One of the great myths of Scottish higher education is that it’s free. Outside observers can be forgiven for making this error because Nicola Sturgeon asserts it so very often. She has boasted that ‘one of this government’s proudest achievements is the restoration of free higher education’, claimed to ‘stand for universal services, such as... free education’, and argued, naturally, that independence is ‘the only way to protect the advances that Scotland has made with devolution through the social contract, which has delivered vital universal benefits such as free university education’.
Now Audit Scotland, the public spending watchdog, reports a 185 per cent increase in loans authorised by the Student Awards Agency for Scotland over the past decade, rocketing from £187 million in 2008/09 to £533.6 million in 2018/19. Scottish and EU students don’t pay tuition fees at universities in Scotland (though English, Welsh and Northern Irish students do) so these loans mostly cover living costs, though there is also some bursary provision. In total, more than 500,000 graduates owe more than £5.5 billion and, as might be expected, those from the most deprived families take on more debt than those from the least.
Students in Scotland aren’t supposed to have any debt. At least, that’s what the SNP promised 13 years ago. ‘It’s time to dump student debt,’ proclaimed the 2007 manifesto that brought the Nationalists to power in Edinburgh, adding: ‘We will remove the burden of debt repayments owed by Scottish domiciled and resident graduates.’ Once in government, they ratted on that pledge, among others.
The repayment schedule is nothing like a commercial loan. Graduates don’t begin paying off their debt until their annual income exceeds £18,935 and even then at nine per cent, increasing as your earnings increase. The threshold is due to rise to £25,000 by next April. So, we shouldn’t be intellectually dishonest about student debt the way Labour MP Zarah Sultana was in the Commons on Monday, when she waved around her student loan statement and demanded that universities minister Chris Skidmore ‘look me in the eye and tell me that it is fair that working-class kids that want an education are forced to take on this colossal debt while his government is led by a man who went from the playing fields of Eton to a free education at Oxford’.
Skidmore could have said a number of things to Sultana. First, as an MP, she’s on £79,468 a year. She can more than afford to pay back her debts. Second, only ten per cent of students in England pay up-front and the rest take out loans to cover tuition and maintenance. Third, these loans aren’t payable until the graduate is earning at least £25,725 and, by way of example, debtors earning £27,000 pay £9 per month. If he was feeling brave, Skidmore might further have pointed out that Sultana was throwing a strop at having to pay for the education she expected to benefit from enough to go into debt in the first place. Boris Johnson did not go to Oxford for ‘free’. His education was paid for from the taxes of hairdressers and taxi drivers and school cleaners. Sultana is bitter because she missed out on the jolly old shakedown operation that was the old student grants system.
Sultana used an interesting phrase in her jeremiad: ‘working-class kids that want an education are forced to take on this colossal debt’. She’s right about this, though in a roundabout way. No one is coercing kids to take on huge debts but the education system is heavily gamed towards encouraging it. Secondary school curriculums are structured around subjects and examinations with university presented as the logical next step. While it is for some pupils, a three or four-year liberal degree is not for everyone and these students want intensive, high-quality vocational education instead.
University holds a certain cache, particularly for working-class families who, like Neil Kinnock, feel the history of ‘a thousand generations’ weighing upon them. But the surest way to address social inequality is to get young people the best education regardless of income so they can compete with the offspring of the wealthy. That means some going to university and others gaining their skills elsewhere. Part of the calculation for all students, regardless of background or income, must be the market, the skills in demand and the value placed upon those skills.
Engineering graduates earn on average twice as much as arts graduates. Sultana, on her £80,000 MP salary, is wholly unrepresentative of her fellow social science graduates, who make £29,900. Of course, we need arts and humanities graduates (even social scientists have their occasional use) but we don’t need 72,800 social studies graduates, 58,500 creative artists and designers, and 26,700 historians and philosophers. The 31,000 law graduates we produce every year is easily 31,000 too many. A vibrant university sector is valuable but when the percentage of graduates working in non-graduate jobs up to five years after earning their degree rises to 49 per cent, the sector might be a little too vibrant.
In the United States, there are bipartisan efforts afoot to redirect some of the demand for university education to technical colleges, or two-year trade schools as they’re known stateside. On this side of the Atlantic, there was some encouraging news last week from Sunderland University, which is taking a ‘career-focused and professions-facing approach to its curriculum’ and ceasing to offer degrees in modern languages, politics and history. Academics may be averse but career-focused education can deliver outcomes for many young people that a university degree cannot.
If you’re in your final year of school and reading this — and if you’re already a Spectator reader at this point, you will go far — think twice about university because here’s something no other grown-up will tell you: it’s a racket. It’s a racket that works out okay for some and less so for others but it’s a racket all the same. No one will ever ask to see your degree, it will not help you earn serious money unless you study engineering or medicine, and even the campus booze culture isn’t what it used to be. Go to uni if it’s what you want but go with open eyes. They’re not selling you a future, they’re selling you debt.