Labour U-turn on fees is Lamont’s “Clegg moment”

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By a Newsnet reporter

A report has found that graduate debt levels in Scotland are the lowest in the UK.  The report, by the 2012 UK Graduate Careers Survey, cited one of the reasons for this finding was the fact that Scottish and non-Scottish domiciled undergraduates in Scotland do not pay tuition fees.

It also said that the gap would widen as Scottish and UK Governments pursue different paths, with back-door tuition fees of up to £9000 to be inflicted upon students in England while the SNP Government to work towards a minimum income guarantee – a move strongly supported by the NUS – of £7000 in Scotland.

The SNP have strongly criticised Labour leader Johann Lamont for behaving like Nick Clegg and the discredited Lib Dems by apparently abandoning her party’s commitment to free education.

In a speech to the inaugural conference of the Scottish Fabian Society earlier this month, Ms Lamont claimed that the Scottish government’s policy of no tuition fees was damaging Scottish education and was holding back some of Scotland’s most talented youngsters.  The policy of no tuition fees was strongly promoted by Labour as one of its manifesto commitments during the last Holyrood elections in May 2011.  

Despite Ms Lamont’s U-turn, a webpage displaying an image of Ms Lamont accompanying a commitment to free education was still displayed on Labour’s official website yesterday.  The page displays a large banner image proclaiming “No price tag on education” and promises Labour’s commitment to “No up-front or back-end tuition fees for Scottish students”.

A very similar promise was made by Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats during the campaign for 2010’s Westminster General Election.  Mr Clegg’s U-turn on the policy once in power is widely regarded as key to his party’s catastrophic loss of support in subsequent elections.

The SNP claim that Ms Lamont’s U-turn leaves the SNP as the only major party which remains committed to resisting tuition fees for students.

Marco Biagi, SNP MSP for Edinburgh Central, said he was unsurprised at the gulf between Scotland and the rest of the UK highlighted by the UK Graduate Careers Survey.

Mr Biagi said:

“The SNP will never price Scottish young people out of an education. We are the only party never to have voted for tuition fees, and as Alex Salmond has said, the rocks will melt with the sun before we do so.

“Education should be based on the ability to learn – not on the ability to pay – and the policies being pursued elsewhere in the UK will be a disaster in the long run.

“Thank goodness that decisions about Higher Education are already taken in Scotland, where our proud tradition of free education has been protected by the SNP.

“There is still more to do – and I am pleased that the SNP Government is taking forward proposals for a minimum income guarantee for students of £7000, to support them through their studies.

And Mr Biagi addressed the Labour website gaffe, saying:

“As Labour’s own website shows, Johann Lamont was elected on a promise of no up-front or back-end tuition fees for Scottish students. After explicitly ruling out a price tag for access to education, this is Johann Lamont’s Nick Clegg moment.

“Just as Nick Clegg flipped on his party’s pledge to oppose tuition fee increases as he led the LibDems into coalition with the Tories, we are witnessing Johann Lamont do exactly the same.

“Ordinary Labour members and voters must be bewildered at this turn of events and wondering why their party has abandoned so many of its core principles, including deserting their commitment to free higher education in Scotland.”