Scottish educationists are mobilising against simply scrapping higher education tuition fees following the Cubie committee's surprise calculation that this would cost just Pounds 12 million in the first year.
The figures, based on a recalculation of student loans, come in a second consultation paper issued this week by Scotland's independent committee of inquiry into student finance, chaired by Andrew Cubie. It includes costings for the key options that emerged through its initial consultation.
Abolishing the parental and student contribution to fees in Scotland would mean institutions losing Pounds 42 million in 2001-02 if this was not offset by the Scottish Executive, it says. But the government could cut its costs if fees were axed and the amount of loan students could borrow was correspondingly cut. It would need to find Pounds 12 million in the first year, rising to Pounds million a year in the longer term. Abolishing fees in further education would cost another Pounds 5 million.
George Lyon, the Scottish Liberal Democrats' spokesman for lifelong learning, said the figures increased the prospects of the Scottish Parliament voting to abolish fees. All the Scottish parties except Labour oppose fees and the reduced price tag will put Labour under pressure to back down. But the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals has warned that tuition fees are "a diversion" rather than the real problem.
Coshep convener Ian Graham-Bryce said: "Tinkering with loans to subsidise the abolition of fees may make a costly exercise more palatable, but we very much hope that people will not be mesmerised by bargain-basement budgeting.
Abolition on the cheap would leave no one better off."
Coshep praises Cubie for providing "concrete information" to focus attention on how best to address student hardship and widen access.
"Putting costs to the options should not be about finding the cheapest solution, it should be about finding the best solution," Dr Graham-Bryce said.
"When people do their sums on this document they must ask not only what the cost to the public purse is, but what the cost will be to the future of Scotland's poorest students."
The Association of Scottish Colleges is urging Cubie to "reshape" the whole system of student finance, not simply to "repackage" awards and loans for full- time higher education students.
Cubie estimates the cost of Pounds 500 loans per annum to part-time students at Pounds 2.5 million.
Tom Kelly, the ASC's chief officer, said the committee must pay more attention to the needs of full-time further education students, and those studying part- time at whatever level.
"There are anomalies in terms of the level and scale of parental and family contributions between the current further and higher education support systems.
The ASC is looking at these and hopes to make proposals and suggested costings as part of its response to the paper," he said.
The Association of University Teachers Scotland, the National Union of Students Scotland and student associations are all calling for the abolition of fees.
This should be matched by the restoration of maintenance grants, they say. Alex Cole-Hamilton, president of Aberdeen University students' representative council, said responses to Cubie showed that the biggest cause of student hardship was the abolition of the grant.
"It is essential that the Scottish Executive look to the provision of maintenance as their chief priority now that the abolition of fees will cost far less than expected," he said.
John Swinney, Scottish National Party MSP and shadow minister for enterprise and lifelong learning, said: "We are committed to the abolition of fees, the restoration of maintenance grants and tackling the lack of benefit support available to students. "As we enter the critical phase in the Cubie committee process, it is vital that we focus on the student hardship crisis and remove all obstacles to access to higher and further education."
John McAllion, Labour MSP and MP for Dundee East, has condemned the Scottish Parliament's "fixation" on tuition fees as "parliamentary manoeuvring" uniting the opposition parties.
In a paper he has submitted to the Scottish Executive, he says tackling student poverty and the burden put on students through loans is more important.
"It is a national disgrace that our students are falling asleep in the lecture theatres because they are forced to take on night jobs to survive their student years," he said.
"The reintroduction of student grants for those from poorer backgrounds is therefore a much higher priority than abolishing tuition fees for those from better-off backgrounds."