FREE university tuition for EU students will be scrapped by the Scottish Government next year amid the "stark reality" of Brexit, it has been announced.

Higher education minister Richard Lochhead said ministers had taken the decision with a "heavy heart".

However he said the money saved – estimated to be up to £19 million for 2021/22 – will be kept within the higher education sector and the number of university places for Scottish students will rise as a result.

Students from EU countries – as remains the case for those from within Scotland – have been eligible for free tuition since fees were scrapped.

They were entitled to be treated the same as Scottish students under EU law.

Tuition fees in Scotland for overseas students currently range from £9,000 to more than £31,000 per year.

Students already in university, or starting this autumn, will continue to be exempt from fees for the duration of their course.

Professor Andrea Nolan, convener of representative body Universities Scotland, said it appreciated the decision would not have been easy.

She added: "However, this decision does offer Scotland an important opportunity to fully-fund the undergraduate education of Scottish students and shift the public funding of degree places onto solid ground for the first time in years. The pandemic has demonstrated how much that is needed.

“It is reassuring that there is a commitment that this resource won’t leave the university sector. That is vital at such a financially precarious time for universities.

“A move to international fee status for EU students from 2021 represents a big change to policy and funding at a challenging time for higher education so it will require very careful transition planning to avoid sharp shocks that could further destabilise certain degree programmes or institutions.

"We also need early certainty about how the change affects students from the Republic of Ireland."

SNP ministers previously extended free tuition for EU students for the 2020/21 academic year.

However prior to Brexit, documents released under freedom of information laws showed ministers had wanted to end the policy.

Yesterday, Mr Lochhead told MSPs: "As a result of EU law, since this government abolished tuition fees, we have treated EU students in the same way we treat students from Scotland. They do not pay tuition fees.

"It is only as a result of EU law applying in Scotland that this was possible – indeed it was mandatory.

"Our EU law obligations cease at the end of the transition period.

"And continuing with this arrangement from 21/22 would significantly increase the risk of any legal challenge.

"Following the UK’s vote to leave the EU, I have previously announced that 20/21 was a transition year for the policy and it is with a heavy heart that we have taken the difficult decision to end free education for new EU students from the academic year 2021/22 onwards as a consequence of Brexit.

"EU students who have already started their studies, or who start this autumn, will not be affected and will still be tuition free for the entirety of their course.

"That is the stark reality of Brexit and a painful reminder that our country’s decisions are affected by UK policies that we do not support and did not vote for.

"Our internationalism remains a key strength of higher education in Scotland.

"So, we will discuss with the sector an ambitious scholarship programme to ensure that the ancient European nation of Scotland continues to attract significant numbers of European students to study here."

Although Mr Lochhead argued the higher education sector is "performing wonderfully well", with the most recent figures suggesting a 16 per cent increase in EU citizens applying to study in Scotland, Scottish Conservative education spokesman Jamie Greene warned universities face "deep, cutting financial problems" and an estimated "black hole of around half a billion pounds".

Scottish Labour education spokesman Iain Gray criticised the lack of extra cash. He said: "It was welcome to hear [Mr Lochhead] pledge to keep the funding previously devoted to fees for EU students in the sector.

"However, the failure to provide any new money to secure the future of colleges and universities was very disappointing.

"While Ucas figures indicate that international student applications are up, it's not good enough for the Scottish Government to cross their fingers and hope that they appear despite all the uncertainties around Covid-19 and a second wave of cases."