Ministers have given tacit agreement for students to take out loans for maintenance and tuition fees, despite a ban on using loans to pay tuition charges. They accept there is nothing in practice to stop students using loans for this purpose.
Scottish Office sources have confirmed the ruling was drafted to prevent students from European Union countries mounting a legal challenge. European students would enjoy the same rights if loans for fees were available to home-based students.
Government booklets released last week, as part of a publicity fightback, spell out how the funding changes will affect students. "There will be no loan facility available to pay for the tuition fees contribution. However, increased loans for maintenance will be available," the Student Awards Agency for Scotland stated.
The statement is code for Scottish students to take out loans to cover cost of living and any fees, despite a pledge by Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, that family incomes would have to exceed Pounds 35,000 before the maximum Pounds 1,000 fees had to be paid.
It had been assumed students trapped by fees would have to pay at the start of their course but Ken MacCrae, chief executive of the awards agency, said universities were likely to insist on payments some time during the first term.
Mr Wilson condemned "misinformation" in the media about the funding proposals and stressed that the Dearing committee had recommended all students should be subject to a non-means tested tuition fee, to be paid through a loan. "We thought that was regressive," he said.
"There was no golden age when everyone could go to university with a tuck box under their arm and a cheque from their parents in their pocket. The fantasy is that you can keep increasing student numbers without doing anything about financing higher education. This is where real social choices have to be made. Does anybody suggest cutting the number of students? Is it better for 1:14 to go to higher education as it was in my day or 1:2 as it is now?" Copies of the leaflets are available from the Student Awards Agency (0131