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England plays 'catch-up' with Scots colleges

THE Association of Scottish Colleges asked this week: "What's all the fuss about?"

College leaders were expressing their usual frustration with the prominence accorded to the introduction of top-up fees in England, trebling the income the most prestigious universities can expect from students from pound;1,000 to pound;3,000, and the knock-on effect this could have on Scottish universities.

The ASC said, in effect, that there are more important issues at stake.

"Colleges find it difficult to see what all the fuss about under-funding in top universities is about. Something needs to be done much more urgently about the unrealistic and unsustainable unit of funding for the 60 per cent of students new to higher education who start their courses in an FE college."

The contribution of Scottish colleges to higher education is much greater - 28 per cent of HE provision is in colleges north of the border compared with just 11 per cent in England, which explains the irritation felt in FE circles when higher education is equated with universities.

Tom Kelly, the association's chief officer, noted: "The FE colleges have done a great job in attracting students from disadvantaged backgrounds into higher education. But there is still a long way to go in getting a fair deal for those students on funding and the opportunity to go on later to a degree qualification."

Mr Kelly said many of the English proposals represented a " catch-up exercise" with Scotland. Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary in England, is anxious that colleges should play a major role in achieving the 50 per cent target for young people to enter HE - a target already achieved in Scotland.

Mr Clarke intends to do this by enrolling more students in two-year "foundation degrees". These are represented in Scotland by the highly regarded two-year higher national diploma (HND), which has made a major contribution to achieving the 50 per cent target.

The ASC has welcomed the deferment of tuition repayments until the student has graduated and started earning pound;15,000, pound;5,000 higher than the Scottish threshold. But Mr Kelly suggests this is "too little and too long deferred".

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