A Scottish dilemma?
Higher education has become a key issue in the developing Scottish election campaign. Or to be more precise, how to fund it has become an issue. Having abolished tuition fees, the country is now facing an increasingly serious funding shortfall made necessary, in part, by cuts in the overall British budget. For the past few months a search has been going on to see whether there could be a ‘Scottish solution’ to this problem; the subtext being that there might be a way of funding universities adequately without direct student contributions.
Leaving aside for a moment suggestions about increasing the intake of international students, charging English students (only) and kick-starting philanthropy (all of which together can yield some money but will not close the funding gap), it is clear that there is no magical Scottish solution. The funding gap has been estimated by an expert group to be in the order of £200 million. It will not be easy to maintain an adequately resourced higher education system without either introducing student contributions or diverting money to universities from other publicly funded programmes. This will, admittedly, be a difficult issue for any Scottish administration, but at some point it will have to be faced.
In the meantime the parties are lining up to state their position on fees. Facing a call from Universities Scotland for tuition fees so that Scottish universities can deal with the competitive threat from England, the now governing SNP, the Liberal Democrats and (most recently) the Labour Party have all committed themselves to keeping a system without tuition fees, thereby more or less guaranteeing that in the next Scottish parliament fees will not be introduced.
In the meantime, however, Scottish universities are beginning to take drastic measures to shore up their financial positions, and some have announced job losses.
As the parties move into the election campaign, they need to address higher education not just from the point of view of whether there should be fees; they need to say how a quality university sector can be maintained without this particular form of revenue generation, and they need to have plans in this regard that are credible. These are not yet particularly in evidence.