Universities 'risk losing millions due to doubts over fees'

SCOTTISH universities could lose applicants from other parts of the UK if they do not quickly clarify the prices they will charge non-Scots for courses.

The warning came from NUS president-elect Liam Burns, who said uncertainty over fees, which The Scotsman has learned may not be ratified until November, could mean students from England, Northern Ireland and Wales being put off coming to Scotland to study.

That could mean millions of pounds of revenue being lost.

The Scotsman reported yesterday that the cost of obtaining a degree from universities in Scotland could reach 36,000 for students from other parts of the UK after education secretary Michael Russell revealed plans to allow UK students to be charged up to 9,000 a year.

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The move was brought forward to maintain the "quality and competitiveness" of Scottish universities in light of a big increase in fees south of the Border.

Institutions in Scotland face a funding gap of up to 200 million when the new fees structure is introduced down South next year, with two-thirds of universities in England expected to charge the maximum 9,000.

There are fears that Scotland's universities could lose money if UK students decide not to apply to Scottish institutions because of uncertainty over cost. Most will not confirm their new fee structure until September, and it will be November by the time these are approved by the Scottish Parliament.

Privately, there is anger that the measures were not announced by the Scottish Government earlier, with claims Mr Russell should have made his intentions clear before the Holyrood elections in May.

The NUS warned of the potentially devastating effects on Scottish higher education if universities did not clarify their plans "within the next week".

Mr Burns said there were too many "unanswered questions" on cost and support programmes for disadvantaged applicants. "Now this announcement has been made, the institutions have to start being honest about what they plan to do," he said. "In the next week or so, we want to see cast-iron promises about what they plan to charge.

"Universities were the ones who pushed hard, saying they need to make decisions before prospectuses were printed, so I see no reason why they shouldn't be able to give us an answer to that incredibly quickly.

"If universities go past September without making it explicit what the fee and the support element are going to be, then students will be put off coming to Scotland."

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However, the first announcements not expected until the end of this month.It could be as late as September before the majority make their plans known.

Even then, these will be provisional and cannot be confirmed until the Scottish Parliament endorses the new measures. Although this is unlikely to encounter resistance from the SNP majority at Holyrood, it means students wanting to attend university in Scotland will have to wait until November to know how much they will have to pay.

Mr Burns said new students would be uncertain about potential support on offer because such measures had not been announced. "In England, if you're going to charge 9,000, then the institution needs to pay some sort of bursary or fee waiver, so that if applicants come from a poorer background, there will be some sort of financial support on offer. There is absolutely no guarantee of that in Scotland, because we don't know how institutions are going to be made to match, fund or otherwise support packages," he said.

A spokeswoman for Universities Scotland said she understood the concerns. "Students need to have clarity on this before they apply for university," she said. "They are going to be going to go over the summer. I understand completely why students want us to come to a decision quickly, but they won't want institutions to rush and misjudge it."

She said institutions had been afforded a lot of responsibility by the Scottish Government and that "careful consideration" would be given to what fee level was appropriate for their institution over the summer.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: "The Scottish Government has moved quickly on this issue so that universities had enough time to consider the proposals and would be able to let students know fee levels in time for them to apply to go to university in 2012-13. Universities have also said they will give serious consideration to bursaries and scholarships."

There are fears Scotland's top universities, such as Edinburgh and St Andrews, could charge much higher fees than others, leading to a two-tier system.

Robin Parker, president-elect of NUS Scotland, said: "A market in fees could allow older institutions with more established reputations to charge more than newer institutions.

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"They have already suffered more from public spending cuts than older institutions, who had much more research and private income to fall back on, and our fear is that these proposals could have the same effect. We don't want to see changes in England force us to take a wrong turn down the road to a two-tier system, one where exclusive institutions that focus on widening access are left behind by exclusive universities that can attract far greater numbers of students.