Scottish higher education row ends in compromise

16 Jul 98
The show of defiance by the Lords over Scottish tuition fees has ended in compromise, with the government promising to establish an independent commission to monitor the effects of the so-called Scottish anomaly.

17 July 1998

Last week the Lords voted for a Liberal Democrat amendment to the teaching and higher education bill in the biggest majority against the government since 1913. The amendment, proposed by former Liberal leader Lord Steel of Aikwood, sought to ensure that all UK students were exempt from the fourth year of fees at Scottish higher education institutions.

As the bill stands, English, Welsh and Northern Irish students will pay for the fourth year of teaching at Scottish universities. Scottish and European Union students would only pay for three years. Putting all UK students on the same footing as the Scots would cost just £2m.

The government argued that it might then be forced to exempt students from the fourth year of fees at all UK universities, which would cost £27m. Education minister Lady Blackstone said that would represent 'a subsidy for better-off families'.

The Lords had thrice rejected the government clause but has dropped its opposition following the commission's pledge.

The new body will begin what it promised will be a 'serious, not cosmetic' review in six months' time and will consider evidence on applications and admissions to four-year courses starting this October and those beginning in 1999. It is to report by April 1 next year.

The government shied away from promising to honour the commission's findings. Lady Blackstone would only say that if it recommended modifying the existing arrangements, the government would 'be prepared to look again' at them.

The Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals was satisfied with the outcome. Jane Denholm, its deputy secretary, said: 'We are very keen to see the anomaly rectified and to see the bill get through, so this seems to us to be a reasonable compromise.' The new body, which represents heads of Scotland's 21 higher education institutions, stressed that it should be representative. 'It is important that there will be Scottish voices on the commission because the committee that considered the bill did not have anyone from Scotland on it.'

The government's move has averted the failure of the bill. Had the legislation not been passed, the old universities would have been free to charge fees above the £1,000 limit the bill will impose. These institutions were established by royal charter and have greater freedom than the former polytechnics, which would only be able to charge fees if they were given express power to do so.


Did you enjoy this article?