The Scottish Conservatives may have no hope of winning the coming election but are the only party providing the substantive thinking in what is a markedly poor election campaign.
First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon recently had to embrace as government policy an initiative proposed earlier in the chamber at Holyrood by Conservative Leader, Ruth Davidson – which Ms Sturgeon then simply dismissed.
Ruth Davidson and the Teach First initiative to reduce educational inequality
Teach First is a social enterprise registered as a charity in England and Wales and aiming to address educational inequality born of social disadvantage.
Its work is centred on developing a partnership approach ‘with schools, universities, charities, businesses and individuals who share our vision that no child’s success is limited by their background’.
Their strategy in confronting the impact on educational achievement of social deprivation is unequivocal and obsiously both wise and prctical. It is to put the teacher at the head of progressive reform.
Teach First says: ‘We know it takes time and persistence to change the story of a child’s lifetime. We believe that this can start with the dedication and leadership of a great teacher who inspires a child to work towards the future they want. Each year we train and support new teachers to work in primary and secondary schools serving low-income communities across the UK.’
These teachers’ schools partner with Teach First – and the result is impressive: The organisation notes that: ‘…between 2003 and 2011 London schools have moved from being the lowest performing in England, to being the highest performing and now have the highest percentage of schools rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted.’.
It points out that: ‘The latest research on the subject, Lessons from London Schools: investigating the success – a report by the CfBT Education Trust and the Centre for London thinktank – has suggested that improvements in London’s schools are not due to one single factor but to a combination of enabling factors. The report identified Teach First, along with improved support from local authorities, the academies scheme and the London Challenge as the four “key” enablers of London’s success.’
Teach First flags up the fact that: ‘Schools in London where we’ve placed 3,000 teachers since 2003, have moved from being the lowest performing in England, to the highest performing.’
It is interesting to see what is politically centre left thinking adopted by a centrist one-nation Scottish Conservative group – and initially rejected out of hand by an SNP First Minister who has nailed her own and her party’s colours to a strongly socialist mast.
Ms Davidson suggested that Teach First was an initiative south of the border that would very much fit Scotland’s urgent need to address Scotland’s notable educational inequality which derives from social deprivation. Despite such stirring rhetoric from the SNP government, it has made little or no headway in improving educational attainment in children from poorer backgrounds.
It may well be that Ms Stugeon knew nothing about The Teach First enterprise when Ms Davidson proposed it for Scotland – and dismissed it automatically on the basis that anything to do with England and to do with the Scottish Conservatives could only be of no interest to the SNP.
The First Minister has clearly become better informed and has had the grace to open up to the powerful advantages this approach has to offer to educational provision in low income areas north of the border.
Adam Tomkins and the fiction of free higher education
Adam Tomkins, Professor of Law at Glasgow University, was, with former leader, Annabel Goldie, one of the Scottish Conservatives delegates to the Smith Commission and is standing for the party in the Glasgow Anniesland constituency in the May 2016 Scottish Election.
He went to a comprehensive school, leaving at the age of eighteen and going straight to university – an environment which he has never since left, teaching in the law schools of three of the countries top universities – London, Oxford and Glasgow.
Both of his parents were school teachers so education has always been a formative part of his personal world at all levels.
A few days ago, on 7th April, Adam Tomkins wrote one of the best and most clear thinking analyses of university education, of the funding of university education and of the way in which the SNP policy of ‘free’ university tuition for Scottish students studying in Scotland actually brings about the opposite results from those intended.
In the article [online here] Professor Tomkins opens by pointing ut that there is no such thing as ‘free’ education, in Scotland or anywhere else. Someone pays.
In underlining the fact that good Universities act as a sort of imprimatur for their host cities, a testimony to ability, capacity, achievement, potential, forwad thinking, progress, enlightenment, engagement – and sheer worth.
