Labour and Tory peers join forces in threat to end free Scottish education

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By a Newsnet reporter

Members of the unelected House of Lords have launched an extraordinary attack on the Scottish Parliament by criticising the Scottish policy of free education for university students resident in Scotland.

The peers accused the elected Scottish Parliament of “discriminating” against students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland over tuition fees, and are calling for the UK coalition to curtail Holyrood’s powers in order to ‘address’ the situation.

In yesterday’s session, peers from all sides gave angry speeches at the “unfairness” of allowing Scottish students to study for free at universities north of the Border, while those from the rest of the UK had to pay up to £9,000 a year.  No peers spoke in support of the Scottish Government’s position.  There are no SNP members of the House of Lords, in 2005 the party adopted a policy of refusing peerages as it believes the system to be undemocratic and unfair.

Should the political appointees who make up the great majority of the membership of the House of Lords get their way, Scottish students could find themselves forced to pay tuition fees like their English counterparts, and graduate facing debts of £30,000. 

The demands follow official figures published earlier this week that showed the introduction of the fees had led to a marked decline in the numbers of students applying for university courses in England, a decline that was not repeated in Scotland where the Government is committed to the traditional Scottish right to a free education.

George Foulkes, former Labour MP and MSP, who was appointed to the House of Lords in 2005 by Tony Blair, claimed that the current situation was “quite disgraceful”.  Mr Foulkes demanded that the Scottish Government should be prevented from imposing “discriminatory” fees on students from England, Wales and Scotland studying at Scottish universities.

Mr Foulkes said:  “It’s just astonishing when you think of it, that students at Scottish universities students from Lisbon, from Madrid, from Berlin, will all get in free to Scottish universities but students from Belfast, from London, from Cardiff, will have to pay fees.  It really is quite astonishing.”

Michael Forsyth, former Conservative Scottish Secretary of State who presided over the electoral annihilation of his party in the 1997 General Election before being given a peerage as a Conservative appointee in 1999, threatened to curtail the powers of the elected Scottish government and decried the Scottish Government’s policy as “wickedness” and said that it was creating “deep disquiet” elsewhere in the UK and was “alienating” people in England.

Mr Forsyth claimed that Holyrood had only adopted the policy in order to create anger elsewhere in the UK.  “It’s about upsetting the neighbours,” he said. “It is quite divisive and quite wrong.”

Mr Forsyth threatened to reduce the powers of the Scottish Parliament in order to ensure that it could not adopt a different set of priorities from those dictacted by the Westminster Parliament.  Mr Forsyth said: “It seems to me that it would be entirely appropriate for the government to restrict the powers of the Scottish Parliament so that it cannot operate in this way in any area of policy.”  

The former Conservative MP then repeated the claim that Scots only enjoy their education thanks to the “generosity” of the English taxpayer, saying: “The Barnett formula is extremely generous, the spending per head on education is about 20% higher, and it really is adding insult to injury to ask the English to send more money north of the Border on education for the privilege of seeing their children treated less favourably than people from Greece.”

The Scottish Government does not have the power to intercede with the EU to resolve the anomaly whereby students from other EU countries are permitted free access.  This power is reserved to Westminster.  However during the debate peers restricted their to the Scottish Parliament, and made no mention of the possibility of discussing the issue at an EU level.

A spokesperson for the Scottish Government denied the claims that the fees policy was discriminatory and reiterated that the Scottish Government was committed to the Scottish tradition of free access to higher education, saying:  

“Tuition fee arrangements are based on domicile not nationality – and it is the Westminster Government that is failing English-domiciled students.  We are committed to free access to higher education based on ability, not the ability to pay … it is Westminster which refuses to pay for students from England.”

Hear a BBC Radio Scotland report on the peers attack here: