§ 11. Mr. Watson
To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland whether he has any plans to shorten courses in the central institutions in Scotland to meet the impact of a student loans scheme.
§ Mr. Rifkind
Unemployment in Glasgow has fallen by 32 per cent. over the past three years and by over 14,000 in the last year alone—
§ Mr. Watson
I congratulate the Secretary of State for Scotland on his performance in the first Scottish Question Time this Session. The Minister to whom my question is directed must be aware that all Scottish universities and central institutions which responded to the White Paper on student loans, the Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland outlined their opposition to the proposal because they realise the detrimental effect that it will have on the fourth year of study in Scotland. They are quite clear that it will have a detrimental effect on the Scottish system of education. Is the Minister really saying that they are all wrong and that, as usual, only the Government are right?
§ Mr. Lang
I see no evidence at all that the top-up loan system should be detrimental to the four-year degree course. Scottish students enjoying a four-year degree course are receiving grants and maintenance for four rather than three years, but not all Scottish degree courses are for four years and not all courses south of the border are shorter than four years. It is important to find the best method of financing students in higher education. I believe that top-up loans are a very useful adjunct to the fees and maintenance grants which are continuing to be paid.
§ Mr. Allan Stewart
Does my hon. Friend agree that international comparisons suggest that access to higher education is rather better in countries with combined grant and loan systems than it is in Britain? Does he further agree that there is no evidence that top-up loans will be a disincentive to any Scottish four-year course? By definition, those who argue that it would be a disincentive are arguing that students themselves place a very low value on the fourth year of that course. If that were the case, it would raise a major question about why the taxpayer should continue to fund them.
§ Mr. Lang
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have the most generous student funding arrangements of any industrialised country in the world. Most countries that have far more substantial student loan arrangements than we are contemplating also have higher student participation. In Scotland 20 per cent. of students come from south of the border. Clearly they do not regard a four-year degree course as a disadvantage.
§ Mr. Worthington
We should pause for a moment and condemn the Minister of State's announcement yesterday on student grants. Increasing the grant by only 5 per cent. was a further imposition of a cut in living standards for students in Scotland. That means that there has been a cut of nearly 25 per cent. in the value of the grant since 1979. If it had been maintained at its 1979 level, it would have been worth £1,600 more over a four-year degree course. We are particularly worried about the length— [Interruption.]
§ Mr. Worthington
Does the Minister agree that the cut will be particularly damaging to women, single parents and low wage earners who are considering a career change, because they will have to pick up the bill for a four-year Scottish degree course? Who will make such a change when it means debts of thousands of pounds?
§ Mr. Lang
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. In the United States, where loans play a far greater part, women students at university are in the majority. It is important to get the balance right. We must decide whether it is fair to ask taxpayers—most of whom earn less than students will once they have graduated—to continue to bear the huge burden of higher education. It is entirely fair to ask students to bear a burden of 7 to 10 per cent. of the total cost of their education.