Leader: High fees could widen the higher education gap

EDUCATION secretary Michael Russell's announcement that Scottish Universities will be able to charge students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland up to £9,000 a year in fees is certainly dramatic, as the figure, which matches the maximum charged now south of the Border, is higher than had been predicted.

As Scotland at present still provides four-year degree courses, if any institutions opt to charge the highest rate - and there is speculation Edinburgh and St Andrews might - then it will cost 36,000 for a degree in Scotland's best universities and only 27,000 to do a three-year course at Oxford or Cambridge.

The consequences of this are hard to gauge. We do not know whether Scotland's best universities will opt for the highest possible fee, though if experience in England is anything to go by they may well do so. We need, therefore, to think carefully what this means for Scotland. There are some initial conclusions we can draw.

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First, Mr Russell has given the go-ahead to such fees as a way of closing the funding gap between Scottish Universities, which his party is adamant will not charge students, and universities south of the Border. Even with the highest fees being charged in Scotland and the average set at about 6,000, this measure will raise perhaps 60 million - not enough to close the funding gap, which is at least 200m.

Second, if Mr Russell wanted to stir up resentment south of the Border, this measure will do just that. To the English eye it looks like this: Scottish students pay no fees, with their education funded by the money sent to Holyrood from the UK Treasury, while everyone else has to pay for the privilege of studying in Scotland.

As Mr Russell and his Nationalist party want independence, perhaps this is what they want, but even some nationalists will see that English resentment of Scotland is unhealthy.

Third, by charging the high fees, Scotland's best universities are likely to attract an even narrower cohort of students, those from high-income families, and this cannot be good for the diversity which universities are supposed to provide. Scottish students at these universities are going to mix with an even more rarefied group of students from south of the Border.

So if Mr Russell's plan does not bridge the funding gap, provokes resentment in England and further narrows the social mix in some of Scotland's universities, it cannot be considered a success. We must remember the problem arises out of the SNP's refusal to accept that students themselves should pay something towards their degree, whether it is called a fee or a graduate contribution. It is early days, but the signs are already there that this proposal, born of this stubborn refusal to recognise reality, may make the position for Scottish universities worse, not better.