Final year high school pupils in Northern Ireland can qualify for free university tuition in Scotland – if they have an Irish passport.
The news has led to a rush in Irish passport applications from pupils from the Protestant education sector who would traditionally be more inclined to attend university in Scotland.
Scottish students are automatically granted free university tuition at home, while European Union citizens also benefit from the same measure.
However, students from the rest of the UK are excluded. In many case they have to pay fees of up to £9,000 a year.
But because people living in Northern Ireland have dual nationality, they can benefit from an apparent new loophole.
Scottish Education Secretary Michael Russell said universities would have the final say in accepting students who will be accepted on merit, but urged Northern Ireland students to be cautious.
“We’re in this position because of a decision not made in Northern Ireland nor in Scotland but south of the border (England) on hiking fees south of the border,” he said.
“We decided in Scotland not to do that; to continue with the Scottish tradition of free education. Quite clearly, we couldn’t pay for everybody coming into us, so we’ve allowed the universities to set their own fee levels for those coming in.
“The purpose of the regulations is to guarantee Scottish students free access. It is not to find ways around for other people. Because of European law, people coming from other jurisdictions do get the same treatment as Scottish students, but those in the rest of the UK don’t.”
Mr. Russell agreed the situation was confusing at this early stage.
“What would be the worst of all situations would be for somebody to find themselves without a university place, because they’ve applied in the
wrong way, or juggled it in the wrong way.
“Nobody would want to end up with a legal dispute,” he said.
Cathy Moore, chair of the Careers Teachers’ Association, said: “The Scottish Parliament has said if you have an Irish passport and live in Northern Ireland and provide that (Irish passport), you are eligible to have the fees paid.”