The incoming Socialist government in Portugal is suspending the controversial tuition fee law as promised by leader Antonio Guterres in the party election manifesto. In its place students at state universities will pay a one-off attendance tax of Esc40,000 (Pounds 170).
The decision is expected at the first meeting of the Council of Ministers later this month. The Socialists beat the Social Democratic government, in power since 1979, at the polls earlier this month.
Their conciliatory gesture was received with mixed feelings by students, who mounted a fierce campaign of opposition when tuition fees were raised from Pounds 8 a year, first set in 1941, to around Pounds 250 in 1991/92.
Students who have already paid tuition fees for this academic year will be reimbursed while the government hammers out a new law. The Socialists have not abandoned the idea of tuition fees but want to cut them to less than half the current rate. At present many students are exempt from fees on welfare grounds. It is argued that the ministers could ensure university budgets did not lose out by simply shifting the boundaries of eligibilty for fee exemption.
Tuition fees have proved a headache for more than one education minister provoking a nationwide boycott, street demonstrations, petitions and lobbies of parliament.
The Socialists, though, are unlikely to interfere with university rectors' decision not to award degree certificates to students who have continued to boycott the fees. Most have now paid after an amnesty to non-payers was granted in 1993.
Ab!lio Martins, president of the Lisbon students' Academic Association, gave the suspension a guarded welcome, saying it promoted stability in higher education to allow for negotiation.
But Zita Henriques of Coimbra student union said the tax was tit-for-tat. "It is much easier to turn a tax into a fee than to pay something that you never paid," she told the Pblico newspaper.
The Socialists argue that an attendance tax is only fair given that other sectors pay similar taxes. But they know if students stop paying anything now they will not want to start later.
University financing in a recession has been at the heart of the fees issue. Portugal massively expanded its higher education system after joining the European Community. Now half of Portugal's universities are private and charge fees as a matter of course. But the government has paid for the public sector. The fees law allowed universities to charge what they liked within certain limits. These were that they should amount to no more than between 20 and 25 per cent of running costs. The idea was that fees would gradually increase as a proportion of university income. Given the protests, another formula is proving necessary.