The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) is a multilateral treaty adopted by the UN and has been in force from 3 January 1976. Amongst its stated commitments are a right to free education which, more specifically, relates to the following (from Wikipedia):

“Article 13 of the Covenant recognises the right of everyone to free education (free for the primary level and “the progressive introduction of free education” for the secondary and higher levels). This is to be directed towards “the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity”,[14] and enable all persons to participate effectively in society. Education is seen both as a human right and as “an indispensable means of realizing other human rights”, and so this is one of the longest and most important articles of the Covenant.”

The United Kingdom was signed up to this in the Harold MacMillan era, or as many in Labour would probably say ‘the good old days’.

Despite having a good 35 years to make good on this commitment, including 13 years of unbroken Labour rule, we have ‘ganged agley’ on many an occasion, not least the recent move by the coalition Government to open the door to fees of up to £9,000 a year for students. Even the righter wing parties in social democratic Sweden know to not charge tuition fees, front end or back. It’s a shame that the Lib Dems see things differently.

Well, despite the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and via The Telegraph, today marks the day that Labour swung back to being a pro-fees party in Scotland. The SNP has gleefully called it Johann Lamont’s Nick Clegg moment. And well they should.

At the last Scottish Parliament elections, only a year ago, Scottish Labour’s position of “No price tag for Scottish students” was as follows (taken from the party’s very own website):

“a Labour government will not introduce any up-front fees or graduate contribution for access to higher education in the lifetime of the next Parliament. There will be no price tag on education. Bringing in a graduate contribution would not resolve the present financial difficulties of the universities which are the responsibility of the current SNP government. Experts figures show that the gap is significantly less than some had predicted and can and will be met.”

The initial conclusion to draw from this decision is that it is opposition for opposition’s sake and tuition fees can be added to minimum pricing, council tax and votes at 16 where Labour contort their positions, despite their better senses, in order to ensure that their party is not on the same page as Salmond’s mob, come what may.

The argument that Scottish universities can’t offer more places to bright Scottish kids while fees are covered by the Scottish Government seems to be irrelevant here. If a fixed number of Scottish students have their fees paid for and a fixed number of English students have to pay their fees, then the problem of funding for one tranche of students in Scotland cannot and will not impact on the other. There is no incentive, despite what Johann Lamont claims, to have more English students than Scottish because the same money is paid into the university either way, just from a different source.

The main risk that I can see is that this equilibrium is broken through too many English students claiming to be Scottish via a distant Scottish, Welsh or Irish grandparent, as has already been reported. This really would be a nonsense and certainly not in the spirit of the democratic will of the constituent parts of the UK.

England had an election and clearly voted for parties that, with their combined majority, are in favour of tuition fees. Scotland had an election and voted overwhelmingly for parties that want to keep tuition free, or at least said they wanted to at the time before this flip-flopping began. We might as well scrap the Scottish Parliament if we are not going to tolerate and respect devolved differences within the UK. Financing university education shouldn’t be sullied by the same bastardisation of common sense rules as happens when picking a Scotland XV at rugby. Not that it’s easy to prove you are Scottish, English, Welsh or Northern Irish when we only have British passports and British driver’s licenses to identify us. There’s a simple solution to that of course…

So, much like the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Labour signed the United Kingdom up to move the country towards free university education but is pulling us in a different direction with its reactionary policies.

What will it take for Labour to move away from opposition for opposition’s sake and realise that we already have a graduate tax in operation to fund free tuition and ensure our universities remain world class. It’s called income tax.