HC Deb 08 February 2000 vol 344 cc1-24WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned—[Mr. Clelland.]

10 am

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge)

I have been moved to secure this debate not as someone who has a particular interest in or detailed knowledge of higher education support, but as a citizen of the United Kingdom who is alarmed by the disparity of treatment of my fellow citizens—a disparity that is based on place of residence in the UK. I am concerned by the threat that such disparities—and such unjustified discrimination—pose to the consensus that underpins the survival of the United Kingdom in the face of challenges posed by devolved government.

From the enactment of the Education Act 1962 until 1997, students in higher education throughout the United Kingdom were treated broadly equally in the matter of financial support. One uninstructed in the ways of the new Labour Government could be forgiven for expecting that to continue. Indeed, only three weeks before the general election, the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), then the Leader of the Opposition, told the electorate that Labour has no plans to introduce tuition fees for higher education", and the right hon. Member for Livingstone (Mr. Cook) said: We are quite clear that tuition fees must be met by the state. The rules of parliamentary language make it difficult for me accurately to characterise such statements, because, three months later, those who made them were respectively the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary in a Government who had announced the introduction of tuition fees for students in higher education. Mountains of material are available to any hon. Member who wishes to hold an Adjournment debate on that U-turn.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

Would it not be simpler and more tactful, especially as there are overtones of the auld alliance, to describe such statements in the words of our late colleague, Alan Clark, as being economical with the actualité?

Mr. Hammond

My hon. Friend puts it very nicely; he has considerably more experience than I of skating across the thin ice of parliamentary language barriers.

It is not my purpose in this debate to revisit the rights and wrongs of the Government's butchery of the Dearing report recommendations, despite the fact that the Government claimed that they were implementing them. That was one of the earliest examples of the Government saying one thing while doing quite another. My purpose is to consider discrimination and inequality in the educational context and in the wider setting of our constitutional settlement. The Government have used the language of one nation and social inclusion, but have introduced a series of policies that are divisive and exclusive. Those policies are driven by short-term political considerations, without regard for the long-term damage that they will do to our United Kingdom.

As soon as the tuition fee proposals were scrutinised, it was apparent that fees for the fourth year of four-year Scottish degree courses would be a problem. The legitimate question was not about Scottish students, but about Scottish universities and the cherished four-year degree course. The Unionist response to that would have been clear and simple: to implement a fee structure that imposed an equal burden on all students, regardless of the length of their courses or where in the United Kingdom they undertook them, thus maintaining equality of treatment and access throughout the United Kingdom.

Tellingly, instead of such a simple and pragmatic response, the Labour Government chose to play to a narrow Scottish audience by exempting Scottish students—but not English, Welsh and Northern Irish students—from fourth-year tuition fees when attending Scottish universities. That was a radical departure from the 1962 settlement, which had effectively created a single market in higher education throughout the United Kingdom, and resulted in English, Welsh and Northern Irish students comprising as much as 45 per cent. of the student body in leading Scottish universities.

Such a decision in itself was shockingly divisive from a Government who claimed to be committed to preserving the Union, but insult was added to injury when they were forced to admit that, because of the rigours of European Union law, foreign students from EU countries would have to be accorded the privileged treatment that the Scots enjoyed if attending Scottish universities. We therefore faced the absurdity of relegating English, Welsh and Northern Irish students to second-class citizens in their own homeland—forced to pay fourth-year fees while studying alongside not only non-paying Scottish students, but non-paying EU students, whose parents had not contributed to the United Kingdom tax base over the years and who, in the great majority of cases, would not be likely so to contribute after their graduation. Such EU students are treated better than those whose families have worked and contributed all their lives in the United Kingdom.

It would have cost the Government a mere £2 million to remedy this shameful discimination, but such was—and is—their arrogance that they refused to acknowledge that they had made a mistake, and created circumstances that, for the sake of a tiny amount of money, were bound to engender bitterness and resentment among non-Scottish UK students and their families.

The matter does not end with that grotesque act of discimination by the United Kingdom Government. With the help of its fellow travellers, the Liberal Democrats, the Labour party determined to make matters worse through the medium of Scottish legislation. It was clearly inconvenient for the Government in London and the Labour party in Scotland that all parties except Labour fought the Scottish election principally on the abolition of tuition fees.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

Before the hon. Gentleman moves on to discuss Scotland, I should like to ask him about his use of the term "fellow travellers". Does he accept that the Liberal Democrats stood four square against the Labour Government's introduction of tuition fees in 1997, even in our manifesto, while his party prevaricated over whether to support tuition fees and did not rule them out in its manifesto?

Mr. Hammond

My party made it absolutely clear that it supported the Dearing proposal to maintain the maintenance support system for students, which had served generations of students and, indeed, many hon. Members, extremely well. I am surprised by the hon. Gentleman's intervention, because, as I shall show, his party's record on the matter north of the border has been rather less than honourable.

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow)

If the hon. Gentleman's support for the student maintenance grant was so emphatic, why was he happy for the Government whom he supported to cut it by 50 per cent. before the last election?

Mr. Hammond

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the previous Government introduced arrangements for student maintenance that depended on a mix of loans and grants. We have never supported the proposals that this Government have implemented to abolish the maintenance grant. As I shall discuss later, it is clear from the recent panicked actions of the Secretary of State for Education and Employment that the Government have realised that, exactly as we suggested in 1997, the total abolition of the maintenance grant would work greatly to the disadvantage of the poorest students in England and Wales.

Mr. Boswell

Before my hon. Friend moves from that subject, will he recall that the number of students virtually trebled under the mix of loans and maintenance grants implemented by the previous Administration? That suggests some success of the policy.

Mr. Hammond

My hon. Friend is right. We were rightly proud of the great flourishing of higher education in this country under the previous Administration. However, I should like to make some progress in dealing with the situation that has developed north of the border since the Scottish elections.

Labour's failure to achieve control in the Edinburgh Parliament forced it to treat with the Liberal Democrats, who had campaigned unambiguously on the abolition of tuition fees as the "non-negotiable" centrepiece of their manifesto. Both parties faced a dilemma: Scottish Labour was anxious not to embarrass the Government in Westminster by conceding outright abolition of tuition fees, while the Liberal Democrats were greedy for the spoils of office for the first time in many decades but were hampered by the inconvenience of their non-negotiable policy on tuition fees. The response of putting the issue into deep freeze for a few months by ordering an inquiry is a tried and tested fallback for this new Labour Administration. For the Liberal Democrats, the abandonment of "non-negotiable" pledges is simply another twist in the wind.

