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Analysis: University tuition fees in Scotland

image captionStudents from Scotland do not pay fees at Scottish universities

Scottish students get free university tuition - but students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland have to pay to study north of the border. BBC Scotland education correspondent Jamie McIvor assesses the impact.

For the Scottish government, free university tuition for Scottish students has been a mantra.

First Minister Alex Salmond has said the "rocks would melt in the sun" before he'd contemplate introducing tuition fees.

But it is not just students from Scotland who get free tuition at Scotland's 19 universities - under European law, students from other EU member states share the same entitlement.

However, students from other parts of the UK do not and Scottish universities charge them tuition fees.

The annual fees charged by Scottish universities to students from other parts of the UK are broadly similar to those charged by universities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

For example in the coming year Glasgow will typically charge students £6,750 and Edinburgh charges £9,000.

It can still be more expensive for a student to study in Scotland, however, as the bulk of Scottish degrees typically take four years to complete rather than three. But two factors can help mitigate this.

Monthly repayments are based on a graduate's income rather than the size of their debt. So while a student who had paid four years worth of tuition fees would take longer to clear their debt they would be no worse off each month.

It is sometimes possible for students from other parts of the UK to get straight into the second year of Scottish courses depending on their A Level results.

image captionStudent fees have become part of the independence referendum debate

It's also worth noting that some courses such as medicine, dentistry and engineering take more than three years to complete whether they are taught in England or Scotland so students wanting to study those subjects will be no worse off choosing a university in Scotland.

The number of students from the rest of the UK at Scottish universities fell from about 5,900 in 2009 to 4,600 in 2011 but increased a little in 2012.

The most recent figures from UCAS suggest a rise in the number of applications from would-be students who live in England to Scottish universities this year. Almost 29,000 applied between the middle of January and the end of June compared with 25,000 in the same period last year - a 14% rise.

Inevitably there can be anomalies. For example, it's been claimed students from Northern Ireland who are also entitled to Irish citizenship could take advantage of this to claim free tuition although there is little evidence of this happening to any great extent.

One important question is whether free tuition would be given to students from the remainder of the UK if Scotland became an independent state.

Because of European law, the Scottish government also has to provide free tuition at Scottish universities for students from other EU countries - but not for those from other parts of the UK.

Essentially this is because it is possible to discriminate between students from different parts of an individual member state but not not to discriminate against those from other parts of the EU.

Not black and white

It has been argued that if Scotland became independent after next year's referendum, then students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland would have to be offered free tuition too.

There have been warnings that this could lead to Scottish universities being flooded with students from what might then be described as the "Remainder of the United Kingdom" and that Scottish students could find it harder to get a place.

But again the matter is not black and white.

Scottish students do not currently compete directly for places with applicants from other parts of the UK. The Scottish government, through the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), pays for a certain number of places for Scottish students and students from EU countries outside the UK.

It has been argued that if Scotland became independent and was a separate member of the EU, students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland would have to be treated in the same way as students from other EU countries.

The argument is Scots, others from the home nations and applicants from other parts of the EU would all be classed together.

Some fear this could be a significant problem because the factors which currently help limit the number of EU students - such as language barriers, huge distances from home and the compatibility between school and university systems - would not be issues for applicants from England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

However, complex legal advice for Universities Scotland suggests there may be a way within European law which would allow Scottish universities to continue charging students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In essence, the argument is that an independent Scottish government could make a case to the EU that there was a case for an exemption to the principle that all EU students should be entitled to access higher education on equal terms regardless of their 'home' state, perhaps because it could be a threat to higher education in Scotland.

Similar cases have been brought before and failed in other countries although Universities Scotland believes there are potential grounds for arguing the situation in Scotland is exceptional.

Ultimately it would be for an independent Scottish government to make the argument and for the EU to decide.

More on this story

  • Scottish independence: University fee structure 'legal'

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