Proposal creates another anomaly

December 24, 1999

Cubie recommendations put new Labour in new quandary. The THES reports.

The Cubie proposals are the first major example of devolutionary divergence to challenge our fundamental political perceptions, according to one constitutional expert.

Robert Hazel, director of the constitution unit at University College London, said the proposals were the sort of policy differences devolution was designed to create. More would follow in other policy areas, he said.

"Devolution is about differences in equity. There are going to be different standards in public services in different parts of the United Kingdom. The public and politicians have to adjust to that."

Professor Hazel also said that proper and full implementation of the Cubie proposals would require negotiation between the Scottish Executive and the UK-wide social security department and Inland Revenue.

He said the Northern Ireland Assembly, which will have powers similar to those held by the Scottish Parliament, could seek to create a similar situation and the Welsh Assembly, while lacking the powers and financial wherewithal at present, would note and debate the Scottish example.

In a joint statement Labour first minister Donald Dewar and Liberal Democrat deputy first minister Jim Wallace said: "The Scottish Executive is grateful to Andrew Cubie and his committee for its thorough and detailed report."

Mr Wallace said: "We welcome the fact Cubie recommends the abolition of tuition fees. This remains the party's policy."

But he gave no immediate indication of whether the report's findings go far enough to satisfy all the Liberal Democrat MSPs.

George Lyon, Liberal Democrat MSP for Argyll and Bute, told BBC Scotland:

"There's two ways forward. One is that we see the abolition of tuition fees and the coalition continues, or we see the abolition of tuition fees and the coalition falls by the wayside."

Lib-Dem education spokesman Phil Willis said the clear rejection and discrediting of tuition fees and the restoration of maintenance grants by Cubie meant the government at Westminster could not now ignore the pressure for a rethink on student finance.

The Scottish Fees Support Review, which suspended itself in June after six months investigating the impact of the fourth-year anomaly, is now to resume its work with oral hearings in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London in January.

The four-person review team has also written to the more than 100 organisations and groups that submitted written evidence, asking them to update their submissions in the context of the Cubie recommendations.

Review chairman Sir George Quigley said: "It has been a very difficult exercise with such a moving target. I would have thought that if tuition fees are totally abolished for Scottish resident students that would increase the anomalies."

Northern Ireland further and higher education minister Sean Farren is to consider the implications of Cubie as part of a review of student support in the province. A spokesman for Mr Farren said the review would be announced early next year.

English and Welsh students will be treated as second-class citizens compared with their Scottish colleagues, according to shadow education secretary Theresa May.

Ms May said Cubie had done what the government should have done for the whole of the UK following the publication of the Dearing report in July 1997.

She said: "It shows how wrong the government was to ignore Dearing and introduce the double whammy of fees and abolition of maintenance grants.

"The government must go back to the drawing board."

The Department for Education and Employment was forced into a brief but robust defence of existing funding policy. A statement said: "The student support arrangements for England and Wales are working well and we see no case for changing them.

"They share the cost of higher education fairly between students, their families and taxpayers generally, and provide essential resources for investment in universities and colleges. Students from less well-off families do not have to pay tuition fees at all."

Potentially huge bureaucratic difficulties will be created if the Cubie proposals are implemented fully, according to a law and taxation expert at Glasgow University. Robert Dunbar said many of the recommendations would require the agreement and cooperation of Westminster-based government and English and Welsh universities.

Mr Dunbar said that, for example, it was unclear how the fee-payment mechanism would work for Scottish-domiciled students studying in England.

He said: "There would have to be some sort of arrangement for the Scottish Executive to pay the fee to the university. This would require the agreement of the DFEE and the university. It might also entail extra administration costs for English institutions. Would the Scottish Executive pick up the bill?" Only a minority of graduates will reach the Pounds 25,000 repayment threshold, according to Richard Pearson, director of the Institute for Employment Studies. "Those employed by blue-chip companies might, but they are a small minority. It could take a teacher or a nurse nine or ten years to reach the same level."

