Euan McColm Euan McColm

Is the SNP changing its tune on free university places?

(Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

The SNP’s much trumpeted policy of free university tuition allows ‘radicals’ to indulge their fantasies of Scotland as a fair and compassionate country. Nationalist politicians sell the scheme as a way of opening up higher education to those who might previously have been priced out of post-school study. The reality is that the wealthiest are the scheme’s big winners: a higher proportion of children from better off backgrounds go on to university.

Is the SNP now having a long overdue rethink? Appearing before Holyrood’s finance committee on Tuesday, deputy first minister and finance secretary Shona Robison said 1,200 spaces for Scottish students would not be funded next year. When Labour MSP Michael Marra pointed out that a proposed £28.5 million budget cut would be the equivalent of a reduction of about 3,800 student places, Robison conceded that the number of student places cut might be higher than the figure she presented to MSPs.

Before the SNP won 2007’s Holyrood election, Scottish students were spared up-front charges for tuition and then, after graduation, they were expected to pay an endowment. The nationalists abolished this back-door payment, making tuition truly free for the first time. Popular with voters, especially the middle class ones who expected their kids to go to university, the policy was hailed by the SNP as a game-changer in terms of opening up access to young people from poorer backgrounds.

But the detail of the policy revealed its many flaws. In order to fund all this free tuition, universities had to ensure they had enough spaces for students from outside Scotland who would pay full bung. And in order to make room for these cash cow students, universities had to put a limit on the number of spaces available to Scottish students. 

Shona Robison conceded that the number of student university places cut might be higher than the figure she presented to MSPs.

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