The SNP’s commitment to higher education has long assumed popular folklore, largely due to their totemic policy of free tuition fees. On his last day as SNP leader, Alex Salmond unveiled a ceremonial rock pledging his commitment to the policy until ‘the rocks may melt with the sun.’ The dogma is this policy helps poorer students go to university, a key aim of the party. However, actions speak louder than words, even those carved in stone.
The Scottish Government has unceremoniously cut a scheme ensuring places for around 2000 students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Due to the fact places are harshly capped and demand for this scheme far outstripped supply, it was essential to helping those from poorer families have the opportunity to go to university. This policy should not be viewed in isolation – the SNP in government have targeted poorer students as a ripe area for savings.
Bursaries are essential in offering financial incentives to study. Since the SNP came to power, £40 million has been slashed from the student bursary system.
The number and the value of bursaries that are being awarded have fallen. This is slowly encouraging a situation where university is only for the privileged few that can afford it. Perversely, it has been shown the lack of tuition fees overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy.
Contemplating tuition fees would be apostasy for the SNP. This is due to political expediency, not belief. Populism has been allowed to fill the gaps that the promise of independence cannot fill. Tuition fees are a policy whose bark is distinctly worse than its bite. To suggest their benefits is to unleash a cacophony of heated opposition.
However, consider the diverging successes between universities in Scotland and in England. The infamous £9,000 tuition fee hike has had no detrimental effect on applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds. Indeed, applications from that group have risen and are roughly double the number in Scotland.
The SNP has pervaded a culture of fear around education policy. To criticise Government policy is to talk Scotland down. Informal diktats mean university leaders are frightened to speak out. The fact is the SNP have demonstrably failed on education. Not just for higher education, but all levels of schooling. Social mobility has stalled, numeracy and literacy rates are falling and those from poorer areas are less likely to succeed in exams than their richer peers. Those who are lucky enough to reach university leave with disproportionately higher debt from loans.
We could forgive the SNP for being so committed to independence and resurrecting the pre-1707 promised land, that all else has fallen by the wayside. A case of unintended neglect as opposed to outright abuse. Not only would this be gravely missing the point, it would play straight into their hands. Their modus operandi is division – Scotland does not have the powers to make a difference and Westminster is to blame. The grievance agenda ignores the political choices that have been made and offers a glimpse through the looking glass at what an independent Scotland would be like.
Fortunately, education policy has been receiving more publicity recently. Under pressure from the down, but not quite out, Scottish Labour party and their ‘Kids, not cuts’ campaign, Nicola Sturgeon has announced education will be a central part of her third term in Government. However, with the EU referendum likely to refresh calls for a second referendum, the SNP may fall back into constitutional obsession. If their dereliction of duty continues as it has done, when the SNP return to power in May, they will be preparing to preside over a lost generation.
Image credit: Luke Jones