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Why the rocks shouldn’t melt if Alex Salmond votes for fees in England

March 3, 2015

Devolution can throw up odd political twists.  One of the more striking ones has just been generated by the announcement that a Labour government would move to a £6,000 tuition fee in England.

With the First Minister declaring her desire  to work with Labour at Westminster, SNP MPs, including potentially Alex Salmond, are in effect now being lined up to vote  in favour of charging students a £6,000 tuition fee in England.

There are plenty of respectable reasons they might do this.  Principally, it is a decrease not an increase.  Also, it is likely to trigger a substantial Barnett consequential, compensating for the loss of funds experienced in Scotland as a result of the changes in England from 2012. Further, the Scottish Government might argue it is the only way that it can safely reduce the fee charged to students in Scotland from the rest of the UK.   For those reasons, they might reasonably – in the view of this author, at least – dismiss anyone who criticises them for breaching their own principles by “voting for fees” as taking their actions out of context, in a way incompatible with mature and fair political discussion.

The difficulty for the SNP in expecting a mature response from other political parties will however be that it has a habit of taking other people’s student funding-related behaviour out of context in a pretty unforgiving way, as well as ignoring some of its own less creditable decisions.  Thus:

  • Labour MPs are correctly identified as having  introduced fees, having voted for them in 1998 and and 2004, but their opposition to the £9,000 fee increase is ignored.  Here’s Stewart Maxwell MSP in The Scotsman just this morning, providing a perfect example of this, talking of “hypocrisy”, with Nicola Sturgeon adding “[Jim Murphy] has consistently voted for tuition fees throughout his career.”  It is also still sometimes mentioned that in 1999 Labour voted in favour of abolishing grants, but not that they later reversed that decision, reintroducing them  in Scotland in 2001, and then in England in 2004. Grants in England are now  higher than in Scotland.  Again, here’s that line in today’s Guardian, though attached this time to Jim Murphy personally from his time as NUS president.
  • The Liberal Democrat reversal on fees at Westminster  in 2011 is regularly pointed out to the Scottish Liberal Democrats, without acknowledging that it was Liberal Democrat support in the Scottish Parliament in 2007  which enabled the minority SNP government to abolish the graduate endowment.   Here’s Stewart Maxwell again,  recently exemplifying this with the language of “broken promises” and “betrayal”. Ironically, the Liberal Democrats  supported abolition of the endowment on the understanding it was part of a plan to reduce debt (which  instead grew) and that living costs would be increased (which has happened, though quite slowly) while grants were protected (which they have not been: in 2013 they were cut).  The Liberal Democrats in Scotland have themselves been  on the receiving end of something of a broken promise, it might be argued.
  • The SNP was elected 2007 to abolish the endowment as part of a wider plan to reduce or even abolish student debt (see here: Alex Salmond’s podcast is no longer available but the text is included). However it has since  overseen a substantial reduction in grants for  low-income students and a very large increase in student debt.  It has presented this not as a necessary but difficult decision in the face of Barnett pressures (which would have been reasonable, at least in relation to the general rise in loans), but purely claimed credit for the resulting increase in student spending power, never announcing or even formally acknowledging the cut to grants.  Meantime, the SNP policies of abolishing the graduate endowment and reducing grants can in fact be shown to have had the net effect of transferring around £20 million a year  from poorer to richer students (p43-7,  here). It puts the First Minister’s comment today regarding the Labour leader that, “You should always judge people on what they do, not just on what they say” in an interesting light. The Scottish Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee, of which Mr Maxwell is Convenor, has shown very little interest in all this.  Looking elsewhere, that it was necessary for the SNP to vote for legislation allowing Scottish universities to charge students from the rest of the UK fees up to £9,000 [update: in fact, the legislation appears to set no cap at all]  to prevent a flood of “fee refugees”   also remains open to challenge: between 2006 and 2011, “rUK” fees were fixed at £1,820 (ie £7,280 over four years: higher fees were charged for medics): they were £3,000-£3,500  (ie £9,000+ over 3 years)  down south.  The Scottish system was not overwhelmed.  It remains odd that a party so hostile to fees did not test the water in 2012 with a more moderate rise: on that occasion  the rocks got at least a bit warm to the touch.

An irony of the SNP’s critique of Labour’s history, in particular, is that if Labour’s 2006 regime for England had remained in place, debt levels for low income students in Scotland and England would  now be very similar: we can see that by comparing Scotland with Northern Ireland, which remains on the sort of fee and grant figures as applied in England from 2006.  In other words, the policies of Labour at Westminster and the SNP in Holyrood would have had pretty much the same effect for students at low incomes: it is those at higher incomes who have done substantially better  in Scotland as a result of policy differences between the two.  That’s a shoogly basis for the Scottish government being too superior about its record.

Indeed, even under the new plans for England  for those from  low incomes expected debt for a standard degree would not be so different between the two countries, especially for mature students (see post here).

Should Alex Salmond and Jim Murphy (electoral results permitting) end up walking together through the same lobby in favour of a £6,000 fee,  it’s quite likely we will be told simultaneously by partisans on both sides that Alex/Jim (delete as appropriate) is acting in a highly principled way while Jim/Alex (delete etc) is betraying his fundamental principles.

Scottish politics and policy-making would better if  a fraction of the energy spent on tribal point-scoring over fees was spent understanding how student support in Scotland actually works and looking for solutions to its less good elements.  These include: the higher debt expected, and generally experienced,   at low incomes, especially for mature students; relatively low help with living costs for those at £34,0000 and a bit above; its steep cliff-edge withdrawal of support at certain incomes; exceptionally high debt for those who don’t (or can’t) attend a course in Scotland; less good protection for low earners from loan repayment than in other parts of the UK.

Yet if Labour does form the next UK government, and SNP MPs  find themselves on the receiving end of some sharp comments as they go through the aye lobby on behalf of its fee plans,  they won’t be in a strong position to complain, given the aggressively partisan and selective reading of events their own party routinely adopts when it comes to questions of student funding.

In other words, if SNP MPs vote for Labour’s fee plans, the rocks shouldn’t melt. But it might encourage the thought that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, should they continue to seek to differentiate themselves quite so hard from other parties.

Footnote

The SNP might of course not end up supporting a Labour proposal for lower fees (assuming that Labour are in a position to put one forward).  Failure to agree any kind of broader deal between the two parties might leave the SNP abstaining, perhaps citing their desire to keep their hands clean on all things fees-related. That has its own risks, both at home and in the wider UK, particularly with currently supportive  sections of the English left (especially the section most directly affected by fee policy, the same constituency treated with such care in Scottish politics).

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