Today I read a short report in the Scotsman on the future of higher education tuition fees should an independent Scotland join the EU. This is a pretty trivial topic, unless you are directly affected yourself; in importance, it barely compares with the massive socio-economic inequalities of access to university education in Scotland. So it seemed a good topic for a summer blog.
The issue itself is fairly simple. Currently, the Scottish Government will not allow universities to charge fees for home full-time undergraduates. As the UK is a member of the EU, Scotland’s public universities must offer undergraduate degrees on the same bases to all citizens of the EU, and therefore cannot charge them fees. Unless, that is, they come from elsewhere in the UK.
This seems an anomalous position, and a hardy Edinburgh student promptly challenged it in the courts. She lost her case. The reason that the Scottish Government can treat students from the rest of the UK differently is that, under current EU law, Scotland’s is a regional government, and not a national one. And this position has now been upheld by the courts.
The question addressed in the Scotsman was what happens if an independent Scotland should join the EU. The obvious answer is that English, Welsh and Northern Irish applicants will be treated as foreigners from another EU state, and will be treated on the same terms as Scottish – or Bavarian or Basque – candidates.
If this comes about, then it will cause considerable turbulence within the Scottish higher education system. At present, the number of fundable student places is limited; they are free to Scots and other EU students, but the universities can only admit a specified number. There are also rules about how many students must be studying certain subjects, which are judged of national importance. But universities can top up these numbers with fee-paying students from the rest of the UK.
In an independent Scotland within the EU, then English, Welsh and Northern Irish students would be competing for the fixed number of student places. And if there are no tuition fees, then we can expect very large numbers of people from the rest of the UK to fancy taking a degree in Scotland.
But according to the Scottish Government, independence will change nothing. The Scotsman quoted the First Minister as saying that ““We believe we can maintain the current arrangement and we’ve got legal advice to that effect”. The Scottish Conservative spokesperson promptly demanded that Mr Salmond publish this advice.
And here is where I give licence to any Über-Nationalist reader to dismiss anything else I say, ever. Because I think the Conservatives are right. Not on everything, but right on this.
If there is any such legal advice, then I would be very surprised. It’s some years since my knowledge of this was fresh (I published a study of the EU and its educational policies in the late 1990s), but the principle of free movement of labour – and the consequent insistence of equal access to training – is one of the founding objectives of the EU.
Why on earth would the EU make an exception for a candidate country, when all other candidate countries have had to take the entire body of EU law as a given? So this advice would transform our existing understanding of EU law on education, and on higher education in particular (which, for technical reasons, has been treated in EU law as a form of vocational training). I suspect that the Government will have to publish the advice eventually, and it may as well come clean now, rather than wait until it is forced to do so reluctantly.