Thursday, February 28, 2008

"What Have We Got? Free Education!"

Apart from Independence, the main issue which drove me into the tender embrace of the SNP as a student was the party's commitment to free education.

Back in 1994, when I started out as a fresh faced undergrad at Stirling at the fag-end of John Major's government, it was almost axiomatic that the Tories were the barbarians at the gates. After all, they were planning to cut the already fairly meagre student grant by 10% each year in '95, '96 and '97. What a lot of students seemed less inclined to believe, despite the best efforts of myself and many others, was that nice cuddly Tony Blair was going to scrap the student grant entirely, bringing in tuition fees for future cohorts of students.

Throughout, the NUS, led by guys like Jim Murphy, Douglas Trainer and Richard Baker, was deeply unenthusiastic when it came to defending free education. Of course, Labour party policy at the time was to make students pay for their education, no matter what their personal financial circumstances were. Of the aforementioned titanic triumvirate, one is a Labour MP, one a Labour MSP and another became a Labour Government Special Advisor. What's that you say? Rewards for services rendered? Well, now, I really wouldn't like to speculate...

Anyway, today was the day that tuition fees, in their modern guise of the 'Graduate Endowment', were finally scrapped. I have to say, having slogged my guts out for years, making the unfashionable argument that the only barrier to higher education should be academic ability (even resigning once from the National Executive of the SNP Student wing because I felt it wasn't taking a sufficiently hard line!), it feels good to have won out in the end.

Not everyone will be happy, though. Here is a brief transcript of an interview from earlier this week on Radio Scotland between the estimable Colin Mackay and the noble Baron Lord Foulkes:

LGF : “The SNP are on a very dangerous tack at the moment. What they are doing is trying to build up a situation in Scotland where the services are manifestly better than south of the Border in a number of areas.”

CM: “Is that a bad thing?”

LGF: “No. But they are doing it deliberately...”

Oh dear :-) But meanwhile, back in the real world, hopefully never again will wannabee heroes of the revolution, or at least the disciples of university Labour clubs and the NUS, take to their high horses to denounce free education with the most damning epithet they knew - that it was somehow 'middle class'. As of today, a bit of equality has been restored to help make sure that all those who are capable of learning can do so. Maybe not quite a revival of the democratic intellect, but certainly the first days of a better nation.

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