Scotland eyes Browne review on student fees
As Lord Browne puts the finishing touches to his report on student funding in England, is Scotland edging closer to abandoning its opposition to charging students?
For a nation which, as one insider put it, "credits itself with having invented free education", that would be a hard pill to swallow.
But against a backdrop of looming cuts to Scotland's purse by Westminster, there seems to be a creeping acceptance that graduates - though not students - might be expected to contribute.
Scots studying at universities in Scotland do not pay tuition fees, although students from other parts of the UK studying there do.
They have already had brief tastes of paying directly towards higher education.
It is only three years since the Scottish Nationalists took power and scrapped the "graduate endowment scheme" (where graduates paid money towards bursaries for future students) in defence of the principle of free education.
And tuition fees were abolished in Scotland in 2000, two years after their introduction by the Blair government.
With elections to the Scottish Parliament in May, politicians are not rushing to set out their stalls on higher education.
But the impending Browne report and the Comprehensive Spending Review have pushed the issue up the political agenda.
With education a devolved matter - and Scottish university funding determined in Scotland - all the talk is of the need for "a Scottish solution".
After digesting the impact of Browne and the spending review, the Scottish Government will put out a green paper on the future of higher education funding before Christmas.
That will be followed by public consultation.
Students and academics in Scotland fear the timing will mean the political parties will try to avoid making the issue an election one.
So far, the parties are united in saying no to "upfront tuition fees" (those paid at the start of courses). But the language is careful - with no-one ruling out calls for people to pay something after they graduate.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: "To find a 'uniquely Scottish' solution the Cabinet Secretary [Michael Russell MSP] has initiated a debate involving government, universities and students about how higher education will be paid for in future. No decisions will be made until all those who have an interest have offered their views.
"The Cabinet Secretary has made clear he wants to ensure all sensible ideas, no matter how radical, are given a chance to be aired. Only one measure has been ruled out - tuition fees."
Examining the options
The Scottish Conservatives last month put forward proposals to follow an Australian model where students pay back deferred fees and living costs.
The party said the variable fees would be paid back only when students earned over a certain limit. Some courses would be more expensive than others.
MSP Liz Smith, the Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Education (Scottish Conservatives) says the case for change and for "some form of student contribution" is "overwhelming".
In a debate in the Scottish Parliament at the end of September, Claire Baker (MSP, Scottish Labour) called for an independent review of institutional funding and student support and said there was a "growing consensus among key groups within... the university sector that recognises the need to examine the various graduate contribution options".
The vice-chancellor of Glasgow University, Professor Anton Muscatelli, recently broke ranks with most other university leaders by speaking up for the idea of graduates "giving something back".
He told BBC Radio Scotland: "We have done extremely well in terms of our global competitiveness, we've maintained access, but with the current public funding crisis we've got to look at the possibility that there might have to be a graduate contribution in the future.
"We have to rule out tuition fees, upfront tuition fees, because that's against the spirit of Scottish education but we may need graduates, once they actually leave universities, on the basis of their ability to pay, to give something back towards the cost of their education."
Such a contribution might be needed, he said, to stave off a cash crisis caused by public sector cuts which could see the university lose about 8-10% in funding.
Universities Scotland, which represents the vice-chancellors of Scotland's 20 universities, is also in favour of the idea of a "fair contribution" from graduates - if public funding cannot be maintained.
Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland said: "If public funding cannot maintain the competitiveness of Scottish universities, a fair contribution from the graduate beneficiaries of university education should be secured."
The group wants to help find what it calls "Scottish solutions" and contribute to the green paper, but is concerned about what will happen to university funding in the immediate future.
"Universities in Scotland stand to be directly affected by Browne's recommendations for England but his recommendations are only the start of the process; we don't yet know what response the coalition government will make or how this may proceed through the UK Parliament," said Mr Sim.
"The focus on Browne is understandable. However, Universities Scotland is clear our immediate priority is to make a positive case for why the Scottish Government's budget bill for 2011/12 should continue to invest in Scotland's universities. No new model of funding can offer an alternative to public investment that early and all the speculation of what might be in the future."
Mr Sim said only about 50% of Scotland's universities' income came from public funds, with the rest coming from other sources, including research and international students, but the public funds under-pinned this.
"Our ability to be a world-class hub of research and learning depends on public funding helping to ensure the staff, the labs and infrastructure is all in place," he said.
The National Union of Students in England put forward the idea of students contributing towards the cost of higher education once they graduated - with those who benefited most paying more - a so-called graduate tax.
The NUS in Scotland is to consult members on that idea.
Liam Burns, president of the NUS in Scotland, said: "There is no will in Scotland for tuition fees. The Scottish Government has consistently ruled them out, as has the Parliament. Of course we'll have to consider Browne, but it will be a very different conversation to what is happening south of the border.
"The crisis we face is one of student hardship and that's where our debate should be focused."
But how does the idea of a graduate tax - or its less controversial name "graduate contribution" - differ from the graduate endowment scheme thrown out by the SNP?
The endowment - first paid by Scottish graduates in 2005 - was a flat rate of just over £2,000. Many graduates added it on to their student loan.
Critics say that scheme did not deliver and brought in less money than it cost to run.
But Liam Burns says a key difference was that the endowment scheme was unfair.
"It was a blanket scheme: if you were a top lawyer earning £100,000, or a part-time nurse you had to pay the same," he said.
The NUS in Scotland - together with academics from the the University and College Union - wants business to make a direct contribution to university funding, saying that this is right because firms benefit from graduates' higher skills.
As in England, the words "tax" and "tuition fees" pose plenty of political problems.
Although it centres on England, the Browne review is set to spark fierce debate and controversy across the UK about the value of higher education and who should pay for it.
In Scotland, as politicians gear up to face the challenges of the funding settlement from Westminster and their electorate in May, the stakes are high.