The introduction of £6,000 tuition fees in England by a Labour government would have a significant impact on higher education funding in Scotland and Wales, and could potentially trigger the introduction of caps on cross-border student migration, observers have said.
Thousands of rest-of-UK undergraduates currently represent a significant source of income to Scottish and Welsh institutions, paying fees of up to £9,000 annually.
In Scotland, where home-domiciled students do not pay for tuition, the Holyrood parliament has passed legislation that states that no student from the rest of the UK will be charged more to study in Scotland than they would elsewhere in the country.
This means that Scottish universities would receive up to £3,000 less per year for every student they educated from the rest of the UK, a spokeswoman for Universities Scotland said.
With 13,975 English undergraduates enrolled at Scottish institutions during 2013-14, according to Higher Education Statistics Agency data, the annual shortfall would run into tens of millions of pounds.
Since Labour has indicated that public funding would be used to compensate English universities for the reduction in tuition fees, devolved countries could expect a significant payment under the Barnett formula.
However, there is no guarantee that all or even some of this funding would be passed on to Scottish universities.
The Universities Scotland spokeswoman said: “In announcing this policy the UK Labour Party has indicated it would make up the shortfall for English universities in public funding, which will be very welcome reassurance for our colleagues in England. However, Scotland would also need to find a way to address the funding consequences of reduced rUK fees.”
Writing on her blog, Lucy Hunter Blackburn, a former head of higher education for the Scottish government, says that it would be “hard” for the Scottish government not to make up the funding shortfall for universities.
But, she adds, this new commitment could lead to a cap on rest-of-UK student numbers being introduced to control this area of expenditure.
It is “hard to see how” this scenario could be avoided, Ms Hunter Blackburn says, if rest-of-UK students “cease to be self-funding”.
In Wales, there is significant cross-border movement in both directions. The Welsh government would save money on the tuition fee subsidy it provides for students studying in the rest of the UK, but institutions would be likely to lose tuition fee income.
A Universities Wales spokesman said it was “very difficult to predict with any certainty” what the impact of £6,000 tuition fees in England would be on Wales.
However, Huw Lewis, the Welsh education minister, said the Barnett funding that would come to the country would be a “much-needed additional resource”.
Similar issues would apply in Northern Ireland, but its universities attract few students from the rest of the UK.