Passports to free education need to be stamped out

15th June 2012 at 01:00
The fair and sensible thing to do is charge all university students in Scotland equally

The real surprise about the utter mess that the education secretary has ended up in over the "passports to free education" scam is that he didn't see it coming. Worse still, once it was self-evident what was happening, he then tried to deny it was a painful real-time experience for Scottish universities by saying there was no evidence to support opposition claims.

Were that only the case. I say it is a surprise as Michael Russell is, as politicians go, worldly wise; he has a hinterland and as a nationalist with international connections he has friends from both the Republic of Ireland and the nationalist and unionist communities in Ulster - not just political pals, but cultural ones too.

Mr Russell would know that as long as partition has existed in Ireland, but more especially since the UK and Ireland were immersed in the European Union, many good citizens of Ulster have sought to use the ability to swap nationalities or circumstances to their benefit.

Be it the entirely legitimate practice of crossing the border to buy petrol (the direction of travel depending on the relative value of Sterling to the Euro), or the more dubious practice of registering British vehicles in the Republic to avoid an MOT, the "nationality" for many residents has been easily interchangeable.

Scottish universities have long enjoyed a steady flow of students from Northern Ireland, and some, such as Dundee, have been popular but are now vulnerable to the fickle hand of fate.

It can be said, in Mr Russell's defence, that he has not created the loophole whereby an ostensibly "British" student from Dungannon can obtain an Irish passport and avoid paying Dundee University tuition fees. Such an arrangement has existed since the Scottish Parliament decided to reimburse the tuition fees of Scots studying in Scotland, a policy that under EU convention must apply to EU students studying in Scotland too - but perversely not to British students from the rest of the UK.

What has changed has been Mr Russell's decision to milk the savings and loans of those non-Scottish UK students by agreeing to Scottish universities charging some of the highest fees in Britain. With EU students literally going Scot-free, the unintended but foreseeable consequence has been the creation of a highly attractive financial inducement that has convinced many to seek those passports that are akin to get out of jail cards in Monopoly.

The short-term sticking plaster is to fund all universities fully for the shortfall they are experiencing - but the real, unpalatable medicine that will bring equity and fairness to students, universities and taxpayers alike is to end the subsidy to Scots studying in Scotland and charge everyone the same - irrespective of their passport.

Brian Monteith, Political commentator.

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