Under EU law, it is illegal for a member state to charge students from another member state higher fees than they charge their own students. What this means is that students from France, Germany, Greece, and anywhere else can apply to a Scottish university, and receive a free education. (Students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland, however, are charged fees, because the law does not say that you can't charge students from a different part of the same member state higher fees. I suspect this will be successfully challenged in the EU courts - in any case, it's a moral wrong.)
Scotland cannot afford to pay for free education for the whole of Europe. Even though it is right that education should be free, there is just no way this can last. (And, if the UK government were ever to see sense, and reverse their disastrous policy of fees, the same would apply - although education should be free, I don't see how it can be.)
So, what is to be done?
I think we should take a look at the way pensions work.
In theory, what happens is that people (and employers, and government) pay contributions into a pension fund throughout their working lives. These contributions then get invested by (in theory) very clever people, where they accumulate value over time. Then, when the person retires, they gradually withdraw that money over the remainder of their lives, giving them a decent standard of living.
(Now, it's worth noting that this system has been utterly broken by various forms of idiocy. People haven't been investing enough, those investments have been in truly hideous places, and the government has had a nasty habit of stealing the money that should have paid for tomorrow's pensions in order to pay for the budget of today. However, the principle at work is sound.)
In theory, then, a similar mechanism could be adopted to pay for education:
- At birth, the government should set aside a fund for each child, as Labour actually did with the "Child Trust Funds" idea.
- Over the next several years, a portion of National Insurance (or general taxation) income should likewise be taken and invested in these same funds.
- Over the 16-18 years that the child is growing and attending school, therefore, a nice little pot of money should be growing, invested in their name.
- When the student leaves school and proceeds on to university, college, an apprenticeship, or whatever other studies/training they do (including education abroad, if that is what they choose to do), the money that has been invested in their name is used to pay the fees for their education. (The money in the pot can only be spent on education of various sorts.)
- When the person reaches the age of 25, any money that remains unspent is re-absorbed into the general pot, and invested for the next generation of students.
- Universities (and colleges, and apprenticeships, and so on) should charge fees, at a level set by the government. That level should be set so that the 'Educational Fund' available to the average student is sufficient to pay for at least five years of further education, counted from the time at which it is needed.
- When people (under the age of 25) enter the country as permanent residents, whether from EU member states, as immigrants, or as asylum seekers, they should immediately be assigned their own 'Educational Fund', which would start to grow, from £0, as indicated in points 1-3. This would then probably pay for part of a training course, meets our obligations under EU law, but doesn't require us to fund free education for all-comers.
- It is likely that we should also bring in various educational grants as well, providing some sort of cost-of-living help for students from poorer backgrounds, to enable successful asylum seekers to afford an appropriate education, and so on.
And that's it. That way, universities (and other training facilities) are able to charge the fees that they say they need to in order to survive, our young people don't have to pay massive fees or take on huge debts, the system is properly funded, and we meet our obligations under EU law.
The major weakness in the system, of course, comes if the money indicated in points 1-3 is in fact not invested, but rather is used in the short term for tax breaks or to balance the budget - as has happened with pensions. Sadly, I don't know how to solve the problem of people!