Scotland favours EU students over neighbouring UK students

Edinburgh city. Photo Elin Larsson

Edinburgh city. Photo: Elin Larsson

EU students can benefit from Scottish education without paying a single penny in tuition fees. But for Scotland’s direct neighbours and fellow countrymen, the reality is another. Students from elsewhere within the UK have to pay fees up to £9000 (around €10,500) annually if they decide to study in Scotland.

By Elin Larsson and Natalija Sako

Scotland, UK:
– I think it is fantastic that EU students can study here for free but I think everyone in the education system should be treated the same way, and this is something that is lacking in the Scottish university system at the moment, says British student Fergus Boden.

Fergus Boden. Photo Elin Larsson

Fergus Boden. Photo: Elin Larsson

After spending four years at the closest university to home Fergus Boden will be about £7000 (€8,200) in debt. Compared to tuition fees all around the UK the amount is not overwhelming, but compared to the free education that his classmates from countries like Greece and France will receive, Fergus Boden cannot help but to feel discriminated.

– I did not realize that the EU students could study here for free until my second year when I chatted to a girl from Greece and she told me that she did not pay anything. I am from the lake district in the north of England, so Edinburgh is the closest city from home in the whole UK, says Fergus Boden.

Last year about 12,000 EU students entered the Scottish universities. It is not only a growing number, an increase of 7.1% in total applicants to Scotland since last year according to statistics from UCAS, it is also a big expenditure for the Scottish taxpayers. In 2011 approximately £75 million (€87 million) were spent on foreign students according to Scottish education secretary Michael Russel.

EU rules on education do not apply within a country
According to the EU anti-discrimination law a country can not treat EU members differently from their own citizens. Not charging Scottish student school fees then means that no other EU citizens have to pay fees either. But for the students in the rest of the UK the government has come up with a loophole.

Statue of philosopher David Humes in Edinburgh. Photo: Elin Larsson

Statue of philosopher David Humes in Edinburgh. Photo: Elin Larsson

– EU law means that while domestic policy can mean variations within Member States, other Member States must be treated the same as the home territory. Charging UK students fees, i.e. students from elsewhere within the UK, is therefore permitted in the context of EU law and our Treaty obligations, says the Scottish education secretary Michael Russell.

While the system distinguishes Scottish students from British students studying in Scotland is still worthwhile for many Brits. The tuition fees in Scotland are still substantially lower at most universities than in the UK thus making it a good option to chose an education in the northern kingdom despite the discriminating system.

Alex Oram from England, studies medicine at the university of Aberdeen. For him a Scottish education was a way to afford an university degree.

– I do not know if I still could have studied with the fees in England, but it would have depended on the time period and things like that. To put it sort of perspective I have a younger brother who is 17 and he is looking to go to university but he might not go because of the amount of money it would cost now. Before the system changed he wouldn’t have considered Scotland but now I think he is thinking about it.

Recently Westminster decided to raise the school fees in England to a limit of £9000 (€10,500) per year and then Scotland decided to follow. According to Michael Russell the major reason for the raised fees is that Scottish education shouldn’t be seen as a cheaper option.

– Scotland has a rich history of free education but in order for it to be considered the right place to study, and not just the cheap place, universities are allowed to charge up to £9,000 in fees for students from the rest of the UK. We have no plans to introduce any changes for the forthcoming year, however our rules are kept under constant review in the context of supporting our key policy priority, that being free tuition for Scottish domiciled, he says.

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Scotland’s split standpoint regarding Scots abroad
The independence movement in Scotland is very strong and right now they are holding a big campaign called ‘Homecoming’ where they try to get Scottish people living abroad to move back. Fergus Boden’s parents are both Scottish and he has grown up in what he refers to as a very Scottish household. One of the strategies from the political government promoting independence is to spread what they call “Scottishness”. Fergus Boden cannot understand how the government on one hand preaches Scottish nationalism and ask students with Scottish parents to pay tuition fees on the other.

– I feel like it is a bit divisive. The Scottish government, that has a massive independence campaign and everything, makes a big deal of Scottish people living outside the UK, but then on the other hand someone like me who was brought up in a Scottish family outside Scotland is not Scottish according to them, he says.

On the other side if the North Sea however, Albert Ohlin from Sweden just got an acceptance letter from the university of Glasgow, and he will not have to pay a penny.

Albert Ohlin. Photo private

Albert Ohlin. Photo private

– The main reason why I chose to apply to go to Scotland and not England was because it was free. I wanted to study abroad and to improve my English, and when I heard that Scotland was free that became an obvious choice. Especially since Scottish universities are also really good, says Albert Ohlin.

He is happy to be getting his education for free, but agrees that it is unfair that UK students have to pay.

– I guess it has something to do with an old conflict between England and Scotland but that should not have to affect the students there. It’s just silly that they have to pay. In my opinion education should be free everywhere you go. You shouldn’t separate people like that, says Albert Ohlin.

Fergus Boden is positive about the constant stream of EU students coming to study in Scotland, and he feels that they add a lot to the education and atmosphere at the university.

England should take responsibility for their own students
Michael Russell, Scottish education secretary, agrees that the system is unfair, but he argues that it is the English government’s responsibility and not the Scottish government’s.

– Ultimately, the confusion which has been caused over this issue is the fault of the Westminster Government. Its catastrophic policy of tripling tuition fees for students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is proving to be disastrous for student applications. Westminster should reverse its tuition fee policy and follow the Scottish Government’s lead, he says.

According to Michael Russel more students attend universities in Scotland than in England as a result of no tuition fees. Since the fees were raised applications in England have gone down. In contrast they are up in Scotland. Alex Oram has witnessed this emerging trend.

– I would definitely say that a lot more people go to university in Scotland, especially from the equivalent from my background because I am from a working class background. The equivalent in Scotland would still go to University while it is a pretty big deal for me to go to university, says student Alex Oram.

In September 2014 the Scottish government will hold a referendum on Scottish independence, and if Scotland becomes independent it will add another dimension to the debate. The UK will then be another EU country and would have to be treated that way.

– If Scotland gets independence it will be interesting to see how they will solve it because they then can’t treat students from Scotland differently from students from for example France. It will be interesting to see whether they will stop charging UK students or start charging all the EU students, says Fergus Boden.

According to Stuart Lewis, head of communication at the Scottish Government, and Scottish independence would actually benefit students from the UK.

– If Scotland becomes independent students from the UK would be treated the same way as students from the EU, he says.

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