Russell rules out student tuition fees to fund degrees

17th December 2010 at 00:00
Scottish Government vows to avoid mirroring Westminster's contentious move, as confusion grows around funding gap emerging between the two nations

Education secretary Michael Russell was pinning his hopes on there being no gap between higher education funding in Scotland and England, as he launched his proposals for the Scottish tertiary sector yesterday.

As The TESS went to press, the Scottish Government was ruling out any student payments toward university education, ahead of yesterday's green paper that set out a range of possible funding alternatives.

Options in the paper include contributions from business, alumni and additional research funding. A graduate contribution is mooted - but, crucially, so is the status quo.

Government insiders concede that, if the recent Browne higher education review in England does lead to a funding gap, there would be a problem.

But The TESS understands that Mr Russell is not convinced there will be a gap, even though Alex Salmond struck a different tone at First Minister's Questions last week when he said that shifting the funding burden onto students, as Westminster plans entail, would have a "substantial" impact on Scotland.

Government insiders are working on the rationale that one form of revenue has been replaced by another in England, with teaching grant funding cut by 80 per cent and the cost transferred to students. They also say that, while pound;67 million will be cut from university expenditure in Scotland next year, the cut in England is even more.

Mr Russell is inviting the other political parties to discuss university funding in a summit at the end of February.

This is intended to reveal definitively whether there is a funding gap; if not, the Government would have more credibility in arguing that retention of the status quo was not, as political opponents would have it, an ill- thought-out bribe to woo voters at next May's Scottish parliamentary elections.

John McTernan, a former Downing Street adviser to Tony Blair, summed up the sceptics' view in a newspaper column this week, describing Mr Russell's insistence that university education could remain free in Scotland as "a promise that cannot be delivered but which is intended merely to highlight the flaws in the current settlement".

Any new Scottish arrangements would be put in place by 2012, when the new system of hiked tuition fees, the catalyst for mass student protests in recent weeks, is due to be introduced in England.

The National Union of Students Scotland does not believe there will be a straightforward funding gap between England and Scotland, arguing that some universities south of the border will find themselves worse off despite increased fees, as a result of cuts in other areas.

Where the union sees a clear gap is around student support - an issue that is the subject of proposals in the Scottish Government's green paper - with a "quite shocking" amount of students dropping out in Scotland.

NUS Scotland has accepted reluctantly that there may be a need for a graduate contribution but believes there may be alternatives, and wants public funding or business contributions to be explored first.

Universities Scotland believes that graduate contributions are likely to be necessary, but is willing to hear evidence to the contrary.

The evidence that Scottish universities are hearing from counterparts in England seems unlikely to bring them round to the Scottish Government's thinking.

Many English universities are thought likely to charge close to the pound;9,000 cap approved at Westminster this month, while some say it will cost pound;7,000 to break even. If that proves correct, Scottish universities envisage a significant funding gap emerging between the two nations.

There is one issue on which all sides in Scotland agree, even before consultation on the Government's green paper ends in the new year: no one wants to replicate what is happening in England.

henry.hepburn@tes.co.uk.

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