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The Best Laid Plans….The Crisis in Scottish Higher Education.

The Joy of Edinburgh Uni

I had a great time at Uni.   In between sports, friends, student politics and CU I even found time to do some history.   It was all a great education. And it was free. And as a farmworkers son I even got a maintenance grant. I well remember the first time I queued up after registration to get my £500 cheque. I had never had so much money in my life – even after I had paid my Pollock Halls rent. I was actually paid to go to Uni. Twas bliss to be alive…!

I was more involved in student politics than anything else. I was on the left – for a while I was publicity officer for the Labour party (until they threw me out for not supporting abortion – even though that was supposed to be a matter of conscience.  If I remember correctly Alan Little the BBC journalist was in the same boat). I became a founding

My old haunt – Uni Library

member of the Social Democratic Party.   I was involved in trying to establish links between the student body and the wider Edinburgh community through Community Link. I also remember being involved with a couple of ‘occupations’ – one I remember was with Owen Dudley Edwards to protest against the Kampuchea crisis, and another in the library to protest against library cuts. We used to joke that you could tell the sociology students because they were the ones asking where the library was! I stood for the office of Senior President.

There were several campaigns I was involved with including CND, stopping the IRA hunger strikers being supported by the students association and housing issues. Most of all I remember the campaign we were involved in to try to prevent student loans coming in, instead of maintenance grants. Ultimately we were not successful.

‘The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scottish students.’ Salmond

Free Education

Fast forward to Scotland’s first ever SNP government and Alex Salmond’s promise that Scottish students unlike their English counterparts, should never pay fees. “Education should be free’ was the rallying cry. Alex told us with that rhetorical gesture which he is so good at “‘The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scottish students.’  And how we cheered…none more so than yours truly. For me it was a fundamental principle that the ‘lad o’ parts’ like me, should have equal access to the best education. Not paying fees seemed a vital part of that. Indeed I would have gone further and had maintenance grants reinstated…in an ideal world.

But its not an ideal world. And “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley. (often go astray – Rabbie Burns – To a Mouse).  I am slowly coming to the conclusion that I, and indeed the Scottish government have been wrong on this one. Never mind the rhetoric and the principle…what has been the outcome? We have fewer students from poorer backgrounds going to Universities now. Our top Universities (especially the only two really financially viable ones – St Andrews and my old alma mater, Edinburgh) have

alumni-servicesbecome more exclusive as they have become more like corporate businesses whose product is elite education (for the elites – if you doubt that consider the student who told me that last year she was welcomed to Edinburgh Uni with the announcement by the Uni that she was now one of the elite!)    I don’t think there would be room for me in today’s Edinburgh Uni because I don’t think I could afford to go (if the circumstances were the same as back in the 1970’s). It is ironic that ‘free education’ has led to fewer students from a poorer background. It has in effect become a benefit for the Middle classes (a bit like the EU!).    The situation in England is much better in terms of providing a wider access – because the loans that are used to pay the fees are not repayable until a certain level of income is reached – which in effect means that they are like a delayed tax – on the wealthy. That seems quite ‘progressive’ to me.

Anti- Scottish Discrimination

There has been another unforeseen unfortunate side effect which came to light this past week. Like the rest of the UK Scottish Universities operate a ‘clearing’ system where prospective students who did not make the grades required for their chosen Universities and courses are given the opportunity to go elsewhere. The trouble is that this year Scottish students are the least welcome in Scottish universities. The Spectator helpfully published what for me were shocking figures.

The University of Edinburgh

For Scotland’s students: 5 courses.

For England’s students: 70 courses. Including Applied Mathematics, Biological Sciences, Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, Civil Engineering, Mathematics, Mechanical Engineering, and Structural Engineering with Architecture.

University of Glasgow

For Scotland’s students: 4 courses.

For England’s students: 332 courses. Including Chemistry, Celtic Civilisation/History, Chemical Physics with work placement, Common Law, Common Law and Economics, French, History, Microbiology, Pharmacology, Human Biology, Geology, Molecular & Cellular Biology (with Biotechnology), English Literature, Product Design Engineering, Classics, German, and Zoology.

The University of Aberdeen

For Scotland’s students: Nothing.

For England’s students: 373 courses. Including Accountancy, Applied Mathematics, Biochemistry, Biology, Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Computing Science, Economics and Finance, Engineering (Mechanical), History, Law with English Law, Molecular Biology with Industrial Placement, Physics, and – remarkably – Scottish Studies.

University of Dundee

For Scotland’s students: 18 courses.

For England’s students: 220. Including Architecture, Biology, Civil Engineering, Economics, English, Geography, History, Maths, Philosophy, Physics, Politics, and even… Scottish Historical Studies.

