University chiefs go on the offensive over fees
UNIVERSITY chiefs last night ambushed Alex Salmond, Iain Gray and Tavish Scott and criticised their plans to provide free higher education for Scots as unrealistic and "not credible".
The SNP, Labour and Lib Dem leaders were confronted by two of Scotland's most eminent academic figures when they went head to head in a leaders' debate hosted by The Scotsman.
The calculations used by the three parties to support their controversial plans were disputed by university principals among the invited audience, who saw a stormy encounter between the leaders of the four main political parties.
Heriot-Watt University principal Steve Chapman gave a withering assessment of their assumption that the funding gap between Scottish universities and their English competitors could be bridged by the public purse without compromising the quality of the institutions in Scotland.
He was backed up by Professor Sir Timothy O'Shea, the Edinburgh University principal and acting convener of umbrella body Universities Scotland.
• Opening remarks of the four main party leaders in The Scotsman's Leaders' Debate
• Closing remarks of the four main party leaders in The Scotsman's Leaders' Debate
• Full audio coverage of The Scotsman's Leaders' Debate
The anger building in the higher education sector over the political parties' determination to make election promises that the universities say cannot be delivered was reflected in the two men tackling the politicians in public.
Principals are growing increasingly irate at Mr Salmond's insistence on using the announcement of the 89 million Technology and Innovation Centre in Glasgow as an example of a way that the funding gap can be plugged.
The SNP leader used that example last night when he reaffirmed his commitment to free higher education.
In front of an audience of 130 invited guests from all walks of Scottish life, he said: "We introduced free education to Scotland and we are absolutely determined that we will do whatever it takes to maintain that access to education in Scotland."
But his remarks caused anger among the audience at The Scotsman headquarters at Barclay House in Edinburgh. The promise of free tuition - without fees or a graduate contribution - has been based an expert group's estimate that the funding gap will be 93m. The expert group came up with that figure after estimating the gap that will open up once English universities start charging students increased fees next year.
The figure chosen by education secretary Michael Russell was at the lower end of a range of estimates in the experts' paper, because it assumed that the fees charged by English universities would remain level each year.
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However, the principals argued vociferously that the gap would be much larger with Prof O'Shea even suggesting it could be as high as 360m.
The Labour Party appeared to have conceded that some sort of graduate contribution would be inevitable, and its education spokesman, Des McNulty, even said so.
But the party then performed a U-turn once the 93m figure was made public.
Scottish Tory leader Annabel Goldie - who described her opponents as a "dismal triumvirate" - said her party was being realistic by saying there would have to be some form of fees.
Prof Chapman said: "I think we need some realism here: the gap of 93m assumes that the same number of English will pay 6,000 per year, or whatever the fee that was envisaged.
"But the gap is also based on an average fee of 7,500. The latest figures concede that it could be well over 8,000 - it could be 8,700."
Prof Chapman then said Mr Salmond's claim that the sort of enterprise pursued by Strathclyde University with the innovation centre could help with funding was a "distraction". He said: "The great success that Alex mentioned about Strathclyde should be lauded. It is a great achievement, but it is not for teaching. So it is just a distraction.
"We will have a gap which will be more than 95m. It may be more than 200m, especially if the fee level in England is 8,700.
"Now I don't know what we are going to do with cross-border flow, but if we do introduce the 6,500 fee, it is not necessarily true that all of the English will still come. That number could come down. So the gap could be even bigger. So to just assume that this is a 93m gap and it is dead easy to fix is just not realistic. It is not credible." After he had spoken, Prof O'Shea said the real size of the gap would not become clear until after the May 5 election.
"We don't know the size of the gap here. It was the great achievement of the Scottish Parliament under the leadership of Mike Russell that we had two higher education summits and we had a technical working group, and we have got a way of computing that gap.
"We will only know what the English figures are on 12 July. The single most important factor in computing the gap is the English fee. The current assumption of the Scottish Government is 7,500.
"Without inflation, it looks extremely likely that from the data we are hearing, that the English fee with be in the order of 8,750.
"But we don't know their number yet, because there is an English process that will attempt to push that number down again.
"The lowest number (we have heard] is 95m and the highest number we have heard from the sector is 360m.
"The answer lies between those two. But nobody in the room knows what the size of the gap is."
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