Kathleen Nutt

Political Correspondent

CIVIL servants tried to stop Michael Russell from ensuring free university education was maintained in Scotland and told him fees would have to be introduced, according to an interview published today.

The claims were made by Mr Russell, a former education secretary, who said top officials were concerned the policy would not be financially sustainable after UK ministers increased fees from £3000 to £9000 a year.

He was reflecting on his role during 2011 shortly after the SNP won a majority in the Holyrood election under the then leader Alex Salmond after standing on a manifesto promise to continue free university education.

Scottish students still do not pay fees though ministers have faced calls to introduce them.

Last month the leading think tank Reform Scotland called for an end to free tuition for Scots saying the current structure is leading to a “grossly unfair cap” on the number of Scottish students.

Speaking to the Institute for Government (IfG), Mr Russell said his priorities in 2011 were implementing Curriculum for Excellence and ensuring university tuition fees were not introduced. He told of push back from the civil service and of officials trying to stop the policy.

He said: "Our head of higher education said to me: 'You realise you will have to introduce tuition fees?' And I said: 'I will not. My view is that I will not be doing that.' And I was told thereafter he went out and said to another official, whom I became friendly with: 'Well, he will change his mind. He has to.' But I was determined not to do it."

Mr Russell, who later went on to be Brexit Secretary and is now the SNP president after stepping down last year as an MSP, added: "I got a phone call from Alex [Salmond], just before I went in to do the speech [announcing to the National Union of Students there would be no fees] and he said to me: 'Are you sure about this?' And I said: 'Yes, I am absolutely sure about this, we have to do it.

"If we don’t do it, the pressure will mount on us to say that we are going to introduce tuition fees and for all sorts of reasons, I believe that is the wrong thing for Scottish education.' ...And he said: 'I’ve had the permanent secretary talking to me about this.'

"Obviously what had happened is my senior officials were so worried about the implications of this policy that they had escalated up through the civil service and obviously the permanent secretary had spoken to the First Minister and said: 'Look, we understand this is going to happen tomorrow, are you sure about this? Because you are hemming your government in, which may have significant financial implications.'

"And I said: 'No, I am sure about it, and I think it’s the right thing to do and I intend to do it, unless you tell me not to do it, in which case we’re going to have quite a dispute.'

"He said: 'No, if that is where you are, then you should do it.' He was usually good in that way. And the next morning I went and did the National Union of Students conference...and announced that there would be no tuition fees."

He went on: "And that was an unusual event, because it’s one of the few events I’ve seen the civil service mobilise to try and essentially just stop a minister doing something.

"You know, with the best will in the world, I think they did it with the best intentions, but my view was, and remains, that that was an important thing that we needed to secure and we secured it."

Mr Russell added he also faced pressure from the UK Government and political pressure from Labour and the Tories to introduce fees.

"The UK government always finds it very difficult to believe that you are going to do anything that departs from what they do,you know... On fees, there was an expectation that the imperative that the UK government was allegedly responding to was such an imperative that the Scottish government would have to respond to it as well," he said.

"The third pressure was political. There was a view in the Labour Party in Scotland in favour of fees, undoubtedly...Obviously the Conservatives believed that that’s what should happen too."

He described the preservation of free education as the achievement he was most proud of.

Asked whether civil servants had raised concerns over funding free university education with him when he was First Minister, Mr Salmond told The Herald: "Civil servants were concerned about all spending policies - that’s what they do.

"However, I do not recall any particular objection about free education since they knew it was a firm government commitment and they had been given a clear direction.

"The Scottish civil service back then managed to avoid the blunders of the last few years and therefore made their Ministers look better. I fear that Ms [Leslie] Evans [former Scottish Government permanent secretary] dragged the competence level of the service down with her."

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We remain absolutely committed to our universities, our students, and free higher education for eligible Scots domiciled students – based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay.

“This administration has delivered free tuition, and since 2006-07 the number of Scottish-domiciled full-time first degree entrants has increased by almost 30.”

The UK Government declined to comment.