When English universities were allowed to raise the cap on tuition fees to £9000 a year, there were fears that EU students facing rising fees at home would regard Scottish universities as a cheap option.
That is because, under EU law, students who qualify for Scottish seats of higher learning from other member states are entitled to the same free places offered to Scottish students.
Figures released yesterday suggest that, rather than a flood of EU students opting for university courses in Scotland, there is a steady flow. Last year their numbers rose by 7% to 17,475, compared with around tenfold that number of home-domiciled students. (EU student numbers at English universities edged up too, although by a smaller margin.)
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Many Scottish universities have always had a cosmopolitan flavour. Indeed, that is part of their appeal. Foreign students enrich the university experience specifically and Scottish culture in general. They act as ambassadors for Scotland when they return to their own countries. The continuing flow of applications suggests Scotland is holding its own in what has become a competitive global market in higher education. That is something to celebrate. And many Scottish students benefit from opportunities to study in other EU countries, whether for a semester, an academic year or their entire degree.
The Scottish Government insisted yesterday that it would work with universities to ensure Scottish students with the right qualifications would continue to have access to higher education. There will be an extra 2000 places next year. Nevertheless, the current trend inevitably raises anxieties about future pressure on places. The other concern is about cost. Already the bill to taxpayers for educating EU students stands at £75 million. As the discrepancy between Scotland and the rest of the UK becomes more widely known, this could rise further.
At a time when further education college budgets and public services are suffering from cuts, this risks being unaffordable. Education Secretary Michael Russell talks of a service charge for EU students to help redress the balance but there is no sign of an agreement with European mandarins. A quirk of EU law and UK devolved government mean students from the rest of the UK are required to pay fees because they are regarded a citizens of the same member state as Scotland. Though these fees are vital to the coffers of Scottish universities, they are not sufficient. Besides, if Scotland were to gain independence and take out separate EU membership, presumably students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland would acquire the same status as that currently enjoyed by other EU nationals, depriving Scottish universities of an important source of funding.