HC Deb 15 January 1998 vol 304 cc580-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Dowd.]

10 pm

Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus)

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate a matter of great concern to students, their families and higher education institutions in Scotland. The Government's policy on higher education is full of flaws and anomalies. Tonight, I wish to address one of those anomalies—the unwillingness of the Department for Education and Employment to fund adequately the fourth-year tuition fees for nonScottish-domiciled UK students at Scottish universities.

I was appalled when the Government first announced proposals to introduce tuition fees in July. I tabled an early-day motion that pointed out that the proposals would discriminate against students in Scottish universities and the traditional four-year Scottish honours degree. The Garrick report also highlighted that problem and recommended that

the Secretary of State should ensure that the contribution from Scottish graduates for qualifications gained in Scotland is equitable with the contribution for comparable qualifications gained elsewhere in the UK. The Minister for Education and Industry responded by announcing that to ensure equity of treatment for Scottish students with students on shorter courses in England and Wales, the Government has decided that Scottish students should not pay the £1,000 tuition fees for the final year of a degree course where it is a year longer than the comparable course in England and Wales. However, in solving one problem the Scottish Office exacerbated another. The problem stems from an ambiguity in the word "Scottish". When Garrick spoke of Scottish graduates, he clearly meant all those graduating from Scottish universities, regardless of nationality. The Minister's solution will create a situation in which Scottish students at Scottish universities will have their fourth-year tuition fees paid, but non-Scottish UK students will not. That is clearly discriminatory towards potential English, Northern Irish and Welsh students who recognise the value of a Scottish four-year honours degree.

I welcome the fact that there is no similar discrimination against European Union students who will be protected by European Union rules. The Scottish Office has said: The Government is committed to treating students from European Union countries on the same basis as students from the UK as far as tuition fees are concerned. However, that is not actually true. What that means is that the Government will treat European Union students applying to Scottish universities in the same way as Scottish applicants and, therefore, European Union students will not have to pay tuition fees in the final year of their course. That only highlights further the discrimination against non-Scottish-domiciled United Kingdom students.

English, Welsh and Northern Irish applicants to Scottish universities will be expected to pay up to £1,000 more than Scottish or European Union students for exactly the same course, given the same background circumstances. To put it simply, at St. Andrews university, a student from St. Ives or St. Albans will have to pay £1,000 more than a student from St. Etienne.

In a written answer, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), said: The EC Treaty requires Member States not to discriminate on grounds of nationality against nationals of other Member States, on matters within the scope of the Treaty. However, EC law does not intervene in internal matters and require each Member State to treat all its own citizens in exactly the same way."—[Official Report, 1 December 1997; Vol. 302, c. 10–11.] In other words, because European law does not prevent the Government from discriminating against their own citizens on the ground of nationality, the Government can do as they please.

That principle simply cannot be justified. There would have been a massive—and justified—public outcry, had the Government proposed the imposition of up to £1,000 extra for tuition fees on ethnic or religious grounds. How, then, can the Government justify this discrimination against English, Northern Irish and Welsh students?

Hon. Members may wonder why it is left to the Scottish National party to oppose the Government's proposals for higher education. For those who portray us as "narrow-minded nationalists", it might seem strange that the SNP is defending the rights of the English, the Northern Irish and the Welsh, but for those who know us it is simply a case of the SNP promoting a just cause and opposing discrimination within the British Union. The SNP, in co-operation with the Scottish Ancients, the National Union of Students and the higher education institutions, has identified three main reasons for opposing this policy. I am happy to acknowledge that we have received support from other political parties that join us in this campaign, but I wish to state the three main reasons.

First, the SNP and the Scottish universities warmly welcome students from other parts of the United Kingdom, who form an integral part of the diversity of the Scottish education system. Those students make up 48 per cent. of students at Edinburgh university, 45 per cent. at St. Andrews, 36 per cent. at Dundee and 32 per cent. at Stirling. English, Welsh and Northern Irish students must not be deterred from coming to Scotland, but they will be under the Government's policy.

