Neil Munro assesses the progress of the Cubie committee's deliberations
MOST members of the Cubie committee of inquiry into student finance seem to have been persuaded that the student contribution of up to pound;1,000 a year for tuition fees should be abolished, The TES Scotland understands.
The cost to the Scottish Executive would be pound;42 million in 2001-2002 as the committee has made clear that universities and colleges must be no worse off as a result of its recommendations.
But, at the launch of its second consultation exercise setting out draft principles and costed options, the committee says that pound;30 million could be freed up because loan entitlement would be reduced for students who no longer had to pay fees.
Its figures show that cutting the amount students can borrow by pound;30 million would leave the Executive with just pound;12 million to find, though this would rise to pound;27 million in the longer term.
Another pound;5 million in tuition fees is paid by further education students aged over 18. The cost of abolishing the fourth-year fee for other UK higher education students, currently free to Scottish and EU students, is an additional pound;2 million.
Andrew Cubie, the committee's chairman, made it clear in Edinburgh on Tuesday that no final conclusions had been reached. "We are still at the stage of gathering information," Mr Cubie said. His colleagues are said to accept that any money freed up should go towards student maintenance, although this is still likely to be tied to loans.
A full regime of grants to replace maintenance loans at current levels would cost an estimated pound;170 million initially, rising to around pound;290 million.
An alternative, however, could be a straight pound;1,000 grant replacement for the first pound;1,000 loan instalment for all 113,000 full-time undergraduates in higher education. This would cost some pound;30 million in the current year, rising to pound;70 million.
Mr Cubie, former chairman of CBI Scotland, acknowledged that a "significant majority" of the 700 submissions to the committee were opposed to fees. "The issue of student living costs is very high up the agenda and there is a strong feeling tuition fees was the straw that broke the camel's back."
Mr Cubie added, however: "The inquiry was not set up to conduct an opinion poll but to find out what people think."
The major research study commissioned by the committee would provide further evidence of student attitudes to finance.
The committee's draft guiding principles suggest it has taken on board the need to give priority to alleviating student hardship, although it is not suggesting this should be entirely state funded.
Student leaders have none the less taken comfort from one of the committee's key principles - that students should have access to "a sufficient package of funding, whether from families, employers, government or through paid employment, none of which should be to the detriment of their studies".
Mr Cubie said the diversity of the student population required more coherent funding. "Without it, there will continue to be anomalies which will be difficult to understand and difficult to explain."
The Cubie committee is seeking views by November 12, to meet its deadline of reporting by Christmas. Indications suggest that, while Labour and Liberal Democrats are still at loggerheads over fees, senior ministers believe a solution could be better maintenance support for poorer students, who currently have to rely on a haphazard scheme of access and hardship funds.