HC Deb 17 March 1998 vol 308 cc1088-9
9. Mr. Clappison

What representations he has received about the payment of tuition fees for four years by English students attending Scottish universities. [33163]

Mr. Wilson

I have had representations from student organisations, university bodies, Members of Parliament and others.

Mr. Clappison

Is the Minister aware that, although applications to United Kingdom universities are down overall, applications by English students to Scottish universities are down even more? How can this Government defend a policy that disadvantages students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland, as compared with, say, students from Greece, Spain and Portugal?

Mr. Wilson

The Scottish higher education system welcomes and will continue to welcome many students from other parts of the UK. In fact, the number by which applications to Scottish universities have decreased is less than the number by which admissions increased last year, and the reduction in applications from Scottish students is slightly greater than the reduction in applications from English students to Scottish universities.

Mr. Connarty

Does my hon. Friend agree that English local education authorities could, in fact, give the same confidence to four-year courses in Scotland by funding that extra year for their students? I wonder whether the Minister has looked at the problems that will be faced by part-time students and mature students, and what plans does he have to deal with their financial problems in the coming years?

Mr. Wilson

My hon. Friend makes the important point that there is a great deal of mythology about free education. Many students in our universities and further education colleges already pay for courses. I am certainly interested in addressing the problems of part-time students in particular. My hon. Friend is also right to say that it is a matter for the funding bodies to decide. I have decided that, where a four-year course is the norm for Scottish students attending Scottish universities, we will take up that extra year. I fully understand the position of the other United Kingdom Departments which might have made a different decision. Every student who decides to opt for a Scottish four-year course knows the length of the course and the extra cost involved.

Mr. Welsh

Is the Minister aware that applications from England and Wales to Dundee university are down by 12 per cent. this year, and that the latest Universities and Colleges Admissions Service figures show an even more dramatic 23 per cent. fall in applications from Northern Ireland? If the Government claim that their policies have no effect on student numbers, how does the Minister explain those figures?

Mr. Wilson

Dundee is very much the exception to the rule; perhaps its reputation has suffered from the fact that I went there. The normal trend in Scottish universities is much better than that. I ask the hon. Gentleman to explain why, for instance, the number of applications to Paisley university, whose students are, largely, less well off, has increased by 8 per cent. There is nip and tuck in this, but on the whole, there is no evidence of a reduction in the level of applications from eligible students to Scottish universities.

Mr. Beggs

Does the Minister accept that all students who attend Scottish universities, irrespective of whether they are from England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, should be there on the same terms? Will he undertake to discuss with his ministerial colleagues in England, Wales and Northern Ireland how they can give the same preferential treatment to students attending Scottish universities as he has offered and afforded to Scottish students?

Mr. Wilson

We have had those discussions. The point is that the school qualification system in Scotland is geared to the higher education system in Scotland. As soon as one tries to match the school qualification system in other parts of the United Kingdom with the four-year degree course in Scotland, these difficulties and anomalies arise. I am conscious of the fact that a problem would arise as soon as my colleagues in the rest of the United Kingdom addressed this anomaly, which is a relatively small one in their terms, because even bigger anomalies would be created. The basic problem is the mismatch between school qualifications and higher education degree courses.