Brexit and tuition fees: Scotland’s dilemma

MSP Block Scottish Parliament

With news that EU students are set to get free tuition post-Brexit, significant questions are raised over the future of the Scottish education system.

The BBC have reported that the Scottish government will give EU students - beginning university in Scotland in the academic year 2019/2020 - free tuition.

Inside the EU, Scottish residents going to university in Scotland get tuition fees paid for them. Students coming from outside the UK (but in the EU) to Scotland for higher education also get tuition fees paid for.

However, students from south of the border do have to pay fees, as well as those from outside the EU.

The reason for this bizarre set-up is that under European rules, EU countries are not allowed to discriminate against students from other EU states on fees, however, this does not apply within countries. So while Scottish students get free tuition, which comes with providing non-UK EU students with that same privilege, universities are allowed to charge fees to students in other parts of the United Kingdom.

Brexit therefore poses a dilemma for the Scottish government. Although the full picture of Brexit is unknown, if the UK goes for a Brexit outside the EU, the single-market and the customs union, Scottish universities should be able to charge EU students while keeping tuition free for Scots.

The arguments for free tuition are incredibly compelling. Education is a right not a privilege and should not be a stepping stone for only those who can afford it.

However, it is worth pointing out that free tuition has benefited the well-off most in Scotland, as reported by the Guardian. Furthermore, Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable has highlighted that free tuition has let to cuts in college places, as well as the “underfunding” of universities, according to the Telegraph.

In principle, free tuition makes sense, and it has obvious benefits in practice, but it would be foolish to ignore the downsides.

But back to Brexit, Scotland and tuition fees. The announcement from the Scottish government that EU students will continue to get free tuition (for those starting in 2019/2020 at least) is a bold one and provides much needed certainty for EU students currently considering applying to higher education intuitions next year. With all the Brexit uncertainty, this is a welcome move.

But what about after that? In Brexit Britain, the Scottish government will probably be able to charge EU students fees while paying the fees for Scots. The SNP have made a big deal out of being pro-EU and pro-European so reversing current policy could be politically damaging, but not doing so will lead to further cries of unfairness against students in the rest of the UK.

While the public have not forgotten about the coalition and the tuition fees debacle – just look at recent poll numbers – the party has done a stellar job in transforming into the anti-Brexit party, all with the gamble that with the Conservatives going for a hard Brexit and Labour without a solid position, it will pay off in the long-run.

The problem with this strategy is that in the public’s eyes, the party lacks a clear agenda other than opposing Brexit. The lack of a leadership contest following Tim Farron’s departure led to only limited exposure for Vince Cable. A leadership battle would have allowed for a contest of ideas, and an extensive period of exposure for the party, resulting in a better policy platform.

The party is all for having a second referendum with the option of keeping the UK inside the EU. But what else does it stand for? With Corbyn pulling Labour to the left and the Conservatives on a seemingly persistent right-ward trajectory, there is space in the centre to champion an open, positive, liberal message. But to do that, the party needs to shout its other policy ideas from the rooftops alongside Brexit.

The party needs to be more vocal about its plans to reinvigorate British democracy. There is significant demand for reform of the country’s outdated FPTP voting system and the archaic House of Lords, which it needs to capitalise on and call on Labour to back. Together, the progressive parties have a unique chance to transform Britain's democracy for the better at the next election.

The party needs to highlight environmental champion credentials, working with the Greens to build a better future for the country and the planet. In early January, the Independent has pointed this out while a YouGov poll in the Times suggests that a striking 67% think the Scottish government should charge EU students tuition fees. Just 17% think the current set-up to continue.

The current set-up is unfair towards against other UK students, and plays into the narrative that the SNP are anti-English, but it is resultant of EU rules. But without the EU, the Scottish government could be forced to think again.

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