Friday, 26 August 2011

An Education in Fees

Should the English be charged more?

The huge rise in University tuition fees in the UK caused a massive political storm, and the devolved regional governments signaled that they would step in to prevent such increases locally. In Northern Ireland the plan is to stop any non-inflation related rise in fees and in Scotland University education will remain free, but this has raised concerns over NI and Scottish universities being flooded with English students hoping to escape the burden of higher student loans.

To prevent local students from being crowded out, Scotland will introduce fees for non-resident UK nationals at the same £9,000 level, and the Northern Ireland Executive is thinking of following suit. However, these fees are being challenged as a breach of the European Convention of Human Rights* for being contrary to its provisions on education and non-discrimination. It seems unlikely that the case will be sucessful - after all, Scotland has maintained free education for residents whereas English, Welsh and NI students would have to pay a fee (albeit lower than elsewhere in the UK) - but it has highlighted the issue of discrimination being able to take place within an EU Member State between its own nationals, and yet be outlawed between EU nationals.

Because while students will pay different fees depending on where they live within the UK, EU citizens from outside the UK will be able to access university education on the same basis - the same fees - as locals. Of course, it's not quite as simple as that because UK nationals will be able to draw on benefits that EU students who aren't working won't be entitled to, but the difference on fees is still significant. The political implications are huge - within the UK it will spark many debates: why should the regions with develoved governments be able to have lower fees? should the regions be able to discriminate against the English metropole? is it just that EU nationals should be treated better than part of the UK population?

On the EU question, it's a matter of the weakness of EU citizenship. EU citizenship is limited to cross-border situations, and Member States are free to decide how they grant citizenship and how they treat their own nationals. For a while, it looked like the European Court of Justice** would break down this connection between a cross-border element and relying on citizenship rights in the Zambrano case, but it categorically ruled it out shortly afterwards.

That students from elsewhere in the EU will be charged less is being called a "loophole", but it's a part of the fundamental rule of EU law of non-discrimination on the basis of nationality. The difference arises because EU citizenship rules only regulate cross-border relations, while these fees are being regulated by national and regional rules. The tuition fees debate will rumble on in the UK for some time yet, and get caught up in the wider debate of the relationship between the UK's constituent nations, and, perhaps, the EU too.

* Part of the Council of Europe, and not the EU!

** The EU Court.

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