A free education for all – but at Scotland’s cost?

Scottish students, providing that they attend one of Scotland’s 19 universities, receive free tuition fees for the duration of their degree. These tuition fees are paid through UK taxes to the funding body SAAS, but also extend to European students who choose to study abroad in Scotland. This is the result of an agreement between Scotland and other member states of the EU, however, this generous offer doesn’t extend to all. Scots who move abroad or to other parts of the UK aren’t entitled to free tuition as they must live in Scotland for three years prior to starting university, and students from England and Wales must also reach into their own pockets if they wish to study at one of Scotland’s many universities.

Whilst free tuition fees for all initially seems to be a wonderful initiative, it does have its shortcomings – mostly for the Scots, who it is supposed to benefit the most. You would think that the majority of people at a Scottish University would be Scots. However, this is not the case. A report from Audit Scotland highlighted that only 30% of places at the University of Edinburgh actually go to Scots. So why is this? Surely, most of the students at a Scottish university should be Scots? Are Scots not getting the grades required to secure a place at a top Scottish university?

The answer is quite simple. Money. Obviously free tuition costs the Scottish government quite a bit of money, so all Scottish universities have capped places for Scots. This means they are only allowed to accept so many of them due to the fact that they aren’t paying fees. English, welsh and international students do not have capped numbers as they are paying for the privilege to be educated. In 2016, the University of St Andrews offered 62.5% of English applicants a place compared to 36% of Scottish applicants. Clearly, this shows that Scots are in the minority at many Scottish universities, something that seems bizarre. Liz Smith, the Scottish Conservative Education Minister described this system as “very divisive and discriminatory.” Thus, further highlighting that Scottish Universities are forced to favour non-Scottish applicants in order to fill the gaps in funding.

As a Scottish student who is currently studying at a Scottish university, I could not be more grateful for my free tuition. It has allowed me to attend the university of my choice and experience so much that I would not have had the opportunity to, had the Scottish Government not paid my fees. However, the hypocrisy of this situation often makes me wonder if the policy requires some rethinking, in order to make admissions to universities fairer for all.


It is often argued that this cap on places for Scots could be lifted, or made higher, by removing the free tuition fees for Europeans. This method would obviously alleviate the cost and thus free up some extra funding for more Scots to attend university. However, in saying that, European students do bring great benefits to the Scottish economy. Whilst they haven’t contributed to the tax pot that funds their higher education, after completing their degree many will choose to reside in Scotland and begin their working careers in the country, or go on to pursue postgraduate studies, where they will, just like Scots, have to cough up for that higher qualification.

Since the year 2000, European immigrants in the UK have contributed £20 billion to the United Kingdom’s public finances. They have also contributed 64% more in taxes then what they have received in benefits. It can be said without a doubt that Europeans do greatly benefit the British and Scottish economies, thus suggesting that the cost of educating them in Scotland will eventually be recuperated, whilst allowing European students to utilise the skills that they have learnt in Scottish universities in Scotland. Unfortunately, many European students do choose to return home after graduating, vanishing out of the country with their free degree. This then leaves the Scottish government out of pocket and pining after them and their valuable skills.

There is a strange situation for many Scots regarding tuition fees in Scotland. It’s not unheard of and rather common – they do not qualify for free tuition. This occurs when a Scot leaves Scotland to live in another area of the UK and thus doesn’t receive free tuition fees, being forced to pay to study in their homeland. This seems unfair seen as more often than not, these Scots are being moved by their parents as children and obviously have no say in the matter. Yet, a student from mainland Europe, who has never stepped foot on Scottish soil, can receive their education for free. It seems a bit unreal, but nevertheless it is true.

Sadly, this drives many Scots in this situation away from studying in Scotland. Many view it as an injustice and decide that if they have to pay to study in their home country anyway, they would rather pay to study at an English university or possibly even abroad in the United States. Consequently, Scottish universities lose out on the talent and innovation that these Scottish students would bring. All because there is one set of rules for certain students, and a different set for the others.

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Alexandra Baff

Student of English Literature at the University of St Andrews // writer //

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