Native Scottish students are unlikely to be lumbered with tuition fees, but students from the rest of the UK at university in Scotland could see their bills soar reports the Independent.
‘A boy from Berwick will pay £1,820 to attend Edinburgh, while one from Athens or Vilnius or Palermo will pay nothing.’ Photograph: Ashley Coombes/Ashley Coombes/Epicscotland
My daughter studies at a Scottish university and has three good friends there (perhaps more than three, but I want to keep this illustration simple). One is from the US and pays tuition fees of £12,600 a year. Another is from Scotland and pays nothing. The third is from Germany and, more surprisingly, also doesn’t pay. My daughter, as a student from England, pays £1,820 in the form of a loan from the UK government. I don’t mind this. My daughter chose the university, and she’s happy among the town’s grey ruins and the cold blasts from the North Sea, just along the coast from where I grew up (which I find sentimentally comforting). And in any case, an English university would charge £1,400 a year more – though that would be for three years rather than four. As for her American friend, her parents would need to fork out three times as much for a place in the Ivy League. We’ve come to understand that British universities increasingly depend on a global market, and if by recruiting from abroad Scottish universities can provide free education for Scottish students, well, good for Scotland.
But what does “abroad” in this context mean? Germany doesn’t seem to fit the definition, because my daughter’s German friend gets her education just as free as her other friend from Falkirk. In fact, none of the 11,000 undergraduates at Scottish universities who have homes in the European Union – excepting those from England, Wales and Northern Ireland – pays a penny. On the one hand, European law forbids discrimination between member states, so if Scottish students go free, then so must every other EU student. On the other hand, it permits discrimination inside member states. The UK is a state. England and Scotland are merely nations within the state. A boy from Berwick, therefore, will be charged £1,820 to attend Edinburgh, while another boy from Athens or Vilnius or Palermo will be sitting in the same library and listening to the same lectures at no cost. Edinburgh is Berwick’s nearest university – under an hour away by train – but unfortunately a mile or two over the English border. The example is extreme – at Edinburgh, students from the home counties would easily outnumber those from Northumbria – but who wouldn’t see the system that allowed it as crazy and unfair?
Almost certainly, the inequity is about to get worse. Last week in his leader’s speech at the Scottish National Party conference, Alex Salmond quoted a line from Burns to promise that “the rocks will melt with the sun” before he allowed tuition fees to be imposed on Scottish students. The SNP may not form the next government after the elections in May, but Labour and the Lib Dems have made similar if less eternal pledges that cover the lifetime of the next parliament. Scottish universities, meanwhile, face a crisis in funding brought about by the remodelling of higher education in England, where much steeper fees will replace cuts in teaching budgets. The knock-on effect, translated by the UK Treasury’s Barnett formula, is that Scotland’s universities are looking at an annual shortfall of between £202m and £155m, depending on whether you believe the predictions of Universities Scotland, the body that represents the institutions, or the more optimistic belief of the Scottish government.
In headline terms, the Scottish government has presented this as “the £93m funding gap”. How do you get down to £93m from £155m? Students from the rest of the UK comprise 12% of Scotland’s university population. The great majority come from England to study at Edinburgh, St Andrews, Glasgow and Aberdeen; in the first two, their proportion can reach from 30 to 40%. Balancing the need to sustain this inward flow against the large amounts of badly needed cash it could provide, the Scottish government found that if universities charged fees of £6,375 to students from elsewhere in the UK, they would generate additional annual income of £63m. The £6,375 wasn’t a stab in the dark. It was based around an expected average at Russell Group universities in England of £8,500, which, over an undergraduate course lasting three years, produces much the same total as £6,375 does over four. When this or something like it happens, as it probably will, you could argue that Scotland was simply heeding the laws of a market in which a certain kind of English student, one with relatively prosperous parents, wants a degree from an old and reputable university. Alternatively, you might see it as the milking of the English middle class and a covert redistribution of wealth from the south to the north. The certainty is that the future of free education for young Scots depends on it, just as Wales will depend on English students paying the full whack at Welsh universities when Welsh students have their fees capped at the current level of £3,290.
As for the charmed life of the EU student, nothing seems likely to change. Attempting to reduce a little more of the funding gap, Scotland’s education secretary, Michael Russell, recently suggested that £22m could be raised by imposing a “service charge” of around £1,700 on each of them. Ireland does this, but then Ireland also applies the same charge, means-tested, to its own students. To oblige the EU, Scotland would need to do the same, and not even as gifted a politician as Alex Salmond could pretend that tuition fees and service charges were somehow different and get away with it; welcome to the fate of Clegg.
The English student and their parents will just have to grin and bear their noble burden, unless of course they move to Scotland, where eligibility for free university education is governed by domicile; as a nation and not a state, it has no separate citizenship. The rules as laid out by the Student Awards Agency for Scotland are rather fuzzy. Your domicile is “your permanent home or principal establishment … to where, whenever you are absent, you intend to return”. Anyone who’s lived in the catchment area of a desirable state school in London knows how loosely such rules can be interpreted, and how commonly they are exploited or transgressed. How long need you have lived there, for example? In a corner of its website, not easily found, the SAAS suggests three years, but that’s hard to believe, because it would be unfair to a family who suddenly needed to move to Scotland for work and had children of university age. (Source in Edinburgh: “You might be right. They probably keep the rules vague to avoid people trying it on.”)
The savings would be magnificent: up to £27,000 for every child who wanted a university degree, which for Miliband’s famously squeezed middle holds the promise of California in the gold rush. Will there be a small trek north from Guildford, a winding trail of fee refugees determined to settle for a few years north of the border? It doesn’t seem impossible, but it would only make things worse for Scottish universities. When it comes to funding, English students are only valuable if they continue to be domiciled in England.