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New fees, new numbers;Comment;Opinion

The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council had little room for manoeuvre. In deciding how to divide its Government grant among 21 institutions, it had to bear in mind the uncertainty about student numbers and ministers' injunctions before Christmas. John Sizer, the council's chief executive, has pointed to "perturbations" in student demand, a larger intake than expected last autumn because of the imminence of tuition fees and a position that remains unpredictable for next session despite the application figures recently published for the universities.

Not until students matriculate will the effect of the new fees become clear. Therefore it would be unfair to reward or penalise individual institutions since the matter is out of their hands. At this time of year applications remain multiple: only when exam results appear do conditional offers become final and students plump for one place or another (if their performance gives them the luxury of choice).

The range of percentage increase among 20 of the 21 institutions is minimal (the grant to the College of Textiles has marginally shrunk). That is line with the Education Minister's letter last December. He did not want under-recruitment or the opposite to be penalised because it would add to the outcry about the Government's policy on student finance. The result is that principals' protests are confined to the global sums, a reduction in real terms of 2.75 per cent. The budget for teaching is partially protected and the picture might have been worse under the Conservatives, but it represents yet another year-by-year reduction for institutions charged with implementing the Government's key education pledges.

The demand for post-school education remains buoyant. Scottish Office statistics show 9 per cent more students in higher education last session compared with 1995-96, and that excludes the extra who transferred when nursing became a university activity, although there is no way of isolating any who opted to beat the fees deadline. Further education colleges, too, are recruiting well - but are also forced to operate on short commons, as recent reports in The TES Scotland FE Focus have shown. There were a quarter more students last year on FE courses and 11 per cent doing higher education work. So one aspect of Government policy is effective: HE in FE is mainly vocational and much of it at sub-degree level. That is in line with the priorities defined by the Garrick report and adopted by ministers. Yet the anomaly of a cap on HE numbers in lowland FE colleges remains.

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