Beware the law of unintended consequences.
When the Coalition Government introduced tuition fees of up to £9000 a year for students studying at universities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the Scottish Government had little option but to put in place a similar fee structure for students from the rest of the UK (RUK) attending Scottish universities.
Otherwise Scotland, where the Government carries the cost of tuition fees for its students, risked being flooded with "fee refugees". Under EU law the Scottish Government has to treat students from other EU countries on a par with its own but this does not apply to RUK students.
Subsequently it emerged that applicants from Northern Ireland, who held dual citizenship with the Irish Republic – a common occurrence – could avoid tuition fees by applying to Scottish institutions using their Irish passports. At the time the Scottish Government was dismissive of claims from The Herald and elsewhere that university fees structures could be undermined by this loophole and claimed there was no evidence that it was a problem. That is an easy claim to make when nobody had collated the relevant data.
Besides, it was only when higher tuition fees were introduced that the potential saving made such applications worthwhile. As more Northern Irish students became aware of the loophole the numbers exploiting it were likely to multiply. This would have presented universities with a double whammy: the loss of the expected tuition fees from RUK students and a possible fine for exceeding their quota of publicly funded places, if Irish students changed their status during the application process.
Moreover, as The Herald pointed out at the time, the same situation could apply to English-based students with Irish antecedents and indeed other dual nationality students. Yesterday it emerged that the Scottish Government is to act to close the very loophole they denied created a problem. It does not represent good government when ministers first belittle a problem, then allow deepening confusion to develop for applicants and their parents and for institutions, before taking the necessary action to clarify the situation. What other unintended consequences lay in wait?
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