More than a supporting role

January 28, 2000

After years of funding cuts and the introduction of fees, this week brought the first good news for students in a long time. At last, the talk is no longer of whether students need more money, but of how much they need.

It was the Cubie report that laid the groundwork for this week's announcements on student finance in both Edinburgh and Westminster. The report, which recognised that the student finance system was "discredited", has brought changes within weeks of its release - even if they do not go far enough.

In Scotland, students from the poorest families are being given bursaries of up to Pounds 2,000. In the rest of the United Kingdom, mature students will have access to a bursary of up to Pounds 1,000 and from 2001, younger students will have the same. The message that students study in unacceptable hardship has finally got through.

On tuition fees the news is less good. In Scotland, Pounds 2,000 will be clawed back from students in a graduate endowment tax once they start earning. In the rest of the UK, we'll have to wait until 2002, but then 50,000 fewer students will have to pay fees following the government's pledge to polish the rough edges of the means-testing system.

But ministers need to go further to alleviate student hardship. Cubie argued that the level of maintenance support is simply not enough to live on and recommended bursaries of up to Pounds 4,100 for students in need, plus the abolition of upfront fees for all Scottish students, no matter where they study. This recommendation has been watered down.

In the process, the government and its Scottish counterpart have created a series of anomalies. Next year there will be four types of student finance system. Fourth-year students, those who have studied abroad or in industry, will be on the old system. Second and third-years will be on the post-Dearing system. And first-years will be on one of the new systems announced this week, depending on whether they study in Scotland or the rest of the UK.

These anomalies will have serious consequences. Hard-up Scottish students will be encouraged to stay in Scotland to study by the decision to exempt only Scottish students studying at Scottish universities from paying tuition

fees before they start their degrees.

Students' choice of university should not have to be made on cost grounds. Whether you are rich or poor, from Scotland or the rest of the UK, your right to higher education should be equal.

We will be campaigning for the Cubie report to be implemented in full across the UK and for the abolition of tuition fees.

The Cubie report needs to be considered as a thorough analysis of the shortcomings of student finance and not as the opening gambit in a game of political poker. It provides costed arguments for fundamental change to the structure of student financial support, but what is lacking is the political will to act.

Andrew Pakes is president of the National Union of Students.

Should all students be offered the financial package held out this week to Scottish students?

Email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk Cubie should be implemented across the UK now, says Andrew Pakes

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