Leaders on the spot: Tavish Scott

Published in The Student, May 3 2011
With Julia Symmes Cobb

The Student Rating – 2/5: Scott has the most difficult task of all the leaders in this election, and his frustration  showed.  Some of his answers were disappointingly generic and despite claiming that his proudest achievement was the funding of more college places, he  was unable to give us a figure.

Tavish Scott has had a rough few months.  He has spent most of his time since the general election last year emphasising to a fractious student population that the Scottish Lib Dems are a separate party still committed – unlike their Westminster colleagues – to free higher education. However, with polls showing a halving in the Lib Dem votes and the Green party pulling ahead of his party in terms of seats, Tavish Scott has had an enormous mountain to climb over the course of the campaign. It showed over the course of the 40 minutes The Student talked to him – he is edgy throughout, angrily rebutting the attacks made on him by the other parties and at pains to move out of Nick Clegg’s shadow.

He gives an unambiguous statement against fees, hitting a populist note by calling for pay restraint in the public sector: “Be in no doubt that our objective is to make sure that universities are adequately and properly funded, that they remain internationally competitive.”

“We’ll solve the funding problem for universities in a constructive way by finding a different way within the overall budget to make sure we fund students, for example we’d cut top pay in the public sector.”

Scott adds that while he would fight hard to keep free education, university authorities would also have to play their part in finding additional sources of funding, highlighting alumni contributions in particular:  “It will help the universities’ argument when they’re coming in to minister’s offices after the election to ask for money if they’re also doing an awful lot more themselves, I think Tim O’Shea and Edinburgh University and his colleagues on Universities Scotland know that and I would very strongly encourage them to explore other ways in which they can create income and assist with that gap.”

When we make the suggestion that only Goldie has been up front about how higher education can be funded, and repeat her accusation that thousands of university places will be lost without reform, Scott’s anger flares and interjects irritably: “Well they’ll certainly lose them if the Tory proposals for fees and graduate endowment come in.  The answer to Scots universities is not the Tories’ model – making student debt even worse and the funding gap that would still exist even under the Tory plan, because the Tory plans would mean no additional income…before 2015 so I think the Tories’ position is just frankly laughable.”

Asked what his proudest achievement has been since the beginning of devolution, he makes much of increasing the number of colleges places and is keen to ensure that funding further education properly is not drowned out by the debate surround universities: “The issue of how we fund college places and the ties between how we create jobs and businesses and our colleges need to be enhanced and promoted, I mean it’s a different relationship than the one the universities have…at a time of economic recession I think that’s all the more important.”

Scott backs SNP Education Secretary Mike Russell’s attempts to find some way for students from the rest of the EU to make a contribution to their education in Scotland: “We don’t want EU students to pay fees because that’s clearly against European law but I think we do need to find a way to make sure that EU students assist with the costs of their education in Scotland and we’ve got one or two ideas about that that have been part of cross-party discussions on sorting this problem out.”

Asked to put a figure on how many college places he was able to get the Government to create, he shuffles nervously in his seat and after exchanging blank looks with his assistant, he promises us to e-mail us the information.

Asked about the occupations of university buildings in Glasgow, Scott brands Strathclyde Police’s as “a bit of an overkill”.  The Government, too, became overly involved, he adds: Mike Russell was “incredibly badly advised to start intervening in that university and telling them how to run their business” – “the current SNP government do believe they should control everything” – “it’s the universities decision to how they should spend that money and not politicians”.

A question on what he would do about internships flusters him. He talks about the need to promote opportunities for students after university – “some of these programs they’re a really good thing to do and we’ll promote them” – but appears to miss the point that students take on internships for long periods without pay.  He recalls that he has “a line about it” in his manifesto, though he doesn’t seem able to recall what it is.

We leave Scott convinced of his sincerity – his strength of feeling came across abundantly – but not of his grasp of some issues vitally important to students.


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