Northern Ireland students with an Irish passport will no longer be able to avoid paying fees at Scottish universities.
The Scottish government is to introduce legislation from 2013/14 to close the loophole that allowed people from Northern Ireland, England and Wales with Irish passports to study for free.
Scottish students do not have to pay tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year if they study in Scotland.
Under European law, European Union students from outside the UK must be treated the same way as local students, meaning they are exempt from fees.
Until now that has meant that students from the rest of the UK with Irish passports were able to be classed as EU students when they applied for a place at one of Scotland’s 18 universities.
This loophole has led to speculation that thousands of applicants from Northern Ireland could use their rights to Irish citizenship to avoid paying fees, as everyone born in Northern Ireland is eligible for an Irish passport.
However, under the new legislation, dual nationality university applicants from the rest of the UK will be required to prove that they have lived in another EU member state for at least three months before qualifying to have their tuition fees paid.
The Scottish Government said the move was designed to ensure a consistent approach across all universities and insisted there was little evidence to suggest the loophole was being exploited.
Education Secretary Michael Russell said: “Since the recent changes to the tuition fees system there is little or no evidence of changes in the make-up of applicants. This legislation will require dual nationality students to provide evidence that they have previously exercised their right of residence elsewhere and will prevent the use of dual nationality solely to benefit from free tuition.”
However, Basil McCrea MLA criticised the legality of the Scottish Government’s decision.
Mr McCrea said: “It is discriminatory and unjust that Scottish universities offer different fees to other parts of the UK and Europe. Whether it is lawful or not is another matter.
“It is not up to the Scottish Parliament to decide on what nationality an individual is, it is up to that individual, protected in EU law. It is also a condition of the Good Friday Agreement that someone from Northern Ireland can class themselves as Irish if they desire. I expect this part of decision to be challenged also.”
Professor Pete Downes, convener of Universities Scotland, said: “Universities very much welcome this action from the Scottish Government. It's important that students have access to consistent information on fees and financial support. Despite much speculation, Scotland's universities have not seen a large influx of applicants from Northern Ireland looking to exploit the loophole.”
S tory so far
Figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) for the 2012/13 academic year show that of the 19,148 people from Northern Ireland who applied for a university place by the end of June, 5,251 applied to a Scottish university — more than one in four. It was estimated 25% of them, around 1,300, had Irish passports. If they were all accepted to Scottish universities that would cost the Scottish Government £40m per year.