Douglas Ross: Scottish Tories to support free university tuition

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Student at university libraryImage source, PA Media

The Scottish Conservatives will support free university tuition in Scotland at the next election, the party's leader has said.

The party has called for a graduate contribution to fund higher education at the last two Holyrood elections.

But Douglas Ross told a fringe event organised by the Young Conservatives at the virtual party conference that this position should be reassessed.

NUS Scotland said it was a "victory for students and prospective students".

Mr Ross told the event that young people have faced significant pressure on their education during the Covid pandemic.

"This group of young people have had their education disrupted like no other," he said.

"They're losing out on life-defining experiences and they're going to be entering the job market at the most difficult time.

"We cannot burden them any further. So now is the time for the Scottish Conservatives to rethink our policy on introducing tuition fees and a graduate contribution."

He added: "Our manifesto will support free tuition for university students, while calling for college places to be viewed as equally valuable."

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Douglas Ross is reversing his party's position on student fees

Students who live in Scotland currently pay no tuition fees to attend a Scottish university. However those from the rest of the UK are charged up to £9,250 to study.

From next year free university tuition for students from the European Union will end following the UK's departure from the EU.

What was the party's previous position on tuition fees?

Ahead of the 2016 Holyrood election, the Scottish Conservatives manifesto outlined plans to end free university tuition in Scotland.

Ruth Davidson, who was then leader, said she wanted graduates to pay back £6,000 towards their education once they earned more than £20,000 a year.

The money would have been invested in universities and colleges in Scotland.

The party supported the abolition of tuition fees in 1999 and 2003, before proposing a "root-and-branch review" of education funding in 2007 and backing the introduction of the means-tested graduate contribution in 2011 and 2016.

Image source, Getty Images

The Tories change of heart has been welcomed by Matt Crilly, president of student body NUS Scotland.

"Education is a right, not a privilege and must be freely accessible to all regardless of your class or income," he said.

"Now more than ever before we can see the importance of our education system as people re-train and re-skill, education is our route to a better future."

Where do the other political parties stand on the issue?

Tuition fees in Scotland were scrapped in 2001, under the Labour-Lib Dem coalition government and both parties remain committed to a policy of free high education.

Scottish Labour also wants better financial support for students, saying it would deliver a minimum student income of about £8,100 a year.

The Scottish Lib Dems has called on the Scottish government to prepare universities to train and retrain people in preparation for a "green recovery" from the pandemic.

A "graduate endowment" scheme which replaced upfront tuition fees was scrapped by an SNP government in 2008.

The SNP says that access to education should be based on the ability to learn, not on ability to pay.

Meanwhile the Scottish Greens, who also support free tuition, says no EU undergraduate should pay fees, and all students should receive a non-repayable living grant.