At present, Scotland charges fees only for residents of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, which currently stand at £9,000 per year for three year courses and £6750 for four year courses. However, Scottish students still get free university tuition and as a result of European Law, specifically the Principle of Free Movement within the EU which prohibits discrimination on the basis of country, so do students from other European countries.
If Scotland becomes an independent member state of the European Union, this would mean that students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland who were previously subject to tuition fees, would no longer have to pay them. Some have predicted that in this outcome, many students would move to Scotland to study at one of the higher education institutions. This has led to questions around whether the Scottish government can afford to continue providing free tuition to Scottish domiciled students.
The Yes Campaign have stated outright that “independence will not have any immediate impact on the issue” and comment on their website that, “there is objective justification” for tuition fees under EU law due to the “massive fee differential between the two countries, the shared language, our relative size, the links between the qualifications systems, the quality of our University sector, and the high demand for places here.”
They further state that, “if no fees were charged to students from other parts of the UK, lawyers acting for Universities Scotland have provided advice that Scotland could continue to charge students from other parts of the UK tuition fees, without endangering the free tuition provided to students from Scotland.”
However, a study by the University of Edinburgh highlights the problems that would be encountered by the Scottish government in their attempts to retain free tuition for Scottish domiciled students. Their research shows that higher education leaders believe it to be unlikely that Scottish ministers would be permitted to continue charging fees to students from the remainder of the UK. It found that “respondents believed that this arrangement was unlikely to continue if Scotland became an EU member state following a vote for independence.”
The study by Edinburgh University has been said to confirm both that ‘European law could not be clearer on the issue’ and an “independent Scotland would not be able to discriminate between different national groups,” according to Scottish Conservative education spokeswoman Mary Scanlon.