Scotland, and the question of tuition fees

The debate about the reintroduction of tuition fees is not just taking place in Ireland, but is also a hot topic in Scotland. As readers of this blog may know, Scotland has not followed the lead taken in England, where fees were reintroduced and gradually increased after the report of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (the ‘Dearing Report‘). Instead, from 2000 the Scottish government has maintained a system of higher education that is free at the point of entry.

Over recent years Scottish universities have become increasingly concerned about the capacity of the Scottish government to maintain funding for the sector that could match the resources now available to English universities. Now the former Principal of Edinburgh University, Lord Sutherland, has suggested that the relatively low number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds studying at Scottish universities suggests that there should be a re-consideration of tuition fees. It seems unlikely that there will be a change of mind on this on the part of the Scottish government, at least for the immediate future, but the issue may become the subject of a more lively debate there also. No doubt there will also be some interest in Scotland in whatever is decided in this context in Ireland.

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13 Comments on “Scotland, and the question of tuition fees”

  1. Vincent Says:

    From the point of view of the Customer of your services.
    The worry is not the fees, but that the fees and the living costs are pushed beyond that point where they are affordable. Nor is it useful to cite the Ivy league when attempting to justify, exactly how many students are coming from communities where the social deprivation might be called frontier conditions, AND intend going back into them. For this is the why of the endowments, not to feed fat academics with more Chateaubriand. They were and to some extent still are semi-religious in nature.
    I mentioned before that I was in the free fees camp, I would have stood and defended to Standard. But having seen the way Free Fees has been used to enrich a landlord group within the Uni’ towns to the point where those who were in receipt of the non adjacent Grant were far far better off using that Grant at a UK University. Rather than live in some fungus riddled house and having to share bedroom kitchen and toilet space with three or four people in what amounts to a student Gulag.

  2. kevin denny Says:

    The prospect of the re-introduction of fees in Ireland generates a lot of hot air, scaremongering and ill-informed comment. A common canard is that the abolition of fees here in the 1990s led to greater participation by disadvantaged groups. This is not true, indeed it cannot be true for the simple reason that people from low income backgrounds did not pay fees: their fees were paid through the Local Authority grant scheme (which is not perfect but it is pretty good).
    So basically this reform, introduced by the Labour Party, was a straight hand-out to the middle-classes at least some of whom invested the money in fee-paying schools. This in turn caused problems for some schools in the state sector. Anyone for some joined-up policy making?
    A second reason is that our system is supply constrained – thats why we have a points race- and the modest expansion in participation that happened was because of increased supply : the universities and ITs expanded. Unfortunately apologists for one of the most socially regressive reforms in recent years keep insisting that it somehow made a level playing field. If you repeat a lie often enough…

    • Aoife Citizen Says:

      I am afraid your claim that this is a regular canard is itself a canard, I have rarely heard this claimed whereas the opposite, equally absurd, claim, that removing fees decreased working class participation is regularly made.

      Making education free is not in itself socially regressive, how can it be since the consequence is just that education is paid for out of general taxation: the best understood and most easily controlled instrument for social progression.

      There are only two fee regimes that make sense to me, to have none, or to charge students what their education costs, the current EU arrangement makes that latter impossible and so we should stick to the former. Of course, a far better arrangement would be the opposite to the one EU has now, let students have their education subsidized by there home country, at whatever level the home country chooses, no matter where they go for third level and the university’s charge full fees.


      • When people with opposing points of view accuse each other of propagating canards it is useful to inject some hard data into the debate.

        During an interview by Marian Finucane with Iognáid Ó Muircheartaigh, outgoing president of NUI Galway he told her that the percentage of children of manual labourers going to college had increased from 5% in 1980 to 37% today. He claimed that the introduction of free fees was at least partly responsible for this change.

        Is this statistic true? (I can’t verify that I heard correctly). If not does anyone know where similar statistics can be found that either prove of disprove that there has been an increase in the percentage of children from poorer backgrounds going to third level during the era of free fees?

  3. iain Says:

    Sorry, I expect you’ve been waiting for my reply ;-)

    Actually your story on Lord Sutherland needs to be updated with the latest Scottish news on universities. Despite what is happening in England, the Scottish Government has announced in its latest budget an overall increase in government spending on higher education and the absolute commitment to not return to fees. This has of course taken aback the nay-sayers somewhat. But Universities Scotland to be fair has welcomed this publicly and the commitment that universities are essential to national recovery.

    “In this budget the Scottish Government has put universities right at the heart of its strategies for economic recovery and we very much welcome that. Universities will work hard to make the maximum impact with this funding”.
    http://www.universities-scotland.ac.uk/uploads/USBudget_forweb.pdf

    Remember also that many of the university principals have their own party political views, as evidenced in their public comments in the run up to the general election. They hitched their wagon at the time to Labour, but if the proles had listened and Labour had returned they’d now be in the throes of surviving savage cuts and racking up fees.

    If we want to address the lack of diversity in higher education (and by the way Scottish HE is considerably far more diverse than in Ireland) then the abolition of fees is necessary but not sufficient of course. Reform at school level and serious attempts at social and economic injustice are all essential. Quoting Lord Sutherland as a champion of social justice and equity is preposterous as even a moment’s thought about his title would surely indicate!

