The news that there have been over 10% fewer applications to Scottish universities by Scottish students may not appear startling at first glance. Given that there is still plenty of time for would-be students to apply; experts have suggested that young people are merely taking longer to think over the next step in their lives. Alternatively, some say that the rise in tuition fees south of the border has left young people in Scotland confused as to whether or not they will receive their education free of charge or have to pay the premium rates of their English and Welsh counterparts.
Viewing the introduction of tuition fees as a standalone variable provides erroneous analyses. While it may be true that young people are, indeed, taking longer to consider their options, this points to wider events that may have had an impact on their decision making. On the other hand, if we were to tie levels of youth unemployment to the figure we are presented with a much better understanding of the stark choices facing young people in Scotland today.
It has shocked many to learn of young men and women across Scotland struggling to find employment. Whether you are a graduate leaving university with a degree, skilled and just out of college, or a school-leaver looking to take that first step into the world of work there is no doubt you have struggled in the current climate.
Firstly, graduates cannot find relevant work. Unemployment among graduates is forecast to increase over the next few years, and those in non-graduate positions stands at around 40% with a knock-on effect for non-graduates seeking work. Meanwhile, the number of Scottish youths under the age of 19 who claimed unemployment benefits in 2009 stood at around 36,000. More recent figures suggest the figure has risen to around 40,000, with one in five young Scots on the dole demonstrating a worryingly sharp increase in just 2 years.
Whether or not students of all levels have to pay tuition fees, these are not the only costs they incur. The cost of living has increased exponentially (inflation stands at about 5%) and Under-25s are racking up average debts of £10,000 according to Citizen’s Advice Scotland. With little opportunity to pay off this kind of debilitating liability, who would want to load themselves with the costs of 4 years of university?
The problem is, clearly, manifold. Whether the SNP want to face up to it or not, Scotland faces a major funding gap in Higher Education. Estimates vary wildly between the SNP figures and everyone else’s’, the black hole is thought to be between £93 million (SNP figures) and £268 million (Office for Fair Access). By claiming that the hole could be plugged by charging English students astronomical sums for an education, they left themselves susceptible to volatility on the demand side. It looks as though English students are turning their backs on Scottish universities; and rightly so. Figures show that applications to Scottish universities by English students are down by 4.5%. While it remains to be seen if the drop will bear out, if it does SNP strategy will leave both universities out of pocket and the public purse filling yet another void they have created through unrestrained populism.
Indeed, to claim the current policy is discriminatory would be an understatement. Salmond and co. have left themselves open to legal challenges from England, and may even have contravened European equality and human rights laws. This clear and contemptible act of discrimination against those perceived to be from another country is hardly compatible with the social democracy the SNP were purported to extol.
Secondly, ‘making an investment’ in young people’s education is all well and good, but any investor, public or private, expects a return. Salmond has long claimed that graduates repay society by putting the education they have acquired to use in the economy, attracting international businesses to Scotland and so on. However, what chance have Scottish graduates got in the current economy? Yet another dip in private sector expansion has been exacerbated by the constant focus on Scottish independence, which has led to uncertainty and investors looking to more certain climates for their investment plans. When employers don’t set up in Scotland, those who have the skills will move to where the jobs are.
Scottish Labour has clearly recognised the problem. In Labour controlled Glasgow City Council 1000 graduate positions are being created through the Commonwealth Graduate Fund for young people. While this is not a wholesale solution, it is certainly a step in the right direction in a city where unemployment among 18-24 year olds runs at double the average for adults and graduate employment has risen to 20% over the last 3 years. Similarly, the Commonwealth Apprenticeship Initiative and the Commonwealth Jobs Fund have seen more than 1800 apprentices taken on over the past two years.
This week, figures are expected to show that youth unemployment across the UK has passed the one million mark. The SNP, at least in Scotland, have shown that they do not have the interests of young people in mind. It is the job of Scottish Labour to hold this government to account, not be afraid to offer radical alternatives, and expose these hollow policies and inadequacies in governance for exactly what they are.
Peter McFarlane is a Labour Party activist and works in media research and analysis in Edinburgh.