A political economy of uncertainty for young people

The outlook for young people in Scotland is bleak and the SNP don’t know how to make it better, says PETER MCFARLANE.


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.

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8 thoughts on “A political economy of uncertainty for young people

  1. Couple of questions for the author, just for clarification:

    1. Do you support tuition fees?
    2. What radical alternative are Labour offering to address the funding gap? (The CGF is not a radical solution.)

  2. Excuse my ignorance, but when Labour were in power at Holyrood, didn’t they also introduce legislation that only benefitted student domiciled in Scotland, legislation that students from the rest of the UK couldn’t take advantage of while students from the rest of Europe could? Was that equally “open to legal challenges from England” and just as likely to have “contravened European equality and human rights laws”. Was that also a “clear and contemptible act of discrimination against those perceived to be from another country”? Was that compatible with a “social democracy” or do Scottish Labour not extol that kind of thing?

    Or is it okay when it’s Labour doing these kind of things?

  3. I get the impression that the Labour party think its their job to oppose everything the Scottish government try to do,whatever the merits of the policy.

  4. gain, Glasgow has been ‘controlled’ by Labour for many a year and still it is a high unemployment area, suffers extreme deprivation but many of its councillors/MP’s and MSP’s live in ‘posh area’s’ and big houses. WHY?

  5. Which party introduced tuition fees?

    Which party continues to support tuition fees?

    Which party ruined the economy?

    Which party created a myriad of funding black holes, be it education, defence, health, transport, etc?

    The answer of course is LABOUR!

  6. As a current student with no work experience and finding it pretty hard going just to find the energy to look for work its things like this that really interest me, and I do agree there needs to be much more work done here.

    However – this is what annoys me intensely about Labour atm –

    Your claim that the high fees on English students is turning them away isn’t correct. But I do take your point and you are 100% right in that the SNP are relying on demand to fund the funding gap (although what are Labour proposing to do here? Create tuition fees for Scottish students? What other answer is there atm?) but in terms of less English students coming to Scotland, English students going to Uni is down 12%, so its evidently a scheme that is not actually causing a great loss in supply (and anyway it doesn’t matter as before they did not pay – it raises money either way – although pricing may be an issue if it deters at a level that it’d be more profitable to lower fees and let more students come in)

    In terms of Scottish students to applying despite to decrease, its possible that there is confusion over if they pay or not, but more likely its connected to the cost of going to Uni anyway (here I think we need more nationalised services, such as transport to be able to lower the cost of travel

    Using the Commonwealth programmes is cheap though. You know fine well that these arn’t affordable or possible to be done across Scotland. Glasgow Council are paying towards employers taking on graduates with the hope that it helps growth overall. Its about sustaining and taking advantage of the growth created by the games. Which some will of course question, but either way its not some ‘glorious Labour policy’.

    I actually think your post is quite positive in that your actually identifying what the hell Labour should be campaigning for and a very serious issue in society at the moment (that is not going to be solved by private means) – but I don’t know what your ideas are or the opposition to the SNP is here?

    Do we create tuition fees? Pay for graduate schemes (that may or may not be sustainable but thats besides the point)?
    The one thing you do grasp is lowering the cost of living. That goes beyond students and young people and is something SNP should be considering, but Labour needs to step up their game and start coming up with ideas.

    As you say graduate and apprenticeship initiatives are good – but whats paying for them and why didn’t Labour campaign on this (am a would be Labour supporter – but atm am left confused by Labour, and not sure what more the SNP could be doing (there far from perfect but surely they are doing ‘okayish’ with a pretty dire situation?)

    A worry though – when was the last time any Scottish party really started campaigning for young people? These problems are just going to get worse and in the end add to the already bulging social problems Scotland faces (and as Jenny points out – Glasgow especially).

  7. The way people go on about this funding gap you’d think English uni’s are going to be awash with money overnight in comparison to Scottish universities. It’s not as if all the English students are going to pay back the increases in a “wanner”. It’s going to come in dribs and drabs over a hugely prolonged period.
    Secondly, your dead right about living costs. It’s often just too expensive to study. I have a friend who has had to take a year out simply to be able to cover rent and other things to study in Aberdeen. I can only imagine how bad it would be if we had followed the English example of tuition fees.
    Thirdly, what is the point in the Scottish Parliament and policy divergence if people afterwards don’t accept services being different according to policy? As far as I’m aware the Scottish Parliament is there to reflect the view of the Scottish people; what’s the point of it reflecting the views of everyone else as well? I think if you were to ask the average Scot on the street if they thought education according to ability to learn not income was right they would agree; it’s not populism its a principle that has been around for a long time. What a shame that Scottish Labour doesn’t see this is what people want and that it is a principle worth saving. How can Labour not understand that?

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