The Scottish Government is radically reforming Scotland's higher education system; particularly college funding and the structure of colleges.
The Scottish government wants to, over a three year period, cut running costs by 24% and capital by 46%. On top of this, they intend to cut the number of colleges by a third; by merging existing colleges. This is having a negative impact on the number of places being taken up at colleges across the country, with 18,000 less people attending college and a £900 cut in bursary funding, per household. So why is it then, that Scotland has a 'flourishing' university sector? Simply, free tuition.
There has been a 3% increase in the number of people taking up place at university, and it is a figure that I'm glad to see. However, the academic performance of Scotland's universities isn't quite so pleasing. The Times Higher Education only placed one Scottish University in the top 100; Edinburgh at 32nd, up 4 places. Despite the University of Edinburgh climbing the rankings, Glasgow fell 37 places to 139th, while Aberdeen dropped 25 places to joint 176th. St Andrews fell 23 places to 108th, and Dundee, fell out of the top 200. So, despite these poor figures, the Scottish government continues to pour millions of pounds into this sector, at the expense of colleges.
Demographically, colleges take on students from poorer backgrounds when compared to universities, and hence the recent uproar about the lack of diversity amongst the student population of Scotland's most prestigious universities; namely St Andrews. It would therefore appear that the government are prioritising higher education for the better off, not for the poorer in our society. However, one has to look at it with perspective, in tough economic times, savings have to be made. But is college reformation really the best way to save money? Sadly, the best place to start looking for savings is the Universal Welfare Bill, which includes tuition fees.
I support free tuition for students, but not at the expense of others. Tuition fees are a way of making higher education accessible to all, not limiting further education spaces, particularly to some of the poorest and most vulnerable in Scottish society. I would rather pay £1,820 per year myself to a university for my tuition, if it prevented such hard cuts in Scottish college funding. Is it time for a "Scottish solution" and to reintroduce low tuition fees, whilst waiving fees for the poorer, to allow access to higher education for all. The abolition of tuition fees was an attempt to allow anyone, no matter where you came from, who you were, or how wealthy you were, access to higher education. The current scenario, with regards to tuition fees, is a poor attempt at social inclusion; it currently excludes thousands from colleges. In Scotland, our unnecessary prioritising is leading to a two-tiered higher education system, creating an unwanted and undesirable, hierarchical order.
Colleges are integral to our education system, they fill a gap, between school and university, making the gap a little narrower, making it an easier bridge to cross. Surely then, it is unfair, if from no other perspective of equal opportunities for all, to deny thousands the opportunity to go to college, to make themselves more employable, by furthering their knowledge in the subjects that they enjoy.
I want to go to university, however, I don't feel superior to college students, and I don't believe that they feel inferior to university students, why should they? Both groups are equally as important. They are Scotland's future. Scotland has a proud history of access to education, for all, despite wealth inequalities, the brightest of Scotland's kids can go to university, but what about those who go to aspire to go to college? Do we tell them, that their dream isn't good enough, dream bigger? They can't go out and get jobs, there aren't any jobs available.
So, what to do? We should consider at least, reintroducing tuition fees to those whose families earn over a certain monetary threshold. This would allow the Scottish government to cut university funding, at no cost to the quality of the service provided. The savings made, could be reinvested in colleges, to help ease the pressure on colleges, who would have to make swingeing cuts, which would undoubtedly affect the quality of the service provided. Alternatively, raise taxes and create the additional revenue to fund both sectors, emphasising the importance of both. What I am sure of though, is to create a fairer system, those who can pay, should. And those who can't shouldn't.
Backbench Secretary of State for Scotland