The Cubie committee has held 13 public meetings and had more than 700 written submissions and 23 oral submissions. Its new paper produces costings for the seven main topics that have emerged, ranging from increasing loans to improving postgraduate support.
The committee found overwhelming support for the reintroduction of grants for poorer students, alongside widespread concern over the impact of term-time working and the deterrent effect of loans. There was considerable support for increased government funding to allow tuition fees to be axed, but also some backing for a student contribution.
"Consultation requires feedback. But we are not trying to conduct an opinion poll," convener Andrew Cubie said. "By no means are we presenting an interim report. We are still in the process of gaining information, and we hope possibly for a wider and deeper discussion about student funding." The 14 member committee did not at this stage endorse any of the options or rule out any that had not yet been costed, he said. The figures include the cash costs in the first year and longer term "resource accounting" costs. On this basis, costs are taken into account when they are incurred rather than when cash is received or spent.
This has particular implications for student loans because granting loans is not treated as expenditure, but as an asset that will be recovered over time.
Loan entitlements had been increased when tuition fees were introduced, Mr Cubie said. Axeing fees with no other change would cost Pounds 42 million. But reducing the loan entitlement for fee payers would bring this down to Pounds 12 million in the first year, with ongoing costs of Pounds million, given the future loss of loan repayments.
Mr Cubie stressed that the figures were based on institutions still receiving funds that would otherwise have come from students and their parents.
"In any reference to the prospect of the abolition of tuition fees, it is certainly not in our thinking that the university sector is left bereft because of this," he said.
The committee has produced draft "guiding principles", which say student support should maximise opportunity for all to receive lifelong learning of the highest quality and standards. Students should be able "to access a sufficient package of funding, whether from families, employers, government or through paid employment, none of which should be to the detriment of their studies".
"What we hope will come from the adoption of these guiding principles is a consistency of approach. There is an extraordinary diversity of student experience," Mr Cubie said. "Without coherence, there will be a risk of continuing anomalies that are hard to understand and even harder to explain."
The costings cover only students funded by the Scottish Executive. Another estimated Pounds 8 million would come to Scottish institutions in fees from other UK students, who would still pay.
"We have to glance over our shoulders as to the impact of our recommendations.
But this is one aspect of devolution. We are looking at the experience of Scottish students," Mr Cubie said.
The consultation paper says that there was a general feeling that all options should be considered and a system that addressed Scottish needs would be welcome. But many warned there must be no discrimination. The paper calculates that getting rid of the Scottish anomaly, which means other UK students pay fourth-year fees, would cost Pounds 2 million. The deadline for responses is Friday November 12, with Cubie due to report to the Scottish Executive before Christmas.