Clash of Scottish cash inquiry titans

July 9, 1999

Andrew Cubie, chair of Scotland's independent committee of inquiry into student finance, has warned of a potential timing clash between his report and the Quigley committee's review of the Scottish tuition fee anomaly.

Mr Cubie's inquiry, a comprehensive review of tuition fees and financial support for Scottish students, must report to the Scottish Parliament by the end of the year.

The Quigley committee, investigating the effect of charging English, Welsh and Northern Irish students final-year tuition fees for four-year honours courses while exempting Scots and other European Union students, has a deadline of next April.

Mr Cubie said it seemed self-evident that his committee must have talks with Quigley. He did not know the stage they were at but given the differing deadlines, it was obvious that there "could be a mismatch in timing".

But Mr Cubie said his committee's remit was much more comprehensive than simply tuition fees. In advance of its first meeting next week, he was keeping an open mind about the scope of its work within a "challenging time-scale". It was always a legitimate conclusion that further work should be done on a particular issue.

Mr Cubie also revealed that the inquiry, covering full-time and part-time students in further and higher education, will include both undergraduates and postgraduates.

MSPs voted last Friday to set up the inquiry by 70 votes to 48. Tory MSP Brian Monteith said: "We oppose the creation of the committee of inquiry because we believe that free higher education is non-negotiable. To link tuition fees to the important question of student hardship is to give up that principle, to betray it and to put it on the negotiating table."

John Swinney, deputy leader of the Scottish National Party and convener of the parliament's enterprise and lifelong learning committee, said SNP MSPs were registering their principled commitment to immediate action to abolish fees.

The inquiry proposal cast doubt on the practicality of abolishing fees for the academic year starting next autumn.

"An increasing number of students tell me that there is an obstacle to gaining access to higher education because it is perceived that going to university costs a lot of money. Unless we do something dramatic, and substantial, to change the situation, we will not deliver the expectations of the people of Scotland," he said.

But Henry McLeish, Scottish minister for enterprise and lifelong learning, said: "We as parliamentarians should never be afraid of putting big issues out for consideration and coming back to the parliament and the executive to take the final decisions."

Bernard King, principal of the University of Abertay Dundee, has called on the parliament to set up an urgent review of higher education funding, not restricted to student support.

He said in a graduation address: "No new money has come into higher education as a consequence of introducing student fees, and whether parliament decides to abolish fees or not, the significant underfunding of our institutions, the underpayment of our staff, and the chronic poverty of many of our students must still be addressed.

"If parliament does not face up to the funding deficit, there is a real danger that Scottish education will move into serious decline."

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