Northern Irish students hoping to enter the University of Ulster next year could face tougher entry requirements than applicants from the rest of the UK, it has emerged.
Richard Barnett, Ulster's vice-chancellor, raised the prospect of different entry grades as the two sets of students are no longer competing over the same funding.
Although he did not state which group might face tougher demands, domestic students are far more likely to suffer.
Tuition fees will be capped at £3,465 for Northern Irish students studying in the country in 2012-13, but Ulster and Queen's University Belfast will be allowed to charge students from England, Scotland and Wales up to £9,000.
Students from the rest of the UK will also be excluded from the caps imposed on the number of places available for local applicants.
"We now have distinct markets," Professor Barnett said, arguing that altering entry grades was a legitimate way of "controlling the market" as long as minimum requirements were met.
His comments come on the back of fears that the increase in fees elsewhere in the UK could ramp up competition for the fixed number of cheaper places for Northern Irish students in the region.
In 2009-10, more than 30 per cent of Northern Irish undergraduates travelled to study in other parts of the UK.
Because students from England, Scotland and Wales will pay the entire cost of their education if they attend Ulster or Queen's, they could be treated like international students, with the numbers accepted increased at will.
Professor Barnett said he expected a "very large increase in demand" from local students under the new fee regime.
Although he said that no decisions had yet been made on differential offers, he emphasised that differences would be "marginal changes" within the current spectrum of A-level grades demanded for particular courses.
He also stressed that Ulster was not looking to "draw in masses of students" from England, Wales or Scotland.
From 2012-13, applicants from the rest of the UK will be charged between £6,000 and £8,000 a year to study at Ulster.
In Scotland, where a similar situation applies, Michael Russell, the education secretary, has said he will ensure that applicants from different parts of the UK are not treated differently in terms of entry requirements.
Tony Gallagher, pro vice-chancellor at Queen's, said he assumed that admissions at his university would be "domicile blind".
'Devolution in action'
In an interview with Times Higher Education, Stephen Farry, Northern Ireland's minister for employment and learning, admitted that having different fees across the UK for students from different parts of the country appeared "strange", but said the situation was "devolution in action".
Trying to predict how many additional Northern Irish students would apply to study in the region was mere "speculation", he said, but he acknowledged that there was a danger of increased competition for places.
Those from more disadvantaged backgrounds will be more likely to lose out, he said.
"Some will choose to study in Great Britain, some will choose not to enter higher education."
Questioned further, Dr Farry admitted that the most disadvantaged students may also be the least likely to travel to other parts of the UK and face fees of up to £9,000.
Those who do study across the water have been promised assistance through government-backed loans, but these will have to be repaid after graduation, and Dr Parry warned that the system could prove unsustainable to the public purse.
"If it gets out of control, we'll have to intervene and re-examine that," he said.