Political parties want free tuition
A clear philosophical divide between universities and political parties over future student funding may provide the escape the Scottish Executive needs.
Universities say that students should continue to contribute to tuition costs. The Liberal Democrats, Scottish Nationalists and Conservatives are all hostile to this, and want the contentious fees scrapped.
Labour has yet to submit its evidence to the Independent Committee of Inquiry into Student Funding, chaired by Edinburgh solicitor Andrew Cubie. Written submissions closed last week, but the committee will continue to hear evidence.
Despite the conflict over fees, the universities and the political parties agree that ministers should introduce extra financial support for those most in need. Without such a policy, levels of debt will increase and dissuade many from applying for further and higher education.
But the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals (COSHEP) argues that a contribution to tuition costs from those who benefit from university education is "not only fair, it is essential to maintaining the quality of Scottish higher education".
Dr Ian Graham-Bryce, principal of Dundee University and COSHEP convener, stated: "We have said from the beginning that fees are not the key to the problem of student hardship. We have also maintained that those who benefit from higher education should be asked to make a contribution."
The principals point out that only 25 per cent of students studying for awards in further and higher education are full-time undergraduates. They continue: "Since significant numbers of students in post-school education have always had to make some form of contribution to the costs of their tuition, there is currently no principle of free education to restore."
The principals want to see student hardship addressed, and they call for options to reduce the impact of fees while studying. Their key proposal is the introduction of non-repayable bursaries to help with the living costs of students from the least well-off families. They also want the size of the current loans increased for some or all students.
In its separate submission, Edinburgh University says: "Abolishing the student contribution would clearly benefit the better-off sections of society at the expense of society as a whole, if this were to be funded by the taxpayer."
Glasgow University adds that some students have always been charged tuition fees. They say that abolition would cause "a substantial loss of income to the sector, resulting in a negative impact on quality and standards".
Glasgow received pound;1.8 million from student fees in 1998-99. They expect this sum to increase threefold as new fee arrangements are phased in. The introduction of fees had "little impact" on the extent of student debt.
Like other universities, Glasgow urges the Cubie Inquiry to focus on the gap between the cost of living and student support from loans and grants. Over half the university's students were forced to take part-time jobs, a move that affected their studies.
Glasgow also demands the inquiry tackle the issue of access for mature students. In the two years since fees were introduced, applications from mature students have dropped 23 per cent. The university blames student hardship rather than the fees themselves.
The Liberal Democrats are the key players in the fees' wrangle. Although the conflict threatens their coalition with Labour, they continue to support their pre-election opposition. The party insists that fees are a deterrent to entering further and higher education, particularly to mature students and those from poorer backgrounds.
The Lib Dems demand that the Scottish Executive find the cost of replacing fees from within the Scottish spending block. They also want the fourth year anomaly for students from the rest of the United Kingdom removed.
Asking students to pay fees, they say, creates a second tier of financial hardship and is an indirect tax: "There is now a distinction between payment for the provision of an education service and the means by which students can support themselves during their period of study."
Education should remain free, the Lib Dems say, and "by no stretch of the imagination can families with incomes of pound;17,000 be described as well-off". Fees start at that level.
The SNP oppose fees. They are pressing for the return of direct support to students, in the form of a pound;1,500 a year Scottish Parliament Grant, costed at pound;72 million. The grant would go to the 30,000 students most in need, while a further 36,000 would receive support of up to pound;1,500. Social security benefits would also be restored.
For the Conservatives, party chairman Raymond Robertson restated opposition to fees and advocated the introduction of a Saltire Award, a bursary scheme to underwrite fees. Further details will be announced shortly, but Mr Robertson accused the Government of disguising "a new tax on middle-income earners, rather than introduce a new method of funding universities".
Scottish universities, he said, had lost pound;15 million this year because funds from fees were sent through the Treasury instead of being channelled directly into higher education.
The National Union of Students Scotland, in a 70-page report, proposes the abolition of fees in all further and higher education. They also want a means-tested education maintenance award, social security and rent support for those most in need, and a mature students' and child care allowance.
"The net result of tuition fees and higher loans," NUS Scotland says, "has been that poorer students have lost any maintenance award and still face hardship. Any benefit for higher income background students (who have seen greater access to maintenance loans) has been lost because they have to face up front tuition fee contributions, which their families are assessed to pay."
The union says that further education bursaries for maintenance and tuition have proved effective, and argues for an extension to cover part-time students. At the moment, the union points out, as many as 90 per cent of FE students are part-time and not entitled to assistance.