Building a system that demands support of all

September 17, 1999

Who should pay for Scotland's mass tertiary education sector? Andrew Cubie surveys responses to the consultation on student finance.

Scotland's student finance debate has everything, from complex economic and social arguments to some very novel political conundrums. Above all, it has fascinating contradictions. The Byzantine detail of the system contrasts with simple misconceptions about it. Genuine cases of student hardship referred to us on the independent committee of inquiry into student finance barely connect with widely published stories of student hedonism. And the conviction of some that a new source of revenue is needed because public funds will fail to materialise contrasts with the opposition parties' conviction that they could find adequate additional funds.

Rightly or wrongly, our committee has been cast by some in a role of non-binding arbitrator. We intend to put forward recommendations for a system that addresses the needs of the future. Having received responses to our written consultation exercise, we will hold public hearings throughout Scotland over the next couple of weeks, followed by oral evidence from key stakeholders and a second consultation on the options. In parallel, we are reviewing arrangements here and abroad and commissioning research. We will report by Christmas.

The responses have turned out to be a mixed bag. A basic, widely accepted, premise is that Scotland needs a high-quality, mass system of further and higher education. The debate on student finance then centres on two questions: who pays and how?

Dearing called for a compact in which full-time higher education students contribute to their tuition costs and where graduates, if able to do so, repay in later years the loans taken out to cover living costs. The mechanics differ, but the underlying philosophy of the government's and of Dearing's approach is broadly consistent. Dearing recommended and the government decided that graduates should make a larger contribution than before. The how question was answered with a means-tested contribution towards fees and the new system of loans with income-contingent repayments.

This compact has clearly not taken root, at least in Scotland. Among students, there is a strongly held view that changes to student support in the past decade have damaged the student experience. Familiar concerns continue, and new concerns have emerged. There is evidence of a significant rise in the proportion of full-time students who work part-time during term and in the hours involved. The trend among full-time students needs to be seen in context of the experience of part-time students, who juggle full-time jobs while studying and cannot look to the government for support.

It is not just students who are raising concerns. The palpable increase in what is asked from the next generation of graduates has led to a reconsideration of the support made available by parents. While the present system does not assume any more support from parents, the responses suggest a change in attitudes among parents. Many concerns exist with the mechanics of the means test, but it makes modest demands compared with the test used in further education. Parents, who may have been relatively sanguine about contributing when the government met the remainder, appear to have reconsidered. Increased part-time work and the debt burden have led to a perceived shift in the burden towards parents as well.

Many potential students cannot look to parents or spouses to provide support while studying. The same group is also more likely to view debt as a disincentive to invest in higher education. This has led to a restatement of the case for higher education to be free at the point of use, on the argument that all should have access to it and the benefits extend across society as a whole.

"Massification" of further and higher education continues as an accepted policy in the United Kingdom. In Scotland we have moved in a decade from 21 per cent to 47 per cent of under 21-year-olds in higher education. The funding of similar policies elsewhere in the world, also against tight public expenditure constraints, falls into no uniform pattern. The solution will inevitably touch on issues that are both within powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament and reserved to Westminster.

The challenge is to develop a student-support system for the future, which is well researched and so coherent that it will demand political support. We have made a good beginning and the responses have been well received. But no one should rest on their laurels having made their submission. We now need a proper debate of the contentions made. In the search for a solution, we really do want further views.

Andrew Cubie is convener of the independent committee of inquiry into student finance in Scotland.

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