Alarm spread throughout higher education this week as the realisation dawned that university funding could collapse following the abolition of tuition fees by the new Scottish Parliament.
Vice-chancellors, lecturers and students re-examined their positions on undergraduate tuition fees as attention focused on the potential financial consequences for universities if the Scottish Parliament votes for their abolition. All warned of a possible snowball effect leading to fees being scrapped in the rest of the UK.
Both the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals urged caution. In a joint statement they said that fees of Pounds 32 million this year, rising to Pounds 46 million in 2001-02, were "essential to maintaining the quality of the student experience" in Scottish universities.
Tom Wilson, head of universities for lecturers' union Natfhe, said: "We strongly support the abolition of tuition fees. But we do not expect it to be used as an excuse to delay the implementation of the Bett recommendations on pay. The money has to be found from somewhere. It would be foolish not to be worried, however."
Andrew Pakes, president of the National Union of Students, said: "We utterly opposed tuition fees. And if the Scots vote to abolish fees then the pressure on Westminster to follow will be enormous. However, I do not want to see students being punished financially if the government abolishes fees and tries to claw back money from other areas to make up the difference."
No decision on fees had been reached between the Scottish Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats as The THES went to press. But a review of student support looked likely. Labour, the single largest party in the new Scottish Parliament, fell short of a majority and needs a coalition with the Liberal Democrats to form a government. But the Liberal Democrats oppose fees and could vote with the other parties to abolish them.
There is a growing consensus in Scottish higher education that the parliament should delay its fees decision until a full review of student support is completed. Politicians appeared to be listening. Coshep convenor Ian Graham-Bryce said: "We call on all parties to resist making an irrevocable decision about abolition."
The AUT Scotland urged the parliament to wait until the publication of the Quigley report into the existing Scottish anomaly over fourth-year tuition fees.
If fees are scrapped in Scotland only Scottish-domiciled and other non-UK European Union students would be exempt. The full cost of their tuition would be met by Edinburgh. English, Welsh and Northern Irish students could still be charged Pounds 4,100 at present rates for a traditional four-year Scottish honours degree.
Scots would get an even better deal south of the border. The Scottish government would again pay their fees at an English, Welsh or Northern Irish university but they would also save a year's maintenance costs by doing a three-year rather than a four-year degree.
The repercussions are potentially enormous. English students and their parents will be contributing more than Pounds 320 million a year in fees in 2000-01. If fees were abolished universities would have to make up the income. First call would be on government. But government has planned higher and further education spending up to 2002 on the basis of fee income. Losing it would cause chaos.
If the government sticks by fees it risks losing the support of middle England voters in the run up to the next general election.
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