While free health prescriptions and generous at-home care provisions for the elderly in Scotland previously highlighted the differences between Scotland and England, prompting accusations that London subsidizes Edinburgh’s vote-catching policies, it is university tuition discrepancies that have brought the issue to the fore.
Beginning next year, UK universities, including those in Scotland, will be able to charge as much as £9,000 (roughly $14,000) for tuition. However, under its devolution powers, Scotland has opted to continue offering a free education to Scotland residents who have lived there at least three years and students from the European Union, while charging English, Welsh, and Northern Irish students the full cost.
The Scottish government said the fees decision is largely a defensive strategy to prevent large numbers of English students from crossing the border and enjoying cheaper courses subsidized by the Scottish government, now that education elsewhere in the UK is about to become so costly. Nearly 23,000 English students study in Scottish universities every year.
While education departments in Wales and Northern Ireland have offered financial assistance for their students in light of the tuition increases, English scholars will bear the brunt of fee increases on their own.
“Scotland has and always will welcome students from all over the world to our universities,” Education Secretary Michael Russell said in a statement. “However, the decisions being taken in England could threaten the quality and competitiveness of our universities. We cannot allow Scotland to no longer be the best option and instead be known as the cheap option. We also must protect places for Scottish students."
Scotland receives a block of money every year from Westminster, the seat of the UK government, which it can spend as it wishes. Scotland has opted to use a chunk of this money to subsidize university education.
Students take action
Some English university students say Scotland's decision is unfair and have asked lawyers whether there are grounds for legal action.
Jennifer Watts, a student at Manchester University, launched a campaign called Make Uni Fees Equal. Although she is studying in England, she has called on English students in Scotland to contact law firm Public Interest Lawyers and join a class action law suit against Scottish government ministers and possibly the universities themselves.
“English students are forced into massive levels of debt before they have finished university, before they even have a job, for the privilege of having a university education,” she says. “Scottish students get their education for free. Students from the rest of the EU can go to university in Scotland for free, but students from the rest of the UK have to pay.
“This is clear discrimination against English, Welsh, and Northern Irish students and should not be allowed to continue,” she adds.
Public Interest Lawyers attorney Jim Duffy said their argument is based on the Equality Act and Scotland Act, which he said prevents discrimination and incompatibilities within the UK, such as holding Scotland-based students and English students to different tuition standards.
Duffy also believes that English students can use EU legislation that prevents discrimination against EU citizens in their argument.
"This is not about the relationship between states, it’s about citizens of those states, and we think the Scottish government’s stance is discriminatory,” he says.
Only two English students studying in Scotland have so far come forward, but Mr. Duffy said he hopes more will join once the issue gains publicity.
“I’m surprised more people haven’t come to us but we’ll see,” he adds. “Scottish universities have been charging other UK students for a while now but I think the tipping point has been the decision to allow universities to charge £9,000 fees from next year. It just doesn’t seem right that one student from across the border has to pay and the other gets it for free.”
Outside the scope of EU law?
Scottish government spokesman Barry McPherson said Scotland is confident the policy is legal because Scotland is technically a region within the EU, not a state, and EU legislation covering nations did not apply.
European laws say the Scottish Government cannot offer EU students a worse deal than it gives its own undergraduates. However, England is not an EU member on its own, but merely a region within the EU member of the UK. As such, EU laws may not apply.
Mr. McPherson cited a statement by Dennis Abbott, the spokesman for EU education commissioner Androulla Vassiliou, expressing support for the Scottish government. “There is no violation of EU law,” Mr. Vassiliou said. “The Scottish practice in relation to students from other parts of the UK is a matter of policy internal to the UK and outside the scope of EU law.”
However, Iain McLean, a professor of politics at England's Nuffield College, Oxford, said students have a strong case against the policy. “The Scotland Act requires the Scottish government to be human rights compliant, and if it went to court I think they’d lose in this case, because they are treating one group of students differently to another."
“Most fair-minded Scots will know that it is unfair for a Lithuanian or Italian not to pay and a student from England, Wales, or Northern Ireland having to pay,” he added.