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16 years in, tuition fees set to remain a defining issue of UK devolution

April 21, 2015

This earlier post considered some of the questions which might be raised by the SNP voting at Westminster in favour of the new £6,000 fee level in England, as proposed by Labour.

The  SNP manifesto  now appears to commit the party to doing this – it states “We will guarantee the continuation of free university education in Scotland and support the reduction of tuition fees across the UK”.

By committing themselves at this stage to supporting a fee decrease (rather than, say, leaving open the option of abstaining on the basis they are against fees, full stop) the SNP appears to have taken the issue out of any post-election bargaining – unless that commitment should be read as in some way contingent on  Labour’s willingness more generally to work with the SNP.

Some commentators have described the party’s manifesto, launched yesterday,  as being aimed largely at persuading Labour supporters in England to put pressure on their party to work with the SNP.  In the memorable words of Stephen Daisley, “The whole manifesto reads like the Guardian letters page printed on glossier paper”.  In that case, the main purpose of the commitment on supporting lower fees would be encouraging a positive view of the SNP among those on the left opposed to higher fees in England.

SNP support for Labour here can be predicted to come under critical scrutiny.  Some of the opposition –  from the right-wing press and Russell Group universities –  will be unlikely to bother the SNP – indeed criticism from those quarters  will tend to reinforce the party’s ability to present itself as radical and progressive.

However, some of the criticism of Labour policy as a wrong priority for public spending, and in itself more regressive than progressive, in an echo of some of the criticisms of free tuition in Scotland, has come from more politically neutral sources such as the Social Market Foundation and the IFS (with which the  SNP admittedly already has a scratchy relationship).  The SNP may find its  positioning as a progressive party on questions of student funding under more intense and high-profile scrutiny south of the border than it is used to in Scotland.

The SNP have not committed themselves to supporting Labour’s more unambiguously progressive grant increase.  Given that they have been prepared to cut grants in Scotland, SNP support for higher grant in England is perhaps less certain (and potentially more politically embarrassing).  A vote on this may not be needed, however, and given their domestic record on grants, it is not surprising that the party does not refer to this point explicitly in its manifesto.

Voting for fees of £6,000 will of course have the ironic effect of meaning that the SNP’s new Westminster group will in practice have voted in favour of a higher fee regime than many of the Labour MPs they replaced, who last voted in favour of fees at £3,000.  That can in theory be dismissed as a petty criticism  – but some of those exposed to earlier the SNP lines of attack on student funding may feel justified in making the point, for the reasons suggested in the earlier post.

As that post noted, the SNP can make a good case for voting in favour of a fee reduction, on the basis of how entangled the systems are:  a reduction in fees would be likely to generate a positive Barnett consequential for Scotland, would reduce costs for Scots going to England and enable fees to be lowered for rUK students in Scotland.

But if SNP  votes become  critical to achieving lower fees,  as they may if  both the Tories and Lib Dems  voted against the change, stand by for a replay, but this time in reverse, of earlier objections from some opponents of fee increases  to Scottish MPs voting in favour of those. Certainly, the Conservatives seem likely to push the legitimacy of SNP votes on this topic as an extension of their current election approach, described by Ed Milliband as deliberately stoking English nationalism.  How far that would be a concern to the SNP would presumably depend on how far they regarded growing English nationalism as helping or hindering their wider aims.  It’s clearly a potential headache for Labour.

One way or another, the issue of tuition fees seems likely to remain defining for devolution in the UK.






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