  4. iain Says:

    ps that should of course be “serious attempts at challenging social and economic injustice’!! must stop typing on iPod screen!

  5. kevin denny Says:

    First some facts Aoife: I have regularly heard it claimed that removing fees led to greater participation by disadvantaged groups. If you haven’t, then I expect you haven’t been following the debate. Labour party people trot the line out routinely, ask them if you don’t believe me. The abolition of fees was regressive because there was no benefit to low income kids (they weren’t paying anyway) so it was hand-out to the relatively well off: now that’s that what I call regressive.
    As for Iognáid Ó Muircheartaigh’s comments (which are not uncommon). First I know of no scientific evidence that this is the case and as one of the very few economists working in the area in Ireland it would be unlikely that I would not know. Its not his field of expertise so I wouldn’t expect him to know and, at the risk of causing offence, university presidents do tend to speculate on matters educational.
    But look I already explained: Before the reform, poor kids didn’t pay, rich ones did. After the reform, no one did. Does this sound like a reform that is going to work to the advantage of a group when you have just removed the one advantage they had?


    • In fairness to the Labour Party, I’m not sure that its more thoughtful officials do make that claim. I had a conversation with Ruairi Quinn recently, and he agreed that ‘free fees’ have not significantly helped those from a disadvantaged backgrounds, and that the participation statistics for those groups have not improved noticeably. On the other hand, his main point was that free fees provided a major boost to middle income groups, who tend to miss out on grants and similar supports but who often struggle to fund their children’s higher education when it is financed by fees. In turn, I accept that middle income groups need special attention in this.

      I don’t know about Iggy O Muircheartaigh’s comments, and would want to see them confirmed in the form in which they are quoted here – I doubt he gave those figures.

  6. Aoife Citizen Says:

    The point; or the point that we always miss discussing, isn’t working class participation: the issue there has got nothing to do with fees, one way or the other. The issue there involves support for schools, entrance schemes, student support systems and so on.

    The point really is that we are competing for young people, by increasing fees we are making Irish universities less desirable than universities abroad and we will loose young people, more of the best young people will go abroad for University and they won’t necessarily come back when they are done. The EU rules makes EU governments compete on the degree to which they subsidize third level education and, as a consequence, Irish universities, like any serious EU university, must be largely state funded through a block grant, with the damaging loss of independence that results.

    The EU has this all wrong. At the moment the rule is that all EU students must be allowed to access your universities at the same cost to them as to your own students. This creates a complex market and unclear market, with a set of weirdly competing incentives.

    It should be the other way around, the subsidy should attach to the students, not to the universities; young people, should be given a grant for third level which they get no matter where in the EU they go to college. Maybe that grant should equal around what the government currently pays, or what the government intends to continue paying after fees are reintroduced, with some sort of loan scheme on top. That would be a sovereign issue and would probably have some degree of social progression, but the key thing is that the EU rule, the market leveling rule should ensure that the state aid to the teaching function of third level institution should attach to the student, not the University. Universities would charge full fees, be fully independent and would be forced to compete in a straight forward way on value.


    • Aoife, though your comments look logical on the face of it, the empirical evidence doesn’t support them. There is very little evidence that people shop for higher education on the basis of fees (or the non-existence of fees). For example, just as many people left Ireland to study in Britain when the UK introduced fees and Ireland dropped them than had been the case before.

      Significant numbers of Irish students study in Britain and the US, where there are fees, and very few study in Europe, where there are none.

      • Aoife Citizen Says:

        That is because the fees are so low relative to the value of what is being provided.

        As I said before, I can see strong arguments for charging no fees and I can strong arguments for charging full fees. What I can’t see is the argument for the mixed system in between, the one we are heading for.


  7. Since I introduced the topic of what Iggy said about fees, I felt duty bound to check the reference. Anyone who is interested in checking can download the podcast and listen to exactly what was said (the relevant clip starts about 7 minutes into the program).

    It was actually Marian who quoted statistics, but Iggy didn’t challenge them and so implicitly he seemed to agree that they were broadly accurate. What Marian said was “In 1980 30% of farmer’s children went on to third level as compared to 88% now. For children of unskilled manual labourers the increase was from 5% in 1980 to 47% now….”.

    I know that the term farmer can cover a broadly different wealth level, but at first glance the data about unskilled manual labourers seems to support the contention that the number of children from under privileged backgrounds going to third level has increased dramatically during the period of free fees. However any statistic taken out of context can be misleading, so I would like to see the full report that these numbers were taken from. I know that the participation rate increased overall so maybe the children from privileged backgrounds had an even bigger increase.

    If Kevin is an expert in this area, he should point us to an accurate source of statistics rather than criticising the accuracy of the numbers quoted by others.


    • Brian, I’ll need to dig out the precise stats, but the figure you say was given is completely off, and I don’t mean by a minor margin. The figure of children of unskilled workers, whatever it is precisely, lies at less than 10 per cent.


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