SCOTLAND’s universities would be inundated with applications from UK students looking for free tuition should the country become independent, it has been claimed.
David Bell, a professor of economics at Stirling University, will tell a conference of academics in Edinburgh today that Scots could lose out on places in their home country amid an influx of those from south of the Border unless changes are made to the current funding system.
Following independence, students from elsewhere in the UK would be treated the same as EU students and therefore entitled to free tuition in Scotland.
Addressing a conference organised by the Economic and Social Research Council at Edinburgh University, Prof Bell will raise the prospect of independence opening the “floodgates” to a huge surge in applications from UK students. He said: “There are already quite a lot of students from the rest of the UK coming to Scotland but being charged fees that are comparable to those being charged down south.
“If you reduce fees to zero, then you could expect a quite substantial increase. Evidence from Germany shows students are sensitive to fee differentials. It just takes a small proportional change to have a huge effect. You’re going to have to have some way of ensuring you don’t have a massive demand from the rest of the UK.
“The increase in demand might also make it more difficult for Scottish students to get into university – that’s quite a problem for the higher education sector in Scotland.”
According to Prof Bell, if 1 per cent of suitably qualified students from England, Northern Ireland and Wales chose Scotland, then that would equate to an additional 3,900 applications – the equivalent of 12 per cent of the annual Scottish intake.
He said Scotland could adopt a solution similar to Wales, where all students are charged fees, but the cost to home students is offset by grants and bursaries. The cost of supporting Scottish domiciled students in Scotland and the UK would be £120 million a year, according to Prof Bell.
Professor Sheila Riddell, director of Edinburgh University’s Centre for Research in Education Inclusion and Diversity, said: “We have to realise that Scottish universities are in a global market, with international competition for staff, students and research funds. That global market inevitably increases pressures to raise student fees to the highest level which the market will bear.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We remain committed to access to higher education for eligible Scots based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay. No fees was the pledge we made, it is a pledge we have delivered on and this will not change with independence. There are a range of options available to maintain the balance of students from within and outwith Scotland post-independence and we will publish specific plans in due course.”