Olga Wojtas on the latest reactions to the Cubie report into student finance.
Scottish students and academics have banded together to urge the Scottish Parliament not to "cherry-pick" the Pounds 71 million student finance package proposed by the Cubie committee.
Andrew Cubie, convenor of the independent committee, stressed that the unanimous report offers an "integrated and inseparable" package of measures. It includes non-repayable bursaries to poorer students, the abolition of upfront tuition fee contributions and the launch of a Scottish graduate endowment scheme to which higher earning graduates would contribute.
He said that loans should be means-tested: the committee's calculations are based on families with a residual income of about Pounds 35,500 not being entitled to loans. But it proposes increasing current loans by about 13 per cent for those entitled to them, rising to Pounds 4,100 for students living away from home. Its figures assume students whose parents have a residual income below Pounds 17,370 and do not make a parental contribution, should have bursaries to the full value of the loan. There would be a sliding scale of non-repayable bursaries for families with residual incomes up to Pounds 23,000.
Cubie estimates the changes would mean parents contributing about Pounds 32 million more towards student support. But harmonising further and higher education means-testing would mean the parents of further education students paying Pounds 2 million less. The committee also wants to see a pilot study on a non-subsidised loans scheme, available to those students who cannot get parental support.
A six-member ministerial working group is considering the report and will make a statement to the Scottish Parliament at the end of the month. But there are fears the government could accept some proposals and ignore others, as it did with the Dearing report when it decided to means-test tuition-fee contributions and scrap maintenance grants.
Joan Stringer, principal of Queen Margaret University College and a member of Dearing's Scottish arm, the Garrick committee, said that had the Dearing package been adopted, there might have been no need for the Cubie inquiry.
The Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals, the National Union of Students Scotland and the Association of University Teachers Scotland have united to send a joint letter to every MSP, urging the parliamentarians to find common ground in Cubie's "well thought-through and balanced" proposals.
The three organisations say they approached the debate from different standpoints, but all believed student hardship must be tackled and the quality of higher education must not be harmed.
"None of us has got everything we wanted, but if the Scottish Parliament implements the proposals ... without cherry-picking ... they will address all our main concerns."
The letter says the proposals have been reached through a process of consultation, evidence and analysis. "It is now in the hands of you, Scotland's politicians. This is your last chance to find the right solution for Scotland's students, universities and colleges," it says.
Students are warning the proposed Scottish graduate endowment scheme must not be thought of as another name for deferred tuition fees. They fear MSPs opposed to tuition fees could reject the proposal for graduates earning more than Pounds 25,000 to make a fixed contribution of Pounds 3,075. Mr Cubie acknowledged there would be "cynicism" about the figure, but explained it had been deliberately set in line with the cost of a degree course elsewhere in the country to minimise anomalies.
Graeme McAulay, president of Edinburgh University students' association, and spokesman for the Scottish Ancients Group, which represents students from Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews universities, said Cubie clearly recommended that fees be scrapped.
"Under the new system, graduates will be contributing to the funding of higher education and student support as a whole. This is totally different from the current tuition fee, which must be paid to the university or college on entry to a course," he said.
"Graduates will be contributing to future bursaries for less well-off students and helping ensure the preservation of a world-class higher education system in Scotland."
Alex Cole-Hamilton, president of Aberdeen University's students' representative council, said: "Tuition fees are gone. The grant has been reintroduced and the graduate payment is designed to pay for grants not fees. It could not be simpler." Soapbox, page 16