The SNP’s policy of free university tuition has so powerfully framed the debate on education in Scotland that it has effectively screened out other concerns, such as the impact on schools, on lifelong and further education and on poor students. The better-off are the unacknowledged beneficiaries of the way student support policy has been debated, described and formulated. Scottish education policy now seems to operate within an affirmative culture that places itself beyond criticism and other options beyond debate.

In 2001 the Labour-led government in Edinburgh removed upfront fees for Scottish university students, replacing them with a one-off graduate endowment of £2,000 (£2,700 at today’s prices) to be paid after graduation. The Graduate Endowment and Student Support (Scotland) Act of 2001 defines the graduate endowment as 'a fixed amount that some graduates will be liable to pay, after they have completed their degree’, adding that the funds raised are to be used to 'provide student support, including bursaries, for future generations of disadvantaged students’.

The expectation was that as many as 50% of graduates, including mature students and some disabled students, could be exempt from paying the endowment. It is worth pausing here to underline the fact that it was not the SNP who abolished upfront tuition fees but the first Scottish Executive, a coalition between Labour and Liberal Democrats. What the minority SNP administration abolished in 2008 was the graduate endowment scheme.

The SNP has been in power now for nearly a decade – since 2007 as a minority government and since 2011 as a majority government. In 2013, as a result of the rising costs of its university fees policy, it cut maintenance grants for the poorest by 40%, without any parliamentary scrutiny. Grants had already been cut in real terms since 2007 when the SNP came to power. They have now been cut in half. Young students from families earning less than around £30,000 have lost out because grant cuts have more than outweighed any benefit to them from the abolition of the graduate endowment scheme.

Lucy Hunter Blackburn, the former civil servant responsible for implementing the graduate endowment scheme, points to mounting evidence that free university tuition represents a middle class hand-out by stealth: 'It’s superficially universal, but in fact it benefits the better-off most and is funded by pushing the poorest students further and further into debt’. Some of this evidence can be found in 'Higher Education in Scotland and the UK' (2015), a study of higher education policy across the UK. In the final chapter of the book, Professor Sheila Riddell of the University of Edinburgh’s Moray House School of Education concludes that free university tuition in Scotland hasn’t produced the egalitarian, progressive outcomes claimed for it.

A recent critical analysis in the New Statesman is blunt in spelling out the implications of such research. As a result of prioritising universal free university tuition over targeted grants, says Tim Wigmore, the worst place for poor students in the UK is Scotland. Students here now leave university with an average debt of £21,000, more than in Wales and Northern Ireland, which have tuition fees. When less generous spending on bursaries by Scottish universities is taken into account (English institutions spend more than three times as much on bursaries, because of their student fee income), many disadvantaged Scottish students will graduate with higher debt than equivalent students in England.

Scotland now has the lowest number of school leavers from the poorest fifth going to university in the UK. In England the figure is 17%, in Wales 15.5%, in Scotland, just 9.7%. Free university tuition seems to have blinded government and wider public to the broader picture. Working-class students traditionally use Further Education (FE) colleges, sometimes as a route via HNC and HND to university. Cuts to the FE sector have undermined what was already a poor cousin in our education system. The number of FE colleges in Scotland has almost halved, from 37 in 2011-12 to 20 in 2014-15, partly because of Michael Russell’s enthusiasm for amalgamations.

More importantly, between 2007 and 2014-5 the number of college places fell by 156,000, from 379,233 to 222,919. Worryingly, 35% of FE students from the most deprived backgrounds don’t complete their courses. Retention rates on longer courses have worsened and female enrolments have fallen. In 2014-5 colleges received £114m for student bursaries. That budget goes down to £107m this year, forcing students into yet more debt. Patrick Harvie, leader of the Scottish Green Party, voices regret about this in his blog but believes that once Scotland can set its own welfare policies, a longer-term option would be a citizen’s income. Well, perhaps, but the maintenance grant system is the only welfare policy that the Scottish Government directly controls now and so is a reasonable indicator of where its political priorities lie.

The Scottish Funding Council (SFC) says the decline in numbers is a result of colleges being asked to prioritise more 'substantive courses’ by the Scottish Government and to reduce the number of learners enrolled on leisure programmes and short courses. The EIS says that the decision to prioritise full-time courses for younger learners, coupled with the change in government priorities, has a knock-on effect on part-time courses that often attract adults, carers, disabled learners and others. It has weakened the lifelong learning elements that have been a long-standing, if small, aspect of Scottish FE provision.

