The challenges facing students in Scotland today

Liam Burns, the President of NUS Scotland, writes about the "Reclaim Your Voice" campaign, and looks at the challenges facing students in Scotland today.

Liam Burns is the President of NUS Scotland

How the political landscape can change in a week. When NUS Scotland kick started our campaign ‘Reclaim Your Voice‘ we thought the toughest challenge we would face was getting a firm commitment that any price tag on education was off the table. It would have been all too easy for such a promise to be kicked into the long grass through calls for ‘reviews’ or continually redefining the term ‘graduate contributions’.

But in a space of a week the SNP, Liberal Democrats, the Scottish Greens and Scottish Labour have ruled out any form of contribution via leaders’ videos to our annual conference.

This comes hot on the heels of the report outlining what the Scottish government and Universities Scotland think any potential gap between Scottish and English universities may turn out to be.

There is no doubt that the figures that triggered an acceptance by all but the Scottish Conservatives that higher education could be funded from the public purse, despite increased tuition fees in England, has been subject to political opportunism by both sides.

It remains unclear what the unit resource is that English universities will receive as the ironic battle within the UK government to halt the race to £9,000 fees unfolds. Equally, the figures the Scottish government has jumped to presume a £7,500 average fee that is not index-linked – a figure which seems to me unlikely.

Regardless of who turns out to be right over the size of the ‘gap’ debate, principals’ attempts to bounce politicians into accepting fees as inevitable have been well and truly exposed. We will soon release figures on how we think any gap should be filled.

Where does this leave Scottish Labour in the run up to the elections? There seems to be concern from some about how to pay for the commitment to free education and some people question whether we should be putting additional resources into higher education over and above other public services at a time of cuts to the Scottish budget.

Questioning if investment in any area best serves those form poorer backgrounds is hardly a surprising concern for a Labour politician, but it is the wrong one because it ignores the bigger picture of education funding in Scotland.

We only give 1 per cent of GDP to our universities and colleges which is far below the OECD average. We give less as a proportion of our budget to our universities now than we did when the parliament was created – and when Scottish graduates account for 22% of the population and yet pay 44% of all income tax; we have to stop creating the false narrative that higher education is a burden on the taxpayer. Far form it, it is actually an investment with a good rate of return and we haven’t ever funded it well enough.

Furthermore, and most importantly for those that are getting the jitters about making a commitment to free education in Scotland, we believe there are ways to improve the sector in Scotland that actually save large sums and can provide additional income into universities’ teaching funds. Looking at advanced entry degrees, greater part-time provision, the balance between research and teaching, business contribution and greater efficiencies can all but close the gap and make significant improvements.

We’re right to be concerned that only 26% of admissions to Scottish universities come from deprived backgrounds, compared to 30% in England. That’s without fees. That’s why NUS Scotland has been so focused on improving the amount of money students have to live on because we know that over a third think of dropping out because of financial hardship while they are studying. If a fair graduate contribution was being discussed for that purpose, with no price tag, that is a debate Labour could rightly have. When students have £35 a week less to live on than would be offered through benefits, access will always be a problem north of the border.

Labour should be proud that university admissions have increased so dramatically since 1997. Making it a top priority to balance those admissions so they reflect the social make up of Scotland going into the elections should be the aim for all parties looking to pay for education from the public purse.

Finding public cash to fund universities, irrespective of the size of any resulting gap in funding, is now a political choice that should be decided on the value of education for all, not a pragmatic one that can be blamed on Westminster cuts. The books are open and the gap is clear, and so there can be no going back on this promise after the election.

For students in Scotland, it is now becoming increasingly clear that our fight won’t be won or lost before the elections – we learned that the hard way in last May’s UK election. Next Tuesday thousands of students, school pupils, friends and family will be marching through Edinburgh on the day that parliament dissolves to reclaim our voice.

The strength of feeling at that march will put education front and centre of any candidate’s political aspirations.

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