Free university tuition comes at a price

Graduates Image copyright bbc

According to official figures, the chances of a Scottish university applicant being offered a place have slipped.

Free tuition for Scottish students at Scottish universities comes at a price.

The price is that there is a cap on the number of places - otherwise the cost of the policy could spiral out of control.

The overall number of university places available to Scots is around a record high - but the increase in supply is not keeping up with the increase in applications.

It's worth noting though that these places are also available to students from EU countries outside the UK, as a result of European law, although only a small proportion of free places go to EU students.

We cannot, however, easily say who the unsuccessful Scottish applicants are.

Are they people whose grades were marginal?

Were they judged unsuitable for the courses they applied for? Did they apply for places at "top" universities unsuccessfully when they might have been better off applying for a course with lower entry requirements?

If an applicant fails to secure a place this year, it should not mark the end of their dreams of a higher education.

They could start a college course - then either reapply or even benefit from schemes which allow students who successfully complete some college courses to go straight into the second or third year of a university course.

Universities broadly support the Scottish government's free tuition policy.

However, if supply and demand get out of kilter, an important political debate could open up - one there is currently little appetite for in academia or amongst left of centre politicians.

Whisper it quietly: might tuition fees actually help more people get to university?

Could they even help youngsters from disadvantaged areas secure a place?

The argument has never been that free tuition alone would help someone from a disadvantaged background - rather the argument is that free tuition removed a potential obstacle and that free university tuition was a right.

South of the border, universities can charge fees of up to £9,000 a year. Universities can decide for themselves just how many students to admit.

Tuition fees are, in effect, paid back through a scheme which operates rather like a graduate tax - they are not like normal loan repayments.

Graduates pay back 9% of anything they earn over and above £21,000 a year until the debt is cleared.

Tuition fees in themselves do not leave any current student better or worse off. The issue is the support towards living expenses.

It can be argued that a non-graduate would be doing well to be earning significantly more than £21,000 in their 20s.

Graduates are paying back money they might not otherwise have earned so, despite the repayments, are still better off overall after investing in their future prospects.

But shifting the consensus is hard: Asking someone to pay for something which is currently free is never easy.

The challenge for anyone who does not support the current system of free tuition will be to win over hearts and minds.

They would have to persuade people - especially people in areas where a low proportion of youngsters go to university - that the idea of a graduate paying back the cost of their tuition is fairer than the idea of getting it for free.

Otherwise an argument for tuition fees would risk looking reactionary rather than equitable and progressive.