The publication of the Cubie report and the Scottish Executive's response to it has been the immediate stimulus for my seeking the debate. Far from dealing with the issue, the proposed solution would deepen the discrimination against English, Welsh and Northern Irish students and institutions.

The proposed ending of up-front tuition fees for Scottish and foreign European Union students in Scottish universities—but not for English, Welsh and Northern Irish EU students alongside them, or for Scottish students who have the temerity to want to broaden their horizons by studying south of the border—represents blatant discrimination against institutions and individuals in the UK and the EU. Not only do some EU citizens seem more equal than others in Labour's new order, but the EU seems able to intervene to protect some of its citizens from discrimination yet cannot protect those who happen to be citizens of both the EU and of England, Wales or Northern Ireland.

Apparently, the UK Government have an unfettered right to discriminate against their own citizens, notwithstanding their seeming embrace of the nondiscriminatory principles of the European convention on human rights. However, they cannot prevent the EU from intervening to demand privileged treatment for everyone else in the EU who wants to take advantage of the UK's generous system.

Let us be clear. A student from Birmingham or London whose parents have worked in the UK and paid taxes to the UK Treasury all their lives would pay fees if he sought to study at Edinburgh university. A Scot studying alongside that student would pay no up-front fees, and nor would a Belgian, a Spaniard, an Italian or a Finn. A student from Newry in Northern Ireland could expect to pay £4,100 in tuition fees during a four-year Scottish degree, but his neighbour a couple of miles across the border in Dundalk would pay nothing. Surely even this Government, with their arrogant disdain for our traditions and rights, must see that such a situation is not sustainable.

If it were not for the intervention of the European Union, Scottish students would have been studying alongside English and Welsh students at English and Welsh universities but, unlike their fellow students, paying no fees. As it is, Scottish students are effectively to be frozen out of United Kingdom universities, with serious implications for the diversity of those institutions and the potential insularity of future generations of Scots, who are now much more likely to be educated in Scotland.

Valerie Davey (Bristol, West)

Is the hon. Gentleman not missing the fundamental concern of the Government and, to some degree, to give them their due, of the Liberal Democrats in Scotland, that those who come from less well-off homes are given priority? In the examples that he has given, those from lower-income homes and 37 per cent. of Scottish students studying in English, Welsh and Northern Irish universities will not pay fees.

Mr. Hammond

That is right, as far as it goes. I am happy to concede the wisdom of a system that is biased in favour of the poorest students, whom we know need to be encouraged to access our higher education system. The discrimination that I am addressing is one based on the country of origin within the United Kingdom—a discrimination that works against the interests of English, Welsh and Northern Irish citizens in a way that, as I shall detail, may have serious consequences.

It is proposed that a Scottish student studying in Scotland will pay no tuition fees but will be expected to pay a contingent £2,000 tuition tax at some point. A Scottish student studying in England on a three-year course can, at current rates, expect to pay £3,075 in tuition fees, while a student from England, Wales or Ulster studying in Scotland will pay £4,100 in tuition fees. Inevitably, decisions on place of study will be made partly on financial, not academic, grounds. That cannot be good for our higher education system, on either side of the border, or for the free exchange of ideas and the development of a sense of unity in the United Kingdom. It will surely foster insularity among the Scots and among other UK citizens, at a most important and formative time of their lives.

Most importantly, having different financing systems is extremely bad for the United Kingdom. It is perhaps the first test of the devolution settlement—and it has failed. Labour said that devolution would strengthen, not weaken, the Union, but this sort of farce will, beyond any doubt, weaken the United Kingdom.

Dr. Harris

Surely the hon. Gentleman's point is that, if electors in a devolved Scotland cannot vote for something that they deem an improvement on the prevailing system in the rest of the UK—which may act as an incentive for people to invest, study, get hospital treatment or be tried in Scotland, since our criminal justice system has always been different—then nothing, even at county council level, can be done on a devolved basis because it will seem to create insularity.

Mr. Hammond

The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. He and I have debated such issues in the context of health matters, where there seems to be a tension between the Government's expressed desire for local determination of issues and for uniform national standards. If he will be patient for a moment, I will come to the issue of diversity, as opposed to discrimination.

The package of changes in maintenance arrangements for Scottish students were announced in the Executive's response to the Cubie report. The Department for Education and Employment subsequently made a panic response in announcing a range of initiatives in England and Wales, including the reinvention of the maintenance grant that the Government had just killed off, having realised what we told them at the time: the demise of the maintenance grant would have a damaging effect on the poorest students. Those changes created a raft of variations in the treatment of students north and south of the border. The unfairness of the evolving system will not be lost on the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

I say to the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) that, of course, there is room for diversity. That is part of the point of devolving government, whether to local institutions in England and Wales or to a devolved Parliament in Scotland. However, let us consider what happens when diversity becomes code for blatant discrimination against groups of United Kingdom citizens who have paid the same taxes and met the same obligations to their country, and when it becomes code for the relegation of some United Kingdom citizens to second-class status, while other European Union citizens, who have made no contribution to this country, are given privileged treatment. The hon. Gentleman must accept that, when diversity becomes code for such a raw deal, it is dangerous for the consensus that underpins the survival and strength of the Union. When the favoured treatment of Scottish citizens over English citizens is supported by a system that levies taxes throughout the United Kingdom, but distributes them unevenly between the countries of the United Kingdom, such consensus becomes more delicate.

Although we pay into the United Kingdom tax pot together, it has been a matter of consensus for years that public spending per capita is higher in Scotland. However, if English taxpayers are to have their noses rubbed into the difference between public funding north and south of the border by such blatant and unjustifiable discrimination in higher education funding support for students, that consensus may not prove to be durable.

Dr. Harris

I am conscious that the hon. Gentleman wants to make progress, but how does he justify the discrimination of one beleaguered species, the English Conservative, against an even more beleaguered species, the Scottish Conservative, given that the Tories in England support Dearing, who wants flat-rate tuition fees for everyone, but the Tory manifesto in Scotland called for an end to tuition fees? That is diversity. I do not condemn it; he seems to be condemning a split in his own party.

Mr. Hammond

There is not a split in our party. The hon. Gentleman knows very well that the Conservatives in Scotland campaigned on a package of measures, which would have kept a mixed model of maintenance support for students in Scotland. As for endangered species, the hon. Gentleman might look to his own party north of the border following its blatant volte face.

