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Lord Selkirk of Douglas: My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. Is he aware that his argument carries considerably less weight as far more students are staying a year longer in Scottish schools?
Lord Sewel: My Lords, I believe that I dealt with that point earlier in my speech. I accepted that an increasing number of Scottish students stayed on at school, but that in terms of intellectual development they were not
Lord Thomson of Monifieth: My Lords, I would have had greater respect for the Minister's argument had he said that the Scottish school system in the fifth and sixth forms was different from the English system, which is much more selective. The idea that somehow or other the Scottish secondary school system in the fifth and sixth years is intellectually inferior to the English system is very curious, coming as it does from a Scottish Minister.
Lord Sewel: My Lords, I am glad that the noble Lord has made that point. I do not say that it is intellectually inferior but that it is fundamentally different. In Scotland the main qualification that students take at the end of their school life is the Higher. That course is studied over a period of just over two terms in most cases. I believe that the noble Lord will agree with that. That is a matter of fact. In England one has the two-year A-level. I do not say that the A-level is superior to the Higher or anything of that kind. The Scottish system under which students take more subjects than under the A-level system has a lot to be said for it. However, one does not get as far down the road in a particular area of study or intellectual development in Scotland as in England by the time one gets to university. The four-year Scottish degree has always recognised that by incorporating that work in the context of university study.
Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, I was impressed by the argument of the Minister that the better-off in England should pay. What about better-off Scots? I know a good number of Scottish students who come from well-off homes. Why should they not pay?
Lord Sewel: My Lords, we have ways and means of making sure that the rich Scots pay, but we do not say that there are many of them. As far as concerns Scottish students, one must look at the bundle as a whole. Here and there is a contribution that the graduate will be expected to make.
I return to my argument. I maintain that there are no grounds for giving English, Welsh and Northern Ireland students the same concession in order to provide a free year's tuition at university level when it is recognised that that year is spent within the school system. I believe that we shall be here for a considerable time.
Earl Russell: My Lords, if there is no case for making this concession to English, Welsh and Northern Irish students, why is there a case for making it to French, German, Italian and Finnish students?
I see no reason why a student from Northumberland should have his fees paid in the fourth year regardless of income if he attends St. Andrews but not if he studies at Durham or Newcastle. Similarly, why should a student from Northern Ireland automatically have his fourth-year fees paid at Glasgow but not at Queen's University, Belfast? That is where the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, falls down. It does not deal with the students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland who attend institutions in those countries that provide four-year degree courses. They will still be in the position of having to pay.
We have yet to hear from the noble Lord how he would justify exempting students from fees in the fourth year of courses at Scottish institutions but not those in the fourth year of courses at institutions in England, Wales or Northern Ireland. Why is it right that a four-year course at an English institution should cost an English student up to £4,000 when a four-year course at a Scottish institution would cost that same student only up to £3,000? So much for that appeal for equity. That breaks down. Our proposals would ensure that all students across the UK could if they so chose get an honours degree for up to £3,000 in fees. That is the test of equity which these proposals pass.
The stance that is taken by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, and his noble friends on the Front Bench directly opposite is curious. I remind them of their much-vaunted endorsement of the Dearing Report lock, stock and barrel at the time of its publication. They have encouraged the Government to stick closely to it and then criticise them when they do so. They claim to be the party of Dearing and in favour of tuition fees, yet they speak against the Dearing Committee's very own Recommendation 81 and in support of exempting all students from tuition fees in the fourth year of Scottish courses, however wealthy their background. Perhaps the noble Lord can explain how he reconciles his party's support of Dearing with such disregard for that committee's Recommendation 81.
We have heard arguments that the Government are treating Scottish institutions unfairly. On the contrary, the Government have already made a significant concession to Scottish institutions which benefits them. To go further than that and provide non-means-tested grants for all English, Welsh and Northern Ireland students in the fourth year of courses at Scottish institutions would give Scottish institutions an unfair advantage over English, Welsh and Northern Ireland institutions. What the noble Lord appears to argue for is
The noble Lord referred to Scottish institutions suffering from the loss of applicants from other parts of the UK. Application figures for 1998-99 do not bear out the argument that the geographical diversity of the Scottish student base has been damaged by our arrangements. By mid-May the drop in the number of English applicants was, at some 4.1 per cent., less than the 4.5 per cent. drop in the total number of applicants to Scottish institutions while the number of Welsh applicants had risen by 4.5 per cent.
