THE Scottish Executive continued its love affair with further education this week, announcing an pound;8 million package to support the children of part-time students.
This was an unexpectedly generous element of the Government's full response to the Cubie report on student finance, unveiled by Henry McLeish, Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Minister, at Anniesland College in Glasgow on Wednesday.
A full response had been promised in January when the more politically urgent decisions were taken to scrap up-front student contributions to tuition fees and introduce an "endowment" scheme for students to make repayments after they graduate.
Mr McLeish has now launched a complex series of consultations on the detail of the 52 recommendations of the Cubie committee. This will include a review of means tests for assessing family contributions to student maintenance, which are much stiffer for those in FE than for their university counterparts. There will also be a review of student support as a whole.
The Executive announced in January that student grants would be reintroduced in the form of "access bursaries" worth up to pound;2,000 for students where family income is less than pound;10,000 a year, tapering down to zero where family income exceeds pound;24,000. The bursaries would benefit an estimated 30 per cent of full-time undergraduates who would also be entitled to top-up loans.
Other students would have to rely entirely on loans. There would be a further pound;10 million bursary fund for mature students from next year.
Mr McLeish confirmed these arrangements this week but said he had decided to go beyond the Cubie recommendation which confined its proposed pound;1,500 childcare grant to lone parents in higher education and mature students.
Thosemost in need of assistance with child care, according to the Executive's document Scotland the Learning Nation: Helping Students, are the 300,000 part-timers in FE. The Executive appears to fear it will be unable to achieve its target of an extra 40,000 FE students by 2002 - 25,000 of whom are expected to be part-timers from disadvantaged backgrounds - unless it takes action.
The new childcare package will consist of pound;3 million in each of the next two years, largely for part-timers although needy full-time students will not be excluded. There will be another pound;2 million over the two years to create new or refurbished places for student creches, although these will be in higher education as well.
These sums will be in addition to the pound;6.4 million of access funds for college students which help with child care but also support travel and study costs.
Although Mr McLeish has embarked on consultations, the document shows no signs of backing down on the most contentious aspects of the reforms such as the endowment repayments to start when graduates earn more than pound;10,000, as opposed to Cubie's proposed pound;25,000 salary.
He is also sticking by the pound;2,000 access bursary for lower income families against Cubie's recommendation of pound;3,240 for all students living at home and pound;4,100 for those away from home. The idea of a wider access bursary for disadvantaged HE students, costing pound;18 million, is dismissed as "unaffordable".
Ministers have also to take decisions on a UK-wide basis on links between the benefits system and student support. As social security is not devolved to the Parliament, Mr McLeish will have to argue his case in Whitehall.
An interdepartmental committee has been set up involving the various UK ministries.