They underwrite soundness and they attract inward investment -not only to themselves in research funding and major donations but to their host locations. As Adam Tomkins says, imagine either Glasgow or Edinburgh without their successful universities. – ‘both places would be diminished’.
This is the case for public funding of higher education, along with priary and secondary education and, today, nursery schooling.
As Tomkins says, ‘It is in the public interest that we have well educated children’.
It then goes without saying that if we need well educated children, we cannot afford an education provision that is unable to discover, nurture and challenge the individual growth potential of bright children from deprived backgrounds.
The answer is not, of course, to do what the SNP Government is now doing – lowering the threshold of entrance to university for candidates from poorer backgrounds; and, by so doing so, creating two powerfully negative outcomes:
- devaluing the currency of degrees – the answer is to ensure better educated children at primary and secondary level – to compete on merit for university places;
- breeding an expectation that a university education is a universal right – rather than a privilege to be earned and enhanced by personal achievement.
Tomkins dispenses with this expectation by drawing a clear distinction between school and university education, saying: ‘Unlike going to school, attending university is a privilege not a birthright.’
The Tomkins argument is that the worth of a good university to its location supports the rightness of the public funding they receive; and that the personal worth of a good degree to an individual graduate supports the rightness of their making a contribution to the higher education they have received.
There is a new and eminently wise proposition on this from the Scottish Conservatives, addressed earlier and again below – which honours that obligation to contribute in exchange for personal benefit and which does not cripple a student and a graduate with the debt levels imposed by the imposition of annual tuition fees.
On the matter of the SNP Government’s opposition to tuition fees. Professor Tomkinsoints our some anomalies it throws up – such as the fact that postgraduate degree students at Scottish universities – regardless of whether they are Scots or from outside Scotland – pay fees; as do postgraduate research students.
The lack of public funding to support postgraduate students is hard to justify relatively, since the expertise gained in these degrees and in research is more valuable to the nation than are undergraduate degrees, too high a proportion of whose graduates have little market value and end up in low paid and manual jobs.
Adam Tomkins then shows how providing Scottish students with ‘free’ education at Scottish universities actually makes it harder for them to get access to those universities.
He points out that ‘free’ students – whose fees are covered by the far from generous funding the Scottish Government is able to provide to the universities – are of substantially less financial value to universities than are fee paying students from elsewhere. The universities consequently take fewer Scottish applicants than they night otherwise do.
Universities are also cutting the number and variety of the undergraduate courses because they generate less fee-paying income, which is additional to grant funding.
In parallel with this, they are increasing the menu of taught Masters degree courses, because these fee paying courses, can be sold to students from other counties – and particularly to the ambitious in the emerging BRIC economies.
This practice props up the finances of struggling Scottish universities [and other British universities, where undergraduate tuition fees charged to all comers cannot match the level of the fees chargeable for postgraduate courses.
However, the calibre of these courses and the volumes of pstgraduates they are turning out produces a culture described by Tomkins as ‘international teaching factories’.
The picture painted by Tomkins of both the undergraduate and taught postgraduate environments here immediately raises a series of core question it is not the professor’s purpose to address in this current piece. These issues, though, have long needed to be addressed, with academia and society both preferring to adopt the unhelpful ostrich position. They include, for example:
- are there subjects for which there is no justification today to offer at undergraidate and postgraduate degree level – and let’s be really provocative and offer as an example here, not the universal Aunt Sally of ‘Media Studies’ but the sacred cow of English literature?
- ought the state to be selective in its funding of courses and of the study of courses, choosing to fund [well and developmentally] the subjects in which the country is most urgently in need of more widespread capability [such as maths and computing]; and most urgently in need of high level specialist expertise [such as science, engineering, energy, medicine, business and law]?
The victims who pay for free university tuition in Scotland
Tellingly, Adam Tomkins nails the real victims – and there are two types of these – who are the compulsory payers of the price of the SNP Government’s policy of universal free university tuition for Scottish students studying in Scotland.
