Scotland politics

Scottish independence: Nicola Sturgeon defends UK student fees plan

students
Image caption Currently, students from the rest of the UK who study at Scottish universities must pay fees

Nicola Sturgeon has defended plans for an independent Scotland to charge students from the rest of the UK to study at Scottish universities.

The deputy first minister said that, by not charging students from other parts of the UK, Scotland risked "crowding our own students out".

Currently, EU students from outside the UK can study in Scotland for free.

Labour said the SNP's policy discriminated against other UK students and was based on nationality.

Ms Sturgeon told MSPs the proposals, which were put forward by the Scottish government as part of its White Paper on independence, were necessary because of the close geographical links between Scotland and England and the Westminster policy of charging for tuition fees.

She added if Westminster axed its university tuition fees policy, she was "pretty sure" Scotland would change its policy too.

Current EU rules prohibit states from discriminating on the grounds of nationality, meaning Scotland has to give free university education to EU students from outside the UK in order to keep a fee-free policy for students from Scotland.

But it can impose tuition fees on students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland because the EU does regulate for discrimination within member states.

The White Paper on independence proposes retaining this policy if Scotland votes to leave the UK in next year's referendum.

Voters in Scotland go to the polls on Thursday, 18 September.

They will be asked the straight "yes/no" question: "Should Scotland be an independent country?"

Under European law, post-independence Scottish ministers would need to make an "objective justification" for continuing the policy, but Ms Sturgeon told Holyrood's European and External Relations Committee the "particular circumstances of the geography of Scotland and the rest of the UK" and Westminster's fees policy were key factors.

'Discrimination'

However, Labour's Patricia Ferguson accused the deputy first minister of discrimination.

She said: "The only rationale you have offered so far is nationality.

"You cannot discriminate against other members of the EU based on their nationality.

"I've heard no other rationale for discriminating against students from the rest of the UK other than the fact that they're not Scottish and where they live there happens to be a fee payment."

Ms Sturgeon stressed the Scottish government's commitment to free university education and denied nationality was a factor.

She said: "It's about the fact that we have a set of circumstances flowing from geography and the cross border flows of students between Scotland and the rest of the UK, and the consequences for Scottish education of a policy decision taken at Westminster to charge its own students for access to university.

"That raises implications for Scottish universities and that is the objective justification for the position we have taken."

She added: "If the position in the rest of the UK was to change at any point in the future and we had a return to free access to higher education, then I'm pretty sure that position in Scotland would also change."

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