E-mails have emerged suggesting education secretary John Swinney deliberately delayed giving a crucial funding guarantee to EU students until the SNP conference, despite appeals from the university sector and his own colleagues in government.
The exchanges show the Scottish Government decided it would continue to cover the cost of free tuition for EU students in spite of Brexit as early as 4 October, but did not announce the decision for another ten days.
This is a pretty shameful episode for the SNP government, keeping students in the dark about their future o a minister could have a conference news lineIain Gray
Labour, who obtained the e-mails using freedom of information laws, accused Mr Swinney of chasing “cheap conference cheers”.
The delay until 14 October meant applications to study music at the Royal Conservatory of Scotland (RCS) had already closed when EU students applying for the 2017-18 academic year were told the full cost of their degrees would be met. Applications for medicine, veterinary medicine and dentistry closed the next day.
At the SNP conference in Glasgow, universities minister Shirley-Anne Somerville refused to answer questions on the issue that afternoon, hours before Mr Swinney’s speech. Ministers were first told about the issue in June. In August, Europe secretary Fiona Hyslop said she was in favour of the funding guarantee being made, and warned application deadlines were approaching.
Figures for 2017-18 show applications from EU nationals to study music at the RCS rose from 86 to 110, but across Scotland numbers fell by 4.2 per cent.
Labour education spokesman Iain Gray MSP said the exchanges showed Mr Swinney had “put party politics first”. Mr Gray said: “This is a pretty shameful episode for the SNP government, keeping students in the dark about their future simply so a minister could have a news line at the party’s annual party conference.
“Universities were begging the Scottish Government for clarity, as they tried to recruit students without being able to tell them whether their course would be funded.
“On at least two separate occasions John Swinney had the opportunity to announce his decision and give applicants the certainty they needed – but he put party politics first.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “When planning announcements such as this it is entirely routine for arrangements to be made to ensure that those most affected by the development – in this case European students and universities – have the most chance of becoming aware of it.”