Where have I seen that before?

January 7, 2000

Scotland has given us fine new proposals for student fees - even if they do echo a 1997 report, says Joan Stringer

If looking at the Cubie report gave you a sense of deja vu, you are not alone. There is similarity between the solutions proposed by Cubie and those recommended by Sir Ron Dearing in 1997. Sir Ron Garrick, on whose "Scottish" Dearing committee I served, acknowledged this the day after Cubie reported. Both agree on the principle that students should contribute to their education, but should make payments after graduation; both focus on wider access and support for disadvantaged groups and on reducing the gap in support arrangements between FE and HE, full and part-time students.

One difference is that Dearing straddled a UK general election, while Cubie was established in the aftermath of a Scottish one. The issue of funding for students and for higher education institutions dominated not only the Scottish election campaign, but also the coalition negotiations.

But what debate there was on the issue was generally poor and showed ignorance of the changes the sector has undergone in the past two decades. Its broad thrust was that the (re-)introduction of means-tested tuition contributions - part of the overall student support package as recently as 1977 - was a breach of a long-standing and fundamental principle of free higher education.

Immediately after the election, the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals sought to calm the debate by discussing with all political parties the real needs of students and institutions at the beginning of the 21st century. The result was the Scottish Parliament's first independent inquiry.

Now that he has reported, it is difficult to think what more Cubie could have done. But, as with any report, one detects a few devils scurrying around the detail. For example, recommending that students studying HNCs or HNDs should not contribute to the graduate endowment appears neither to be supported by the rest of the arguments nor to support lifelong learning. Returning later to "top up" to degree level may not seem worth paying an extra Pounds 3,000 for. Further work is also needed on many details of costings, projections, the scope of the proposed Scottish Graduate Endowment and precise mechanisms for ensuring payments are made to institutions.

But Andrew Cubie is right to say his report should not disturb student support outside Scotland. While there may be indirect effects, systems of student support based on country of residence have always been separate. The only difference now is that devolution has put them under closer scrutiny.

So Cubie has crafted a package that imaginatively addresses the issues of support for students and resources for institutions, which were his central remit. In doing so, he has resurrected many of Dearing's recommendations neglected by the UK government.

The report has received a genuinely warm welcome. Civic Scotland, at least, seems to have got the hang of the "new politics" of the parliament. Far from creating "anomalies", Cubie has provided a positive example of why devolution is good for Scotland and the UK and why the ethos and procedures of the Scottish Parliament will indeed stand the test of time. Joan K. Stringer is principal of Queen Margaret University College, Edinburgh.

Should Scottish students be treated differently? Email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk

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