Government pressed on future of free tuition for EU students

Holyrood ministers are being urged to give European citizens who plan to study at a Scottish university next year a guarantee that they can still benefit from free tuition.

Ministers are being pressed on the future of free tuition of EU students in Scotland. Picture: John Devlin
Ministers are being pressed on the future of free tuition of EU students in Scotland. Picture: John Devlin

University leaders, staff and students have united to call on the Scottish Government to provide “certainty” to those planning to start a course in the 2017-18 academic year.

Students who come to Scotland from another European Union country to study do not currently have to pay tuition fees, but it is uncertain how the UK’s vote to leave the bloc will impact on this.

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The Scottish Government has already guaranteed students currently on courses will not be subject to fee charges.

But they have been urged to go further after the UK Government announced EU citizens starting at English universities in 2017-18 will continue to be eligible for student loans and grants - and this will be the case for the duration of their course.

Student leader Vonnie Sandlan said: “EU students bring immense cultural, economic and educational benefits to our universities and colleges, as well as wider Scottish society.

“In return for the contribution they make, and the benefits they bring, those students deserve assurances and certainty that Scotland remains an open and welcoming place for them to study. To not do so risks compromising EU students coming to Scotland, and the hugely negative effects that would have.

The NUS Scotland president continued: “A key part of that openness is ensuring that they know their funding is guaranteed, and they have assurances that their status will not be affected by the ongoing risks posed by Brexit.”

Students have been applying for places at Scottish universities since September 5, and Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, said thousands of applications have already been received.

He said: “Scotland’s universities and EU applicants applying here really need certainty from the Scottish Government on the fee status for courses starting in 2017. Universities are already receiving thousands of applications and they need to start making offers now.”

Mr Sim added: “It is very difficult to ask EU applicants to make decisions about the next four years of their life without knowing if they are entitled to fee-free higher education or not. Universities, already facing funding pressures, are in the extremely difficult situation of deciding whether to make offers to students without knowing if or where the funding for their education will come from.”

Mary Senior, of the University and College Union (UCU) Scotland, said: “The UK Government’s statement on the rights of EU students is good news, if somewhat late in the day given students are already applying for courses. It is time now for the Scottish Government to guarantee funding for the 2017/18 intake of EU students into Scottish universities.”

Scottish Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith also called on ministers to provide “full clarity on what will happen in Scotland’s universities”.

The Tory MSP said: “For three months now, the SNP has done little else other than criticise the Westminster Government, keeping entirely silent about its own policies in the process.

“This is despite decisions on university fees in Scotland being an entirely devolved matter.

“Today’s announcement from the UK Government is extremely welcome, particularly when we know Brexit will have a significant impact on higher education and the associated funding streams.

“That’s why we need an urgent response from the Scottish Government, so EU students know exactly where they stand.”

But Labour education spokesman Iain Gray said: “The Tories are absolutely shameless in calling for clarity on anything, given the absolute mess their reckless Brexit gamble has created.”

He added: “Labour has been pushing for answers on this from the SNP for months - ministers need to break their silence so universities and students can plan properly for the future.

Tavish Scott of the Liberal Democrats also hit out at the Conservatives, and said: “It is Tories who led the campaign for Britain to leave the EU. It was a Tory Home Secretary who told her party conference that she would crack down on student visas in the face of opposition from the sector and said she wanted universities to publish lists of foreign staff.

“Blame for the current uncertainty only lies in one place.”