The point is hammered without fail, at every chance SNP ministers have to mention it: all Scottish students are entitled to free university tuition. A noble initiative, one that would clearly appear on first inspection to be the epitome of progressive civic policy – each citizen, regardless of social class, given a chance to become a doctor, lawyer, engineer or any other profession they so desire. On the surface, this would suggest that Scotland’s higher education system is characterised by the values of equality and social mobility. But beneath the SNP’s egalitarian rhetoric lies a more complex reality.
Nobody would deny, in principle, that free tuition is an asset to all Scottish students. But in practice, even with the policy of free tuition, students from middle class backgrounds are privileged unfairly over students from poorer backgrounds.
Firstly, an illustration of the problem. If you are a student who is able to receive the maximum bursary amount, £1,750 (You are eligible for this amount if your household income falls below £16,999 annually), you on average will have to borrow around £6,650 annually to pay for living costs. This figure is £2,000 less than the figure for those students who cannot receive a bursary (You are ineligible if your household income is above £34,000 annually). Altogether, the poorest Scots leave university with an average debt of £26,600 each.
Further. a study by policy analyst Lucy Hunter Blackburn has found that, for the year 2015/16, students from households earning £17,000 to £23,000 annually and living away from home can expect £559 less in financial support than their English counterparts. Those Scottish students will then end up having to borrow £5,750 every year to support themselves, while the English students (from the same circumstances of household income, no less!) will ‘only’ end up having to borrow £4,047 per year.
To make matters worse, in terms of debt, Scottish students, as a whole, even compare poorly to other university systems that have tuition fees! The average student debt for Scotland is £21,000, which is a figure higher than that of Wales and Northern Ireland, two countries that themselves employ tuition fees.
How does this phenomenon arise?
Put simply, free tuition is almost like a flat-tax, in that it is applied flatly across socio-economic backgrounds without specific regard to the material conditions of different income brackets. Thus, for everyone, the cost of tuition is taken out of the equation from the beginning. But there is still the cost of living to contend with, and the base economic reality is that a student from a more affluent background can more easily afford rent, food, heating, electricity, clothing, books and so on without needing to take out a large loan (or a loan at all).
On the other hand, poorer students, by the very nature of their economic position, find the aid of the large loans essential in paying for the already-mentioned products and utilities. Bursaries are available, and these do not need to be repaid, but as we have seen, the highest bursary available is only £1,750. In a city like Glasgow, for example, where the average monthly rent is somewhere above £400, you can easily see how £1,750 wouldn’t even cover half a year’s rent, never mind all the costs of living on top of that.
Given this reality, it is no surprise that the poorest fifth of Scots are 3.5 times less likely to attend university than the top fifth. This is a significantly higher figure than in England, where the poorest fifth of people are 2.5 times less likely to go to university than the top fifth. The accompanying cost of university is just too big a discouragement.
We have an unfortunate situation, then, wherein higher education will remain an impossibility for many of our poorest citizens and a dead-weight of debt for the ones that can reach it- And this despite a policy that the SNP tell us has been brought in for the express benefit of working class youth.
The fact is, in their blind devotion to free tuition and only that, the SNP are wilfully ignoring the fact that what the poorest students also need are generous bursaries and
grants with which to fund their studies. We should not have a system where students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds end up with the largest amounts of student debt. If this is the case, and it sadly is, then social mobility is not something that really exists in Scotland. Once again, the privileged are given an easy ride, while the poor are left suffering.
We should not begin to despair, however. While it may be evident that the betterment of working class conditions cannot just be left to the policy decisions of bourgeois parties like the SNP, this has always been the case. Reformist politics, even if they try their hardest to make life better for the downtrodden, inevitably prove themselves to be incapable of properly doing so.
The responsibility, rather, lies with the working class itself. If the current state of affairs does not benefit us, then we must organise and use our collective power to change society from the bottom up. Any positive change that has already been achieved has been done so through struggle against the establishment, and this is how it will be in the future. Thus, if actually effective living cost grants and bursaries are to be established, then it will require a mass movement of working class students to put them in place.
Every child has a right to higher education. Only we ourselves can make that right a reality.