Rocks will melt with the sun before SNP admits its failings in higher education

By Graham Grant

IT is hard to imagine a more stereotypical Establishment figure than Sir Peter Scott: an Oxford-educated knight of the realm.

But Sir Peter has been re-cast as a champion of equality, appointed by the SNP to tackle elitism in Scottish universities.

The gloves are already off, and the top academic warned recently of institutional class prejudice in higher education, which meant poorer children were losing out.

He has also demanded a lowering of entry criteria for pupils from deprived households, and for their part principals have signalled a willingness to adopt his proposals.

In the midst of this crusade come official figures showing Scotland still has the lowest proportion of undergraduates from state schools and colleges in the UK.

Yesterday statistics from admissions body Ucas showed the number of Scots from less well-off backgrounds applying to university has fallen for the first time in a decade.

None of this says much for the social engineering policies already introduced in Scottish universities, of the kind that Sir Peter is keen to promote.

You might recall a commemorative stone with an inscription to the effect that the ‘rocks will melt with the sun’ before ‘free’ tuition is abolished.

It was unveiled in the grounds of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh by Alex Salmond, as he stepped down in 2014.

This was an integral part of the myth that Mr Salmond hoped to perpetuate – that the SNP was the standard-bearer of Scotland’s proud ‘lad o’pairts’ heritage, enabling the poorest in society to get a university education.

There wasn’t room on that stone for the small print, which was that student bursaries and grants to finance the studies of poorer undergraduates would be slashed to finance ‘free’ degrees.

In unenlightened England, where degrees cost up to £9,250 a year (though not paid upfront), this funding hasn’t been cut, and there are more undergraduates from state schools.

Scotland also has the highest student dropout rate in the UK, suggesting that many who abandon their degrees weren’t suited to higher education in the first place.

But it also shows that degrees may have been devalued – precisely because they are ‘free’.

At the same time, there is a cap on the number of native Scots who can study at Scottish universities to ensure the ‘free’ degree policy remains affordable.

This leaves universities free to recruit international students – paying upwards of £30,000 a year.

The new Ucas figures show a 13 per cent increase in applications to Scottish universities from international students from outside the EU – compared to a one per cent rise in the number of Scottish applicants.

Well, nice little earners like that prove useful when principals are paid so much – look at Professor Peter Mathieson, the new head of Edinburgh University.

He will earn £342,000 a year, £85,000 more than his predecessor, and has access to a grace-and-favour townhouse in the city centre.

Left-wing academics love to rail against Brexit, but Universities Scotland, the higher education umbrella body, has suggested that it could in fact help to tackle inequality – by freeing up space for more Scottish students of all backgrounds.

Until now, EU laws have meant the Scottish Government has had to extend its ‘free’ tuition policy to students from the Continent at a cost of around £93million a year.

The SNP has permitted universities to charge English, Welsh and Northern Irish students up to £9,250 a year, as a quirk allows such differentiation within the same member state.

Education Secretary John Swinney and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

But Higher Education Minister Shirley-Anne Somerville announced last week that EU students starting their courses in the 2019/20 academic year would get tuition paid for them for four years, regardless of whether the legal obligation continues during the post-Brexit transition period.

The hoped-for Brexit dividend of declining numbers of EU students creating space for more Scots, rich and poor, has yet to materialise.

In any event, it hinges on ministers retaining the freed-up cash in higher education (rather than funding more baby boxes, for example).

Andrew Bridgen, the pro-Brexit Tory MP, believes it is ‘very telling’ that the Nationalists are choosing to continue a policy that discriminates against the English when they may not have to.

It’s also jarring to remember the SNP’s Brexit Minister Mike Russell vowing to find ways of getting out of paying for EU students when he was Education Secretary (an unsuccessful mission) – a stance that doesn’t fit the party’s current bout of tactical Europhilia.

So we have a government that is committed to a failing policy – ‘free’ degrees – while spending nearly £400million on course fees for students from Europe, and presiding over a system led by fat cat principals raking in cash from well-heeled international students.

We also have an equality ‘tsar’, Sir Peter, who has been appointed to hector universities into toeing the line on ‘widening access’, by dropping entry requirements.

Sir Peter wants more frank discussion about the issue, so why not be honest about what’s really going on?

It’s dumbing down – a sticking plaster and a crude, bludgeoning attempt at social engineering that fails to recognise more fundamental problems.

Sir Peter has neglected to mention that one of the key reasons poorer pupils aren’t getting into university is that their marks aren’t good enough – and that’s largely because of the failures of state education.

That, admittedly, is sensitive terrain for a man appointed by a government that is responsible for failing to sort many of those problems, and indeed in many cases for making them worse.

Nicola Sturgeon, after all, made closing the attainment gap between the best and worst-performing schools the core objective of her tenure.

But it was only last year that ministers began formulating the yardsticks that would be used to measure that gap (‘emotional development’ of pupils is likely to be one of them).

Miss Sturgeon’s main contribution, and that of her Education Secretary John Swinney, has been to prefix ‘attainment gap’ with ‘poverty-related’.

While that link undoubtedly exists, a 2014 Audit Scotland report found that ‘some schools had achieved better attainment results than their levels of deprivation would indicate, suggesting that the gap between the lowest and highest performing schools cannot be wholly attributed to different levels of deprivation’.

Could it be that by invoking poverty, and talking about schools bluntly in rich and poor areas (rather than the best and worst schools), the SNP is getting its excuses in early for failing to tackle that gap?

Poverty cannot be eradicated, and therefore nor can the gap, the argument will go; and closer to election time, Miss Sturgeon can claim that the only way to wipe out inequality is – guess what – independence.

The SNP’s political dogma – from separatism to good old-fashioned class warfare (now evident in much of its policy-making) – is the true enemy of equality on our campuses.

But the ‘rocks will melt with the sun’ before Miss Sturgeon is prepared to admit it.

Home Affairs Editor, columnist, leader writer, Scottish Daily Mail. Twitter: @GrahamGGrant Facebook: @sdmnewspaper