Leader: In a terrible state o' chassis

A United Kingdom? Not where tuition fees are concerned - and the divergent regimes are causing increasing strains

August 25, 2011

Forget A levels; the true test of the intelligence of our young people will be whether they can negotiate the landscape of tuition fees across the UK. If they can get to grips with that, they'll find string theory a piece of cake.

When England announced that it would allow institutions to raise tuition fees to up to £9,000 a year in 2012, the rest of the UK did not follow suit. But in resolving to keep fees down, the devolved governments opened a can of worms. Young Britons, who traditionally have not had to think in terms of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, used to move freely across UK borders to study. Now, however, their movements will be severely constrained, and that restriction may hit some universities, particularly Scottish ones, hard.

In Scotland, home students will continue to pay nothing while from 2012, students from the rest of the UK - who already pay fees to study in the region - will be charged up to £9,000 a year for the four-year Scottish course. Students from European Union countries other than the UK, however, will still be treated like home students - their bill, zilch - a point being challenged by a human rights lawyer acting for two English students. He says ministers in Scotland have misinterpreted European law and that their policy breaches the European Convention on Human Rights and could fall foul of the UK's Equality Act.

Institutions are having to revise their calculations. Four Scottish universities - Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews - take in the bulk of students from the rest of the UK, but the size of that travelling contingent is already shrinking. Whichever way you look at it, the future is fraught. Spare capacity may well be taken up by home students, which could lead to a less nationally diverse student cohort or, worse, we could see universities chasing the financial premium to be gained by taking an English student over a Scottish one. Michael Russell, the Scottish education secretary, has said he will trust to the integrity of Scottish universities to be domicile blind. Good luck with that, as they say.

Where the fees picture has been revealed, it is complicated and restrictive. But imagine the angst of trying to plan for university with little idea of the fees structure. That is the limbo in which the young of Northern Ireland find themselves. They have not yet been told how much they will have to pay if they wish to study in Great Britain because political stalemate has delayed a decision on fees. They may find that unless they want to pay much higher fees in Great Britain, the menu of institutions from which they can choose shrinks from more than 100 to just two - Queen's University Belfast and the University of Ulster; their only other option would be to head for the neighbouring Republic of Ireland or somewhere farther abroad.

Astoundingly, there has been no research commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills about the potential impact of these changes. Yes, education is a devolved issue and each nation has a duty to look after its own, but such unilateral action seems precipitate, putting undue stress on individuals, institutions and the system as a whole. Is it too much to ask for a little joined-up thinking? Brand UK is the second most successful higher education system in the world. We must not allow the perverse consequences of devolution, national navel-gazing and unseemly political haste to undermine it.

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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