Scotland's university leaders say legal cap on fees 'not needed'

students doing exams Students from the rest of the UK can be charged up to £9,000 a year in fees

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University leaders are calling on the Scottish government to rethink plans for a legally-enforceable cap on fees for students in the rest of the UK.

Institutions north of the border voluntarily agreed to charge students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland up to £9,000 each year.

The Scottish government wants that agreement enshrined in law.

Bodies representing academics and students have voiced their objections to no cap on fees.

The limit was introduced to bring fees for non-Scottish UK students into line with those charged by institutions across the rest of the country.

In a submission to the education committee at Holyrood, the Committee of Scottish Chairs, which represents the 12 governing bodies of universities in Scotland, said the legislation was unnecessary.

The body has not indicated that it would want to charge more than the £9,000 currently in place.

It said: "In setting the level of fees, universities must take into account the cost of providing courses and the desire to attract students.

"It is inconceivable that any governing body should set its fees at such a level that students would be discouraged from applying. The chairs, therefore, believe that this section [of the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill] is unnecessary."

MSPs debate tuition fees

Scottish Education Secretary Mike Russell challenged opposition parties to reject tuition fees for university students, during a government-led debate in parliament.

The SNP administration has promised to maintain free university education for Scottish students studying at home, while the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition at Westminster has introduced fees of up to £9,000 a year.

Mr Russell said his opponents were now facing their own "Nick Clegg moment", adding: "It is plain to see that we do not need up-front or back-door tuition fees to fund our universities."

Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont has suggested that a graduate contribution could be introduced.

Her education spokesman, Hugh Henry, said Scottish ministers had cut college funding so they could, "shoulder the burden to make the SNP look good when it comes to universities".

"Scottish Labour believes it is time for an open and honest debate," he said, adding: "We can't keep postponing the difficult decisions."

Scottish Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith said she was "more convinced than ever" that students should pay towards the cost of their degrees, through a graduate contribution.

"There is no endless state pot for higher education, especially if the Scottish government wants to continue to ensure we can increase the numbers of students who are going into higher education," she said.

Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur said the government could have a £220m funding black hole if Scotland became independent, as students from the rest of the UK "would become eligible for the same fee support as their Scots counterparts".

Representatives from University and College Union Scotland and the National Union of Students (NUS) Scotland were asked about the chairs' comments during an evidence session to the committee.

Mary Senior, Scottish official for University and College Union Scotland, said: "We do feel very strongly about this introduction of a market into Scottish higher education."

She told MSPs that the "least worst option" was to set a flat-rate fee for RUK (Rest of UK) students across the sector, to prevent them from being seen as a "cash cow" as "potentially they are now".

Robin Parker, president of NUS Scotland, said Holyrood's fee cap "goes beyond even the worst excesses of what the Westminster government is proposing", with degrees costing as much as £36,000 for RUK students in Scotland.

He told the committee that legislation was needed and a lower cap should be introduced.

Mr Parker added: "We've seen the creation of a market, and a market needs regulation.

"That means that we need the fee cap to be brought lower and we need greater rules and greater conditions around bursaries."

Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, said: "They [the chairs] don't see a need for the fee cap to be enshrined in legislation, but I don't think anybody is arguing that universities should be charging fees that are ahead of the maximum elsewhere in the UK."

A Scottish government spokeswoman said it was pleased that universities "continued to comply with the voluntary limit on fees for students from the rest of the UK".

However she added: "The legislative cap in the bill will ensure consistency in the future and help protect students from around the UK who wish to study in Scotland."

In other evidence to the committee, the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) criticised the "complexity" of the education changes proposed in the bill by the Scottish government.

Ministers said it would provide flexibility to govern colleges and save £50m a year.

The bill includes;

  • plans to regionalise further education - which ministers argue will eventually make efficiency savings of £50m each year
  • improving governance and ensuring courses are suited to employers' needs
  • requirement for universities to do more to widen access for young people from deprived areas
  • and a proposed cap to limit the fees for students from the rest of the UK to the same level as their home country.

Education Secretary Mike Russell said the reforms in the bill would "reduce the duplication of 41 college administrations".

But the EIS, which represents college lecturers, said in a statement to Holyrood's education committee: "If it's the government's wish to create a nationally incoherent FE (further education) structure with a myriad of different types of colleges, governing bodies and funding mechanisms with separate regulations for each, then this bill is the way to go about it.

"The complexity of the proposed structure will confound all but employees and public policy experts."

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