GAIL PRENTICE Earnings trigger for student fund set too low, Cubie committee members tell parliamentary inquiry By Neil Munro.
MEMBERS OF the Cubie committee admitted this week they had no hard evidence to back their supposition that student participation levels in higher education would fall unless the replacement scheme for tuition fees was more generous.
Andrew Cubie, who chaired the committee on student finance, said they had heard evidence during their inquiry that "debt aversion" was very strong, particularly in disadvantaged communities, but he did not cite any independent research.
Rowena Arshad, another committee member who is director of the Centre for Education for Racial Equality in Scotland, confirmed that they had no firm evidence.
They were appearing before the Parliament's enterprise and lifelong learning committee, which was continuing its scrutiny of the Government's Graduate Endowment and Student Support (Scotland) Bill. It establishes an endowment fund to which all graduates will have to make a pound;2,000 contribution from 2004, instead of up-front tuition fees, once their earnings reach pound;10,000, the same level as for loan repayments. The fund will then be used to support bursaries of up to pound;2,000 for those students who are least well off.
Members of the Cubie committee repeatedly assailed the Scottish Executive for setting the earnings trigger too low and turning it effectively into a universal graduate tax, although Mr Cubie acknowledged the Government's proposals were an improvement on what had gone before.
The Cubie plan was for repayments of pound;3,075 once graduates' income reached pound;25,000. Mr Cubie said this reflected the principle that an HE qualification bestows higher salaries and the threshold should therefore be above average earnings. Ms Arshad said pound;10,000 was barely beyond the national minimum wage.
The parliamentary committee also heard strong criticism of the pound;10,000 figure from the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals, the Association of Scottish Colleges, the National Union of Students and the STUC.
But Labour and Liberal Democrat MSPs on the committee, nxious to protect the coalition deal on tuition fees, went gunning for the Cubie diagnosis. Duncan McNeil, the Labour member for Greenock and Inverclyde, said he was "astonished" that the Cubie committee presumed to know about working-class attitudes to debt. "Many people go into debt just to buy a second-hand car," he said.
And George Lyon, who also speaks for the Liberal Democrats on lifelong learning, repeatedly quizzed the Cubie members as to why they were so exercised about the pound;10,000 starting point for endowment repayments but did not seem to object to the same payback level for loans. "A debt is a debt," he observed.
Marian Healy, further and higher education officer of the Educational Institute of Scotland, who also sat on the Cubie committee, pointed out that the issue of loans had to be seen as part of the Cubie recommendations for a mix of means-tested basic bursaries and wider access bursaries for the most disadvantaged. These would be worth up to pound;4,100 which, as well as loans, would have introduced more equality and fairness into the system.
The Executive plans a single bursary of up to pound;2,000 to help disadvantaged students and widen access.
Marilyn Livingstone, a Labour member of the lifelong learning committee and a former FE lecturer, said the issues were much more complex than simple finance and pointed out that participation rates from working- class families had barely shifted during the years of maintenance grants.
Figures supplied to the Cubie committee showed that in 1998-99 there were 62 per cent of under-21 entrants to higher education from 39 per cent of households in the top two social classes, compared with 9 per cent from 19 per cent of households in the bottom semi-skilled and unskilled groups.
Ms Healy said one consequence of the Government's plans could be a two-track system in which some students might decide to opt for an HND initially, get a job and wait until they were aged 25 before taking a degree which would only need to last for two years.
This would mean paying no graduate contribution at all since HND and mature students are among the exempt groups.