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Scotland Wrestles with Question of Tuition Fees

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TEHRAN, April 25 (ICANA) – By any measure, the universities of Edinburgh and Durham are both among the best in world. Edinburgh, founded in 1583, may be older, but Durham’s campus boasts an 11th-century Norman castle, now used as a dormitory, and both universities are considered extremely selective.
Monday, April 25, 2011 1:33:14 PM
Scotland Wrestles with Question of Tuition Fees

Both are on the eastern side of Britain, each about a 90-minute drive from the border between England and Scotland.

However, starting in 2012, students considering where to study will notice at least one significant difference: at Durham, as at most universities in England, students will pay £9,000, or $15,000, in annual tuition fees, in keeping with Parliament’s vote in December. At Edinburgh, as at all Scottish universities, the government has ruled out tuition fees, at least for Scots.

Tuition fees were introduced across Britain in September 1998 and were originally set at £1,000 a year, rising since then to about £3,300. But when the Scottish Parliament came into existence in 1999, the abolition of tuition fees was one of its first acts, and the issue has been a subject of intense political debate in Scotland ever since.

On May 5, Scotland will elect a new Parliament. Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party and first minister in the country’s outgoing minority government, told his party conference last month: “The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scottish students — upfront or backdoor.”

Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens were all quick to match Mr. Salmond’s pledge. The Conservatives, who have proposed a “graduate contribution” of £4,000 a year, won only 17 of 129 seats in the last Parliament and are unlikely to have a chance to put their proposals into practice.

Anton Muscatelli, principal of the University of Glasgow, was one of the economists in a joint working group convened by the Scottish government and Scottish universities to address the financing of university education. Despite the introduction of tuition fees south of the border, according to Dr. Muscatelli, “Scottish public funding of higher education had managed to keep pace with English funding” until the latest round of education cuts by the central government under Britain’s austerity budget.

This was accomplished largely by increases in financing by the Scottish Parliament, paid for in part by Scottish voters and in part by the annual subsidy to the Scottish budget by the British government under an arrangement known as the Barnett formula.

“What’s happening this time is that in England they are substituting student fees for taxpayers’ money,” said Lord Stewart Sutherland, a former principal of the University of Edinburgh. Lord Sutherland, who has experience on both sides of the border, having also served as head of the University of London, said in an interview that the changes in financing in England put Scottish universities in “a very tough position.”

“The whole point of introducing fees originally was to increase the flow of cash,” he said. “If the government in Westminster moves a big chunk of higher education spending off the balance sheet by calling it ‘student loans,’ over time that will also affect the Barnett formula calculation of how much money goes to Scotland.”

“It should cost roughly the same to teach students in Edinburgh or London,” he added. “And it was accepted that universities who wanted to compete internationally needed more funding. Now English universities will be able to charge fees that more than compensate for the loss of central government funding, which will leave Scottish universities at a growing disadvantage.”

Dr. Muscatelli’s group forecast the size of that disadvantage at £93 million a year. The projection was based, Dr. Muscatelli said, “on the assumption that fees in England would only rise to about £7,500 a year” — the government’s target figure.

“In fact most universities are charging much more than that,” he said in an interview. “At £8,500 a year the gap rises to around £300 million, and if they all charge the full £9,000 — as they seem to be doing — it goes even higher.”

The problem is made worse by European Union regulations, which forbid charging students from other member states any more than local students. Last year more than 16,000 students from inside the European Union studied at Scottish universities, with their fees paid for by the British (mostly English) taxpayer. In a speech last month, Frances Cairncross, rector of Exeter College, Oxford, who is an economic adviser to the Scottish government, alluded to the resentment English families feel when their taxes are seen to be subsidizing the education of E.U. nationals in Scotland while their own children are forced to take out loans.

The E.U. regulations do allow Scotland to charge tuition fees to English, Welsh and Northern Irish students, and Michael Russell, the Scottish education secretary, hinted that if the Scottish Nationalists won the election, this fee, currently £1,820 a year, might rise to £6,500 or more. Scottish students who study elsewhere in Britain already pay fees, but the number of British students from outside Scotland attending Scottish universities is more than twice as high as Scottish students who study abroad.

“We cannot allow our universities to become a cheap option for students who have to pay to study in their home countries,” Mr. Russell said recently.

The National Union of Students, which represents students across Britain, rejects higher fees for non-Scottish students, according to Mike Heffron, a spokesman for the group. Lord Sutherland said such a high differential would “create a very unhappy atmosphere at Edinburgh and Saint Andrews,” two Scottish universities popular with students from south of the border. Like Ms. Cairncross, Lord Sutherland sees tuition fees in Scotland as inevitable. “Only you can bet your boots they won’t call it a fee,” he said.

That is a position vigorously opposed by Scottish students. Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students — Scotland, said, “I know the fight is as much about after the election as it is before.” Mr. Burns, who rode this issue to the overall presidency of the union this month, is determined not to allow Scottish politicians to emulate the Liberal Democrats in London, whose leadership signed a pledge to abolish tuition fees during the 2010 British election campaign and then voted to triple them. “We will focus our attention to turn these commitments from politicians into urgent action from the new Scottish government, whichever party that may be,” he said in a statement announcing his victory.

According to a recent poll conducted by the BBC, tuition fees are also opposed by Scottish voters, who ranked “retain free university for all Scottish students” as their third-highest priority, just behind reducing waiting time for cancer patients and keeping police numbers, and well ahead of such issues as reducing local taxes, reducing taxes on business or sending anyone convicted of knife crime to jail.

“We’ve known that we have a great deal of public support, but this survey confirms it,” Mr. Burns said. “The findings must make very unhappy reading for the Scottish Conservative Party.”

Dr. Muscatelli said that without some additional source of financing, Scotland, which has more highly ranked universities than any other country of its size, would be unable to retain its pre-eminence.

Lord Sutherland, however, argues that Scotland’s problems are both more immediate — and more fundamental. “Right now you have Scottish universities admitting students for September and having no idea how they are going to pay to teach them,” he said. “Yet in order to answer that, you also have to think about what kind of universities you want and what society can expect from them. Those are questions that no one is asking.” (NYT)

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