Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Tope: My Lords, we have now debated this issue several times in your Lordships' House. I watch with some interest the growing embarrassment of the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, who must rise on every occasion to reply to this frankly untenable position. So often we have talked about the student from Cumbria who must pay £1,000 more than the student from Umbria. We had some more alliteration today.

This clearly is a ludicrous anomaly. I do not know why the Government have not yet corrected it. My Amendment No. 76 seeks to achieve exactly the same purpose as the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. We are at one on this issue. I do not know why the Government are persisting with this situation. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, will no longer be embarrassed and will be able to tell the House that he understands and accepts the position and that he will accept at least one of the amendments.

Earl Russell: My Lords, before Christmas, at Prime Minister's Question Time, my right honourable friend Mr. Ashdown asked the Government whether their policy was based on a principle of non-discrimination and he was

2 Mar 1998 : Column 1016

told that it was. My honourable friend came straight back with his supplementary question and asked why the Government were charging English and Scottish students different sums for the same education. The Prime Minister had no answer. It may be that the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, can do better than the Prime Minister, but he will have a job.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I have only one further point to add to this interesting idea of making some EU nationals more equal than others. I should like to know the legal basis. How do the Government propose to reconcile the arbitrary discrimination against some British members of the EU with the new clause in Article 1B of the Amsterdam Treaty which requires all member states to;


    "strengthen the protection of the rights and interests of the nationals of its member states through the introduction of a citizenship of the Union".

If I were a student in Northern Ireland, so many of whom have gone to Scottish universities, I should find it very difficult to understand.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Scottish Office) Lord Sewel: My Lords, we have indeed discussed this issue in Committee but we return to the basic and fundamental point that both the school and higher education systems in England and Scotland are different. It is interesting that a separate committee--the Garrick Committee--was set up in Scotland to look at the issues which Dearing was examining in relation to England and Wales. That is a recognition that the two systems are fundamentally different.

Garrick recognised that the fact that there were two systems could leave students who had followed a Scottish secondary education course at some disadvantage in relation to tuition costs for higher education because many of the courses at Scottish universities, for the same degree, are one year longer than elsewhere in the United Kingdom for comparable courses.

The Garrick Committee recommended that that issue should be addressed and the Government have done so by agreeing that Scottish students studying in Scotland will not be required to contribute to their tuition costs in the final year where the course is one year longer than the equivalent course in England, Wales or Northern Ireland. That is the point that we all understand. However, it is important to make clear what is the basis of the disagreement, if we have a disagreement, by understanding the basic position as it exists.

It does not follow that the same arguments can be advanced for students from elsewhere in the United Kingdom where the pattern of school education is different. I shall try to advance an argument that even the noble Earl will recognise as having some credibility. The nub of the argument is that the idea for compatibility between students domiciled in England and Scotland is based on a misunderstanding because it falsely conflates two things: the first is the idea of intellectual development; and the other is the period of time necessary to cover the syllabus in any one discipline.

2 Mar 1998 : Column 1017

It is important to bear in mind in the Scottish context that, traditionally, Scottish students have gone to university one year earlier than English students. My own daughter is in what I believe to be a not particularly desirable position of having spent an additional year at school but still going to the University of Glasgow at the age of 17. That does not happen with any regularity in English universities.

Therefore, the reason that the four-year honours degree course exists in Scotland and is of value in Scotland for Scottish domiciled students who have come through the Scottish educational system is that their intellectual development has not reached the same stage by the time they leave school as is the case in England where students go to university aged 18 and have often gone through a two-year A-level course. In Scotland, students predominantly undertake a one-year higher course or, effectively, a two-term higher course. Therefore, there is a very strong case to persist with the four-year honours degree course for Scottish students.

English students, having undertaken a two-year A-level course, are that much further along the road of intellectual development than their peers in Scotland. In that case, the challenge is basically for the Scottish universities. That challenge is to recognise that students coming from the English school system and going into the Scottish higher education system should properly go in at what is the second year.

Many Scottish universities make provision in that respect. Indeed, it should be encouraged. As a former university teacher, I see no reason why it is not possible to cover the actual range of many disciplines in three years. I do not believe that any strong argument can be advanced against the possibility of covering an honours degree in three years. The reason it is not done in Scotland rests with the argument of intellectual development: they come there a year early, a year less prepared.

Therefore, the challenge is to the Scottish universities to ensure that they can be attractive to English domiciled students as regards coming in at the second-year level. Of course, there is a certain reluctance on the part of some Scottish universities to go down that road. I do not believe that I am being particularly cynical in suggesting that the possible reason behind persisting with a four-year degree course for English domiciled students is that it is a nice way of maintaining institutional income. I put it just like that as perhaps one of the reasons why some universities have not been too enthusiastic to make it possible for students to come in at the second year.

