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A political choice

Cera Murtagh Education Correspondent

Parties have made their pledges on HE funding. Now students remind them of the price of breaking them

After months of ‘will they, won’t they?’

parties have finally nailed their colours to the mast on higher education. And four out of five have come down on the side of rejecting fees, front door or back. But without that extra revenue, can Scotland’s universities maintain the quantity and quality of what they provide? In the last six months the political landscape

around higher education in Scotland has shifted radically. A graduate contribution has gone from seeming a fait accompli to a toxic policy that only the Tories dare embrace. Te explosive reaction against the tuition fee hike south of the border has made an impression on Scottish politicians. And an election has further focused their minds. Te SNP, Labour, the Lib Dems and the

Greens have now ruled out any form of student or graduate contribution, if elected to government in May. First Minister Alex Salmond has vowed that “the rocks will melt wi’ the sun” before his party introduces fees in any guise. Te Lib Dems, eager to stand apart from their Westminster colleagues, have made a similar promise. Meanwhile, after veering in the direction of a graduate contribution, Labour has latterly joined the front against fees. Yet with a funding gap of up to £200m to be bridged, they must now explain how they will sustain that policy, whilst maintaining student numbers and preserving the standard of Scottish higher education. Indeed the student lobby is not letting

parties off the hook. Before MSPs broke up for the campaign it staged a demonstration outside Parliament, pressing them to keep fees off the table, protect student numbers and improve student support. NUS Scotland President Liam Burns does welcome the rejection of fees. He warns, however, that the gap must now be met through public funding. And that will entail some tough choices.

34 Holyrood 28 March 2011

“I think they’re the right pledges to make

as long as they put their money where their mouth is post-election,” Burns tells Holyrood. “If you are going to take votes by claiming

there will be no contribution then I don’t mind that. Tat’s fine – then you make difficult decisions elsewhere, you fund the sector properly.” And that means closing any gap that emerges, the president adds. Te true size of that shortfall between Scottish and English universities will not be known until the fees to be charged south of the border are revealed in July. Te technical group, of the Scottish Government and Universities Scotland

“They’re the right pledges

to make as long as they put their money where their mouth is post-election”

officials, has estimated that a gap of £155m to £202m will open up by 2014. But that is based on the assumption that £7,500 will be the average fee. If more universities go closer to the upper limit of £9000, that divide could be starker. Te student leader applauds Education

Secretary Michael Russell’s promise to “fill any gap” and to legislate for a minimum student income. But how does he plan to finance these commitments? Te SNP’s solution has a number of strands

but chief amongst them is raising revenue from non-Scottish students. Russell estimates that £62m can be generated from charging higher fees (£6,375 a year) to the 12 per cent of students who come from the rest of the UK. More controversially, he ventures that £22m could be leveraged from the 6.7 per cent of students who come from other EU countries. Tis would involve introducing a new ‘service charge’ for European students, as operates in Ireland. By the Cabinet Secretary’s calculations, these income streams would reduce the gap to around £70m. Tese solutions may not be as clever as they sound, however. Under EU law the legality of charging only EU students is questionable – in Ireland the €2000 ‘registration fee’ also applies to Irish students. But even if it was possible, Universities Scotland argues that this is not dependable income. Demand from other UK and EU students is variable, and if charges are introduced there is nothing to say that that demand won’t fall. “Demand from students from the rest of

the UK is volatile, which is one of the reasons why Universities Scotland does not think this can be a Scottish solution in its own right; Scotland’s universities need more stability than this revenue can offer on its own,” says Alastair Sim, Director of Universities Scotland. Indeed Sir Andrew Cubie, author of the

report which led to the abolition of upfront tuition fees in 1999, warns that such a move could deter these students from coming to Scotland – bad news not just for the sector but for the student population.

© NUS Scotland

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