Leading Article: New Labour must learn the lesson of the debate on fees

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The Independent Culture
HOLYROOD, AS we shall soon get used to calling the new Scottish parliament, is launching itself in style. New Labour may have wanted the Parliament to begin its life with a safe assertion of its independence. Instead, it is embroiled in an embarrassing debacle over the future of higher education tuition fees, reopening a sensitive debate that Tony Blair had hoped would stay closed.

The abolition of tuition fees was at the heart of the Scottish election campaign, exposing the ties of the Labour campaigners to their Millbank bosses. It even led to such disasters as the Conservatives' ill-judged "fcuk tuition fees" advertising campaign. The grievance north of the border was understandable. When university education was free for all, the fact that Scottish universities had four-year courses whereas English and Welsh universities usually had three-year courses was unimportant. The difference only became significant with Labour's introduction of tuition fees. Scottish parents objected to paying for an extra year to have their children gain a degree worth the same as that from an English university. Bowing to parent power, the Scottish Office decided that it would pay for one year of the education of Scottish-domiciled students at Scottish universities.

But this opened up another anomaly. The parents of students living in Scotland pay for three out of the four years of their child's attempt to gain a Scottish degree. However, the parents of students resident in England but studying at Aberdeen University, for example, pay for all four years. The situation is complicated by the fact that French or Italian students at Aberdeen University pay for only three years - as, under European Union legislation, the United Kingdom may not discriminate against students from other EU states whereas it may discriminate against some of its own citizens.

All the opposition parties in Scotland - the Tories, the Nationalists and the Liberal Democrats - are united in demanding the end of tuition fees. Given that between them they have an absolute majority in Holyrood, there seems no way for Labour to escape making some concession on the issue. If Holyrood managed to abolish fees ,it would mean in effect that students resident in Scotland, wherever they studied in the UK, would pay no university fees. And because of the EU legislation, it is likely that students from EU states would share these benefits. Thus, students resident in England would find themselves in the odd position of having to pay to attend their own universities which the Scots, together with the French, Germans and Italians, could attend for free.

Such are the realities of devolution. Having accepted the principle of self-governance, we must also accept the creation of such anomalies. There are, after all, big differences already in the government of our country - the laws on abortion differ in Northern Ireland, for example.

More pertinently, the issue highlights the impact the devolved assemblies will have on Westminster. The tuition fees debate raises, in a particularly ticklish way, the West Lothian Question. Why should Scottish MPs be allowed to deny English students advantages which many of them are keen to extend to their own Scottish constituents? Furthermore, who is to say that in a few years from now the Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies will not also demand the same concessions as Holyrood?

Yet there is no point in having devolved assemblies if they are merely cosmetic surgery on the sagging face of the body politic. By definition, any truly political issue will be difficult and contentious. The Government trumpeted its decision to give the Scottish Parliament the power to settle conflicts of this magnitude. Now the Scots and Welsh must be allowed to run their affairs, within the limits of devolution, free of interference from London.