Earl Russell: My Lords, the Minister puzzles me. Is he saying that he is using the extra charge as a means of encouraging English students to enter in the second year and not the first? If so, is it not a matter of academic rather than political judgment?

Lord Sewel: My Lords, as a politician I am not encouraging them. As a former university teacher I am saying that the situation exists at present in some universities in Scotland where students with A-level qualifications enter the second year of the Scottish degree course. That is a perfectly sound academic route. Indeed, I have had students who have done that and they have not

2 Mar 1998 : Column 1018

been at any disadvantage whatever. I commend it to those of my former colleagues who are active in higher education in Scotland. I give way to the noble Baroness.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the Minister again, but he is making this sound as if it is just in the nature of Scottish courses. They vary very much. In many universities the first year is an integral part of the course; it is not just a sort of top-up on school education to get people ready for the three years. I suggest to the Minister that the Government are interfering with the curriculum of universities. That is very dangerous.

Lord Sewel: My Lords, we are not interfering with the curriculum of universities; I am suggesting how universities may respond if they wish to do so. It is not for me to interfere with their curriculum. If the argument is that the first year is an integral part of the degree course, perhaps we should look at the structure of that course to ensure that students with A-levels can come in at the second year. I have done it and my colleagues have done it elsewhere in Scotland. It works. Indeed, it is capable of working.

The point has been made about St. Andrews and about the effect that this policy may have upon it. It has been pointed out that a large number of English students attend that university. That is perfectly true--Hastings by the sea. If we have a look and see what has happened this year, we find that English student applications to St. Andrews have increased by 6 per cent. for the upcoming year.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe: My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt my noble friend the Minister, but can he also quote the figures for Edinburgh University?

7.15 p.m.

Lord Sewel: My Lords, I am sorry, I do not actually have the figures for that university. However, I can tell my noble friend that, if we consider the whole business, there are still more English than Scottish applicants to Scottish universities. There are more English domiciled students applying to Scottish universities than there are Scottish domiciled students applying to Scottish universities.

If one studies the predicted major drop in applications in Scotland from England, about which noble Lords opposite have been warning us, it will be seen that it has not occurred. The drop in English applicants is actually less than the overall drop--it is 5 per cent. compared with 6 per cent. When one compares the upcoming year with the year that is just going through, one finds a very interesting situation. One finds that applications were up on average by 8 per cent. last year, while this year they are down overall in Scotland by 6 per cent. So there is no fundamental evidence to suggest that the policy has actually put off students. What has happened is that there has been a less than compensating decline for the increase that took place last year. Clearly, if people applied last year, they are out of the system and so, naturally, there would be a drop this year.

Let us keep what the extra £1,000 means in perspective. I have put forward my suggestion of how universities may respond. It may well be proper for universities to respond

2 Mar 1998 : Column 1019

and say that the four-year degree is something that they wish to market as a quality product for English domiciled students. They will be required to take an extra year. But they are already required to take an extra year over their degree courses than their fellow students who applied to English universities. There is also a cost involved. The cost is in foregone income which is estimated at £16,000 a year. There is a cost in the additional year's maintenance which is about £3,000 a year. Therefore, we are already talking about an English domiciled student going on a four-year degree course in Scotland, which is already effectively carrying a cost of about £19,000 to £20,000 a year in one way or another. What we are saying here is that, yes, they will have to pay an extra £1,000 a year for the fee, which is equivalent to something like just over 5 per cent. of the additional cost they are already paying.

Reference was also made to the European paradox. I agree that it is a paradox, but the Government cannot be blamed for the situation. The matter is clear: we have sought legal advice--and, indeed, I have confirmed this--on the matter. We have received that advice and are confident that we have a robust position and can defend it robustly if there is any challenge in the courts. Therefore, there is no problem in terms of our position being incompatible with our European obligations.

We have gone round the course a number of times both in Committee and today on Report. I have a sneaking suspicion that it is not yet over. Basically it boils down to three issues: first, there is no evidence to show that this year, when knowledge has been available about the changing practice, it has in any way adversely affected the application rate for English domiciled students. I say that because the application rate of English domiciled students has fallen by a lower percentage than the overall fall. Therefore, it is clearly not having a discriminatory effect on applications.

Secondly, the opposition to the Government's proposals is based on a misunderstanding--an understandable conflation of two different ideas. I have in mind the amount of time that it takes to achieve a degree of intellectual development and the time that it takes to cover the syllabus in any one discipline. Thirdly, there is no question that the Government are in any way falling short of their European obligations. On all those criteria the Government's position is sound. I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page