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Fewer insults, more work

Johann Lamont’s statement on charging fees for universities has too much aggressive rhetoric and an insufficient understanding of the structural issues and numbers involved. She says she wants to be taken seriously; that is a two-way street.

It is important to note that in the time I have available this morning I have been unable to acquire a copy of Johann Lamont’s speech on university education and so I am having to write this on the basis of media reporting. [Note: I’ve since been sent it and amend throughout in this format.] I apologise for that and realise that this means some of the nuance and content of Lamont’s speech will have been lost. It also leaves me unable to reach a proper understanding of her apparent use of the phrase ‘anti-Scottish’ to refer to the practice of not charging for education.

But while I warn that I can’t draw firm conclusions, it is worth considering this last point early on. Perhaps calling this policy ‘anti-Scottish’ was off-the-cuff (one hopes it wasn’t scripted) and perhaps it wasn’t yet another gratuitous dig. [The phrase ‘anti-Scottish’ is not included in the speech and so was either off-the-cuff or misquoted in the media.] The kind of gratuitous dig that caused her to use George Osborne language the last time she strayed into this field, resulting in the unsurprising outcome that the right-wing element of the Scottish media launched another all-out assault on the principle of universalism. I have spoken to quite a few people since this Labour/universalism debate has kicked off. The big majority have been incredibly supportive of the line the Foundation has taken and we have had an especially warm response to our report on universalism. But a few think I’ve been a bit unfair, that Lamont was a little careless in her selection of language and that it gave an unfortunate impression of the overall intention of the speech which was to challenge the lack of serious challenge to the spending priorities of the Scottish Government. I am willing to give some benefit of the doubt here – I can see how this all might somehow have begun as a more thoughtful policy intervention and as a result of some ‘presentational advice’ along the way it turned into Daily Mail-baiting anti-universalism. I know these mistakes get made.

But – and this is a big but – if that is true it looks like she just did it again. [There are plenty of party-political comments throughout the speech.]  It is frankly absurd to use the language of ‘anti-Scottish’ to describe universal free education and hard not to gain the impression that Ms Lamont enjoys aggressive, insulting language just a little too much. Those of us always willing to engage in reasonable policy debate but who don’t agree with charging students for education can hardly be expected to engage when we seem to be getting quite so insulted in the process. If Ms Lamont wants to be taken as a serious politician she needs to be capable of engaging with political debate in Scotland. This will not be helped if she keeps some of her most aggressive language for those espousing the wonderful socialist tradition of universal free education.

So, that said, let’s look at the policy content. Here I must reveal some history – for a decade I was the lead public affairs adviser to the university sector. But I also have a very strong, personal commitment to the college sector which was crucial in helping two close family members who for different reasons were not equipped (at first) to go to university. What this has left me with is a good knowledge of both sectors. And that’s where the problems begin. [This remains as true if not more now that I’ve read the full speech.]

Because the biggest problem here is the one that has come up every time this policy is raised (I don’t mean here ‘in the press’ but in serious policy circles in the university sector and in the government) – to raise significant money you need to charge significant fees, to keep contributions modest not much is raised. Very roughly, a one-off fee of £2,000 (which is what the old Graduate Endowment was set at) is well under ten per cent of the teaching funding per graduate, teaching funding is about 60 per cent of sector funding and the expected rate of collection is lower than 60 per cent. A graduate contribution of that order raises perhaps two per cent of the Scottish Government funding to universities which in turn is only about half of the sector’s income. The universities did the calculations on a one-off graduate contribution and concluded that it needed to be England levels to be worth it. This policy would raise a few tens of millions of pounds. The first graduate won’t be eligible to pay until four years after the legislation is passed and it will be a decade after that before a steady stream of funding will be achieved.

So Lamont is ‘solving’ the problem by proposing a solution which (optimistically) might free up one or two per cent of the university sector’s funding in 15 years’ time. It doesn’t work – to do anything serious you either have to load one generation with a very substantial bill or you need to introduce a graduate tax to target all generations of graduates (which has some merit though is quite complicated to do). The point being you can’t solve college funding with a small contribution from the next generation of graduates.

[In addition, the speech raises the £75m it costs to fund the education of EU students in Scotland as if moving away from free education would free up that money. I wouldn’t – EU students can be treated only in the same manner as Scottish students. So if Scottish students are to make an eventual ten per cent contribution to their fees or suchlike, the same would apply to EU students. So 90 per cent of that £75m would still have to be paid.]

But this is about justice is it not? What we have is snooty, rich-kid universities leaching off working-class colleges in a class war of monumental proportions? No, its nothing like that straightforward. There is a clear class differentiation in profile of university and college students, but it is not as clear as many believe. I remember one key statistic that stuck with me (this is about five years old) but the third most popular HND (the top qualification in the college sector) was ‘Horse Grooming and Stable Maintenance’. It is a subject which has a profile containing quite a few ‘lifestyle learners’. And many were hardly on the breadline.

Because that’s the thing about the clumsy and arbitrary division of entire social services into ‘services for the rich’ and ‘services for the poor’ – they throw up such an endless string of contradictions that it all starts to make no sense. So nurses (an extremely modest career earning potential) are university students and so will be charged by Lamont but skilled trades (with an earning capacity much greater than the majority of graduates) will not. And so on.

There is only one honest position for Lamont to take if she means what she says and that is a means-tested fee for all post-school education, including colleges. Using college against university as a proxy is patently unjust. It also has real implications. I was around when the fund for lifelong learners was radically reshaped. It turned out that lots of middle-class people were taking night classes with a (very modest) public subsidy. The same scheme in England was shown to be corrupt, but that wasn’t the case in Scotland. But the McConnell administration was not happy about it and so it was redesigned to be only for ‘socially excluded people’ and only for back-to-work training. The old scheme created in colleges and universities a new culture of lifelong learning with extended provision of evening classes open to all. Yes many of the places (especially in the early days) were taken up by the middle classes, but not all were, and once that capacity was there you’d expect a wider take-up. Afterwards? Nothing.

[The speech calls for universities to be moved up international league tables by investment. However that doesn’t reflect the international situation. The rise of the Asian – and especially Chinese – universities will mean that on average western universities are going to fall down the league tables no matter what. You can’t simply ‘buy’ your way up them and if you could it would be very expensive.]

So, a very quick recap. Charging for university on the terms suggested by Ms Lamont does not work. It takes far too long for contributions to build up and the level of contribution is insignificant. It has a sequence of patently unjust outcomes because using ‘university’ as a proxy for ‘wealthy students’ and college as a proxy for ‘poor students’ is hopelessly inaccurate. And the impact of the policy and what it might do to educational provision in Scotland hasn’t even been considered (as far as I can tell).

OK, this is easy for me to trot out because I did this relentlessly for ten years in my professional life. I know the detailed calculations behind the slogans and I am aware of the very significant drawbacks of this un-fleshed-out proposal. But that is the point. Labour is presenting this as ‘grown up thinking’ in comparison to the Scottish Government’s ‘populist giveaways’. But it isn’t grown-up thinking – or certainly not yet. And to be honest I can see a way to turn this into a serious proposal on its own terms without moving further towards the English model and charging significant sums.

In my view, if Lamont wants to reposition herself in the way she says she does she needs to put away her Little Dictionary of Invective, stop delivering speeches that claim seriousness but lack content, and get her calculator out. Fewer insults, more work. Surely that has to be the way forward.

Robin McAlpine