SCOTTISH students could be charged tuition fees and then reimbursed under plans being considered to make their EU counterparts pay towards their education at Scottish universities.
EU sources have told Scotland on Sunday that the plan is the only way the SNP Government can “get away with” charging European students while maintaining free access to those based in Scotland.
As in England, Scottish students would be charged fees before getting a grant to meet the full cost. The Scottish Government would then be able to charge EU students the same fees.
The complex arrangement is being considered because of a European law which asserts that countries must offer the same charging regime they offer to home-based students to those from elsewhere in the EU. With Scotland having ruled out tuition fees, it means EU students also get free education, depriving the Scottish Government of around £75 million a year in “lost” revenue.
Recent figures from UCAS, the university applications service, recorded a rise in European Union students wanting to study in Scotland this year.
St Andrews University saw applications from the EU rise by 35 per cent.
Education Secretary Mike Russell has stated he wants to introduce a “management fee” for non-UK EU students to claw back some of this cash, but the legal viability of that proposal has posed a major barrier.
The alternative, say EU sources, would therefore be to copy Ireland, which similarly charges all students fees and then reimburses undergraduates from the home country by offering grants.
The arrangement will not affect English, Northern Irish and Welsh students studying at Scottish universities, all of whom will be required to pay up to £9,000 a year towards the cost of their degree.
Earlier this month, it emerged a loophole in the current system could see UK students avoid fees by applying for an EU passport.
It had been suggested that students in Northern Ireland were attempting to gain Irish passports for that reason.
However, while there is no cap on the number of United Kingdom students, there is a cap on the number of European Union and Scottish students because they have their tuition paid for by the Scottish Government.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The Scottish Government remains committed to introducing a management fee for non-UK EU students. While we recognise and support the international mobility of students, educating EU students in Scotland costs us around £75m every year and this is not reciprocated.
“Other member states are also considering this issue and the education secretary has had useful meetings with the Austrian and Irish education ministers as well as the European Commission. We are continuing to work with the commission and other member states to find a solution.”
In Ireland, universities currently charge all students around ¤2,000 a year for the cost of their tuition.
However, home students are entitled to grants from their local authorities, which effectively cancel out the fees.
Robin Parker, president of the National Union of Students (NUS) in Scotland, said: “We are opposed to tuition fees, no matter where a student is from, and are against imposing any management or service fee for EU students.”