Since their introduction in 2008, free tuition fees in Scotland have been the cornerstone of the Scottish National Party’s higher education policy. The justification for this policy is simple and was best summarised by then Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop, who said “We believe access to education should be based on ability to learn, not ability to pay”.
This is an attractive argument: ensuring that university admissions remain meritocratic is of vital importance for both moral and practical reasons. It has, however, become apparent that rather than supporting equality of opportunity in education, the SNP policy in this area has left many of Scotland’s poorest students behind.
All Scottish students studying for their first undergraduate degree in Scotland pay zero tuition fees. This has been a longstanding policy designed to bridge the attainment gap between students of various incomes. The method for funding this policy is two-fold: the Scottish government pays a fee of £1,250 each academic year for each pupil studying at a university while simultaneously placing caps on the number of domestic students that a university can admit. Universities are subject to hefty fines if they admit more domestic students than their government-enforced cap allows.
The fee provided to Scottish universities for each Scottish student pales in comparison to the £9,250 per student that a university can charge a student from elsewhere in the UK, and it certainly falls far short of the typical fees paid by international students.
This has led to perverse incentives for Scottish universities: there are huge financial gains to be made by prioritising non-domestic students for admissions and this is exactly what we have seen. SNP policy in this area has created a system where the lowest-income students in Scotland are less likely than their English counterparts to be able to attend university; the benefits from the policy being accrued by higher-income students who would have attended university regardless.
These low-income students are particularly excluded from Scotland’s four elite ancient universities (St. Andrews, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen) who are able to attract large numbers of students from outside of Scotland. In 2021, the universities of St. Andrews and Edinburgh earned a mere 15 and 18 per cent of their respective total income from the Scottish Funding Council which reimburses universities for admitting Scottish students. It is therefore not surprising that they have been forced to focus on generating income elsewhere.
Scotland’s universities are in a state of disarray; the universities with the reputation required to attract non-domiciled students have maintained funding levels for teaching and research by admitting fewer Scottish students, while the universities without this option have suffered from large financial deficits. In both cases, Scottish students have suffered from lower quality teaching and fewer places than their counterparts in the rest of the UK.
The solution to this problem is simple: end the disastrous policy regime by aligning university fees with the rest of the UK’s universities. This would not only create more opportunities for Scottish students, who would be more likely to consider studying elsewhere in the UK, but would also increase the number of domestic students Scottish universities could admit. This would however be a drastically unpopular decision: the students already admitted to Scottish universities have high incentives to maintain the current system at the expense of their peers.
Encouraging Scottish students to study in the rest of the UK would also be counterproductive to the SNP’s aims of isolating Scottish students from the rest of the UK in order to increase the nationalist sentiment that is required for their future independence referendum to succeed. It is, however, vital to prevent the future decay of Scotland’s great universities.
In order to give Scottish students of all income backgrounds the greatest range of choices for their future, the Scottish government must end the no tuition fees policy and allow their universities to compete with other UK universities. It is only with this change that we can close the educational attainment gap that has been generated as a result of this disastrous policy and generate the funding required to educate Scotland’s students.