A POWERFUL group of university leaders has called for the scrapping of a cap on fees charged by Scottish universities to students from the rest of the UK.

Institutions north of the Border can charge students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland up to £9000 a year.

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The limit was introduced to ensure a level playing field with universities in the rest of the UK, which can also charge fees of up to £9000. It was also intended to act as a brake on undue profiteering.

Now a group representing the 12 governing bodies of universities in Scotland has made a controversial call for them to be allowed to set their own maximum fee.

The call was immediately rejected by both the UCU Scotland lecturing union and student body NUS Scotland.

Mary Senior, of UCU Scotland, the largest union representing academics and lecturers, said: "It is astonishing that the chairs of courts are calling for undergraduate fees to be unregulated and market driven for students from the rest of the UK.

"The custodians of our world- class universities only seem to be interested in turning a profit, not defending our educational values."

Robin Parker, president of NUS Scotland, added: "It's extremely disappointing to see that the Committee of Scottish Chairs view students primarily as sources of additional income with this advocacy for an unregulated free market in Scottish education.

"It also highlights how out of touch the people involved in university governance are with the students they are supposed to serve, and with the Scottish public. To remove the cap completely and let the market rip through our system would be incredibly damaging."

The university ruling courts made the statement in a submission to the Scottish Parliament's education committee. It is currently scrutinising the Post-16 (Scotland) Education Bill, which would enshrine the cap in the law.

The Committee of Scottish Chairs said: "All universities welcome students from throughout the UK and overseas because of the diversity they bring to their communities.

"In setting the level of fees, universities must take into account the cost of providing courses and the desire to attract students.

"It is inconceivable that any governing body should set its fees at such a level that students would be discouraged from applying.

"The chairs, therefore, believe that this section is unnecessary."

Those on the Committee of Scottish Chairs include: Professor Stuart Monro (Edinburgh University), David Ross (Glasgow), Professor Ewan Brown (St Andrews) and Richard Hunter (Strathclyde).

The Herald reported yesterday how at least four Scottish universities had lost money as a result of the introduction of fees for students from the rest of the UK.

Aberdeen, Abertay in Dundee, Queen Margaret in Edinburgh and West of Scotland all said they now had a lower income because the level of fees collected was less than the public money they used to receive for these students.

However, Michael Russell, the Education Secretary, said Scottish universities continued to be attractive to students from other countries, with recent figures showing an increase of more than 600 accepting a place at a university north of the Border.

"The UK Government's decision to treble fees in England left this Government with no choice but to allow Scottish universities to increase fees for students from the rest of the UK in line with that," he said.

"However, we have taken action to ensure Scottish-domiciled students do not have to pay tuition fees and we are providing an increased number of funded places for Scottish and EU students."