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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.