 Why is this the case? Because English (and Northern Irish and Welsh) students pay. They are a source of income. The Scottish government can’t afford to pay for more Scottish students so there is a cap on them. In other words the Scottish governments policy has resulted in Scottish Universities turning away Scottish students. When I tweeted about this one woman wrote me about her daughter who had been turned down for a course, only to discover that someone with lesser qualifications was being accepted because she was from England and could pay.

Subsidising EU Students

But it is even worse than that. The CAP on Scottish students includes EU students. There are thousands of EU students (who are of course usually middle class because they can afford to move to another country and live in expensive University cities) who are being paid for by the Scottish government (taxpayers), who then limit the number of Scottish students. It’s very altruistic for the Scottish government to show such largesse with our money – and again in principle I have no objection, in fact just the opposite, students from all over the world should be welcomed and encouraged .  But I do object when it is at the expense of (usually poorer) Scottish students. In my view we should welcome poorer EU students and help them with maintenance grants and get the richer ones to pay. ;

When I asked the Scottish government for the figures for how many EU students were being paid for by them – despite repeated requests it was like getting blood out of a stone. But we eventually got there. In 2016 I was told that £27 million of public money is spent on free tuition every year for EU students.  The number had increased from 6,738 to 13,312 in 9 years.   While strict caps are expected for Scots.   This largesse is to continue. In 2017 deputy First Minister John Swinney announced that EU nationals choosing to study in Scotland and enrolling in 2018-19 would be guaranteed free tuition for the duration of their entire course. This was widely seen as gesture politics and part of the Scottish Governments attempt to curry favour with the EU.

When Mike Russell, the Scottish Government Brexit minister, expressed concern that there could be an anticipated fall in EU students for Heriot Watt University, I asked him why Heriot Watt could not take more Scottish students. This was his incredible tweeted reply –

@theweeflea @Undercover_mole Scottish budget not limitless – each Scottish student paid for by @ScotGov

Why is that incredible? Because it seems as though he was forgetting that each EU student is also paid for by the Scottish government. So why not simply replace the EU students with the Scots who are not able to get in?  The Scottish government are in effect saying that they can afford to pay for EU students but not Scottish ones!

The decline in Scottish students at Scottish Universities

The Scottish Governments policies are resulting in a decline in Scottish Students attending Scottish Universities as this information from Robert Wright, Professor of economics at Strathclyde University shows. He obtained the information through FOI requests. He found that EU students made up 4.5 per cent of the Scottish university population in 2002/03 but this had almost doubled to 8.7 per cent by 2012/13, higher than other parts of the UK.

The FOI figures showed the proportion of Scottish undergraduates at Glasgow University fell from 72 per cent (11,268) in 2011/12 to 63 per cent in 2013/14 (10,656). Over the same period the proportion of EU students increased by three percentage points to 14.4 per cent, from 1,805 to 2,437.

At Edinburgh University, the number of EU students rose from 8.6 per cent (1,602) to 10.3 per cent (2,028) over the same period.

The percentage of Scots at Dundee fell from 79.4 per cent (7,855) in 2009/10 to 71.2 per cent (6,518) in 2014/15, while the total for the EU spiked from 4.6 per cent (460) to 8.7 per cent (792).

I don’t know the answers…the situation is undoubtedly complex but at the moment it is not working. For example only one in six Scots applying to study medicine gets in – at a time when there is a severe shortage of doctors!

When I wrote about this, unknown to me in Memphis (where I am currently speaking at a conference), The Courier who are clearly avid readers of this blog, published this article.

A Dundee University chaplain has blasted as “discrimination” a policy which has locked Scottish youngsters out of hundreds of last minute places at the institution.

Reverend David Robertson said there was “something profoundly wrong” as fee-paying students in the rest of the UK enjoy access, through clearing, to 220 of the university’s courses but just 18 remain for those from Scotland and the EU.

The former Free Church of Scotland moderator accused ministers of “exploiting a loophole” after parents on social media began sharing examples of their children missing out on places.

Dundee University.

Mr Robertson said: “This is shocking and also my experience. The Scottish Government funds EU students (at the expense of Scots) and now we find that unis offer clearing to English students but not Scots… there is something profoundly wrong.”

Many of the country’s top institutions still have a wealth of courses available for undergraduates from England, Wales and Northern Ireland, who pay up to £9,000 per year in fees, but few remain for youngsters in Scotland.

According to figures from seven leading Scottish universities, 902 courses currently remain available to fee-paying students, while just 112 are open to Scottish applicants.

