Tim Luckhurst: Executive's insularity will cost Scottish universities

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The Independent Online

Deputy First Minister Nicol Stephen announced that, from 2006, there will be a 42 per cent increase in fees paid by English students at Scottish universities. Students from the wrong side of Hadrian's Wall will pay £1,700 a year unless they are studying medicine, in which case the sum will rise to £2,700.

Scots will, of course, continue to benefit from the Executive's abolition of upfront tuition fees - proof, perhaps, that anti-Englishness is the only form of discrimination encouraged by devolved government. But Scottish undergraduates will be the real losers.

The modern reputation of Scotland's leading universities has never escaped the odour of parochialism. When English domiciled undergraduates were protesting in Grosvenor Square and Paris was in turmoil, Scottish campuses remained boringly calm. It is hard to challenge the Establishment when one has to be home for tea, and most Scottish students faced that constraint. They lived with mum and dad. An astonishingly high proportion still does. There is a bizarre denial of the link between academic and social maturity.

Scotland's most exciting example of undergraduate unrest occurred in 1971 when the Queen visited Stirling University and was greeted by a display of inebriated immaturity. Stirling took its revenge. For months afterwards shopkeepers and licensees refused to serve young men with long hair. Local bus drivers did not stop at the campus. It was widely understood that the troublemakers were "not from around here". Several were Glaswegian.

A progressive administration would fight to leave memories like that behind. It would grasp the truth that Scottish students have access to all Britain's universities and encourage applicants to travel south. Admissions tutors at English universities would be delighted. Many lament the difficulty they encounter in persuading students from Scottish schools that their qualifications are recognised and welcomed in England. But devolved ministers resist such policies. A Scotland comfortable with its place in the union would not need them.

Scotland's leaders need a lesson in Scottish history. Scots who studied at the University of Leiden in Holland founded the legal and medical faculties for which Scotland is famous. David Hume brought from Paris the germs of ideas that fostered the Scottish Enlightenment. Adam Smith was inspired by the transatlantic trade in tobacco.

It was openness to international influence that, at the time of union in 1707, ensured Scotland had four universities to England's two. A tradition of looking outwards that started in St Andrews in 1413 was soon entrenched in all the ancient Scottish universities. They thrived because they perceived themselves as swimming in the mainstream of European thought, not as regional backwaters.

Stephen pretends that this will not change. He insists the Scottish Executive's policy "strikes the right balance between protecting the interests of Scottish domiciled students and ensuring Scotland is an attractive destination for all students." The universities do not agree. They implored Stephen, and his predecessor Jim Wallace, not to erect a barrier. Glasgow warned against treating non-Scottish students as "a problem" and predicted, "If we endanger the diversity of Scottish universities' populations we risk fostering a parochialism at odds with our aspirations to be a smart, successful Scotland."

The "smart, successful" mantra is the Executive's slogan. It deserves to have it thrown back in its face because the imposition of increased fees on English students is more than an admission that Scottish universities have been impoverished by Executive policies. It is an act of unenlightenment that risks exacerbating the parochialism of Scottish higher education. There is no formal hostility to students from other EU states. That, unlike bias against the English and Welsh, is not yet legal. But if Stephen believes the brightest and best will want to study at universities that discriminate on grounds of nationality he deserves to be disappointed. Scottish students and their teachers already are, very.

The writer is a former editor of 'The Scotsman' and a former adviser to Donald Dewar