By a Newsnet reporter
A Scottish Labour MP has refused to withdraw comments he made after he accused the Scottish government of anti-English racism over its decision to charge tuition fees to students from the rest of the UK.
Senior Labour MP Jim McGovern made the claim when speaking at a meeting at Abertay University where education for Scotland’s over 16s was being discussed.
Mr McGovern claimed that the Scottish government’s decision to offer free education to students domiciled in Scotland but not to extend the policy to students from the rest of the UK smacked of racism.
He said: “I’ve got serious concerns about the Scottish Executive [sic] saying that we will not charge Scottish students to go to university, but we will charge English students,” he said. ”You know, for me, that does not smack of patriotism — that smacks of racism.”
When later challenged to explain his remarks, the Labour MP suggested that the SNP based their policies on a “hatred” of the English.
He said: “What came to mind was that Charles de Gaulle once said that while patriotism is a love for one’s own country, nationalism, generally, is hatred of other countries. And unfortunately, this is what the SNP confirm by their policies — that that’s what they see.”
SNP MSP Joe FitzPatrick who also attended the meeting called the remarks “disgraceful slurs” and called on Labour’s leader Ed Miliband to take action against Mr McGovern.
Mr FitzPatrick, MSP for Dundee City West, said that the accusations of racism and suggestions that the SNP policy is “anti-England [sic]” were completely unfounded.
Mr FitzPatrick pointed out that all Scottish-domiciled students are entitled to free university education “… regardless of their perceived national identity, be that English, Welsh, Irish, Polish, Pakistani or otherwise.”
Mr FitzPatrick continued:
“Jim McGovern’s comments, while disgraceful and offensive, are also blatantly hypocritical. It was the Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition that introduced the Graduate Endowment Fee in 2001 while maintaining tuition fees in excess of £1,000 for students from the rest of the UK.”
“Ideally, no student attending a Scottish university should pay fees. However, with the misguided decision by the UK Government to introduce exorbitant tuition fees of up to £9,000 per annum for students attending universities in England, we cannot risk Scotland becoming the cheap option for students from the rest of the UK.”
Earlier this summer Labour leadership contender Ken Macintosh himself expressed concern over the possibility of a ‘flood’ of education refugees to Scotland’s universities.
Speaking on ‘Brian Taylor’s Big Debate’ in August, the Labour MSP said: “ … we don’t want a flood of what’s called ‘fee refugees,’ English students flooding across the border to Scottish universities to avoid paying the fees down south. Because they would swamp our universities and take all the places. So we want to avoid that.”
In the same programme Mr Macintosh also confirmed that Scottish Labour was not against charging fees in principle for other UK students but would have pegged them at £6000.
Mr FitzPatrick claimed that the Labour party’s policy on education was in utter disarray and added: “This debate should be had in the proper language and all parties should avoid resorting to sensationalist accusations, which are extremely unhelpful and add nothing to the debate.”
However Mr McGovern, speaking to the Courier newspaper, responded by labeling the SNP as “separatists” and suggested they were overreacting to everyday “rough and tumble”. The Labour MP also appeared to mock the recent complaint by Dr Eiledh Whiteford after she complained of having been threatened by Mr McGovern’s Labour colleague Ian Davidson.
He said: “The latest strategy by the separatists would seem to be to pick up on a word or expression from a Labour politician then throw their hands up in horror and say that they feel threatened, intimidated or offended.
“If some members of the SNP cannot live with the robust nature of the rough and tumble of everyday Scottish politics then perhaps they should consider whether or not they are in the right job.”
Tuition fees were introduced in England by the Tory/Lib Dem coalition who cut funding from central government to English universities. The Scottish government took the decision to fund Scottish universities in order to ensure that students living in Scotland continued to receive their university education free.
However fees were introduced for students from outwith Scotland, with the exception of those from the EU – a solution to this EU imposed anomaly is currently being sought.
The total annual tuition fee average south of the border is estimated at £8,509, which reduces to £7,881 after packages of bursaries and fee waivers etc.
In Scotland total annual tuition fee average for those who pay is £6,841, which is estimated to reduce to £6,375 after packages of bursaries and fee waivers etc.
In August it emerged that plans were being drawn up by Northern Irish Assembly officials that will allow universities in the province to charge non NI students up to £9000 per year for university courses.
The move was in response to an expected soaring demand for places from English students.
Currently students at Northern Ireland’s two universities – Queen’s and the University of Ulster – pay a flat fee of £3000 per year; this fee is due to rise in line with inflation and the effective cap will lead to a shortfall of £40 million.