HC Deb 27 March 1996 vol 274 cc1018-20
6. Mrs. Ewing

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement on the progress of the establishment of a highlands and islands university. [21324]

Mr. Michael Forsyth

Since I gave my answer to the hon. Lady at the Scottish Grand Committee meeting in Inverness, officials have been engaged in a wide range of meetings with a number of people. They are now considering the steps that need to be taken to establish a university of the Highlands.

Mrs. Ewing

We welcome the progress that has been made since that statement, but will the Minister tell us what hurdles have been overcome in terms of meeting the criterion for the millennium fund? I understand that some £38 million may well be allocated to a highlands and islands university project through that fund. I also understand that the Minister is meeting officials next week to discuss the matter. Will he tell us what issues need to be investigated and studied? We are all very keen to have the university, which could create about 700 direct and 400 indirect jobs and inject £70 million per annum into the highlands and islands economy.

Mr. Forsyth

I appear to be in the embarrassing position of finding that the hon. Lady knows more about my diary for next week than I do. If she tells me that I am to attend such a meeting, I can only assume that that is correct. The hon. Lady is right: at least one application has been made to the Millennium Commission, and a second application is now before the commission. Such decisions are taken independently of me, but I assure the hon. Lady that we are considering all the options and that I am applying all my energy and enthusiasm to make the project a reality—just as I did in the case of the splendid hospital which was established in her constituency when I was last in the Scottish Office. If we can create a partnership, I am sure that it will benefit the highlands and Scotland as a whole.

Mr. Matthew Banks

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the number of students entering higher education in Scotland has more than doubled since 1980–81, and that since then those students have made a major contribution to Scottish industry, particularly Scottish high-tech industry?

Mr. Forsyth

Higher education is an example of that success and Scotland has taken the lead in the use of technology as a means of teaching and of encouraging learning. That is the opportunity that the university of the highlands project represents. It is a way of creating a new style of university that draws on the technology of the next century. It will create opportunities to study for people in areas with widely spread communities and low populations in a way that has been pioneered by the gaelic college in Skye. There are great opportunities for Scotland to lead the way in this field, as in so many others.

Dr. Bray

In the context of the extension of higher education facilities in Scotland, the Secretary of State is aware of the proposal by St. Andrews university and Lanarkshire development corporation for the establishment of a university college in Lanarkshire on the Ravenscraig site. Will he confirm that he would encourage a proposal on those lines from Scottish Enterprise or Lanarkshire development corporation?

Mr. Forsyth

The hon. Gentleman raises an issue that I do not think is directly related to the university of the highlands. However, I am aware of his constituency interest in this matter and I shall certainly write to him about the matter.

Mrs. Ray Michie

The Secretary of State will be aware that Dunstaffnage marine laboratory in Argyll hopes to be part of this exciting new highlands and islands university. He will also be aware that we hope to attract students from all over the place, including Northern Ireland. How will he help such students to get to Argyll? When will the Campbelltown-Ballycastle ferry link be established?

Mr. Forsyth

As the hon. Lady knows, this is a complex and difficult issue and I am still awaiting advice from officials. If I can show the ingenuity that the hon. Lady has shown asking a question about a ferry service on a question about the highlands and islands university, I am sure that we will be able to overcome some of the difficulties that have been identified.

As the hon. Lady knows, I should like such a service to be established. There are difficulties with viability, but these matters are being addressed by officials. As soon as I have received the advice, which I understand is imminent, I shall certainly look at it with a view to being helpful to the hon. Lady. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] This is a serious matter and I shall try to be helpful to the hon. Lady and to many others who have expressed an interest in it, not least many of the hon. Members who sit behind the hon. Lady.

Mr. Macdonald

Will the Secretary of State confirm that £6 million has been cut from the training budget of Highlands and Islands Enterprise and that further education colleges in the highlands and islands face a severe funding crisis because of Government cuts? Is there not a contradiction between his rhetoric supporting a university and the reality of cuts on the ground?

Mr. Forsyth

There was a contradiction in what hon. Members said only a matter of weeks ago, when they argued for more of the money that is provided under the local government formula, which could only be at the expense of the Scottish Office block, and then complained about reductions in that block because money had been used to fund Labour-controlled councils throughout Scotland. Scottish Enterprise has given undertakings that it will meet its training output on a reduced budget, and I see no reason why Highlands and Island Enterprise should not be able to do the same.