Students from England or Wales who have an Irish grandparent could avoid paying tuition fees at Scottish universities because of a legal loophole, it has emerged.
The law could allow hundreds of thousands of students to win free places by taking Republic of Ireland citizenship and applying as EU students, which would result in their fees being paid under European equality law.
Almost 625,000 people living in England and Wales claimed Irish ethnicity in the 2001 census, and as many as six million across the UK are estimated to have at least one Irish grandparent.
In some cases, even UK residents with an Irish great-grandparent could apply for an Irish passport. The children and grandchildren of other European nationalities could also use the same loophole.
The Scottish Government played down the development, claiming that it would only apply to a small number of people. But it raises the prospect of a flood of applicants, who could otherwise expect to pay up to £9,000 in fees, to Scottish universities from around the UK.
It could increase competition for places and potentially damage income stream for certain institutions. It costs Scotland £75 million a year to fund EU students and there has already been a 6 per cent rise in the number of European Union students applying to its universities this autumn. Gordon Watson, president of the University and College Union Scotland, which represents lecturers, said the funding system was in chaos.
He said: “Those with a dual-European passport will compete with Scottish students for the capped number of places in clearing and a huge rise in such applications is likely next year.
“This is another incidence that shows the introduction of fees for UK students outside of Scotland will play havoc with the admissions process as universities try to maximise student intake from those diminishing number of UK students who will pay fees.”
Robin Parker, president of NUS Scotland, said: “We must see clarity on this issue so students can make an informed choice about what places are available and what support they will be able to receive.” A spokeswoman for Universities Scotland, which represents university principals, said: “Based on the most recent statistics available, there is no indication that Scotland’s universities have seen a rise in applicants holding an Irish passport.
“Universities Scotland continues to seek clarity from Government on this issue in the interests of learners making choices about where to study.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Students who hold dual-UK and EU nationality have been able to apply for fee support as non-UK EU nationals at Scottish universities for a number of years, but there is no evidence to suggest this has ever happened on a significant scale or that it is likely to.
“Eligibility for claiming nationality varies by state and it is for the student to prove they hold EU nationality before the relevant date. “We closely monitor application trends and are prepared to act if it appears that issues such as this are arising and we are also exploring the introduction of an EU management fee, within the bounds of EU law, with the issue recently being raised with the EU commission.”
Students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland can be charged up to £9,000 to study in Scotland, while Scottish students pay nothing.