THE SNP’s plan to charge students from the remainder of the UK up to £36,000 to study in an independent Scotland has been described as “morally wrong and unjustifiable” by the president of the Scottish branch of the National Union of Students.
The policy must be revisited “as a matter of urgency”, MSPs on Holyrood’s Education Committee were told, as they took evidence in their inquiry into Scotland’s educational and cultural future.
Education must be based on the ability to learn not the ability to pay, regardless of where students are domiciled, the National Union of Students (NUS) and University and College Union (UCU) said.
Scottish universities are able to charge students from the rest of the UK up to £9,000 each year, following the increase in tuition fees south of the border.
Scottish students do not pay fees, and under EU law the Scottish Government cannot discriminate against students from other EU member states, meaning it cannot charge them tuition fees.
The Government has outlined plans to continue its regime of charging for rUK students in the event of independence, stating it will use “objective justification” to make this approach viable under EU law.
‘No debate’ claim
Gordon Maloney, president of NUS Scotland, said the union has been continually opposed to the charging of fees at this level.
He told the committee that even if it proves to be legal, it will remain “morally wrong and unjustifiable”.
“It is not for me to say anything about the strength of the case for objective justification,” Mr Maloney said.
“But I think what is an important point is there hasn’t been a debate about this. The immediate response after the tripling of tuition fees down south was to move to this model.
“Ourselves and UCU would have liked to have seen a much greater, more in-depth discussion about alternatives.”
In a written submission to the committee, the UCU said: “It was unfortunate that the current rUK fee system, enabling institutions to charge up to £9,000 a year, was introduced in Scotland with little debate on alternative approaches.
“We note the legal view sought by Universities Scotland suggesting that there may be a basis for an objective justification.
“The Scottish Government should more clearly indicate its position. It cannot be left to non-government sectoral bodies alone to seek the answers to such critical questions.”
‘Difference’ in legal opinion
Professor Pete Downes, convener of Universities Scotland, said the legal opinion it has sought differed from the proposal set out in the Government’s White Paper on independence.
Its advice stated there was a case for charging fees for students from all other EU member states, including the rest of the UK, while the White Paper sets out plans for “more or less the status quo which is to charge students from rUK but not the rest of Europe”, Prof Downes said.
He added: “We believe that a robust and legally-defensible objective justification needs to be in place, in the event of an independence vote, before the Act that would create an independent Scotland is enforced.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said universities in Scotland had been granted the ability to charge fees to rUK students due to the introduction of such fees south of the border.
“If we had not taken this step, available places for Scots-domiciled students could have reduced dramatically,” she said.
“The requirements of the EU allow for objective justification, that is clear evidence of exceptional circumstances. This is explicitly acknowledged on page 199 of Scotland’s Future where objective justification is identified as the basis of our approach. This is a point also made in independent legal advice sought by Universities Scotland.
“The Scottish Government will ensure that clear arrangements compliant with EU requirements are in place for the higher education sector to ensure a smooth transition to independence.”