HC Deb 20 January 1998 vol 304 cc803-5
5. Mr. David Davis

How many applications have been made to Scottish universities for the 1998–99 academic year; and how many were made in the comparable period for the 1997–98 and 1996–97 academic years. [21716]

Mr. Wilson

Figures for Scottish higher education institutions have not yet been published by the universities central admissions system. However, provisional United Kingdom figures show that, by 15 December 1997, the universities and colleges admissions service had received 326,220 applications for entry to higher education in 1998. That compares with 347,037 at the same point in 1996 and 340,711 at the same point in 1995.

Mr. Davis

I thank the Minister for his answer. It is always regrettable when the number of applicants for higher education goes down, particularly when, as in this case, those applicants are not helped by an immoral policy that discriminates against all UK students who are not Scots. More Northern Ireland students apply to Scotland than to anywhere else in the UK. When we are in every other way helping Northern Ireland to remain a part of the Union, what is he doing to end that immoral discrimination?

Mr. Wilson

I would caution anyone against placing too much importance on applications because there is a big difference between applications and admissions. In quoting any of these figures, hon. Members have to remember that, in the current academic year, admissions to Scottish universities went up by 5 per cent. as people moved, understandably, to pre-empt the changes in student funding.

On the point about non-Scottish students, again, the right hon. Gentleman should consider some of the statistics. For instance, in an Adjournment debate last Thursday, I pointed out that, in marked contrast with the near hysterical comments at the last Scottish Question Time about the prospects for St. Andrews university and about the cataclysmic implications for the Scottish economy, applications to the university from non-Scottish students within the UK are up 6 per cent. for next year. The problem of Northern Irish students is a funding problem for the Northern Ireland Office. It has to decide how to fund students who go to universities in other parts of the UK, as the Scottish Office has to determine how Scottish students are funded.

Mr. Dalyell

How long can a system be sustained whereby students on the same course pay different fees simply because they come from different parts of the UK?

Mr. Wilson

My hon. Friend knows that his question is disingenuous. It is not simply because students come from different parts of the UK; it is also because they hold different entry qualifications. If he wants perfect symmetry in the UK education system, that is a big argument, but at present Scottish school-leaving qualifications are geared to the Scottish four-year honours degree course and students who hold A-levels may in many cases enter in the second year of a four-year course. In making a judgment about which university to go to, any student will take into account whether he wants to enter a four-year course in the first year or whether he should take advantage of the possibility of entering a four-year course in the second year, if his qualifications are appropriate.

Mr. Wallace

For students entering university in 1998–99, in subsequent academic years, what will the position be with regard to supplementary allowances? Does the Minister accept that that is of considerable importance to students throughout Scotland, particularly those from more remote areas, who are worried about their travel allowances? For example, a student from Shetland attending Dundee university may face travel costs of £360. It is important that students entering a course should know what the financial implications are throughout their period at university. Those who enter in the coming academic year should have the same supplementary allowance arrangements throughout their stay at university.

Mr. Wilson

The existing arrangements do not disadvantage students in terms of travel costs, but that is all part of the consultation on the Dearing and Garrick reports. I would be pleased to hear any additional point that the hon. and learned Gentleman would like to make to me on the matter, but there is no such proposal.

Rev. Martin Smyth

Some people might think that the Minister's answers have been disingenuous. Northern Ireland students have travelled to Scotland since long before the Act of Union 1801. I therefore ask that the matter be given further consideration. Can the Minister tell us, for example, the difference in academic standards? Northern Ireland students have met the Scottish standards and come through with flying colours—not only to the betterment of Northern Ireland students but to the credit of Scottish universities.

Mr. Wilson

Northern Ireland students, and students from all other parts of the United Kingdom, are very welcome and valuable components of the Scottish higher education system, and they will continue to be so. The debate is very narrow, because 40 per cent. of all students—irrespective of where they come from—will pay no tuition fees, and only a relatively small minority of students will pay the full amount.

Whether fees should be met for paying students from other parts of the United Kingdom who are on Scottish four-year degree courses is a question for the relevant territorial Department—for the Department for Education and Employment, for English students, and for the Northern Ireland Office, for Northern Ireland students. Those Departments have their own considerations in answering that question. I have responsibility for Scottish students in higher education. I realise—as the Garrick report realised—the anomaly in Scotland of the four-year degree being the normal course linked to school leaving qualifications, and I have dealt with that anomaly.

Dr. Fox

In the fiasco over non-Scottish UK students and over student fees generally, two matters are clear. First, the Minister has absolutely no appetite for the changes that he is introducing. Secondly, the changes are utterly Treasury-driven. Will the Minister tell us whether the Treasury's inability to recognise the different funding requirements for Scottish and English higher education provision is—to use the words of No. 10 Downing street—one of the Chancellor's "psychological flaws"?

Mr. Wilson

I have an appetite for annually putting £140 million extra into Scottish higher and further education. The Tory legacy was to pile on the numbers and to cut the money.