Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont has called for a debate over
free tuition fees
Scottish News: Lamont suggests dropping free tuition fees in political gamble to defeat SNP
by Jamie Mann
Johann Lamont yesterday called for a debate surrounding free university and college tuition fees, which she says are “not sustainable”.
The Scottish Labour leader went a step further by raising a red flag regarding the country’s education system as a whole, stressing that Scotland, a country once leading in global education, has “fallen behind”.
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At the same time as the former teacher is promoting a debate on the future of Scotland’s education funding, the SNP government announced a £10mn funding package through the Scottish Funding Council to help 2,000 students from poorer economic backgrounds gain access to higher education.
While resisting tuition fees for students in Scotland has long been a primary SNP policy, just as Scottish Labour previously supported free, tax-funded higher education, the announcements mark a fork in the road between SNP and Labour policy and are likely to spark a fiery debate between politicians, education boards and students alike.
In a speech marking the one-year anniversary of becoming party leader, Miss Lamont said:
“There is no such thing as free higher education: under a completely tax funded tuition system, everybody is forced to pay for it, including those on low incomes.
“Labour believes in extending the chance of a good university to all who are capable of undertaking study. However, university education is costly, and faces competing claims on limited public resources.”
In contrast, SNP MSP Clare Adamson – who sits on the Education Committee – said after the government announcement:
"More young Scots than ever before - including those from our most deprived communities - will reap the benefits of a university education. This further widening will ensure young people from deprived areas who show potential get the support and education needed to aim high and succeed.
“But Johann Lamont talks about cutting higher education provision and wants to implement policies which act as a barrier to the very people the SNP are committed to helping. There would be 3,300 fewer students accepted to universities this year if Johann Lamont had her way.”
Ms Lamont’s announcement follows an on-going review of long-standing Labour policies including free prescription charges and education without tuition fees, the latter of which Miss Lamont is expected to propose a graduate tax as a replacement.
However, if passed, the Scottish Labour leader’s decision will align with Labour south of the border, which dropped its support of free tuition in 1997 – students in England must pay annual fees of £9,000 for four or even three-year degrees.
Johann Lamont has, if anything, shown herself to be brave with this policy review. Strategically it makes sense for Labour to have a clear agenda which is distinct from the SNP.
The risk though is that in trying to make Labour electorally attractive, it is abandoning its legacy of supporting universality - a principle which has been a cornerstone of its electoral identity since the creation of Britain’s post-war welfare state.
What makes this move doubly problematic for Labour is that the universal welfare state has been core to whatever enduring feeling of Britishness Scots have identified with.
In a single move Johann Lamont risks doing more for the cause of Scottish independence than the SNP could ever manage - converting the ideal of independence from a constitutional abstraction in the minds of voters to a vehicle for social solidarity.
Winning the backing or even neutrality of Scotland’s trade unions is a top priority for Alex Salmond as the referendum draws closer. The trade union sector has been joined at the hip with Labour for over a century - a fact which has frustrated the SNP leader’s attempts to steal Labour’s social democratic clothes since the nineties.
By aligning Labour’s Scottish policy with London’s, Ms Lamont may take pressure off Miliband to follow Holyrood’s example while positioning her own party in Scotland as distinct from the SNP but the cost could be nothing less than the end of the British state - no insignificant matter.
Ms Lamont may be able to depend on sympathetic media coverage but she will require a magic spell to sell the abolition of prescription charges and free tuition fees amidst austerity to trade unions, not to mention the third sector and the rest of civic Scotland.
Labour appear to have accepted that they will not win back much of the centre-left vote it has lost to the SNP and have made a dash to win over the collapsing Liberal vote while holding the centre ground that remains stubbornly loyal. In so doing they can seek to gain popularity in Scotland and point to the likelihood of the Tories losing the 2015 UK general election as an incentive for Scots to vote no in the referendum.
It is perhaps the only hope Labour have of breaking the SNP’s popularity in Scotland and so a brave move which may outmanoeuvre the Nationalists during the referendum campaign.
Such a calculation may backfire as Labour’s urban vote could crumble and by handing over its social democratic mantle entirely to the SNP it risks delivering the more tentative female vote to the yes camp.
However an irony of truly historic proportions would be that Labour helped secure a no vote in the referendum by losing its central belt heartlands to the Nationalists in the UK general election the subsequent year. The result would be a majority of Scotland’s MPs turning up at Westminster with a mandate to negotiate independence.
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