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Tertiary - Funding council gives boost to Russell's fee-free vision

Plans for Scottish students to avoid paying for higher education might just work, it says

Plans for Scottish students to avoid paying for higher education might just work, it says

Education secretary Michael Russell's wish for Scottish students to continue receiving free higher education may not be as outlandish as is widely claimed, according to the body that distributes funding to colleges and universities.

The Scottish Funding Council this week indicated the plan could work, despite it cutting the university teaching grant by 10.9 per cent to pound;609 million, and hitting universities with an overall cut in grants of 8.1 per cent.

"If (the Government) chooses to rebalance other priorities to give higher education a particular emphasis and priority, it's sustainable," said chief executive Mark Batho.

That is despite the Scottish Government having been condemned by political opponents for promising the impossible with a green paper on university funding, which included its preferred option of avoiding any graduate contribution.

There would be a number of possible ways to compensate for the lack of income from students, Mr Batho said, highlighting one in particular: a reduction in the number of student places.

But that is not immediately on the cards: despite across-the-board cuts, he underlined that student numbers would remain the same in the 2011-12 academic year.

Universities are markedly less inclined than the funding council to believe that the Government's plan to keep higher education free is realistic.

Mr Russell has said it would depend on whether a funding gap opened up between Scotland and England, where controversial fees of up to pound;9,000 a year are being introduced.

But this week, after poring over the funding council's figures, Universities Scotland convener Bernard King said they had "surely put an end to any suggestion that Scotland's universities do not already face a significant funding gap".

Labour education spokesman Des McNulty reacted to the funding council cuts, saying: "The universities have made it clear that this position is not sustainable, and yet the SNP are in denial."

The funding council has also announced a 38 per cent reduction in the capital allocation for maintaining colleges' and universities' estates, from pound;44.5m to pound;27.7m.

To cushion the blow of cuts, there will be around double the number of "fees-only" students that there are in the current year, i.e. those whose places are partially funded by universities.

The highest-quality research - earning three or four stars in the standard rating system - has been protected, and the number of universities specialising in work with disadvantaged groups has increased to six.

A new "spend to save" grant has been created, to "deliver more for less" through greater joint working among universities and colleges, or mergers, for example.

College student support will stay at around the same level, although the National Union of Students Scotland has decried a real-terms cut to college bursaries.

Meanwhile, it has been announced that English universities face a 6 per cent cut to the 2011-12 teaching budget, from pound;4.9 billion to pound;4.6bn, before increased tuition fees come into force in 2012-13.

henry.hepburn@tes.co.uk

CHANGES TO COLLEGE AND UNIVERSITY FUNDING FOR 2011-12

College teaching: pound;423.7m (-10%)

College student support: pound;84.2m (+0.3%)

College strategic funds: pound;19.5m (-25%)

University teaching: pound;609m (-10.2%)

University research: pound;243m (-0.6%)

University strategic funds: pound;104m (-12%).

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