Mr. Boswell

Does my hon. Friend concede that one of the most unacceptable parts of this shambles is the discrimination between Scottish students studying in Scotland and Scottish students studying in England, where the fees regime is different? We are talking not about unity of treatment in the constituent parts of the United Kingdom, but about clear disparities and anomalies—even within the Administration.

Mr. Hammond

My hon. Friend is right. Discrimination against English universities will result in far fewer Scottish students attending them for financial reasons. That will be damaging not only to English institutions, but to the Scottish young people who may have attended them.

Last week, on the Floor of the House, I apparently upset the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), who took issue with what I said about health funding in Scotland, England and Wales. He considered that my comments were unhelpful in drawing attention to the difference between national health service funding of £900 per capita in Scotland and of £746 per capita in England and Wales. That difference translates into a significantly larger number of consultants, GPs and nurses per 100,000 population in Scotland.

Despite the hon. Gentleman's interpretation of my comments, I was not attacking Scottish health care; my comments were an attempt to draw attention to the problems of health care in England. This debate is not an attack on Scottish higher education or Scottish students; it is an attempt to draw attention to the disparities between and unfairness in the treatment of English, Welsh and Northern Irish students. It is an attack on an unprincipled Government who say one thing and do another—a Government who say that they will strengthen the United Kingdom but who, by their actions and those of their client Government in Edinburgh, weaken it. The Government claim to be inclusive, but set out policies that drive wedges between different parts of the country and between different groups of its citizens.

We are trying to defend the principle of equality for all citizens of the United Kingdom in the United Kingdom. Whatever gloss the Government try to put on it, the blatant—almost farcical—discrimination between citizens of the United Kingdom and outsiders from other European Union countries, whose rights are protected by law, will only highlight for the average Englishman, Welshman and Ulsterman the damage that the Government's ill-thought-through devolution policies threatens to inflict on the integrity of the United Kingdom. It is a grotesque and absurd affront to common sense that those who work and pay taxes here should find themselves reduced to the status of second-class citizens, less well supported by the state than visitors from foreign lands whose families have never paid a penny in income tax to support this country's public spending.

We said that devolution would undermine the United Kingdom; the Labour party said that it would strengthen it. This is perhaps the first practical test on that question, and it is clear that the Government have failed it. We said that a changed electoral system would lead to weak coalitions and shabby deals, and that is what we are seeing in Edinburgh—unprincipled short-termism that will create rifts between the constituent parts of the United Kingdom, and back-room deals between Labour and its Liberal Democrat fellow-travellers, who are busily negotiating away the fundamentals of their "non-negotiable" election pledge in an attempt to cling on to the spoils of office on the coat-tails of their Labour masters. Back-room deals, broken Labour promises on tuition fees, broken Liberal Democrat pledges on tuition fees, empty Government pledges on strengthening the Union through devolution, nine tenths of the population of the United Kingdom reduced to the status of second-class citizens in their own land—such is the legacy of three years of the Government's policies on support for students in higher education.

Devolution is the Government's creature, but they cannot control it. Events in Cardiff and Edinburgh are overtaking the Government and threatening to undermine their policies in England—the creature has bitten its creator. The Government have no choice but to admit what is obvious to everyone else: the Scottish electorate has called their bluff on tuition fees. The price that the Government will pay for this shabby compromise to save the coalition in Edinburgh will be either a wholesale retreat on student support in England and Wales or a long-term and fundamental undermining of the Union, as the Government abandon the principle of equality of access to public services and support throughout the United Kingdom.

10.28 am
Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow)

I shall respond briefly to the comments of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond). There have always been differences in public services and access between Scotland on one hand and England and Wales on the other. If we want to talk about discrimination, why not point out the discrimination for many years under Conservative Governments, whereby students in Scotland had access to four-year degree courses, but those in the rest of the United Kingdom had access only to three-year degree courses? I do not recall a single example of a Conservative Member challenging or criticising that differential.

Mr. Hammond

The hon. Gentleman is surely not suggesting that only Scottish students had access to the four-year degree courses at Scottish universities. Indeed—if my memory serves me correctly—20,000 English students are currently enrolled at universities in Scotland.

Mr. Rammell

Yes, but by dint of the cap on access, only a proportion of students had access to those courses in Scotland. There was a differential in the university system, the health service and the legal system between the provisions in Scotland and those in the rest of the United Kingdom. I am interested in all the arguments put forward by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, but I am still not clear whether he prefers the system chosen by the Scottish Parliament or the system that applies in the rest of the United Kingdom. That leads me to think that his concerns are not universities, students and student finance; rather, he is attempting to use the issue to revisit an argument that the Conservative party lost at the general election and during the referendum on Scottish devolution.

Mr. Hammond

I was completely clear and open when I said initially that the focus of my interest was the disparity between different parts of the United Kingdom and the threat that they pose to the future of the Union. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) will speak in more detail about the education aspects of the issue later.

Mr. Rammell

The hon. Gentleman still has not answered the question from the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, who speaks for the Liberal Democrats: if his concern is about different provisions in Scotland and Wales, why did the Conservatives in Scotland campaign on a manifesto and a set of commitments on university provision and student financial support different from those that they used in the rest of the United Kingdom? If we still had a Conservative Government, or if the election result for the Scottish Parliament had been different, the same differential and discrimination would still exist. It is nothing new. The differences are perfectly logical and permissible in a system of devolved Government. The Conservative party lost that argument at the general election and in the referendum on Scottish devolution. If it now wants to revisit the issue, it will not make substantive progress.

Part of the reason why the Conservative party—including the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge—is raising the issue is not because of the merits of the argument, but to try to create an impression among the public, especially students, that the Conservative party is on the side of students, when nothing could be further from the truth.

Mr. Hammond

Will the hon. Gentleman concede that the Labour party fought the general election and the subsequent referendum on the argument that devolution would strengthen the United Kingdom? That argument remains to be proven. The point of my speech was that a policy that was so divisive between different parts of the United Kingdom would weaken, not strengthen, the institutions of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Rammell

Of course the argument remains to be proven in the long run, as it will be a long time before that judgment is reached. However, I am confident on one issue: had the Conservative party been re-elected at the last general election, when it emphatically refused to consider any change in the overall constitutional settlement, that would have led to a split in the Union much sooner. There would have been no Scottish Parliament, and people would have felt that their views could not be heard through the national Parliament.

