In the last month, The Journal has interviewed the leaders of all five major Scottish political parties. We begin today with Alex Salmond and Iain Gray, respectively the leaders of the SNP and Scottish Labour. One of these men, it is generally accepted, will be First Minister on 6 May — and yet neither could give a clear answer to one of the most pressing questions in the present political discourse: what is to be done about higher education?
As we go to press, all of the major parties, with the decidedly unsurprising exception of the Scottish Conservative Party, have confirmed that they will not support the introduction of tuition fees in Scotland through the course of the next parliament. We applaud them for making this pledge, but at the risk of seeming cynical we must question their ability to see the promise through. It is a similar promise to one we received little more than a year ago — one that was not kept.
There are hundreds of thousands of students in Scotland. It is likely that turnout in the coming will be higher among this demographic than most others. So why are the candidates giving the impression that students are a section of society they do not take seriously? To believe that students will vote based on vagaries and reassuring euphemisms is patronising and politically unwise.
NUS president-elect Liam Burns calls in these pages today for a united student movement to hold the parties to account before, during and after the general election. In this, he is correct. Students must question their constituency candidates and the parties they represent, and they must be ruthless about doing so. Answers are needed, and none are being given.
The best-case scenario is that tuition fees are not introduced to Scotland by the next government. But if that is to be the case, what is to be done about the funding gap — estimates of which range from £96 million to £200 million — that Scottish universities will then face? No new revenue stream forthcoming, the likelihood is that the quality of education offered at Scottish universities will be drastically diluted by savage spending cuts at those institutions.
Both Mr Salmond and Mr Gray told The Journal in interview that their parties are independently exploring the possibility of increasing fees for English, Welsh, Northern Irish and European Union students studying at Scottish universities in order to allow Scottish students to continue studying for free. This is likely to prove an unpopular policy with many student voters — and rightly so, because it is academic protectionism that will harm the diversity of Scottish campuses — but it is a bold move, and boldness is badly needed now.
That politicians have returned so soon to making ambitious promises they may prove unable or unwilling to keep is disturbing. It is very likely that the current Scottish funding model will prove unsustainable. That being so, changes will need to be made. But we cannot once again go to the polls on the basis of flimsy promises. We need an open and honest debate before the ballots are counted, not misleading pledges and sweeping reforms presented as faits accompli after the fact.