Free university tuition in Scotland may not survive growing pressures from multiple directions – John McLellan

Humza Yousaf’s questioning of free school meals for all suggests other universal benefits may come under increased scrutiny
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The rocks will melt with the sun before there are university tuition fees in Scotland, said then First Minister Alex Salmond in 2011, and that slight bubbling sound might just be higher education lava about to flow to Old College from Arthur’s Seat.

Although Bute House’s new occupant Humza Yousaf has insisted current universal benefits like free undergraduate tuition will not be affected, he cannot have been unaware the prospect would be raised when he suggested a plan to offer free school meals in secondary schools would be scrapped, and that tough spending choices must be faced.

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Why, Mr Yousaf asked, should his daughter receive a free meal when he receives a First Minister’s salary, saying “I think the better way to use the money is to target it to those that need it absolutely the most.” This is precisely the argument opposition MSPs have made for years about universal free prescriptions and tuition fees, always shouted down with a counter-argument that administering means tests would cost more than it saved.

Universities rely on foreign students to help cover the cost of educating Scottish students (Picture: Jane Barlow)Universities rely on foreign students to help cover the cost of educating Scottish students (Picture: Jane Barlow)
Universities rely on foreign students to help cover the cost of educating Scottish students (Picture: Jane Barlow)

If Mr Yousaf’s £165,678 a year can run to school meals, it can cover undergraduate study, and logically the principle of targeted relief and affordability should apply to all benefits. Sensing a change in the political weather, Edinburgh University Principal Sir Peter Mathieson has now proposed there should be “calm consideration" of university fees for those who can afford it.

Sir Peter is not wrong that something needs to change about the way universities are funded, not just because the Scottish Government has withdrawn an extra £46m the universities and colleges were expecting this year, but because they have been under pressure for years.

As he points out, the guarantee of free tuition for all means the Scottish Government caps the number of Scottish students because of the expense, but it also puts pressure on institutions to admit as many fee-paying, overseas students as possible, particularly on expensive post-graduate courses.

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“The funding that we receive for [Scottish] students is inadequate to pay the full costs of their education and has not increased for a number of years,” he said. “RUK fees have also been fixed and are therefore being eroded. International students pay higher tuition fees and therefore cross-subsidise ‘home’ students.”

The result of the need to “cross-subsidise” is the creation of cheap courses from existing resources and modules specifically to target the foreign market as a revenue-raising exercise. All universities do it, which is why university districts bustle with middle-class Asian students in numbers never seen even 20 years ago.

The most visible sign of the impact of competing in an intensely competitive market is the proliferation of purpose-built student accommodation, against which so many local people rail. No doubt many of those people also think university education should be free, but there is a direct relationship between the need to subsidise local students and the need to house their cross-subsidising foreign classmates.

The brutal truth is Scottish universities can no longer afford to offer the breadth and length of courses to the number of students they do now as long as they rely on taxpayers’ money. Four-year degrees in history of art are fine if students are prepared to pay, but “calm consideration” is needed for a lot more about Scotland’s universities than just tuition fees.