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Free Tuition Is Hurting Scottish Students

On my corridor of 12 people, I am the only Scot. Though,I am in ABH so perhaps that’s to be expected. But 1 in 12 is rather low for what is after all a Scottish university. Sure 3 of the remaining 11 are English. But that leaves 8/12, a neat two-thirds, of people in my corridor being international students. But why?

My international buddies give either one, or both, of two answers: because tuition is comparatively cheap or because they want to be abroad (they want to be ‘not like other students’). But neither of these answers really cut it. Because why St Andrews? Why not Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, etc. Why does St Andrews have the highest proportion of American students for any UK university?

The answer lies, initially, with recruiters. St Andrews has an adept team of recruiters to woo DC diplomats to send their kids here. It must be a pretty easy recruiting job, just bring out a photo of the sunny beach and hey presto (just don’t mention it’s the only sunny day a year).

But then comes another question. Why does St Andrews do this? Well, a glance at the University financial statement starts to provide an answer. Last year, the university made £13 million from Scottish students, while £21 million came from English, Welsh and Northern Irish students and a whopping £80 million from international students. So, the answer, like most things, is money.

In St Andrews cash really is king. And this is not necessarily a bad thing either; good funding is one of the main drivers of the university’s recent success. However, in order to get such good funding, the leading Scottish university is losing one of its key features, the fact it is a Scottish university.

This all goes back to 2001. Not a space odyssey, but a fiscal oddity, the Scottish government’s decision to scrap tuition fees. Like most Scottish government policies, it looks good on the outside (a great virtue-signalling opportunity) but in reality it is damaging to those it should really be helping.

To put it another way, the Scottish government ‘paying’ for our tuition is a classic Potemkin village: a thin good-looking façade which disguises bad governance. Because the government don’t swoop in and pay for our tuition fees like our saviours, no. They give the university a measly £1,820 for each of us. They will claim they are being so benevolent and generous, when in reality they are trying their best to fleece our universities.

As a result of the government-enforced fleecing, St Andrews has reshaped its business model to generate more income. And this has come in the form of international students, paying a sweet £25,000 each.

And like any businesses would, when the university is admitting students it tries to maximise the number of international students while minimising the number of Scottish students. Ever wondered why St Andrews has a higher entry tariff than Oxbridge? Its predominantly because of this exceptional squeeze on Scottish students (who disproportionately affect the entry tariff calculations)

In almost all countries or regions, those from that country or region are disproportionally benefited in admissions. Want to go to an Ivy League? Your best chance is if you’re American. Want to go to Oxbridge? Your best chance is if you’re from the Southeast of England. Want to go to St Andrews? Well…your best option is to be anything but Scottish.

World class university education is one of Britain’s great strengths. And Scotland in particular has a very high density of some of the best of these universities. But our government is intent on selling us all down the river, denying many of us a world-class education. Why? Because they want to look good. For the Scottish government its own the virtue-signalling is more important than the education of Scotland’s young people.

Moving forward, the Scottish government has two suitable options. It can scrap free tuition and move the system in the rest of the UK. Or it can maintain free tuition on a modified basis.

The system adopted in England, Wales and Northern Ireland stops students being significantly disadvantaged in the admissions process. The students loans in this system are income-dependent, which helps limit the effect on the most disadvantaged students.

However, given the Scottish government lacks guts, they will want to avoid a climb down. So, their only real option is a modified form of free tuition. First of all, this should be means tested, the wealthiest Scottish students can pay and so should pay. And second, when the government does pay for fees they must pay the full rate of £9,250 to stop those students being disadvantaged in the admissions process.

However, starting a discussion of Scottish educational issues with universities is missing more than half the problem. If the government is serious about improving the education of the most disadvantaged Scots it must get its own house in order. Blaming universities for the mess caused by their mishandling of primary and secondary education is nothing but incompetent cowardice.

Image: Dom Fou, Unsplash

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