The principal of one of Scotland's oldest universities has said allowing wealthier families to pay for places could help prevent "talent and money" leaving the country.

Sir Peter Mathieson, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, said this and asking graduates above the average income to repay fees was "worthy of calm consideration".

He said the government funding received for Scottish students was "inadequate" and had led to a situation where fee payers from the UK and overseas were subsidising the system while wealthier students were going to English universities because of a squeeze on places north of the border.

It comes as the Scottish Government has been accused of a "total betrayal" after it announced that £ 46 million was being cut from the further and higher education budget.

Read more: The truth about university admissions

Graeme Dey, the SNP’s Higher and Further Education Minister blamed the decision on the “appalling mismanagement” of the UK budget by the Tory Government.

The move has led to the City of Glasgow College proposing to make 75 staff redundant.

Edinburgh University's principal denied "more lucrative" foreign or RUK (rest of the UK) students were being given preferential treatment for places to balance the books.

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Writing in today's Herald Sir Peter said the notion was "unfounded" because the number of Scottish-domiciled students that universities can accept is capped by the Scottish Government, describing this as "an inescapable consequence of their policy to pay tuition fees for this group".

The SNP abolished all charges when it took power in 2007 and ministers set the amount of funding provided to Scottish universities each year in order to cover free tuition for domiciled students in Scotland.

Last year, the think tank Reform Scotland proposed that Scottish graduates earning more than the average salary could contribute towards their tuition fees. 

It also called for the cap on Scottish student numbers to be raised.

In 2022, Edinburgh University received 75,438 applications for around 6000 places, an increase of more than 17,000 compared to 2018. 


The uni was only able to make offers to a third of those who applied. 

"We are accused of blocking Scottish-domiciled students in favour of more lucrative, fee-paying students from overseas or the rest of the United Kingdom (known as RUK)," said the principal.

"This notion is unfounded: the number of Scottish-domiciled students that we can accept is capped by the Scottish Government, an inescapable consequence of their policy to pay tuition fees for this group.

"We are penalised if we under-recruit, so we always aim to be on target. 
"So Scottish candidates are in no way competing with those living beyond Scotland’s borders.

READ MORE: SNP Government blamed £46million university funding cuts on Tories

"In fact, the funding that we receive for these students is inadequate to pay the full costs of their education and has not increased for a number of years, therefore it is being eroded in real terms.

""RUK fees have also been fixed and are therefore being eroded. International students pay higher tuition fees and therefore cross-subsidise “home” students.


He said allowing parents in Scotland to pay for places -outwith the cap - was worth considering.

He said:  "Wealthy families in Scotland can currently pay for their offspring to go to university in England or abroad but not in Scotland: therefore talent and money are leaving Scotland.

"Changing any of this would be a political decision beyond my control, but it is worthy of calm consideration."

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Russell Group data show that one year’s intake of international students is worth £25.9 billion to the UK economy

The principal also refuted accusations that universities like Edinburgh are "lowering standards" for students from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

He said no applicant was accepted unless they reach (and often exceed) minimal entry requirements.

He dismissed accusations that the university had "U-turned" on a push to widen participation after one course was forced to turn "traditional" students away.

He said: "We give special consideration to students from less conventional backgrounds using a combination of Scottish Government criteria – such as postcodes identified as being within the lowest 20% of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation – as well as our own additional metrics to create what we call a “context flag”. 

"One of our Scots Law courses in the most recent intake had so many applicants with these context flags, to whom we guarantee an offer, that they exceeded the total number of places available under the Scottish Government cap. 

"This therefore had the unintended outcome that no students without such a flag were able to receive an offer for that particular course. 

"Our response to this, to adjust our procedures to ensure that the same does not happen again, has recently been erroneously described as a “U-turn”. 

"It is no such thing – it is simply a calibration to take account of the massively increased number of applicants."

He added: "There will be no U-turns on our desire to “level the playing field” for less-advantaged applicants whilst I am the Principal."

However, he said it was inevitable that some more, traditional students would be denied placed in a capped system.

He said: "All I can say to those from more traditional backgrounds that feel hard done by or excluded is that we apologise for that, but significant sections of the population have felt like that for generations until more enlightened admissions policies like ours became active. 

"It is not the case that privately educated applicants won’t be able to secure a place at Edinburgh. In fact, more often, we have been criticised for having too many students from independent schools."

A Scottish Government spokesperson said, “Since 2012/13, we have invested over £1 billion per year in Scotland’s universities, to ensure that our universities continue to deliver a high standard of education for all students.

“Since 2006-07, the number of Scottish-domiciled full-time first-degree entrants has increased by over 31%.

“Latest UCAS data shows Scottish domiciled acceptances to Scottish providers, are up 5% between 2019 (last year exams were sat) and 2022 – now up to 35,690.

“The Scottish Government firmly believes that access to university should be based on the ability to learn and not the ability to pay, however there is a need to exert a level of control over the higher education budget, which means that the number of students able to access a funded place is not unlimited.

“Our commitment to free tuition means that, unlike elsewhere in the UK, Scottish students studying in Scotland do not incur additional debt of up to £27,750, and that average student loan debt for Scottish students is the lowest in the UK."