A DOUBLE squeeze on Scottish university students has emerged in recent weeks which will be causing unease in the corridors of power.

One of the SNP Government’s most trumpeted policies is free university tuition for Scots-domiciled students, usually vocalised with the mantra that educational opportunity should be based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay. But life is rarely as simple as political slogans make out.

A report published by the Independent Commission on Fees suggested Scottish students are missing out on university places here because of the tuition fee policy operating in England.

The commission concluded Scottish students have been discouraged from going to university in England since the introduction of £9000 fees by the Westminster Government in 2012.

What that means is that proportionately more Scots are applying to Scottish universities, creating additional pressure on places here in a system which has a limited number available precisely because they are funded from the public purse.

Just weeks earlier, figures revealed that Scottish students are also facing greater pressure after a sharp rise in the number of applicants from the rest of Europe - up 13 per cent since 2011.

What appears to be happening is that the message is getting across to European students that under EU law they are entitled to be given parity with those from Scotland and have their tuition fees paid for them.

The rise is important because EU students compete for the same publicly-funded places as Scots and the £80 million cost of educating them is the responsibility of the Scottish taxpayer.

The result of all this was a 2.1 per cent fall in the number of first year undergraduates from Scotland being accepted to Scottish universities between 2011/12 and 2013/14 - from 53,760 in 2011/12 to 52,610.

More detailed figures from individual institutions last year suggest this decline is concentrated in a number of Scotland’s most prestigious institutions.

The EU issue is not a new one. Former education secretary Michael Russell said in 2011 that ministers were exploring an annual service charge for EU students similar to one in Ireland - but this proved to be a non-starter unless Scottish students were also charged - immediately undermining the flagship free tuition pledge.

Since then the government has tried to talk down the issue, re-casting the increased interest from EU students as evidence that Scotland remains an attractive destination to study. If numbers continue to rise that particular stalling tactic will start to ring hollow.

On the issue of Westminster fees, the Scottish Government has also chosen to focus on the positive, welcoming record applications from Scots.

However, there something more could be done as evidenced by the situation in Wales where the administration provides tuition fee support to its students wherever they study.

While a solution to the issue might simply be to fund an increase in places, there is also an argument ministers should look at whether at least some of the tuition fee support for Scottish students should be available to them if they study elsewhere in the UK.