Scottish Students to Get Free Ride?

Tuition fees should be abolished for Scottish undergraduates and European students attending Scottish universities, according to an independent Committee of Inquiry report presented to the Scottish parliament on 21 December. But there are strings attached: Scottish graduates must commit a portion of their future income to a proposed Scottish Graduate Endowment that would help pay for the education of less well-off students.

The independent committee, convened by Andrew Cubie, was formed in the wake of a divisive Scottish Parliamentary election last May. In that election, three of Scotland's four political parties--the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, and the Conservatives--pledged to abolish recently introduced tuition fees for Scottish students. Only the Labour Party supported continued undergraduate fees, but they failed to win an outright majority and were forced to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. To appease its bedfellow, the Labour Party agreed to an independent review of Scottish higher education (HE) finance.

The resulting report's central recommendation is to scrap the tuition fee of £1025 per year currently paid by all HE students and replace it with a Scottish Graduate Endowment. To fund the endowment, undergraduates would contract to make an overall contribution of £3075 to the endowment once their income rose above £25,000. The endowment would then be used to fund nonrepayable bursaries for future students, targeted by means testing at the least well off. The report also recommends reorganising student funding to form a more coherent system across further and higher education, increasing loan entitlements to students living away from home from £3635 to £4100, and redistributing funding to increase access opportunities for the least well off, whilst requiring the wealthiest parents to fully support their children.

The report's proposals, if accepted, would apply to all Scottish students, whether they study in Scotland or elsewhere in the U.K., provided that other U.K. universities agree to waive the tuition fee. Although students from England, Wales, and Northern Ireland studying at Scottish universities would still be required to pay tuition fees, lucky students from elsewhere in Europe would be exempt from tuition fees and they would not be expected to pay anything to the Scottish Graduate Endowment.

Alex Cole-Hamilton, president of the Aberdeen University Students' Representative Council, fully supports the Cubie proposals and encourages other parts of the U.K. to embrace them. He says, "we're hopeful that, if Holyrood implements the proposals, Westminster will see the benefits and seek to employ them as well. We were impressed with the level of consultation which went into the report and are 100% behind the proposals. We will accept nothing less than what Cubie recommends."

The proposals have also been welcomed by Scottish universities. Professor Sir Graeme Davies, principal of the University of Glasgow, says, "the Cubie committee has successfully addressed the dual needs of ensuring that those students most in need of support receive it at the time they require it, while ensuring that the universities benefit from those who can make a contribution to their education in a way which doesn't present an obstacle to their participation." And a coalition formed by the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals (COSHEP), the Association of University Teachers (Scotland), and the National Union of Students (Scotland) recently sent a joint letter to all Members of Scottish Parliament urging them to adopt the proposals.

The report's recommendations are now being considered by a Scottish Executive Working Group chaired by Henry McLeish, the Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning. They are expected to put a proposal to the Cabinet by the end of January and that proposal will then be put before the Parliament.

In the meantime, uncertain Scottish undergraduates are holding out until a decision is reached. Figures from the Universities and Colleges Admission Service show that slightly fewer Scots entered HE this year compared with last. David Caldwell, director of COSHEP, suggests that "some potential students appear to be taking a 'wait and see' attitude to the student finance debate and may be choosing to delay until they see the outcome."

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