The hon. Gentleman and the Conservative party have not addressed in any way the fact that we had no alternative but to introduce a new system of student finance and student funding after the general election. To put right all the problems in the system, such as the cap on student access, student poverty and the reduction in per capita student finance that had taken place over a 10 to 15-year period, would have cost the equivalent of 3p on the standard rate of income tax. The idea that any Government would levy such a charge and then use all the proceeds on universities and students simply does not reflect the politics of government in the real world. I hope that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon will face the fact in the debate. The Government are dealing with such issues. They are removing the cap on access and beginning to restore university funding.

My final point is threefold. First, the argument that the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge advanced is partly driven by the usual Conservative party obsession with all matters European. It is clear that his real animus is against the fact that European students will have access to a new system in Scotland, whereas those in England and Wales will not. We take the view that students in this country will have access to European systems. If Conservative Members have a problem with the fact that the law as it applies throughout the European Union necessitates the kind of access arrangements that are being put into place in Scotland, they should argue for a change in those arrangements instead of using the debate, as usual, to make a case against the European Union in support of eventual withdrawal—which is what more honest members of the Conservative party have in mind.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman's argument reflected the repugnance on the part of many Conservative Members for any form of partnership politics. I wholly reject that view. Where political parties agree with each other and can reach a sensible accommodation, they should do so. The British public are fed up with the kind of yah-boo sucks politics in this country, which takes the view that "Everything you do is wrong, and everything we do is right." That issue is now being resolved in the Scottish Parliament.

Mr. Hammond

Would the hon. Gentleman's views extend to parties that fight elections with a manifesto centrepiece that is described as "non-negotiable", and then negotiate it away in the immediate aftermath of the election?

Mr. Rammell

Negotiations and compromises occur in politics under all electoral systems. Under the first-past-the-post system, they are made before the election. Under a devolved system of government, with a different electoral system, positions are taken and, if one party does not achieve an overall majority, a sensible and open discussion then takes place about how a compromise, and a way forward, can be achieved. That is how people operate in the real world in other walks of life. It is a pity that for too long our system of government and politics in this country has not done so.

Thirdly, the Conservative party's real problem is its failure to come to terms with the new system and style of politics that is represented by the devolved settlement. It has repeatedly lost the argument on that, and has failed to come to terms with the fact that partnership and government by consent is not only possible, but desirable. Although it sometimes results in what may appear to be messy compromises, that is far preferable to the non-compromising certainty of years gone by. For example, the poll tax was a clear manifesto commitment, on which there was no fudging or compromise, but ultimately the British people lost out.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton)

I will now call Valerie Davey.

Valerie Davey

indicated dissent.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

In that case, I call Dr. Evan Harris.

10.38 am
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

I come to this debate in the good position of not needing to defend the proposals of the Scottish Executive, because Liberal Democrat Members have a settled view that Liberal Democrats in Scotland, in using their devolved powers in the Scottish Parliament, can have different opinions from those of Liberal Democrats in the rest of the United Kingdom, in Westminster or the Welsh Assembly. Conservative Members have clearly taken that view on board, because they have different policies north and south of the border. Their position at the general election was different from their current position south of the border, and very different from their position north of the border at the time of the Scottish Parliament elections.

I do not need to defend the proposals of the Scottish Executive, but, having read them and considered their effect, I am happy to do so—although, in the context of the debate so far, that does not seem to be necessary. In his speech, the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) did not attack the proposals and their effects, but concentrated purely on artificial arguments about disparities between students from Scotland and those from the rest of the United Kingdom studying at Scottish universities.

The core of the hon. Gentleman's argument is that those disparities are unfair and constitute unjustified discrimination. However, the only unfairness and discrimination is that students and others in this country with a vested interest in good higher education do not benefit from Liberal Democrats in government. In Scotland, Liberal Democrats have provided a package for students that is fair, promotes access and delivers on offers made at the general and Scottish Parliament elections.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge must understand that it is the electoral system that is not fair. A party can get elected on a minority vote and implement a policy that was not included in its manifesto, which is what the Labour Government did in 1997. Students must rely on policies promulgated by that minority Government, and suffer the imposition of tuition fees, which have curtailed access and damaged student welfare.

Mr. Hammond

Does it not trouble the hon. Gentleman even a little that a student from Northern Ireland who attends a Scottish university will pay full tuition fees, but his close relative, who lives a couple of miles across the border in the Republic of Ireland, will pay none?

Dr. Harris

No, that is the nature of diversity in the European Union. The hon. Gentleman should be troubled that students from England do not benefit from the enlightened policy that the Scottish Executive coalition has agreed. Under the policy that the Westminster Labour Government have introduced, students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland who study at Scottish universities will pay exactly the same fees as before.

The hon. Gentleman is arguing that those disparities are unfair. However, the root cause of that unfairness was not the democratic decision of the majority of Scottish people to vote for parties that supported the proposed abolition of fees by the Scottish Executive, but the electoral system in the rest of the United Kingdom that cannot deliver changes to policies that are rightly anathema to the majority of people. Labour Members will remember that the poll tax, with which we had to put up for far too long, was imposed by another minority Government who did not command majority support even within their own party. Tuition fees, which the Labour party imposed through a tightly whipped vote, were opposed by its own members in the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge made a fair point about the anomaly of fourth-year tuition fees for UK students of Scottish universities who are not resident in Scotland. That decision, which was taken by Parliament before devolution, discriminates against some of our own constituents, and the hon. Gentleman will know that Liberal Democrats led the rebellion in the House of Lords against it. Now that devolution has given Scottih people their say, we must recognise that circumstances are very different.

Mr. Boswell

To some extent, the hon. Gentleman may have just anticipated my question, but will he explain the difference between discrimination in respect of fourth-year fees for English students in Scotland and discrimination in respect of recent Scottish Parliament proposals on the repayment of fees and charging tuition fees? As a lay person, both would seem to me to constitute discrimination, yet the hon. Gentleman finds one form acceptable.

Dr. Harris

What the hon. Gentleman calls discrimination is a diversity of policies that have been voted for not only by an outright majority of voters in Scotland, but by a majority of Members of the Scottish Parliament, who were democratically, fairly and proportionately elected, when they voted for the Scottish Executive's proposals following the Cubie report. That is different from the situation in Westminster. The intervention of democracy in political decisions may be of little or no consequence to the hon. Gentleman, but I assure him that, according to my postbag, and, indeed, the postbags of my colleagues north of the border, the electorate applaud the way in which democracy can—sometimes inconveniently for the Conservatives—intervene in decision making.

