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Make sure students do not pay the price

When Scotland's universities first set their fees for students from the rest of the UK, there were many, including this newspaper, who warned that the level of the fees - up to £9000 a year - could have a damaging effect on the number of students coming to study in Scotland from south of the border.

Three years on, there are indications, in figures for new student numbers, the warnings may have been correct.

The figures - which are for 2012/13, the first year in which fees were charged - show that the majority of Scotland's higher education institutions saw a drop in the number of students coming from Northern Ireland, Wales and England.

The universities affected include Glasgow, Strathclyde and Dundee, although the picture is complicated by the fact that, overall, the number of students coming to Scotland from these three countries increased between 2011/12 and 2012/13. Two universities, Edinburgh and St Andrews, saw increases.

In many ways, this trend is not surprising and may be proof of another of the concerns that critics raised on the issue of fees. The danger of charging £9000 a year, they said, was the most prestigious universities would win the greatest rewards for the reason that they have never had trouble attracting students. What the 2012/13 figures appear to suggest is that fees have not changed that situation and that universities at the top of the league were always best placed to take advantage of the new income source the fees provided.

It looks like a different story at many of Scotland's other universities, who may now see a drop in income as a result of the fees for stuents from the rest of the UK, even though the fees were intended to do the opposite and open up a new stream of income. Obviously, this may change in time - as Universities Scotland says, we are in a period of flux - and the income is from a relatively small group of students. But, even so, the universities affected will want to see the numbers of non-Scottish students rising, not falling.

The good news is one of the other concerns about the move to charging students from the rest of the UK appears to be groundless. There was a fear that, in the rush to exploit that source of income, Scottish students would be pushed out from many university places, but on most campuses, the opposite appears to be happening.

It is also important to note that, however problematic the new fees are proving for some universities, it was not a problem of their making. Scottish universities were forced to charge students from the rest of the UK when the UK Government introduced fees in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and the Scottish Government promised to continue carrying the cost of tuition in Scotland. There were fears that "fee refugees" would come to Scotland and universities had to act.

That problem may have been avoided, but some universities may still have to review their fees if they are to stabilise, or increase, the number of students from the rest of the UK. In the meantime, the policy will require close monitoring to ensure it is not scaring off students from the rest of the UK and having a damaging effect on the university sector in Scotland.

Contextual targeting label: 
Education

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