An anti-fees petition from Nottingham University students has prompted an unprecedented move by the European Parliament in support of their complaint.
It has taken Euro MPs and officials 18 months to consider the 4,078-strong petition which argues that charging fees in England, Wales and Northern Ireland but not Scotland amounts to discrimination.
But last week the parliament's petitions committee made the surprise decision to write to the British government to express concern over the fees anomaly.
The petition argues that students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are discriminated against in their own country because they are the only European Union students who have to pay fees if they go to study in Scotland.
The Nottingham students, backed by local Tory MEP Chris Heaton-Harris, used Article 12 of the EU Treaty, which outlaws discrimination on grounds of nationality, as the basis for their claim.
Mr Heaton-Harris, who attended last week's petitions committee, said: "I must admit I had not really expected the petition to get anywhere. But the committee said the parliament wanted it to be known that it was amazed that this was happening in the United Kingdom. It's a really unprecedented step for a committee to take to write to a member state government in this way."
Paul Wakefield, vice-president of Nottingham University's students' union, said: "As far as I understand it, the European Parliament cannot outlaw fees, but the fact that this committee is taking it seriously enough to write to the government is a very positive step forward."
The committee resolved to return to the issue in two months and to set up a working group to investigate it fully.
Mr Heaton-Harris said: "Not only does this put the government in a bit of a spot, it means we can maintain pressure on the issue of fees."
Earlier this year, lawyer Andrew Cubie, whose independent report led to the Scottish Executive's axeing upfront fees for Scots and EU students in Scotland, urged the government to seek a ruling from Europe on the legal ramifications of differential student funding within the UK.
- Northern Ireland students have called for a rethink of the province's student support reforms on the grounds that they discriminate against various groups, including Islamic students, writes Olga Wojtas .
Northern Ireland institutions have a special duty to ensure equality of opportunity, and higher and further education minister Sean Farren has been holding an equality consultation on his student finance proposals.
The National Union of Students-Union of Students in Ireland said the proposals would create problems in promoting equal opportunities.
The union said the student loans package was not available to Islamic students, whose beliefs forbid the borrowing or lending of money that accrues interest. "We believe the department (of higher and further education) is discriminating against this religious group in favour of non-Islamic students by retaining the system of student loans."
The union said winning access funds depended on students having already applied for statutory support, and anecdotal evidence suggested that many Muslims have been deterred from entry. The union said one solution would be for Dr Farren's department to set up a trust fund to cover the interest charge for loans.
It urged more research on the impact of means-testing on the Protestant and Catholic communities. Any increase in personal contributions could have a disproportionate effect on Catholic students, who often come from poorer families, while reducing loans available to high-earning families could hit the Protestant community.
The union also warned that proposals to increase the number of student places to address skills shortages could discriminate against women, who are generally underrepresented in engineering and technology courses.
Axeing grants and introducing fees has had a particular impact on women, whose earnings in Northern Ireland are only 79 per cent of men's.