SCOTLAND’S nationalist devolved administration has been accused of discriminating against British students from Northern Ireland after it emerged that Scottish universities are offering Ulster students with Irish passports free places.
Amid confusion over the numerous fees regimes now operating across the UK’s regions, the BBC yesterday reported sixth-form pupils in Northern Ireland schools are being told that if they have an Irish passport they can study for free at some of Scotland’s universities.
However, under a “passport lottery”, students who only have a British passport will have to pay thousands of pounds in fees.
Unionist MLA David McNarry said that the move was “active discrimination” against British students from Northern Ireland who did not want to hold an Irish passport.
He said that the revelation raised “some very unpleasant undertones”.
“It has a nasty, divisive edge to it and could even be construed as a form of sectarianism,” he said.
“How would the Scots feel if they were independent and they were charged full fees while the reverse reduced fees situation was offered to British passport holders by other parts of the UK?
“You have to wonder does this mean that if Scotland were to become independent that no British passport holders would be allowed to work or live in Scotland? That would seem to be the logical extension of this deeply divisive policy.”
However, Scotland’s SNP Education Minister, Michael Russell, made clear yesterday that the anomaly was not one which the Scottish Government had envisaged.
And he hinted that the situation could end up in the courts because of universities taking different approaches to Irish passport holders.
“We’re in this position because of a decision not made in Northern Ireland nor in Scotland but south of the border on hiking fees south of the border,” he told BBC Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster programme.
“We decided in Scotland not to do that; to continue with the Scottish tradition of free education. Quite clearly we couldn’t pay for everybody coming into us, so we’ve allowed the universities to set their own fee levels for those coming in.
“The purpose of the regulations is to guarantee Scottish students free access. It is not to find ways around for other people. Because of European law, people coming from other jurisdictions do get the same treatment as Scottish students but those in the rest of the UK don’t.”
Student leader Adrianne Peltz called on the Government to ensure that people from Northern Ireland applying to study elsewhere in the UK do not have to pay any more than they would if they were studying here.
Ms Peltz, who is president of the National Union of Students-Union of Students in Ireland, which represents more than 200,000 students in Northern Ireland, said: “This passport lottery highlights how ludicrous the fees system is for people from here wishing to study elsewhere in the UK.
“This bizarre anomaly perfectly illustrates why we need a system that works to ensure that people from Northern Ireland applying to universities in other parts of the UK do not have to pay any more than they would if they were studying here, irrespective of the passport they hold.
“This arbitrary loophole makes a mockery of the fees regime and must be addressed by Government as a matter of urgency. Students and future students need clarity, not confusion.”