Young people from Northern Ireland have long been a welcome component of the diverse student body in Scotland's universities.
Since the UK Government raised the cap on tuition fees, however, they face a cost of up to £36,000 for four years of study. Even with a guaranteed loan, that prospect will be prohibitive for many.
However, since the Scottish Government abolished tuition fees for students from Scotland, it was obliged to offer the same deal to citizens of other EU countries, although entitled to charge fees to students from the rest of the UK (RUK). Since, under the Good Friday Agreement, those in Northern Ireland are entitled to dual citizenship with the Irish Republic, doing so provides a legitimate means of potential students gaining free university education in Scotland.
This unexpected consequence of what is now a gulf in the cost of studying in Scotland compared with the rest of the UK now poses a problem for the universities which could be fined for exceeding their quota of publicly funded places because students from Northern Ireland change their status during the application process. The universities face the double blow of losing the fees they had expected from these students and the fine of up to £1820 per student for taking on too many who have their fees paid.
With free tuition increasing the demand for places from other EU countries, there is already considerable pressure on places. Universities in Scotland are already making economies and a number of courses have been cut in recent years. There is considerable anxiety about the effects of the funding gap between institutions north and south of the Border. In the rest of the UK, fees will offset budget cuts, increasing the likelihood that better-funded institutions in England will be able to attract the best staff from Scotland.
Already there has been a drop in applications from the rest of the UK to Scottish universities, which must attract fee-paying students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland and from non-EU countries to balance the books. Whether the Scottish Government can gain some income from charging the growing number of EU students a management rather than a tuition fee is yet to be determined.
More urgently, before offers of places are finalised and accepted, the universities and the Scottish Government must decide how to deal with the British applicants from Northern Ireland who become EU applicants from the Republic of Ireland during the process. Imposing fines is unfair. It is equally unfair, however, if a student gains a fee-paying place but does not pay the fees. Amid the wide-ranging debate over whether the entrance qualifications should be adjusted for students from low-performing schools, little attention has been paid to whether universities show any bias in favour those who pay hefty fees. The Herald supports the principle of free access to higher education but there is much work yet to be done on how and by whom that should be funded.
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