A FRESH attempt to justify the government's anomalous tuition fees policy for Scottish universities has created more confusion, according to opposition spokesmen.
Both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats say that the policy, to charge English, Welsh and Northern Irish students for their fourth year at Scottish universities while exempting Scots and other Europeans, is now so muddled it should be scrapped.
Calls followed renewed efforts by education minister Baroness Blackstone to defend the Scottish fees policy in the face of widespread opposition.
The minister rejected calls, made by opposition politicians, to rid it of inconsistency by similarly exempting English, Welsh and Northern Irish students studying in Scotland. She said that this would only create a further anomaly.
Baroness Blackstone said: "Students on four-year courses elsewhere would be paying for that (fourth year) but English students going to Scotland would not have to pay (for a fourth year)."
Opponents said that such an anomaly can only arise if it is assumed that four-year courses north of the border are of the same educational value as those in England.
Hence students studying for four years at an English institution would feel cheated as they could have gained an equivalent degree north of the border for less money.
They claim that Baroness Blackstone's scenario is therefore at odds with the government's longstanding justification of the policy. This rests on the insistence that a four-year Scottish masters degree is equivalent to a three-year English bachelors in terms of its educational and market worth and justifies exempting Scottish students from fourth-year tuition fees.
Shadow higher education spokesman David Willetts said: "If this supposed new anomaly is the best defence Baroness Blackstone can come out with for this absurd new policy then she does have a problem. This is going to be something we will be pressing the government on in the committee stage."
Liberal Democrat higher education spokesman Phil Willis said: "This demonstrates the utter confusion and the farcical nature of the government's policy towards four-year degree courses in Scotland. This policy is dead in the water."
As things stand, the anomaly would be removed by the Teaching and Higher Education Bill, but the government is determined to save its policy by amending the bill at during the committee stage in the Commons.
The amendment seeks to overturn an earlier Lords' amendment calling for equal treatment on fees at Scottish institutions. Government sources say there is no intention to withdraw it. The standing committee reconvenes on Tuesday April 21.