By Mathew R Johnstone
Alex Salmond will violate international law if he charges UK students to study in an independent Scotland, pro-UK campaign group ‘Better Together’ have claimed.
Several European law experts have claimed that the plans are discriminatory against students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Plans laid out by the SNP in their White Paper show they intend to continue the existing rules which allow Scottish universities to charge UK students, but not those from the wider European Union. This would mean that English, Welsh and Northern Irish students could be charged tuition in an independent Scotland, while those from other EU member states could not.
The claims were made in a report by Academics Together – part of the pro-Union campaign – who claim an independent Scotland would be “legally obliged” to give students from the United Kingdom access to free higher education in Scotland.
The panel of academics which included four former Vice-Principals of Scottish universities concluded that the Scottish Government had “offered no legal basis for their argument.”
According to the White Paper, published in November last year, charging students from the rest of the UK would be necessary to “ensure Scottish domiciled students continue to have access to free higher education.”
The Scottish Government says this is a “core part of Scotland’s educational tradition.”
But distinguished European law experts have supported the arguments made by the Better Together campaign, casting serious doubt over the SNP’s proposed policy.
Paul Beaumont, Professor of European Union and Private International Law at the University of Aberdeen said: “It is hard to see the Court of Justice of the EU accepting the Scottish Government’s arguments as to how this overt discrimination against students from the rest of the UK can be justified.”
The proposal is an extension of the current system, which does not violate the law because the EU does not recognise discrimination within a country.
Niamh Nic Shuibhne, Professor of European Law at the University of Edinburgh said: “It is not generally permissible under EU law to discriminate against students from another Member State on the basis of their nationality alone.”
In her post on the Scottish Constitutional Futures Forum, Shuibhne also argues that the Scottish Government cannot justify this “direct” discrimination on the grounds that it is in the public interest, saying they would “face a steep uphill battle to convince the EU institutions” that Scotland should be permitted to violate these laws.
Pressure has mounted on the Scottish government to explain the legitimacy of their claims since the former Director of Universities Scotland wrote an open letter to Alex Salmond.
David Caldwell calls on the First Minister to publish any legal advice he has sought on this issue. Caudwell argues that this is essential “to provide much needed clarity on what is an important matter in the debate about the future of Scotland’s world-class universities.”
The Scottish Government’s policy is not to reveal the results of legal consultations except in “exceptional circumstances”.
Slovakian politician Ján Figeľ, Commissioner for Education, Training and Culture between 2004 and 2009, has also backed up the claims of Better Together, saying Scotland “must apply the same treatment for English and Welsh citizens” as it does for those from Scotland.
President of ‘Better Together Strathclyde’ Scott Edgar told the Strathclyde Telegraph that “the benefits of being a part of the UK are clear to see for Scottish students. We get the best of both worlds.”
President of ‘Yes Strathclyde’ Rory Steel said that “it is through democracy that the Scottish people should and will make such a decision with regards to tuition fees.”