Mr. Hammond

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that it would be right for the electorate at the next general election to regard any non-negotiable manifesto pledges that the Liberal Democrats make as negotiable in the event of their seeking to form a coalition with the Labour party?

Dr. Harris

Our position was clear: at the Scottish parliamentary election, we stood on a platform of abolishing tuition fees. Labour party policy in Scotland and in the UK was to maintain such fees. Tuition fees are to be abolished in Scotland; even Labour members of the Scottish Executive say that tuition fees have been abolished. Andrew Cubie says clearly in his report—most of which, particularly on the abolition of up-front tuition fees, has been accepted by the Scottish Executive—that tuition fees are seen to be discredited. The Executive's proposals will abolish them. Therefore, it is a figment of the hon. Gentleman's imagination to suggest that our pledge to abolish tuition fees has not been carried out in Scotland.

Mr. Hammond

It is not only my imagination. The hon. Gentleman may have seen the article in The Independent on 25 January, which quoted a Liberal Democrat Back Bencher in the Scottish Parliament as saying: We have not got everything we were looking for but it is enough to prevent us losing face in front of the people who voted us in. Is that not a cynical approach to democratic politics?

Dr. Harris

Absolutely not. If we had had everything that we wanted, we would have expected to be a majority in the coalition. That is how coalitions work. The hon. Gentleman is experienced enough to know that in local politics Conservative parties are engaged in joint administration with the Labour party—and with the Liberal Democrats, where we can bear it. He will find that, under a negotiated settlement, not every Conservative policy for those areas is, thank goodness, implemented. The same applies in any coalition agreement.

If the hon. Gentleman is against coalitions at all costs, even though a first-past-the-post election can deliver no party a majority—as happened for much of the time under previous Conservative Governments—that is a major new policy statement from the Conservative party. It implies that it will always want instability and minority rule in an attempt to get every part of its policy through.

We realised that we would not be able to achieve all our proposals unless we were elected in a majority, but in Scotland we said that the abolition of tuition fees was our No. 1 aim in this area.

Mr. Hammond

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way one more time. Does he recognise that to set out in a manifesto certain areas of policy as non-negotiable would precisely define for the electorate the areas that would not be vulnerable to compromise in the event of coalition negotiations?

Dr. Harris

The hon. Gentleman is providing me with no problems. If he looks at the manifesto, he will see a list of significant proposals for education, many of which have been carried out, including the doubling of hardship grants and more help for mature students and those in further education. We said clearly in the election campaign that our fundamental objective was to get rid of tuition fees. We have achieved that even by the admission of the independent chairman of the Cubie inquiry and the Labour Members of the Scottish Executive who have courageously performed a U-turn on their policy.

Valerie Davey

Although I accept the hon. Gentleman's tortuous argument, does he agree that the endowment fee is a fee by any other name?

Dr. Harris

I do not believe that the graduation contribution is such a fee: it is not up front and many students are exempt from it. I am happy to defend it, even though I do not have to do so, because it is not Liberal Democrat policy in this Parliament. The hon. Lady must understand that the funds raised by the graduate contribution will be payable only on graduation rather than up front.

Students who drop out—sadly, many do—will not be worse off. The total debt will be less than currently, and the repayment will be at the same level as current loans, and, in most cases, at a lower level. Those funds will be used to provide much needed maintenance bursaries for less advantaged students entering higher education. On that basis, it is a sensible and ingenious approach, which the Liberal Democrats in Scotland have little problem defending.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge cannot have it both ways. He cannot claim, as he did, that the Labour party in Scotland has made a U-turn on keeping tuition fees, while claiming that the Liberal Democrats in Scotland have made a U-turn on abolishing tuition fees. That is not worthy of the hon. Gentleman's ability. I know, from previous encounters, that he has a precise mind, and he will recognise the inconsistency of his argument.

The Labour party recognised correctly that it was important to increase access in the UK, especially for the least well-off students. However, its proposals to do so were crazy. Those policies included introducing fees, abolishing the grant, continuing to deny poor students access to benefits, introducing means testing and continuing parental contributions, which resulted in many students assessing that they would have to drop out. That has had an impact on access, as shown by the figures, especially for the first year after the introduction of tuition fees for mature students. That was especially sad because the Government commissioned research on whether mature students would be deterred by the imposition of tuition fees. That research found that they would be deterred, although the Government's objective was to improve access for less well-off people and encourage lifelong learning. The Government initially refused to publish the research, and it took many months before it was dragged out of them and placed in the Library.

The Government's policies have damaged access and increased student poverty—as shown by high drop-out-rates, whether because of parental contributions not being received or higher and higher debt. Students who cannot access sufficient, or any, hardship funds, are forced to drop out. Indeed, some students have to work to support themselves through university, and may fail their exams as a result.

Despite policies designed to raise money for higher education, even at the expense of damaging access, increasing student poverty and promulgating student drop-out, the unit of funding in higher education has dropped under this Government. It is projected to continue to drop, even with the continuation of tuition fees. For all those reasons, voters in Scotland decided that they wanted no more of such a policy. On mature reflection, Labour Members of the Scottish Executive recognised that that policy could not continue.

Mr. Rammell

The hon. Gentleman is delivering a critique with which I do not agree. He called for substantial public funding increases to abolish tuition fees and restore the student grant. Unless he says where that money would come from, his argument is less than coherent, and less than credible. Given that the extra penny for education has already been spent many times over in other areas of Liberal Democrat manifesto policies, will he explain clearly where that money will come from?

Dr. Harris

The hon. Gentleman knows that that is not our policy. He creates a false scenario and challenges me to fund it. Our policy at the previous election was clear and costed—we did not propose the reintroduction of grants. Our policy was to treat those aged 18 as independent. We argued that it was wrong for students to be means-tested on parental income. Failure of parents to make contributions is one of the leading causes of student drop-out and the high drop-out rate.

Our manifesto did not have to say how we would fund the introduction of grants, because that was not a commitment. I recommended that the hon. Gentleman read that manifesto and our costing supplement—we were the only political party to provide one—which explains how we would use the income that would be raised from an extra penny in the pound on education. We estimated that about £2 billion would be raised, and our policy did not involve the introduction of tuition fees. The Government's introduction of tuition fees meant that the money that we would have raised by adding an extra penny on income tax—we called for that in Budget debates—could have been used to offset tuition fee costs. The hon. Gentleman should study our costings, which are available in the Library, and which show how we would fund the abolition of tuition fees.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, who initiated this debate, is a Conservative Member, and I want to discuss the Conservative party's record. Its policy at the previous election was to wait for the Dearing report. In his charming but rather disingenuous way, the hon. Gentleman said that his party's policy at the previous election was back to Dearing—but Dearing had not reported at that date. There was a conspiracy between the then Government and Opposition to ensure that the Dearing report appeared only after the general election. That allowed the then Government to avoid having to explain how they proposed to introduce tuition fees, which was Conservative party policy.

