There can be few issues in Scottish politics that are quite as totemic as university tuition fees.

Since the abolition of the old graduate endowment in 2008, free university tuition has been an absolutely central feature of the Scottish education landscape. In 2011, former First Minister Alex Salmond famously declared that ‘the rocks will melt with the sun’ before tuition fees would be imposed on Scottish students, and a few years later – in an act of celestial-scale ego-stroking – he even unveiled a stone monument bearing his own words in the grounds of a university.

There have always been grumbles about the policy from some quarters, but very little in the way of serious opposition. Some politicians believe that students should have to pay, but few if any have the guts to tell them so.

Free university tuition isn’t just an education policy, or a financial consideration, or a political principle – it is, for many, a matter of identity.

This becomes especially clear when it is used as a dividing line between ourselves and England, where students pay tuition fees of more than £9000 and average student debt is nearly £45,000 – three times the equivalent figure north of the border.

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But by some (imprecise) measures, the pay-to-learn model helps to widen access to higher education. In simple terms, when the students are turned into paying customers, there’s no particular reason to limit the number of people handing over their money, and entry requirements can become a whole lot more accommodating. So long as you can find people to do the teaching, and places to put everyone, you can accept all the students you want.

Free tuition paid for through public funds may well protect students from the extraordinary levels of debt seen elsewhere, but it also means that there will, inevitably, be a restriction on the number of available places – limited resources mean limited outputs, so limited funding means limited numbers gaining degrees.

An explicit cap on Scottish students might not be the policy, but it is obviously going to be the reality.

Which brings us to the government’s confirmation that there will be 1200 fewer university places for Scottish students next year.

These places, we’re told, were created during the pandemic and – crucially – paid for with “some of the Covid monies”. They were needed in order to compensate for improved exam pass rates that saw many more young people achieve university entry requirements. Both those circumstances and the funding stream have ended, so the government is cutting the number of students back to where it was before.

Reduced resources means reduced outputs.


But there’s a problem.

Back in 2021, the fourth annual report of the Commissioner for Fair Access warned the government, in absolutely explicit terms, that action was required. It said that the government “should make permanent the additional funded places made available in 2020-21 and continued for 2021-22.” Failure to do so, it warned, meant that universities would “ultimately be forced to reduce first-year intakes to compensate for the larger numbers flowing through, which will undermine efforts to meet future access targets.”

The government, as we now know, did not make those places permanent, and the result will indeed be a reduction in first year university places for Scottish students – something that would not have happened had the SNP accepted the advice it received more than two years ago.

Politics is always a question of priorities.

Those 1200 places just clearly didn't make the cut.