The SNP’s plan to make students from the remainder of the UK pay to study in an independent Scotland has no precedent anywhere in the European Union, according to the EU’s governing body.
Any attempt to treat Scottish and non-Scottish students differently could be regarded as “a covert form of discrimination on grounds of nationality”, European commissioner for education Androulla Vassiliou said.
Different fees can be applied if a state can demonstrate it is justified and proportionate but no member state has ever done this, she said.
Scotland gives fee-free education to its own residents and students from elsewhere in the EU, but those from England, Wales and Northern Ireland can be charged because they live in the same member state. The EU regulates discrimination between member states only, not within member states. If Scotland leaves the UK and stays in the EU, it will be a separate member state and have to comply with EU laws.
The SNP hopes to keep Scotland’s current charging arrangements by arguing that it could be overwhelmed by applications from rUK students seeking a cheaper alternative to Westminster’s costly tuition-fee regime.
But this would have no precedent, according to Ms Vassiliou.
“According to the information available, no member state is charging different university fees to EU students not residing within its territory,” she said in response to a question by Scottish Labour MEP David Martin.
“Conditions of access to education, including tuition fees, fall within the scope of EU law and any discrimination on grounds of nationality is prohibited.” Commenting on Ms Vassiliou’s statement, Mr Martin said: “This is a damning response to the SNP’s claims that they will be able to circumnavigate EU legislation and discriminate against English students. There is no viable reason why an independent Scotland would be able to charge students from certain countries fees, when other European member states cannot.
“Were Scotland to become independent, one condition of EU membership is to respect the rules of the single market, including not discriminating amongst EU citizens for university fees. This is a great part of the EU, which allows Scottish students to study at universities in countries such as Sweden and the Netherlands. It also encourages EU students to come to Scotland, contributing to Scottish universities being diverse and places to study.” A spokesman for education secretary Mike Russell said: “Commissioner Vassiliou’s answer, which is in general terms, makes clear that policies such as those advanced on tuition fees [in the white paper] are justified where they are supported by objective considerations, and are proportionate to the legitimate aim.
“Our policy is based on the unique position of Scotland in relation to the rest of the UK, on the relative size of the rest of the UK, on the fee differential, on our shared land border and common language, on the qualification structure, on the quality of our university sector and on the high demand for places.
“We believe these distinctive characteristics will enable us to justify the continuation of our current policy in a way which is consistent with the principles of free movement across the EU.”
Russell: ‘A No vote means greed-based education’
EDUCATION secretary Mike Russell has suggested a No vote in this year’s referendum could mean the end of the SNP’s flagship policy of free university tuition for Scottish students.
The SNP minister said a rejection of independence could lead to an education system “based on greed”, with the rest of the UK placing pressure on Scotland to abandon its free tuition policy.
Mr Russell was taking part in a debate at Strathclyde University students’ association on what independence would mean for education.
He issued a stark warning about the prospect of “disastrous” consequences for higher education in Scotland if the country remains part of the UK and he also attacked UK government restrictions on immigration as “damaging” to Scotland’s universities wanting to recruit overseas academic talent.
The SNP has insisted it would continue to be able to deliver free university tuition for Scottish students, while charging English students in Scotland, but not EU students.
However, he suggested a No vote would leave Westminster in charge of Scotland’s annual block grant for services, with funding for higher education facing cutbacks.
He said: “If we don’t move forward, we’ll move back and that means a monetarised system in education – a system based on greed.
“We have to have independence to defend it [free education].
“What is 100 per cent certain is that if we stay within the Union, we will be much, much, much worse off.”