For decades, the Scottish government has openly discriminated against students from other countries in the United Kingdom. Prior to Brexit, Scottish universities routinely used a loophole in European Union law to allow European students to have their education funded by the Scottish government. Even in a post-Brexit world, the Scottish government awards the right to funded education to EU students who enrolled in institutions up until 2020. This right afforded to Scottish and European students was not, however, awarded to students from Northern Ireland, England, or Wales. By having students from these countries pay tuition fees up to five times more than that of Scottish and EU students, the Scottish government has effectively discriminated against lower income households from these regions.
In 2010, Scotland passed the Equality Act which legally protects certain characteristics from discrimination. One of these protected characteristics is race, which includes “color; nationality; ethnic or national origins”. This definition, taken directly out of Scots law, demonstrates the country’s attempts to become more progressive and welcoming. However, the basis of charging students from the Rest of the UK (RUK) radically different fees, while allowing for students from Scotland and EU member states to obtain cheaper tuition, is arguably immoral.
The legality of this has therefore routinely been called into question. For example, the Scottish government was sued on the basis that this legislation is discriminatory towards people living in other countries in the UK. However, the Scottish government merely stated that the difference in price was due to the location in which students lived and disparities in fees are therefore not in violation of the 2010 Scottish Equality Act. However, as each of the countries within the UK share an overarching British nationality, the legality of charging one student five times more than another based on their respective domiciles is questionable.
The legal precedents put forth by the Scottish court systems, therefore, discourage students from the RUK from studying at Scottish higher education institutions. Court cases which have failed to rectify or amend this law demonstrate the Scottish government's preference to have EU students study within its borders rather than students from other countries in the UK.
Nevertheless, according to a reporter from The Guardian, “If the claim [against the Scottish government] were to succeed, it would be on the basis of indirect discrimination” against students from England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. In particular, fee disparities exacerbate inequalities and poverty rates in the Rest of the UK. The poverty rate within England and Wales is significantly higher than that of Scotland; while Scotland has a poverty rate of 19 percent, England and Wales have rates of 22 percent and 24 percent, respectively. Similarly, while Northern Ireland’s poverty rate is not as high as England and Wales, it is still higher than that of Scotland. Therefore, by charging people from these areas significantly more to attend Scottish universities, the Scottish government effectively financially discriminates against people from lower income households.
In their 2018 study into poverty in Northern Ireland, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation states the educational gap between rich and poor people remains very large. This means that, as a result of higher rates of poverty within Northern Ireland, many people living there cannot afford the nearly £10,000 tuition fees that Scottish universities charge. Furthermore, this only accounts for tuition and does not include housing or daily expenses which make higher education even more inaccessible to lower income families located throughout the RUK.
The Scottish government, despite knowing the factors regarding higher poverty rates and the ethical concerns of charging students from the UK quintuple what Scottish students pay, has continued its practice of higher tuition rates for years. Even when the UK was a part of the EU, RUK students supposedly did not qualify for lower tuition fees despite meeting the vague requirement of living within the EU.
This moral ambiguity continues to create a divide between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom as it perpetuates poverty rates in these other countries. People who do not receive access to higher education are more likely to remain impoverished their entire lives. By allowing their universities to charge students from the RUK starkly higher tuition fees, the Scottish government seems to actively be encouraging financial discrimination against the poorer individuals located in Northern Ireland, England, and Wales.
Read "Legal Justification and Defence of Scottish University Tuition Fees" for an alternative perspective on the issue.