MPs challenge Scottish government on fees and research

MPs warn it is “highly doubtful” the Scottish government’s position on tuition fees would be legally sustainable if the country became independent

August 9, 2014

A new report from the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee – all of whose members are MPs from pro-union parties – also concluded that it is unlikely that the current UK research network would continue after independence.

One of the key issues for higher education after independence would be whether the Scottish government can continue its policy of free university education for students domiciled in Scotland while charging up to £9,000 for those from the rest of the UK.

The argument turns on whether the European Union – which generally permits such discrimination within member states but not between them – would allow this.

“The current policy of charging tuition fees for non-domiciled UK students provides a significant source of income to Scottish universities,” concludes the report, titled ‘The Implications of Scottish Independence on Business; Higher Education and Research; and Postal Services’.

“Despite the special circumstances highlighted by the Scottish Government it is highly doubtful that this policy will be compatible with EU Membership. The Scottish Government must therefore set out how it will replace the financial shortfall of not being able to levy tuition fees only on students from the rest of the United Kingdom,” the report says.

Another issue at stake is whether or not an independent Scotland and the remainder of the UK would agree to keep the existing UK-wide research councils.

The Scottish government has argued it would be in both sides’ interest to continue the arrangement.

But the report says it is “unclear whether the common research area is either practical or desirable in a post-independence United Kingdom”.

As Scotland wins a greater proportion of this funding than it would if it were distributed in relation to population or gross domestic product, this could be seen as a diversion of funds from the UK to a separate country, the report adds.

To avoid this would require “detailed negotiations” over the future set-up of the councils, it continues.

“In any case, a complicated formula for the distribution of funds is very likely to undermine the economies of scale currently enjoyed by universities bidding within a single country,” the report concludes.

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