The government has sanctioned one anomaly in its refusal to fund a fourth year at Scottish universities for non-Scottish students. But, asks Olga Wojtas, how different is higher education north of the border?
Bob Osborne, an Ulster University expert in education statistics, has recently questioned the Garrick committee's claim that Scotland is more successful than other parts of the United Kingdom in attracting higher education students from the lower socio-economic classes. A report in Dearing suggests that Scotland's lead is being whittled away by higher education expansion across the UK.
Garrick's evidence is sketchy, Professor Osborne says, and is not borne out by his initial investigations into figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.
There will be keen interest in his final report. And if Scotland does emerge with a better track record, it will almost certainly be down to its further education colleges. They provide almost a third of Scottish higher education, but their students will not appear on UCAS returns. The Association of Scottish Colleges estimates that 40 per cent of Scots going into higher education for the first time are in colleges.
"The expansion in higher national courses has offered people local access to higher education that they otherwise don't feel able or have the opportunity to take up," says Tom Kelly, ASC chief officer. "Many students who start on these courses and go on to a degree did not have a degree in mind when they started."
There is a growing expectation that further education is now reaching the head of the queue for government support. The colleges argue strongly that they are a much more cost-effective way of offering entry to higher education. The ASC calculates that colleges receive, for example, Pounds 1,950 for each full-time student in business studies, compared with Pounds 3,800 for institutions funded by the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council.
Scottish education minister Brian Wilson has strongly hinted at a substantial boost for the sector after the comprehensive spending review, in recognition of its "can-do" attitude. And he has tried to alleviate pressing problems with an extra Pounds 5 million in 1998-99. But the problems are substantial. A recent National Audit Office report revealed that 39 of the 43 colleges faced a deficit in 1998.
"Colleges are operating to margins of financial tightness that are beyond the experience of universities. That situation is unsustainable," says Mr Kelly.
Colleges have been hit by shifts in the Scottish Office funding formula, and by having their grants based on what they were doing two years previously. Mr Wilson has acknowledged that "the period of transition can seem worse than either the steady state before or after".
He said the Scottish Office was trying to make it easier for colleges to plan ahead more sensibly, but its long-awaited strategic framework to promote wider access and collaboration has not yet been published. Nor has the Scottish Office paper on lifelong learning. Little wonder that many staff are looking forward to the advent of a Scottish Further Education Funding Council next year, which they hope will mirror the openness of SHEFC.