• Education Minister Mike Russell MSP cites "unfairness" of foreign student tuition policy Picture: Jane Barlow
Education secretary Mike Russell has written to EU Education Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou to attempt to end what he describes as the "unfairness" of European students paying nothing for tuition, while English students pay thousands of pounds.
But today, two of the country's most senior university figures accuse Russell of dithering over a solution to the funding gap facing higher education and say the way to raise more money is to ask Scottish-based graduates to pay for some of their education. It comes with universities
facing a 67 million cut in their budget next year and amid warnings from the country's 20 universities that they will struggle to survive another year of similar reductions. The growing row over the funding of Scotland's universities has exploded after ministers in London imposed fees of up to 9,000 a year on English graduates. The SNP government
is expected to enter the run-up to next year's Holyrood elections with a pledge to keep university education free for Scottish students, with the taxpayer picking up the bill.
Analysis: Mike Russell, education secretary
Last week, Russell declared that any back-dated fee was "his last resort" for Scotland, a move which prompted growing questions about how the SNP Government intends to find the cash to allow universities north of the border to compete with better-funded institutions. In an article in Scotland on Sunday today, the Education Secretary signals he would like to find more funds from the 13,000 EU students who have a place in a Scottish university, describing it as "simply wrong" that EU students can get away without paying when English students are being charged.
This inequality – characterised as the 'Umbria/Cumbria' divide – exists because an EU law which compels states to charge European students
the same rates as home undergraduates does not apply within states, such as the UK. Scottish ministers said last week they would have to charge English students as much as 6,000 a year in order to prevent a flood of "fee refugees" from south of the border. If the 6,000 fee were
imposed on EU students, it would translate to around 81.5m of extra cash for universities in Scotland.
Russell writes: "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."
However, the SNP is now coming under growing pressure to provide more concrete answers to the university funding crisis. Today, Sir Andrew Cubie – who wrote a report in 1999 calling for Scottishgraduates to pay an endowment - and Lord Sutherland, the former Principal of Edinburgh University, both call for immediate action.
Their comments follow a Green Paper published by Russell last week setting out options for finding more cash - in response to the Browne Review of English universities - which stopped short of proposing any actual reforms.
Instead, the paper suggested a number of possible routes, including efficiency measures, sourcing more cash from business groups and philanthropists, or some kind of fee.
Cubie, now Chair of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, said: "This is too late. We really should have had an opportunity of having something before now. We are in the position where we are now, being reactive to the Browne proposals, rather than having been out in the lead in creating a Scottish solution."
On continuing to fund universities entirely from the public purse, he added: "I struggle to see how that is credible. I am at one with Mike Russell in that the public good (of higher education] is enormous and that therefore the public should contribute. But when we produced our paper in 1999 the principle of a graduate contribution was widely accepted.
"I suggest that what we need in different and very constrained times is the recognition that there needs to be a graduate contribution and for far wider purposes than just supporting disadvantaged students."
Lord Sutherland said: "It's clear to me that there is a political decision going on rather than a real one about the priorities. They are gearing up not to say anything specific before the next election. I don't think it is credible. They do need to raise money other than through the public purse."
Pointing to the fact that the English proposals only require payments after graduation, he said: "It is bogus to say that anyone is proposing up-front fees."
Both men also questioned whether efficiency measures such as merging universities would free up enough funding to sustain the sector.