Neil Munro reports on the responses of the FE sector to the Cubie inquiry on student finance.
Scottish FE chiefs have urged the inquiry to recommend a graduate tax to Scottish Executive ministers. They say this would be fairer than the present up-front contribution students pay towards tuition fees before they start their course.
The Association of Scottish Colleges bases its views on the assumption that those in higher education will benefit from higher earnings once they graduate.
The association is working with Stirling University on an analysis of the labour force information database to establish the earning power of degrees and other qualifications. The initial findings show that gross income for a graduate is pound;429.18 a week in Scotland. This is about pound;100 more than holders of higher national diplomas or certificates and pound;200 more than students with Scottish Vocational Qualifications.
The colleges have a considerable stake in the outcome of the inquiry because they provide nearly 30 per cent of all higher level study in Scotland - a much greater proportion than south of the border. And four out of 10 Scots entering full-time HE for the first time do so in a college.
The ASC has been struggling to widen public awareness of student funding beyond the headline tuition fee issue, which mainly affects full-time undergraduates. The remit of the committee of inquiry is student funding as a whole, and the colleges have reminded it that 81 per cent of FE students are part-timers who have always made some contribution to their fees.
The colleges estimate that tuition fee income from part-time students could be as much as pound;30 million this year, compared with just pound;6 million paid by HE students on college courses. They have suggested to the committee that, at the very least, it should opt for two years of free tuition after students leave school.
The ASC also wants the inquiry, due to report by Christmas, to come up with a system of student maintenance not entirely funded through loans.
A "mix-mode" of grants and loans might do more to encourage disadvantaged students who, the association says, "are known to be particularly averse to loan commitments against uncertain prospects of future earnings".
Colleges are concerned too, at "the major element of unfairness" between demand-led schemes such as HE student awards (if you get the place, you get the money) and cash-limited funding such as FE bursaries (if there is no money, you don't get the place). The colleges are concerned that such differences are unfair.
The ASC acknowledges that the inquiry, chaired by Andrew Cubie, an Edinburgh lawyer and former chairman of the CBI in Scotland, will have wider UK implications.
But the submission states: "The test of improvements in the Scottish student finance system should be the gains for Scotland in terms of attainment, employment and social inclusion of its people and workforce."