Scottish independence: Tussle looms on question of free tuition for our students
European Union rules will force an independent Scotland to offer free university places to Northern Ireland students, senior politicians here believe.
Scotland is currently unique in the UK in offering free education to its own students. It also offers it to students from other EU countries but not to people from other parts of the UK or foreign students from outside the EU.
If there is a Yes vote in the Scottish Independence Referendum, Scotland would become a separate country in 2016. At that point it would have to treat the rest of the UK like other EU members.
In that case, it looks likely that hundreds of students who move from Northern Ireland to Scotland to study every year would therefore be entitled to avoid the fees, currently up to £9,000. Last year, just 1,000 students from Northern Ireland entered first year in a Scottish university.
Last night, a Scottish Yes campaign spokesman suggested that a way could be found round the issue later.
"We believe the unique and distinct circumstances of Scotland will enable us to objectively justify continuation of our current policy on tuition fees in a way which is compatible with EU requirements. Our objective justification is not about nationality, it's about the unique and exceptional position of Scotland," he said.
A spokeswoman for both the Stormont Department of Education and Employment and Learning (DEL) spelt out the legal situation.
"The principle of free movement within the European Union (EU) applies to students and their rights associated with studying in other member states. The charging of tuition fees varies from member state to member state. If a member state waives fees or provides tuition fee loans to its domiciles then it must do the same for domiciles from other EU countries," she said.
When free fees were introduced in Scotland, Northern Ireland students who secured Irish passports were initially able to benefit because Ireland is another EU country. Last year, the Scottish government closed this loophole by specifying that applicants from the rest of the UK with passports from other EU states would be required to prove that they have lived in another EU member state for at least three months before qualifying to have their tuition fees paid. This device wouldn't work if the UK was itself another EU state.
On the other hand, subsidising education for students from across the UK would be a heavy drain on Scotland which boasts more top rated universities per head of population than any other country in the world.
Robin Swann, Ulster Unionist chief whip and chair of the DEL committee, said: "This seems to be another part of the independence argument that has not been properly thought through."
He added: "They would have to treat and support our students exactly the same way as we treat students from the Republic of Ireland who decided to avail of our higher and further education systems."
Alastair Ross, a DUP representative on the DEL committee agreed.
"It would be bizarre and contrary to EU rules, to treat Northern Ireland students differently than any other EU student. The EU rules dictate that a member state must treat other EU students in the same way as their own students. I trust our Scottish friends will vote no in the referendum as I firmly believe we are better together," he said.
Previously, a former EU judge said charging fees to students from the rest of the UK to study in an independent Scotland would be "incompatible" with EU law.
Prof Sir David Edward, a former European Court judge, has provided written legal advice to pro-UK group Academics Together. He cited EU rules preventing discrimination between member states.
Scotland is the only part of the UK to offer a free university education to its own students. However, applicants from all other parts of the UK must pay. The country's universities have long been popular with Northern Ireland students, who are currently charged up to £9,000 in fees per year, along with students from England and Wales. Last year, 34,540 students from Northern Ireland, England and Wales applied to study at a Scottish university. Students from other EU countries do not have to pay a fee. In the event of independence, UK applicants would fall into that category.