HC Deb 02 December 1997 vol 302 cc142-4
2. Mr. Welsh

How many Scottish universities he has visited since 1 May to discuss higher education provision in Scotland. [17091]

The Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office (Mr. Brian Wilson)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State visited the university of Dundee in November. I visited the universities of Abertay Dundee and Strathclyde in September and the university of Edinburgh in November.

My right hon. Friend and I attended a working dinner with the principals of the Scottish higher education institutions at the university of Glasgow in June. My right hon. Friend also addressed a meeting of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals in September, and I attended the annual forum of the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals in October.

Mr. Welsh

The Government claim that nobody should be deterred from higher education because of financial circumstances. Why, since the abolition of maintenance grants and the introduction of tuition fees—in addition to student loans—have applications for universities fallen by about 10 per cent.? Will the Government now abandon that short-sighted and disastrous policy?

Mr. Wilson

The hon. Gentleman would be well advised to wait until the figures are finalised. He would do his constituents and the young people of Scotland a service if he contributed to a more accurate flow of information.

The three virtues of our proposal are, first, that it will put up to £140 million extra a year into Scottish higher and further education; secondly, 40 per cent. of Scottish students will pay not a penny in tuition fees; and thirdly, when the vast majority of students in Scotland graduate, they will repay less per month than at present. If the hon. Gentleman would help to get those three messages across, he would be doing the young people of Scotland a service. I would send the same message to everyone who has participated in misinformation, possibly based on misunderstanding.

Mrs. McKenna

I welcome my hon. Friend's statement. Does he agree that access to higher education is just as important for adults as it is for young people, and that the announcement last week of £28 million for out-of-school child care is an important part of that? Will he confirm that access to that is available to lone parents who will be taking part in further education?

Mr. Wilson

Indeed, I confirm that that will be the case from next April. That is a move forward of great importance to lone parents. We shall be producing a separate Scottish White Paper on lifelong learning which will cover a wide range of initiatives in that field.

My overwhelming message today is that nobody should be deterred from entering higher education by misinformation. I urge all potential students from all backgrounds to get the correct information and to make informed choices on that basis.

Sir Michael Spicer

The Scottish higher education budget is part of a wider education budget for Scotland. It is a matter of fact that that budget, per head of population, is 25 per cent. higher than it is for England. How long will that situation continue for Scotland, when the income differentials between England and Scotland have narrowed almost to nothing?

Mr. Wilson

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could take a tutorial from the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark), who has some acquaintance with Sutherland. The hon. Gentleman would then learn something about the geography and demography of Scotland, and he might understand why more factors than mere population statistics determine how public funds are allocated. The decisions within the Scottish budget are taken according to priorities and needs. We place a high priority, as I am sure do my hon. Friends south of the border, on education.

We shall continue to make choices and I shall continue to take pride in the extra money that we have managed to get into every aspect of Scottish education since 1 May. I remind the hon. Gentleman that one of the burdens that we are very pleased to bear is £80 million from the Scottish block grant for students who come from other parts of the United Kingdom into higher education in Scotland.

Dr. Lynda Clark

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's assurances in relation to adult students. I am particularly concerned about the situation of students from low-income families. Can the Minister tell us what policies there are to assist such students?

Mr. Wilson

It is important to understand that the headline caricature of £1,000 a year tuition fees is not true. On present statistics, 40 per cent, of Scottish students will be entirely exempt from tuition fees. That is extremely important.

The other major inhibitor to young people from less well-off backgrounds going into higher education is the concern that they will have to pay back maintenance loans despite perhaps not earning after leaving university—in other words, a mortgage-type loan. It is essential that it should be understood that after our proposals are implemented all repayments will be income contingent, which means that if the individual does not earn he or she will not repay.

If those factors are put together, it is obvious that there is no barrier to people from lower-income backgrounds going into higher education. On the contrary, there are many incentives to do so. I urge every young person who has the academic ability and qualifications to go into higher education to do precisely that.

Mr. Menzies Campbell

How many of the principals of Scottish universities whom the Minister and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have met have given unequivocal support to the proposal for tuition fees, especially bearing in mind the effect that the proposal will have on students from other parts of the United Kingdom deciding to come to Scottish universities?

Will the Minister take an early opportunity to visit St. Andrews university in my constituency, which has substantial experience of these matters? Indeed, 44 per cent. of its students come from countries in the United Kingdom other than Scotland. Will not the Minister relieve himself of the serious charge of discrimination by abandoning the discredited proposals for tuition fees at Scottish universities?

Mr. Wilson

I would be anxious to visit a cross-section of universities. If I went to St. Andrews with its 44 per cent. of students from south of the border, I might equally go to Paisley university with its 1 per cent. If I went to St. Andrews, I would not swallow whole everything that the principal told me. I might even advise the principal that if he wants to maintain the precise number of students from outwith Scotland, especially from England, it is absolutely open to him to do so. He could do so by taking more students from that large group who are not subject to tuition fees and are therefore not affected by our proposals.

Mr. Campbell

It would make it more exclusive.

Mr. Wilson

By definition, those who do not pay tuition fees are students from lower-income backgrounds. If the principal of St. Andrews wanted to go down that road, I would welcome it. I wonder whether the hon. and learned Gentleman would do so.