A senior MSP has urged ministers in Edinburgh to consider bringing back a 'graduate endowment' to create more university places for students and help fund the sector.

Liz Smith, the Scottish Conservatives' finance chief, said the existing policy of free tuition for Scottish domiciled students was "not sustainable" and other options needed to be examined.

She called for a cross party discussion and hoped a consensus could be reached on the matter which she said is "too important to get wrong".

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Ms Smith, a former teacher who has previously served as the Scottish Conservatives' education spokesperson, said one option would be to return to the graduate endowment or contribution where students pay a proportion of their fees back once their salaries reach a certain level.

The Mid Scotland and Fife MSP, pictured below, added that the graduate contribution was not an upfront fee, which she opposed, but reflected a balance between education's value to the economy and to the individual, with research showing graduates earning more than non graduates.

The Herald:

Speaking to The Herald, she said: "Can we afford free prescriptions, free bus passes, free higher education, can we afford all that? Should there be a debate about what we move forward on? That debate is coming closer and I think all parties are showing signs of wanting to engage in it."

A graduate endowment scheme used to exist in Scotland under the Labour/Lib Dem executive.
Introduced in 2001/02, the endowment payment was set at £2,000, payable the April after graduation.

Alex Salmond's first SNP Government scrapped the graduate endowment after winning the Holyrood election in 2007.

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Under the policy tuition is free for people who have lived in Scotland for three years prior to starting their course but it relies on money from the Scottish Government resulting in the number of places for Scots being capped.

The Scottish Conservatives had called for a graduate contribution to fund higher education at ahead of the Holyrood elections in 2016 and 2011, but changed its policy under leader Douglas Ross ahead of the 2021 poll to support free university tuition.

Asked if she was now calling for her party to review its current position, Ms Smith said: "What I would like to see is a proper engagement among all political parties on the issue. It is too important an issue to get wrong. I don't see it as the Conservative Party against Labour or the SNP.

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"I think this issue is vital to the future of our young people and I hope we could get to a consensus about the way forward that is fair to all students and we find a model that is sustainable."

She added: "One of the reasons I proposed [the graduate contribution] at the time was that it would have brought more money in to allow more people to go to university and pay for bursaries for [students who don't have financial support.]

"I think education is a public good, it benefits everyone, so the state has a moral obligation to spend a lot of money in my view on education and that includes higher education.

The Herald: Deputy first minister Shona Robison.  Photo PA.

"But there is also a benefit to the student doing a degree and I think we have to look at what we expect the private benefit to be as well as the public.

"And that should lead to a discussion about how you would review the model for higher education funding." 

She did not say what proportion of the fees would be paid back or at what salary level gradates should start to pay saying that would be a matter for more detailed consideration later.

"There is a whole debate to be had about university education right across the UK. If you want as many people to go to university as is currently the case, then the funding that goes behind that has got to be sustainable. And that is not the case," she said.

"There are issues down south. In Scotland there are particular issues because of the capping policy.

"And what I think is a discriminatory policy in Scotland, treating differently domiciled students in different ways. Some are paying, some are not paying.

"As more universities find it very difficult financially, naturally they will want to take more students who are paying money, so there is pressure to take more international students and unfortunately what is happening to the Scottish Government's policy is that it is squeezing the numbers of domiciled Scots who can get into our Scottish institutions."

Ms Smith spoke out after deputy first minister Shona Robison, who is also finance secretary, set out a cut of £28.5 million to universities' resource funding next year.

Talks are still ongoing on how many student places will be reduced as a result of the funding cut, but it has been confirmed the axe will fall on 1200 extra university places for Scottish students brought in during Covid.

Meanwhile, colleges too have also been hit by plans to cuts their budgets in the coming year with spending to be reduced by £58.7 million or 8.4%.

Giving evidence to the finance committee earlier this month economists criticised the planned cuts to university and college funding saying investing in skills was important for economic growth.

João Sousa, of the Fraser of Allander Institute at Strathclyde University, told the committee of his surprise at the cuts to college and university teaching.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Since 2006-07, the number of Scottish domiciled full-time first-degree entrants at Scotland’s universities has increased by over 31%. The latest official statistics also show that we have a record number of students from Scotland’s most deprived communities entering university.

“Our resolute commitment to free tuition and our enhanced student support offering ensures that access to university remains based on the ability to learn and not the ability to pay, ensuring that the opportunity of a university education is not denied to anyone, regardless of their background.”