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.

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.