EDUCATION Secretary Michael Russell has mounted his strongest defence yet for charging English students to come to Scotland, claiming 80% of university places could be filled by "fee refugees" without that action.

Laying the blame squarely on the Westminster decision to levy tuition fees in the rest of the UK, Mr Russell argued that the EU would accept the validity of Scotland's case for continuing to charge tuition fees to students from south of the border in the event of a Yes vote.

Speaking at an education conference in Edinburgh yesterday, he said Scotland's case was a "truly unique" one, adding: "Presently, only 1.5% of students domiciled in the rest of the UK study in Scotland. If that total were to rise to 10%, and scoping of the issue suggests the number might go higher, then 80% of existing university places in Scotland would be filled by those students."

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He said the EU would recognise the impossibility of such an flow of "fee refugees" for the Scottish system, with a rise in incoming numbers from 14,300 to more than 90,000.

He added: "Right now, around 88% of Scottish students remain in Scotland to work after graduation so the numbers of Scottish graduates available to Scottish employers would fall dramatically and would not be adequately replaced by the 36% of graduates from the rest of the UK or Europe who stay on after studying in Scotland.

"There are strong reasons why this policy is the right one. It is a policy we pursue now an SNP Scottish Government will pursue after independence in defence of Scottish Higher Education, its excellence and its students."

Mr Russell also maintained his attack on UK immigration policy, insisting: "The debate south of the border is being driven by UKIP and by - I must use a word used by amongst others, Professor Quintin McKellar, Vice Chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire - a nasty 'xenophobia' which certainly revolts me and I think revolts many others."

He added: "To find yourself defined by what other people want to do all the time is simply wrong. I do not believe, to be blunt, that a country that has vans that go about saying to people 'go home' is a country operating a policy that I can support."

Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael, who was also at the event, accused Mr Russell of attempting the "oldest trick in the book" by trying to "distract attention with a synthetic spat" to divert attention from his case on Scotland's future position within the existing "common research area," in which the funding institutions and formulae continued.

He mocked the idea that Scotland would choose to leave the UK family, charge English students tuition fees, and then expect to maintain its current status for university research and funding purposes.

"There is no international precedent for sharing or replicating a system on the scale of the current UK funding streams across international borders," he insisted.

The Scottish Secretary faced a tough reception from the audience at the seminar, organised by the Future of the UK and Scotland project at Edinburgh University.

The first question said that in contrast to the vision laid out by Mr Russell, Mr Carmichael had offered a "disappointing 25 minutes of negativity," while a second questioner tried to hold him to account for decisions South of the Border on student loans and tuition fees.

Mr Carmichael said he "took the comments on the chin" but insisted he had a duty to highlight how well the current settlement was working and expose the shortcomings in the assertions laid out by the Scottish Government.