Scottish universities will charge more for tuition fees to students from the rest of the UK, in order to top up funds for universities, Michael Russell, the Education Secretary, announced on Friday. But students from Scotland will continue to enjoy free tuition.
He unveiled a range of funding options that will be considered as the devolved Scottish parliament looks to find ways to ensure no funding gap emerges.
"We do support raising fees for students from the rest of the UK, to ensure Scotland continues to be the best option, not the cheap option, for learners," he said. "The details of how that will work are to be considered alongside the other issues, protecting our universities as one of our most valuable assets and ensuring a sustainable future of higher education and the benefits it yields for Scotland."
The measure, designed to prevent an influx of so-called 'fees refugees' from England, where tuition fees will be allowed to double or triple, could see the anomaly of students from England and Wales, who currently pay under £2,000 (US$3,100) in fees, charged up three times that amount or more, while EU students pay no fee under EU rules that say they must be charged the same as the host country's students.
Non-EU foreign students, on the other hand, already pay up to £12,600 a year.
Russell said Scottish higher education must maximise its role in the country's future success, use its current resources more effectively and ensure it remains nationally and internationally competitive. But it must never be seen as a cheap option. "Excellence must be our beacon, not our price."
The range of options for future funding are set out in a Green Paper entitled Building a Smarter Future and includes a graduation tax.
But in presenting the paper to Parliament, Russell distanced himself from the underlying assumption behind such a tax or fee hikes that it was individual students but not society as a whole that benefited from their higher education.
He said: "Our universities deliver tens of thousands of graduates into the world of work every year and carry out not just world-leading, but world-beating, research. It is because of this 'greater good' that we believe the state must bear the primary responsibility for funding our universities."
The Scottish Labour Party said the Green Paper was "hollow and vague" and that Russell should "come clean" with sustainable options for funding Scottish students and universities.
Des McNulty, Labour's Education Secretary, said: "Scotland will need to bridge a £500 million (US$777 million) funding gap. A graduate contribution is one approach that would lever in income for universities. The SNP appear to be saying that they can find this money from elsewhere. My challenge to them is to prove it."
Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students in Scotland, said the idea that universities are a burden on the taxpayer needs to be dispelled, since Scottish universities and colleges cost the Scottish government around £1.5 billion but generate £6 billion. "It is clear that we are a serious investment, a benefit to the rest of society."
The Education Secretary said tuition fees for Scottish students remain off the table and other solutions are being brought forward for discussion. A technical working group involving Universities Scotland will report to a reconvened cross-party summit in February on any possible funding gap that may open up and on the potential to close it through six sources of income identified in the Green Paper.
These included the state retaining the primary responsibility, a graduation tax, increasing income from cross-border flows of students, increasing donations and philanthropic giving, encouraging business to invest more in higher education, and efficiency savings.
The paper also stresses that increasing the exposure of "Scottish educational excellence" overseas is another key way to attract funds for universities.
"By growing commercial activity, attracting and retaining international students and staff, we can maximise the economic impact from universities' international activity at home and abroad," the paper says.
In 2008-09 international sources accounted for around 11% of all the sector's income, or £300 million and had a wider impact of £2.44 billion to the Scottish economy.
Ideas for raising the international contribution included promoting Scottish universities overseas under a single Scottish banner; expanding Scottish universities' overseas activity; encouraging more Scottish students to study, and more academics to teach abroad; promoting the quality of the international student experience and graduate outcomes; developing Scottish Alumni Networks for China, India and North America; and removing limits on international students studying medicine and dentistry.
Russell said meeting the funding challenges was made more complicated by the fact that Scotland does not have full power over its own finances and faces a £1.3 billion cut to next year's budget.
"This is why we have encouraged bold and innovative thinking to find a unique solution, encompassing a range of measures to deliver sustainable higher education in Scotland. Only one idea is off the table and that's tuition fees," he said.
"...to ensure...the best option, not the cheap option for learners".
Maybe the people should keep in mind that most expensive options are not the best options in life. The best things in life are free.
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