'Debt-shy' Scots may sink fees

April 7, 2000

University tuition fees could be discredited and possibly abolished in England, Wales and Northern Ireland if the issue becomes sufficiently politicised, a member of Scotland's Cubie committee has warned.

Dugald Mackie told MPs that the Cubie committee recommended the abolition of upfront undergraduate tuition fees as a result of fees becoming highly politicised north of the border. Opposition to fees was so vociferous and widespread that the Cubie committee was forced to conclude that fees had been "broadly discredited" in Scotland.

Mr Mackie, secretary of Glasgow University, was part of a Cubie committee team, including chairman Andrew Cubie, that was giving evidence to the Commons select committee on education on Monday.

Cubie's recommendation to abolish upfront fees and reintroduce non-repayable bursaries already challenges the government's policy on fees and its decision to scrap maintenance grants.

Select committee chairman Barry Sheerman said that the Cubie report had clear implications for the rest of the United Kingdom. His committee wanted to know how and why Cubie members had reached the conclusions that they did.

Pressing the matter, Liberal Democrat higher education spokesman Evan Harris asked

Mr Cubie if he thought there

was anything culturally and - jokingly - genetically peculiar to the Scots that made them predisposed to rejecting tuition fees.

Mr Cubie quipped back that all he could offer in response to his question was anecdotal evidence that Scots were more canny and have a greater aversion to debt than others in the UK.

He refused to speculate on how issues of tuition fees would develop in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. He said that his report concerned itself solely with Scotland.

Asked what lessons his report contained for the rest of the UK, Mr Cubie said that a good starting point for any investigation into the impact of tuition fees would be to ask exactly how much it costs a student to go to university in the UK.

Mr Cubie said that by asking that same question, his committee was able to place the highly politicised fees issue within the context of wider issues about the cost of higher education study. The result was that Cubie recommended bursaries as well as the abolition of upfront fees.

But, Mr Cubie told the committee he was disappointed by the decision of the Scottish Executive to lower the income threshold for repayment of the new graduate endowment, set by the executive at Pounds 2,000, from his recommended Pounds 25,000 a year to Pounds 10,000.

Nicol Stephen, deputy minister for lifelong learning on the Scottish Executive, who gave evidence after the Cubie team, said that the executive did not choose the Pounds 10,000 threshold.

Mr Stephen said that the graduate endowment was repayable through the existing student loans system, which has a Pounds 10,000-a-year income threshold for repayments.

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