By Hamish Macdonnell
UNIVERSITY education should no longer be seen as a “free entitlement” and should be paid for through fees in Scotland, a leading think tank declared today. Reform Scotland said graduates should contribute towards the cost of their higher education as a deferred fee to be paid once they earn more than the average Scottish salary.
The think tank said university education should not be seen in the same way as secondary education, which is free and entirely paid for by the taxpayer.
“Higher education is something that has to be achieved academically, but it is not fair that those who go to university have their time there subsidised fully by taxpayers, many of whom have not had that opportunity,” it said in its report, Power to Learn, today.
Mike Russell, Scotland’s Education Secretary, has already ruled out a move back towards tuition fees in Scotland.
Reform Scotland’s proposals are unlikely to find favour with many in the Liberal Democrats Party either – given that student fees were scrapped by the first Labour-Lib Dem administration shortly after devolution as the price of Lib Dem support for the coalition.
But they might be treated more warmly by the Scottish Conservatives and by some in the Labour Party who believe that graduates should pay more back towards the cost of their education is they go on to get better-paid jobs than non-graduates.
Other recommendations in the report include:
? Abolition of the Scottish Higher and Further Education Funding Council [SHFEFC] with its functions transferred back to government.
? Making the Scottish Qualifications Authority [SQA] a fully-independent charitable trust, with the accreditation arm retained by government.
? Long-term plans to scrap means testing of student loans, enabling all Scottish students to claim the current maximum £4,625 a year loan.
? Expansion of the current scheme to allow more pupils to study at colleges.
? Make it a condition of grant that HEIs are willing to take transfer students who have successfully completed HNQs into later years of study on a degree course where the subject content is comparable.
The paper, which concluded that the current economic crisis underlines the need for major changes to further and higher education funding in Scotland, claimed fairness was the underlying principle in its proposed reforms.
“At present, there are those who are academically able but financially unable to go to university but pay taxes which subsidise those who do go to university. While it is true to say that society as a whole benefits from having a well educated workforce, the individual graduates themselves also benefit from the higher earnings they accrue,” said one of the report’s authors Geoff Mawdsley.
The report claimed that scrapping SHFEFC – a move that is in keeping with Reform Scotland’s earlier paper Democratic Power which called for the abolition of most quangos – and returning its functions directly back to government would make the system more accountable.
On its proposal for a deferred graduate fee, the report pointed out that only wider society pays for the benefit of graduates through the tax system, while the graduate does not contribute directly.
It said: “Although graduates may earn more and subsequently pay more tax, many successful top rate taxpayers may not have gone to university, so higher tax contributions should not be seen as payment towards higher education.
“There needs to be a better balance where the individual graduate as well as taxpayers contribute towards education.”
Reform Scotland believes that with a deferred fee scheme, the Scottish government would continue to fund a set proportion of the average cost of a degree course – depending on the student’s chosen subject – with the rest funded by the graduate.
However, the deferred fee would only be re-paid once the graduate is earning more than the Scottish average salary (£22,958 in 2007).
The report said there would be no need to create a new mechanism for collecting the deferred fee as the existing system involving the Students Loan Company currently used to collect student loans and what is left of the graduate tax could be used.
It stated: “Higher education is not “free”; rather it is paid for by taxpayers. Before universal services such as healthcare or policing are targeted, it is only fair that the current system of university funding, which sees the less well-off contribute through their taxes for the better-off to go to university is reviewed. Indeed under the present funding model students expect to earn much more after graduation than many of those who are subsidising them.”
The UK tertiary education body, Universities UK, said there was evidence to suggest that the extra money generated by fees in England has had a positive impact on the student experience.
The group’s chief executive, Nicola Dandridge, told BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme: “There is very good evidence of it going to improve student facilities such as accommodation and sports facilities and also improving the infrastructure, but perhaps most significantly improving staff student ratios.”
The debate in England is currently focused on the issue of whether to raise the current cap of £3,225 on university tuition fees.