Jim Murphy has been accused of “shameless hypocrisy” after he announced that university tuition would remain free in Scotland if Labour wins power, despite backing the introduction of fees south of the border under Tony Blair.
In a speech to students on Tuesday, the Scottish Labour leader said his party would keep tuition free for Scottish universities as part of a package of enhanced university funding and a new £125m programme to get the poorest students into higher education.
Citing figures from a Guardian investigation that found only 220 of Scotland’s poorest pupils got on to elite university courses, Murphy said: “There is sometimes a certain conceit in Scotland about our education system.
“As a society we pat ourselves on the back for keeping university tuition-free when for too many working-class Scots even the idea of going to university is just a pipe dream. That’s not good enough,” he said.
His new strategy has effectively endorsed one of the most popular policies introduced by Alex Salmond’s first government in 2007, underlining Labour’s desperation to overturn a huge Scottish National party lead in the polls before May’s general election.
Scottish Labour insists its stance is consistent with party policy at Holyrood, since the first Labour-led coalition under Donald Dewar abolished tuition fees and introduced a graduate endowment tax instead.
However, the SNP said Murphy was guilty of naked opportunism, since he backed tuition fees in England and Wales when Tony Blair was in power, and supported abolishing grants as NUS president in the mid-1990s.
Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister, said: “I welcome any convert to the cause of free university education but I think there is a degree of a credibility issue. He has consistently voted for tuition fees throughout his career and people may be
skeptical at this sudden change of heart.”
Stewart Maxwell, an SNP MP, said: “Mr Murphy himself voted to impose tuition fees, describing the idea of free tuition as ‘incoherent, indefensible and unrealistic’. His announcement today is all about panicked attempts to grab headlines and nothing to do with defending the principle of free education. With their appalling track record on fees, it’s clear that students in Scotland won’t be fooled by this shameless stunt.”
The Scottish government’s track record on university costs has in turn been challenged by experts who point out that student debt in Scotland has soared by 69%, to more than £430m, after ministers cut grants by more than 40%. College funding has also been heavily cut.
The SNP won power in 2007 with a promise to entirely abolish student debt, but the former civil servant Lucy Blackburn Hunter said a new grant system introduced by the SNP in 2012 left students from the lowest-income families in Scotland taking out loans averaging at £5,610 a year. By comparison, middle-class students borrowed less, at £4,430 a year.
There have been further Labour’s reverses on tuition fees in England and Wales. Ed Miliband, the UK party leader, announced last week that Labour would cap tuition fees in England at £6,000 a year from 2016, compared with the current limit of £9,000.
That proposal has alarmed Scottish universities because it would cut their income from English students by up to £37m a year. They charge English and Welsh students full fees, forcing Murphy to pledge extra central government funding to plug the gap.
St Andrew’s University has warned that Miliband’s proposal would threaten its survival unless extra funding is given, because even fees of £9,000 do not cover the full costs of its education.
Labour and the SNP has been offering voters competing proposals to tackle the growing problem of unequal access to universities for poorer students in the runup to the general election.
The Scottish government has pledged £100m over four years to improve attainment at primary schools in deprived areas, while a doubling of funding for free childcare and nurseries to £436m.
In addition to the £125m fund for poorer students, Murphy wants new legal duties on councils to improve attainment and heavy investment in primary schools feeding into the 20 worst-performing secondary schools.
This article was written by Severin Carrell, Scotland correspondent, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 3rd March 2015 12.51 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010