EDUCATION secretary Mike Russell has admitted he will be forced to “refine” advice given to universities amid growing confusion over which students are entitled to free tuition.
It has emerged that increasing numbers of Northern Irish applicants are claiming dual nationality to avoid paying fees of up to £9,000 a year at Scotland’s universities.
From later this year, English, Northern Irish and Welsh students will be required to pay higher rate tuition fees, while Scots and those from the rest of the EU will remain exempt.
Glasgow Caledonian University yesterday said that nearly half of its 606 applicants from Northern Ireland had claimed dual UK/Irish nationality. Earlier this week the universities of Aberdeen and Dundee said they had recorded increases in the number of Northern Irish students claiming dual nationality to avoid paying fees.
Now Mr Russell has said he will “refine” the advice given to universities amid the “regrettable confusion” over tuition fees, but not until next year.
It is understood the Scottish Government has asked universities to collate information on applicants attempting to exploit the loophole. Sufficient numbers could lead to ministers claiming the fees legislation has had an “unintended consequence”, requiring it to be revisited.
In a letter to Tory education spokeswoman Liz Smith, Mr Russell wrote: “We have been working closely with the sector since we began the process of deregulation of fees for students from the rest of the United Kingdom, and both Universities Scotland and the Scottish Government have issued advice to the sector about our policy and their responsibilities.
“We are now working to refine this advice further in time for the opening of applications in September for session 2013/14.”
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson yesterday accused First Minister Alex Salmond of “sidestepping” the issue when she raised it during First Minister’s Questions.
She later added: “In a recent letter to the Scottish Conservatives, education secretary Mike Russell said he was going to possibly offer guidance to universities next year, but would not bother this year. Our universities and students deserve clarity now.”
The Scottish Government was forced to introduce new fee regulations for UK students after the government at Westminster increased fees for those at English universities.
While Scots and EU students remain exempt, there is a cap on their numbers, meaning any student applying for a place under dual nationality risks missing out on a place.
A spokeswoman for Universities Scotland, which represents principals, said: “Universities Scotland will continue to seek clarity on this issue, but this is a complex situation and a clear picture of applicant behaviour across Scotland is yet to emerge.
“However, the Scottish Government is actively engaged in this matter.”