Scottish students could end up being charged variable premium-rate fees for courses because of a "sledgehammer" attempt to stop English medical undergraduates flooding north of the border to escape top-up fees, it was claimed this week.
The Scottish Parliament's Enterprise and Culture Committee fears that Scottish students could be trapped by the catch-all nature of new legislation designed to discourage English medical students pouring into Scottish universities when top-up fees are introduced in England in 2006.
Holyrood ministers are using the new Bill, which merges Scotland's further and higher education funding councils, to allow fee levels to be bumped up for entrants from elsewhere in the UK.
The Scottish ministers fear that, without constraints, English students will take advantage of a cut-price medical training in Scotland before heading back south after graduation to pursue careers. This would exacerbate Scotland's doctor shortage, they say.
Any variable fees in Scotland would differ from those in England by being set by ministers, subject to parliamentary approval, rather than by individual universities.
But the Enterprise and Culture Committee, which is responsible for scrutinising the Bill, believes the legislation is flawed as it stands. A unanimous report published this week proposed radical revision.
While the Bill's background policy memorandum says the power to raise fees is intended to be used "sparingly" and is likely to apply only to medicine at present, the committee says the Bill itself does not bar the possibility of variable fees across the board.
Alex Neil, committee convenor and member of the Scottish National Party, said: "We accept (Lifelong Learning Minister) Jim Wallace's word that there is no intention on the part of this Executive to use this in a general way, but legislation lasts a lot longer than any one administration."
The British Medical Association in Scotland has warned the committee that Scottish students who take medicine as a second degree are not exempt from tuition fees and pay fees comparable to those of English entrants. It fears that such students could, therefore, be subject to higher fees.
And Strathclyde University students' association says Scots who repeat years, change course or have moved from Higher National courses to the first or second years of degrees could also be caught by the new legislation.
The committee wants clarification on whether any Scots would be subject to higher fees and on the criteria ministers would use to decide whether and by how much to vary fees.
But it questions whether fees are the most appropriate way to tackle concerns about the recruitment and retention of medical students in the first place.
It lists alternative proposals put forward by the National Union of Students Scotland, which include financial incentives for medical students who commit to practise in Scotland for a specified period and mentoring of potential medical students in access schemes.
NUS Scotland also suggests that institutions could relax their "overly stringent" entry requirements and that the Government could offer incentives to doctors to stay in the Scottish National Health Service.
It has pledged to continue fighting higher fees. It argues that they are a clear betrayal of the Executive's partnership agreement, which said it would not back the introduction of top-up tuition fees.
WHAT MSPS WANT TO KNOW
Enterprise and Culture Committee's key recommendations on the bill to merge the further and higher education funding councils:
* Information of what criteria ministers would use to decide whether and by how much to vary fees for particular courses
* Clarification on whether any Scottish students would pay higher fees if the bill became law
* Equal treatment for staff in colleges and universities in terms of academic freedom
* Local authority councillors to be able to become chairs of college governing bodies
* Possible change from the legislation describing students with disabilities as "persons with learning difficulties" to "persons with additional support needs".
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