HC Deb 28 October 2003 vol 412 cc145-7
3. Annabelle Ewing (Perth)

What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister concerning student funding in Scotland. [133808]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Alistair Darling)

I have frequent discussions with the First Minister on a range of issues, including that one.

Annabelle Ewing

The Secretary of State is presumably aware that there is cross-party consensus in Scotland against top-up fees. Does he intend to lead his Scottish troops into the Division Lobby at Westminster to vote to impose top-up fees south of the border, notwithstanding their damaging impact on the university sector in Scotland, or does he intend, unusually, to vote in favour of Scotland's interests and against top-up fees?

Mr. Darling

I am surprised, first, that the hon. Lady raised the question, because if she had her way, England would be a foreign country and she would have no influence whatsoever on the education system, and secondly, that she does not recognise the logic of what she is saying. Of course, Scotland's education system and the education system of the rest of the United Kingdom are inextricably linked. Both those facts make nonsense of her basic philosophy of independence.

In relation to student support and tuition fees, it has long been the case that the regimes have been different north and south of the border. The argument that we should have is about how we can best fund student support in the long term. The objective of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills to increase the number of students in higher education must be paid for. The suggestions currently being debated will mean that we can put higher education in the whole of the United Kingdom on a proper footing. Yes, the regimes may be different north and south of the border, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the concerns of many university principals in Scotland about the financial disadvantage that their universities, higher education institutes and research programmes will face with the selective introduction of top-up fees south of the border? Will he undertake to convey those fears, which were expressed to him at a recent meeting in Dundee, to the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education at the earliest opportunity?

Mr. Darling

Indeed, we had that discussion. I remember it well and my hon. Friend was present, which is why he recalls it so vividly. The First Minister has made it clear that, depending on the final shape and form of the proposals put forward by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the Scottish Executive will have to consider the implications. They are reviewing the matter at present. On higher education and university education in Scotland, I point out that funding per head in Scotland is significantly higher than it is in England. Moreover, the Scottish Executive have made additional funds available to Scottish universities, so the issue is not as simple as some people make out. Of course, we must ensure that, whatever the funding regime north and south of the border, we take account of the implications. Our overall objective must be, first, to make sure that more young people get into higher education—the Tories' policy would mean that fewer went to university—and secondly, we should put funding on a sustainable basis for the long term. None of the Opposition parties has any coherent plan for doing that.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham)

As the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Luke) have had a meeting to discuss this subject, will the right hon. Gentleman give us his assessment of the effect on Scottish universities and their students of the introduction of tuition fees in England?

Mr. Darling

As I have indicated, the system of support for universities and higher education in Scotland is a matter for the Scottish Executive. The First Minister has said that he will want to consider the implications of the proposals once they are finally published. The point that I was making is that, in considering these matters, we must look at every aspect of funding. At the moment, Scottish universities are better funded than their counterparts south of the border—something on which principals will no doubt want to reflect. Of course, legitimate points will need to be raised and discussed, and the First Minister has already said that that is precisely what he intends to do.

Mrs. Lait

May I take it that the right hon. Gentleman's assessment is that Scottish university funding will be cut because it is greater than in England? What discussions has he had or does he plan to have with his Scottish colleagues in this House who signed early-day motion 799 in opposition to the introduction of tuition fees?

Mr. Darling

The only proposal to cut funding for universities comes from the party for which the hon. Lady speaks. It proposes that fewer students will go to university. That is how it intends to pay for higher education in this country. Under the Conservatives, there would be fewer students, so there would be less money for all universities. That may be her policy, but it is not ours.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is enormously important that we encourage more young working-class Scots to take part in higher education?

Mr. Darling

Yes. One reason why the Scottish Executive looked at the funding of university students was to ensure that more young people came forward— especially those without a family tradition of going to university and those from disadvantaged families. It is very important that everyone who can possibly benefit from higher education does so. That is why I find the Conservative policy of paying for student finance by cutting the number of students going to university so difficult to understand.