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Top-up debate drags in colleges

It would be "jumping the gun" to pour more resources into the universities now, college leaders have warned the Scottish Executive.

Universities Scotland, the umbrella body, has argued a case for pound;100 million extra because of the gap which it fears will open if universities in England are able to charge up to pound;3,000 in variable tuition fees - assuming the Prime Minister can win over the substantial number of Labour backbench rebels next week.

But, in an analysis of the Higher Education Bill published by the Department for Education and Skills in London, the Association of Scottish Colleges points out that top-up fees will not be introduced until the 2006-07 academic year - and that the full income benefits will not be felt until 2008-09.

Public spending adjustments will not therefore need to be made until 2009-10. "If Scotland has to match that income, there is time to consider whether it should do so or how," Tom Kelly, the ASC's chief officer, says.

But, Mr Kelly suggests, the exact impact of top-up fees is not clear even in England. The Bill reflects that uncertainty by making two assumptions about take-up: level 1 assumes that 75 per cent of undergraduate places will be charged the full pound;3,000 while level 2 assumes that only 50 per cent will.

Since fees are already charged at pound;1,175 per place, the maximum extra will be around pound;1,800. If the level 1 take-up materialises, universities will receive pound;1 billion more a year in four to five years' time, falling to pound;670 million if level 2 applies.

"The problem is whether these figures are right now and will they be realistic by 2008-09?" Mr Kelly comments. The picture is further complicated because universities in England and Wales will be allowed to charge up to pound;3,000 for all of their courses or only for some or for none. "So there will be variable fees within institutions as well as between institutions," Mr Kelly says.

Other aspects of the Bill, such as the introduction of pound;1,500 student grants or raising the repayment threshold from pound;10,000 to pound;15,000, will benefit students rather than swell university coffers.

The ASC points out that increases in expenditure ought to have follow-on consequences for raising Scottish public spending in line with the Barnett formula ("if England gets 100, Scotland gets 10"). It expects to see Scottish colleges benefit from these developments because of their substantial involvement in higher education.

One particular consequence for Scottish colleges will be the planned expansion in the number of foundation degrees in England which, the latest figures show, has doubled to 24,000 this year. These are broadly the equivalent of higher national courses in Scotland, taken largely in colleges, and the ASC believes additional spending in that area should be mirrored in Scotland.

Colleges are also querying the need for universities to have an extra pound;1,800 in tuition fee per student. "What would they spend it on?" Mr Kelly asks. "We suspect the universities plan a pay bonanza leading, a bit like football, to a transfer market where the wealthiest institutions will continue to be able to hire the best staff. This will put colleges in a very tight corner."

Universities Scotland has said that part of the pound;100 million it needs would be for "pay modernisation". Mr Kelly said: "We would argue that, given the productivity in colleges in the past decade, the case for improving pay in the FE sector, is even stronger."

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