These victims may be invisible but in economic terms one type has become a major cost themselves to the Scottish economy; and the other a torpedo to the effort to address the educational attainment of students from poorer backgrounds.
In order to pay for the policy of free university undergraduate tuition, the Scottish Government eviscerated the vital College sector, cutting a monstrous 152,000 places cut.
This limits the life expectations and the nature of the economic contribution of many of the nation’s workforce – and of the many who now may not even make it to that role.
It also hits the robust capability of Scotland’s workforce. As Adam Tomkins says: ‘Scotland’s economy needs a higher-skilled workforce, not a less skilled one.
The second compulsory victim of the SNP’s misguided policy of free university tuition resjlts flrm the wrecking ball the SNP has witlessly launched against its own efforts to act against the educational inequality resulting from social deprivation.
In Tomkins: words: ‘The SNP has sought to pay for its no-fees policy by slashing student bursaries. These essential lifelines for poorer students have been cut by £40 Million – that’s almost half – and the average grant has fallen from £1,860 a year in 2012 to nly £1,220 now.
‘This has resulted in a lower proportion of students from the poorest backgrounds gimg to university in Scotland than in England – despite fees of £27,000 south of the border.
‘That damning fact should shame the Scottish Government, for there was a time when Scotland’s education was more egalitarian and less class-ridden than England’s. That was something to be proud of and the fact that the SNP has let it go is nothing short of a national disgrace.’
Graduate financial contributions
What Tomkins does at this point is to move on from the concept of two self-interested contributions to higher education – society at large and the individual who will personally benefit from the possession of greater knowledge and expertise to a certificated level.
He rightly leaves public funding as a sine qua non and concentrates on the sort of contribution an individual graduate might make.
In England and Wales all students [and Scotland, all non-Scottish students] pay tuition fees for undergraduate degree courses. The minimum charged for these is around £9,000 per annum. Undergraduate degrees south of the border take three years – but in Scotland the tradition is the four year degree.
Students take out loans to contribute to covering their costs – and graduate with what is now an average debt in excess of £30,000.
While students don’t pay the fees upfront. They only start repaying when they are earning at least £21,000 a year, £30,000 is a substantial weight of debt on young shoulder still with their way to make in the world.
It is hardly surprising that, in March 2014, the British government expected that around 45% of university graduates will not earn enough to repay their student loans.
If that figure were to reach 48.6% experts have calculated that the government will lose more money than it claws back by increasing fees in England to £9,000 a year. A 48.6% non-payment rate is more than possible. In May 2013 research conducted for The Mail on Sunday found that around 85% of students in England would never repay their student loans.
So what is a realistic and sustainable graduate contribution?
Professor Tomkins puts forward – and probably authored – the very clever proposal put forward by the Scottish Conservatives.
Assuming that four year degrees continue to be the norm in Scotland across the subject spectrum, the Davidson team have come up with an affordable token contribution of £1,500 per annum – totalling £6,000 to be levied as a graduate tax and payable only when the graduate is earning a good salary.
This has much to commend it.
- It does not impose the distraction of a major debt on young graduates starting out on a working life.
- It is not enough to seduce a government to build much in the way of financial planning on the [inevitably disappointed] assumption of a healthy percentage of repayment of charges at a higher level;
- it is a not-inconsiderable but manageable debt of honour for all individuals who have personally benefited from the major contribution made by the public [though the state] to their higher education;
- as a affordable ‘debt of honour’ contribution, higher payment rates can more realistically be anticipated; and an inspirational symbolic purpose found to which finds arising may be deployed [competitive scholarships, perhaps, for the able but financially disadvantaged potential student?].
The fact that the fresh intellectual contribution to the key education issue in this election campaign is coming from the Davidson Conservatives could not more strongly underscore the strength and capacity this group can bring to bear as the main opposition to the all-powerful SNP – who will win in May by a country mile.