Education experts across the UK are warning that the Labour party’s proposal to cut higher education tuition fees to £6,000 in England would seriously affect higher education funding in both Scotland and Wales and could theoretically even lead to limits on the numbers of students permitted to cross the borders to study.
Students from elsewhere in the UK are currently a major source of income for Scottish and Welsh universities, as they pay the institutions tuition fees of up to £9,000 each year.
Scotland’s parliament, however, has passed a law stating that students from other regions in the UK cannot be charged more to study in Scotland than they would in other parts of the country. This would mean that, were the £6,000 fees to be implemented in England, Scottish institutions would be legally bound to honor that limit, causing them to lose up to £3,000 per year for each student from elsewhere in the UK.
According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, there were almost 14,000 English undergraduates enrolled in programs in Scotland in the 2013-14 academic year. If each student paid £2,000 less under the new regulation (a £2,000 per-student loss), Scottish institutions would suddenly be faced with an annual shortfall of almost £28 million each year.
English Labour politicians have promised that public funding will go toward compensating English universities for the lost tuition revenue, but many are concerned that this policy will not extend to Scotland. Though the Scottish government would likely bow to political pressure to find a way to mitigate the loss for universities, this could in turn encourage them to impose a limit on the number of English students allowed to study there, to avoid massive shortfalls and therefore massive spending.
The government of Wales, which currently provides a tuition fee subsidy for residents studying in other parts of the UK, would stand to benefit from the new regulation, but Welsh universities and other insitutions would stand to lose significant tuition income.
The £2.7 billion tution fee cut proposal has been championed by Labour party leader Ed Miliband, who has promised to implement the plan if the party wins in the general election later this year.
However, the idea has faced plenty of criticism within England as well, with Prime Minister David Cameron calling the plan “ill-thought out” and saying it would hurt both universities and the economy.
Meanwhile, English universities are looking warily at their own coffers, concerned about how to maintain their current levels of services and academic quality if revenue from tuition drops by one third.
Professor Sir Christopher Snowden, the president of higher education policy organization Universities UK, said that cutting tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000 could create a £10bn funding gap over the next parliament.
“Such a shortfall, if not met in full from other sources of public finance, could cause significant damage to the economy, to social mobility, to student choice, and to our universities,” he said.
Though Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would retain their power to determine their own university tuition costs under the Labour plan, laws like the tuition legislation in Scotland suggest that such legislation would have a far more wide-ranging effect than just in England.