In 2011, First Minister Alex Salmond pledged that his government would ensure free education for all in Scotland. His government policy is consistent with the values of the Scottish people since the enlightenment period when Scotland pioneered universal free education and produced the most literate citizens in Europe at that time.
Today's challenges are far more complex than those of our ancestors and universal access to education is the key to finding the future solutions needed to remain competitive.
There has been further drumbeating from our southern friends regarding the assumption that an independent Scotland would introduce tuition fees for Scottish students and that perhaps these fees will no longer apply to students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. These claims are based upon scaremongering and a desire to further the real discussion that would greatly benefit thousands of future students in Scotland.
Scotland has nearly 250,000 students enrolled in further and higher education. These students currently, and according to the current government policy, will receive free tuition throughout their lives. There has been no final decision regarding the setting of fees for students in the rest of the United Kingdom or elsewhere and these matters will be debated and decided upon by an independently elected Scottish government. The aspersions being cast upon Scottish leaders from the No campaign are unrealistic, impractical and, in fact, fictitious.
This is another excellent reason why the decisions about Scotland must be made in Scotland through our highly effective parliamentary process. If the right to offer free education for the citizens of Scotland is to be preserved full and independent economic control over these matters must be gained through independence. Only then will there be further assurance for future generations that the values of the past hold true today and for the foreseeable future through remaining strong advocates and leaders through universally free colleges and universities in Scotland.
Scotland has created many of the world's leading institutions in higher education. As a result of these excellent centres of higher education, Scotland has led in the arts, bio sciences, medicine and other fields. To remain competitive, we must ensure that the access to these vital educational resources is only based upon merit and not affordability.
My home country, the United States of America, has seen tuition rise significantly in state as well as private institutions and now a graduating fourth-year student may expect to inherit more than £25,000 of debt before even finding employment. This education cost, a detriment to attracting the best and the brightest students, creates unnecessary stress for these young people and results in many cases in attracting only the privileged few to apply for higher education opportunities.
Scotland has a better solution. Our future nation has valued free education for all for hundreds of years. As a result of the fundamental basic value the country has produced many of the greater thinkers throughout human history. These international thought leaders have discovered the cure to disease, healed the human heart, produced the technology that has transformed our world and inspired us through their artistic triumphs.
Recently, I heard the founder of the Khan Academy speak in Boston, Massachusetts. Salmon Khan is an engineer who decided that his eight-year-old niece needed help in algebra. He created on-line video tutorials for her and she was moved from a class of slow learners to the most advanced class in her school. Subsequently, he attracted financial support from major donors such as The Gate Foundation who wished to support his mission of free education anywhere, anytime.
Khan asked his audience if they realized that during the European enlightenment that less than five per cent of the population could read and write? Today, in the developed world, the percentage is closer to 90 per cent. He then posed a question that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. He asked: 'Today only about ten per cent of young people understand algebra and geometry. What if, through free education anywhere, any time, that number was 90 per cent? What might the world look like then?"
Therefore, when the First Minister reconfirmed his government's commitment to free education, he was in fact offering a hope for a better and more competitive Scotland on the world stage. For Scotland to assume its rightful place among the council of nations it must command respect and trust. Historically, education has produced major factors in nation states gaining respect and trust from their international friends. Now, as a result of our current and future free education, Scotland is poised to become one of the most respected and trusted nations in the history of the world.
Recently, a student asked me to help find an internship in the United States. He further asked if he could find an internship that was tied to an educational institution where he could continue his studies. Once he realized the cost of an education in the United States versus our free education policy he decided to remain in Scotland. If we do not gain full control over income generation through an independent economic policy, thousands of students who are now studying in Scotland may decide to travel to other destinations that offer these benefits. This brain drain would negatively impact our future nation and is unnecessary given the resources Scotland has to fund education now and for the distant future.
Many years ago, my late father told me, upon receiving my doctoral degree, that I must be careful not to rest upon my laurels. He said to me upon the award of my degree: 'You must always remain green and growing. If you ever start to ripen you will soon rot.' This is also true for the highly successful Scottish Government policy of equal, unlimited and full access to high quality education. These policies must in fact grow further to insure that future generations will have even greater access to the valuable and unique Scottish education that has been admired throughout the world for many centuries.
I firmly believe that the best way for this to be ensured for my grandchildren as well as great-grandchildren is through a Yes vote on September 18, 2014. When I and millions of others vote Yes, we are affirming our belief in access to free education and our belief in fostering the values of the past with the new tools of the future. Scotland's traditions should serve as a trajectory for the country to become a strong nation that grows from strength to strength through the contributions of our current and future scholars. Only through a strong and unbending commitment to education have nation states and great societies of the past triumphed throughout human history.
Now it is Scotland's shining moment on the hill overlooking our boundless future. The promise of independence will bring with it greater opportunity, increased resources and more rigorous oversight to ensure that, as the First Minister stated when he paraphrased Robert Burns: 'The rocks will melt with the sun before we allow tuition fees for students in Scotland.'