Scotland should consider a proper debate on tuition fees. In the run-up to the Scottish elections in May, Labour won’t, the Lib Dems certainly won’t, and the SNP cannot – because they literally cast the 'no tuition fees’ policy in stone. Enshrined on 'The Stone of Heriot-Watt’, Alex Salmond’s declaration is an expression of a fine principle – universalism – which has underpinned social policy since 1945 as a way of dealing with inequalities through health, social security and education provision for all, regardless of background. But universalism, a fine ideology in theory, and, up to now, in practice, is less effective in a society that has become as unequal as ours.

All things being equal (of course, they never are) universalism is a noble, practical, worthy principle. In the aftermath of the second world war the social differences between people were less marked than today. There was less wealth overall; more social mobility and interconnectedness between people from different backgrounds; and young working class people had more chance of going to university 30 years ago than they do today. Surely this state of affairs supports a policy of no tuition fees?

Counter-intuitive as it may seem, the answer is: not necessarily. Let’s take two examples reported last week. According to an SNP statement circulated widely, this was a 'record-breaking year for university applications’. New figures from UCAS show the numbers of Scots applying to university by January this year was 44,740, a rise of more than 300 applications over last year. Welcome as this is, the increase barely registers in percentage terms. I calculated it as an 0.007 % increase. Why is this good news? It is good news because Angela Constance, the education secretary, highlighted the improvement in applications from the country's poorest communities: '18-yr olds from poorest backgrounds applying at record high levels – up 65% since 2006.' Constance claimed: 'A new record number of applicants demonstrates real ambition on the part of Scotland’s young people’. From the figures presented, this new record has been set by Scotland’s poorest applicants.

These figures are worrying, and here’s why. What we are not told is the conversion rates of application to places – which is consistently lower for the poorest young people in Scotland. The conversion to places for applications from affluent backgrounds is proportionally much, much higher. The poor might be applying in greater numbers, but that doesn’t mean they’re getting in. They aren’t. In fact, the proportion of students from the most deprived communities securing a place at a Scottish university has remained virtually static.

Last week also saw the release of 2014/15 figures which show that just 10.8% of students in Scottish higher education were from the poorest areas compared to 10.4% the previous year. To press the point further, the proportion of poorest pupils at one third of Scottish universities actually fell over the same period that we saw the a quite startling rise (65%!) in applications from the poorest in Scotland. This is not progress, and it is certainly not socially just. Worse, behind the raw data are thousands of young people encouraged by inspirational teachers and committed university access teams to apply, get the grades, summer schools and so on to access higher education. So where are these 'really ambitious’ young people now?

Furthermore, Constance infers that the rise in applications from the poorest backgrounds is a result of the no tuition fees policy in Scotland. She said that Scottish students 'continue to benefit from free tuition, a key part of our work to ensure access to higher education remains based on the ability to learn not the ability to pay'. So who is benefitting from free tuition? Well, it ain’t the Scottish poor, that’s for sure.

This is borne out by the first minister’s widening access commission. Its interim report last year found the sector was 'fundamentally unfair'. It stated: 'Unless we are prepared to accept the notion that Scotland’s talent is concentrated in its most affluent communities, it is clear that, through accident of birth, a whole section of Scottish society has nothing like an equal opportunity to maximise their talent and reap the benefits of higher education'.

All of this comes after years of the Scottish Government prioritising widening access to higher education, a period which saw all institutions pledging to improve access under new written agreements called 'Outcome Agreements’ with 'contextualised admissions’, a managerial euphemism which means taking economic and social background into account positively during the selection process.

Just look at England, which has pulled ahead of Scotland so dramatically that even its private schools are worried because they are losing pupils to state schools. Despite tuition fees, poor English school pupils are applying in droves (Oxbridge excluded). Although the progress made in England is already being dismantled by Cameron, tuition fees have 'worked’ in England in as much as it is not putting off the poorest. In fact, the opposite is the case. Why?

In Scotland we have non-enforceable 'Outcome Agreements', while England has 'Access Agreements' which are enforceable. In England, every university must have an access agreement approved by the director of fair access. The agreement sets out the university’s access measures it intends to put in place e.g. access work and financial support for students from poor backgrounds. So a proportion of tuition fees must be reinvested to support poorer students. Perhaps a system such as this could be implemented in Scotland, but it is difficult to identify where this funding would come from unless some kind of means-tested fee regime is in place.

Figures from UCAS also quoted last week were the following: a rise of 4.3% in interest from fee-paying students from England with 4,360 applications. Students from the rest of the UK are increasingly crucial to Scottish universities because they pay fees of up to £9,000 a year. In addition, numbers are also up from international students and those from the rest of the EU. Add to this the dominant position of the affluent Scottish applicants and I’ll wager that the conversion rates of these aforementioned groups will be far, far higher than that of our poorest students come September 2016.

Fine principle as it is, universalism is no longer an adequate mechanism for rebalancing inequality as it once was and, more concerning, is now benefitting those who need it least. Scotland needs to talk about tuition fees because if universalism isn’t working for all, especially for the poor, then it isn’t working.

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