Coalition at stake;News amp; Opinion;Leading Article

5th November 1999 at 00:00
PLAYING coalition politics poses problems for more than just MSPs and the media. Higher education leaders assume that rational argument will prevail and that the Cubie committee and thereafter the Executive will recognise that tuition fees are a minor part of the student finance problem and should not be carelessly scrapped.

Of course, the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals has its own agenda. It fears that the institutions would pay the price - pound;12 million in the first year, pound;27 million in the longer term. If ministers made clear that however the bill for student support is met, the budget for running universities would not be reduced, principals would be less keen to sway the debate.

The weight of responses to the Cubie trawl was predictably for scrapping fees. The politics of the coalition point strongly in the same direction. Labour has suggested that reintroducing grants would be the best way of tackling student poverty, whereas fees are a middle-class burden. But leaving aside the relative cost of grants, loans andor a graduate tax, and the pressure on Labour from south of the border (page one), the Executive faces a risk to itself in keeping fees. The Liberal Democrats have been mocked and chivvied to the point where only a vote against will retain their credibility. Their backbenchers have the power to defeat Labour in alliance with the SNP and Conservatives. Their four ministers are adamant that fees are outwith the partnership agreement, which is the sole basis for the coalition, and therefore they would side with their party.

If the coalition broke up, Labour would find it well nigh impossible to run a minority administration. Executive decisions would be daily overturned in the chamber. That threat is likely to loom large when the key decisions are finally taken, whatever Cubie recommends.

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