The government could have to pay loans to foreign European Union students living in the UK, according to a leading European judge.
Dany Bidar, from France, challenged Ealing Borough Council's decision to refuse him a loan, saying it was discrimination by nationality.
The council argued that, even though he had been in the UK three years, he was not "settled".
Under government guidelines, the residency requirement is four years.
The European Court's Advocate-General, Leendert Geelhoed, said in a non-binding "opinion" that maintenance costs had previously been beyond the scope of EU law.
But they could now come under the terms of the Maastricht Treaty, which had brought education "within the scope" of the community.
The subsequent concept of "European citizenship" had been largely accepted, reinforcing this view, he said.
Should Mr Geelhoed's opinion be confirmed in an EU court verdict next year, it could mean many more claims for loans.
The judge called this a "new and unforeseen development" in EU law.
He also said earlier loan refusals to foreign nationals should not be contestable.
Mr Bidar moved to the UK in August 1998, completing his last three years of
secondary education in London.
In September 2001 he enrolled at University College London and applied to
Ealing Borough for funding.
He was given assistance with tuition fees but a maintenance loan request was
turned down as he as not considered "settled" in the UK.
Mr Geelhoed said EU governments had a legitimate interest in preventing abuse of student support schemes and in preventing "benefit tourism". But this should not extend to undermining EU citizens' fundamental rights.
If a student had "a real link with the national education system and society, these conditions must be appropriate and they must not go beyond what is necessary for achieving that aim".
The European Court follows the Advocate-General's "opinion" in about 80% of cases.
A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills stressed the opinion was "in no way binding".
He added: "We will study the advocate-general's observations and recommendations with
interest. However, they are in no way binding.
"We need to await the definitive judgment of the European Court - expected in