The announcement by Nicola Sturgeon on Monday that she will appoint an education tsar to improve the access of poorer students to university is a classic sticking plaster solution to a problem that has become a major embarrassment to her government.
Ever since the SNP decided it was a party of the left, one of its main goals (after independence of course) has been to create a more equal society.
Instrumental in achieving this was the scrapping of university tuition fees, which the party did on winning its first majority in the Scottish Parliament in 2007.
In fact, it was a graduation fee that was abolished, the annual charge having been dropped by the previous Labour-led coalition.
Free universities were seen as a vote-winning ploy by the then leader, Alex Salmond, who famously said “the rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scotland’s students”.
Every child, no matter what their circumstances, would be able to go on to higher education and Scotland would stand apart from the rest of the UK, where fees are paid.
Sadly, Salmond and his colleagues took no notice of warnings that tertiary education needs ever increasing funding with ever increasing intakes, and someone would have to pay.
It turns out that it is the poorest who have paid the most, and the nationalists’ policy has backfired spectacularly.
New figures from the National Union of Students in Scotland show that students are not taking out loan supports and are trying to survive on meagre bursaries, or low paid jobs.
No wonder Scotland has the highest university drop-out rate in the UK.
“There is a pressing need to look at how we improve bursaries for the students who need it most,” said Vonnie Sandlan, president of NUS Scotland.
“Some students are getting by on as little as £1,125 a year that’s simply not good enough.”
To pay for its no fees policy, the SNP has cut the amount available in bursaries by almost half since coming to power, with the result that far fewer school leavers from poorer families can afford to go to university.
Academics have long cautioned the nationalists that their policy of free tuition for all would mainly benefit the middle classes, and this has been borne out by the statistics.
Only 9.7% of Scots from disadvantaged areas were accepted to university compared to 17% in England, where undergraduates pay tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year.
Since 2011, the proportion of students from state schools entering Scotland’s elite universities has fallen and at the top ranking institutions, such as St Andrews and Edinburgh, less than 5% come from the poorest areas.
Meanwhile, Scotland’s colleges of further education, which train kids for the workplace and tend to attract less affluent students, have seen 152,000 places slashed by the SNP.
“As apprenticeships go up and up in England, north of the border we are moving in the opposite direction,” said Adam Tomkins, professor of law at Glasgow University.
Sturgeon’s remedy is to add another layer of bureaucracy.
The Commissioner for Fair Access is the result of a commission on widening access, set up by the First Minister two years ago, which concluded last month that radical action was needed to increase the number of youngsters from deprived backgrounds in higher education.
The tsar’s role will be to keep up the pressure on universities to admit more underprivileged students.
If that doesn’t work, they will have the power to impose wider access on individual universities via the funding system. Universities will also be made to lower entry requirements for the poorest children to the “minimum” possible.
What, one wonders, will Scotland’s education minister be doing while the fair access tsar meddles in the university admissions process.
If English universities have managed to increase access by charging fees which are only payable when graduates start earning above a certain level, and then only in small increments why can’t Scotland follow suit?
Sturgeon said when she took over from Salmond that she wanted to be judged on her education record and she promised to close the attainment gap between rich and poor children.
Her government has done the reverse and she is too concerned about losing face to admit they have made an expensive mistake.
Public opinion is not entrenched on this issue and when surveyed in 2013, two-thirds of Scots said that students with the money to do so should contribute to the cost of their tuition.
Perhaps once the election is over, Sturgeon will look at all the evidence and think again. In the meantime, the poorest students will go on paying the price for the SNP’s folly.