A Progressive Piñata

Liam Payne looks at the downside of how the SNP scrapped tuition fees in higher education – at the expense of students in further education

Recently, a number of apparently new political divisions have arisen in UK society: Remain against Leave; Yes against No in Scotland; City against Town; Old against Young. As socialists, this has posed a challenge to the standard left-wing class diagnosis of socio-economics and societal structures. While the class struggle can be readily discerned in all of these ‘modern’ political differences, the sub-division of classes along the lines listed above has given an added dimension to the recent left surge in UK institutional politics, and can be argued to have heavily contributed to its – hopefully temporary – defeat in this area at the end of 2019.

Labour’s successes in the 2017 snap general election can be viewed as a somewhat proactive attempt to fuse these disparate sub-divisions together again under a loose rubric of class structure and struggle. The election campaign and its manifesto went part of the way to addressing many of the grievances that define these new categorisations, and united them under the banner of ‘For the Many, Not the Few’. Labour went on to maintain many of its Brexit-supporting voters and constituencies in the post-industrial towns, and even saw a vote surge and seat increase in the constitutionally-dominated Scotland.

A specific issue that has been prominent in this new political reality has been that of tuition fees for higher education. Introduced to the UK by the first New Labour government in September 1998, these charges for accessing tertiary level education have been highly contentious, and have led to talk of a rupture in ‘inter-generational’ relations and solidarity – Old against Young.

In this debate, Scotland’s approach to higher education fees and funding has often been cited as a progressive example of how to approach this issue differently. Tuition fees were abolished by the first devolved government in 2000, and replaced by a graduate endowment for Scottish students. Following the establishment of the first SNP minority administration in 2007, this replacement was also abolished. Scotland effectively adopted free tertiary education for all its citizens.

While celebrated, this change carried larger connotations for the further education sector in Scotland which have received much less coverage. In his highly important and informative Labour Party report, Remaking the British State, Seán Griffin elucidates on this lesser known aspect of a supposedly progressive policy reform. This salutary lesson can act as a signpost for the current and future left in its dealings with newer ‘identity politics’, and the necessary attempts to accommodate these opinions into the larger transversal fabric of class struggle.

A Cause for Celebration?

Under the Lab-Lib coalition, the first devolved Scottish executive from 1999-2003 abolished the new tuition fee structure for all Scottish and EU students in 2000, and replaced them with a graduate endowment. For students attending Scottish higher education institutions from the rest of the UK (rUK), they would still be charged tuition fees for the first three years of their degree (concomitant to an rUK degree course timeframe), with the specifically Scottish fourth year of study covered by the Scottish executive from 2001 onwards.

The replacement graduate endowment payment for Scottish and EU students was initially set at the figure of £2000, to be repaid in the same manner as an income-linked student loan. Important exemptions to this fee were granted to students who were single parents, disabled, mature enrolees, or studying for any qualification below degree level.

In 2008, the new minority SNP government at Holyrood introduced the Graduate Endowment Abolition (Scotland) Act. This abolished the graduate endowment fee. Tertiary education in Scotland was now completely shorn of any charge.

Whilst this is an apparently important progressive reform, and one indeed loudly championed on the left today, Griffin looks at the detail and effects of this measure, in an attempt to truly appreciate its progressive and left-wing pedigree.

He divides the tertiary education sector into two fields – higher education and further education. Higher education refers largely to universities and degree-and-above level study. Further education largely refers to colleges and below-degree level study, for such pre-degree qualifications as Higher National Certificates (HNCs) and Higher National Diplomas (HNDs), for example.

Since 2008, the number of state school pupils attending higher education courses has indeed risen impressively – from 31.1% to 40.7% in 2016. However, the figure for attending further education in the same period has remained virtually stagnant at around 27%. Included in this is a precipitous drop in the number of HNC and HND students from Scotland’s most deprived SIMD (Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation) quintile – 16.8% to 10.5%.

The cause of this, Griffin proposes, is the largescale funding cuts that further education in Scotland has been subjected to in this same timescale. Government grants to Scottish colleges fell by around one third between 2011 and 2013. Alongside further cuts to additional funding sources, this resulted in full-time college staff decreasing by 9.3%.

Overall attendance at Scottish further education colleges fell by 40% between the years 2007-2015, but the biggest drop has been in part-time students. These enrolees are disproportionately female and over the age of 25. Part-time course at further education institutions allowed those in work, with family obligations, or with additional support needs to access tertiary education in a manner that fitted their circumstances.

These student numbers have dropped by a massive 52% (27% for those with additional support needs from 2009-2013 specifically). Griffin points out that the majority of such students, and further education students in general, will largely hail from working-class communities and backgrounds – over a third of all further education college students – thus “the funding cuts to colleges may have narrowed access to further education for such students.” (p.41).

Decorative and Largely Hollow?

The abolition of any charge for tertiary education in Scotland is rightly considered to be a vast improvement on the rUK tuition fee model still in force today. The increase in higher education enrolees from state schools enumerated above is testament to that fact. But as usual with such measures, especially those enacted by political entities with a vacuum in socio-economic ideology such as the Scottish National Party, it is important to parse out the full implications of such a reform.

As Griffin powerfully states:

“The SNP Scottish Government’s cuts to further education could be interpreted as an assault on the working-class and most deprived students in Scotland in order to help fund free higher education. Although there has been some increase in the number of students from this quintile entering higher education, the increase has been tiny compared with the reduction in access for all students to further education colleges.

“Those who have benefited most from free higher education are students from middle-class families and, to a large extent, students from Scotland’s most deprived communities have been sacrificed on the altar of the SNP’s strategy to win over the support of middle Scotland.” (pp. 41-2).

The graduate endowment payment for higher education which was introduced as a replacement to tuition fees in Scotland in 2000 was utilised to help fund education for the most deprived and marginalised in Scotland, with further education courses and students with additional support needs being exempt from the charge. With its abolition in 2008, and the general government cuts to further education to help pay for free tuition, the access of these sections of society to potentially highly beneficial tertiary education has been severely curtailed.

This inequitable pitfall of tuition fee abolition should be borne in mind in any left-wing calls for such a measure, going forward.

To counter this occurrence, the most straightforward answer would be to replace any loss in tertiary education funding with alternative modes of state revenue. Long overdue tax rises on high incomes, wealth, land value, corporate profits and capital gains should more than suffice to cover any shortfall. Allied to a return to public planning, alternative models of ownership in the economy, and the establishment of national investment and green transformation networks, the abolition of tuition fees would form just one part of a paradigm-shifting radical socialist government. The fact that the SNP in Scotland has not adopted any of these alternatives again speaks to the vacuum at the heart of such a single-minded political entity.

The left is historically and ideologically much better placed and prepared to engage properly with a progressive policy on tertiary education fees and funding. It must ensure that if the time arises again when it is has the chance to, it fully utilises these faculties to ensure the principles of equality, social justice and solidarity form the core of any such future reform.

Liam Payne is a Labour Party member based in Edinburgh.

Image: Independent Lion Rampant Scotland Flag. Author:Scotch MistSodacan, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported2.5 Generic2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.

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