IF ANY justification were needed for the national inquiry into the mire of student support, the soberly factual statements outlining the current financial regime issued by the inquiry team last week should be sufficient.
Andrew Cubie, the inquiry's chairman, said he would be surprised if it did not make people stop and think. The pound;1,025 yearly contribution which 30 per cent of full-time undergraduates are required to make to their tuition is not even half the picture.
Part-time undergraduates have always had to pay their own tuition fees, although from next year unemployed students and those on low incomes will receive around pound;500 a year to offset the cost. Postgraduate students face a lottery since support for fees is possible but not guaranteed.
As for living costs, the 140,000 full-time higher education students in university or college are entitled to loans of up to pound;3,600 a year, plus hardship loans of pound;250. Repayment starts after graduation once a student is working and earning above pound;10,000 a year.
But there are no Government-backed loans towards living costs for the 60,000 part-time HE students, of whom 73 per cent are mature students. Access courses or evening classes are not eligible for financial support either.
The 18,000 full-time and 25,000 part-time postgraduates mostly pay for their own maintenance and tuition. There is, however, a special scheme for around 2,500 full-time postgraduates in Scotland, currently under review, which pays fees and provides a means-tested grant.
When further education is added to the equation, the complexities multiply. The only consistency is that the growing numbers taking a full-time HE course in a college - currently 28 per cent of all such students - also have to pay towards their tuition.
But fees are payable up to pound;800 only, because FE courses are cheaper, and only apply to those aged over 18. Fees are waived for younger students and may be for part-timers in FE - although this is at each college's discretion. Some FE students are also entitled to loans to meet living expenses, but only if they are taking an HE course in college.
The 36,000 full-time students on non-advanced FE courses have to rely on bursaries, which may be used to support themselves or to pay tuition fees. A maximum grant of pound;2,950 is paid out at the discretion of each college, but a quarter of FE students receive nothing. The rules say that a bursary award will normally be paid only once in seven years.
As for part-time FE students, some 306,000 of them, there is generally no support for living costs even if they are on vocational courses.
Although FE students emerge from their courses without debt, the parental contribution for maintenance is much higher than for HE students because of the way income is assessed.
Family contributions kick in where household income is more than pound;17,000 a year but are charged at pound;1 for every pound;13 of income in the case of HE students against a much steeper pound;1 in pound;5 for students on FE bursaries. An HE student from a family whose income is pound;25,000 a year would be expected to receive a parental contribution of pound;720, compared with pound;1,500 for an FE student on a one-year National Certificate course.
It is small wonder that Tom Kelly, chief officer of the Association of Scottish Colleges, says of the five key questions posed by the Cubie committee: "The problem is not going to lie in answering each of the five questions but when you try to join up all the answers."
Colleges believe the committee has to come up with a scheme which is fair to all categories of student and encompasses all categories of financial support. Scottish Executive spending plans envisage student support rising from pound;381 million to pound;532 million by 2001-02, with FE bursaries likely to account for another pound;50 million in two years' time.
"We really have to ask whether the current student support system is the best way to disburse almost pound;600 million in public funding," Mr Kelly states.
"It is anomalous to say to someone who is semi-literate and virtually unemployable that they are only entitled to one bursary every seven years, yet to say to the brightest and the best who could be on the verge of being almost self-taught that they are guaranteed public funding for their course for four years."
Substantial part-time learning, already a growth industry, must also have access to public funds, Mr Kelly suggests. The Dearing committee, which reported on HE funding throughout the UK, shied away from this issue because of the costs involved.
Colleges are looking to the Cubie committee to produce "a broad and balanced approach to student entitlement". This means that, in the age of lifelong learning students should be entitled to between five and six years of publicly funded study support at any stage in their lives.
The association recognises, however, that full state funding could not apply to every course and must pass the tests of offering "relevance, value and employability".
One issue handicapping the debate is the absence of data clarifying whether tuition fees discourage students. The general impression from the colleges is that recruitment is not as buoyant this year, although some are doing well and student finance may not be a factor or be only one factor.
The association's position is that students should pay towards tuition in the form of repayments after they graduate and are earning, in the same way as loans for maintenance are treated, rather than an up-front family contribution before they start studying.
The official line so far from the Educational Institute of Scotland remains the same - higher education should be "free at the point of entry". Any change in policy will have to be thrashed out between the union's constituent sections, the College Lecturers' Association and the University Lecturers' Association, as well as approved by the executive council.