The mess of student funding within the UK had another murky splurge added to it over the weekend with the news that human rights lawyer Phil Shiner is to challenge the Scottish Government’s plans to charge English students tuition fees. According to Phil, these plans breach the European Convention on Human Rights as they charge students from other parts of the UK to study north of the border while students from other parts of the EU won’t pay.
I really, really hope that this legal challenge fails.
Education is a devolved matter. That means that all Westminster control is rescinded to Holyrood and it also means that a different path is permitted to be taken. Encouraged even.
English students and their parents, as part of the wider English population, voted for a Tory majority that stood on a platform of students paying fees. Just this year, Scottish students and their parents, as part of the wider Scottish population, voted for an SNP majority that has remained steadfastly opposed to students paying a single penny for their education. Both sides have made their beds and should now lie in them.
A recent poll showed that 80% of British people believe that it is unfair that while universities in Scotland do not charge tuition fees to Scottish pupils or other EU nationals, students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland studying at Scottish universities do have to pay tuition fees. That propertion drops to 53% in Scotland only, still a majority.
Had I been asked the same question as this poll, I would also have said that it was unfair. Nonetheless, I still think that the Scottish Government is absolutely right to charge English students a certain level of fees. You have to fight fire with fire.
What this YouGov poll did not include was a question on whether charging English students Â£9,000/year (I think we can safely remove the “up to”) to study further education was also unfair. You can be sure that more than 53% of Scots would say Yes to that.
So, as a result of Tory/Lib Dem policies, the Scottish Government is faced with English student refugees, fleeing over the border to avoid paying a small fortune to George Osborne and intent on taking up as many of Scotland’s free spots as possible. This would inevitably be to the detriment of Scottish students, quite probably specifically to the detriment of Scottish students who would have just scraped into university and would have needed that opportunity the most.
People claim that this is unfair. Why should Swedish and Maltese and Hungarian students be allowed to study in Scotland for free while English students can’t? Three reasons. (1) There are less students coming to Scotland from continental Europe than there are from England, (2) the Tory/LD coalition has created a problem that it is not for Scotland to solve and (3) member states must treat other states fairly but can arrange its own affairs as it pleases.
Let’s just imagine what would happen if Scotland was forced to let English people pay nothing for their Scottish university places and had to treat all applications equally:
There are circa 50million people in England and circa 5million people in Scotland. That presumably means that Scotland can expect up to ten times more applications from England than it does from within Scotland and, if total fairness is applied and standards are assumed to be even across the UK, that means ten times more places for English students in Scotland.
What happens to all of those students that don’t make it into Edinburgh or Glasgow or, goodness, the English Oxford/Cambridge-reject ghetto that is St Andrews? Practically speaking it means Dundonians/Glaswegians/Edinburghians/Aberdonians paying Â£9,000/year fees in Liverpool or Exeter or Kent, all because English people voted for a Tory/Lib Dem Government that rammed through what is effectively an English policy. That surely is unfair and surely cannot be allowed to happen if we’re serious about devolution being a lasting settlement for the United Kingdom.
So, for me, from a fairness perspective, the Scottish Government’s decision is both fair and unfair, but, crucially, more the former than the latter.
And from a political perspective, the SNP might just be onto a winner here. It now has a UK-wide audience to whom it can show that it is the sole governing guardians of free tertiary education, a significant faultline between what the UK is and what an independent Scotland could be.
There does seem to be a swell of annoyance that the SNP has not made clear its position on how it shall fund tuition fees when/if Scotland is independent. For me, this is a separate concern for a separate time and, indeed, conflation of the immediate concern of whether the Scottish Government can proceed, now, as it intends with the imagined scenario of what Scotland would look like ‘if’ Scotland votes Yes in the referendum is an admission that an argument has been lost.
Fair is worth fighting for was the green slogan from the last UK election and it’s a motto that the SNP has thankfully taken right to the heart of its policy on further education. Scotland should be proud of the imagination and tenacity shown by Mike Russell and the Scottish Government at large and should be hopeful that Paul Shiner’s legal challenge fails.