There is increasingly no difference between Labour and the Tories on Higher Education, the SNP has said, after Johann Lamont telegraphed in her speech today that her party is set to end free higher education at the next election.
The nationalists said the speech, which was given to mark her first anniversary of becoming Labour Leader in Scotland, contained no policy ideas, other than a willingness to abandon her Party’s manifesto promise to maintain free university tuition – and even then, she promised only to set out the specifics after the referendum.
In her speech, the Scottish Labour leader said: "There is no such thing as free higher education: under a completely tax funded tuition system, everybody is forced to pay for it, including those on low incomes.
"Labour believes in extending the chance of a good university to all who are capable of undertaking study. However, university education is costly, and faces competing claims on limited public resources.
"Whilst it was possible to sustain a system of publicly-funded higher education in an environment of relatively low participation, this is not viable in an era of mass participation without a very serious diminution in standards and quality."
Ms Lamont accused the Scottish government of pursuing an "anti-Scottish" education policy and added: "At the same time, there is an important issue of widening access. The present Scottish government’s policy of free tuition fees has not increased the number of low income students going to university."
Speaking weeks before the 2011 Scottish election, Lamont as deputy leader of Scottish Labour backed an end to tuition fees.
In a statement on April 11th her predecessor Iain Gray said: "Now the Tories are back, we need a Labour government in Scotland fighting for what really matters to families: faster cancer treatment, keeping frontline policing, no tuition fees and making jobs and apprenticeships a priority."
Speaking earlier this year, Robin Parker, President of NUS Scotland, claimed that Johann Lamont herself had signed a pledge to rule out tuition fees if Scottish Labour came to power.
Commenting, SNP MSP Clare Adamson – who sits on the Education Committee – said:
“Whatever message Johann Lamont was trying to communicate was rather undermined by resorting to silly name-calling of the Scottish Government - reflecting Labour's obsession with the SNP since 2007, which has prevented them from becoming a credible opposition. A year into her leadership, and Ms Lamont's audience was entitled to expect better than this series of platitudes, vague ambitions, and the telegraphing of a tuition fees policy U-turn.
“Ms Lamont rightly points out that it was an independent Scotland which was the first country in the world to offer free education, and talks about the huge social progress which resulted from this - but her apparent belief that the way to maintain this progress is to abolish free education as Westminster has done is totally misguided.
“Nick Clegg was forced into a humiliating apology for abandoning his party’s manifesto commitment to free Higher Education – Labour made the same pledge in their 2011 Holyrood manifesto, and it is time for Johann Lamont to say what Labour would do, instead of mealy-mouthed criticism of the SNP and Scotland's education system. Of course Scotland can always do better, and the SNP Government is committed to continuous improvement in outcomes and opportunities.
“The fact of the matter is that in Scotland student numbers have risen under this Scottish Government's policy - while they plummet south of the border in the face of huge fees - we are contributing far more than our population share of developments in university research, and three of our universities are in the world's top 100.
“Given these strong results, why on earth does Ms Lamont want to move Scotland towards a situation as in England under Westminster government, where the effect of tuition fees is turning potential students away in their thousands?
“After the falls in university numbers we saw south of the border last week, can Johann Lamont tell us how many fewer students there would be at university in Scotland just now if she had been able to implement Tory policy here?
“Once again, we see Johann Lamont preparing to commit Labour to delivering Tory policy – but also saying that she’ll only spell out the detail after the referendum. As with the fudge offered by her Cuts Commission, the Labour leader is treating the people of Scotland like fools.
“We have once again seen that the only certainty of a No vote is more Tory cuts in Scotland.
"Scotland is delivering far more successful policies and outcomes with the degree of independence that we already have in the Scottish Parliament - and with the full powers of an independent Scotland we could do the same in all the areas currently reserved to Westminster, such as macroeconomic policy, welfare and defence."