PLANS to charge students from the rest of the UK to study at university in an independent Scotland while other European Union residents could do so for free are not about nationality, the Deputy First Minister has insisted.
Instead, Nicola Sturgeon said the proposals, which have been put forward by the Scottish Government, were necessary because of the close geographical links between Scotland and England and the policy of charging tuition fees for university students south of the border.
If Scottish universities did not charge students from the rest of the UK, Ms Sturgeon said Scotland risked “crowding our own students out of access to university”.
She went on to say that if Westminster axed its university tuition fees policy, she was “pretty sure” the policy north of the border would change too.
Current EU rules prohibit states from discriminating on the grounds of nationality, meaning that 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.
The Scottish Government’s White Paper on independence proposes keeping this situation if Scotland votes to leave the UK in next year’s referendum.
Under European laws, Scottish ministers would need to make an “objective justification” for doing this, but Ms Sturgeon told members of Holyrood’s European and External Relations Committee: “We believe that can be done because of the particular circumstances of the geography of Scotland and the rest of the UK and the policy that exists in other parts of the UK.”
Labour’s Patricia Ferguson pressed the Deputy First Minister, saying: “The only rationale you have offered so far is nationality.
“You cannot discriminate against other members of the EU based on their nationality. I’ve heard no other rational for discriminating against students from the rest of the UK other than the fact that they’re not Scottish and where they live there happens to be a fee payment.”
The Deputy First Minister responded: “It’s not about nationality, it’s about the fact that we have a set of circumstances flowing from geography and the cross border flows of students between Scotland and the rest of the UK and the consequences for Scottish education of a policy decision taken at Westminster to charge its own students for access to university. That raises implications for Scottish universities and that is the objective justification for the position we have taken.”
Ms Sturgeon stressed the Scottish Government’s commitment to free education, telling the committee: “It is well known the Scottish Government thinks access to higher education on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay, is a very important principle. It is a principle I benefited from as a young student, and I don’t think I’ve got a right to deny that same access to education to other young people.”
She added: “We don’t want to be in a position where we have to charge students from the rest of the UK to access Scottish universities, it’s not a position of our choosing. We’re in that position because of the policy of tuition fees in the rest of the UK and if we didn’t have a position of charging students from the rest of the UK to come to university, then we would be in a position of potentially crowding our own students out of access to university.
“If the position in the rest of the UK was to change at any point in the future and we had a return to free access to higher education, then I’m pretty sure that position in Scotland would also change.”
She added: “I’m not sure if a Labour government would reverse tuition fees in the rest of the UK, but say one day we get a traditional Labour government that would return the rest of the UK to free education, then I think the position in Scotland changes. There would no longer be the same requirement and necessity to charge students from the rest of the UK to come to university in Scotland.”
But she stressed that if Scotland did not charge students from the rest of the UK, while they still had to pay university fees south of the border “that would lead to unfortunate consequences for our students accessing university education in Scotland”.
Ms Sturgeon told the committee: “That’s the objective justification for that policy and it’s one we’re confident of.”