Editor's comment

15th October 2010 at 01:00
Scotland's universities are left to look from the sidelines on tuition fees

So Lord Browne has spoken: English universities are going to operate in a virtually free market in student tuition fees. Scotland is left to look on from the sidelines - without a strategy and, more worryingly, at the mercy of George Osborne's UK spending review. With the greatest respect to Education Secretary Michael Russell's promised green paper, it is the Chancellor's pronouncements next Wednesday which will shape higher education in Scotland for years to come. We no longer have time for another "national conversation".

The unpalatable fact is that the argument against charging students for their higher education has been lost. We are in uncharted and turbulent economic waters and, partly as a consequence, there is perhaps now a consensus that students should contribute after graduation to a higher education that they derive so much benefit from. If they don't pay, taxpayers do. Of course, the nation also benefits from degree-holders, which is why the real argument now is getting the balance of funding right to reflect the advantages to student and taxpayer.

More tellingly, the proposition that fear of debt would deter poor students has to be revisited. If the funding regime in England is so hostile, why are students flocking to university there? And why are Scottish universities, with their "fairer" system, not even more awash with student applications?

But there is a bigger issue than the nuances of student finance. With a free market in student fees looming in England at least, with battles for limited public funds intensifying and with formidable competition worldwide, Scotland simply has too many universities and colleges for a country of five million people, and they cannot all achieve the "excellence" to which they claim to aspire. Someone, sometime soon will have to grasp that particular thistle.

Neil Munro, editor of the year (business and professional magazine).

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