THE issue of free university tuition has been very much in the headlines again in the last week.

It was thrust into the limelight on May 2, with the revelation from Sir Keir Starmer that he was planning to go back on a pledge he made during his 2020 Labour leadership campaign to “support the abolition of tuition fees” in England.

University of Edinburgh principal and vice-chancellor Professor Sir Peter Mathieson waded into the debate on tuition fees in a Scottish context with an article published in The Herald on Wednesday, in which he declared that allowing wealthier families to pay for places could help prevent "talent and money" leaving the country.

He said that this idea, and asking graduates above the average income to repay fees were "worthy of calm consideration".

His ideas prompted a swift and categoric response from recently installed First Minister Humza Yousaf.

Sir Keir, asked about his 2020 Labour leadership campaign pledge on tuition fees during an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on May 2, 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", declaring that his party could not "ignore the current economic situation" ahead of the next election.

I observed in my column in The Herald on Wednesday that it was difficult to overstate how demoralising it was to hear about this U-turn. And it is most definitely a U-turn, rather than a “moving on”.

It is difficult to see why on earth access to higher education and a far greater range of jobs and better earning potential should be limited to or skewed towards those with the deepest pockets.

The column argued that access must surely be based on merit, thus helping societies and economies thrive.

And it posed two big questions. 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?

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The SNP administration at Holyrood has remained committed to free tuition for students living in Scotland who are undertaking first degrees at Scottish universities.

This is a stance supported by the SNP’s junior partners at Holyrood, the Scottish Greens.

It is an exemplary stance, which surely benefits the economy, and it would be good to see it replicated throughout the UK.

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The chances of such progress have, however, sadly been dashed by Sir Keir’s latest volte-face.

Sir Keir seems to have been developing a habit of U-turning on key issues with major implications for the economy.

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He has already U-turned completely on Brexit, ruling out re-joining the European single market and customs union.

His U-turning seems likely to dash or at least dilute significantly the hopes of some that, if he were to come to power at the next general election, there might be some significant improvement in the UK’s economic performance.

The economy has performed very poorly under the Conservatives since 2010, with austerity weighing heavily and Brexit dealing the country another extremely heavy blow, one which will most certainly be ongoing.

My column in The Herald on Friday lamented the latest reannouncement of the Australia and New Zealand trade deals by the UK Government earlier this month, highlighting the tiny net benefits of these agreements and how these paled into insignificance relative to the economic losses arising from Brexit.

It would surely be nice to see divergence rather than convergence between Sir Keir and the Tories on key policies, including Brexit and free university tuition as well as the likes of taxation.

Right now, on various fronts, it seems difficult to put a cigarette paper between Labour and the Conservatives.

On tuition fees in Scotland, Sir Peter Mathieson declared the government funding received for Scottish students was "inadequate" and had led to a situation where fee-payers from the UK and overseas were subsidising the system while wealthier students were going to English universities because of a squeeze on places north of the Border.

The overall funding of universities is undoubtedly a complex and controversial issue.

However, in a UK-wide context, a prime minister can easily make spending and taxation choices which ensure university tuition is free for the country’s citizens who are undertaking their first degree. Other European countries, taking Sweden and Finland as just a couple of examples, have no problem in making university tuition free for their citizens.

And it was a relief to hear Mr Yousaf reiterate the Scottish Government’s commitment to free university tuition for people living in Scotland following the interventions of Sir Peter and Sir Keir.

Responding to Sir Peter’s comments, Mr Yousaf said: “I don’t agree.”

He added: “I have a lot of time for the principal of Edinburgh University, but I believe that education, university education in particular, should be based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay.

“There will be no movement at all from the Scottish Government in relation to free tuition.”

These words should be music to the ears of anyone who desires what is best for Scotland from both economic and societal perspectives.

And it would be good indeed to see Scotland’s eminently sensible stance on free university tuition adopted throughout the UK, with public funding made available as appropriate to make this happen.