Secondly, the SNP fears for the future of the Scottish higher education system. Any sizeable drop in applications from other parts of the United Kingdom will force universities to downsize their diverse range of courses. There is also a danger that Scottish universities may well be forced to consider abandoning the traditional four-year honours degree, replacing it with a three-year course, so as to compete on a level playing field to attract non-Scottish UK students.

As one university lecturer commented to me, The four year degree is being killed by Government policy. Tuition fees will back us into a corner, forcing a cut in the course length with the resultant loss of jobs and the drop in standards of the traditional honours degree. Thirdly, there are important implications for the Scottish economy. The McNicholl report, published by the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals two years ago, identified that "rest of UK" students at Scottish universities contribute more than £110 million annually to the Scottish higher education system. In addition, every year they contribute £100 million in off-campus expenditure on Scottish goods and services.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

One hundred million. He said billion.

Mr. Welsh

I very much appreciate the hon. Gentleman's correction because it is £100 million—would that it were £100 billion.

Therefore any fall in applications to Scottish higher education establishments from other parts of the United Kingdom will have a considerable impact on the wider Scottish economy.

What of the cost to students? Since the introduction of student loans, the drop-out rate has dramatically increased—by 12 per cent. Without Government action by the DFEE to remedy the anomaly, we shall witness a drop in student applications to higher education, and spiralling student debt. There was a time when the Labour party in opposition fully endorsed the principle of free education for all according to ability and regardless of wealth. In 1994, 42 current Labour Members of Parliament—including three current Ministers—called upon the Conservative Government to halt the slide towards self-financing by students". With the abolition of maintenance grants and the introduction of tuition fees, one may ask where it will end.

When the Australian Government introduced tuition fees, students had to pay only an average of 23 per cent. of the total fee. However, that figure has now risen to 45 per cent. Top-up fees were also ruled out, but will be permitted from next year. The reassurances that the United Kingdom Government have given to students here are similar to those given to Australian students. Our student organisations and educational institutions are right to be wary about the future.

The unwillingness of the DFEE—the Secretary of State is absent from the Chamber tonight—to provide funds for its own students will have an adverse effect by discouraging students from the rest of the United Kingdom from applying to Scottish universities and colleges on financial grounds. It is not acceptable for the Secretary of State to insist: quality of education at universities in Scotland is such that those who are privileged enough to have earnings that will oblige them to pay the full £1,000 fee will feel that it is worth the investment"— [Official Report, 13 November 1997; Vol. 300. c. 1020.] If that is the case, why do Scottish students have their fees paid? The Government's policy is simply inconsistent.

The DFEE will go on to use a second flawed argument to justify its current stance. In an oral answer to the House, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Pontypridd said: Many Scottish universities offer students with good A-levels the option of entering the second year of a four-year honours course, so it should be possible for students from England and Wales to get a Scottish degree after paying for the same number of years as they would have taken to graduate at a university elsewhere in the United Kingdom."—[Official Report, 13 November 1997; Vol. 300, c. 1028.] That assertion is not a solution for several reasons. Only a small number of non-Scottish United Kingdom students currently receive direct entry into the second year of undergraduate courses at Scottish universities, and that figure has decreased in the past three years. In percentage terms, more Scottish than English students gain access to the second year of university courses.

Direct entry into the second year is not possible in all courses—nor is it advisable for educational reasons. The Association of University Teachers has stated: many students find the transition too difficult and either drop down into first year or have to retake the second year. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this debate is what it will cost to create a level playing field. The DFEE has estimated the total cost of funding the fourth-year tuition fee for English students attending Scottish universities at £1.5 million. That is a small part of the overall Government budget, but it will have a large effect on individual students and their families and on the Scottish higher education system.

I would like to help the Minister by suggesting where he might find some of that money. During the summer, the Government spent £170 million on seven new Trident missiles. That commitment to weapons of mass destruction would abolish the fourth-year tuition tax for non-Scottish United Kingdom students for the next 100 years. In a choice between nuclear weapons and education, the SNP knows which priority should prevail.

