A TOP Scottish university is to offer the most expensive degree in the UK after announcing annual fees of £9000 for students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The decision by Edinburgh University means students from the rest of the UK will pay £36,000 for a four-year degree. By comparison, the total cost of a degree at Oxford and Cambridge, regarded as among the best in the world, will be £25,000 from next year.

Heriot-Watt University, in Edinburgh, also announced fees of £9000 a year yesterday, although the total cost of a degree will be capped at £27,000. Aberdeen University has already announced fees of £9000 a year, capped at £27,000.

The news comes just weeks after Michael Russell, the Education Secretary, said he expected Scottish universities to show restraint in setting fees, with £6375 a year quoted as a competitive figure.

Last night, officials from both Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt argued that new bursaries introduced alongside higher fees would alleviate the burden for poorer students from the rest of the UK (RUK).

However, there was an immediate backlash from academics and students, with particular anger directed at Edinburgh University’s “staggering and ridiculous” fees.

Mary Senior, Scottish official for the UCU Scotland lecturers’ union, said: “We are disappointed that Heriot-Watt and Edinburgh universities are to set fees at the highest level, leaving students paying more to study in Scotland than even in England.

“Though Edinburgh is offering bursaries, most students won’t qualify for these, so only the wealthiest will consider Edinburgh an option.

“Our worst fears that most Scottish universities will ignore the minister and charge the highest possible fee have come to fruition.”

Graeme Kirkpatrick, depute president of NUS Scotland, said: “A £36,000 degree is both staggering and ridiculous. This is nothing less than cashing in on students from the rest of the UK. Universities in Scotland seem to think they can charge anything they like, and that students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland will still come here to study regardless.

“The reputational damage this could do, not only to Edinburgh, but to the whole of Scottish higher education, should not be underestimated.”

Scottish Labour’s higher education spokeswoman, Claire Baker, added: “I’m bitterly disappointed. I fear many less well-off students from other parts of the UK will now be priced out of Scottish universities.”

However, officials from Edinburgh hit back, saying half of the additional income raised through fees would go towards bursaries to support poorer students from the rest of the UK, up to a maximum of £28,000 per student.

Professor Mary Bownes, vice- principal for external engagement, said: “The university is committed to introducing the most generous package of bursaries to be made available to RUK students on the lowest household incomes, with the aim of ensuring that no student will be prevented from attending the university purely on the basis of an inability to afford to study here.”

Defending the fee hike, she added: “These students will be studying at one of the world’s top teaching and research institutions, regularly ranked among the leading universities in the world. Their educational experience is also enhanced by the university’s location in the historic Scottish capital and by the cosmopolitan nature of the university.”

Professor Steve Chapman, principal of Heriot-Watt University, said: “A Heriot-Watt degree is a positive investment in future employment. Over 92% of our graduates are in work or further study within six months of graduation, with approximately three-quarters of those going straight into graduate-level jobs.”

The need to alter the fee level paid by students from the rest of the UK to study in Scotland was prompted by changes to university funding brought forward by the UK Government.

Because institutions were allowed to charge up to £9000 a year in the rest of the UK, the SNP Government decided to allow universities in Scotland to charge similar fees to prevent Scotland becoming a cheap option. Higher education in Scotland is free to Scottish students.

The charging of fees was also seen as helping to close the funding gap between Scotland and the rest of the UK because of the additional fee income being generated south of the Border.

A student's voice: blogger Rachel Hanretty on fees for RUK students.