We wanted a vision, we got a fudge

25th February 2000 at 00:00
DAVID BLUNKETT, the Education Secretary, believes that the abolition of tuition fees helps only wealthier students: "I am totally unabashed about tuition fees. The rich defending the rich is not an edifying sight." Neither is the current Scottish scene an edifying sight. Like a spavined horse which falls at the first major obstacle, Scotland's contentious parliamentary coalition has fallen in truly spectacular fashion over tuition fees. The reverberations of the crash will have ongoing resonance for Scotland's teaching profession and young people.

I hardly ever met a Liberal Democrat who was not a charming, sincere and idealistic individual. But a gaggle of Lib Dems with the ideological bit between their teeth tend to stridency and political naivety. Their recent "abolish the fees" mantra was quietly derided in the private enclaves of university principals, who are fully aware that abolition is not likely to bring one extra lamb into the fold - the poorest 40 per cent pay no fees anyway.

Neither does Donald Dewar's Labour enhance the state of the union with this affair. So terrified was he of losing his parliamentary crutch that he has been prepared to bring down the shutters of educational backwater parochialism on our country to preserve this foolish coalition. Many Scots would prefer the honesty of real debate together with the uncertain outcomes of minority government.

Twenty-five thousand Scottish students are at university here, while 20,000 southerners come north to study. Six thousand Scots choose to go south, including 500 to Oxbridge, partly because their chosen course is there, partly because some of the best have always travelled: the records of Paris, Leyden and Bologna demonstrate the internationalism of Scots over the centuries.

And now? The poorest will continue to go south, fees paid as at present, as long as Mr Blunkett puts up no matching barriers to those o shamefully erected against English students in Scotland. The richest (incomes over pound;60,000 a year?) will continue to suit themselves, and their young will also return with degrees from Oxbridge, Newcastle, Bristol, Exeter.

And the rest? We are to become two-tier: those with the realistic choice of going furth to study - and those without. Into the latter category falls the Scots teaching profession. With a pound;10,000 income, the kick-in point for the graduate contribution to start, those considering teaching as a career may think carefully. As one young Scot at Oxford said the other day: "Fewer will go into teacher training because their debts are so large already. More will want to go into the City."

Another pinprick to affect teachers' families: their children will find themselves just above the cut-off point of pound;15,000 income, and therefore ineligible to join the 10,000 Scots studying north of the border who are to receive study bursaries of pound;2,000 per annum. So, in the brave new international Scotland, will it matter if the Scottish teaching force is almost 100 per cent homespun educated, sleeping in their own bed, travelling to the local uni with a packed lunch? Does the loss of the leaven of alternatives matter? Are the shutters really beginning to close?

This opportunist fix does little, either, to preserve and increase the resources available to Scotland's universities. It will not buy equipment, finance research or lure the brightest back from Harvard. In summary, it bears every characteristic of a superficial and face-saving deal. It does not represent a sleeves-up attempt by our new Parliament to face the fact that the current move towards mass higher education actually needs imaginative and new financial approaches.

Andrew Cubie did a workmanlike job in proposing a solution for student funding, but he must have been wondering whether he wasted his time.

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