Scots parties play fees card

March 26, 1999

Scottish students could see an end to tuition fees under the Scottish Parliament.

The parliament's devolved powers include higher education funding, and tuition fees are emerging as a major political battleground in the run-up to the May 6 elections.

The Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have all pledged to abolish fees for Scottish students, wherever they study in the United Kingdom. Opinion polls suggest a Labour lead, but it is possible no party will have an overall majority in the parliament.

Richard Baker, president of the National Union of Students Scotland, said that given the manifesto commitments, he would be "horrified" if the result were anything other than the abolition of fees.

But the three parties each have their particular spin on how to handle a policy which would cost more than Pounds 30 million in 2000-01, and are pouring scorn on one another's plans.

The Tories propose a scholarship scheme under which any Scottish student meeting minimum entrance standards would be entitled to an award redeemable against fees. The SNP aims to raise funds by axeing a number of "inappropriate" government initiatives, such as individual learning accounts. The Liberal Democrats are contemplating using the "Tartan Tax", the parliament's tax-raising powers.

Mr Baker said NUS Scotland would try to turn fee abolition into a cross-party issue.

The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals said it had no comment on the possibility of change north of the border. But Jane Denholm, deputy secretary of the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals, said that while fee abolition must be seen as a serious possibility, it was still hypothetical given the different schemes.

"We need to see the policies firming up to see if (the parties) have a common vision."

Coshep also wanted reassurances that higher education institutions would not suffer a subsequent shortfall in funding, Ms Denholm said.

The SNP and Liberal Democrats have also promised to remove the "Scottish anomaly" of fourth year tuition fees being charged to students from elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

Mr Baker said that since only Scots would be completely exempt from fees, this would not precipitate a flood of applications from elsewhere in the country.

But if Scottish students were getting a "better deal", he hoped this would shame Westminster into following suit.

Mr Baker stressed that NUS Scotland wanted to see the parliament take action on student support in general.

The Liberal Democrats say the Pounds 3.5 million available for access and hardship funds should be quadrupled to Pounds 14 million, with one in six students standing to gain on average Pounds 1,000 towards living costs. The SNP has pledged to introduce Pounds 500 annual maintenance grants for the 20,000 lowest income students.

A Scottish Office spokeswoman said: "The government has no plans to change the current fee regime for higher education. Forty per cent of Scottish students do not pay anything towards tuition fees."

Sir Stewart Sutherland, principal of Edinburgh University, said he was "thoroughly in favour" of abolishing tuition fees if the money could be found. "But if you're talking about helping students, my first priority would be to provide some cash on a grant basis to those in greatest financial hardship at the point of entry. I think quite a number of other principals take that view."

Political pundit David McCrone, professor of sociology at Edinburgh University, said he did not believe the three parties were targeting the student vote. But they were capitalising on an issue in which Labour could be presented as "less Scottish," lacking autonomy from London.

Professor McCrone said the latest polls suggested Labour had a fairly comfortable lead. He speculated that Labour would have around 55 seats, the SNP 40 to 45, and the Tories and Liberal Democrats 10 to 15 seats each.

Scottish higher education allocations, page 9

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