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Free Higher Education for Scottish Students at Scottish Universities : Equality of Opportunity? Campbell, Rachel 2020-03-31

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        Free Higher Education for Scottish Students at Scottish Universities: Equality of Opportunity?   Rachel Campbell     ‘Scotland’s universities are among the best in the world. We want every child, no matter their background, to have an equal chance of entering and succeeding in higher education.’ (  The Scottish Government has devolved powers over education in Scotland and takes an egalitarian approach in striving to maintain a system which is accessible and beneficial to all. The Scottish Government is committed to providing Scottish-domiciled students with free higher education at Scottish institutions as part of a framework of fair access ( Therefore, Scottish students can be university educated without having to pay any tuition fees. The Government pledges that university education should be within reach of everyone, stemming from the belief that opportunity should be based on the ability to learn rather than the ability to pay ( The Scottish Government nobly takes private higher education which is generally expensive, and thus elitist, and eradicates fees as a barrier to access. Here, the public governance of education is conflated with education administered by private institutions, and the domains of public and private become increasingly permeable in this context. This essay discusses the ways in which free tuition is framed as a straightforward solution to equalising social inequality as part of a national social justice mission. I will argue that in a neoliberal age, university education is nonetheless commodified irrespective of whether tuition fees are waived or not. Therefore, the neoliberal university is socially stratified by those who pay and those who do not. I reframe Scotland’s free tuition policy using a critical policy analysis lens to illustrate that this utopic perception of education as fully inclusive, while honourable, is naïve and false.   The Scottish Government’s objective of equal access to higher education strives to mitigate socioeconomically-derived discrimination. At present, an 18-year-old from the 20% most affluent communities in Scotland is four times as likely to enter university as their counterpart from the 20% most deprived communities. For those who aim to attend the most selective institutions, the likelihood of entering university is considerably worse ( This tangible inequality of access is problematized in political discourse which reifies the Government’s imperative to maintain free tuition for Scottish students. Policy problems are often constructed rather than identified (Ball, 2012:14). Problems are ideological constructions which emerge in discourse as reinforcements of social norms and authoritative action (Edelman, 1988:12). Problems are often ambiguous as they exist as a problem to some but simultaneously benefit others. Using problem terminology in politics disguises this conflict of interest by reassuring victims of problems of wider society’s concern for the issue (ibid:14). Thus, by problematizing the issue of unequal access, the Government provides a sense of comfort for those suffering from that problem by recognising that the issue impacting their lives is a real problem which must be addressed. In this narrative, rectifying the problem of unequal access is framed as a catalyst for change in realising social justice goals.   The Government uses a social justice issue frame to garner support for the cause of solving unequal access to higher education. An issue frame is a subjective perspective which is utilised to shape public opinion (Supovitz & Reinkordt, 2017:3). Policy framing achieves this by emphasising the particularities of a problem and repeating these aspects to the extent that they become widely accepted in public discourse (ibid:4). The repetitive language used in a policy frame functions to draw people into that worldview and reinforces the values of that frame by appealing to deeply engrained beliefs (Supovitz & Reinkordt, 2017:5). Framing enables these values to be activated by encouraging people to engage with an issue (McCaskell, 2012:48). When intrinsic values are triggered, people are motivated to engage in political problems because they are presupposed to care about issues that transcend the self (ibid:48). The more stimulating an issue is, the more likely a person is to engage with it in a meaningful way. Therefore, framing unequal access as a problem prohibitive of social justice is effective at incentivising people to be politically engaged. Free tuition ultimately becomes condensed to symbolise educational equality. A condensation symbol is a problem or political goal which increases interest in an issue by appealing to a particular ideological mentality (Edelman, 1988:22). Condensation symbols such as free tuition acts as emblems for certain moral standpoints and allure a support group with shared values (ibid:22). Hence, the unequivocal notion of free tuition being a catch-all solution to the problem of unequal access to higher education.   Policy frames can be internalised to become part of a person’s lived experience. Frames can begin as purely conceptual when referred to in political discourse, but they take on deeper meanings by connecting to emotion and thus become deep frames (McCaskell, 2012:50). While the removal of tuition fees as a barrier to higher education is enabling for many students, the implications of this policy become apparent when examining university admission statistics. Free tuition implies the promise of a diverse student cohort where competency is the only factor for determining access to higher education. In reality, at the most prestigious institutions the student demographic remains relatively homogenous. Despite attempts to make universities accessible to all, recruitment records show that many of those admitted are fee-paying students. The University of Edinburgh is one of the most elite universities in the UK and is ranked as number 20 in the world this year in the QS Global World Rankings ( There are three different tiers of fee status at The University of Edinburgh; Scottish and EU, Rest of UK (England, Wales, Northern Ireland), and International. Scottish and EU students pay no tuition fees directly, instead the Government pays the university £1,820 per year on behalf of each student through the Student Awards Agency Scotland. Students from the rest of the UK pay £9,250 per year while international students pay £27,550 per year ( In examining the University’s admission statistics, there is a clear identifiable link between a prospective student’s tier of fee-paying status and their likelihood of being admitted to the University. My undergraduate degree at The University of Edinburgh was in MA Geography and Social Anthropology, so I will use the admission statistics from this programme to exemplify admission disparity according to amount of money paid in tuition fees.    