An Irish higher education export to Scotland?
Higher education has turned out to be one of the key issues in the Scottish election campaign that is now fully under way. Three of the four main parties have entered into pledges and commitments not to introduce tuition fees, but in consequence they are now rather struggling with the question of how the universities can be adequately funded so that they are able to compete with those in England and elsewhere. The parties accept that there is a ‘funding gap’ that needs to be bridged, but how this is to be done (or indeed how big that gap actually is) has not yet become clear.
One idea that appears to have caught the attention of the outgoing Scottish National Party (SNP) government is something taken from Ireland: the student registration charge. As readers of this blog will know, this charge has been around in Irish higher education since tuition fees were abolished in the 1990s, and its purpose originally was to provide a small student contribution to cover various non-tuition services. Over the years the charge has increased steadily, and unless the new Irish government changes things it will be €2,000 from this autumn.
The SNP, however, seems to have misunderstood the charge. Apparently they believe that it is being, or could be, charged to non-Irish EU students only. In other words, just as Scotland is proposing to make English, Welsh and Northern Ireland students pay a tuition fee not payable by Scottish students, so they would levy a registration charge payable by non-UK students from the European Union, apparently believing that such a charge, if it covers specific costs only, would not be contrary to EU law.
But of course the Irish student registration charge (now a ‘student contribution charge’) applies to all students, very much including Irish ones; and any attempt in Scotland to introduce such a charge for non-UK students only would undoubtedly violate European Union law. Charging English students is a different matter, as this does not involve discrimination against citizens of other member states and therefore falls outside the scope of EU law.
Some Scottish university principals (most recently the Principal of Dundee University) have argued that the parties are making promises on tuition fees that they cannot keep. Whether this is true or not, there are certainly signs that they are somewhat confused about university funding issues. So far Scottish universities may have been hit by funding cuts, but their position is not yet as unsustainable as that of many of their English counterparts. The current confusion and the rush to promise things without maybe fully appreciating the consequences is a worrying feature of the situation. Election campaigns often don’t help to bring some rational thought into the issues, but that is what is now urgently needed.