University is no universal benefit

Free tuition is  a “universal” benefit, according to Scottish Ministers.

Really?  The public subsidy for school-level education is universal. Absolutely everyone is entitled to a school place.  Indeed, if you don’t go to one of schools provided by the state, your parents will be under the cosh to explain what alternative education is in place.  A number of people reject this subsidy and go private. They sometimes argue this means schools are not a universal benefit, and they are a saving  to the state.

As the parent of a child in the state system and a product of the local comp, I can confidently say that the value of their children’s presence in the system would be so substantial that it would more than make up for the extra spending needed. Let’s stick with describing school-level education as a universal service.  Like the NHS, you can choose not use it, but it’s there for all of us.

An analogy is often made, implicitly more than explicitly, between school and university provision.  The rhetoric which calls on Scotland’s proud tradition of free education indeed draws quite specifically on the country’s impressively early network of open access schools. However, university fees in Scotland were only automatically covered by public funding after the post-war UK welfare state came along.  There’s a clue in the fact that in 1901 Andrew Carnegie established a trust to help with “the payment of fees of students of Scottish birth or extraction in respect of courses leading to a degree of a Scottish University”. Indeed, tuition fee grants were partially means-tested (yes, really) until 1977.  Counterintuitively, the high period of free tuition, in Scotland as in the wider UK, was 1977 to 1998 (see footnote 1).

Widening access to HE

University, unlike school, is not open to everyone.  It’s not just that a university education will be too much for some people, or that many more who could manage will never want to go.  Many people who would like to go can’t, even if they have achieved results which (in the Access Commission’s words) are at least at the level of the “access threshold” for a course.  Page 37 of the Commission’s report sets out the problem: demand increasingly outstrips supply in Scotland, competition for places is getting tighter and it is the most disadvantaged who suffer. One-third of Scottish applicants are now turned away (see here). Admission is skewed heavily to those from wealthier homes.

Unlike schooling, university is therefore not in any sensible use of the term a universal benefit.

But schooling might still provide a useful reference point for funding policy. It is 100% available to all of us and 100% free.  On the logic of the school funding model, we could peg the degree of “free-ness” of university tuition to the degree of universality.  The higher the degree of participation, the higher the public subsidy.

Because it is unrealistic (and undoubtedly misconceived) to aim for 100% actual university participation, our notional 100% might be everyone benefiting from c£30,000 investment in their personal development after the age of 17 (using the average cost of a university honours degree: we’ll not try to subsidise everyone at the same rate as a vet). Once that ambition was 100% achieved, degrees could be 100% subsidised.  While it’s only x% achieved, they could be x% subsidised, with loan (still subsidised, mind you, but not at the cost of other cash spending) taking the slack.

The deserving rich and clever

Or you might argue that people who go to university deserve to have much more spent on their education than people who don’t.  This is a belief held by many graduates and their parents, and underpins the debate about free tuition, although it’s rarely expressed quite so bluntly.  Your argument might be on merit (they’ve worked harder) and/or utility (they will be more economically or socially useful) or they will be cheaper in other ways (healthier, less criminal).  As a graduate, obviously I find these arguments appealing. Even so, let’s admit that the system does not currently find space for all the harder-working, potentially extra-useful people in the population who would benefit from taking part, and won’t be “universal” even in that more narrow sense until it does.

Then “free tuition” might be an aspiration pegged to the achievement of fully equal access by social background (the SG’s target for that is 2030), plus reaching the point where the system is large enough to ensure that everyone sufficiently qualified to get a place can have one if they want.  Until we achieve these two things, we could limit the subsidy, skewing it more towards people from under-represented groups, and only increasing it and sharing it out more evenly as we get closer to our aim.

Either system above would give those currently benefiting from free tuition, who are (very) disproportionately drawn from more advantaged backgrounds, a stake in improving things for everyone else.  At the moment, they have none: very much the opposite, in fact. From their perspective, any more equal use of current resources means it’s all downhill from here.

Those defending free tuition never seem to have an answer to how more opportunities for university-level education, better student grants, and a more equitable per capita investment across different stages of education might be achieved, other than more spend from more tax, in a political system where a big tax hike is clearly a massively unrealistic aspiration (footnote 2).

Yet it remains unclear to me why the people not currently in the university system, or getting there but getting almost no grant and so ending up with most of the debt, have to wait for the distant day when (maybe, but I’m not holding my breath) much more spending is found, rather than benefiting from some more equal distribution of existing post-school spending now. That does not require anyone to be presented with a bill for the full cost of their fees. Nor does it preclude protecting lower income students from any extra debt: indeed, my purpose here would be to reduce their total borrowing, compared to now, through better grants. Leave aside exactly how it might be done: why in principle wouldn’t either of approaches suggested above be more truly within the spirit of universalism, and fairer, than what we do now?


Footnote 1:  For a brief history of tuition fee funding in Scotland, see my chapter here.   In writing that, I drew on this 2013 article by Nick Hillman.  Or look at this excellent piece, published last month by Prof Robert Anderson of Edinburgh University, which  examines in detail the history of the funding of university tuition. Prof Anderson concludes that the sort of lower-fee system used in England before 2012 and still in place in Wales and Northern Ireland “creates a better balance between student interests, public accountability, academic freedom and democratic access than current entirely unprecedented policies pursued in England.” I’d agree, but add – for the reasons set out above – it strikes a better balance than current Scottish policies, too.

Footnote 2: When the Parliament’s Finance Committee called for evidence on using the new Scottish Rate of Income Tax last year, from four million Scottish adults and countless third sector organisations, it received one piece of evidence (from me) arguing for the power to be used to increase spending, and explaining in detail why this would be progressive. The power isn’t being used.  The most radical tax move on the cards from the likely majority governing party for the next five years after May currently appears to be not passing on a cut in 2017 to those on the higher rate (or possibly not passing on most of it) and a marginal tweak to the top end  and defrosting of an otherwise unreformed council tax. We need to stop pretending that the distribution of existing spending can be left out of any substantial debate about improving equality over the life of the next Parliament.

This post first appeared on the author’s personal site and is reproduced with permission. 

Image courtesy of Alljengi CC BY-SA 2.0


  1. Brian Swinburne says

    A comprehensive analysis of an educational system which favours the more affluent groups in society when at the same time there has been a purge in the range of courses provided by Further Education Colleges including redundancies and a diminution of conditions of service for lecturing staff. I wonder if the hard core of SNP supporters have become aware that their children are being disadvantaged at the expense of financial subsidies for predominantly middle class families in the leafy suburbs.

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