Cubie committee's Christmas present to Scottish students is a package of recommendations to abolish upfront contributions to tuition fees, target support to disadvantaged groups and harmonise further and higher education systems.
The independent inquiry into student finance north of the border has condemned the "burden and inequity" of an upfront annual student contribution to fees. Committee convener Andrew Cubie said: "The present arrangements are broadly discredited, add to anxieties about debt and create undue anomalies."
But the report warns that institutions must not suffer financially and calls on the government to make up a net annual cost of Pounds 12 million. It does not believe in the principle of free higher education, arguing that graduates benefit financially from it. They should therefore contribute a total Pounds 3,075 to a new Scottish graduate endowment once their earnings top Pounds 25,000. "We believe the government unwisely put aside Dearing's recommendations for a graduate contribution and chose an approach that has become unpopular in Scotland," Mr Cubie said.
He urged a more focused student support system. The committee calls for non-repayable bursaries for further and higher education students from low-income backgrounds to counter "loan aversion" and promote wider access. Other student support would come in the form of a loan, which Mr Cubie said should be means tested. Means-testing currently expects too much from low to middle-income parents and too little from better off parents, the report says. A revised system must be more sensitive and ensure that families with more than one child are not disadvantaged.
"Systems should be harmonised across further and higher education to ensure this," the report says. Current levels of annual support should be increased, to Pounds 4,100, for example, for students living away from home. Students from poorer families should be entitled to a non-repayable bursary of half the value of the support available, with the remainder available through a loan. The richest families should have no entitlement to government support, even in the form of a loan. The committee also wants to see non-repayable support for lone parents, mature students with dependants and students with disabilities. It proposes a wider-access bursary scheme, administered by universities and colleges but with central guidance on handing out funds, and a mature-student bursary scheme backed by research on this group's financial background.
Cubie estimates its package of 52 recommendations will cost Pounds 62 million in cash terms and Pounds 71 million in longer-term resource costs, but calls it "an investment in Scotland's future".
Most of the recommendations are aimed at the Scottish Parliament. But if the Scottish Executive accepts its report, Cubie calls on it to encourage Westminster to consider its wider recommendations. Some of these come under reserved powers on tax and social security. These include access to benefits for students who cannot find work during the summer, transitional benefit safeguards for poorer full-time mature students and tax breaks for contributions to individual learning accounts.
At the report's launch, Mr Cubie said: "Our proposals do not disturb arrangements for student funding elsewhere. There is nothing in our conclusions that can reasonably cause anxiety to ministers elsewhere."
The 52 recommendations include:
* No upfront Scottish student contribution towards full-time tuition costs in HE
* The Scottish Executive to meet the Pounds 12 million shortfall from tuition-fee contributions
* Graduates earning at least Pounds 25,000 to contribute Pounds 3,075 to a Scottish graduate endowment scheme
* Current levels of support for full-time higher education students should rise. Poorer students to receive non-refundable bursaries to half the total
* A term-time maximum of ten hours paid work a week
* Pounds 1,500 child-care allowance for single parents.
A team of six senior figures from the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties will respond to the Scottish Parliament in the new year.
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