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What is there for higher education in the Scottish election manifestos?

Matt Grogan picks through party manifestos for higher education content ahead of the 2021 Scottish Parliament election
This article is more than 2 years old

Matt Grogan is public affairs and policy projects officer at the Royal Academy of Engineering

It’s less than two weeks until voters in three of the four nations of the UK vote in the local elections.

And in the time since we put the Senedd manifestos under our wonk microscope, a host of major and minor parties in Scotland have found time to publish their own. As before, we’re here to pull out the best and weirdest higher education ideas on offer for the voters of Scotland.

The Scottish National Party

The big question of these elections is whether the SNP can finally secure itself a majority in Holyrood. It clearly sees students as part of its winning strategy as it published a separate student manifesto alongside the main one, containing commitments to implement the recommendations of the Commissioner for Widening Access, expand the Scottish government’s student financial support to the level of a real living wage, and for Scotland to rejoin the Eramus+ scheme.

The SNP stresses that so long as it forms the government, no Scottish student will have to pay tuition fees. But with all major parties now having adopted that policy, will it be enough to hold onto student voters? To be honest, probably.

The Conservative Party

Less than a year into his leadership, Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross wants to solidify his party’s place as the second-largest party in Scotland. Like its sister parties elsewhere in the UK, the Scottish Tories place a great emphasis in their manifesto on using skills and innovation policy as drivers of the post-pandemic recovery. They promise to raise Scottish R&D spending to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2026, while using the Scottish National Investment Bank to support innovation in sectors such as energy, finance, and agriculture.

As with its counterparts in Wales and England, the Scottish Conservatives want to see a parity of esteem between further and higher education. In seeking this rebalance, the party promises to raise the school leaving age to 18, to launch a review into post-18 education in Scotland, and introduce paid internships and foundation apprenticeships for all school pupils, all while adopting the policy of free higher education for Scottish domiciled students.

The Labour Party

The Labour Party has an even newer leader in the form of Anas Sarwar, who only took up the post in late February. Under his new direction, Scottish Labour has trained its focus on attainment gaps within higher education, criticising the SNP’s time in government as having left students from the poorest communities behind.

As well as the required commitment to free higher education, the Labour manifesto promises rent caps for student accommodation and a Minimum Student Income, with the aim that all full-time Scottish domiciled students will be able to meet the cost of living during the course of their degree. As with the other major parties, Labour will seek to reinvest in further education alongside HE, with plans for an Open College to match the existing Open University.

Elsewhere, Scottish Labour will require that universities and colleges act as “anchor institutions” in its Community Wealth Building plans; recommend the full implementation of the von Prondzynski review of governance in higher education, including on addressing the use of short-term and zero-hours contracts and senior staff pay; and work with the Welsh government to establish an international exchange programme to replace the Erasmus scheme.

But among these serious proposals sits a baffling one: Scottish Labour proposes the National Mission that Scottish universities will rise up the ranks of international league tables. Well, they can’t all be winners.

The rest

While the SNP, Tories, and Labour will send the bulk of the bodies to the university lecture hall that is the Scottish parliamentary chamber, they’re not the only ones with ideas for higher education.

In contrast to its counterpart in Wales, the Scottish Green Party has a far more fleshed out education plan, with ideas ranging from suspending interest payments on students loans during maternity and paternity leave, increasing student financial support in line with yearly inflation to the obligatory attempt for Scotland to rejoin Erasmus. The party’s education plans even spill out into its foreign policy, with a promise to tackle Chinese state influence in the form of Confucius Institutes and a commitment to support Rojava University in Kurdish Syria.

For better or worse, there’s not much in the Liberal Democrat manifesto that doesn’t appear elsewhere among the promises from the other parties. The party pledges to raise support for both FE and HE, to widen access to university for those from the poorest backgrounds, and it wants Scotland to rejoin Erasmus. One standout policy however is for the development of a centre for excellence in carbon capture, supported by universities and local industry.

Alex Salmond vehicle Alba’s manifesto reads as a less convincing version of the SNP’s. Salmond rehashes the old favourite Burns bastardisation about rocks melting in the sun before he’d allow tuition fees to return, all the more absurd for his distance from any political power. Amid the cribbing from his old party, he finds the space to pinch Scottish Labour’s policy on Scottish universities climbing international league tables.

Reform Scotland is pro-UK, pro-freedom, pro-reform and has precisely nothing to say about higher education. It shares this silence with its older cousin UKIP, whose twelve-page manifesto simply pledges the return of grammar schools before complaining about political correctness.

Finally we reach the parties you’ve not heard of. The Abolish Holyrood Party has one idea. Why they even published a manifesto is beyond me. The Alliance for Unity meanwhile has several ideas, although how they’re supposed to fit together is not that clear. The most they have to say on higher education is that they support freedom of speech on campus.

One response to “What is there for higher education in the Scottish election manifestos?

  1. Stand Alone has worked hard to raise the visibility of the needs of estranged students in HE in Scotland and we are pleased that estranged students feature in the manifesto’s of the Greens, SNP and the Conservatives.

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