Scots fee payers voice despair

September 24, 1999

Scotland's independent committee of inquiry into student finance has now received some 600 written submissions. Most are from individuals aggrieved by the financial sacrifices they are forced to make for higher education.

But no consensus for a solution is emerging, beyond despair over the inconsistency that many believe is hampering wider access.

The Association of Scottish Colleges says that support should be based on a student's need rather than the type of course and institution and that students should not be worse off in full-time study than they would be if unemployed or on benefit.

There is widespread backing for grants for the poorest students to help with dependants, specialist materials and travel.

But there is a clash over tuition fees, the reason for the inquiry. Students want fees axed, citing the principle of free education. Most institutions want fees retained, citing the principle of higher education's beneficiaries contributing towards it.

Institutions' key fear is the loss of a funding stream, which they say would hit quality. Both the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council and Scottish Further Education Funding Council say any extra funding for new student finance arrangements must not be at the expense of institutional funding committed in the comprehensive spending review.

But Queen Margaret University College has warned that "the concept of tuition fees should be repackaged, as it now has such negative connotations".

The Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals suggests that the fee contribution be made on their behalf while they are at university and recouped from them once they graduate. Coshep is also toying with the idea of a graduate tax.

Scotland's enterprise and lifelong learning minister, Henry McLeish, has dismissed reports that Labour is contemplating a graduate tax as "completely without foundation".

A one-page letter from Scotland's first minister, Donald Dewar, says Labour stands by the student support reforms introduced by the government.

But although about 45 per cent of Scottish students do not pay fees, the SHEFC warns that the "problem of perception" of upfront costs appears to deter some groups. Both the SHEFC and the SFEFC suggest that tuition fees should be added to student loans.

The Association of University Teachers Scotland has called for the abolition of tuition fees, but does not want institutional funding to suffer.

It suggests that employers could make a greater contribution through individual learning accounts and through a new charity that would offer tax relief.

There are anxious messages from both the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and the Higher Education Funding Council for England, warning against disparities in student funding north and south of the border. The CVCP says: "It would be unfortunate if changes in funding damaged the cross-border flows of students, which we consider to be crucial to a vibrant higher education sector and to student choice."

HEFCE fears the impact on students and institutions if "the availability of student support were to become a primary factor determining where in the UK students choose to stay".

There are worries about the "Scottish anomaly" of only Scots and European Union students at Scottish institutions being exempt from fourth-year tuition fees. Heriot-Watt says it is unacceptable to offer the same product at

a different price to different UK citizens.

Coshep has already called on the education departments of other UK countries to make good the Pounds 1.9 million necessary to underwrite fourth-year fees.

But many of the Scottish submissions see the committee's job as finding solutions for Scotland. The Glasgow Colleges Group says the Scottish higher education system is sufficiently distinct to merit a distinct funding structure.

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