Ministers in the devolved administrations have reacted angrily to a decision by the UK Government to limit the number of students from England they can recruit to their universities.
The temporary cap is designed to prevent over-recruitment by higher education institutions to make up for lost revenue caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
But ministers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are furious at what they say is a bid by the UK Government to control a matter beyond its jurisdiction.
The measures, outlined by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson in early May, would see intake capped for each institution’s 2019/20 totals plus 6.5%.
Guidance published on Monday revealed that a limit has also been imposed on institutions in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland recruiting what the UK Government deems to be more than their “fair share” of England-domiciled students.
Students from England pay the most in undergraduate tuition at £9,250 per year, while Welsh students pay £9,000 if they study in Wales and Northern Irish students pay £4,275 if they stay at home.
Scotland does not charge its home students at undergraduate level, but can charge applicants from the remaining three UK countries up to £9,250.
Institutions in the devolved administrations that exceed their quota of students from England will see a reduction in loan receipts from the Student Loans Company of between 3% and 15% in the following academic year.
Northern Ireland’s Economy Minister Diane Dodds said: “I am shocked and concerned that another jurisdiction is seeking to control student numbers here in Northern Ireland and the impact that this may have on our local sector.
“I believe that this proposal has the potential to break up the unified higher education market within the United Kingdom in terms of access to study based on student choice and academic achievement – it is a dangerous precedent to set and one I am wholly opposed to.”
She said it was “unfair and unprecedented” that the UK Government would impose such a restriction so late in the admissions process.
Scotland’s Higher Education Minister Richard Lochhead said: “In the face of huge uncertainty, Scottish universities and colleges are working to continue to deliver world class, and safe, learning and teaching.
“So the UK Government’s plan to restrict the number of English students that can come to Scotland – a plan which neither the Scottish Government nor Universities Scotland have agreed to – is deeply disappointing.
“It is completely unnecessary and could add further damage to the sector, given that around 10% of current enrolments are from England.
“The UK Government should be working with the devolved administrations to support higher education at time of crisis, not imposing, without agreement, targets and sanctions which are aimed at stabilising the English market and are not relevant to Scotland.”
Welsh Minister for Education Kirsty Williams tweeted: “I disagree strongly with England’s approach on this matter.
“I respect decision making in and for England, just as I do for the other governments in the UK.”
UK Government universities minister Michelle Donelan said the measures were intended to stabilise the admissions system.
“The measures seek to ensure students have the widest possible variety and most suitable places to study in the coming academic year, while avoiding harmful over-recruitment among providers which could go against the interests of students and the sector,” she said.
The guidance also said 5,000 additional places are available through a bidding system for subjects of “strategic importance” including engineering, science, maths and social work.
But the guidance warned: “These places are not guaranteed, and no provider or institution should rely upon receiving additional places in their planning process.”
There are also a further 5,000 places for a number of healthcare courses including nursing, midwifery, paramedics, radiography and dietetics.
Ms Donelan said the extra healthcare places are to support “our vital public services at this time”.
English universities that exceed their intake will also be penalised financially through a loss of tuition fees, which could be cut by up to 15% in the following academic year depending on how far they exceed their quota of students.
The cap only applies to full-time, UK and EU undergraduate students, while students sitting their exams this autumn instead of accepting a grade determined by teachers will also be exempt.
New higher education institutions opening their doors in September will also not have entry numbers capped, the Department for Education said.