Free-for-all fears over top-up fees

A WARNING that Scottish universities may end up in the same turbulent state of industrial relations as further education colleges if higher education is funded differently throughout the United Kingdom has come from the Educational Institute of Scotland.

Marion Healy, further and higher education officer of the Educational Institute of Scotland, voiced her fears after the long-awaited White Paper on higher education in England was launched by Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary. She called for an urgent investigation by the Scottish Parliament's enterprise and lifelong learning committee into the effects of Mr Clarke's statement.

Ms Healy, a member of the Cubie committee on student finance in Scotland, said funding disparities could undermine the collective approach to bargaining now being adopted in the universities and lead to an FE-style free-for-all.

The English arrangements, which are not set to come into effect until 2005-06, after a period of consultation, follow many of the landmark decisions taken in the wake of the Cubie report. Maintenance grants are to be reintroduced, upfront tuition fees are being abolished and repayments will be deferred until students start earning a salary.

The major difference south of the border is Mr Clarke's decision to allow English universities to charge top-up fees of up to pound;3,000 - but only if they can satisfy a new "access regulator" that they are doing enough to widen participation from disadvantaged groups.

Iain Gray, Scottish Lifelong Learning Minister, confirmed again in his response to the White Paper that "both the Executive and the higher education sector in Scotland have made clear that we do not wish to see a differential fee regime".

Mr Gray recognised that there are bound to be "implications and opportunities" resulting from the English proposals.

Mr Gray called a meeting of university and college leaders yesterday (Thursday) to discuss what he admitted could be "difficult" issues and to work out how they could help him resolve them. There was general surprise that the English reforms would not be introduced for another two to three years, which means students would not have to start the new system of repayments until 2009. Scottish universities may therefore have more time to adjust.

Rami Okasha, president of the National Union of Students in Scotland, said:

"This will be a bad deal for the UK as a whole. It will be more expensive for many Scottish students wishing to study in England and more English students may want to come to university in Scotland which could put those with Scottish Highers at a disadvantage compared with those who have A-levels."

Universities Scotland is setting up a panel of funding experts to explore the implications. But it is concerned that the new money for English universities looks like three times the increase in Scotland.


Another side-effect could be the more generous payment threshold proposed for England - a salary of pound;15,000 or more before fees start being repaid against pound;10,000 in Scotland. Andrew Cubie, who chaired the student finance inquiry in Scotland, called this week for his committee's recommendation of a pound;25,000 threshold to be implemented.

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