Notes from a Scottish student

(c) Ipoh

Matt McPherson is President of Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA)

If one is to look cynically at the way devolution in Scotland has operated, it is apparent that for every ‘solution’ to Scotland’s challenges, all we seem to do is create another long term problem. With almost no fiscal autonomy devolved to Scotland’s Parliament, we are entering a gulf with growing wants on one hand, and finite resources on the other, with no solution as to how that gap should be filled.

Despite my offensively pessimistic overview, I am an optimist – I believe that we will fully overcome the damage of the Westminster Government. Of that I have no doubt. The might of our political power in Scotland as a student movement was illustrated in the recent Scottish Parliamentary Elections in May 2011. Due to the work of colleges and universities across our nation, led in partnership with NUS, over 85% of the MSPs sworn in just a few weeks ago have each promised to: protect the number of college and university places; increase student support and stand against tuition fees.

However, there is a moral burden attached to each of our demands. With a fixed bucket of limited money in Scotland (which could at any time change if Westminster wishes), the higher education funding crisis plunges students into debates not only of how much their education is worth, but rather how much it is worth in relation to others within our society. Do we represent ourselves as students or as citizens? Of course we try to do both, but for every bursary there must be a subsequent cut in a home help; for each extra government teaching grant – one fewer hospital bed. In London I, and many others, were proud to stand behind the ‘March for the Alternative’ banner. In the UK education sector, there is an alternative – clamp down on tax evasion, and we could fill the £96 to £200 million funding gap tomorrow. But we have no such immediate alternative in Scotland, other than to change the UK Government.

While polls on the independence of Scotland have remained fairly static for a generation, and well-below a majority vote if there were to be a referendum, the Scottish National Party enjoyed a landslide electoral victory in May. While this was without a doubt immediately good for students, we have designed the perfect time-bomb – the free provision of services, with no sustainable way of paying for them. The First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, argued that like The Republic of Ireland, Norway and Iceland, Scotland too could be part of the “arc of prosperity” as an independent state. Since the financial collapse, for some reason, it’s been a while since he’s mentioned it.

I believe in and have been mandated to fight for a fair and funded higher education funding system – and that I will. But there is little that’s fair about higher education funding in Scotland, with every penny in it being diverted from a public service elsewhere; and there is nothing funded about it – for we cannot continue to pour money out, without any extra being brought back in.

The SNP’s election slogan was, “It’s time,” and I couldn’t agree more – time we recognised the problem, and started to focus on a real solution.

Full disclaimer: Matt McPherson’s views do not necessarily reflect those of EUSA

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