Scottish students likely to have all fees deferred

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STUDENTS FROM Scotland look set to become the wealthy elite in British universities following proposals to defer all their tuition fees and give student grants to the worst off.

The scheme, which is likely to be accepted, means that, from October 2001, a Scottish student at university in England might enjoy a maintenance grant as well as avoiding for many years any liability for tuition fees. In contrast, his English counterpart might be using loans both to pay pounds 1,000 a year fees upfront and pay his living expenses.

These anomalies within the British higher education system are the price that Downing Street has decided it is prepared to pay to save Britain's first coalition government since the Second World War. The fragile Labour- led coalition in Scotland faced collapse until yesterday over demands from its junior partners, the Liberal Democrats, that tuition fees should be abolished.

Yesterday, an independent report, welcomed by Labour, went a long way towards meeting those demands. Although it called for the "abolition" of tuition fees, it argued more strongly for their deferment, stating that Scottish students should begin contributing only after they have graduated and are earning more than pounds 25,000 annually.

The National Union of Students yesterday reacted angrily to the anomaly. A spokesman said: "Why should a Scottish student studying in London have access to pounds 5,000 - half in loans and half in grant - when a student from England would only be eligible for loans of pounds 4,480 and have to pay fees as well?" However, the union doubted whether the discrepancy would be open to legal challenge.

The NUS is now expected to embark on a campaign to get the Scottish proposals adopted throughout Britain. The first opportunity to embarrass the Government in Westminster will be an inquiry into higher education planned by the House of Commons education select committee for the new year.

The deal will cost pounds 62m a year, a figure that would rise tenfold if it was also applied to England, Wales and Northern Ireland, making it highly unlikely that it would be acceptable to David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. The Department for Education said the Government had no intention of changing the arrangements in England and Wales.