Not Just the People Must Be Free

Both Anas Sarwar and Johann Lamont stepped off into this week with major speeches about what Scotland can afford. So far, so practical—and so new; it’s not often you catch Scottish Labour arguing for something more subtle than simply throwing money at our problems. Ms Lamont called for voters to engage in “an honest debate about affordability” and pledged Labour will no longer ask “what we can bribe them with by claiming it is free. Scots face a stark choice of increasing taxes, introducing charges or cutting public spending elsewhere if they want to keep the full range of ‘free’ benefits currently available”.

And she indicated support for scrapping some universal benefits, being particularly critical of college budgets being cut “when the children of judges and lawyers get taxpayer-funded degrees at university”. Meanwhile, her deputy was adding an appropriately discordant harmony to her dirge. Mr Sarwar claimed the SNP has abandoned social justice, attacking universal benefits such as free personal care for the elderly, free prescriptions and the removal of university tuition fees. He argued:

“How can you talk about social justice without talking about wealth redistribution? Not only is it that the SNP talk left and act right, although that’s certainly true, but that redistribution is one of the strongest arguments in favour of the United Kingdom.”

Let’s leave aside that Labour has run urban Scotland for the last century and the entire country for most of the last quarter-century and made a total pigs ear of providing either social justice or equality to either. But let’s consider what might be the most effective social engineering programme to achieve the kind of equality and prosperity that, to be fair, most parties and not just Labour aspire to.

Mr Sarwar claims that Scotland staying part of the United Kingdom means a kind of fairness through redistribution and this has always been Labour’s problem—an envy of those who have, a fixation with tapping that wealth but an insouciant cluelessness about how wealth is achieved so that there’s more to go around in the first place. He also does not explain how 13 years under Blair/Brown made Britain MORE unequal.

In their more lucid moments, most parties would also agree on enlightenment and good education for all are key ingredients for an ideal future. But, is the Union going to help or hinder? David Cameron is in India and sounded the internationalist tone that might point positively in that direction. In a round of TV interviews in Mumbai as part of his three-day trade visit, Mr Cameron welcomed Indian university students and said there was no limit on the number that could come to British universities.

Funny that, because just last week the Hootsmon was bemoaning a steep falling off of foreign students from that part of the world, due to new draconian measures being taken by the UK Border Agency towards foreign students. He appears to be welcoming Indian students to come to the UK —yet his government has implemented damaging immigration policy, which is putting Scotland at a disadvantage. International students are attracted to Scotland’s universities due to their world-class reputations and our culture and history.  Their presence on Scottish university campuses not only enriches the student experience for our home students but the wider local community.

They also add value to the Scottish economy – the University of Strathclyde in 2009 estimated that international students contribute £188 million to universities in Scotland directly, with a further £321 million to the wider Scottish economy.  International students were already going to tremendous lengths to comply with UKBA’s immigration rules, and the termination of the UKBA post-study work route – which was part of the visa package and enabled international students to help pay off their fees- has left Scotland disadvantaged with nations who still offer the feature.

So, Scotland finds itself in something of a vice created by the two main Unionist parties. On the one hand, although claiming to be open-door, The Tories’ paranoia on immigration (lest UKIP outflank them) results in severe cuts in income to Scots education. On the other hand, Ms Lamont’s new-found zeal for fiscal rectitude says we can’t afford free university tuition and Labour would start charging for it.

No doubt the two play together rather well but it is overly Machiavellian to accuse them of collusion in attacking our tertiary education system from both flanks. While it is undoubtedly true that there are things we must forego in the current recession, the Scots’ fundamental tradition of free education for all must surely rank highest in our priorities.

Up until now, Sweden has been one of the few countries in Europe that has not charged any types of fees. All students—regardless of nationality—have been funded by Swedish taxpayers. Global competition for talent is increasing sharply and the government wants Swedish universities to compete on equal terms with universities in other countries. In the last decade, the number of foreign students has more than tripled, totaling 36,000 in 2008/2009.

As in Scotland, the rules for Swedes also apply to citizens of other EU or EEA countries, and Switzerland. Exchange students are also exempt from fees, as their studies are regulated by agreements between Swedish and foreign universities. Thus, the new rules apply only to free movers from outside the EU/EEA studying at the bachelor’s or master’s level. PhD programs will continue to be tuition-free.

So the Swedes, with one of the most affluent and egalitarian societies on the planet, have managed fine until now without draconian immigration laws or charging tuition. In a puzzling rant, Mr Sarwar seems to attack our absence of fees as a reason for poverty “Children, through their circumstances at birth, already have their life mapped out – poorer health, poorer education outcomes, reduced social opportunities, higher rates of alcoholism, addiction and mental illness.”

Quite apart from displaying a kind of social hypochondria that pervades Labour, he just does not get it that fees are what distinguish private from state schools—and the kind of poisonous social snobbery that results. Exactly the same phenomenon with the Ivy League universities in the States has resulted in their degrees being more valued. Is that what Mr Sarwar wants? Inequality of value among degrees that can be bought by those very judges and lawyers’ children he disparages as advantaged?

Here in Scotland, we have a proud egalitarian tradition that started with Arbroath. We are all Jock Tamson’s bairns and the dominies of yore pulled many a ploughman’s son out from the mire of his background to be a John Maier or a John Knox or a Rabbie Burns. If the idea of free universal health care at the point of need seems sacrosanct, how much more so the idea of educating our children as far as they can go, with no reference to their parents’ ability to buy their way towards success.

If that’s Sarwar’s Union, I want no part of it.

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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