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The cost of education

Brian Taylor | 17:28 UK time, Thursday, 16 December 2010

So where are we on university funding?

More to the point, will there be the much-trumpeted consensus - or will the different parties arrive at different options by the Holyrood elections in May?

Looks like the latter - inasmuch as one can offer any precision in a situation where most of the parties, with the exception of the Tories, are moving gently and sedately towards policy formulation, aware of the sensitivity.

We know that the Tories back a graduate contribution: that is a debt falling due when the individual is earning a certain amount. Details to follow.

We know that the SNP hope to avoid a graduate contribution - although it is listed as one of the six funding options within their Green Paper.

They hope that the others will fill the gap in funding potential between Scotland and England, obviating the need to levy a charge on graduates.

We know that Labour believe, as things stand, that a graduate contribution will be required.

Des McNulty argued in the chamber that the Minister was deluding the people of Scotland by suggesting that such a charge could be avoided.

We know that the Liberal Democrats are working towards precise policy with an emphasis upon enhancing university access for those from the most deprived backgrounds.

Why consider all the parties - rather than simply the Scottish government?

Funding gap

Because the timetable following the Green Paper means that this will be an election issue, not a decision to be settled in the present Parliament by the present administration.

The debate hinges on the expected funding gap between Scotland and England - once higher fees kick in south of the border.

SNP ministers say that gap may be less than feared because the higher fees in England are not purely additional income but replace funding which will be withdrawn from central government contributions.

That means, they argue, that it is feasible that the gap which ultimately emerges may be made up by other elements - including higher fees for students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland who go to Scottish universities.

Education Secretary Michael Russell also hopes that it may be possible to end the present bar on Scottish universities levying fees on students from elsewhere in the EU - which is enforced because Scottish students pay no fees. (You can discriminate within a state but not, it is argued, across state boundaries in the EU.)

But there is a connected issue. If government cash is withdrawn from English universities, then - through the Barnett Formula - there will be reduction in the cash available to the totality of the Scottish block.

Therefore, if Scottish universities are to be sustained in their central funding then that money will have to be found from elsewhere in the Scottish budget.

Taken together, opposition parties say that leads them to question the Scottish Government's sums - and the presumption that a graduate contribution may be avoided.

Government and universities will now work on costing the various options in the Green Paper.

After that, the parties will specify their offers to the electorate.


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