The latest crisis in Scottish education is in the future funding of university education, with the Scottish Government to require universities to take 20% of their cohort fomr 20% of the most deprived areas of Scotland.
If the number of university places is not increased, this can only see competent middle class students excluded for no reason other than their own accident of birth.
And if university places are increased, as they will have to be, new funding must be found for them or the performance and competitive capability of Scotland’s universities will inevitably decline.
The imperative of increased funding in this situation means that spending elsewhere will have to be cut back – leading to hard choices for a markedly spendthrift administration, more familiar with making expensive promises it cannot fund.
The Scottish Government has been warned that it could face a ‘rebellion’ from some of the country’s best-performing schools unless it reviews the way it funds universities.
In a debate on education today, 14th June, the Scottish Conservatives are saying that the SNP’s desire for universities to take a fifth of students from the poorest backgrounds must be matched by additional funding for places.
Shadow Education Secretary, Liz Smith, notes that middle-class students would be artificially ‘squeezed out\ by the Scottish Government’s capping policy, if changes are not made.
She says this leaves ministers with a choice, as top schools would see talented pupils rejected from university, despite having good grades.
Ms Smith says that either a graduate contribution must be introduced or taxes increased and public spending cut elsewhere to provide universities with the money they need.
Without this, institutions will not be able to keep up with the demands for 20% of students to come from the 20% poorest backgrounds – nor will they be able to compete on the global stage in terms of research and resources.
Today, the self-congatulatory Scottish Government motion aims to recognise the contribution colleges and universities make to the economy, claiming the policy of free tuition underpins this.
The Scottish Conservatives will seek to amend this, adding: ‘There is an urgent need to review both student support and higher education funding.’
Liz Smith says: ‘The greatest challenge to government is the desire to widen access, the principle of which is accepted across the board.
‘But an important decision is to be made about whether the Scottish Government’s ambition of insisting all universities take 20% of their intake from the 20% most deprived backgrounds will be accompanied by additional places, or by increasing the competition among middle-class students.
‘There are already concerns that the latter are being squeezed out because of the SNP’s capping policy.
‘If this problem is exacerbated there will be a rebellion in our best-performing schools – state or independent – as they will see some of their well-qualified cohorts lose out to those who are permitted to gain entry on lower ‘contexualised grades’.
‘The only other choice the Scottish Government has is to increase university places and to do that it needs to find a lot more money.
‘Assuming the SNP stubbornly refuses to move away from so-called ‘free’ higher education, the money would have to be found by increasing taxation or cutting public spending elsewhere – as the party has already done with college budgets.
‘Either way, John Swinney has a duty to tell the public and students which one it is to be.’