Of 157 Scotland and EU prospective students applying to Social Anthropology in 2019, 25% were accepted. In 2018, there were 237 applicants and 14% were accepted. In 2017, there were 205 applicants and 21% were accepted. Of 290 Scotland and EU prospective students applying to Geography in 2019, 20% were accepted. In 2018, there were 364 applicants and 15% were accepted. In 2017, there were 319 applicants and 23% were admitted (   Of 209 Rest of UK prospective students applying to Social Anthropology in 2019, 69% were accepted. In 2018, there were 231 applicants and 68% were accepted. In 2017, there were 218 applicants and 76% were accepted. Of 420 Rest of UK prospective students applying to Geography in 2019, 87% were accepted. In 2018, there were 390 applicants and 72% were accepted. In 2017, there were 439 applicants and 76% were accepted (   Of 72 International prospective students applying to Social Anthropology in 2019, 86% were accepted. In 2018, there were 74 applicants and 92% were accepted. In 2017, there were 62 applicants and 77% were accepted. Of 91 International prospective students applying to Geography in 2019, 88% were accepted. In 2018, there were 74 applicants and 89% were accepted. In 2017, there were 60 applicants and 88% were accepted ( These figures demonstrate a clear correlation between the amount paid to the University in tuition fees and the likelihood of being accepted to study at the University.   Although I have focussed on the admission statistics for my own degree programme, similar trends can be seen across the board. Students from the rest of UK or International countries generally have a higher chance of being accepted to the University of Edinburgh than Scottish and EU students who are exempt from paying tuition fees. The University of Edinburgh is a globally renowned learning and research institution. Its connoted prestige offers many opportunities for the future careers and further education of its students. The Scottish Government’s policy to make tuition free for Scottish students should, in principle, give all children across Scotland the opportunity to attend this University. However, the admission statistics show that the proportion of Scottish students being accepted is far lower than the proportion of Rest of UK or International students being accepted. This results in Scottish students being a minority demographic at the University of Edinburgh. In my own experience of studying at this University, I found that I was always one of very few Scottish students in my classes. When I first began my programme, I was shocked by how many of my peers proclaimed to me that I was the first Scottish student they had met since being in Edinburgh. This was a reality I was completely unprepared for when moving to Edinburgh. As the capital city of Scotland, I assumed that there would be plenty of students from the same background as me. At the same time, I also expected the University to be very diverse. In actuality, I did not meet many Scottish students nor was the University particularly diverse. Instead, the cohort I encountered in Edinburgh was dominated by upper-middle class students from the South of England and this demographic proved to be very confident about their belonging at the University. Any demographic which did not have the same social class or come from the right part of the UK tended to be looked down upon as not synonymous with the University image. Therefore, even the small number of Scottish students who are accepted to elite Scottish universities can find that they do not receive an equal opportunity of access once they are accepted and enrolled. This reality counters the normative expectation of those who perceive the free tuition policy as a simplistic equaliser of socioeconomic disparity.    The exemption of Scottish students from having to pay tuition fees reflects a governmental attempt to make higher education a public good. However, the financial leverage of fee-paying students does seem to have an impact on the University’s decision making process in terms of admission. Universities must navigate high admission demand in the context of a system with a finite number of places. Therefore, due to increased competition, entry requirements are raised and disadvantaged learners are even further discriminated against as they are less likely than their affluent peers to achieve these high requirements ( Global university rankings further perpetuate this process by incentivising raised entry requirements since these attract international students and bring reputational and financial benefits to a university ( Thus, rankings and the associated notion of prestige exacerbate the systemic bias against students from less socioeconomically advantaged backgrounds and a vicious cycle of inequality ensues. In neoliberal society, education is commodified and thus its access is capitalised on irrespective of free tuition. Neoliberalism entails the complex practices centred around an imagination of the market as the basis for the universalisation of social relations, commodification, capital accumulation and profit (Ball, 2012:3). A market for learning is created wherein access is restricted so that the product sold is perceived as a privilege to those that can afford to buy it (Connell, 2013:105). Connell argues that in this narrative, the public school is vilified and the private school is deemed superior. ‘There need to be known losers, if people are to be required to pay to become winners.’ (Connell, 2013:105). Those who can pay for a private education for their child might see this as an investment towards their future and hope that this quality education will grant them access to an elite university. Paying to attend an elite university is hoped to help that child attain a good and lucrative career in the future. In neoliberal mentality, paying for the best learning product is hoped to pay off and be advantageous in the long term. The Government tries to combat this hierarchy of who pays for education and who does not by identifying all Scottish students exempt from tuition fees. However, while this might help equalise students within Scotland, at the crux of the issue is that non-Scottish students do pay to attend Scottish universities. Thus, their education is commodified, and in a neoliberal society this gives them advantage as universities are inclined to value fee-paying students. Where fee-paying students are prioritised in admissions, they dominate the student body and overpower any social class diversity in the university population. While free tuition is emblematic of equality and politically framed as progressive, in reality, the most prestigious universities are nonetheless vehicles for classist enclavement and privileged domination. A higher education portrayed as accessible to all remains stratified because Scottish students who do not pay fees are a minority in the student body.   The attempted provision of equal university access can simultaneously empower and disenfranchise. Higher education functions as a stratifying system based on privilege. Framing free tuition as a one-size solution to unequal access to higher education merely compresses the problem to fit a political narrative of social justice. Free tuition is undeniably a positive social-enabler, however, social barricading can be the response to this challenge of the classist dominance of universities. At the University of Edinburgh, I found that I was one of very few publicly-educated Scottish students. The vast majority of my cohort were upper-middle class students from England and my classes were governed by impenetrable social enclaves determined by class. Bourdieu’s notion of capital can explain why class was so integral to sociality at the University of Edinburgh. Bourdieu identifies three types of capital; economic, social, and cultural. Economic capital involves money and physical financial capital (Bourdieu, 2001:47). Social capital involves networks, relationships and title, while cultural capital encompasses cultural goods and personal dispositions. Cultural capital is malleable as a form of power which can be disguised and underplayed to chameleon as entitlement and superiority.  The social conditions of its transmission and acquisition are more disguised than those of economic capital, it is predisposed to function as symbolic capital, i.e., to be unrecognised as capital and recognised as legitimate competence. (Bourdieu, 2001:49) Since cultural capital is so often misconstrued as competence unaffected by any privileging factors, it can thus reproduce social inequality. For example, in education cultural capital is institutionalised in the form of academic qualifications which are considered out of the context in which they were achieved (Bourdieu, 2001:49). Movement in social space is determined by capital so a student from a deprived background might find that their social mobility is negatively impacted because their qualifications are considered out-with the marginalising context they were achieved in. The education system separates holders of inherited cultural capital from those who lack it (Bourdieu, 1998:20). Class is also constituted by habitus which is the attitudes, dispositions and expectations shared by members of a social group (Turner & Wainwright, 2003:273). Bourdieu contends that habitus forms dispositions which are inculcated by the inherent possibilities and impossibilities, freedoms and necessities, opportunities and prohibitions of a group (Bourdieu, 1990:54). Therefore, the habitus of a group generates dispositions which are compatible with these conditions (ibid:54). Class groups which possess inherited cultural capital have a habitus which assumes that they will have access to quality education. Their dispositions are pre-adapted to the demands they will make in their lives in accordance with their class status. Meanwhile, students who do not have inherited cultural capital but gain access to education due to free tuition have no expectation that they are entitled to this. The result is distinct social groups determined by class status within the university.   These oppositions to the idea that free tuition equates to equality of opportunity challenge a utopic view of higher education. In a neoliberal society where social values are subordinate to the logic of the market, there is an increasing demand for a utopian approach (Webb, 2009:753). A radical imagination is required to restore hope and reverse despair and frustration at the commodification of education (ibid:753). Webb describes a concrete utopian approach wherein utopian thought is directed towards the possible rather than unrealistic ambitions. This ideology challenges neoliberal hegemony by using utopianism as a direct form of oppositional practice (Webb, 2009:730). Free tuition challenges neoliberalism by de-commoditising education and this mission can be perceived as utopic in an achievable sense. However, free tuition translating to equal access is not realised in elite universities as illustrated in the University of Edinburgh’s admission statistics. The free tuition policy represents an instance in which the public and the private are conflated as costly university education becomes opened-up through the waiving of tuition fees. The Scottish Government perceives it to be its moral obligation to mitigate socioeconomically-derived discrimination ( Education has both public-good aspects such as civic cohesion, and private-good aspects such as the personal benefits of being educated (Locatelli, 2019:92). The commonplace idea that private interests are antithetical to the public good is problematic since public and private outcomes are inextricably linked through the gains in productivity and civic efficacy of the individual learner (ibid:92). Equity is the underlying principle in efforts to make education a public good wherein access to education should be fair despite factors such as class in order for education to be socially just (Locatelli, 2019:93). A public-good approach to education aims to have societal benefits since education nurtures democratic citizens. This approach has a humanistic vision where equity, equality and social justice are highly valued (ibid:95). A traditional fee-paying university framework gives prominence to the private-good aspects of education. A market-based approach to