SCOTTISH universities are being "encouraged" to take more English students directly into the second year as the government tries to push the Teaching and Higher education bill through and resolve the controversial tuition fees anomaly north of the border.
Brian Wilson, Scottish Office education minister, will try to persuade the principals of Scottish universities that the first year should be waived for significantly more students with the requisite English A levels. At present Scottish institutions admit less than 10 per cent directly to the second year.
The provisions in the original bill on tuition fees in Scotland have been attacked by Scottish principals and opposition politicians because they create the anomalous stituation whereby fourth-year tuition fees for Scottish and other European students are waived but not those for the English, Welsh and Northern Irish.
But the government remains determined to push its policy through. It has tabled an amendment that overturns an earlier Lords' amendment that would ensure equal treatment of all UK students. The bill reached the committee stage in the Commons this week and opposition MPs attacked the government's Scotland amendment. The Liberal Democrat higher and further education spokesman, Phil Willis, accused the government of adopting a "macho" attitude towards the Scottish university system.
After Tuesday's committee session shadow education secretary Stephen Dorrell said: "The government's approach is clearly calling the Scottish system into question. Effectively, it sounds as though Mr Wilson is asking Scottish universities to adopt the English three-year system."
The government tabled amendments aimed at overturning earlier Lords' amendments in two other key areas. First, the government wants to protect the secretary of state's powers over the General Teaching Council. One amendment deletes a Lords' amendment that gave more power to the GTC to determine teaching standards and codes of conduct for teachers. Instead, the government's clause would allow the secretary of state to make provisions for the GTC to issue a code of practice for teachers.
A schedule to the bill has also been tabled enabling the secretary of state to make provisions covering the GTC's disciplinary powers. The schedule gives the secretary of state responsibility for disciplinary procedures where the health and welfare of children may be involved.
A further government amendment removes a Lords' amendment that would have retained a half maintenance grants, half loans system to cover student living costs. The government intends that students should meet the full cost of their maintenance with borrowing repayed through an income-contingent loans system.
Liberal Democrats are focusing their efforts on securing grants and loans for part-time students who receive little or no help with course fees or living costs. They have also tabled an amendment to postpone the introduction of undergraduate tuition fees until June 2002 (after the next general election). They want to see the full amount of the income from fees retained by universities and they want to limit the secretary of state's power to prescribe the terms and conditions for courses to receive funding.
School standards minister Stephen Byers told the committee that the government was sympathetic to requests that there should be some higher education representation on the GTC. Committee members said that this was important since more school leavers were going on to university.