Education must be based on the ability to learn not the ability to pay, regardless of where students are domiciled, the
National Union of Students (NUS) and University and College Union (UCU) said.
Scottish universities disagree, insisting it would be “reasonable” to charge students from the remainder of the UK (rUK) given the £9,000 a year charged south of the Border.
But both unions and universities say the Scottish Government must provide “robust, legally-defensible certainty” that its plan is viable before the independence referendum.
Holyrood’s education committee will hear from NUS Scotland, UCU and Universities Scotland tomorrow. In an advance submission to the committee, NUS Scotland said: “NUS Scotland opposes the principle and practice of charging any student to study, regardless of background or domicile.
“As such, we have been continually opposed to the decision to allow Scottish universities to charge up to £9,000 fees to students from the rest of the UK in any given academic year.”
Scotland has “potentially the most expensive higher education system of all the UK countries”, with a four-year honours degree costing up to £36,000, it said. The NUS says Westminster’s fee regime carries “much of the blame” for this, but it insisted the Scottish Government had gone further than required with “none of the safeguards seen elsewhere”.
It added: “We believe that this is early evidence that we were right to be concerned with the potential impacts of the current system, but equally a clear sign that, under any future constitutional settlement, it is one which should be revisited as a matter of urgency.”
NUS outlines the arguments about the legality of charging varying fees based on domicile without falling foul of EU anti-discrimination laws, and it warns of the potentially “intractable” problems Scotland would face if the policy is challenged by the European Court of Justice, including a £150 million shortfall and high cross-border demand.
UCU said: “We oppose rUK domiciled students being charged tuition fees in Scotland for exactly the same reasons we do for Scottish students.
“It was unfortunate that the current UK fee system, enabling institutions to charge up to £9,000 a year, was introduced in Scotland with little debate on alternative approaches.
“We note the legal view sought by Universities Scotland suggesting there may be a basis for an objective justification.
“The Scottish Government should more clearly indicate its position. It cannot be left to non-government sectoral bodies alone to seek the answers to such critical questions.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “The Scottish Government will ensure that clear arrangements compliant with EU requirements are in place for the higher education sector in order to ensure a smooth transition to independence.”