Lamont airs possibility of return of tuition fees by the back door

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By a Newsnet reporter

The SNP has said that it is the only party that can be trusted to protect free education in Scotland, after Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont said that she was not opposed to back-door tuition fees for Scottish students.

The nationalist claim follows comments from the new Scottish Labour leader in an interview where she implied that tuition fees may return if Labour regain power in Scotland.

Labour claimed before last May’s Holyrood election that it would not reintroduce back-door tuition fees in Scottish universities, which the SNP Scottish Government scrapped in 2007. However, in an interview with the Times Educational Supplement, Ms Lamont has now ditched that pledge.

Speaking to the Times Educational Supplement on 3rd February, Ms Lamont was questioned about the statement by a Labour colleague, former education secretary Des McNulty, that a contribution by graduates to the cost of their university education was “inevitable”.  Ms Lamont said:

“Certainly, I wouldn’t be in favour of upfront tuition fees.  But if you’re funding your determination not to have a graduate contribution on a 20 per cent cut to further education, a political debate is needed around that.  I’m not rushing to have a graduate contribution, but if current policy means colleges will not serve the needs we want, and lots of people continue to be deterred from higher education, there’s a problem.”

Shortly before last May’s Holyrood elections, Labour’s then leader Iain Gray committed the party to free university education, saying:

“If I am First Minister, a Labour government will not introduce any upfront fees or graduate contribution for access to higher education in the lifetime of the next Parliament.  There will be no price tag on education.”

Ms Lamont’s comments will be seen as a signal that Labour has abandoned this policy, and is prepared to consider the introduction of a graduate contribution. 

SNP MSP for Edinburgh Central and member of the Scottish Parliament’s Education Committee, Marco Biagi, said:

“No one should be surprised that Labour are reverting to type on charging young Scots for their education.

“It was the Labour-Liberal coalition that introduced back-door tuition fees in Scotland – which were then abolished by the SNP – and Labour which brought in tuition fees south of the border.  Iain Gray claimed before the Holyrood elections last year that they would support free education, but that commitment has lasted less than a year.

“Just one week ago, statistics showed that while applications in England and Wales have plummeted in the face of spiralling tuition fees, in Scotland – where access to university is based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay – the level of student applications has been maintained.

“That proves that in times of economic hardship it’s all the more important that financial barriers are not put in the way of access to university education.

“The SNP will never price Scottish young people out of an education. With Labour now joining the Tories in backing back-door tuition fees and the Lib Dems having proven that they can’t be trusted on this issue, the SNP is now the only party which stands by the Scottish tradition of free education.

“The principles of higher education in Scotland will remain the same under the SNP; protecting the outstanding reputation of Scotland’s university sector and ensuring access to education for young people from across Scottish society, regardless of their ability to pay.”