£150m blackhole threatens future of Scottish universities

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In the red: EU law could leave Scottish universities forced to plug a £150m blackhole if independence goes ahead. Photo: Jessica Biggs

Questions have been raised over what Scottish independence would mean for students and university tuition fees after it emerged that Scottish universities would be left needing to plug a £150m blackhole as a result of EU law.

At present, tuition fees for Scottish students and students from the EU are covered by the Scottish government, while students from the rest of the UK pay up to £9,000 a year. However, if Scotland were to become independent, students from the rest of the UK would be EU citizens and would qualify for free tuition fees. Under EU law, European students are entitled to the same funding as home students.

In response to questions asked by the Conservative MSP, Liz Smith, SNP education secretary Mike Russell replied: ”There are approximately 20,000 students from the rest of the UK studying for a first degree at Scottish universities. If all of these students were to qualify for regulated places as EU students then the cost of providing these places would be approximately £150 million.”

Independence could prompt a massive funding gap at the University of St Andrews and other Scottish universities. Politicians have argued that this could lead to cuts in funding for other areas and that the Scottish government may need to find money from elsewhere.

Liz Smith argued that as Scottish universities are already facing a huge gap in funding, ”This sum on top of that gives a clear indication of the size of the black hole that would be left in every education budget if the SNP got their way.”

She also argued that the figures provided by the SNP are inaccurate and that the gap could be closer to £260 million following the result of a report by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) at Holyrood. Ms Smith said: “SPICe has estimated that the Scottish Government has underestimated the funding gap by more than £100million and if even more EU students are applying then that increases the financial burden for the tax payer.”

A government spokesperson denied these claims and argued that the figures in this report were out of date.

The Scottish government are trying to find ways to raise money from EU students within the law in an attempt to bridge the current funding gap and to provide answers to the issue of what Scottish independence would mean for university funding.

In a statement to the Courier, a Scottish Government spokesman said: “The simple fact is we are maintaining free access to university for Scots based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay. In an independent Scotland this will continue to be the case, and we are continuing to examine how we could raise additional income from students from outside Scotland, within EU law.” These attempts could see European students having to pay for their education at Scottish universities.

First year IR student, Perl Li from Austria said: “If I would have been confronted with tuition fees I would still have come to St Andrews, but money would have been a bigger issue.”

A university spokesman discussed how more clarity is needed on how independence would affect tuition fees. He said: “Of course this is a matter in which the University has a very close interest and I think the whole sector would welcome clarity on the issue. If and when firm proposals are published as part of the independence debate, we will make our views of those proposals known and contribute fully to the debate, as I hope our students will.”

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