Free Higher Education and the most expensive degree in the UK – a contradiction too far?

If the Government really cares about its international standing, then it needs to think harder about rest of UK fees, argues CLAIRE BAKER


So Edinburgh University has made the decision to charge £9,000 a year fees for rest of the UK students, the most expensive degree in the UK. Recently rated 20th in the QS World University Rankings, they clearly think they’re worth it. And possibly they are. Edinburgh has worked extremely hard to achieve this rating, makes a significant contribution to the Scottish economy, and is the ‘jewel’ (in terms of world ranking at least) in Scottish universities’ crown. But that crown is becoming a bit tarnished as day by day more Scottish institutions announce £9,000 fees for RUK students.

But are we surprised?  Not really – but disappointed?  Undoubtedly. Prior to the Scottish election, the University Scotland Technical Group on HE – established by the Scottish Government to look at determining the funding gap and then how to fill it – estimated variable RUK fees would be set in the range of £5,250 – £6,375. Making the announcement post-election to the Scottish Parliament, Mike Russell said that we could “expect a range of fees for other UK students – from £1800 to £9000”, a predication that is looking increasingly unlikely.

We all accept the need to increase RUK student fees. Initially introduced by the Labour-led Scottish Executive at the time they abolished tuition fees in Scotland, RUK fees were set at £1,850 for most students and were designed to guard against an influx of ‘fee refugees’ to Scottish universities squeezing out places for Scottish domiciled students. I accept that as the Tory-led UK Government lifted the cap to £9,000 the Scottish Government had to respond. Although the decision to remove the teaching grant for RUK students is a tactic enabling the Scottish Government  to protect places for Scottish domiciled students (though they still have the tricky issue of EU students, but that’s for another post), it left Scottish universities having to charge increased fees or face a funding gap.

So I accept the inevitability of what had to be done but there were still choices to be made – whether the fees would be a flat rate or variable, what kind of appropriate access programmes and bursaries would be introduced, whether the fees should match the excesses of the rest of the RUK system pound for pound – even go beyond – or whether they should try to better reflect the principles that the Scottish education system is founded on. The fees being set so far show little restraint or sympathy to the Scottish funded education system which is supported by the majority of the Parliament. But I suppose it comes down to do we care?  Do we care how Scotland treats rest of the UK students, do we care about the impression given to those outside Scotland about what kind of county we are, and what our values are?  We may feel that the UK Government has set the conditions but do we really have to replicate and exceed the faults in their system?  It may be that it is the principals that are letting us down on this point, but for a Scottish Government which is so concerned about Scotland international standing, it is a question they may have to answer too.

Claire Baker is Scottish Labour’s Shadow Minister for Further & Higher Education and a Regional List MSP for Fife.

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8 thoughts on “Free Higher Education and the most expensive degree in the UK – a contradiction too far?

  1. I heard an English person asked a young Scots girl why the Scots have free prescriptons and No University fees, the reply she gave was we want our young people to be well educated and healthy, a wonderful idea which used to be ours.

  2. Tuition fees. Something the Tories wanted to do but couldn’t. Something that the Lib Dems objected to and campaigned against but kept.

    Tuition fees has shamed the Labour party and is clear from Ms Baker’s comments will continue to haunt the party in the future.

  3. An excellent post making the very fair & reasonable point that most Scots really won’t want to send the message out that it’s OK for English students to come & study here as long as they are rich.

    I think it is the principals who are at fault here, Mike Russell may have voodoo dolls of them to stick pins into, good luck to him.

    It’s not a happy state of affairs.

  4. Am I wrong but is a degree 4 years in Scotland and three in England? Also was it not Labour who introduced and done away with the principles of free education?

    Why does this article not mention the different timescales and instead goes for the headline .

    Perhaps the reason Labour was rejected in the Holyrood elections was their lack of honesty and sincerity.

    Just a thought.

  5. Here’s a wee conundrum.

    (1) Scottish Universities, from next year, charge fees to RUK because they can. But of course they can’t charge students from the rest of the EU, so everyone in the EU *except* in RUK can come here for free.

    (2) (Just for the sake of argument.) The SNP win their referendum, and Scotland becomes an independent state within the EU (‘independence in Europe’). And that is the real thing, just like they, er, seem to say (sometimes, and, except in internet chatrooms, rather quietly). And it is only three years away (isn’t it?), so the students on course may well still be ploughing their way through their Honours degrees.

    (3) Suddenly, Scottish Universities can’t charge students from RUK any more, because EU rules say so.

    (4) Whoops! Plan B, Mike Russell? Reckon those rocks might be melting in the sun by then!

  6. Should the debate not focus on free education for all?

    Engligh students are paying a very large fee regardless of where they live. The scottish dimension is trivial compared to the fees in England. We are looking at the effect in Scotland – address the CAUSE – English University fees driven by the UK government.

  7. Couldn’t agree more, George. But ‘true’ nationalists couldn’t agree, could they? For there is an interesting extra point: while voters in a devolved Scotland have some sort of say-so on fees in England, by helping vote for a UK government which might abolish them (go, Ed!), voters in an independent Scotland would have *none at all*.

  8. Probably folk have given up reading this strand, but an update in the light of the funding announcement is maybe (just) worth making. I’m delighted in one sense about the university funding uplift, because I work in a university. But this piece of legerdemain is possible because of a colossal cut in college funding and (so rumour has it) with an eye to a potential ‘withering’ of S6 in schools. Colleges work with some of the most deprived folk in our community, giving folk who’ve been dealt a tough hand in life a decent chance. My question is: what does this decision do for social justice? And what does it say about SNP priorities?

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