A growing number of EU students – who also do not have to pay fees – are studying in the country and Scottish youngsters are finding themselves squeezed out when it comes to getting into university, research has shown.
The findings have prompted fresh calls for students to pay some contribution to their studies from opposition parties, although the Scottish Government say applications are at a record high.
Scottish universities attract a higher proportion of EU and international students than the UK as a whole. This trend has been growing in the past decade.
Students from elsewhere in the UK are charged fees of up to £9,000 a year to study in Scotland, as they are south of the Border. But a loophole in EU law means students elsewhere in Europe can study here free.
Professor Robert Wright of Strathclyde University, who has compiled research into the issue, says “word is getting around” among EU students that they can study at no cost in Scotland and more are taking advantage of this.
Prof Wright said: “The students that come here are of high ability. They have to have pretty good written and spoken and English skills for a start and universities in the UK are viewed as being high quality internationally.
“The message gets across that you can come here, you don’t pay these big tuition fees that you would have to pay if you went to England or the United States and here they are.”
In 2002/03, there were only 8,800 EU students studying in Scotland compared with 18,600 a decade later.
“It is highly probable that in the next few years EU students will continue to grow in number and to remain an important part of Scotland’s student body,” according to Prof Wright’s research paper entitled The Changing significance of EU and international students’ participation in Scottish Higher Education.
Non-EU international student numbers have also increased rapidly. In 2002/03 there were 15,800 non-EU students enrolled in Scottish higher education. By 2012/13 the figure was 28,305 – a 78 per cent increase).
Figures published over the weekend show that the percentage of Scottish students at Glasgow University fell from 72 per cent in 2011/12 to 63 per cent in 2013/14 (from 11,268 to 10,656) while the proportion of EU students rose by 3 per cent to 14.4 per cent (from 1805 to 2437).
The number of Scots at Edinburgh fell from 8,309 in 2011/12 to 8014 in 2014/15 (44.6 per cent to 40.5 per cent) while the number of EU domiciled students rose from 1,602 to 2,028 (8.6 per cent to 10.3 per cent).
The percentage of Scottish students at Dundee fell from 79.4 per cent in 2009/10 to 71.2 per cent in 2014/15 (from 7,855 to 6,518) – while for EU students the figure rose from 4.6 per cent to 8.7 per cent (from 460 to 792).
In Aberdeen the number of Scots students fell from 7,914 in 2010/11 to 6086 in 2014/15 – although as a percentage they rose from 58 per cent to 59 per cent – while the number of EU domiciled students increased from 2,013 to 2,199 or 16 per cent to 21 per cent.
Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show the number of students from other parts of Britain at Scottish universities rose by 2.8 per cent from 145,785 in 2009/10 to 149,910 in 2013/14, while EU students jumped by 24 per cent from 11,135.
Prof Wright’s research concludes that any future growth in student numbers in Scottish HEIs is likely to come not from applicants from within the UK but from the EU and from international students from the rest of the world.
“Scotland is different to the rest of the UK when it comes to how much income it generates from tuition fees from international students,” the research adds.
“For the rest of the UK 31.6 per cent of all tuition fee income comes from international students. In Scotland this figure is 52.2 per cent, meaning more than half of all income raised through tuition fees came from international students.
“This makes non-EU students a highly significant source of income for Scottish HEIs. However, this income is not distributed evenly across all Scottish HEIs.”
Edinburgh University does “extremely well” from international student tuition fees, raising more than £90 million in 2012/13 from this source.
“Any changes in tuition fees charged to EU students or to international students, or indeed to students from the rest of the UK, would therefore impact unevenly across Scottish HEIs,” the report adds.
Edinburgh said it welcomes students from around the world.
Tory education spokeswoman Liz Smith said: “To provide a sustainable future for higher education in Scotland there needs to be serious thought given to a graduate contribution which will provide the necessary additional source of income to allow Scotland’s universities to remain fully competitive against similar institutions across the world.
“The current arrangements in Scotland for the funding of higher education are highly discriminatory in terms of who pays and who doesn’t, and also restrictive when it comes to the long-term investment in higher education.
“Worst of all, it is pressurising admissions departments to look at the financial circumstances of students rather than at their academic potential. That is something which will, in time, do serious damage to the reputation of our universities.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said record numbers of Scots have applied to Scotland’s universities so far this year, and in 2014 there was also a record number of Scottish acceptances to Scottish universities through the main UCAS scheme.
“Higher education in Scotland is thriving,” he added. “On top of that, further additional funded places have been allocated in 2014-15 for Scottish domiciled and EU students, including 730 places for widening access candidates, 1089 places for students articulating from college to university, and 342 for key skills. Scottish domiciled students will take up the vast majority of these extra places.”
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