EDINBURGH — When Britain decided last December to impose a steep increase in university tuition, Scotland, proud and independent as usual, flatly rejected the idea. Instead, it held firm to its long tradition of virtually free university education.
For Scots, that is.
Government officials here soon decided that they were at liberty to charge more to students from the rest of Britain, quite a bit more. Starting next September, those students are to pay the same tuition as the new rates going into effect in England, up to $14,000 a year.
The move has incited outrage south of the border, where heading to the blustery campuses of Edinburgh and St. Andrews has been an appealing option for generations of English students, including Prince William and his wife.
“If it is not illegal, then it is immoral,” Baroness Ruth Deech, a lawyer and academic, fumed on Lords of the Blog, a Web site for members of the House of Lords.
An editorial in The Daily Telegraph complained that the Scottish treatment of other British students was an “injustice” — “especially galling” since all British taxpayers contribute to Scotland’s treasury.
“After all,” it asked, “if Scotland was independent and relied solely on its own taxes would it be able to continue a policy that is no longer affordable south of the border?”
The sting was sharpened by the fact that under European Union law, Scotland cannot charge students from other European Union countries more than it charges its own.
So next year, students from France, Denmark and Greece will be offered a free education in Scotland, even as those from England, Wales and Northern Ireland will have to pay as much as $56,000 for a four-year degree.
The plan is likely to be challenged in both British and European courts, where the cases will be closely watched both for what they say about the relationship between the parts of the United Kingdom and for the measures that European countries can take in these lean times.
Generally, the European courts try to stay out of nations’ internal matters, and they may see this case in that light. But some experts say they may be willing to recognize students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland as European Union students, entitled to the same benefits as Bulgarian or Finnish ones when it comes to tuition.
“It’s a genuinely intriguing question,” said Niamh Nic Shuibhne, a professor of European Union law at the University of Edinburgh.
One prominent human rights lawyer in England, Phil Shiner of Public Interest Lawyers, has promised to challenge the Scottish policy in court. In Northern Ireland, Jim Duffy, also with Public Interest Lawyers, is preparing a similar case.
“This cannot be right,” Mr. Duffy said. “If you are from Bucharest, it’s free. But if you live just over the border in Carlisle, it could cost 36,000 pounds. That cannot be right.”
The decision to raise tuition in Britain, from about $5,600 a year, was greeted in December with a wave of violent protests in which demonstrators attacked government buildings and battled the police on the streets of London for days, at one point surrounding Prince Charles and his wife as they headed to the theater in their Rolls-Royce limousine.
Education experts say the increase in Britain pushed its university system much closer to the American model, where education is seen as an individual benefit that should be paid for.
But Scotland is trying to adhere to a different principle, more aligned with the rest of Europe: that education is a public good, like highways or bridges, and is worthy of public investment. Still, virtually free education may be hard to sustain in the coming years, experts say, in part because more and more European students are seeking university degrees.
“In Europe, a university education is broadly seen as part of the social contract,” said Ellen Hazelkorn, an expert on higher education in Europe at the Dublin Institute of Technology. “But when you start approaching 50 percent participation, how do you fund that from the public purse?”
Scottish officials say the decision to raise rates for non-Scots was borne of necessity, not spite. Officials feared a flood of bargain-seeking English students pushing Scots out of their own universities. Admissions are blind to country of origin.
The fee increase will also help offset the expense of educating non-Scots, now that Westminster has cut back its financing for higher education.
For now, Scottish officials are brushing off threats of lawsuits, saying they believe they are on solid legal ground. “They won’t happen,” said Michael Russell, Scotland’s education minister.
In fact, Mr. Russell said he was looking into ways to charge higher fees to the 11,000 European students who study in Scotland, though he has had little success so far in his discussions with European Union officials.
There have been skirmishes over the European Union education regulations before. When Belgium found its medical schools overwhelmed by French students looking for a bargain, it fought back in court, arguing that it was not able to train enough Belgian doctors. It won the right to limit the number of foreign students.
Whatever the eventual outcome here, officials at Scottish universities say the new tuition structure has turned this admission season into an uncomfortable guessing game. Stephen Magee, a vice principal at the University of St. Andrews, where about one-third of the students are from England, said he found the situation “utterly bizarre.”
He wondered whether more English students would decide to stay home, where a three-year degree, the norm in England, would end up costing less than a four-year Scottish degree. Will only the wealthy come north, tipping the balance of student life here?
“It is almost impossible to model this thing,” Mr. Magee said.
St. Andrews has come up with a complicated system of financial support to mitigate the cost for English students who cannot afford the new tuition. Students who are already enrolled in Scottish universities this year will not have to pay the higher fees as long as they remain enrolled. Non-European students will continue to pay the highest fees of all, about $20,000 a year.
But even Scottish students, many of whom rode buses to England last December to protest the tuition increase there, are unhappy with Scotland’s two-tier solution.
“It may be understandable,” said Matt McPherson, 23, the student body president at the University of Edinburgh. “But it is unfair.”