Plans for an independent Scotland to continue to charge tuition fees for university students from the rest of the UK “would be illegal”, a former European commissioner for education has claimed.
The SNP government white paper on independence set out plans to continue charging English students attending Scottish universities tuition fees while having free education for those from other EU nations.
However, Jan Figel, a former deputy prime minister of Slovakia who was EC education commissioner between 2004 and 2009, said if Scotland left the UK and became a member of the EU, students from England and Wales should receive “the same treatment” as Scottish students – who do not have to pay to study at universities north of the Border.
Current EU rules prohibit states from discriminating on the grounds of nationality, meaning Scotland has to give fee-free university education to EU students from outside the UK in order to keep studying at university free for Scottish students.
But it can impose tuition fees on students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland because the EU does regulate for discrimination within member states.
Under European laws, Scottish ministers would need to make an “objective justification” for doing this.
The white paper argues the “unique and exceptional circumstances” an independent Scotland would face as a result and the policy of university tuition fees south of the Border would allow the Scottish Government to “justify objectively the continuation of our current policy” in a way which is “compatible with EU requirements”.
But when asked if the proposal to continue to charge students from the rest of the UK to study at Scottish universities was legal, Mr Figel said: “This would be illegal, this would be a breach of the treaty. If Scotland is an EU member state, from that day on it must apply the non-discriminatory rule which is linked to the free movement of persons”.