Thousands of new students from Northern Ireland applying to study in the Republic will now have to pay fees for their university and college courses.
Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry, who made the announcement yesterday, said Stormont will no longer pay a grant on behalf of students opting for third level education in the Republic.
The Department for Employment and Learning currently pays a £1,810 grant per student to pay for a ‘contribution charge’ in the Republic.
This will stop from September 2013.
Instead students who choose to study in the Republic will have to apply for a loan to pay the charge.
Mr Farry said the revised arrangements will address anomalies currently in the system and offer a “more level playing field” to students.
He said the changes would result in more Northern Ireland students becoming eligible for means-tested maintenance grant support.
The upper household income threshold will increase from £23,065 to £41,064.
The incentive to study in the Republic was attractive, as students from Northern Ireland who opted to study at home are facing tuition fees of up to £3,465 per year from September.
Applicants from Northern Ireland who chose to study in the Republic had previously been able to do so for free.
Tuition fees in the Republic of Ireland were scrapped in 1996 and the annual college registration charge, or ‘contribution fee' was introduced.
As the department paid the contribution fee on behalf of students from Northern Ireland, it resulted in thousands of students being entitled to a free degree in the Republic.
Some students were also eligible to receive a means-tested, non-repayable grant of up to £2,000.
The minister said there had been “significant increases” in the Republic's student contribution fee during the past 10 years.
Mr Farry said the arrangements for 2013/14 were broadly equivalent to those for Northern Ireland students studying anywhere in the UK.
“The revised arrangements provide a more level playing field in terms of the finance package for local students regardless of where they choose to study in the UK and Republic of Ireland and will also ensure an equitable alignment in student support arrangements for all Northern Ireland-domiciled students,” he said.
The changes in the system come at a time when tuition fees at some UK universities have risen to £9,000 per year.
Mr Farry added: “It is inconsistent to maintain the current system of providing a full non-repayable grant to cover this charge when students from Northern Ireland studying at home and in other parts of the UK are expected to apply for loans to cover the cost of their tuition fees, with the majority applying for student loans for this purpose.”
The National Union of Students and Union of Students in Ireland (NUS-USI) said they “cautiously” welcomed the move.
Adrianne Peltz, NUS-USI president, said: “Any savings from this scheme must be directed into creating a targeted approach that will increase student mobility and offer more opportunities for our students to take advantage of this excellent cross-border initiative.”
Current figures indicate that more than 700 students from Northern Ireland enrol annually in universities in the Republic of Ireland.
Preliminary figures from the Republic's Central Applications Office (CAO) have shown that to date in 2012 there had been a 28% increase in the number of UK students who have applied to study at universities in the Republic of Ireland.