HL Deb 30 October 1997 vol 582 cc1127-30

3.20 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

asked HerMajesty's Government:

What is the rationale for the imposition of a uniform fee for all students in higher education from 1998 onwards, regardless of course or institution chosen.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone)

My Lords, we believe that it would be against the best interests of both students and institutions if different levels of fees were charged for full-time undergraduate courses according to the subjects studied, qualification sought or institution attended. That might encourage students to opt for particular courses or institutions because of the level of fee rather than the suitability of the provision offered. In particular, it would be neither fair nor educationally desirable if the annual tuition fee for students were higher for more expensive subjects than others.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. If the fee is to have no relationship to the quality of a course or a particular institution, are we in effect talking about a head tax (one might call it a poll tax) on students as a standard fee—not a fee, therefore, but a standard levy? Do the Government propose to insist, if there is a standard fee for every course, on paying the same amount to universities for every course provided, or is that not part of the same egalitarian principle?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, no, of course not. First, on the point about quality, it is very important that we have procedures in place to ensure that the quality and standards offered by individual universities and individual courses are as high as possible. For that reason we will expect the agency set up to take on this work to do its work rigorously.

On the second point, no, the Government will of course be supporting those universities that are responsible for running more expensive courses, such as medicine or engineering, and the additional money that universities receive for those courses from the Higher Education Funding Council will continue.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, are the Government comfortable with the consequence of this policy: that students from England, Wales, and Northern Ireland will have to pay more money than students from Scotland and southern Ireland?

Baroness Blackstone

Yes, my Lords. The reason for the difference between Scotland and England, Wales and Northern Ireland is that in England, Wales and Northern Ireland students will have taken a two-year A-level course in the sixth form and, if they are school-leavers going into higher education, will enter university at the age of 18 or more. Many students in Scotland will have done a one-year course and will not have done A-levels. Therefore the first year of their university course can be regarded as equivalent to the final year at school in the rest of the UK.

Perhaps I could add that students who come from low-income homes will, of course, not pay the fee, whether they are on a three-year course or a four-year course.

Lord McNally

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the Whitehall gossip that the Treasury is in favour of top-up fees because it could claw back those fees from the universities and thereby achieve a cut in spending?

Can she assure us that among those with whom she is having discussions is the National Union of Students, which has got these matters right as often as have the vice chancellors?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I never listen to Whitehall gossip. As far as top-up fees are concerned, the Government's view is that they would lead to a hierarchy of institutions emerging, with those from well-off families better able to afford degree courses at particular universities. I believe that that is something that all Members of your Lordships' House would want to avoid.

Baroness Young

My Lords, will the Minister clarify the answer which she gave to my noble friend Lady Blatch regarding the differential between students from Scotland and those from England, Wales and Northern Ireland who go to Scottish universities? Is she in effect adumbrating a new policy that no English, Welsh or Northern Irish student requires to do more than three years at a Scottish university and conversely, presumably, every Scot will be expected to do four years in England? This seems to me to be a complete change of policy and I wonder whether the Minister can explain it.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, a number of Scottish universities already admit students with A-levels to the second year of their courses. This is not a new policy. This is a matter for the Scottish universities, of course. It is up to them to decide at what point they will allow students with A-levels on to their courses. There is a growing proportion of courses at Scottish universities which take English students with A-levels on to the second year.

Lord Annan

My Lords, is not the principle which the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, adumbrated somewhat extreme, and would it not lead to great bureaucracy? In student unions, whether you play chess or football, whether you read the newspapers or you do not, whether you debate or have other ways of entertaining yourself, you pay the same fee. Surely that should be the case with tuition fees?

Baroness Blackstone

Yes, my Lords. The Dearing inquiry recommended that a standard contribution should be paid regardless of subject of study in order to avoid the risk that students would choose cheaper subjects which met either their or the nation's needs. We share that view.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, given the policy of equal access within European countries, can the noble Baroness say whether legal advice has been taken with regard to allowing students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland to be disadvantaged not only against Scottish students but also against students from other EU countries?

Baroness Blackstone

Yes, my Lords, I can confirm that legal advice has been taken. It is the case that the new system which will be introduced next year will require students in England to pay a fee of £1,000, if their parents' or family's income allows it, for every year of the course they are on, up to and including a fourth year. There will be separate and different arrangements for students on courses such as medicine and dentistry for a period beyond the fourth year.

Earl Russell

My Lords, does the Minister agree that universities are private and not public bodies; that therefore they need enter into agreements with the state only to the extent that they believe the deal is in the interests of both parties; that they have the legal right to charge top-up fees; and that to restrict that right might draw accusations of interference with private right or, if the Government were unlucky with their press, of worse?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I see that there is considerable difference of opinion on the Liberal Democrat Benches on this matter. I am sorry to see these party splits emerging. Universities are in receipt of huge amounts of public funding and I believe that it is absolutely right that the Government should take an interest in questions of how much might be charged to a student studying at university in those circumstances. The Government are considering whether they should introduce legislation on the question of top-up fees and will make a decision about that when the time is right.