HC Deb 22 February 2000 vol 344 cc1353-5
1. Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

What representations he has received from the Secretary of State for Education and Employment regarding Scottish higher education students studying in England and Wales. [109584]

The Minister of State, Scotland Office (Mr. Brian Wilson)

My right hon. Friends have discussions from time to time on a range of matters.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I thank the Minister for that illuminating reply. Does he agree that the compromise that has been reached with the Scottish Executive is confusing, because students in Scotland will have to repay some of their tuition fees at the end of their courses if they study in Scotland, whereas if they study in England they will have to pay all the fees up front? English students will be discouraged from going to Scottish universities because, unlike their Scottish counterparts, they will have to pay all their fees up front if they study in Scotland, and they will be even further discouraged because Scottish universities have four-year rather than three-year courses. Does the Minister agree with Mr. Brian Monteith, the Scottish Tory education spokesman, that the whole system is chaotic and causes discrimination?

Mr. Wilson

It is not within my power to dictate what confuses the hon. Gentleman and what does not. What clearly confused him was finding the name of the Tory education spokesman in Scotland. For future reference, it is Monteith with an "o".

The hon. Gentleman makes a poor point. There has always been a difference between the education systems in England and Scotland. There have always been four-year honours degree courses in Scotland. If he is confused now, he was presumably confused in the past and will be confused in the future. As for the different funding arrangements, that is what devolution is about. There are two different routes to the same goal, which is to get more money and more people from less well-off backgrounds into higher education. The Tories dismally failed to achieve those two goals in 18 years.

Mr. Mohammad Sarwar (Glasgow, Govan)

Does my hon. Friend agree with me that the Conservative party opposed devolution in Scotland and continues to oppose the settled will of the Scottish people? Does he further agree that the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Parliament are free to make decisions on behalf of their constituents without the interference of Conservative Members of this House?

Mr. Wilson

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Executive decide to make additional or different arrangements that incur greater costs, they have the right to pay for that from the block grant. That is what devolution is about. I repeat that we have two objectives: to get more money into higher education, and we are doing that to the tune of £58 million this year, which is a 10 per cent. increase; and to get more people from less well-off backgrounds into higher education—40 per cent. of those from Scotland going into higher education do not pay a penny in tuition fees, no matter where they go. Those are the objectives that we shall continue to pursue.

Mr. John Swinney (North Tayside)

Has the Minister or the Secretary of State for Scotland made any representations to the Secretary of State for Education and Employment and to the Treasury about addressing the consequences of abolishing tuition fees for Scottish students at English and Welsh institutions? If so, have Ministers in the Scotland Office been privy to the legal opinion obtained by the Scottish Executive that sets out the legal position on this matter?

Mr. Wilson

As I said, we have wide-ranging discussions, and all aspects of funding are part of the continuing discussions between the Secretary of State and his colleagues and myself and my colleagues. We also have access to all legal opinions offered to the Scottish Executive on such matters, which clearly have reserved implications.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

The Minister talks about the settled will of the Scottish people, but I am sure that he has seen the poll in today's edition of The Scotsman, which shows a decline in support for devolution and a rise in support for those who wish to get rid of the Scottish Parliament altogether and for those who want independence. Is not the reason for such a decline in support for devolution the fact that people are mystified by the confusion that has crept in precisely in areas such as education?

The Minister has never given a clear answer as to why the Scottish Executive is prevented from enabling Scottish students at English universities to have the same regime as those who are studying in Scotland. Will he make it clear what the reason is, or will that confusion remain? Does he agree that it is precisely that confusion that makes people disinclined to favour the present devolution settlement?

Mr. Wilson

The hon. Gentleman sets an interesting psephological puzzle. If, as he claims, support for his party's position on these issues is on the increase in Scotland, it is truly remarkable that support for his party continues to be on the decrease in Scotland to the point of statistical insignificance.

On the issue of Scottish students in England, there are two different systems for funding students. As I said, 40 per cent. of Scottish students, no matter where they study, will pay nothing in tuition fees. Those who pay tuition fees in England have the right to deferred repayment. I repeat that our goals are to put more money into higher education and to have more students from less well-off backgrounds. There are two different routes to those objectives: one in Scotland, one in England. That is not only devolution in practice, but putting principle into practice to widen the options and to improve the quality of higher education.

Back to