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How free is tuition in Scotland?

August 10, 2014

The current debate on the future of Scotland is underlining that free tuition continues to be the issue of our times, as far as student funding is concerned, with fees, but not grants or debt, being aired in last week’s televised debate.

Free tuition continues to be presented as a paramount principle, trumping anything else – nothing, not even addressing the heavy skewing of student debt in Scotland towards graduates from the poorest backgrounds, is allowed to be as important, as is clear from recent government responses to specific questions about debt.

The primacy of free tuition is well-established, of course. Invited last year to debate in the Scottish Parliament the impact of grant cuts on poorer students, the Cabinet Secretary preferred instead to discuss the possibility that free tuition would end, with hair-raising consequences:

a massive erosion of the extraordinarily high standing and status of Scottish higher education …. [would] run the very substantial risk of undermining the whole of Scottish higher education… [and] will destroy Scottish higher education. (see here).

In practice, however, free tuition is already not always the over-riding principle in Scotland.  It does not apply for:

  • overseas students, where the principle of increasing numbers and giving universities the freedom to increase their income by charging fees at the market rate has greater priority – indeed, barriers to that raised by UK immigration policy are central to the higher education section of last year’s White Paper.  Charging overseas students fees is common in countries where domestic students are exempt, but  it is not universal: Norway and Finland currently charge no fees to overseas students, for example;
  • students from the rest of the UK, where the principle of protecting the Scottish system from “fee refugees” takes precedence – again, a strong theme in the White Paper;
  • Scottish students who go to study outside Scotland, where the principle of keeping Scottish funds within Scotland matters more than supporting young Scots to study where they choose (some may argue this is a legal issue – though not much attention has been devoted lately to that point);
  • students taking most postgraduate degrees, studying for a second undergraduate degree and part-time students with incomes over £25,000, even if it is their first degree, where some other factor (affordability?) means that at best students can borrow for fees, just as they do elsewhere in the UK.  A few postgraduate courses (eg teaching) attract full fee funding, but most do not.  More on the detailed rules here.

In 2012-13, the Scottish Funding Council recorded that once all the overseas students, rUK students, post-graduates, second-time arounders and part-timers were included,  there were 278,765 students in total in higher education in Scotland. That year, the Scottish government paid in full for the fees of 120,495 students, 43% of the total.

Of course, among the remaining 57%  some will have been receiving full fee support from research councils, charitable trusts and other private and public sponsors.  It is still  clear however that charging fees is a thoroughly normal activity for Scottish higher education providers.

This means that in practice in Scotland the principle of free tuition is only over-riding for those students we regard as our own, who stay here and who tread the conventional full-time path, up to the point of achieving a first degree. Indeed, under previous study rules,  those who undertook an HN on leaving school and after a break want to return to HE to do an undergraduate degree are not guaranteed support for all of the fee costs involved: it still pays to follow the conventional model, most used by those from more advantaged backgrounds.

This is all consistent with a view of university as an extension of the school system. But while the state school system is genuinely universal and open to all, not everyone wants to go to university and even not all those who do want to, can. A quarter of Scottish-domiciled 18-year olds who applied to university in 2013 were unsuccessful (Table 15 UCAS end of cycle report 2013 (pdf) (2185.6KB)).

Universities are something different from schools. There’s a continuity with education up to 18 and a decent debate to be had about the importance of that – but the analogy has its limits.  This is already recognised in wider policy. For all its commitment to attracting fee-paying students from overseas, the White Paper, for example, does not suggest that state schools should be allowed to charge fees to, say, children who are sent from outside the EU to live with relatives here.

“Extension of school” thinking perhaps explains the acceptability of the household income test which applies still for part-time students, who  are more likely to be entering HE late and to have started from more disadvantaged or disrupted backgrounds. Interestingly, the Eurostat analysis referred to here distinguishes between  countries which provide free tuition only to full-time students and those which cover both types.

The straight-from-school model also perhaps explains why it is seen as unproblematic that postgraduate qualifications essential for entry into certain influential and potentially well-paid professions remain unfunded, a point on which the legal profession has lobbied.

This is relevant to the debate about grants and debt because the existence and apparent inviolability of free tuition is  used persistently in Scotland to by-pass or dismiss scrutiny of the wider effects of student support policy and in particular the regressive distribution of student debt here.  As long as that continues to be the case, it is fair to highlight that free tuition itself is already selectively applied (ie rationed) and not always the most important principle at stake.

Further,  if free tuition is as essential to the ethos of the Scottish higher education sector as suggested by the Cabinet Secretary, with over half its students outwith the Scottish Government’s free tuition regime,  the apocalypse outlined in his quote above is surely already hard  upon us.





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