SOME of Scotland’s most senior academics are questioning the ‘sustainability’ of the SNP’s flagship policy of free education for the nation’s university students.

A series of leading voices raised concerns about the policy which sees Scottish students attend university without paying tuition fees as their counterparts do in the rest of the UK. There were also concerns raised about the overall level of funding for higher education.

One senior academic, who is part of the executive team of one of the nation’s leading universities, described the policy as a ‘prop for the middle classes’, and added that free university education was a ‘sacred cow’ in Scottish public life that could not be openly challenged.

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They also called for a ‘national debate’ on the issue. They added that there was concern about the current system preventing the widening of access to higher education for those from low-income homes due to the limit put on the numbers of Scottish students at university.

The principal of another leading university, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “The current funding model is unsustainable if we are going to get the level of investment we need to compete at the highest levels internationally and make sure we can take as many young Scots into higher education as possible in order to create a skilled population.’

Free access to university puts an effective cap on the number of Scottish students that the sector can take in order to keep within Scottish government budgetary guidelines. In England and Wales, fees are around £9,000 a year.

"Funding is putting us in a difficult position," the university principal said. "There’s been low investment from the Scottish government for over a decade now. It is time to look at a gradual increase in tuition fees for Scottish students - or at least consider it. A national conversation is needed.

"It is difficult to have that conversation without it being politicised, and that dissuades constructive debate. We need to find a ‘safe space’ where we can explore the pros and cons.

"Is free education a good thing? Yes, if it is affordable, but no, if it is a challenge to sustain. A new model would mean more staff, more students and a better Scotland. Universities are places of innovation and we need innovation on this issue now."

Peter Mathieson, principal of Edinburgh University, said there was a ‘risk of politicising education’, adding: "When it comes to the debate around tuition fees, my view is: if you want high quality education then it’s got to be paid for as it is expensive. Whether it is paid for by tuition fees, governments or loans, that is a debate we can have in society.”

Mathieson said that the ‘role of tuition fees versus other means of funding is very personal for me as I was the first member of my family to go to university’. His father died young and his family did not have a lot of money, he said, adding that if there had been ‘tuition fees in my day then I think it less likely I would have gone to university’.

Mathieson said he did not want the fear of debt to deter students from higher education. However, he said: "The idea that we’ve got to make sure higher education is attainable - for me that doesn’t immediately translate into an ideological argument over tuition fees.”

He went on: “When I was a school leaver my ability to tolerate debt was very limited, the reality for a lot of school leavers now is that if they are going to go to university they need to be able to tolerate debt. I think that’s an issue we can’t hide from.”

He added: ’I think university education without realistic estimates of what it costs is counter-productive. The idea that Scotland doesn’t want tuition fees I can live with, as long as there is a recognition that the money has to come from somewhere. What I don’t accept is that education is free, as it is not."

Mathieson said he wanted to see the contribution from the Scottish government increased. "If we want more Scottish students at university and they aren’t going to pay tuition fees then that level of income needs to be increased."

He mooted more sponsorship from industry - including the armed forces. "In own my field, medicine, the armed forces sponsor some students so you can have army-sponsored medical students who then commit to working with the armed forces after graduation."

Jim McDonald, principal of Strathclyde University, said that his institution delivered ‘six times the investment from the government back into the Scottish economy’, adding: “I am sure the Scottish government understands the value of the higher education sector but if you look internationally there are many of our competitors both in Europe, America and Asia, which are really ramping up investment in higher education as they see it as a key component of growth.

"This means in order to attract and retain the best academic talent and best students from home and abroad, we need to make sure that higher education is properly funded.”

Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, principal of Glasgow University, said he supports the current policy by the Scottish government. Muscatelli said tuition fees are a ‘societal choice. "What we see is that in developed countries, some chose to keep education free - like Scotland, Germany and Scandinavia. What you have to do is invest in the cost of higher education, and frankly we are happy with the investment that we are receiving from the public purse to educate home students.” He said Scotland, Germany and Sweden all had “great universities. I think you have great publicly funded systems around the world that work very well”.

Muscatelli, chair of the Russell Group of leading universities and a prominent economist internationally, added: “Other countries, such as England, have gone another way, but let’s not kid ourselves, you see the debate in England - fees were introduced and now people are saying perhaps some of this should be publicly funded. Society will periodically go through this debate, but as long as universities are properly funded through the public purse I am perfectly happy with the situation.”

John Swinney, the deputy First Minister and education secretary, said he “looked at tuition fees through the lens of values. The values I associate with education is that society should benefit from collective investment in the educational development of our population - that is the moral purpose of education”.

He added: “What comes with that is a commitment to make sure that universities are properly and effectively funded, and that is the very firm commitment we have given to our institutions.”

On comments that the effective cap on Scottish student numbers limited access to university for poorer students, Swinney said: “I don’t accept that point. What is important is that we make sure there are no barriers in the way of young people from a range of backgrounds gaining access to university education.”

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He also reiterated the government’s commitment to the policy, saying: “We are absolutely committed to the policy of no tuition fees approach to university for Scottish students and that will remain the commitment of the SNP government.”

Mary Senior, the University and College’s Union Scottish official, said Scotland should not go down the same route as England when it came to tuition fees, and added that the effective cap on Scottish students was a “pressure that needed to be addressed”.