A 'substantive course’ is geared towards accredited qualifications and requires a significant amount of study time. A major chunk of lifelong learning used to be called 'second chance education’, that is, adult education designed specifically for those who didn’t do well at school. They may be daunted by formal education and need step-by-step commitments or have little time because of caring or other work commitments. Many participants are women who weren’t served well by school in the past. The kind of flexible learning opportunities that are likely to suit them are now regarded as 'not substantive’: the fall in female enrolments is evidence of that.

In a climate where local authority funding for adult and community education has all but dried up and key adult education providers such as the Workers Educational Association (WEA) and university continuing education departments struggle to stay afloat, the Scottish Government has received surprisingly little flack for this casual dismissal. Yet cuts in student grants and reducing FE student places are not the unavoidable results of budget cuts in the form of the Scottish block grant from Westminster. The Scottish Government has choices. The most significant choice so far has been the decision to fund a freeze in council tax at a cost of £560m this year and £630m next. This is a lot of money not available for FE colleges or student grants (or schools or hospitals) and again it is a freeze that benefits the better off most. This is a political choice, concerning what to prioritise.

An option that was not available in 2013, when maintenance grants were so drastically cut, will become available in 2016-7, namely to use the new income tax raising powers long sought by the SNP. The Scottish Rate of Income Tax (SRIT) is a progressive tax that hits harder as income rises because there is a tax-free personal allowance. However, everyone earning above the personal allowance would still have to pay more tax. This is ostensibly why the SNP rejects it because they argue against any tax increase for workers who are relatively low paid. The Scottish Labour Party’s election manifesto’s proposal to increase SRIT by 1p and to make a £100 payment to any taxpayer earning less than £20,000 is an attempt to compensate households at the bottom and mitigate the effects of the tax increase for a large number of households in the middle and upper-middle income range.

The Scottish Government has had almost a decade in power with no change. The new Scotland Bill will give it nearly full control over income tax bands and rates. lt will also devolve a £2.5b welfare budget to Holyrood. At such a pivotal moment there is an urgent need for a wider debate about priorities.

In the lead up to the election in May, and as local councils face cuts of £350m this year and £500m next year, Nicola Sturgeon has just announced a 'radical reform’ of local government finance. Besides a 'more progressive council tax’ (a tiny adjustment to the top bands) there is the proposal that if councils boost economic growth and income tax receipts, they’ll share in the benefit. It is clear that any such plan will take several years to implement – too late to protect local services from the savage cuts to council budgets this year. The tweak in council tax bands E-H will raise just £100m in 2017-8, when it comes into force.

Why hasn’t there been deeper questioning of the SNP’s policy record? The Scottish Government portrays opposition as being 'against Scotland’ because the SNP claims to speak for Scotland. Opposition is weak, not just in the Labour Party but in the wider polis. Few thinktanks are providing sources of criticism and new policy ideas, and the institutions that make up the weft of Scottish civil society such as trade unions, churches, professional associations, educational bodies, voluntary organisations and businesses, with few exceptions, seem lacking in the will to speak up.

The institutions of Scottish civil society were once pivotal in preserving the Scottish nation within the union. They now fail to hold their government to account. Close-knit institutional connections and strong social, cultural and intellectual cohesiveness distinguished the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment from the Enlightenment in England, which was a looser, more demotic, affair. The Scottish men of letters were involved in a project to improve the Scottish nation within the new union and to demonstrate its distinctive worth in relation to its newish, bigger sibling.

This close-knit nature of civil society may now be acting as a brake on innovative thinking, the disputatious civility of social life giving way to near silence. Size matters. Scotland is tiny. Typically, everyone involved in any policy area knows everybody else. Are people scared of the consequences of criticising the SNP? Are they worried about deepening the divide that exists in Scotland since the referendum, despite talk of the 'festival of democracy’ that is supposed to have taken place during the summer and autumn of 2014?

Recent research on medical students in the UK should give everyone pause for thought. A study of 33,000 applications to 22 medical schools across the UK found that a disproportionate number of medical students come from the most affluent homes. So far, so unsurprising. The sting in the tail is in the differences between the nations of the UK. In England, 8.7% of medical students were from the poorest 20% of the population by postcode, against 4.3% in Scotland. In Scotland, where private schooling is far more prevalent in some areas, particularly Edinburgh, 35% of medical students came from fee-paying schools, as against a UK average of 27%. This is an uncomfortable finding for anyone who believes in Scotland’s special concern for social justice, particularly in education.

A recent survey indicates that there will be a landslide victory for the SNP in May this year despite only modest satisfaction with its performance in government. Only a third of voters believe that they have done well in four key policy areas. It seems that no matter what they do in the time left between now and May, the SNP is 100% sure to win. Scotland will soon be the most powerful devolved country in the world. There is now a need for a creatively critical and open discussion that can hold government to account.

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