A leading candidate for the Scottish Conservative party was hissed at by students after he told them that university education is "a privilege, not a right", which they should contribute towards.
On Monday evening, four party leaders and Scottish Conservative candidate Adam Tomkins, who was there in place of his leader, Ruth Davidson, were invited by the National Union of Students to Strathclyde University for a debate on education ahead of May's Scottish election.
A well-mannered and largely uneventful debate was punctured by a frosty reception for Tomkins after he outlined his party's plans to charge a "contribution" of £6,000 for a four-year degree to be paid by graduates after they're earning "a good salary". Currently, Scottish undergraduates who choose to go to a university in Scotland don't pay any tuition fees.
"The argument between us is who should pay for it – there's no such thing as a free university education," said Tomkins, who is the party's lead candidate on its Glasgow regional list and a professor of law at Glasgow University.
"The first minister used a word, she used it twice in the context of her university education, she said it was a privilege and I think that's exactly right," he said. "Going into higher education, going to university, is a privilege, it's not a right. It's not a birthright, it's not like school education, it's not a right which extends to everyone."
After he was criticised by his fellow panellists for his remarks, Tomkins elaborated further and said his party's "graduate contribution" would widen access to education. The party say funds raised by it – which Tomkins said would amount to £100 million a year by 2020 – would be put back into education in the form of student bursaries and more college places.
"I'm not in favour of privatising universities any more than I'm in favour of privatising schools, but I do think that graduates should make a contribution, and a modest contribution," said Tomkins. "The contribution we're proposing is £6,000 for a four-year degree, which would be payable only after graduation and then only when the graduate is earning a good salary."
Scottish Greens co-convener Patrick Harvie, who appeared to be the most popular of the five panellists among the audience of students, won a round of applause for saying he disagreed "profoundly" with Tomkins but gave the Scottish Conservative candidate credit for "for at least being honest about it".
First minister Nicola Sturgeon, who pledged to do "lots, lots more" to widen access at Scottish universities on top of not charging students for tuition, also hit back at Tomkins, saying his party's plans would make poorer students even less likely to go to university.
"For the life of me I cannot see the argument that says you're widening access to university by charging people to go to university," said the SNP leader. "I couldn't disagree more firmly with Adam; I think if you've got the grades, if you're good enough, you've got the ability, then access to university absolutely should be a right.
"It should not be based on your ability to pay or, perhaps more importantly, your parents' ability to pay."
Jamie Ross is a Scotland reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Edinburgh.
Contact Jamie Ross at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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