29/11/2011 14:26 GMT

Scottish Government Raise Tuition Fees For Non-Scottish Students

MSPs have rubber-stamped the Scottish Government's decision to allow universities to raise fees for students from the rest of the United Kingdom.

Holyrood's Education and Culture Committee agreed to the controversial plan, with one abstention from Conservative MSP Liz Smith.

The vote formalises fees already set across all Scottish universities.

Education Secretary Michael Russell, who appeared before the committee on Tuesday, conceded there are differences of opinion on the policy. He added: "We have come to this conclusion after a great deal of thought. I would much rather not charge fees to anyone, but that is not an option that I can face within the budgetary constraints that I have. I have come to what I think is the least bad option."

Mr Russell said wider concerns will be looked at as part of a consultation due to end on December 23. Issues include ensuring fair access for all students and the possibility of setting a lower blanket fees cap.

The regulation to raise fees for students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland is intended to come into force on August 1 next year. It was prompted by a UK Government decision to allow English universities to charge up to £9,000 a year.

Last month the University of the Highlands and Islands become the final university in Scotland to announce its fees. The estimated average annual fee is £6,841 - although Edinburgh and St Andrews universities want to charge as much as £36,000 for a four-year degree.

Mr Russell, backed by other MSPs, criticised those charging the highest fees. Asked if he would consider an independent body to regulate fees and bursaries, he said: "I will continue to consider whether further action is required. I think there are two universities in particular, we know which they are, where I have expressed my opinion, as the First Minister has.

"We'd like to have seen them behave more responsibly but they chose not to. We don't live in a perfect world - we live in a world sometimes where universities, and others, have freedom of action. Universities are autonomous institutions. But of course judgement can be made upon them, and they are open to criticism if they do things you don't like."

The average fee in England is £8,509 a year, Mr Russell told the committee. The SNP pledged to maintain free education for Scottish-based students in the run-up to the Holyrood election.