The fevered debate over whether students from Northern Ireland are entitled to free tuition fees in Scotland brings into stark relief the shambles which is further education provision.

Until relatively recently, free education was seen as a right available to all who wished to avail of it.

Since the days of Thatcher, however, that dream of education as a right has been setback repeatedly. As a result, today, the ability to study is based largely on the ability to pay rather than the ability to learn.

That ability to pay, of course, precludes many working class families from sending their young — no matter how bright — to third level education, thus perpetuating a class division which is a stain on our society.

It is true that the powersharing executive at Stormont has worked hard to cap tuition fees and keep them below the no-working-class-kid-need-apply £9,000 being sought in England.

However, since the tuition fee is only one part of the financial jigsaw which makes up a university education, the barrier to entry still remains too high for many students from working class families in the North of Ireland. Indeed, students from working class backgrounds are also more likely to balk at the large debt burden they will be forced to carry on exiting university when they don’t have the potential to inherit the wealth of their better-off peers.

Interestingly, in Scotland, they have gone down another road. There, politicians believe the right to a free education is sacrosanct and as a result have refused to levy any fee on students. True, the money to fund universities must be found elsewhere by the Scottish government but nevertheless Alex Salmond has stuck to his guns over free education at university level.

In an unexpected development, it now turns out that students here who hold an Irish passport can avail of that generous Scottish arrangement. Thus we have news this week of students in the heart of East Belfast applying for Irish passports to aid their Scottish college applications.

Fair play to them, we say, for they are certainly displaying the savvy required of anyone who hopes to earn a degree.

But when the hue and cry around this development has died down we hope our local politicians will ask themselves why the cream of our young talent has to go across the water (or indeed across the border) to get an education free of tuition fees.