Friday, 23 June 2006

Loophole that means students lose out

Published: 23 June, 2006
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

A GREAT deal of heat was produced 10 days ago in the Holyrood chamber by a short debate on the Student Fees (Specification) (Scotland) Order.

Why so? By a slim majority the Lib Dem and Labour parties whipped through a variable tuition fee charge of £2700 for medical students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This is £1000 more than the variable fee to be paid by other students from these areas coming to Scottish universities. The rowdy barracking from government benches tells us an election is in the offing.

The Scottish government previously vetoed top-up fees but has now introduced anomalies based on where you come from. Paradoxically, students from the Irish Republic or any other EU state don't pay, while English, Welsh and Northern Irish students will have to pay more to study in Scotland.

As the independent MSP Dennis Canavan pointed out, such discrimination is illegal between EU states, but a loophole is being used to restrict non-Scottish UK applicants.

The Deputy First Minister, Lib Dem leader Nicol Stephen, built his educational Hadrian's Wall but the bricks are made without straw. An influx of English candidates fleeing the fees hike to Scottish courses was assured, he told us. In 2005, "before the costs were announced, the number of applicants for medical places from England increased by 17.8 per cent…

"That is the reason for this move… It is a practical, sensible policy from an Executive that has abolished tuition fees, opposes top-up fees, opposes variable fees and is absolutely determined to protect university places for Scottish students."

But is this the real issue? Of course Scotland needs more doctors, we need more of those trained here to stay and work here, but is it not sensible to open up courses to greater numbers and especially to those from working-class backgrounds, no matter where they come from?

The SNP was vilified by the First Minister for keeping courses open and opposing these "top-up" fees as "the most anti-Scottish thing that it has ever done".

Surely the imposition of a graduate tax on students was far more damaging. Isn't the Scottish way to open education to as many as possible, as I and Jack McConnell and Nicol Stephen and Jamie Stone all experienced?

Yet in Jamie's speech he set aside his manufactured rage at the First Minister, as reported in the Groat a few weeks ago, and grabbed hold of the little Scotland line. "We must ensure that students choose to study in Scotland because it is the best place for their education, not because it is the best place for their pocket," was his rallying cry. "I have said before, and I will say again, that I will not tolerate students from my constituency or any other part of Scotland losing out. It is our job to stand up for our students."

In the old Scots tradition of free education there would not have been the need to "stand up for our students". They would have had rights, and can do again. SNP researchers have proved that student grants are cheaper than student loans and that is admitted now by others. So the mix of students shouldn't need quotas.

The humbug of protecting students from the Far North "losing out" should be exposed for what it is - a guilty cover-up by a Lib Dem to hide the introduction of the graduate tax.

We are a rich country - why not invest in education and be honest about the real costs? Then we can have a proper debate about controlling the revenue and taxes which are reserved to London at present and are denied under devolution.

Jamie and his friends are remarkably silent when it comes to the hundreds of graduates already "losing out" who have had to make a start paying the Lib Dem/ Labour graduate tax. The coming election could indeed be made to change all that.

NEWS that "rich" NHS areas will have to subsidise "poor" regions is the latest wheeze of the Scottish Health Minister, Andy Kerr. That begs another monetary question: how do you measure riches and poverty?

I've been campaigning about care of the elderly, better public transport, support for rural services like the post offices and, yes, health services in smaller communities, such as the resuscitated Wick maternity unit. All these and many more rely for funds on the way we measure need.

Academics agree that urban needs and rural needs require different measurements. Alas this government sees its Labour heartlands as those in most need.

That's because they refuse to adopt a rural deprivation index, the fair way to determine remoter areas' needs too.

Comparisons with our Scandinavian neighbours are the subject of studies in the EU Northern Peripheries Programmes to which I have contributed my tuppenceworth this week. In an interview with Dr Jane Farmer, of the Highlands and Islands Health Research Institute, I argued that you can add up affordable housing, support for older people or small schools, the unchanging nature of our scattered geography… all have to be coped with.

If you leave it to the current measures we are too often short-changed. As a national-minded Scot I can't see why any part of the country should be forced to accept disadvantage through lack of honest measurement of our needs.

That's ufinished business that an SNP-led government must tackle.

BRIEFINGS on all the crises of the day rain in thick and fast. The middle of June seems a particularly fertile time for non-governmental organisation staff to bombard harassed MSPs.

So it was with a little relief that I looked over the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds document on avian Flu. Happily it was sent to me by their advocacy coordinator Juliet Swann…