By a Newsnet reporter
Scottish Labour MP Jim Murphy has refused to confirm that free university education will remain, if Labour is returned to power under devolution.
Murphy, who was appearing in a televised debate on Scottish independence, was asked whether a Labour Government at Holyrood would continue the policy of free university education.
A clearly uncomfortable Murphy refused to answer, saying only that the policy would be revealed in Scottish Labour’s manifesto for the 2016 Holyrood elections.
He said: “Our party will set out its manifesto at the next election. This is much more important than one manifesto or one election.”
However the refusal to rule out an end to free education was seized on by Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon who told the television audience to remember what they had just heard.
“If I was a young person right now, that would worry me greatly” she said.
The policy of free university education is one of the key issues of the independence referendum. First Minister Alex Salmond has already said that “the rocks would melt under the sun” before an SNP Government Scotland would re-introduce tuition fees.
Ms Sturgeon re-affirmed her party’s committment to free education and said: “I feel so strongly that having had that privilege, as a politician now and able to sit here partly because of that free education, I have got no right to pull that ladder of opportunity up behind me.
“I’ll never be part of anything in politics that takes that away.”
Labour backed no university tuition fees prior to the last Holyrood election, but the party has steadily moved away from the principle since.
The issue has proved uncomfortable for Labour in Scotland with the party’s stance being compared to the Lib Dem U-Turn when Nick Clegg’s party ditched a pre-election manifesto pledge in England.
In the lead up to the 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections, NUS Scotland’s Reclaim your Voice campaign asked Parliamentary candidates to sign up to three specific pledges, one of which was a specific commitment to ‘no tuition fees.’
All Scottish Labour candidates – including current leader Johann Lamont – signed up to this pledge.
In addition, page 25 of Labour’s 2011 manifesto, which as deputy leader Ms Lamont had a key role in drafting, promised “Labour will not introduce up-front or back-end tuition fees”.
When making the pledge, Johann Lamont’s predecessor Ian Gray said: “Education is the single most important lever in transforming people’s lives. From our youngest children learning to read, to research scientists on the cutting edge of new discoveries, education drives our futures and also Scotland’s ability to create wealth and opportunity.
“I was the first person in my family to go to university and I will not impose additional burdens on young people.”
However since the SNP made the policy a key commitment Scottish Labour has altered its stance claiming free university education harms college places.