Could the now infamous quote by Alex Salmond that 'rocks will melt with the sun' before he introduces tuition fees for Scottish students lead to an embarrassing U-Turn in the event of independence?
The question of the EU has been on everyone's lips as the next major issue in the independence debate. There is still much sabre-rattling from all sides, with the pro-union 'Better Together' campaign pointing to statements by José Manuel Barroso that an independent Scotland would have to apply to join the EU. However, the SNP and pro-independence 'Yes' campaigns have criticised these claims stating that Scotland would and should be able to enter the EU despite choosing to become independent.
These questions have been discussed at length in this week's issue of The Journal with the decision by one MEP to throw down the gauntlet and demand that London seeks assurances on what the details of re-joining the EU would be if Scotland becomes independent - this is relevant both sides of the border.
While these arguments are interesting the issue of students and student funding will continue to be an on-going furore between the Scottish government and Europe. As has been repeatedly pointed out by many observers, both partial and impartial, EU students currently enjoy free fees in Scotland due to Scottish students being exempt from fees, which is in line with EU law. Currently there is a loop-hole which means that RUK students have to pay fees, which were recently increased to £9000 by the Scottish Government, in line with plans from Westminster.
However, the debate over EU membership raises a number of questions for the Scottish Government and questions which they will have to answer if they wish to maintain confidence in their education sector; something that is looking in very short supply following the fall-out of the Kirk Ramsey resignation late last year reported in 'The Journal' leading to calls for the Education Minister's resignation. One of the main questions would be the status of RUK students in an independent Scotland. Under an independent Scotland RUK students would no longer have to pay fees which could lead to some serious number crunching to avoid Alex Salmond becoming pink-faced, pun intended, and having to backtrack on his promise to ensure that rocks do indeed melt with the sun before he introduces fees for Scottish students.
One avenue could be to introduce fees for EU students attending university in Scotland; this system is currently used in Ireland whereby students must pay an 'annual service charge' to colleges and the education system to study in Scotland. This, however, could be a risky and dubious strategy. Some senior pro-independence figures have claimed that the international reputation of Scotland's universities and higher education would ensure that international students would be attracted to Scotland. However, introducing fees for EU students could discourage many of these EU students attending university in Scotland thereby potentially having a knock-on effect for international students.
Therefore, could it make sense for Scotland to remain aloof from EU membership to ensure the continuation of free fees for Scottish students? This possibility is unthinkable and certainly hasn't been extended by the SNP or any other pro-independence movement. Instead many SNP representatives, both at home and at the EU level have been keen to stress how it would be a 'nearly automatic' procedure for Scotland to re-join the EU however others have disputed this claim suggesting that the process could take up to two years. Others are questioning whether a country like Spain would ratify the admittance of an independent Scotland into the EU so as to discourage separatist movements in its own borders. Other schemes that could be put at risk include the Erasmus scheme for students to study abroad which is often encouraged among universities. As a non-EU state Scotland's universities could well struggle to ensure study-abroad opportunities for their students.
Regardless of whether an independent Scotland is granted EU status or not, the education sector presents a worrying can of worms for an independent SNP government.