We learned what Conservative party policy was only when the Dearing report came out. However, Hansard makes it clear that Conservative policy was all over the place. The line that was adopted from the Back Benches by the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell), who is a former Minister, was completely different from that adopted by his colleagues on the Front Bench. The Conservative party's national policy was to retain tuition fees, but the Scottish Tories proposed their abolition, at a cost of £37 million. To be fair, the Scottish Tories explained how they would raise the money: they would use not a fair means of taxation, by which people would contribute according to their ability to pay, but an approach that involved recouping the money from poorer students by doubling the interest rate on loans to commercial levels. That may be the most regressive policy that has ever been dreamed up. It takes a particular species of beleaguered creature—the Scottish Tory—to come up with such a regressive approach.

Mr. Boswell

To make the point in the round, the hon. Gentleman should mention that my Scottish colleagues also proposed making Saltire scholarships available to meet the needs of students in Scotland.

Dr. Harris

The proposals of Scottish Conservatives have become lost in the mists of time. The hon. Gentleman, who I hope will speak presently, should explain the confusion. Is he happy for Scottish Conservatives to campaign for a policy that would introduce diversity—the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge may call it discrimination—into the United Kingdom and for Conservatives in the rest of the country to campaign for a different policy? The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge has not established that democratically approved diversity is undesirable.

Thanks to the intervention of Liberal Democrats, the Scottish Executive proposed a scheme that will have huge benefits, as the Scottish people recognise. A speech by a Member of the Scottish Parliament, George Lyon, made it clear that mature students will no longer have to pay tuition fees. They will benefit from additional free support worth £10 million, which will be worth an average of £2,000 or more to many students. Those students will be exempted from the graduate contribution—I hope that that reassures the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey)—and they will retain their entitlement to full loan support. That means that students will receive extra cash to the value of £2,000 and that they will not incur a penny extra in debt.

Students with a family income of less than £10,000, whom we need to encourage to enter into higher education both north and south of the border, will not have to pay tuition fees. They will benefit from £8,000 in free maintenance grants and they will receive in cash £2,000 more to live on than they would have received under the current loan scheme. Their debts when they graduate will be £4,000 lower.

I could continue to preach the virtues of the proposals—

Mr. Hammond

As the hon. Gentleman is preaching the virtues of those proposals, is he urging his friends in the Labour party to implement such proposals not only in Scotland but in England, Wales and Northern Ireland?

Dr. Harris

That is a reasonable point. The Liberal Democrats will look at that policy at a federal level. We have a democratic way of making policy, and it is not for me to change our party's democratically agreed policy on the strength of a seductive intervention.

There are clearly enormous benefits to be gained from the Scottish Executive's proposals. At the next election, we may well change our policy from the good one that we now espouse to the one proposed in Scotland. The Conservatives will have to address that issue. Indeed, the Labour Government will also have to decide whether they can go into the next election continuing to propose an unfair tuition fee system that damages access, creates student poverty and does not provide the expansion of funding on a per-student basis that is much needed in this country.

11 am

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

This has been an interesting debate and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) on introducing it with characteristic clarity, elegance and moderation.

It is right to draw attention to the disparities in student support throughout the United Kingdom. I found the two intervening contributions highly revealing—and I have a soft spot for both contributors. The hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Rammell) resembles a stock medium-pace bowler who flings a few balls down the wicket in the hope that, somehow, an incautious batsman will get an edge. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) reminds me of an extremely slow left-arm bowler, who, by guile and confusion, seeks to winkle the batsmen out.

To stay with the metaphor of the game, both hon. Gentlemen are batting on a sticky wicket in trying to defend the indefensible—as, I suspect, will be the Minister, when he replies to the debate. Although one might promulgate a degree of partnership, or even consensus, in politics—towards which purpose this Chamber is to some extent directed—it is unacceptable to defend the indefensible under these slogans. The hon. Gentlemen have sought to do so today.

The simple approach to these matters is the biblical one. Despite all the tergiversations and excuses, the system is unsatisfactory. By their fruits ye shall know them. This is not right. In raising these matters, we should not stray beyond our narrow remit into debating the principle—or refighting the battle—of devolution, let alone, according to the wilder assertions of the hon. Member for Harlow, the principle of our membership of the European Union, to which I, and, more significantly, the Leader of the Opposition, are firmly committed.

We are concerned here with the little local difficulties experienced by Labour and the Liberal Democrats in Scotland, where both parties have had to reinterpret election pledges in a way that no reasonable voter could have anticipated from their manifestos. Also at issue is the interaction with European law that has created and added to those anomalies. In practice, the result is a shambles across the United Kingdom. That shambles was defended by Scotland's First Minister, the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (Mr. Dewar), on the "Today" programme on 4 February. He described the proposals as An imaginative, a brave and a very Scottish solution. I accept one of those observations. It is a Scottish solution for a Scottish problem.

I also note that—in a parody of the self-restraint that we have sometimes wished on Scottish Members, post-devolution—no Scottish member of either the Labour party or the Liberal Democrats has attended this short debate to justify or explain the decisions of the Scottish Parliament. That has been left to English Members. It is a Scottish solution, but is it imaginative and brave, as the First Minister said? If so, I should like to see what he would consider a cynical and timid compromise, which is what I believe it to be. Let us not be mealy-mouthed about it. When discussing whether tuition fees and graduate contributions are the same thing, I am reminded of nothing more than the children's joke, which asks, "When is a door not a door?" The answer, of course, is, "When it is ajar." The answer to the question, "When is a graduate contribution not a tuition fee?" is "When it is deferred for long enough to provide a tissue of excuses for not so describing it." A graduate contribution is effectively a tuition fee, even if it is deferred—assuming that it is practical to collect it.

Our criticism of this hotch-potch is threefold. Unusually—and, remembering how the French tend to put their arguments, in the spirit of the auld alliance—I shall move from the general, and the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge on education, to my particular worries. I start with what I believe to be the greatest real-world problem, which is the threat that those ramshackle arrangements pose to the integrity of the British higher education system.

