Whitehall backlash hits Labour ministers' bid to keep Liberal Democrats on board over key issue
LONDON has sent an uncompromising warning to the Scottish Executive not to tamper with the student funding regime.
The strength of the warning, if it is heeded in Scotland, appears to leave Labour ministers with virtually no room for manoeuvre over Christmas and the New Year as they struggle to find a formula that avoids breaking their coalition with the Liberal Democrats, following the report from the Cubie committee on student finance.
Andrew Cubie, who chairs the inquiry, has already made it clear the committee will reach its own independent conclusions irrespective of the UK implications. Scottish ministers have made equally clear that the final decisions will rest with them.
In an unpublished submission to the committee, the Department for Education and Employment in London highlights the potential for a major political row within Labour ranks if Scottish ministers go too far in trying to accommodate Liberal Democrat objections to fees, or even to consider a full restoration of maintenance grants.
The DFEE states: "The Government attaches great importance to a single UK-wide system of higher education student support, which encourages mobility and allows students a free choice of course and institution.
"Changing the arrangements now would only lead to unjustifiable anomalies and extra costs and upheaval. Going back to the previous arrangements would bring financial benefits only to the better off."
The Department's response indicates, if anything, a hardening of attitudes within Whitehall. There are repeated references to the new system being more "equitable" in establishing the principle that students should pay according to their income for the benefits they receive from higher education. Those with HE qualifications earn twice as much as those with none, the DFEE states.
It rehearses the Government's argument that fees and loans have not proved a deterrent, with enrolments across the UK up by
2 per cent in 1998-99 and applications for entry this session up by 0.5 per cent. The Department also points out that more students pay no tuition fees in Scotland compared with England - a half against a third.
The DFEE's conclusion could not be more emphatic: "The Government thinks abolition of tuition fees would severely damage its ability to expand higher education whilst sustaining quality."
The submission adds: "It would give money to the comparatively better off at the expense of the general taxpayer, a retrogressive step. And it would go against the Government's firm belief that those who benefit from higher education should pay more of the cost, if they can afford to.
"Higher education is a national system, with a good deal of movement of students to study in all parts of the United Kingdom. It will simply not be understood if students on the same course at the same university and with an equal tax burden are asked to pay different tuition fees depending solely on their domicile."
By contrast the DFEE believes funding for further education students can differ within the UK because it is a local service with very little traffic from one country to another.
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