The issue of tuition fees has been in the spotlight recently as Jeremy Corbyn indicated that a Labour government would “deal with” student debt.
While the party’s 2017 general election manifesto gained notoriety for its promise to scrap tuition fees in England, politicians and commentators in Scotland noted that the policy had already been in place here for a number of years.
However, there are disagreements over which party was responsible for ending tuition fees north of the border.
Reflecting on ten years of SNP governance, Nicola Sturgeon listed the ending of tuition fees as one of her party’s greatest successes.
One of "my proudest achievements of the SNP government have been getting rid of charges for... tuition fees"
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
Ferret Fact Service assessed this claim and found it to be Mostly True
University tuition fees were reintroduced by Tony Blair’s government in 1998, amid huge protest from students and many backbench Labour MPs. The Teaching and Higher Education Act meant students across the UK would pay up to £1000 per year for study.
In Scotland, where university courses were generally completed over four years rather than three, students were given a fee concession, paid for by the Scottish Executive (now known as Scottish Government).
Nicola Sturgeon’s claim is that her party scrapped tuition fees in 2008 during the first Salmond government, however, the up-front fees introduced by Tony Blair’s government were actually ended in Scotland in 2001.
After Scotland voted for devolution, the newly-formed Scottish Parliament took over responsibility for education with the first elections taking place in 1999. The election was won by Scottish Labour, who formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats.
The Lib Dems made the scrapping of tuition fees a central part of their election manifesto, and secured the pledge as part of their negotiations to join the coalition with Labour. An independent study, the Cubie Report, was set up and recommended that up-front fees should be ended.
However, the report stopped short of backing completely free university education, instead suggesting a graduate endowment which would help to fund bursaries and meant students would pay back a portion of fees after graduating and earning above a repayment threshold.
In 2001, this was accepted by the Scottish Executive, with the initial endowment set at £2,000 to be paid back once students earned over £10,000. The first students began paying in 2005, and 20,684 paid the endowment fee before it was scrapped, according to a Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe)
The ending of fees, which the First Minister and SNP are referring to, is the scrapping of the graduate endowment put in place by the earlier Labour/Lib-dem administration. This took place in 2008, as part of the Scottish Government’s pledge to return to “free university education”.
When the scheme ended, the endowment was set at £2,289 and, if taken out as a loan, students would be required to pay once they earned more than £15,000 per year. Around half of students did not have to pay the endowment, which came with a number of exemptions including those on low-incomes, mature students and single parents.
The scrapping of the scheme passed through the Scottish Parliament by 67 votes to 61, after forming part of the SNP’s 2007 election manifesto. It covered students who graduated on or after April 1, 2007. Scottish students now pay no upfront fees nor an endowment after they graduate.
It is important to note that while Scottish students are entitled to free university education, those from other UK nations are required to pay if they come to study in Scotland. Free education also extends to those students from European Union member states on the same basis as Scottish students. However, this may change after the UK leaves the EU in 2019.
Ferret Fact Service verdict: Mostly True
Nicola Sturgeon’s claim that the SNP ended tuition fees is not entirely accurate. Up-front fees were abolished by Labour in Scotland (after Tony Blair’s government introduced them in 1998) under pressure from the Liberal Democrats and many students were exempted from the Graduate Endowment scheme the coalition put in place. The SNP can, however, accurately say it introduced free university education by scrapping the graduate endowment.
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