Universities 'jumped the gun' over fees

6th February 2004 at 00:00
Scotland's universities are adopting a "self-defeating" strategy in demanding an extra pound;100 million to bridge any funding gap that may emerge following the introduction of top-up fees in England, according to informed sources.

Information reaching The TES Scotland suggests that "mere assertion" will do the universities' case little good at the heart of Government. Their arguments have already been challenged by the FE sector which has long envied what colleges see as the universities' more privileged access to ministers.

The colleges have suggested that the universities may be "jumping the gun" in taking a premature stand six years before any funding changes are required to deal with the extra tuition income English universities will receive.

It emerges that senior figures in the Scottish Executive may well agree.

Officials are particularly peeved because of the leading role the universities are playing in the third stage of the Executive's prolonged higher education review. "The civil service likes to deal with rational argument: evidence, options, advantages, disadvantages, cost, benefits and so on," the source states. "But there seems to be no substance behind the pound;100 million bid."

He said the need for Universities Scotland to make its case and get it into the headlines was understood. "But it's the way it makes its case that is important. Simple assertion will not do. It begs the question why? And it is the answer to that question which is missing at the present time."

The Executive believes that the universities have come up with a figure of pound;100 million simply because it represents the normal 10 per cent ratio of Scottish to English spending and is therefore the expected allocation from the pound;1 billion English universities are expected to gain.

At least one university principal also admits privately that the figure was, in effect, "plucked out of the air". He suggests that it was rounded up to pound;102 million "to make it look less suspicious". Now, he says, the universities are left wondering what to spend it on.

The Association of Scottish Colleges fears it may be spent on a "pay bonanza", leaving FE salaries trailing in the wake of teachers and academics.

Jack McConnell, the First Minister, and Jim Wallace, Deputy First Minister, who is responsible for the universities, have repeatedly ruled out top-up fees in Scotland. In the Scottish Parliament last week, Mr McConnell refused to rule out an increase in student contributions to the graduate endowment fund which replaced up-front tuition fees in Scotland in 2000 and is used to support less well-off students, not university spending.

The First Minister said he could not make any announcement before budget decisions for the next three years are unveiled in September, any more than he could anticipate changes in bridge tolls or water charges or other spending matter. But he did clarify previous undertakings.

"We will consider the money that we need to raise in relation to the money that we want to spend. In the course of that process we will ensure, first, that the graduate endowment as agreed by Parliament is not used for university tuition or research; secondly, that the income for Scottish universities increases by a substantial amount to ensure that they have the right facilities and support for tuition and research; and thirdly, that student support in Scotland is improved."

The Executive is prevented by legislation from using the endowment fund for university finance, and it is unlikely there would be a majority in Parliament to allow ministers to alter the position.

One option would be to increase each student's current pound;2,092 contribution to the endowment fund, thus freeing some of the pound;96 million the Executive spends on supporting less well-off students.

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