I shall not be precise about dates, but when the Minister for School Standards and I graduated, there was a simple, integrated system with a common support mechanism, although it was delivered in rather different administrative ways. For example, the Scots centralised the payment of student maintenance, perhaps sensibly so, long before the English considered doing so. When I graduated, universities throughout the United Kingdom were expanding. Friends of mine became lecturers in various universities in the UK, irrespective of the nation; one went to Coleraine in Northern Ireland and is still there, and others went to Scotland. Until his recent retirement, a cousin of mine, who is a Scot, worked for the whole of that time at Glasgow university, but he has always considered it to be part of a United Kingdom system.

Valerie Davey

The hon. Gentleman waxes eloquent about the past perfect, but before he continues, he should recognise the vast discrepancies that existed when he and I and other hon. Members were at university, which depended on whether one went to Oxbridge or Keele, or took a four-year course in Scotland. Few of us had any concept of being part of a European system of higher education. However, we are now part of Europe, and there is a mix and match of youngsters going between European and UK universities.

Unfortunately, in the earlier part of the debate, we did not develop the analogy of the inadequacies of provision for post-16 students with the better provision that is now being made in Scotland and England for 16-year-olds. The concept of being part of further and higher education—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. This is a very long intervention. I had sought to call the hon. Lady to speak, but it appears that she is making a speech and not seeking to intervene. Would the hon. Lady bring her intervention quickly to an end?

Valerie Davey

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I simply challenge the hon. Gentleman's concept that we do not have a better, more integrated system in Europe than we had then.

Mr. Boswell

I have some sympathy with the hon. Lady's comments. It was a Conservative Government who dramatically expanded student numbers. It was also a Conservative Minister—myself—who negotiated the last Erasmus programme, which hugely expanded British participation in European higher education. I was about to make that point, but first, to avoid doubt and to save time after that intervention, I may refer, as if in shorthand, to English students. It may be assumed that I include Welsh students—my wife is Welsh—and Northern Ireland students, to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge has referred. The anomalies lie between England, Wales and Northern Ireland on one hand and Scotland on the other.

Although I would not claim that the situation in the 1960s was ideal—we have evolved since then—the integrity of the system is now under real threat. Moving into a European structure under the umbrella of European law—the Gravier judgment bears particularly on those issues—we find, as a matter of course, that our student children now want to go to Europe. It is odd that they find themselves discriminated against not when they move from England to Belgium, for example, but when they move from England to Scotland. That is a retrograde step and it has wider implications, because if we create barriers to the natural movement across the border into Scotland, there will be repercussions for academics, courses and the integrity of the British higher education system.

There are concerns, on which I shall not expand now, about research selectivity, which has a different principle and rigour in Scotland. That may damage the Scottish research universities. All that is gradually prising apart what has always been an integrated system. There is nothing wrong with an English student wishing to study Gaelic, for example; he or she would have to go to Inverness or to Glasgow to do that. I looked at the UCAS website the other day and saw what subjects were available, from A to Z: there is authoring, or communication, authoring and design, at Coventry university and, under "zone", coastal zone and marine environment studies at the university of Glamorgan. A Scottish student wishing to study those subjects has to face a new hurdle. There is differentiation between English and Scottish students in Scotland and a whole raft of subordinate discriminations. However it may be justified, such discrimination is sheer injustice. Such discimination is not all one way: some of the rules under the modified version of Cubie that has been adoped in Scotland require repayment at £10,000 a year of income, which is more rigorous than the British system. The Minister's announcement on hardship funds in England, which has not yet been fully analysed, may well mean that some individual English students do better than their Scottish equivalents. However, there is substantive discrimination against English students going to Scotland. There is also discrimination against Scottish students moving to England, paid for out of their block grant. European students are discriminated against according to whether they go to England or Scotland and European students in Scotland may well benefit from the fact that the tuition fees—now renamed graduate contribution—cannot be collected from them if they move outside the jurisdiction.

There is therefore an overall threat to the British higher education system, which has successfully functioned as a whole for many years. The anomalies, which cannot be justified under any terms, are a threat to the decisions and the welfare of individual students.

Finally, there is the threat of legal challenge. The Mininster and his officials will know that the Department for Education and Employment has in certain respects taken the lead in the matter of judicial review. A senior legal adviser there, who has now moved elsewhere, wrote an admirable book, "The Judge Over Your Shoulder", to which all senior officials and Ministers should have regular recourse. I am not a lawyer but, partly fired by that document, I take an interest in those matters. So, clearly, do the Government because the original intention of the Scottish Executive was to rebate the fees for all Scots, wherever they were studying, including the 6,000 Scots studying at English, Welsh or Northern Irish universities. However, the Commission's legal services put a spanner in the works by pointing out that that would discriminate against European students studying in England, of whom there are perhaps 90,000, and that the privilege would have to be extended, under the best treatment or the no-detriment rule, to all those students. So the Government backed down and produced their compromise, which is more favourable to Scottish students in Scotland than in England, even if they cannot find in Scotland the courses that they want to study. Having tacked in that direction, perhaps the Government will succeed in avoiding European Union law, although my colleague from the east midlands, Mr. Chris Heaton-Harris, a Member of the European Parliament, is in active communication with Commissioner Reding as to whether the discrimination is acceptable.

The only way in which EU law can be avoided is by a solution that the European Commission's legal spokesman described as being discrimination internal to a member state". That would concede the point that such a solution would be discriminatory. If it is, I suggest that Ministers ought to consider the fact that they have signed up to the European convention on human rights. It already has force in Scotland and will shortly do so throughout the rest of the United Kingdom, so Ministers should consider long and hard whether their obligations under it are being adequately discharged through such ramshackle arrangements.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge said, the plain fact is that the solution is wrong and will be seen as wrong by students and universities throughout the United Kingdom. I predict that the matter will end in tears.

11.16 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks)

We have had a useful debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) for choosing the subject. I also thank the hon. Members for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) and for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), who made use contributions, as did my hon. Friends the Members for Harlow (Mr. Rammell) and for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey).

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge used an extravagant vocabulary in his introduction. I make no complaint about that. It is early in the parliamentary day, but his speech included the words "grotesque", "fellow travellers", "arrogance", "panicked" and "back-room deals", and made much mention of second-class citizens. I hope that he will excuse me if I approach the issue in a calmer manner. In part, the debate has been about the public policy implications, as illustrated by the important case of higher education, that result from our United Kingdom's devolution and changing nature.

