Plans announced by Scottish ministers to raise general fee levels for students in Scotland and charge an extra levy for medical courses have prompted accusations that they are taking the first steps towards top-up fees, writes Olga Wojtas.
The National Union of Students Scotland is to challenge the planned increases when they are presented before the Scottish Parliament this autumn. The Scottish Executive plans to raise general tuition fees from £1,200 a year to £1,700 from 2006, when variable tuition fees are introduced in England. But it also intends to set a higher rate of £2,700 for medicine to avoid Scottish applicants being squeezed out by "fee refugees" from the rest of the UK.
Scottish students have their fees paid by the Student Awards Agency for Scotland, as do other European Union students, but students from the rest of the UK are liable for the increased rates.
Nichol Stephen, Scotland's Lifelong Learning Minister, said he aimed to ensure that in the wake of top-up fees south of the border, students outside Scotland considered it "as the right option, not the cheap option".
Demand for medical school places is acute, with ten applications per place; the UK average is three to one. Scots are twice as likely as other UK graduates from Scottish medical schools to be working in the National Health Service in Scotland ten years after leaving university.
But Melanie Ward, president of NUS Scotland, said: "Charging different amounts for different courses leads students to choose their course based on price rather than talent or ability. NUS Scotland recognises the need to improve recruitment to the NHS in Scotland, but it has consistently argued that introducing a market into higher education is not the way to do it."
Fiona Hyslop, Shadow Education and Lifelong Learning Minister, a member of the Scottish National Party, said the higher costs associated with longer courses had not deterred English medical students in the past. The critical time to retain medical graduates in Scotland was later in their careers, she said.