I shall address three key inconsistencies in the Government's position. Take, for example, a Scottish pupil who moves from North Berwick to Berwick shortly before he applies to a Scottish university. Even though that pupil has spent all his education years in the distinctive Scottish system, if eligible, he will be forced to pay the fourth-year fee due to his place of residence at the time of application. That is both absurd and unjust.

The Department for Education and Employment's failure to recognise the uniqueness of the four-year degree and to fund students accordingly leaves an interesting paradox for the Minister. If an EU migrant worker living in London applies to a Scottish university for a four-year degree, under the provisions of the Maastricht treaty, the local authority will have to fund that course. The DFEE will have to make provisions for dealing with that request, so the mechanism will be in place to finance tuition fees for its students' fourth years at Scottish universities. The DFEE is discriminating against its own European nationals in favour of students from other member states.

Lastly, the Minister is on record as stating: Students who take a year out between two separate courses of higher education will have their eligibility reassessed as new entrants at the beginning of the new course."—[Official Report, 12 January 1998; Vol. 304, c. 126–27.] That would leave the anomaly of a non-Scottish UK student successfully applying for a Scottish university course, funded by his local authority, then leaving and reapplying to the Scottish Office as a domiciled Scottish student for funding to change course. That student would presumably be entitled to fourth-year funding, and the Scottish Office would have the extra costs of paying for the whole of the higher education course fees for that student.

I trust that the Minister will use all his persuasive power to influence his colleagues at the Department for Education and Employment to reconsider their unsympathetic stance over this crucial issue.

I never want to see in Scotland an education system where credit rating counts more than grade averages, or where bank balances count more than qualifications, with pay-as-you-learn in a two-tier system based on ability to pay rather than on ability to learn.

That grates against the traditional Scottish education system, open to all who can benefit to the full extent of their abilities. The Minister and I both benefited from the grants system that his Government have now abolished. I guess that in opposition he would have agreed with me, but sadly in government he does not.

The Scottish education tradition and the Scottish democratic intellect are well suited to the needs of the 21st century if—and only if—we play to their strengths and build on those traditions, and do not destroy them by restricting access and placing barriers to entry.

This tuition fee unfairness is only one example of the general problem produced by the Government's policy. I hope that the Minister can convince his English colleagues to play their part in getting rid of such obvious discrimination against non-Scottish-domiciled UK students. It would not take much money for the Government to do that, and it would end that unfairness. I hope that he will so argue.

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

There is a slightly surreal quality to this debate, on several counts. I listened as closely as I could to the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Welsh), and he did not seem to use the figure that he has been touting all day in Scotland and at a press conference in London. He alleges that the changes to the student funding system will cost the Scottish economy £200 million a year. Even by the standards of Scottish National party economics, that is a fantasy figure par excellence.

Mr. Welsh

The Minister should stop this fatuous nonsense. I pointed out that the McNicholl report stated that £210 million was put into the Scottish economy directly and indirectly through spending by United Kingdom students in Scotland. That is the total sum they contribute. Any reduction would have an immediate effect on the Scottish economy and the four-year honours degree, and would reduce the range of courses available in Scotland.

Mr. Wilson

The hon. Gentleman has talked so much gibberish today that I do not suppose that he knows what he said. I quote from his press release: The likely impact is fewer English, Welsh and Northern Irish students at Scottish universities, and the loss of over £200 million which these students contribute to the general Scottish economy. I do not have to contradict the hon. Gentleman, as he has contradicted himself. He has been talking about the loss of £200 million to the Scottish economy on the radio all day. Unfortunately, sections of the media in Scotland give credibility to the nonsense that he talks. The Scottish National party parliamentary group news release refers to the loss of over £200 million to the Scottish economy.

Mr. Welsh


Mr. Wilson

The hon. Gentleman can talk for the entire half-hour, if he wants. Perhaps he will acknowledge that the document is not a forgery. He has issued a press release which states that the Scottish economy will lose £200 million.

Mr. Welsh


Mr. Wilson

No, I will not give way. I shall respond to what the hon. Gentleman said.

We have heard from the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) that the collapse of Scottish education is imminent because of the changes to funding that have been made.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)


Mr. Wilson

I may give way in a moment.

