Analysis on Scottish university fees: Mike Russell, Education Secretary

Much has been said and written about the Scottish Government's plans for Scotland's universities which were published on Thursday.

The commentary differs according to its political bias, but one thing is already clear. There is a deep ideological divide between the SNP Government on one side and Labour and the Tories on the other. We believe education should available on the basis of the ability to learn, not the ability to pay. They don't.

No final decision about funding can be made without the full facts and the complex financial position in England makes this difficult.

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That is why I am grateful to Universities Scotland for agreeing to work with the government to assess the real financial challenge that lies ahead and how the proposals in the Green Paper can help.

I have guaranteed equal and early access to this information for all the parties, so I am puzzled by Labour's refusal to base their ideas on the real figures.

Instead, they have chosen to stand with the Tories in favour of a knee-jerk commitment to charging graduates, without knowing whether such a damaging departure from the Scottish tradition of free education is necessary.

I am more concerned, however, about a gross anomaly in these proposals which has rightly attracted substantial attention.

Since 1998, when fees were imposed in England, students from the rest of the United Kingdom have had to pay a fee if they study here.

Now, the cost of a degree in England is set to triple.

We must, regrettably, also raise these balancing fees here, just as Labour raised them in 2006.

If we do not then many young people from others parts of the United Kingdom will come to study in Scotland not because it is the best option but because, for them, it will be the cheapest option.

That would be bad for them, for Scottish universities and for Scotland's students and graduates.

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Of course, Scottish students going to England have to pay full fees there.

But since 2001, Scotland has been obliged to behave differently towards young people from all other parts of the European Union who study here. A student from Cumbria has to pay but a student from Umbria does not.

That is simply wrong.

I have therefore asked my advisers to try and find some new solutions, and I have written to the EU Education Commissioner, Androulla Vassiliou.

The core of the problem lies with EU law and therefore the answer will lie, at least in part, in Brussels.

But whatever the cause, I want to see this unfairness addressed, if it can be.

Scotland's universities are world renowned. Their economic, cultural, social and educational benefits accrue to each of us. They have a tradition of open access and are underpinned by that most Scottish of attributes, the democratic intellect.

We must do everything we can to ensure they continue to be a beacon of excellence and last week's Green Paper is an important step towards that goal.