‘How to pay for the ideal of free education’

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THIS is not a particularly good time to be a student anywhere in Britain, including the 55,000 or so in higher education here in Edinburgh.

Job prospects for graduates are worsening, while part-time jobs during studies are few and far between. Substantial grants are a distant memory and now some face a dizzying £36,000 bill for fees.

All of which makes the problem we report today, of a few students at Edinburgh University who have to commute to digs in Musselburgh, seem like just a little local difficulty.

It was the much bigger issue, of massive fee hikes for UK students from outside Scotland, which led to a takeover of the university’s George Square Lecture Theatre last week.

In some ways it was refreshing to see students once again taking a stand against what they quite reasonably regard as an unfair barrier to going to university.

But who exactly was their protest aimed at? The university and those other institutions which have also set annual fees of up to £9000? How else are they supposed to start bridging the massive funding gap after English universities were allowed to put up their fees?

The protesters also blame Holyrood. Here, at least, there is a realistic target, as Scottish ministers gave the green light for the fees hike and some think the SNP took the chance to drive yet another wedge between Scotland and the rest of the UK.

But the SNP also had little choice, as extending its laudable policy of “free” education for Scots to other students would have widened the funding gap further, and created “fee refugees” from south of the Border.

So it is little wonder that while the Edinburgh protesters are clear about WHAT they object to, they seem less certain WHO to object to.

In fact, as the makers and shapers of policy, politicians of all parties are to blame – particularly at Westminster but also at Holyrood. As voters, we are all complicit to a degree, as it is clear that we have made them too cautious to embrace the obvious solution to the dilemma of how we educate the next generation.

Higher education should be free for all, at the point of delivery. The only restriction for entry should be ability to learn, not the ability to pay tuition fees because a student comes from a wealthy family or can tolerate the prospect of living with loans.

How to pay for that ideal? All society benefits from it, so general taxation should continue to make the biggest contribution, as it does now.

And the top-up part, now covered by fees, should follow the principle of “the user pays”, but not up front.

The answer is a graduate tax, paid for once a degree has provided the inarguable benefit of a good wage.