Leader: If EU students get free tuition in Scotland, English ones should

It is absurd that EU students receive a free university education in Scotland, while UK students pay

The 189,000 people who failed to win a place at university this year have even more reason than usual to bemoan their fate. Should they reapply, as many will do, they face the prospect of paying up to three times more for the course of their choice from September 2012. When the tuition fees bill was passed by a majority of just 21 votes in December, ministers assured the public that universities would charge £9,000 in "exceptional circumstances" only. Of England's 123 universities, however, 47 plan to levy the maximum fee for all courses. The average fee for institutions will be £8,393, far higher than the government's forecast of £7,500.

In Scotland, a different order prevails. Alex Salmond's Scottish National Party (SNP), which abolished the graduate tax introduced by the previous Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition, has maintained its pledge to provide free higher education for all Scottish students. As a result of the European Union's ban on interstate discrimination, the country's universities are also legally obliged to offer free entry to EU students but, because of a loophole, they are able to charge English, Welsh and Northern Irish students fees of up to £1,890 per year (£2,985 for medicine) - a figure that will rise nearly fivefold to £9,000 from 2012. Under European law, it seems, it is permissible to discriminate within states but not between them.

Now, at last, this bizarre legal interpretation is coming under scrutiny. Phil Shiner, of Public Interest Lawyers, is preparing to challenge the fees rise in Scotland on the basis that it contravenes Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits discrimination based on "national or social origin", as well as the Equality Act, introduced by the last Labour government.

We welcome Mr Shiner's intervention. It is absurd that students from Berlin, Lisbon and Madrid, whose parents contribute nothing to the national Exchequer, can receive a free university education in Scotland, while those from Belfast, London and Swansea are required to pay full fees.

Over the past decade, the number of EU students at Scottish universities has doubled to 15,390 and the annual cost to the Scottish taxpayer now exceeds £75m. The SNP's decision to force non-Scottish British students to pay is a cynical attempt to plug a £202m university funding gap.
The resentment felt by English students, who will soon pay the highest public university fees in the world, will further destabilise the Union. Free higher education is one of a panoply of benefits now enjoyed by Scottish citizens. Since taking office in 2007, the SNP has abolished NHS prescription charges, frozen council tax and introduced free school meals for all pupils aged five to eight. In addition, it has preserved free personal care for the elderly. Such policies may be politically canny but they have created a £10.5bn fiscal black hole.

The growing disparity between the two countries is a reminder of the incomplete nature of Britain's constitutional settlement. The UK is now neither a unitary nor a federal state and its largest constituent group - the English - feels increasingly unrepresented. For too long, politicians have complacently ignored threats to the Union; they must now act to repair our disunited kingdom before it is too late.

This article first appeared in the 29 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Gold

Photo: Getty Images/Richard Stonehouse
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Here's how Jeremy Corbyn can win back the Midlands

The Midlands is where elections are decided - and where Jeremy Corbyn can win. 

The Midlands: this “formless” place is where much of Labour’s fate lies. The party witnessed some of its most disappointing 2015 results here. In those early, depressing hours of 8 May, Nuneaton was the result that rang the death knell of Labour’s election chances. Burton, Cannock Chase, Halesowen & Rowley Regis, Redditch and Telford weren’t far behind. To win here Labour need to build a grassroots movement that engages swing voters.

Luckily, this is also a place with which Labour’s new leader has a natural affinity. The bellwether seat of Nuneaton is where Jeremy Corbyn chose to hold his last regional rally of the leadership contest; just a couple of counties over you’ll find the home Corbyn moved to in Shropshire when he was seven. He cut his political teeth round the corner in marginal constituency The Wrekin; it was in this key seat he did his first stint of campaigning. Flanked by a deputy leader, Tom Watson, who represents Labour stronghold West Bromwich East, Corbyn has his eye on the Midlands.

As MP for Islington North since 1983, Labour’s leader has earned London-centric credentials that have long since overshadowed his upbringing. But Corbynism isn’t a phenomenon confined to the capital. The enthusiasm that spilled out of Corbyn’s summer leadership rallies across the country has continued into the autumn months; Labour’s membership is now over 370,000. It’s fast catching up with 1997 figures, which are the highest in the party’s recent history.

London is the biggest beneficiary of this new movement - with 20 per cent of Labour’s members and 19 per cent of new members who signed up the week before conference coming from the capital. But Corbynism is flourishing elsewhere. 11 per cent of all Labour party members now reside in the southeast. In that same pre-conference week 14 per cent of new members came from this mostly Tory blue area of the country. And since last year, membership in the southwest increased by 124 per cent. Not all, but a good deal of this, is down to Corbyn’s brand of anti-austerity politics.

A dramatic rise in membership, with a decent regional spread, is nothing to be sneered at; people are what you need to create an election-winning grassroots movement. But, as May proved, having more members than your opposition doesn’t guarantee victory. Corbyn has spoken to many who’d lost faith in the political system but more people need to be won over to his cause.  

This is clear in the Midlands, where the party’s challenges are big. Labour’s membership is swelling here too, but to a lesser degree than elsewhere. 32 per cent of party members now and 13 per cent of those who joined up in seven days preceding conference hail from this part of the country.

But not all potential Labour voters will become card-carrying members. Corbyn needs to speak to swing voters. These people have no party colours and over the summer they had mixed views on Corbynism. In Nuneaton, Newsnight found a former Labour turned Ukip voter who thought Corbyn would take Labour “backwards” and put the economy at risk. But a fellow Ukip voter said he saw Corbyn as “fresh blood”.

These are enduring splits countrywide. Voters in key London marginal Croydon Central gave a mixed verdict on Corbyn’s conference speech. They thought he was genuine but were worried about his economic credibility. While they have significant doubts, swing voters are still figuring out who Labour’s new leader is.

This is where the grassroots movement comes into play. Part of the challenge is to get out there and explain to these people exactly who the party is, what it’s going to offer them and how it’s going to empower them to make change. 

Labour have nascent plans to make this reality in the Midlands. Tom Watson advocated bringing back to life this former industrial heartland by making it a base for manufacturing once again – hopefully based on modern skills and technologies.  He’s also said the leadership team will make regular regional visits to key seats. Watson’s words chime with plans floated by shadow minister Jon Trickett: to engage people with citizens’ assemblies where they have a say over Labour politics.

But meetings alone don’t make grassroots movements. Alongside the economy, regional identity is a decisive issue in this – and other – area(s) of the country. With the influx in money brought in by new members, Labour should harness peoples’ desire for belonging, get into communities and fill the gaps the Government are leaving empty. While they’re doing this, they could spread the word of a proper plan for devolution, harking back to the days of municipal socialism, so people know they’ll have power over their own communities under Labour.

This has to start now, and there’s no reason why the Midlands can’t act as a model. Labour can engage with swing voters by getting down to a community level and start showing – and not just saying –  how the party can make a difference. 

Maya Goodfellow is a freelance journalist.