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
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
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
become 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 –
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.
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.
“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.