-ran status, providing competent teaching to average students. A senior figure at Universities Scotland said that Scotland would not even try to compete with the "English super-universities". Future ambition would be limited to adequacy. Another prophesied that foreign students would continue to be fooled by Scotland's reputation while the standards that generated it would be eradicated.

Typically of a profession that too often parades the virtue of intellectual honesty while refusing to enunciate controversial truths in public, many of these warnings were whispered in private. But recently, despite an influx of English tuition fees refugees, prospects have become so grave that a few bold types have broken cover.

In March the chief executive of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council warned that students will start to "vote with their feet" as the funding gap opens up. Last month, Professor David Bell of the University of Stirling advised the Scottish Parliament to "look very carefully" at performing a U-turn on tuition fees. The University of Glasgow is cutting £7m from its budget and has refused to rule out compulsory redundancies.

Problems go deeper. Scotland possesses a declining number of faculties with global reputations. Prestigious institutions including Edinburgh and Glasgow have tumbled down UK rankings. No Scottish university ranks in any list of a world top 10. Only St Andrews makes it into the British elite.

Just as the Welsh Assembly voted to indulge the fantasy that it can insulate the principality's universities from the cold winds of change, Scotland was beginning to perceive the scale of its problem. The Scottish Executive is already failing to keep pace with the funding that top-up fees will deliver to universities in England. Trying to catch up will mean using yet more UK tax revenue.

Devolution has spawned many myths, but the pretence that ministers in Edinburgh have devised a pain-free method of funding is probably the biggest of the lot. Scotland's rejection of tuition and top-up fees is a temporary diversion from reality bought with the Chancellor's largesse during a period when Gordon Brown has blessed his native land with lavish subsidies.

Such profligacy was never going to last and the only real surprise is that the pot may run dry before Scottish trade union votes reward Brown with elevation to the premiership. No British government can legitimately fund Scottish students to the detriment of English ones, and the consequences of pretending the opposite are beginning to bite. Scotland has not pioneered a distinctive approach to higher education funding – it has merely postponed reality. Wales will not even be able to do that.

The writer is a former editor of 'The Scotsman' and a former adviser to Donald Dewar