Abertay University has a further 26 places available to “all appropriately qualified students regardless of their geographical location or fee-paying status”, while St Andrews University is the only institution in Scotland with all its courses already full.

North East MSP Bill Bowman called on the Scottish Government to “scrap the cap”.

He said: “A new cohort of Tayside school leavers will have received exam results within the last two weeks.

© DC Thomson
Bill Bowman MSP.

“For many of them who choose to go into higher education, the local universities make good financial sense and are well regarded in their fields.  Some will have gone through the clearing route to achieve their goals.

“But what use is a clearing letter and positive outlook when the SNP have capped courses for Scots? I understand unis must earn income but the SNP must scrap the cap because it is unfair.”

A Dundee University spokesperson said: “Places for undergraduate Scottish/EU fee status students are funded by the Scottish Government.

“Most of our programmes have no further funded places available but those where spaces remain we are welcoming applications from Scottish/EU students through clearing.

“We accept as many home students as we can, and lead the way in widening access for students including through our long-running Access Summer School.”

Some additional government-funded places remain available to Scots applicants in disadvantaged areas under the ‘adjustment’ scheme.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The number of Scots winning a place at university is at a record high, as is the number of students attending university from the poorest backgrounds.

“This is testament to the Scottish Government’s commitment to maintaining free university education for students from all backgrounds.”

The statement from the Scottish Government is, at best, disingenuous.  Spin is no substitute for failing to face up to the problems that are clearly arising in the system.

I accept fully the intentions were good…but the combination of Universities becoming corporate businesses, the degrading and underfunding of colleges, the attempt to get 50% of the population into University, the ideological commitment to funding EU students (except those from England, Wales and Northern Ireland), and the refusal to take seriously the funding of Higher Education in Scotland have all contributed to an unjust system where free University tuition has become a subsidy for the Scottish (and EU) middle classes, and once again the poor are left as a patronized afterthought.  Its time for change.

Education and the Poor




  1. I really don’t understand the motivation of the SNP to fund EU students. What is in it for Scotland? Or are they just virtue signalling?

    Beats me!

    1. It is EU law – the Scottish government cannot discriminate between its own citizens and those of another EU member state. However, students from England can be treated differently from Scottish students as they are both from the same member state, and education policy is devolved to Holyrood. After Brexit, the Scottish government will be free to change policy, and decide how much to charge EU non-Scottish students then.

      When my daughter, resident in Belgium, was looking at courses at UK universities, the entry grade requirements at Strathclyde were the same as for Cambridge, and much higher than for comparable universities in England. It was the effect of rationing that David highlights that seemed to distort the process.

      The student loans system in England seems to be working in broadening access to the less well-off , as it is as David says, a deferred graduate tax for those earning above a certain amount. Whether the cost of going to university is worth it is open to question for many, as the world of work changes, with no jobs for life and less universal graduate premium than twenty years ago. But that is a different question

  2. I would also want to look at the entire “need” to go to university. I was involved in student politics in the late 1990s and even then the uni I was at was recruiting students that were not really able to complete a uni course. Also, the grades I got then would not get me into Uni now. So the question I have is even if we made every course available to anyone in clearing and if we had proper maintenance grants – how many more students would we actually have – your piece doesnt say who is not getting into university who should. Less choice, maybe. Less financial support, yes. But who not getting in?

    A lot of the universities have access courses for those from poorer backgrounds to access medicine, veterinary science, journalism and law and I think more could be done to get more students into these courses. But I still come back to the point about how the balance between having spaces to study available and actual ability to study the course.

    I wouldn’t worry about the EU students now. After next year the numbers will steadily fall in the system. All that will do is open up more space for non-EU students who pay even more money.

  3. The point is lost that there is nothing free. Socialism is democratic theft. The fruit of my labor is forcibly taken and given to another. Charity and benevolence is people giving out of their own free will.

    1. But in that case you could argue that ALL taxation is ‘democratic theft’. Which would mean Jesus was legitimising theft when he told us to pay our taxes!

      1. Hardly. Government is a legitimate sphere of authority which God has ordained. However, the tasks are limited. The family, then the Church are to be the organs of benevolence. Government forcibly taking my money and giving to another is outside its sphere of ordained authority.

      2. Your last sentence is assumed and I’m afraid not biblical. The language you use is prejudiced and doesn’t really make sense. Taxation is not the government forcibly taking your money. And your limitation of government is a political not a biblical statement. Calvin for example argued that it was the duty of the government to care for the poor.

