A senior SNP MSP has called for Scottish taxpayers to stop paying university tuition fees for “rich EU students”.
Alex Neil said the country could no longer afford the subsidy at the “expense of our own kids.”
Under European Union law, the Scottish Government’s free tuition policy requires EU students to be treated the same.
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Ministers later announced a continuation of fee support for EU citizens in 2019/20 and this year.
However, with the Brexit transition period expiring at the end of December, it is unclear whether the same deal will be offered in the future.
Neil, a former Health Secretary who voted for Brexit, said the time had come to end the support:
“We should start to make savings on European Union students who come here and get taught for nothing. We are teaching, in some cases, rich EU students and we are in danger of not being able to fund education for Scottish students.”
He said: “If Brexit is going to happen on 31st December, then I certainly don’t think we can afford to continue to subsidise rich European kids at the expense of our own kids.”
He added: “In any case, we objected to doing it in the first place, but we were forced to by EU rules.”
Neil suggested around £10m could be used to pay for scholarships for Scottish students to learn in Europe, and vice-versa.
According to Government figures, 21,505 EU students studied at Scottish universities in 2018/19, of which 15,310 full-time students received funding in the same year.
At that point, the cost of providing funded places to EU students was around £97m.
A report by the Scottish Government’s Economic Recovery Advisory Group highlighted the financial problems facing higher education.
It noted analysis which showed that universities faced a deficit of up to £500m as a result of coronavirus.
Scottish Green MSP Ross Greer said: “It’s sadly not surprising that a Brexiteer wants to put up yet another barrier to talented young people coming to Scotland.
“We have benefitted massively from students coming come here to study and then choosing to stay, not just because of their huge cultural contribution but because many have taken on key roles, particularly in our NHS, where we are otherwise desperately short of qualified staff. The truth is, we can’t afford to turn these students away.
“More people are recognising every day that independence is the clearest route back to Europe and all the benefits EU membership has brought to Scotland, whatever one disgruntled backbencher has to say.”
A spokesperson for Universities Scotland said: “The future fee-status of EU students is something we have raised with the Scottish Government ever since the Brexit referendum. The clarity from the Scottish Government about the fee status for EU students starting in 2021-22 is long overdue and needs clarified immediately.
“Our counterparts in England have received this clarity. Whatever decision the Scottish Government comes to, it needs to communicate a quick and reasoned decision.”
Tory MSP Jamie Greene said: “This intervention from a senior nationalist clearly exposes the arbitrary nature of the SNP’s higher education policy and why there have been long term issues in funding.
“Universities were struggling to make ends meet way before the Covid crisis, and it is significantly worse now.
“So any move which might help more talented Scottish students into Scottish universities is good for the economy and good for students themselves.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We are finalising our position on future support to EU students who start a course from 2021-22 and will make an announcement soon.”