Scottish students and academics have warmly welcomed the Scottish Parliament's prospective review of student finance, the linchpin of the controversial coalition deal between Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
The parties clashed over the abolition of tuition fees, but their "partnership government" agreement says the issue of fees is too important and complex to be decided in the short term.
An independent committee of inquiry will have the broader remit of investigating financial support for full-time and part-time students in FE and HE.
The agreement says loan funding for mature part-time students on low incomes will be doubled to Pounds 6 million from 2000-01. There will be a three-year Pounds 9 million pilot scheme to encourage pupils from low-income families to gain higher education entrance qualifications and access funds will be increased to Pounds 14 million annually for the next two years.
Ian Graham-Bryce, convenor of the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals, said: "We are delighted that the future of student support in Scotland is to be decided through informed debate and not through backroom deals. This is not the end of the matter but the beginning - the battle for the best deal for all students starts here."
But the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals has written to Donald Dewar, the parliament's first minister, warning that the fees debate must take on board the UK-wide perspective.
Tony Bruce, director of policy at the CVCP, said: "We have underlined the fact that the situation in Scotland cannot be considered in isolation and there needs to be a UK dimension that must be reflected in the membership of the committee."
Coshep is to lobby not only Henry McLeish, Labour's minister for enterprise and lifelong learning, and Liberal Democrat deputy minister Nicol Stephen, but also Wendy Alexander, minister for social inclusion. It argues that the inquiry must explore better access for low-income students.
"The higher education sector does not believe a move that benefits the wealthiest students while leaving the poorest no better off is the way to combat social exclusion," Dr Graham-Bryce said.
David Bleiman, assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said: "The inquiry faces the enormous challenge of developing a costed scheme to abolish tuition fees in Scotland, while taking into account student pressures for better maintenance funding and avoiding provoking a raid on the funding of higher education or other vital public services."
Richard Baker, president of the National Union of Students Scotland, said the inquiry team must have HE representatives, including students. "There is too much riding on this for government to get away with stitching things up."
A Scottish Office spokesman said: "The terms of reference, timescale and membership of the committee should be put to the parliament for approval."
Letters, page 19