Tuesday, 18 January 2011

EU rules and funding Scottish universities

An intriguing feature of EU rules is that member states of the EU are allowed to discriminate in various ways within a given state, but they are not allowed to do so between states. I'm not sure what the origin of such a rule might have been in the distant past, though it might have been part of a mix of policies designed to create a level playing field across Europe for business activity, leaving individual states free to conduct regional policy within their borders. Whatever the origin of the rule, it has some unexpected and unwelcome side effects, which always seem to catch people unawares.

The latest of these was revealed in a number of press and BBC website articles last week, where it was reported that for Scotland, funding EU students studying at Scottish universities was now costing £75 million per year, a sum that has apparently quadrupled over the past decade. How could this be and what does it mean?

The problem is that a few years ago, the Scottish Government decided that for Scottish students attending Scottish universities there would be no fees payable by the individual students, either up front, or following their graduation through some form of additional tax. At the same time, English students coming up to Scotland were expected to pay a fee, currently around £3000 per annum I believe. However, students from other EU countries wishing to study at a Scottish university have to be offered the same funding terms as Scottish students - in other words they pay no fee. But their education is not of course free in terms of its resource cost, and the Scottish Government apparently ends up paying the Scottish universities to cover the costs - hence the enormous sum of £75 million mentioned above!

Of course, neither the Scottish universities nor the Scottish Government like this situation, and would like to stop it. There has been talk of Scottish ministers going to Brussels to find a way of getting round this rule in a legal way, but I'm not convinced that will provide a workable escape route. The other possibility would be for the Scottish universities to stop accepting EU students, but I suspect that would rapidly fall foul of legislation to do with discrimination, or even with European Human Rights legislation. So that's probably not a good way forward either. In any case, some of our best students come from other EU member states, and it would be a great shame to lose them.

In the end, I suspect that the solution will be found through Scottish universities charging fees to Scottish students - which EU students would then also have to pay. But more on that in my next posting.

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