Higher Education Funding

– in the Scottish Parliament on 30th May 2013.

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Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

6. To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the opinions expressed in the briefing paper, “The funding of higher education in Scotland, the UK and internationally”. (S4F-01414)

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

We welcome contributions to the debate. In that light, I am sure that Ms Smith will have noticed this morning’s contribution from Universities Scotland. Universities Scotland has published legal advice from solicitors Anderson Strathern on university fees post-independence, which explains why, under European Union law, it could be permissible to continue to charge students from the rest of the United Kingdom tuition fees. That shows that a real debate is going on in Scotland. This Government has delivered free education in the face of the naysayers who said that it could not be done. We are confident that we will continue to deliver free education in an independent Scotland.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

In light of the legal advice that Universities Scotland published this morning, will the First Minister confirm exactly which groups of students would and would not pay fees in an independent Scotland? Will he say whether the Scottish Government has received legal advice that confirms that the European Parliament would agree to any exemptions from current EU law on the matter?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

I do not think that Liz Smith has got her European authorities correct, as far as the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice are concerned.

I would have thought that Liz Smith would have bothered to read the legal advice that was published this morning. It is unfortunate that her question has been somewhat overtaken by events, but the art of asking questions is to adapt to changing conditions in the debate that is going on. I would have thought that Liz Smith would have welcomed legal advice from Universities Scotland that shows that, based on equity and residence, the policy of free education could be pursued in an independent Scotland.

Of course, to have a policy of free education, you first have to want education to be free. The other unionist coalition that is emerging in the Parliament between the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party is that each of those parties wants to impose tuition fees on the students of Scotland. The first requirement is to have a Government like this one, which believes in free education and therefore spells out why that free education policy will continue to be pursued in an independent Scotland.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

Perhaps the art of answering a question is actually to give an answer.

I have read that legal opinion, and it does not give the unequivocal answer that the First Minister seems to suggest. Could he tell us whether, if it is correct and if he accepts it, it means that European Union students will now qualify—sorry, will no longer qualify—for free tuition and could in fact be charged for university tuition in Scotland?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

I think that Hugh Henry should have a bit more practice in asking questions before he criticises the answers.

I know that this is inconvenient for the Labour Party, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, the parties that want to impose tuition fees on the students of Scotland—[Interruption.] I see Johann Lamont shaking her head, but she said on 17 December last year that tuition fees were “the most obvious option”. What is “the most obvious option” if it is not an attempt to impose tuition fees on the students of Scotland?

The legal advice today and the firm resolve of this Government to base our policy on residence and equity give assurance that, as long as this Government is in power, there will be no tuition fees imposed on the students of Scotland and education will be based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay.