The UK split over tuition fees is bad news for students

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The different countries of the UK have very different ideas about a lot of things, and university fees are no exception.

With the introduction of £9,000 tuition fees in England, Wales and Scotland both moved quickly to protect their own nationals but in a UK that is divided on how to charge for a degree, who looks after making university accessible to poorer or disadvantaged students from any of the regions?

In England, higher education has become a market and the student is the customer. These customers are charged between £6,000 and £9,000 in fees each year, mostly at the upper end of this range. Fees are deferred and repaid through the tax system once a graduate’s earnings have surpassed a given threshold.

The English policy was announced shortly before the 2011 Scottish election; tuition fees became an election issue, with three of the four main parties proposing to maintain free tuition. Once elected, the SNP government confirmed this approach, and First Minister Alex Salmond has since declared that “the rocks will melt with the sun” before his government would charge fees from Scottish students. Free tuition is justified as a citizenship right and a condition of wider access to university for disadvantaged students.

EU issue

Any Scottish-domiciled student who stays in Scotland to study does not pay fees. But if they travel to England or elsewhere in the UK for their degree, they will have to pay up to £9,000. Scottish institutions have also courted controversy by deciding to charge English, Welsh and Northern Irish students up to £9,000 per year, often over four years rather than the three years of a typical English degree. This decision was supported by the Scottish government and motivated partly by the need to prevent Scottish universities from becoming swamped by English “fee refugees”. But there are suspicions that universities have used it to raise revenue and even that they are favouring English rather than Scottish applicants because of the fee income they bring.

Under EU rules, Scotland must offer higher education to other EU nationals on the same terms as to its own residents, that is with free tuition. These rules do not affect other UK citizens, as long as the UK remains a single member state of the EU, because relations between regions of a member state are governed by the principle of “subsidiarity” and remain the responsibility of that state. However, if Scotland were to choose independence, it would almost certainly have to make tuition free for other UK students – or introduce fees for Scots. The Scottish Government and universities have sought ways out of this impasse but the most likely interpretation of EU rules is that a member state could provide maintenance support, but not free tuition, for its own domiciles without making the same available to other EU citizens.

Welsh twist

Over in Wales, the government followed England in charging up to £9,000 fees but added its own twist. Welsh students – and other EU citizens studying in Wales – get a government grant, potentially more than £5,000 per annum, to make up the difference between the fees that they pay and the fees that they would have paid before the 2012 increase.

Students from England, Wales and Scotland face the £9,000 maximum annual fee if they study at an institution in Northern Ireland, but Northern Irish students still only pay fees of around £3,500 if they study within the region. But like their Scottish counterparts, they are on their own if they want to study elsewhere. Whereas only about one Scottish student in 20 studies outside Scotland, around one third of students from Northern Ireland, which has the UK’s highest participation rate, study elsewhere in the UK. Studies have shown that, while some of these students make a positive choice to study elsewhere, many have no option but to leave because they lack the qualifications to win a place on a course in Northern Ireland, where demand has chronically outstripped supply. Having to pay higher fees only makes their position worse.

As the UK nations plough their own paths on fees, each seeking to look after both their own students and their own universities, they move further away from the bigger picture.

Passing the blame

Governments and universities are increasingly thinking about how students from underrepresented backgrounds can get a fairer shot at a good education, particularly when such an education comes with the daunting prospect of significant debt. But when the different governments of the UK think about tackling this issue, should they continue to look after their own, as they do when setting fee policies?

All three of the devolved administrations – most conspicuously Scotland – discriminate in financial terms in favour of their own students, and treat disadvantaged students from other parts of the UK very differently to disadvantaged students from within their own borders. Higher education, by implication, is a right for Scottish citizens but not for citizens from other parts of the UK.

In the past, students from the rest of the UK studying in Scotland – more than one in eight of all UK-domiciled students at Scottish universities – have been disproportionately well qualified and middle class, often from independent school backgrounds. Will the students who cross borders to study in Scotland under the new fees regime be an even more socially selected group?

And whose responsibility is it to make sure that this does not happen, the Scottish or the UK government? Conversely, the relatively disadvantaged students from Northern Ireland who have to study elsewhere because they cannot get in to the courses they would like to enter at home will be doubly disadvantaged, because they may have to pay fees at more than twice the level. Whose responsibility are they: that of the Northern Ireland administration or of the UK government?

On the other hand, should the UK government take responsibility for the situation that has created these dilemmas? The idea for £9,000 fees did, after all, come out of Whitehall in the first place. There was no appetite for an increase in fees in any of the devolved administrations; indeed, the Welsh Government did not want to raise fees the last time round, in 2006, but it had to do so (one year later than England, in 2007) because of the close interdependence with England. The UK government took the decision to increase fees in order to address problems in England, but this decision – and the knock-on effects on the block grant paid to the devolved administrations – has created new problems for the other countries of the UK.

The problems that are emerging in higher education reflect the wider questions of devolution. Four nations choose their own funding policies but remain entwined in the same system. Decisions are made in London and Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast can often only react.

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