  4. Don’t pay your taxes and you’ll understand the force part of it. 😉 I do think a biblical case can be made for God’s creation of three distinct and overlapping spheres of authority for a well-ordered society. There is the family, Church and government. Each has their own distinct authority. For example, you don’t want the government telling you what to preach in the pulpit do you? Why is that? It is an overreach of their authority. We surely don’t want the Church having the reins of government either. That’s not worked very well historically. The same case can be made for benevolence. Would you go round your family and neighborhood asking that they subsidize some aspect of your life? Your education, housing or food? The Scriptures make it rather pointed that the individual, family and Church should take care of these items (my apologies to Calvin but he erred in this). But what do we do? We vote individuals into office who will take from others so I can have what I think I am entitled to. This cultivates envy, covetousness and greed. How often are those ‘greedy, rich people’ pilloried in the service of these vices. Of course we paint sin with virtue’s colors by calling it income equality.

    1. You presume, without scriptural warrant that the care of the poor is not for governments. Greed, envy and covetousness are encouraged by those who say ‘it’s MY money and I should do with it as I please’! Of course we paint sin with virtues colours by calling it ‘limited government and legalised theft.

  5. Is there a way to do returns so thoughts can be broken into paragraphs? There are mountains of biblical passages which indicate that families and the Church should care for the poor and scant, if not null, for any direct injunction for the government so to do. The reason is relatively simple and I am sure you’ve experienced this in your ministry. There is often a moral component to a person’s poverty. They do not need more free stuff confiscated from productive people. It is their substance abuse, immorality, sluggardliness, poor education, etc which cause their problems. It is well-documented that if you get an education, don’t abuse drugs or alcohol, and don’t have children our of wedlock your chances of living in poverty are quite small. Is it not the gospel that these people need? They need a new heart, a new orientation. Only you or I or other Christians can show them this. Our governments cannot do this. At the risk of sounding like Paul when he called himself a fool for counting his accomplishments, I am a man of modest means, but we give 15-20% of our income to charitable Christian causes including the church. We live a relatively frugal and debt free life. The borrower is the slave to the lender. We wanted to be free to give. Our kids called us Amish growing up because we didn’t see the need to be ‘keeping up with the Jones’. I don’t know how it is ‘over the pond’ but Americans, including Christians, are quite caught up with a very consumeristic and hedonistic lifestyle. If government takes my money and gives it to someone else I see this as a judgment on our Nation. Jesus gives the command to care for the poor. This command is to the individual and the Church not to a government. But since God wants the poor to be cared for He will have it done even if it is wasteful and inefficient and without a gospel imperative leaves them in servile state they are in. So to your point about my money. Yes, it is my money and I should be able to do with it as I please. My accountability will be to the Lord who said to those who have been given much, much more will be required. If I have been greedy and stingy with the many blessings he has poured out, shaken together and pressed into my lap it is to Him I will need to give an account.

    1. I work with autistic adults who really do want to work. Many find the world of work completely closed to them. Because they don’t get work, many have problems with self confidence and mental health issues.

      Many have been failed by the educational system. Many are very bright but unable to succeed academically simply because they cannot think abstractly. This is a massive waste of talent.

      It breaks my heart, when I have to tell someone that they are actually better off staying on benefits because they are actually unable to work sufficient hours to make it worthwhile working part time.

      One thing that gets me angry is that those who have reading and writing problems because of dyslexia are not helped. It is a simple matter to screen them, and refer to an educational psychologist for a proper assessment if the screening suggests dyslexia. If someone is diagnosed with dyslexia there are aids that help. There is no reason in this day and age why someone should be held back because of dyslexia. Access to Work will fund the aids (including testing for coloured lenses) once you have a job. But they will not fund this until you have a job!
      How are you supposed to get the job without the aids?

      There is very real discrimination against disabled people who are willing and able to work. Many employers are scared because employment law enables someone to take you to employment tribunal from day one. Employers who have honestly done their best to accommodate have been stung. Even worse, if the person is simply telling lies, there is no mechanism in the employment tribunal for a quick resolution. In fact the advice to employers is often to settle irrespective of the merits of the case just to avoid a lengthy and expensive process!

      We are helping someone who has been really quite ill. They are recovered now and about to apply for jobs. They feel they have had to lie to the job centre by applying for jobs they have no hope of getting just to get the space to get better!

      There is lots more I can say on this matter. But suffice to say that there are people on benefits who really want to work but who are denied the opportunity.

      The world really has gone mad!

  6. Thanks for your post. There are needy people. They are in my family. Sadly one of them is my 60yo wife. She has Alzheimer’s.

    But can we take a step further back?