It is also worth remembering that the number of applicants from within the UK but from outside Scotland--at about 33,000--easily outnumbers the 27,000 or so Scottish applicants. There is not the slightest evidence that these proposals are having a deleterious effect or consequence on the number of non-Scottish UK students applying to Scottish universities. There is not a shred of evidence to support that claim.
It is of course open to Scottish universities to admit more students into the second year of their courses from the rest of the UK. That is a point that I have made a number of times before. That is up to them. They must exercise their judgment. I taught at a university where a relatively small proportion of students did that. They did it without any great disruption. The time is now right for various universities in Scotland to look at the way in which they structure their courses. The straightforward, rigid, conventional four-year degree structure, and perhaps the rigid three-year structure--although it is not for me to pronounce upon it--may not be universally appropriate for all students. A greater degree of flexibility, of entry at different stages, at different levels, perhaps exiting at different stages and different levels might be more appropriate to meet the needs of an increasingly large undergraduate population. It is up to the universities themselves to decide that. We will not decide it for them. I am convinced that entry at different levels recognising prior qualification, is a sound academic route for the universities to go down.
There is a further argument against the Motions set down in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. Students are currently required to have been ordinarily resident in a particular area on a certain date prior to the start of their higher education course in order to qualify for an award from the body responsible for awards in that area. We intend to maintain ordinary residence as a criterion for eligibility for financial assistance with fees. It would thus be ordinary residence which would determine whether a student would be eligible for assistance from the Student Awards Agency for Scotland, or from the Department of Education for Northern Ireland, or from the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. It is those students who are eligible for assistance from the Scottish Student Awards Agency who would receive the concession announced for Scottish students studying in Scotland.
Likewise, any arrangements made available under the Scottish provisions for financial support with fees would have to be extended to students ordinarily resident in England, Wales or Northern Ireland in their fourth year at Scottish universities. Again, this would apply for the fourth year of courses only, not for the preceding three years. So, under the present administrative arrangements, a student ordinarily resident in England could apply to the Student Awards Agency for Scotland for non-means-tested support for the fourth year, but not for the preceding three years, when the student would have to apply to an English local education authority for means-tested support.
This would lead to considerable confusion, not least for students. It would be a thoroughly unsatisfactory piece of legislation, which would undermine the current use of ordinary residence as a criterion for eligibility for financial support with higher education.
For practical considerations but more importantly for reasons of principle, I urge the House to resist the noble Lord's Motion. As I explained earlier, the proposals do not accord with the principles of the Dearing Committee. Our proposals protect the diversity of the higher education system in the UK, without giving an unfair advantage to Scottish institutions over other institutions in the UK. They promote equality by ensuring that, across the school and higher education systems as a whole, students in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK can receive the same number of years of education at public expense. And they provide all students in the UK with the opportunity to study for an honours degree for the same maximum contribution towards tuition costs, while ensuring that those from lower income families, from all parts of the UK, will receive free tuition.
My Lords, I turn now to the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth. In his Motion the noble Lord argues that our policy will result in unfairness and inequality. On the contrary, our proposals mean that all students in the UK will have the opportunity to study for an honours degree for a maximum contribution of £3,000 towards tuition costs. Our policy thus recognises and preserves the diversity of the UK higher education system, which we value, while also offering equality of opportunity.
Let us also be clear that no student, from any part of the United Kingdom, will be prevented from attending a Scottish university or college because he or she cannot afford a fourth year of tuition fees. Students from outside Scotland who come from low-income families will in any case be entitled to free tuition. Many more from middle income families will receive financial assistance with fees. To extend free tuition to all UK students in the fourth year of honours courses at Scottish institutions, regardless of financial circumstances, would help only those from better off families.
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