SIR Peter Mathieson, Principal of Edinburgh University, has appealed for a new debate about how best to fund higher education, implying that free tuition, ie funding universities in the same way as primary and secondary education, is unsustainable ("Option raised for wealthier Scots to pay university fees", The Herald, May 10).

In practice the choice is between paying for higher education through taxes and charging high tuition fees, as has been the case in England for the past 12 years. As Commissioner for Fair Access from 2016 until last year I supported the principle of free higher education because I believed it is the best way to open up universities to the widest possible cross-section of young (and older) people.

One of the counter-arguments is that free tuition helps lots of people who could afford to pay. True enough – but this is also true of the English fees system. The UK Government provides all the upfront costs through student loans, available to rich and poor alike. A big chunk of this outlay is never recovered, so the Office for National Statistics was right to decide that unrecoverable sums should be counted as public spending. More important, under the repayment rules less-well-paid graduates pay more back than better-paid ones. For them it’s effectively a lifetime graduate tax. Hardly progressive.

Another argument against free higher education is that Scottish universities are worse funded than universities south of the Border because student numbers are capped while in England universities can admit as many students as they want (with some important exceptions). True enough, especially now that the Scottish Government has shot itself in the foot by withdrawing promised funding. But only on average. Some English universities have done very well and others have seen their income reduced. My current university, a member of the Russell Group, increased its student numbers by 18,000 over the past eight years. In my former university, a post-1992 university, they declined by 2,000. Although ancient universities like Edinburgh and (especially) Glasgow have made major contributions to wider access, it is the post-1992 universities in Scotland that have done the heavy lifting.

Two final points. First, how we fund universities sends powerful messages. If we pay for it out of taxation the message is that, like schools and the National Health Service, it is a public service – potentially one day, in more flexible and accessible forms, a universal one. If we charge fees the message is that it’s an investment for private gain. Second, higher education – like everything else – costs what it costs. We get what we pay for, whether it’s through taxes or fees.

I sometimes worry that the debate about funding higher education will get caught up in the magical having-our-cake-and-eating-it thinking that landed us with Brexit. Charging fees will be seen as a get-out-of-jail-free card, unlocking vast extra resources with no downsides. But the key task is to make the political case for more investment in our universities, which are – literally– our future. If we don’t make that case, fees are not going to save us – as English universities are discovering.

Sir Peter Scott, Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Studies, University College London.

Read more: EU would never treat Scotland as shabbily as the UK does

The hypocrisy of the Tories

IS there a political equation as to the absurdity of statements, and the distance from power of those who make them? Here are a few (out of many) examples from the increasingly-absurd Tories who operate in Scotland: Demanding a Scottish parliamentary inquiry into SNP private party funding, but none in Westminster where huge amounts of public moneys have been lost to fraud. A Tory outcry over hiring a wee boat to Rum, yet none when Liz Truss hires a plane to take herself (by herself) to Australia for £500,000. Ms Truss was also able to upset UK-China relations with her Cold War bluster – no “monitoring” for her.

There is “fury” over Highly Protected Marine Areas, when the Tories had their own very similar proposals (Labour was even more restrictive). A wild-eyed Douglas Ross alleging a minister favouring her own constituency – did he not notice Alister Jack, with the power of his position, favouring his own constituency with a road renewal proposal, and with a supposed £20 billion budget for a bridge/tunnel in his area; when not feasible (it never was) the budget for which disappeared before it could have been used to build bridges or tunnels elsewhere in Scotland? Transparency?

The same Alister Jack is able to dodge all media scrutiny, yet the same media repeat his words, and the ludicrous assertions of his party, with the reverence reserved for medieval potentates. Empty vessels as the old adage has it, make the most noise, but it’s the noise of a bankrupt party with nothing to offer but hypocrisy and cant.

GR Weir, Ochiltree.

Sturgeon still much admired

ONLY in cloud cuckoo land would any government hand employees £1 million each, as Peter Wright (Letters, May 19) well knows, so the best thing to do for the workforce, including all the apprentices, and for the local economy, was to keep Ferguson Marine open.

There are sadly too many dictators in the world, but Nicola Sturgeon isn't one of them, and Mr Wright is entirely wrong to describe her as such. At election after election, and in the opinion polls, Ms Sturgeon enjoyed the trust and confidence of voters who acknowledged that whether it was her policies based on social justice which benefited the electorate, or her tireless work to keep us safe during the dark days of the pandemic, she led Scotland with distinction and is admired worldwide because of it; I have every confidence that will still be the case when the current police investigation is concluded.

Ruth Marr, Stirling.

Read more: Our councils must be freed from the dead hand of Holyrood

We should look to Bavaria

AFTER 15 years in power in Scotland, the SNP has had a negligible effect on the economy. Comparisons with neighbouring nations are spurious. We should be looking at economically successful regions such as Bavaria, Catalonia and Lombardy, all prospering as integral parts of their parent states. The Scottish Government is at least as powerful as many other regional administrations but has failed over those 15 years to improve the Scottish economy.

Basic to transforming any economy, capitalist, mixed or managed, is a well-educated and highly-skilled workforce. The nationalists have failed to improve education and actively worked to destroy further education and training in the colleges.

Investment in industry is crucial to boosting the economy. Scottish Government investment is increasingly channelled through the Scottish National Investment Bank. One of its biggest grants so far has been £50 million to a London-based investment company, Gresham Forestry. How many jobs will that provide compared with the profits for private shareholders?

International investment could be a valuable boost to the economy. However, what investor would willingly put money into a region that aspires to become independent without a coherent currency policy and with an expectation of rapid devaluation following secession?

The “proud” Scots who accept the current state of Scotland’s economy appear to be the nationalists.

James Quinn, Lanark.

Who are they kidding?

ABOUT 20 years ago, as a displacement exercise, I wrote a two-act musical called Mrs McWheedle’s Rant, set in a Glasgow supermarket and suburban street. In the first act, the shoppers complain about politics and politicians in The Kid-On Song, of which the three choruses below are remarkably apt today, with a couple of location changes.

These extracts challenge politicians of all parties in all countries of the UK. Perhaps if I were writing the song today, there would be a chorus about honesty and integrity too:

So who do they think they’re kidding when they take a central role?

And who do they think they’re kidding when they claim it’s under control?

When currencies dive in far off Japan and it looks like getting worse, The person who pays is the one in the street through a hole in the pocket or purse.


So who do they think they’re kidding when they say it’s all in hand?

And who do they think they’re kidding when they claim it will turn out grand?

When fighting breaks out in the hot Middle East and it looks like getting worse, The person who pays is the one in the street through a hole in the pocket or purse.


So who do they think they’re kidding when they say they’ve got it fixed?

Who do they think they’re kidding when they claim inflation’s licked?

Perhaps there’s very little just now that a government can rehearse To make things better, but sure as hell – they can easily make things worse.

Colin Suckling, Bearsden.