THE money Scottish universities make from English, Welsh and Northern Irish students is likely to match the current income from overseas undergraduates in just three years' time.

Figures compiled by The Herald show institutions north of the Border are set to make an annual income of at least £140 million by 2015/16 from students from the rest of the UK (rUK).

Currently, Scottish universities make just under £140m in fees from foreign undergraduate students.

The figures, on the day hundreds of thousands of pupils south of the Border get their A-level results, highlight just how important fee income from rUK students will be in future.

The majority of income ­Scottish universities receive - for teaching Scottish and EU students - still comes from the taxpayer at some £600m, but public finances are increasingly stretched.

Alastair Sim, director of ­Universities Scotland, which represents university principals, said the sector was attractive to students from across the world.

He said: "Universities have been ­encouraged to diversify their income generation for a number of years now and this is increasingly happening on the teaching side of our activity, as well as the research side.

"The move to charge fees to students from the rest of the UK is the latest significant move in that direction."

However, Gordon Maloney, president of student body NUS Scotland, said the organisation was opposed to charging any students.

He added: "Students coming to Scotland from the rest of the UK are at the whims of their university as to how much, or little, financial support they receive."

Dave Anderson, president of UCU Scotland, which represents academics, said lecturers were opposed to "profiteering" by institutions.

He said: "Scottish universities are making millions by charging other UK students and bursaries for the less well-off are not regulated."

Fees of up to £9000-a-year were introduced by Scots universities for rUK students in 2012/13 as a result of policy changes in ­Westminster.

Since then, ­universities have been actively marketing themselves south of the Border to encourage more rUK students to consider Scottish higher education.

Universities currently charge an average of just less than £7000 in fees to rUK students and ­the estimates suggest there will be an increase to at least 20,000 rUK fee-paying students in Scotland by 2015/16.

However, contrary to some reports, the recruitment of students from the UK and overseas has no impact on the number of Scottish students. They apply through an entirely different process and their numbers have been increasing.

Academic leaders have also stressed that income from rUK student fees is not all profit because of the cost of delivering the courses, the fact some public funding is clawed back and because universities now offer rUK bursaries and scholarships worth up to £3m a year.