IT would be difficult to overstate how demoralising it was to hear Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s U-turn last week on his pledge to abolish university tuition fees in England.

This is, of course, a Labour leader who has shown he is certainly not averse to a dramatic U-turn, and he seems quite brass-necked about such manoeuvres. He made the most incredible of U-turns on Brexit, while keeping a straight face. Sir Keir, who argued so vociferously against Brexit back in 2019, now appears to have embraced the UK’s departure from the European Union. So much so that he has pledged not to rejoin the European single market or customs union.

That is one pledge that it would most certainly be good to see a U-turn on if he ever comes to power but such a reversal seems unlikely given how passionate Sir Keir now seems about the most curious idea of making Brexit – the hugely detrimental impact of which economists are in absolutely no doubt about – “work”.

However, even taking into account Sir Keir’s dramatic conversion to Brexit, his U-turn on tuition fees came as a most disappointing surprise.

He was rightly compared in this context with former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, whose U-turn on university tuition fees in England after he formed a coalition with the Tories back in 2010 ended up with him enabling a trebling of these costs.

Thankfully, the SNP administration at Holyrood has remained committed to free tuition for students living in Scotland and undertaking first degrees at Scottish universities.

This is a stance supported by the SNP’s junior partners at Holyrood, the Scottish Greens, who deserve credit on this score.

It is surely difficult to disagree with the following rationale set out by the Scottish Greens for free higher education: “The Scottish Greens believe that higher education should be free and accessible to all, regardless of income and background. Education at all levels is a social good and thriving, diverse universities are of benefit to society at large.”

The SNP noted in 2021: “Scotland has some of the best universities in the world, and we’re proud to support students by enabling access to education based on the ability to learn, rather than the ability to pay…

“Under the SNP, there will never be tuition fees. We believe that education should be treated as a right, not a commodity – that’s why the SNP Scottish Government abolished tuition fees in 2008, and that’s why we’ll never introduce front-door tuition fees nor back-door graduate taxes. While students in Scotland face no costs, Westminster has tripled fees for students in England – which are now up to £9,250 a year, and in Wales up to £9,000 a year under a Labour government.”

READ MORE: Ian McConnell: Scottish hotelier who has seen Brexit for what it is 

You would imagine Scotland would over time, as things stand, have a huge competitive advantage over other parts of the UK from ensuring access to higher education for its residents is not blocked by inability to pay tuition fees. That said, it would certainly be to the greater good if the SNP’s policy were replicated throughout the UK.

It is surely basic common sense that a country will be limiting its potential by essentially, through eye-watering fees, denying higher education to people who cannot afford it, or who might be able to but do not want to be burdened by debt.

And surely access to higher education and a far greater range of jobs and better earning potential should not be limited to or skewed towards those with the deepest pockets. Rather it should be based on merit, something that will help societies and economies thrive. Why on earth would you choose to narrow the talent pool? And why should the richest, the real “elites” as opposed to the Brexiters’ use of this word to describe people who think for themselves and oppose populism, have their pick of the top universities because others are excluded?

READ MORE: Ian McConnell: Starmer must raise head above red wall and see Brexit's awful reality

The trebling of tuition fees in England under the David Cameron administration looked at the time like a politically driven move to narrow access to higher education, and it continues to do so.

What is more, surely the last thing the UK economy needs is for new graduates taking up or moving on to exciting jobs to have no spending power because large amounts of their disposable income are being absorbed in repayment of massive debts built up during their student years. You would imagine such financial strains would not do much for productivity or innovation either. And it is worth noting, for those who would ask why students should be helped financially in such tough times, that graduates in higher-paying jobs will pay greater income tax in future years.

We are also in the sorry situation in the UK where house prices have leapt to levels way beyond the reach of so many people, including graduates in their earlier years of working. Student debt will just make the dream of home ownership all the more unattainable for many graduates.

While the situation on tuition fees for students resident in Scotland under the SNP has been exemplary, Sir Keir sticking with his previous pledge to abandon university tuition fees in England would surely have helped consolidate the position north of the Border.

Instead, many potential students and their parents in Scotland will now have to worry more about what would happen regarding university tuition fees if Labour were to return to power at Holyrood.

READ MORE: Denial after denial from brass-necked Tory arch-Brexiter

And Sir Keir’s U-turn will ensure, even if he ousts the Tories at the next general election, choice will remain restricted for Scottish students who cannot afford, or do not want to pay, the colossal tuition fees for them to study at English universities.

The U-turn is obviously also a lamentable situation for many people in England who might have hoped to see free university tuition on the back of Sir Keir’s previous pledge.

This pledge, it must be noted, seemed categoric when it was made.

Under “social justice”, one of Sir Keir’s 10 pledges in 2020 when he was standing for Labour leader, the politician promised to “support the abolition of tuition fees and invest in lifelong learning”.

However, asked about this pledge last week on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Sir Keir replied: “We are likely to move on from that commitment, because we do find ourselves in a different financial situation."

He added there were "other ways of approaching this", adding that his party could not "ignore the current economic situation" ahead of the next election.

“Move on from” seems like a gentle euphemism for a U-turn.

And the stuff about “different financial situation” and not being able to “ignore the current economic situation” sounds a lot like the Tories and Mr Clegg, back in the days of his extraordinary U-turn.

The University and College Union was unimpressed.

Jo Grady, general secretary of the higher and further education trade union, said: “Keir Starmer repeatedly pledged to abolish the toxic system of tuition fees and in doing so was elected leader of the Labour party. It is deeply disappointing for him to now be reneging on that promise, a move which would condemn millions of future students to a life of debt.

“The current, tuition fee reliant, model is broken. It has saddled students with decades of debt, turned universities from sites of learning into labyrinthine businesses obsessed with generating revenue and surpluses over all else, and led to staff pay and working conditions being degraded causing unprecedented industrial unrest. The country desperately needs a publicly funded higher education system.”

The fact of the matter is that a leader of the UK can set the priorities. Free university tuition should be prioritised and it is certainly within the power of a UK prime minister to make that happen, if they have the will to do so.

The SNP has had the will to do so north of the Border, to the great benefit not only of Scottish students and their families but also the broader economy and society.