While listening to the hon. Gentleman, I could not quite remember whether his party had done a U-turn on the issue of the Scottish Parliament and Scottish devolution. I think that I am right in saying that the Conservative party now accepts the logic of a Scottish Parliament. If it does, it must recognise that, on some important matters, devolution can lead to diversity and differentiation. To judge from the hon. Gentleman's contribution, the Conservative party is clearly having problems with that.

I have checked my sources to confirm that the U-turn on devolution took place. The hon. Gentleman might find it useful if I quote from the Scottish Conservative party's schools pack, which seeks to explain the party's position on devolution. It states: The Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party has had to travel a difficult constitutional road in the course of the last year. We have had to evolve our policy of staunch opposition to the creation of a devolved Scottish Parliament in both last year's General Election and the devolution referendum, to being one of persuaders for the Union through the medium of the Scottish Parliament. We now wish to see the Scottish Parliament succeed and we shall be working constructively in a wide range of ways to ensure that it does. Rather tellingly, it concludes: To an uninformed observer, these standpoints may seem to be logically inconsistent and incompatible. That is an entirely understandable reaction. In travelling the road, the hon. Gentleman is taking only his first steps. He clearly does not accept the logic of devolution and the Scottish Parliament: from time to time, it will lead to differences between our two systems, which we must accept.

Mr. Hammond

The key phrase that the Minister quoted was "persuaders for the Union" in the new settlement. We accept the new settlement, but does he accept that there is tension in the Government between the desire for matters to be settled locally, for reasons of democratic accountability, and the desire to impose national standards? In England, the Government have increasingly tried to tackle the problem by ring-fencing grants to local authorities and controlling what local authorities can do. They do not have that power over Scotland simply because they do not control the Scottish Executive.

Mr. Wicks

The balance to be struck between national policies and strategies and local diversities is a feature of democratic politics, which we are now witnessing on a grander constitutional scale in the United Kingdom. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow pointed out, there have always been evident differences between the Scottish university system and the English and Welsh system. Indeed, even before higher education, England and Wales have A-levels, while Scotland has highers. The four-year degree is more a feature of the Scottish system than of the English and Welsh system. We must accept diversity.

Mr. Boswell

Does the Minister agree that the record of their evolution shows that the British education system and student support were designed to minimise such differences for the student and to enable students easily to move around the system, rather than creating barriers to such movement, which is the substance of our anxiety?

Mr. Wicks

The hon. Gentleman, like his party, is in difficulty: he cannot say that he supports a Scottish Parliament but he always become angry when it proposes a different system from that of England and Wales. If no differences were involved, a Scottish Parliament would not have been necessary. As one of my hon. Friends pointed out, the system also gives British students the right to study in universities elsewhere in Europe and to benefit from national arrangements in other countries. Students' rights in Europe consitute one of the exciting aspects of education in the 21st century.

We had to tackle the system that we inherited. The hon. Member for Daventry did not mention the fact that, between 1989 and 1997, unit—or per student—funding for higher education decreased significantly, by 36 per cent. In expanding higher education, we shall not take the cheap option of allowing standards to decline. We want quantity and quality to march hand in hand. Under the previous Administration, quality declined.

We had to tackle the student funding system because, inevitably, at the moment, it tends to be people from higher socio-economic groups who benefit from higher education. Under the old system, which did not involve tuition fees, we essentially asked most of the population, who had not benefited from university education—including some rather poor employees—to pay for the tuition fees of the minority. It was time to introduce some fairness into the system, and that is what we are doing.

As we all know, people who gain a degree are, on average, financially far better off than those who do not. By their early thirties, graduates earn about 20 per cent. more than people with A-levels, and far more than people with even fewer qualifications. It is not unreasonable to ask that group to make a contribution—only a small proportion—to the cost of their teaching at university. We introduced the loans system to enable people to maintain themselves. It is a fair system, given the funding implications for students, parents and universities.

I should emphasise that, because of the nature of the income test, those from low-income backgrounds do not have to pay tuition fees. By 2001–02, about 50 per cent. of students will not have to pay fees and only 30 per cent. will pay the full contributions. It is important to highlight that repayments will start only when salaries reach about £10,000 a year. Below that threshold, no repayments are required. For example, someone on an income of £12,000 will pay back £180 in one year. That is fair, and it will become a major way in which to fund the university sector. Indeed, income from student contributions to tuition fees alone will reach £460 million a year in 2001–02.

Mr. Hammond

The Minister's argument is interesting, but does he believe that it is right that, with all the new opportunities to which he refers, a student from England, Wales or Northern Ireland can go to any other country in the European Union, except Scotland, and he treated in the same way as a resident of that country, but if he goes to Scotland, he will be discriminated against?

Mr. Wicks

The hon. Gentleman is struggling to understand the logic of devolution and of enabling the people of Scotland to elect their own Parliament and have their own Scottish Government. In Scotland, such choices are made and, inevitably, there will be differences and diversities. If he has not understood the logic of his own party's U-turn on devolution, he should discuss it with the Leader of the Opposition.

There is evidence that student numbers are holding up well; they are increasing. Concern has been expresed about the decline in the number of mature students entering the system. That may have something to do with the buoyant labour market, but we are encouraged by the fact that the number of part-time students is increasing.

We have a new student support package, designed mainly to help mature students, many of whom, we recognised, were in difficulty. We have listened to them. Some are lone parents and have particular problems with child care. That is one of the reasons why we are introducing at some cost a new bursary of £1,000 a year for mature students, dependent on income. We are also doing more to help with child care costs and to assist mature students who have children with the costs of school meals. We are also trying to ease access.

We asked Sir George Quigley to look into four-year fees for students, in accordance with the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998. Sir George has delayed his report to take account of the Scottish Executive's response to Cubic, but his findings will be with us by April. The system that we have arrived at for England and Wales is right. Where it needs modification, we will listen—hence our package for mature students and for students from poorer areas. If we are to expand the university system, it must be fair to students, taxpayers and parents, as it is to universities.

Hundreds of millions of pounds are now coming in under the system. By 2001–02, income from tuition fees and loan payments will total £710 million. Are Opposition Members really saying that we should find from other resources the hundreds of millions of pounds that it will cost to move towards the Scottish system? Would it be raised by cutting nursery education or funding for the national health service or primary schools? I am not sure whether the Conservatives are making a pledge. If we are serious about the quality of higher education, we must be rigorous about the funding element. We believe that the student support system is fair and efficient: student numbers are increasing, the number of our young people going to university is increasing and quality standards are being maintained. Opposition Members must understand the logic of devolution.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We must now move to the next debate.

Back to
Forward to