Let me start with the latest application figures for St. Andrews—the university which has made the most noise about potential loss and about which the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife has spoken in apocalyptic terms. I am delighted to inform the hon. and learned Gentleman that our latest understanding is that the application figures for St. Andrews show a 6 per cent. increase for the coming year from English- domiciled students. I suppose that that will allow the ever-opportunistic SNP to revert to its more familiar role of complaining about too many English students rather than too few.

Mr. Welsh

Absolute rubbish.

Mr. Wilson

Where does a 6 per cent. increase in English-domiciled students' applications to St. Andrews leave the absurdities that we have been hearing from the hon. Gentleman tonight?

Mr. Welsh

I should like the Minister to stick to the point. If the English Department for Education and Employment stood by its responsibilities, this anomaly of the discrimination against English and other students would be stopped. The Minister is simply indulging in party political banter. He should stop that nonsense and stick to the point of the debate, rather than misquoting other people.

Mr. Wilson

I have quoted exactly what others say—to wit, the hon. Gentleman himself. He has said that there will be a £200 million loss to the Scottish economy. In order to retain a shred of credibility, he now has to link that specific prediction to the fact that applications for the coming session from English students to St. Andrews are up by 6 per cent. If he can do that, it will be a worthy achievement indeed.

There is a slight decrease overall in the number—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) seems to be trying to help the hon. Gentleman out. She is his parliamentary leader after all, and if she wants to stand by the claim that there will be a £200 million loss to the Scottish economy, she is welcome to do so. Equally, if she wants to quibble with the 6 per cent. increase in English applications to St. Andrews, she is welcome to do so.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

Will the Minister give us an idea of the decrease in the number of overall applications to Scottish universities?

Mr. Wilson

Were Ito do so, I would be going outside the terms of the debate as defined by the hon. Member for Angus. The hon. Gentleman wanted, in this rather unexpected burst of internationalism, to talk about the prospects for English students. I have just told the hon. Member for Moray—she apparently does not like the information—that the applications from English students to St. Andrews are up by 6 per cent. for next year.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

There is talk about English students, but 25 per cent. of the total non-Scottish students at Scottish universities are from Northern Ireland, yet the ratio in population of Northern Ireland to the rest of the United Kingdom—England and Wales—must be very small. The reason for that is that there is a deficit on the Scottish ratio of 12,000 university places in Northern Ireland and on the Welsh ratio of 5,000. Those people go to Scottish universities because Scotland is proximate and the ambience suits them. Yet because of the absence of places, they will be punished by having to pay for a fourth year which is required by Scottish universities. Is that not discriminatory and unjust?

Mr. Wilson

It is good to hear a sensible point, about which there is a reasonable argument. But the responsibility for the funding of Northern Ireland students rests with the Northern Ireland Office. Equally, 40 per cent. of students from throughout the United Kingdom, certainly those in Scotland, will pay nothing at all in tuition fees. But it is a decision for the funding body, and in that case the funding body is the Northern Ireland Office, with which the hon. and learned Gentleman should take up the matter.

I must make progress in the time that remains. There is a slight decrease overall in the number of applications from outside Scotland. However, that is certainly less than the 6 per cent. increase in admissions that took place this session in advance of the changes in student support arrangements. So, overall, there is only a marginal change in the numbers wanting to study in Scotland, and, of course, applications are still coming in.

The SNP claims about the loss to the Scottish economy are self-evidently absurd, both in the light of the figures quoted and also on the basis of the hon. Gentleman's apparent equation of applications with admissions to Scottish universities, which will, as usual, be heavily over-subscribed this year.

If the hon. Gentleman is worried about there not being enough applications from England, I can tell him that there are already more than 20,000. There will be 30,000 new students in Scottish universities this year and there are more applications to Scottish universities from English students than there are from Scottish students. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman's internationalism. If he thinks that it is a blissful state of affairs that 44 per cent. of St. Andrews' students and 48 per cent. of Edinburgh's students come from outwith Scotland but within the UK, that is his business. Perhaps he should start a campaign to get more English students into Paisley university, for instance, which has 1 per cent. of English students.

