Last week, The Scotsman on Sunday hosted the first of four hustings between representatives of the main parties in the run-up to the election in May, with education being the first topic up for debate. The newspaper is making a laudable effort to open up discussion on vital issues and make it accessible to the public – offering free tickets and broadcasting the discussions online – but one which rendered almost completely pointless by the refusal of the politicians to engage properly with the questions.
The debate did touch on some important issues in a meaningful way, but these were ones on which the parties generally agree – the Curriculum for Excellence, for example. On more contentious matters there was either pointless raking over old ground – the old chestnut of school class sizes – or a flagrant unwillingness to risk unpopularity by answering a direct question, most notably the issue of how the Scottish Government can continue to provide higher education that is both free widely available and well-resourced in an era of increasingly tight public finances.
Only the Scottish Conservative representative, Elizabeth Smith, deigned to give a straight answer on how the funding gap will be filled. She reiterated her party’s support for a graduate tax and whatever we might think about the principle, she was the only one of the four to demonstrate any modicum of respect for her audience. Liberal Democrat Margaret Smith did propose the increasing of up-front fees for English students but after admitting this policy wouldn’t raise enough funds, spent the rest of her allotted time refusing to shed any light on how the rest of the money might be found. Des McNulty, the Labour representative, was by far the worst of the four, giving a ten minute masterclass in obfuscation and outright incoherence. Staring at the back of the room rather than looking audience in the eye, it was impossible to discern what McNulty or his party believed it would do to make Scottish higher education sustainable if it wins power in May. Both Labour and the SNP are basing their plans on a £93m figure that experts south of the border claim is inaccurate because it assumes that English fees won’t rise with inflation, a figure which is at its highest for more than ten years. Education experts estimate that taking this into account, the gap is in excess of £200m.
The first decade of devolution was relatively successful, but it was fortunate to unfold alongside steady economic growth and thus public sector plenty. The second decade will be a much truer test of the strength of the still-developing Scottish political system and the current debate over higher education – if it can even be called that – does not bode well.
Too much of the debate is going on behind closed doors – in the past weeks we have heard hints of whispers of rumours about secret meetings between principals and politicians that may or not have happened – but none of those who are likely to form part of the next government seem to want to make the public privy to their thinking for fear of losing the election.
The Student worries that the prosperity that has allowed the Scottish political system to flourish has bred a certain amount of immaturity into Scottish politics: an inability to openly discuss difficult issues in the public arena. Difficult though it might be, it is absolutely necessary to be upfront with the electorate. It is extraordinarily disrespectful towards the voters and dangerous for democracy that politicians only come clean about their plans after the last vote has been cast – we have seen the anger that has provoked in England and we don’t want the same here. For what else is democracy for other than to lend legitimacy to difficult decisions by allowing the public to weigh in on them before they are made? Democracy is at its strongest when the issues are discussed openly and frankly and our politicians must recognise that, but with just six weeks left to go before May 5th, time is running out.