Student finance is up for review. Olga Wojtas looks at divisions in Scots ranks over whether abolishing fees helps access and whether it will hit spending Last Wednesday, Scotland's 14-member committee of inquiry into student finance held its first meeting. Its launch can be seen as a victory for the new Scottish executive, in a battle Labour would have preferred not to have fought.
The government has won a parliamentary vote against the immediate abolition of tuition fees, with further debate deferred for seven months while the committee reviews fees and financial support for all Scottish students.
But the true victor is the tertiary sector, where there was consternation at the prospect of a significant new funding stream drying up just as it began to flow towards institutions. Government figures show fee income to Scottish universities and colleges rising from Pounds 19 million in 1998-99 to Pounds 46 million in 2001-02.
The Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives all had manifesto pledges to axe fees, but their apparent unity was illusory.
Each had a different strategy, none of which gave further and higher education institutions confidence that they would not be thrown back on the mercy of public funds sooner or later.
"Misunderstanding has been the defining factor of this whole debate," said a spokesperson for the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals.
"We need to get the message across that fee abolition is not about helping the poorest students. The public and political parties are worried about access and student hardship and want to ensure that that's put right. Tuition fees are only a tiny part of this, but have become shorthand for all the ills."
The review committee is a result of urgent post-election lobbying by key education organisations. They called on parliament to use the more reasoned and consensual approach to legislation promised by Holyrood. This included an article by Coshep deputy secretary Jane Denholm warning that "giving Westminster, the Treasury and Millbank each a bloody nose is gleefully tempting, but it is expensive folly".
The Association of University Teachers Scotland produced a briefing paper of Do's and Don'ts, and deployed immediate past president David Jago, a prominent Liberal Democrat, to spur his party towards parliament's promised consultative process.
Mr Jago said: "Of course the manifesto commitment to abolish tuition fees is important. But seeking a quick fix on the issue would be a betrayal of Scotland's aspirations for a new politics in which everyone can have a say - not just the party leaders, meeting behind closed doors."
The party leaders received personal letters from Sir John Arbuthnott, principal of Strathclyde University and a member of the Dearing and Garrick committees, urging a comprehensive review. It invoked Dearing's conclusion that it was socially just and equitable to ask students to contribute towards the cost of their education, and suggested Scotland might revisit Dearing's concept of contributions being made after graduation, rather than upfront.
The only tertiary organisation with some regrets about the parliamentary vote is the National Union of Students Scotland. It supported an ultimately unsuccessful opposition amendment for the immediate abolition of fees, and a committee of inquiry into student support.
But NUS Scotland president Richard Baker said the union would be submitting evidence to the inquiry that it believed made a clear case for abolishing tuition fees and returning grants and other allowances to students.
Institutional anxieties about the funding implications are minimised by the inquiry having to produce costed options for any changes to the system. There is also relief that these have to take account of quality and standards.
A Coshep spokesperson said: "There is no prospect that the committee will come back with a recommendation of no change, since that would imply there is no student poverty, and we're comfortable with that. The onus is on the organisations in the middle, such as ourselves, AUTS and NUSS, to turn this inquiry into something positive and constructive."
The Association of Scottish Colleges has hailed the review as welcome recognition that student finance is not just about university undergraduates. It says it expects to play a major role in the inquiry, ensuring that the needs of further education students are not overlooked.
ASC chair Bob Kay said colleges delivered 30 per cent of all Scottish higher education. About 70 per cent of their higher education students paid no tuition fees and qualified for full awards from the Student Awards Agency for Scotland because of their low level of family income, compared with 40 per cent of university students.
Many further education students were part-time and had to pay for their tuition, but without access to the loans available to full-time higher education students, he said.
Given the committee's concern with social inclusion, the ASC is also strongly promoting further education as a key route into higher education.
Mr Kay said: "In Scotland, 40 per cent of new entrants to higher education start their courses in a further education college.
"More than 50 per cent of those who complete higher national diploma courses go on to continue their higher education studies. One third of those who move on to higher education courses came in the college with no recognised qualifications at all."
Henry McLeish, Scotland's minister for enterprise and lifelong learning, believes the review committee, whose membership and remit has been approved by parliament, is a potent symbol of Scotland's new politics.
He held informal talks on the committee with the SNP, Tories, and the three minority MSPs ahead of the parliamentary vote, and believes this will be the model for future government inquiries.
"That really reinforces the big difference between the new Scottish Parliament and Westminster. Consensus and consultation have not just to be bolted on, they've got to be integral to the process.
"When the committee reports, it will give a chance for both parliament and the executive to shape their views in relation to what comes up."
Mr McLeish argues that all the parties share the same concerns about students, and should have no problem with their views being examined by an independent committee.
UNION DO'S AND DON'TS
The Association of University Teachers Scotland says:
Think about the knock-on consequences. If we believe that tuition fees and the replacement of grants by loans are beginning to deter applications to Scottish higher education, then we must acknowledge that the converse is likely to apply.
Fee abolition could lead to a fresh wave of student demand. If Scotland goes it alone, while other parts of the UK retain tuition fees, our already popular universities could be flooded with applicants from other parts of the UK, as well as more from Scotland.
Forget the costs of change. The comprehensive spending review settlement for Scotland builds in the assumption of a growing income stream from tuition fees. Abolishing
tuition fees will cost money, which has to be found
Forget the UK dimension. We are free to discriminate on grounds of domicile within the UK. Tuition fees could be abolished for all Scots domiciled students, leaving English, Welsh and Northern Ireland students disadvantaged. But to do so would be to exploit a loophole in European Union regulations in order to
discriminate against our fellow citizens.
THE TEAM THAT WILL DECIDE WHAT TO DO AND HOW
The independent committee of inquiry into student finance's
terms of reference and
To conduct a comprehensive review of tuition fees and financial support for students normally resident in Scotland participating, part-time or full-time, in further and higher education courses anywhere in the United Kingdom
To promote access to further and higher education, particularly for those groups under-represented, while taking account of the need to maintain and develop quality and standards and the position of Scottish further and higher education in the UK system
To recommend any changes to the current system, and provide costed options for change
To report on its findings to the Scottish executive by the end of 1999.
Convener Andrew Cubie is a solicitor who served with Mr McLeish on the consultative steering group on the Scottish Parliament. He is deputy chair of Napier University's court.
Six members come from the tertiary sector: David Bleiman, assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers; Marian Healy, national officer of the Educational Institute of Scotland; Dugald Mackie, secretary of Glasgow University and former secretary of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council; Ian Ovens, principal of Dundee College; Maria Slowey, professor of adult and continuing education at Glasgow University; and David Welsh, president of Aberdeen University's students representative council.
Schools' experience comes from Eleanor Currie, director of education, East Renfrewshire. There are four members with a background in business and management: George Bennett, former general manager of Motorola; David Dimmock, education liaison manager for Standard Life Assurance; Archie Hunter, senior partner, KPMG Scotland; and Heather Sheerin, chair of the Highland Primary Care NHS Trust.
Two members have an equality background: Morag Alexander, director of the Equal Opportunities Commission, Scotland; and Rowena Arshad, of the Centre for Education and Racial Equality in Scotland.