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Muted welcome for Cubie compromise

Neil Munro reports on the crucial revisions that allowed the coalition to squeeze through on a crunch issue

FURTHER education has given a generally warm welcome to the Scottish Executive's response to the Cubie report on student finance, while higher education leaders have been more cautious. Opposition politicians inevitably complained about a political fix to save the coalition.

The new funding system, devised after 12 meetings of the special subcommittee of Labour and Liberal Democrat ministers set up to rehash the Cubie recommendations, will abolish tuition fees for full-time Scottish students at Scottish universities from this autumn - a year earlier than Cubie proposed.

But graduates will have to pay a special "endowment" of pound;2,000 to fund a new pound;30 million scheme to support the poorest students, whom Cubie said should receive a pound;4,100 grant. Repayment would begin when graduates start earning pound;10,000, a much lower threshold than the Cubie plan for a contribution of pound;3,075 to start when graduate salaries reached pound;25,000.

The endowment scheme will require legislation, and graduate repayments and the new access grants will not start until 2001. Transitional arrangements for existing students have still to be thrashed out.

Further education will particularly benefit from the fact that almost 50 per cent of students will be exempt from making endowment repayments, including those on higher national certificate and diploma courses, all mature students, lone parents and the disabled. The fees of 40,000 full-time FE students will also be paid.

Tom Kelly, chief officer of the Association of Scottish Colleges, says both Cubie and the Executive had listened to the case for more equitable treatment for FE, which could easily have got lost in the obsession with tuition fees. His major reservation was the lack of any recognition for the needs of 350,000 part-time students.

"If we are talking about lifelong learning, this issue will have to be addressed," Mr Kelly said. "But we had that reservation about Cubie as well."

The general complaint from higher education about the Government's plans, outlined to Parliament on Wednesday, is that the Cubie measures had not been dopted in full. Andrew Cubie, the committee's chairman, shared that disappointment since his report had been based on "a wide-ranging consultation process, recommendations arrived at unanimously and (a) package supported by a wide range of bodies involved in further and higher education".

But Mr Cubie welcomed the acceptance of "significant elements" of his recommendations.

Nicol Stephen, junior enterprise and lifelong learning minister, said, however, that the Executive's response was constrained by "the overall cost and its impact on the rest of the Scottish budget as well as by EU rules requiring parity of treatment of all students within each nation state. "I believe we now have the best package of student support we have ever seen in this country and probably the strongest in Europe".

The Scottish plans were paralleled by an announcement south of the border of a new pound;68 million hardship fund. The Executive's scheme will cost pound;50 million compared with Cubie's pound;71 million. But the net cost in a full year is an estimated pound;33 million once the graduate repayments are in place. In addition, the Executive has guaranteed that it will meet the pound;42 million shortfall in university and college incomes resulting from the abolition of tuition fees.

This has landed the Department of Enterprise and Lifelong Learning with a major headache. The additional sums will have to come from within its budget rather than Scottish expenditure as a whole. "It will not be without pain," Henry McLeish, the Minister, acknowledged. The expenditure of the national and local enterprise networks is likely to come under close scrutiny.

Mr Stephen said the ministerial group had worked particularly hard to ensure that levels of student debt are the same or less than at present. The new measures mean that, with 37 per cent of the 6,000 Scots who study in English universities and colleges already exempt from means-tested tuition fees, 97 per cent of Scottish students will pay no fees.

But the Tories pointed out that the pound;10,000 earning threshold for repaying the new endowment would mean that "tuition fees for the majority of graduates have now become a tuition tax for all".

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