THE proposed package of financial support for students in further education colleges and universities, unwrapped by the Scottish Executive last week to warm endorsement from the FE sector, will attempt to bring the funding arrangements for FE and HE students closer together.
This will, however, be easier said than done given the differences between the two sectors and the complexities of student finance. None the less, the Executive's document, Scotland the Learning Nation: Helping Students, declares firmly: "There are many differences between (the FE) and the HE system which are now difficult to justify."
College students are supported entirely by bursaries totalling some pound;41 million this year and more than pound;6 million in access funds. There are no loans which is how the Executive intends it to remain. FE courses are shorter than those in HE, generally less than a year compared with the more financially onerous university courses which can last from three to seven years.
Bursaries are also paid out by each college, although there is an agreed national scale. This provides a local and flexible response which the Executive does not want to see lost, given the wide range of student needs in FE.
University student funds are handled centrally through the Student Awards Agency for Scotland which has the advantage that information on the impact of any changes in student support can be more readily gauged.
So the consultative paper, which wants responses in by the end of August, is looking for answers on how a balance should be struck "between clear and consistent statements of student entitlement while leaving appropriate college discretion to ensure that support is flexibly targeted".
But the key decisions are likely to flow from the review of the means test, the first since it was introduced in 1962 for HE students. The Executive has pledged that changes, which would apply to existing students as well as new ones, would be implemented from the 2001-02 academic year.
The present system has led to a wide divergence in the way families are assessed. Tom Kelly, chief officer of the Association of Scottish Colleges, summarised the position: "How can it be right that parents on the same income should get less in allowances and pay more in contributions for a son or daughter ho goes to an FE college compared to the ones who go to university?"
The association calculates that parents earning pound;25,000 a year would have to pay pound;720 in maintenance for a child attending university full-time but pound;1,500 towards an FE bursary.
The parental contribution starts at roughly the same income level (pound;17,370 for university students, pound;17,725 in FE), but rises sharply by pound;1 in every pound;5 of income for FE students compared with pound;1 in pound;13 for their university counterparts.
The colleges seem to have won the argument about these differentials. "We are clear that the current positions cannot be sustained and require to be harmonised. However, we do not have a fixed view on how the new definition of parental or spouse support should be implemented," the Executive's paper states.
One of the Executive's major objectives in its review of student finance is to avoid at all costs jeopardising one of its election targets, in this case removing any barriers which might prevent it achieving an extra 40,000 students in FE by 2002.
That is a major reason for its unexpected decision to put an extra pound;8 million into helping part-time FE students with childcare costs and introducing pound;2,000 access bursaries for HE students (some of whom also attend college).
At the other extreme, ministers are happy to see families earning pound;24,000 or more a year relying entirely on loans for HE students (a minimum of between pound;500 and pound;750 a year, depending on whether they live at home or away).
The Executive is doing no more than bowing to reality. It recognises that its key social inclusion policies cannot be fulfilled if disadvantaged students are put off college because there is no help with child care. More than 80 per cent of FE students are part-timers, a figure likely to increase if lifelong learning takes off and students of all ages open individual learning accounts.
Most of the part-time students have to pay their own fees and study costs. In addition, 54 per cent of FE students are aged 25 or over and 75 per cent are women.
Henry McLeish, Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Minister, now appears to have succeeded in his objective of moving the debate on to his ground of reviewing student support as a whole and marginalised the issue of tuition fees in the process.