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What’s Education Worth?


Words: Rachel Sharp


The best bit about the elections is the leaders’ debate.

Everyone’s all civil to begin with, but it doesn’t take long till they’re shouting over one another and the audience is applauding every statement like it’s a high note on the X Factor.


But there was a mixed response to Ruth Davidson’s proposal to reintroduce Scottish university tuition fees, and no wonder.  

Currently, the standard tuition fee for an undergraduate degree course in Scotland is £1,820, but the Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS) pays these fees if you meet eligibility conditions. If Davidson gets her way, free education for Scottish students will disappear like the Free Milk Act, and students will be charged £6,000 for a four-year degree.

Now I know what you’re thinking: ‘a student writing an article about tuition fees – this’ll be unbiased and objective’. Well, that must have been what Ruth Davidson’s people thought when I reached out for a comment on the subject. Nicola Sturgeon’s people had the courtesy to reply but, alas, I’m still awaiting one from Davidson.


Well, the show must go on, and in the spirit of not being predictable, I’ll be looking at both sides of the debate, beginning with why the reintroduction of tuition fees might not be such a horrifying, elitist, regressive step in the direction of Thatcherism as it seems.

For one, Davidson has argued that free university tuition has come at the cost of 152,000 college places. She’s adamant that the money reaped from tuition fees would contribute towards improving secondary education, so that children from poorer backgrounds can work up the grades to attend university. Plus, the Conservative Party’s latest scheme, according to Davidson, isn’t so much a ‘fee’ as it is a gesture of good financial will. Speaking on the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland programme, she said: ‘What we want to introduce is a scheme by which, once you have graduated and once you have a degree, once you are in a job earning over a certain amount of money, over £20,000, you start to pay back a contribution to the education that you received.’


If you’re thinking that tuition fees will only create barriers to education – think again. In a compelling article by Martin Robbins, he cites research published in 2014 by the Centre for Analysis of Youth Transitions, which demonstrates that ‘the rot of inequality sets in years before a pupil reaches the age to be thinking before university.’ While Jeremy Corbyn was announcing his £10 billion plan to scrap tuition fees, Robbins was imploring that the money be poured into secondary schools instead, to give high-ability children from disadvantaged backgrounds the best chance at higher education.

And if you don’t trust the politicians, trust the experts. In a book entitled Higher Education in Scotland and in the UK, some have argued that free education in Scotland has not actually made the country fairer. The Independent quoted Professor Sheila Riddell of Edinburgh’s Moray House School of Education on the matter, who writes in the concluding chapter to the book that, ‘despite political rhetoric surrounding free higher education in Scotland, the system has failed to produce more egalitarian outcomes compared with the rest of the UK’.  


So with the experts and some pretty convincing rhetoric behind her, why can’t I bring myself to say the words ‘Ruth, you were right’?


Maybe it’s something to do with the Tories’ shameless track record of broken promises. True, Davidson has agreed to cap the fees at £1,500, but when tuition fees were introduced in England they were set at just £1,000 per year. Then they rose to £9,000 per year and recently, the Tory government removed the cap altogether. Fees or no fees, Scottish students are already leaving university loaded with debt, never mind chucking an extra £6,000 – for now – on top of it.

Of course I think we should be improving the system of education currently in place in secondary schools. Who’s going to say otherwise? But I just don’t think punishing graduates for going to uni is the way to do it. There’s something about Davidson’s plans to take away free education that’s so reminiscent of when they took away the milk, and her plans to reintroduce prescription charges just has me thinking, ‘good God, woman – when will it end?’


But hey, that’s just one opinion, and I sure as hell don’t have the answers. Hell, I don’t even have a comment on the subject from the person who announced it. Ruth, if you’re reading this, have your people call my people.


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