The Scottish government has extended its pledge of free university tuition for European Union students to the cohort arriving in 2019-20, covering the period immediately after the UK’s exit from the bloc.
The move, announced on 1 February, increases the pressure on the UK government to extend the offer of student loan funding to EU students enrolling in English higher education institutions in 2019-20.
That year is expected to cover the bulk of the post-Brexit transition period during which, under the EU’s offer, all EU nationals arriving in the UK would have full residency rights. Theresa May, the UK prime minister, has vowed to oppose this.
In a statement, Shirley-Anne Somerville, Scotland’s higher education minister, said that extending the free tuition pledge to 2019-20 would “provide confidence for prospective EU students considering coming to study in Scotland, as well as the clarity that our institutions require in order to plan for that academic year”.
“We are the first government in the UK to make that commitment and do so to send a strong message to current and prospective students – you are welcome here,” Ms Somerville said.
What will happen to EU students starting courses after 2019-20 is less clear, in the wake of a poll conducted for The Times which found that a substantial majority of Scots felt that EU students should be charged tuition fees after the UK leaves the EU.
Forty-eight per cent of respondents felt that the estimated annual saving of £93 million should be spent elsewhere in Scottish universities, while 19 per cent felt that it should go on other public services. Only 17 per cent felt that free tuition should continue to be offered to EU students.
Andrea Nolan, vice-chancellor of Edinburgh Napier University and convenor of Universities Scotland, said she was “delighted that the Scottish government has responded to the sector’s call for clarity on this position and they have done so in a timely fashion”.
“[This] announcement gives some much-needed clarity and assurance to universities but most importantly demonstrates to EU students that they continue to be welcome in Scotland,” she said.
The move comes amid growing debate about the implications for higher education of a post-Brexit transition period, which is expected to run from the UK’s departure on 29 March 2019 until 31 December 2020.
The Russell Group, which represents 24 research-intensive universities located around the UK, said it supported the “principle of a post-Brexit transition period to ensure our universities, their staff and students have the clarity and certainty they need to plan for the future”, which would help to “avoid a damaging cliff-edge scenario”.
A spokesman said it wanted “EU students arriving in the UK during a transition period [to] remain eligible for home fee rates and able to access loans and grants for the duration of their course”.
“EU citizens arriving in the transition period to work or study at our universities should [also] be eligible for temporary status and able to accrue five years’ continuous residency for settled status,” he said, adding that the “transition period for EU citizens arriving in the UK should remain in place at least until new migration arrangements with the EU and/or the UK’s future immigration system are implemented.”