Decision on student fees delayed by two months

24th December 2010 at 00:00
Education Secretary appoints experts to consider best way forward on higher education policy

Scotland will have to wait more than two months before discovering how much - if anything - its university students are to pay for their education.

English-style tuition fees were ruled out in a green paper which spelled out six possible choices, but the Scottish Government delayed coming up with a final strategy.

Education Secretary Michael Russell has argued that he is being prudent by keeping his options open, with the ramifications of England's decision to impose fees of up to pound;9,000 not yet clear. He has asked a group of experts to consider the possibilities before a cross-party summit at the end of February.

Political opponents have attacked the 50-page green paper as "hollow and vague", while Mr Russell's suggestion that no student contribution may be necessary has been dismissed as an election bribe with no evidence to back it up.

The Government admitted that its proposals - published after The TESS went to press last week - were "varied and sometimes may even be contradictory".

Its preference is that the state "retains the primary responsibility" for funding students through higher education, with no graduate contribution, although there were no costings to show how this would work.

Government insiders have argued that, contrary to widespread opinion, there may be no funding gap to make up between English and Scottish universities. Mr Russell said assessment of that issue would only be completed in February.

Bernard King, convener of Universities Scotland, insisted there was already a "sizeable gap" that "could quickly become a gulf if the fees regime in England plays out as some expect". His organisation, representing university principals, backs a "fair graduate contribution scheme, one that is consistent with Scottish political values".

The second possibility raised by the green paper involves "some form of graduate contribution", but its likely nature and size is not spelled out.

The Government also broaches: increasing fees for non-EU and other UK students to as much as pound;6,500 a year; increasing donations and philanthropic giving; raising more money from business; and running universities more efficiently.

Another possible source of extra revenue, mooted by Mr Russell in a Sunday newspaper, would be to impose tuition fees on European students. A current legal anomaly allows Scottish universities to charge students from other parts of the UK, but not elsewhere in the European Union, and Mr Russell has taken up the matter with EU Education Commissioner Androulla Vasiliou.

Labour education spokesman Des McNulty said: "A graduate contribution is one approach that would lever in income for universities.

"The SNP appear to be saying that they can find this money from elsewhere. My challenge to them is prove it in pounds, shillings and pence or admit that, like their lie on dumping student debt, it is another SNP deception."

There is no political support for upfront tuition fees in Scotland, but the Conservatives back "a graduate contribution, repayable from future earnings and at an affordable rate".

Long-term sustainability of Scottish universities was not possible without an extra source of income, said education spokeswoman Liz Smith.

The National Union of Students Scotland welcomed the green paper's ruling- out of tuition fees. President Liam Burns backed the Government's decision to wait before outlining its preferred course of action, as it was not yet possible to say whether there would be a funding gap.

henry.hepburn@tes.co.uk.

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