Scotland's fees anomaly comes under challenge

Does charging English students tuition fees violate human rights law?

In just over a year's time, English students will be charged the highest public university fees in the world. Despite ministers promising that only an "exceptional" number of institutions would charge £9,000, 47 of England's 123 universities plan to levy the maximum fee for all courses.

By contrast, courtesy of Alex Salmond's SNP administration, Scottish students will continue to enjoy free higher education. But while the country's universities are legally obliged to also offer free entrance to EU students, a legal loophole means that they are able to charge students from England fees of £1,820 ( £2,895 for medicine) per year - a sum that will increase to £9,000 from 2012. In other words, under European law, it is permissible to discriminate within states but not between them.

Now, this anamoly is under challenge from human rights lawyers. Phil Shiner, of Public Interest Lawyers, argues that the system contravenes article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights and could also be in breach of the Equality Act. He says that Scottish ministers have "misinterpreted the law" and that "the argument about domicile and nationality doesn't hold water".

It's no surprise that this issue has arisen now. When I interviewed Steve Smith, the recently-departed head of Universities UK, last month, he told me that the status quo was untenable.

"That announcement shocked me," he said. "They [the SNP] had made such principled statements in the past about how iniquitous fees were and then they announced that they were going to allow institutions to charge £9,000." He added: "I suspect the government will do something ... It does seem very odd to me that someone can come from France and get the same terms as someone in Scotland but if they come from England they pay £9,000. That seems to me an anomaly that can't stand in the long-run."

The Scottish fees policy is often wrongly perceived as anti-English (the Daily Mail refers to it as "the fees apartheid") but it's simply aimed at maximising revenue for universities. Students from Wales and Northern Ireland also pay fees and the SNP is attempting to ensure that EU students do likewise. The number of EU students at Scottish universities (widely viewed as "a cheap option") has doubled to 15,930 over the last decade, at an annual cost to the Scottish taxpayer of £75m.

For the left, Scotland should serve as a reminder that tuition fees are a political choice, not an economic necessity. The British government can afford to fund free higher education through general taxation, it merely chooses not to. In public expenditure terms, the UK currently spends 0.7 per cent of its GDP on higher education, a lower level than France (1.2 per cent), Germany (0.9 per cent), Canada (1.5 per cent), Poland (0.9 per cent) and Sweden (1.4 per cent). Even the United States, where students make a considerable private contribution, spends 1 per cent of its GDP on higher education - 0.3 per cent more than the UK does.

Nick Clegg was never more wrong than when he said the "state of the finances" meant the coalition had no choice but to increase fees. In reality, for the reminder of this parliament at least, the reforms will cost the government more, not less. The new fees won't come into effect until 2012, which means repayments won't begin until 2015 for a three-year course. In the intervening period, the government will be forced to pay out huge amounts in maintenance and tuition-fee loans.

If English students win free entry to Scottish universities, while their friends pay £9,000 per year, it will only increase the pressure for an end to fees across the UK.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

If the cuts are necessary, where's Philip Hammond's deficit target gone?

The Chancellor ripped up his predecessor's plans and has no plan to replace them. What's going on?

Remember austerity?

I’m not talking about the cuts to public services, which are very much still ongoing. I’m talking about the economic argument advanced by the Conservatives from the financial crisis in 2007-8 up until the European referendum: that unlesss the British government got hold of its public finances and paid down its debt, the United Kingdom would be thrown into crisis as its creditors would get nervous.

That was the rationale for a programme of cuts well in excess of anything their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, campaigned on in the run-up to the 201 election. It was the justification for cuts to everything from English language lessons to library hours. It was the stick used to beat Labour in the 2015 election. Now it justifies cuts to payments to families that lose a parent, to mental health services and much else besides.

Which is odd, because there’s something missing from this election campaign: any timetable from the Tories about when, exactly, they intend to pay all that money back. Neither the government’s day-to-day expenditure nor its existing debt can meaningfully be said to be any closer to being brought into balance than they were in 2010.

To make matters worse, Philip Hammond has scrapped George Osborne’s timetable and plan to secure both a current account surplus and to start paying off Britain’s debts. He has said he will bring forward his own targets, but thus far, none have been forthcoming.

Which is odd, because if the nervousness of Britain’s creditors is really something to worry about, their causes for worry have surely increased since 2015, not decreased. Since then, the country has gone from a byword for political stability to shocking the world with its vote to leave the European Union. The value of its currency has plummetted. Its main opposition party is led by a man who, according to the government at least, is a dangerous leftist, and, more to the point, a dangerous leftist that the government insists is on the brink of taking power thanks to the SNP. Surely the need for a clear timetable from the only party offering “strong and stable” government is greater than ever?

And yet: the government has no serious plan to close the deficit and seems more likely to add further spending commitments, in the shape of new grammar schools, and the possible continuation of the triple lock on pensions.  There seems to be no great clamour for Philip Hammond to lay out his plans to get the deficit under control.

What gives?

Could it all, possibly, have been a con to advance the cause of shrinking the state?

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

0800 7318496