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Cubie's unfinished business

Tom Kelly on what next for the debate over student funding

THE Cubie Committee must be counted a successful model of a committee of inquiry for the devolved era in Scotland. In five months of brisk and hard work, it has remapped one of the last remaining administrative wildernesses and delivered on time a unanimous report fulfilling its remit and taking on board two major consultation exercises.

The report sets out new "guiding principles" and costings of its key recommendations to help future explorers on their way. But will it deliver a better and fairer system of student finance?

For too long student finance was the preserve of university-educated parents wanting to send their offspring from school direct into higher education. "Abolish tuition fees" became the slogan for rallying the claims of the middle and professional classes on the public purse.

So the headline Cubie recommendation to abolish the student, parental or family contribution to tuition should be welcome to the Scottish Executive. Less welcome to students will be the suggested Scottish graduate endowment to recoup up to pound;3,075 from graduates once their incomes reach the heady levels of pound;25,000 or more.

The new approach to tuition fees is that students should pay something for their own degree studies but only later and when they can as a graduate. The Scottish Executive would have to pay an extra pound;42 million to replace the present up-front tuition fee contribution. But, eventually, the endowment scheme would contribute about pound;35 million.

Cubie had no hesitation in recommending that parents and families should contribute to living costs if they have the means to

do so. Most of the cost of abolishing tuition fee contributions will be met by reducing the student loan entitlement on the assumption that parents who no longer require to pay tuition fee contributions "can redirect" these contributions towards student living costs.

This blow would be softened by raising the threshold for parental and family contributions to pound;23,000 (from the present level of pound;17,000).

The better news for students is in the recommendations to increase living cost allowances for students away from home to pound;4,010 per annum, and to offer non-repayable bursaries (in other words, grants) to young students from the least well-off families, to widen access, and to help mature students with their families and with child care.

Part of the extra bill for living costs would be met by reducing loans for families with incomes of more than pound;35,000 down to no loan at all for families with incomes of above pound;47,000 - asking richer parents to pay more towards living costs.

This new scheme for living costs of full-time HE undergraduates is estimated to cost parents and spouses an extra pound;28 million and the Scottish Executive an extra pound;46 million each year in order to provide pound;74 million more for student living costs.

Cubie has brught new light to bear on the previously under-explored issues of finance for FE and postgraduate students, and of maintenance needs of full time students. The report offers a thoughtful way to tackle these.

The Association of Scottish Colleges can claim an "assist" for its evidence in the Cubie recommendations on:

Improving the living cost allowances for FE students over 18 on full-time, one-year, bursaries.

Harmonising the currently severe means-test scale for FE bursaries with the more generous one for HE awards and loans.

Applying the Scottish Graduate Endowment only to degree studies and not to Higher National courses.

These proposals would bring much-needed fairness to FE students, and promote participation of disadvantaged students in the more attainable and vocationally useful non-degree courses.

So will the Cubie committee sort the problems of finance for Scottish students once and for all? Unfortunately it will not. There is much unfinished business.

Many of the recommendations are for further reviews of the overlaps with benefits (social security during vacations and local authority rebates of council tax), with other ideas for student support (such as the pilot schemes of educational maintenance allowances for 16-18s in East Ayrshire and of individual learning accounts in Fife), and of means-tested support for part-time students.

A good deal or not? As is usual for committees of inquiry, Cubie has urged the Scottish Executive to accept its recommendations as a single package of interconnected measures and not to pick out some and not other bits to pursue. This seems unlikely.

The costs of the package are high and some of the politicians will find it difficult to respond to the evidence and ideas the committee has put forward. Lifelong learning may be recognised as the key to employability and social inclusion by all four major political parties in Scotland.

But tuition fee contributions for full-time degrees have continued to dominate the debate on who should pay, and how much, for opportunities to learn.

Nor are there easy answers to the question for prospective students and their families as to what they will get and what they will have to pay. The costings are at sector level. New allowances and contributions will not kick in until autumn 2001. So far there are no scales or illustrations of examples.

Nor is there any clearer picture as to how many new student places there will be. The Scottish Executive is committed to an extra 42,000 places by 2002 but we know only that 40,000 were to be in FE colleges and 2,000 in universities and nearly all were to be part-time.

If Cubie is fully implemented, there will be better funded places for full time study. But will there be more opportunities in total, and a better package of support for part-time study?

Tom Kelly is chief executive of the Association of Scottish Colleges.

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