St AndrewsThe Scotsman’s front page declares “Tuition fee axe ‘still favouring the rich’“, a classic instance of the headline not being stood up by the story. To be fair, the headline online is the much more accurate “Scottish universities remain elitist“.

The supporting piece, by Sheila Riddell from Edinburgh University, argues that the proportion of working-class students at Scotland’s ancient universities has declined from 21% in 2003 to 19% now.

Attributing this change to the abolition of tuition fees, as the frothing front-page headline at least seeks to do, is evidentially problematic to say the least, given that rebranded tuition fees were scrapped in 2008, precisely halfway through that decade.

Simultaneously, and more compellingly, the Guardian reports on survey data from England which looked at precisely the most important group: 11-16 year-olds in state schools.

Amongst those who say they’re unlikely to go to university, 41% say they’re not bright enough (something which, it should be noted, never seems to deter the privately-educated and will certainly not be true for many in that group) but 57% cite the cost as the deterrent. The headline on this? The diametrically opposed “University fees biggest barrier to wider access, research finds“.

It is difficult to draw hard and fast conclusions from this data because there’s no control, no parallel Scotland which didn’t abolish tuition fees in 2008, no parallel England where the Lib Dems kept their promises (that one’s even harder to imagine).

Only 19% of students at the ancient universities are from working class backgrounds this year, sure, which is very poor: but what proportion would have been if every student had to pay £9000 per year?

Leaving aside my ideological preference for education to be based on academic merit rather than ability to pay, though, it still seems likely that tuition fees will be less off-putting to those for whom money is no object. It also remains the case that tuition is of course only one cost associated with higher education, which is why previous generations of students (notably including those Labour, Tory and Lib Dem politicians who introduced or hiked tuition fees) had the benefit of a system of grants, now largely gone. As Riddell notes, the SNP administration to its credit is also introducing (reintroducing?) funding in bursaries and loans of up to £7250 for students from poorer backgrounds from the autumn of this year. That will surely help.

However, the problems with unequal intake don’t start when school leavers are considering applying to university. The inequalities in our education system start right at the beginning, and are anchored in a secondary system divided between the private and the state-run. Means-tested grants, ending fees: these are good measures, but they are merely tinkering. Unless we start phasing out private schools (or otherwise bringing the state sector up to their standards), we will continue to see grossly unequal intakes to universities.

It’s not just idealism at work here: the current arrangement is also bad capitalism. The interests of business as well as society would be better served by the brightest making it to university, irrespective of their parents’ background. It’s not time for fees to come back and entrench the divide. It’s time for radical change to an educational system that continues to confirm entrenched privilege, generation after generation, through school, into university, and on throughout life.

Disclaimer: I went to a private school and to St Andrews (above) and am therefore part of the problem.