On the day Nick Clegg used his fifth anniversary as leader of the Lib Dems to raise the prospects of well off pensioners no longer being entitled to certain benefits, north of the border, Johann Lamont gave an equally eye-catching speech in Glasgow to mark her first anniversary as Scottish Labour leader.
Just months after she gave her now famous speech in Edinburgh questioning the feasibility of certain universal benefits she did it again yesterday, this time raising questions over the sustainability and affordability of universal free university tuition.
In a speech in her native Glasgow, she said:
“University education is costly, and faces competing claims on limited public resources.
“Whilst it was possible to sustain a system of publicly-funded higher education in an environment of relatively low participation, this is not viable in an era of mass participation without a very serious diminution in standards and quality.”
Whilst ruling out up-front tuition fees as a “barrier” for many people in accessing higher education, Lamont nevertheless concluded:
“But we also have to recognise that, currently, the tuition-fees policy is being paid for by colleges.
“That is simply not sustainable and I think we need to have an honesty about how we perhaps make sure that those with the broadest shoulders bear the greater burden.”
And her solution?
“The most obvious option,” she argued, would be a return to a graduate endowment under which graduates start to make repayments after finishing their degrees and once their earnings hit a set level.
Responding to the speech, the SNP went on the attack with accusations Lamont had revealed her “Tory blue” colours.
Education secretary Michael Russell explained:
“There is barely a scintilla of difference between her plan to abolish free education and the disastrous fees regime introduced by the Tories south of the border. Figures out just last week showed a drop of more than 6.3% in the number of people accepted to English universities; Scottish universities, in contrast, were up almost 2%.
“If Johann Lamont had her way more than 3,300 students accepted to university this year would not have gone. That is the reality of what Labour are now proposing. Thousands of students denied the opportunity to go to university.”
Opposition also came from the NUS with its president in Scotland, Robin Parker, concluding:
“The idea that introducing charging for university is somehow progressive, when it puts off the poorest students in Scotland, just simply makes no sense. And it would certainly make no sense to the many college students who aspire to go on to university.
“Johann Lamont highlights the priorities of college funding and tackling our poor rates of widening access. And we agree that there must be a focus on educational opportunities for people from the most deprived backgrounds. However tuition fees are not the way to help, and in fact would make things worse.”
But if Lamont is looking for more favourable coverage of her speech, she has only to look at the Herald’s editorial today which praises her for asking “pertinent questions”.
In its assessment of her first year as leader, the paper notes:
Her central argument, fleshed out yesterday in a keynote speech to mark her first anniversary as leader, is about the profound inequality in Scottish society.
There are questions about the affordability of Scotland’s free personal care regime for the elderly at a time when the government is having to spend £60m a year on free prescriptions for everyone. Her home turf is in education, having worked as an English teacher in deprived areas.
She questions the underfunded council tax freeze, while schools are having to cut staff, despite the gap in attainment between the highest and lowest achieving schools. She challenges cuts to college budgets, which hit the poorest hardest, while part of the price of free tuition for university students is the £75m a year the government is obliged to shell out on EU students who come to Scotland to study.
Ms Lamont is right to raise the issue of whether this policy is sustainable in the long term “in an era of mass participation without a very serious diminution in standards and quality”. Is she not merely saying what university principals in Scotland are thinking as they seek to maintain their institutions’ places in the world rankings?
Her core argument is that, as undergraduates are drawn predominantly from more affluent backgrounds, the current policy is regressive, especially when access is narrower in Scotland than England, despite the latter’s tuition fees.
Ms Lamont does not have all the answers but she is asking pertinent questions.
• Lamont questions future of universal freebies – mature politics or political suicide? – September 28th, 2012