education prioritises individual or corporate benefits and values competitiveness (Locatelli, 2019:95). This approach conceptualises students as consumers in a human capital vision (ibid:95). Where education is considered a public-good, the state takes a more active role in learning provision. The state funds, provides and regulates the education system and proceeds to implement policies that represent the minimal conditions for ensuring that all students have access to free education (Locatelli, 2019:96). In this context, the state also needs to ensure that there is a diverse choice of education on offer to permit for freedom of choice, however, this autonomy is grounded on the principle of diversity instead of competition (ibid:101). Scotland’s free tuition policy embodies a state effort to make higher education a public-good. The Scottish Government endeavours to make university equally accessible to all Scottish students by marking them exempt from the financial burden of fees. The state sees this as its responsibility to maintain fair access to enable the nation to work towards a socially-just system. Therefore, the Government tries to mediate the market-based approach to higher education preferred by neoliberalism by removing the fee component.   At the University of Edinburgh, social enclavement implied that some bodies were understood to belong within the institution while others were considered tokenistic interlopers. This marks the persistence of class assumptions and goes against social justice rhetoric associated with the free tuition policy. I propose a counter narrative that examines this policy more complexly than simply as a one-size solution to unequal access to higher education. Counter narratives are positional categories which reframe accepted meanings (Jiwani, 2011:336). The taken for granted meanings of free tuition can be reframed to show that free tuition can both empower and subjugate. Critical policy analysis can be applied to show how policy framings of free tuition as an antidote to inequality are limited and simplistic. Traditional policy analysis is objective and scientific and is manifested in a planned, linear and incremental process (Horsford et al, 2018:21). Traditional policy analysis is critiqued for failing to account for the unequal distribution of power, resources and opportunity and how these inform policy (ibid:21). On the other hand, critical policy analysis takes a realist perspective. It challenges notions of power, politics and governance and interrogates the distribution of these while holding accountable those in power (Horsford et al, 2018:32). Critical policy analysis also considers the perspectives of the marginalised and oppressed whose voices often go unheard in policy (ibid:32). Critical policy analysis is grounded in the belief that it is crucial to understand the connections between education and the relations of dominance and subordination in wider society (Apple, 2019:276). It is equally critical to understand the movements trying to disrupt these relations (ibid:276). The low percentages of Scottish students being recruited by the University of Edinburgh show that free tuition does not necessarily equate to fair and equal access. The discrepancy between the fees of Scottish and EU students, Rest of UK students, and International students implicitly discriminates against the students whom the free tuition policy purports to be helping. Viewing the free tuition policy through a critical lens highlights this pattern. The Government imposes a cap on the number of places available for Scottish and EU students at Scottish universities based on a limited amount of funding. The Scottish Government provides funding in collaboration with the Scottish Funding Council and the funding is allocated to each individual institution for the academic year, and this determines the number of places each university can offer ( Therefore, Scottish universities are penalised for recruiting more students than their quota allows as this will have negative financial implications for them. Free tuition is empowering as it enables students who do not have the financial means to pay for university tuition to be university educated. However, it is also damaging since it prevents many students from getting the chance to attend university since free tuition requires caps to be imposed on the number of Scottish students accepted to universities.   In conclusion, Scotland’s free tuition policy is politically framed as the saving grace of educational inequality but this lens is overly simplistic. In a country where there is much socioeconomic diversity, the Government has tried to neutralise inequality by marking all Scottish-domiciled students as eligible for free tuition. This policy is framed as being progressive in offering all children, no matter their background, an equal chance of accessing a quality higher education. In a utopic vision of an education system untouched by neoliberal regime and ideals, free tuition is posited as a condensation symbol for educational equality against the problem of unequal access. However, university access is competitive. Where other students do have to pay tuition fees, the neoliberal motivation takes over and these students whose education is commodified are prioritised in recruitment. The Government’s policy does not do enough to mediate this neoliberal instinct since they only provide funding for a limited number of fee-exempt students. Therefore, institutions which value non-domestic students to bring in globalised ideas and help world university rankings are unlikely to accept more Scottish students than the imposed cap allows. Additionally, the few Scottish students who do get accepted to prestigious universities such as the University of Edinburgh find that they are in the minority. The policy which supposedly is blind to class status places students in an environment where class influences almost all sociality. Scottish students like myself find themselves in a place where students truly care about others’ class status and will decide who to associate with on this basis. Imbalances in cultural capital mean that some students believe they are more entitled to be there than others and thus fixed social enclaves are formed. I have argued that while free tuition is undeniably positive and hugely beneficial to many, it is framed too simplistically in politics.     Bibliography  A Blueprint for Fairness. 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