The hon. Gentleman seems to be ignorant of the fact that it is a long-established practice for students with appropriate A-levels to have the option of entering the second year of some Scottish degree courses. The recommendation that more should be encouraged to pursue that option has come not from the Government but from the Garrick report, "Future of Scottish Higher Education". Let me read paragraph 4.59 of the report to the hon. Gentleman, as I doubt whether he has read it.

Mr. Welsh

I have read it.

Mr. Wilson

The hon. Gentleman says that he has read it, so he knows that it is not a Government proposal. He spoke approvingly of the Garrick report, yet he asserts to the House that it is the Government who recommend that more students should enter the second year. If he has read the report, he must know that it is a Garrick report recommendation. I shall read paragraph 4.59, as I doubt whether the hon. Gentleman is aware of it. It says: The A level curriculum is well-established and understood. Scottish higher education institutions should, therefore, act immediately to consider how advanced standing can be achieved in more cases. In case that was not clear enough, recommendation 6 of the report says:

We recommend to higher education providers that they should clearly specify their requirements for combinations of A levels which will lead to entry with advanced standing within the new qualifications framework. It is remarkable, if the hon. Gentleman has read that report, that he has only now concluded that a modest increase in the number of A-level entrants into the second year represents a threat to the very fabric of Scotland's universities. The question that I put to the hon. Gentleman, to give him due time to think about it, is whether the SNP holds the same view about Scottish school leavers who will hold advanced highers, because they too are likely to have advanced entry into higher education on Scottish university courses.

I do not know what the hon. Gentleman thinks, because we have had so many contradictory quotations from him. On 22 July 1997, in the Press and Journal, he said that Scottish students as a whole receive 5 years of free schooling, compared with 6 years in the rest of the UK. But they are now to be penalised by being forced to pay fees … for one more year than their English, Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts. That was a statement of the obvious. The Garrick report said that we should do something about it, and we did, so it will not happen. The anomaly has been resolved.

However, on 4 November 1997, the hon. Gentleman said:

The weakness of the Government's proposals is best highlighted by one anomaly. Scottish domiciled students studying in Scotland will pay for only three years of their four year degree course, while English, Welsh and Northern Ireland students will be forced to pay for the full four years. As a graduate of a Scottish university, the hon. Gentleman is capable of simple arithmetic. On 22 July, he thought that it was wrong that Scottish students who did five years at school and four years at university should be asked to pay more than English students, and we addressed that anomaly. Five and four make nine, but six and four make 10. He then asked that the same rule should apply to students who do 10 years. What is the hon. Gentleman's position? Does he think that there should be parity on the basis of nine years, or that nine in Scotland is the same as 10 in England?

Mr. Welsh

The Minister is betraying why he is so out of touch with educational opinion in Scotland, and why students are up in arms at the Government's policy. I am sure that he would not have supported such a proposal in opposition. The SNP's position is straightforward: we oppose the principle of tuition fees. However, if the Government want to introduce them, they should do so fairly rather than in a discriminatory way. The Government's policy is at fault.

Mr. Wilson

The hon. Gentleman may have some feelings in this matter, but in making contradictory statements, he has made a fool of himself and his party. Everything that he has said today contradicts everything that he said previously. I know his position—I looked up the early-day motion that he tabled, in which he asserts the basic right to Government-funded further and higher education for all. That is a general principle, but it takes us back not only to the position before 1992 but to the position before 1979.

I heard the hon. Gentleman on the radio this morning say that he wants the abolition of tuition fees and maintenance loans. When he and I went to university, one in 14 Scottish school leavers had that privilege, whereas now almost one in two have it. He wants exactly the same funding arrangements now as there were in the 1960s.

For the first time in Scottish political history, the SNP will be answerable for some of its mad financial calculations. We shall cost the proposal as enunciated by the hon. Gentleman in his early-day motion. If there are to be no fees or loans, that is a blissful state of affairs, but it will cost a vast sum of money. I challenge the hon. Gentleman to say whether that is the SNP's spending commitment—yes or no. He has been very free in intervening, so will he answer that question?

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.