Nicola Sturgeon is quoted as saying the Scottish Nationalist Party will “always protect free education because it is one of the most important things any government can ever protect”.
Undergraduate tuition fees in Scotland are paid for by the Scottish Government for Scottish and EU students, however, graduate fees are not and can range dramatically in price.
Tuition fees for graduates comprise of research and taught masters, and postgraduate diplomas. The average starting prices of postgraduate diplomas in disciplines such as teaching starting at £1820. For research and taught degrees, the fees can be from £7000- £22,000 for Scottish students.
The maximum graduate tuition fee loan from the Scottish government stands at £5,500. For living costs, £4,500 is awarded. With some tuition fees reaching over £20,000, the tuition fee loan would not cover even half of the price. This disadvantages many lower income students, who benefitted from free tuition fees for their undergraduate degree but are possibly stopped from pursuing further academic education due to the graduate fees.
The Strathclyde Union President, furthered this notion, stating that ‘Postgraduate fees should be capped at £5,500 at a minimum, to keep them in line with the postgraduate loans offered by the Scottish Government. As soon as fees are above the £5,500 threshold, home students are forced to cover tuition costs from their supposed living cost loan of £4,500. We shouldn’t have to decide between paying for fees or food’.
A spokesperson for Universities Scotland highlighted that, when it comes to graduate fees ‘there has been much focus on widening access to undergraduate study and comparatively very little about the access issues at postgraduate level study. We believe that this is the next big challenge which needs to be addressed’.
Nonetheless, they emphasized that ‘currently free undergraduate student places are underfunded by 10 per cent so it’s difficult to foresee how it would be financially viable for the Scottish Government to extend free tuition to postgraduate courses.’
There are reports of issues currently facing Scottish universities. In 2016, many Scottish Universities reported that, although they welcome the funding investment and the close cooperation with the Scottish government, that ‘universities do need to see an end to the erosion of public funding for teaching and research in this year’s budget as the first step to recovering a sustainable position’.
They also claim ‘the money from the Scottish government to cover free tuition is not enough to cover the overall cost. The implication is that these free places are being partly subsidised by the other money universities receive’.
However, in many European countries, undergraduate and graduate tuition fees are completely free. These include Norway (where it is completely free for everyone), Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Poland (free for EU, EEA and Swiss students). In many countries, fees are very small administration fees, these are: Austria, Germany and Iceland.
These countries highlight what can be done to widen access for graduate students of all backgrounds to study, although free undergraduate tuition fees have made great strides for students in Scotland, the next step is making graduate fees more accessible.
A reappraisal of the current situation concerning both undergraduate and graduate fees in Scotland needs to be undertaken. The reports that there is a struggle to finance free undergraduate tuition fees in Scotland does not bode well for the argument for free graduate tuition fees. However, it has been highlighted above that free undergraduate and tuition fees can be done, if enough is divested to the education sector. The issue of free tuition in Scotland has potential to be a debate that is waged for many years to come.