The Scottish Further Education Funding Council suggests that during the early years of a higher education course grants to cover living costs and tuition should be available to students on the lowest incomes, often said to be particularly prone to "loan aversion".
The council estimates that offering grants instead of loans to all first year students eligible for full fee relief would cost around pound;50 million. But the SFEFC adds that HE students who are able to pay should continue to contribute to living costs and tuition fees through a means tested contribution and loans repayable once they find a job.
As for FE students on non-advanced courses, the council argues that those who cannot afford to pay should be entitled to grants rather than loans for both living costs and tuition fees. It says there is no evidence that people with FE qualifications, unlike those with degrees, earn more than the average wage during their working lives.
The council is also pressing the inquiry to create a level playing field between student support in universities and colleges, so part-timers, the unemployed and those on low incomes suffer no disadvantage. These groups constitute a large FE constituency.
It is particularly concerned at the disadvantages which the combination of the benefits system and FE bursaries can create. The council states: "The overall amount of financial support available to students to meet the costs of living and tuition should be assessed to ensure that it does not prevent access to further or higher education, with the starting assumption that the amount available for living costs should be broadly equivalent to social security levels." At present the maximum bursary for FE students is pound;67.55 a week for those married or living away from home. This is less than the weekly minimum available in benefits.
The council plans to review FE bursary and access funds to ensure there is equity of treatment across the country, although the money will continue to be paid out through individual colleges. As a start the SFEFC wants means-tested bursaries, now normally only available for full-time study, to be extended to part-timers.
The council is critical of the current rule that only allows non-advanced students bursary support for one course in a seven-year period. "This militates against lifelong learning and may not enable students to progress to higher education or to stage their learning to suit their personal circumstances," it states.