A 1999 IES survey of graduate salaries and vacancies tracked the incomes of industrial and non-industrial graduates recruited in 1995. The median salary after three years' service was Pounds 22,000, with only the top 10 per cent earning Pounds 30,000 or more, and the lower 10 per cent earning Pounds 18,000.

The Association of Graduate Career Advisory Services published the results of a similar survey in 1998 that revealed that the main sector of earnings for most 1995 graduates after three years' employment ranged from Pounds 15,000 to Pounds 18,000. One-quarter of graduates earned above Pounds 24,000 a year.

Tom Wilson, head of higher education at university and college lecturers' union Natfhe, welcomed the report as "very good news for higher education".

"Transferring repayment of tuition fees to after graduation may not be ideal but is much fairer than the present system and restructuring grants for the poorest is of absolutely cardinal importance," he said.

Just as crucial, Mr Wilson said, was the way the report had acknowledged the existence of student hardship and the damage it was doing to the sector through, for example, drop-out rates.

Vice-chancellors welcomed the Cubie proposals but sounded a warning over the possible impact on the rest of Britain.

Baroness Warwick, chief executive of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, said: "While Scotland must fund higher education as it sees fit, we need to explore the impact of these changes in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, particularly in relation to the possible effect on flows of students between countries, and the cost implications of the access initiative."

The CVCP made clear it was grateful to Cubie for not totally abandoning the principle of student contributions.

And Baroness Warwick added: "It is important that no student should be deterred from taking up or completing their higher education due to financial hardship."

Ian Graham Bryce, convener of the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals, said: "Coshep very much hopes people will read this report as a whole and that they will recognise the genuine step forward it represents for Scotland. It would be a very great shame if this package was dismantled." Cubie had put forward a solution that took the inequity out of student finance.

The Standing Conference of Principals said it "welcomed the fact that Cubie has recognised the need for continued private investment by individual students in their higher education".

The recommendation that up-front tuition fees be abolished and maintenance grants for lower-income students partially reintroduced was welcomed by universities that enrol students from poorer backgrounds.

"It's an absolutely first-class report and it makes many recommendations that are equally applicable in England. We are seeing serious poverty among students which encourages them to drop out not because they're not bright enough but because they're not rich enough," said Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England in Birmingham.

Maggie Woodrow, author of the CVCP report From Elitism to Inclusion, said:

"It is excellent that Cubie has taken the opportunity to concentrate on students and potential students who need the most financial support."

She also welcomed the recommendation that access funds be redirected into guaranteed bursaries. The DFEE's review of access funds in England is expected to recommend that 10 per cent of English funds be used in the same way.

The Association of University Teachers warned the report's recommendations could result in fatal cash-cuts for some institutions. It acknowledged that students could not continue to suffer the "double penalty" of extreme hardship and fees and do a good job of being a student.

It also said that if Cubie's proposals help students in Scotland they should be considered for students throughout the UK.

David Triesman, AUT general secretary, said because the Scottish Parliament had decided not to use its revenue-raising powers, cash would have to come either from cutting some other area of public spending or from allocations to institutions.

The anomalies that adoption of Cubie's proposals would create between students from different parts of the UK would also make revision of student funding likely across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, he said.

The National Union of Students praised Cubie's proposals to reintroduce a bursary scheme for Scotland's poorest students and to boost spending on those in further education.

NUS president Andrew Pakes said: "Cubie has recognised the need to move from the elite university structure of the past to a mass and accessible education system."

He challenged Westminster to learn from Scotland and launch a review of student funding policy in the new year.

Richard Baker, president of NUS Scotland, said his initial response was very positive. But he shared general caution on tuition fees.

The fight to abolish fees and restore full maintenance grants will continue after Cubie, according to the Campaign for Free Education.

Alex Cole-Hamilton, president of Aberdeen University's students' representative council, said "The ball now lies firmly with the members of the Scottish Parliament. While there is a majority in Holyrood for the abolition of fees, our challenge to MSPs is simple. Listen to the students, listen to the public most importantly, act on Cubie and return the grant."

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