Principals broker truce on fees

21st May 1999 at 01:00
TIMELY interventions by influential university voices were the unlikely catalyst for forging the coalition agreement between Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

The talks had seemed in danger of collapse over the unequivocal Lib Dem manifesto commitment "to abolish tuition fees for all Scottish students". Jim Wallace, the party's leader and chief negotiator with Donald Dewar, came under strong pressure from his fundamentalist wing not to "sell out".

The First Minister was in turn portrayed as being in thrall to Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, and David Blunkett, the Education Secretary.

The academic community then swung into surprisingly vigorous action, pleading for decisions not to be influenced by fevered political horse-trading. There was alarm that abolition could leave universities financially high and dry, as tuition income is estimated to increase from pound;26 million this year to pound;40 million by 2002 (with another pound;6 million going to further education colleges).

Appeals were issued by the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals, the Association of University Teachers and the National Union of Students.

Ian Graham-Bryce, principal of Dundee University, the principals' convener, warned against "an over-hasty decision on fees" which would do nothing to widen access or end social exclusion.

The AUT shamelessly put up David Jago, the union's immediate past president in Scotland, and billed it as "Lib Dem academic speaks out". The issue should be resolved through "the proper consultative processes of the new parliament, where it rightly belongs", Dr Jago said.

Richard Baker, president of NUS Scotland, feared "students would be sold out in a political stitch-up".

An equally influential intervention came from Jane Denholm, the deputy secretary of COSHEP, and a secretary and adviser tothe Dearing and Garrick committees which proposed tuition feesin 1997. In a newspaper articleshe appealed for "grown-up, joined-up and evidence-based solutions".

Mr Dewar was thus given the upper hand in his negotiations, allowing him to point to the academic consensus against a quick fix. At some immediate political cost to his party, Mr Wallace then agreed to an independent committee of inquiry on student finance in both further and higher education, which would report to the Scottish Parliament.

But the "partnership agreement" between the parties appears to bind the Liberal Democrats almost as firmly as their manifesto, stating firmly that the party has not abandoned its commitment to abolish tuition charges.

The evidence and recommendations from the inquiry team, whose terms of reference, time-scale and membership have to be approved by the parliament, will therefore be crucial if the Liberal Democrats are to accept a policy U-turn and maintain fees. The pill has already been sweetened by a pound;29 million package to improve access to colleges and universities for low-income students.

A clear consensus is now emerging that the spotlight should be switched from tuition fees to the maintenance grant. Principals believe the hurried replacement of the grant with loans will prove more of a deterrent to university applications than fees, from which 40 per cent of university students and 70 per cent of FE students are exempt anyway. Only 30 per cent of HE students pay the full annual fee of pound;1,025.

The Association of Scottish Colleges, representing further education, will also remind the inquiry that its review must go beyond "the fixation with universities" to include those in part-time FE who have always paid for tuition and do not have access to loans.

The HE principals have a ready-made package for the inquiry and Liberal Democrat MSPs to consider. An increase in access funds to reduce student hardship has already been conceded. In addition, they suggest new bursaries for mature students, restoring some means-tested maintenance allowances, adjusting the threshold at which liability to pay fees starts, and a commitment to monitor and review the situation.

More problematically for Mr Dewar, there is also a consensus to end the "other UK" anomaly in which students from the rest of the UK pay for the fourth year of a Scottish degree whereas Scottish and European students do not.

The problem is that the expected contribution from other UK students attending Scottish universities will become more significant, rising to some pound;10 million by 2002.

Meanwhile student finance remains in its wholly unexpected position as the issue that could make or break the coalition on which Scotland's first Government is based.

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