Should Scotland scrap free tuition?

Free tuition in Scotland is capping places for Scottish university applicants

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

That was the bait in a new “report” published on Monday from Reform Scotland, calling for graduates to be loaned their fees and to start to pay the taxpayer back when they earn enough to do so.

If you think you’ve heard that kind of argument and proposal before in Scotland, that’s because you have – it pops up every couple of years from think tanks linked to opposition parties, although this iteration feels particularly lazy.

The justification this time around is anchored in multiple press stories of rest-of-UK and international students snapping up places at the expense of Scottish applicants, with the report pointing out that just 30 per cent of new undergraduate full-time first degree students at St Andrews are from Scotland.

The actual proposal is a “deferred” fee, (framed as “no win, no fee”) repaid once graduates earn more than the Scottish average salary (currently about 26k) – with the Scottish Government invited to cut or scrap repayments for graduates who remain in Scotland working in certain sectors for set periods of time.

This would, apparently, “end the cap on Scottish domiciled students” – but astonishingly the report doesn’t bother telling us how high Reform Scotland thinks the fee would be, and nor does it worry about establishing the interest rate, the repayment rate or the loan term – and therefore the subsidy level. In other words, it appears to be an open-ended commitment which would ironically almost certainly have to result in… a cap on places almost as soon as it was introduced.

Of course “no win no fees” fails to spot that once you frame university funding as fee debt, you end up worrying about the total unpaid debt, the national write-off and those who repay the least – hence the focus in England on “low value” courses (which is really just a mask for “low value graduates”).

It also fails to spot that in the rest of the UK, using “debt” and income-contingent loans with a repayment cut off as a way of working out which rich graduates get let off from what is essentially a graduate tax is a spectacularly complex, personally illogical and wildly unpopular way of doing things:

In the Press and Journal, Reform Scotland boss Chris Deerin says that Scottish politics lacks agility, curiosity and courage, and is “sniffly dismissive towards those who seek to challenge the dismal status quo”. That may be true, but it will continue to be so if the best the opposition can do is dross like this, Chris.

One response to “Should Scotland scrap free tuition?

  1. The Scottish system is standard across many parts of Europe. It’s the broken Aussie-inspired English system that is actually peculiar.

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