Last week, being a retired fellow, I went on a day trip to Peebles with friends, a couple I’ve known since I taught their son more than 30 years ago. Their boy has done very well for himself and now lives in London with his family. Their daughter has also had an excellent life and lives in Edinburgh with hers.
By a pleasing twist, both son and daughter have their own sons, now about 14 or 15, sports-mad, academically able, just wonderful really (you know how grandparents are…). At one point, Granny, a forthright and clever woman said: "You know, it’s really nice, because they both want to study at the University of Edinburgh, but of course, as things stand, the London one will have a chance of getting in, but the Edinburgh one won’t.”
And that, of course, is correct because for many subjects at Edinburgh – and St Andrews – the vast majority of Scottish applicants don’t have a chance of getting in. Granny can reasonably look forward to London boy coming to Edinburgh; Edinburgh boy may have to go to England to find the course he wants, even if he really would prefer to stay in his home city.
In 2014, Alex Salmond said: “The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scottish students.” Now, whatever we may think of the former First Minister, he certainly had chutzpah, going on to have these words carved onto an actual stone, which, having been rejected by the University of St Andrews, ended up at Heriot-Watt University, being eventually taken down by them in 2020. Free tuition fees! What a splendid thing! No young Scot, going off to university in Scotland, would ever again pay fees. Fine and dandy. Except, of course, for the consequences of the policy for some Scottish applicants.
Universities have a very complex funding model, but basically what happens is this: they admit Scottish students (who pay no tuition fees, and for whom the government pays a little less than £2,000 a head); they admit students from the rest of the UK (who pay about £10,000 a head) and they admit students from the rest of the world (who pay around £24,000 a head). Currently, about a third of students at the University of Edinburgh and the University of St Andrews are domiciled in Scotland and, of course, that’s because the Scottish Government, through the Scottish Funding Council caps the number of places in universities for Scottish applicants, for financial reasons. The proportion of Scots varies wildly at other Scottish universities but the overall average is around two-thirds.
Then there’s another complication. Quite rightly, the Scottish Government, as part of its strategy to close the poverty-related educational attainment gap, provides extra funding for students who, according to the complicated algorithm which is applied, come from disadvantaged backgrounds – it applies to some postcodes, some schools and lots of other circumstances. Such candidates – and I have no problem with this – have points added to the tariff scores which university admissions staff use in determining who gets the sought-after 30 per cent of places which go to Scottish applicants. The outcome – as has been widely reported – is that for significant numbers of popular courses at some Scottish universities, only such disadvantaged students gain entry. That is, for around 80 per cent of Scottish young people, it’s simply impossible for them to get in.
I doubt that Mr Salmond, in carving his rock, foresaw this consequence. Tuition fees at Scottish universities were to be free as a universal benefit to all applicants with Scottish addresses. They were, in some universities, to be subsidised by thousands upon thousands of English and Chinese students. But, as with so many aspects of recent educational policy, no one had the wit to see that, in (rightly) trying to help disadvantaged young people, their policy would ban most Scottish applicants from gaining places in some highly competitive courses. This cannot continue.
There are two solutions. The first is that the Scottish Government should raise (or remove) the cap on the number of Scottish applicants. For obvious reasons to do with the paucity of new money in the Scottish budget, that won’t happen: the Scottish Government would have to shell out much more than 2k a head because of the loss of income from the much more lucrative students from the rest of the UK.
The other solution is to allow the parents of Scottish applicants to pay fees at the level of their English counterparts. I can hear the screams from the breakfast tables of the left, but hey… this would actually be fairer, so scream away. Such a policy would have no effect at all on the current skewing of the ‘Scottish places’ to disadvantaged, ‘flagged’ applicants. It would mean that fee-paying Scottish applicants competed for places with applicants from the rest of the UK and paid fees in Scotland rather than in England, as many of them currently do. The overall effect, obviously, would be that there were more Scots in Scottish universities which can only be a good thing. And most importantly, it would mean that the most competitive courses in Scotland were open to a far larger number of Scottish candidates (not all, I recognise, because there will be families who are not ‘flagged’ but who can’t afford to pay fees).
The policy was all heart and nae heid. It has generated huge upset for lots of young Scots, and there is a solution. It’s maybe time to melt some rocks.
Cameron Wyllie writes a blog called A House in Joppa. His book, Is There A Pigeon in the Room? My Life in Schools, is published by Birlinn.