By Andrew Barr
New UCAS figures have revealed a gulf between the impact of free education policy in Scotland and increased fees in England.
The number of Scots applying to universities in England has fallen by 15.7 per cent in the last year whilst the number of Scots applying to Scottish universities saw only a small reduction of 1.7 per cent, the smallest reduction of all four UK nations.
UK-wide there is a 10 per cent drop in English university applicants, considerably higher than the combined average UK figure of 7.7 per cent. According to UCAS, 15,000 English 18-year-olds who might have been expected to apply for university this year chose not to.
The Scottish National Party has made free education in Scotland a main priority during election campaigns, ensuring that education is “based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay.”
The figures will prove embarrassing for Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont who earlier this year made a speech to the Scottish Fabian Society claiming that the Scottish Government’s policy on free tuition was damaging education and was holding back some of Scotland’s most talented youngsters.
Ms Lamont had previousy endorsed the principle of free education. The U-turn by the Scottish Labour leader was criticised as a “Nick Clegg moment”, a reference to the Lib Dems voting for tuition fees in England despite pledging to oppose such a move.
Commenting on the impact that tuition fees south of the border is having, SNP MSP Stewart Maxwell who convenes the Education and Culture committee said:
“The evidence from UCAS is clear, the burden of stratospheric tuition fees imposed by the UK Government in England is driving many young people away from studying.
“The very small reduction of applications of young Scots to Scottish universities where tuition is free stands in stark contrast to applications from prospective Scottish students to English institutions which have fallen by a staggering 16% in a single year.
“The SNP has been clear that education should be based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay. That is a principle which we firmly committed itself to, which is why we abolished back-door tuition fees in Scotland when we came to power.
“Young Scots and their families can rest assured that the SNP will never introduce tuition fees for the people of Scotland. Labour must now commit themselves to free university tuition or face the charge that they are no better than the Lib Dems on this issue.
“A successful economy is a well-educated economy. It is in all our interests to ensure that as many people as possible have the opportunity to access higher education, which is what makes the actions of successive UK Governments an absolute tragedy.”
Meanwhile, it is understood that David Cameron is considering exempting students from immigration rules in an attempt at reducing the number of non-Europeans being counted as settling in the UK.
Immigration minister Damian Green last month admitted the plans could be seen as “fiddling” the figures.
Sandra White, SNP MSP for Glasgow Kelvin, has recently met with representatives from Scotland’s Colleges to discuss how the existing rules stripped institutions of their highly trusted sponsor status and is leaving international students in limbo.
Speaking in Kelvin, which has the highest concentration of students of any constituency across Scotland, she said:
“This flawed policy not only affects both our colleges and the students that come here to study, to be told after one year of study they cannot continue is a devastating blow to both. The UK Government must act now to end this.
“The SNP welcome students being taken out of the immigration figures, but the UK Government needs a sensible immigration policy that is driven by Scotland’s economic aspirations.
“The Home Office must work with Scotland’s colleges and universities to ensure minimal disruption to students’ studies.”