    The Psalmist says, ‘I turn my eyes to the hills to see from where my help comes from.’ What is our knee jerk reaction to disaster, suffering and other maladies? ‘I turn my eyes to the government to see from where my help comes from.’ Is this not rank idolatry? When the Israelites wanted a king like the other nations they were expressly told that the government would take the best of what they had. Do we not suffer from the same misplaced trust?

    Paul says if a man does not care for his family he is worse than an infidel. How were widows and orphans taken care of? See Acts and 1Timothy. There was a famine and what was done? Christians took care of each other. Church history documents Christians taking care of the abandoned infant, sick and poor. How did they do this without the strong arm of the government or the resources we have at our immediate disposal?

    Are the problems of life too big for God to handle that we have to shunt them off to a godless government hostile to the gospel (Ps 2)? Think of the missed opportunities for the care of men’s souls while their physical needs are being met. As it is now a Christian foster parent is all but forbidden to express his or her hope in Christ to a broken and hurting child. Heaven help us should the child have temptations to homosexuality! I might assume that your work forbids you from sharing the graciousness of God to these people who struggle.

    We, in the West, have at our disposal monumental wealth. I cannot but help but think that almost all of the societal ills which waste bucketfuls of tax dollars could be handled by Christians captured by the gospel. Moses had to constrain the people from giving during the building of the Tabernacle. Oh, that our hearts and hands would be as generous as these wilderness wanderers! We have the Tabernacle in our midst full of grace and truth (Jn 1). As it is the average Christian gives less than 2% of his income. What would churches do should their giving quintuple? Tragic that all we can do is smile and chuckle at such an outrageous idea.

    Our Savior led way when he said the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many. Our lives cannot be given as a ransom for sin, but they are to be poured out. See Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. It is more blessed to give than to receive must be more than a platitude.

    Repentance is what is called for not more government.

    1. Now you are being ridiculous…and far worse – you are distorting the Scripture. Imagine if someone said to you’ I turn my eyes to the doctors to see where my help comes from?’ is idolatrous! Besides which our help does not come from the hills!

      I find your abuse of Scripture (because that is what it is) to justify a particular political theory of government profoundly disturbing. Please do not misuse the bible in that way.

  7. Pastor, reading your several brief comments in which you accuse me of misusing the Bible it seems that you do not have a thoroughgoing Christian world view. Francis Schaeffer wrote about upstairs-downstairs thought. Upstairs was the moral and spiritual. Downstairs was real life. He noted that contemporary man isolates or compartmentalizes these things.

    From the few things you’ve posted it appears that the political belongs downstairs not subject to biblical evaluation. However, if all truth really is God’s truth should we not rigorously think about the political especially as it holds a great deal of authority and power over us?

    Do you not believe in idolatry? Idolatry, in part, is where that person, object or institution becomes big and God becomes small. It is where we turn our eyes to the hills (Ps 121) to find our help first. It holds an inordinate position of authority in our lives. In Jeremiah’s day even the Temple and Temple worship had become idolatrous (cf Ezekiel). Ours hearts are no different. As Calvin has said they are perpetual idol factories. It is easy for all of us, because we swim in the culture and society in which we live, to accept many things as normal when they really need to be examined in the light of Scripture and exposed.

    1. I’ve read Schaeffer many times (and he would completely disagree with your simplistic and narrow use of the Bible to bolster your politics). I agree completely that it is so easy to accept many things as normal because of our culture….and I would suggest that is precisely what you are doing…and then going to the Bible to seek justification for it. I have no problem with you having your political views – I do have a problem with you misusing the Bible in the way you do – in order to defend those views.

  8. I think you would agree that this forum is not suited for long theses. Indeed, many volumes have been written on these issues. By necessity this needs to be boiled down and distilled. Many of your opponents, and I do not count myself among them, would chide you (or worse) for being simplistic and misusing the Bible for your views on sexuality. To insult me, who is your brother, by calling me simplistic and misusing the Bible is beneath Christian charity.

    I don’t mind having my views challenged with thoughtful responses. I believe ‘As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.’ Sadly, you have presented yourself as one beneath interacting with me in a reflective manner as either a patient brother trying to correct another’s error or as one is humble enough to examine his own presuppositions.

    Perhaps if we were able to sit together over a cup of tea and have a robust discussion things would be different. As it is this will be my last word on the matter.

    1. Sorry Jeff – but when you state that we should trust the Lord rather than the State to provide for the poor it is simplistic. And I don’t think at all that the biblical view on sex and sexuality is simplistic – nor am I usually accused of being simplistic for holding to it.

      I’m sorry that you find my answers to your assertions inadequate. Of course they are. That is the limitation of this kind of forum. And I would love to have a cup of tea with you!

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