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Lord Selkirk of Douglas: My Lords, I am very glad to be here as a new Peer and it is an honour to participate in today's debate. While serving as an MP in the other House I had an uncle in this House, Lord Selkirk, and I benefited from his wise counsel. I remember a former Prime Minister suggesting to me that Government Whips in the House of Commons should be able to influence the votes of their relatives in the House of Lords, but I must confess I never had any success on that score.
I realise that convention demands that maiden speeches should not be too controversial and I would not wish to depart from that convention, but in relation to this subject there are clear issues of principle. I speak in today's debate because I was for three years responsible for this subject at the Scottish Office. The detailed differences between Scots and English educational systems and student support gave rise to many lengthy conversations, and indeed these were not always straightforward. But always the test we applied was to ensure fairness and to avoid discrimination against any particular group.
One of the ironies of this debate is that many more school-leavers in Scotland are staying on an extra year at school. There is therefore a trend for school-leavers in Scotland to opt for a three-year degree course as many are now going to university a year later. But the difficulty has arisen in relation to four-year honours degree courses in Scotland, as the noble Baroness has said. I hope that Ministers will be prepared to look at this issue again, for three reasons.
First, the proposed arrangements are clearly discriminatory. For example, as has been pointed out, a student from Umbria in Italy would pay less than a student from Northumbria. It would be seen as an unfairness for students on the same course to have to pay different amounts depending on which side of the Border they happen to live, and it would give rise to a grievance and a feeling of being less than welcome.
Secondly, as well as the issue of unfairness, students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland bring in an enormous amount of income to Scottish universities. The McNicoll Report identified that the actual amount of income received by the Scottish universities from the students concerned from other parts of the United Kingdom was in the region of £110 million. But one has to add over and above that an extra £100 million which those students spent in or around university towns. If
The Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals believes that the imposition of 33 per cent. more in fees will turn English, Welsh and Northern Irish students away, threatening the survival of courses and departments, and would be seen as an unwelcome signal.
Thirdly, the proposed decision would be subject to challenges in the European Court of Justice. The National Union of Students has already said that it would support any student who decided to take on the Government, and the principals of the Scots universities are also seeking legal opinion on this issue. I recall that I once had occasion to report a Secretary of State for Scotland to the Equal Opportunities Commission for discriminating against women. Not very long afterwards he decided to change his policy in that particular respect. I cannot help believing that it would be better if the Government took steps to look at this matter again before the European Court of Justice becomes involved.
It has, of course, been suggested that the numbers affected are small, but in 1996-97 the figures were as high as 26,900 students from the rest of the United Kingdom studying in Scotland. So the numbers potentially affected are probably not so small. But whatever the numbers, it is the principle of fairness that matters. Universities should be universal for those who have the ability and inclination to achieve their full potential. They should provide the passport to jobs, fulfilment and success. We have outlawed discrimination against race, religion and sex. In this case, with Ministers of good will in their respective departments, resolving this specific problem really should not prove insurmountable. Surely this is the time for Ministers in the Department for Education and the Scottish Office to look again at this issue with a view to preventing discrimination in education with particular reference to university fees.
The Earl of Kintore: My Lords, I am sure that I speak for the whole House in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk of Douglas, on his maiden speech. As would be expected from a former Scottish Education Minister, it was well informed. It is always nice to welcome a fellow Scot to the House, and as I note that he has been in most of the departments of the Scottish Office, I am sure that he is very well informed on a number of other subjects. I hope that it will not be too long before we hear him again.
I declare an interest as the father of two university-aged children, but neither will be affected by the Government's proposals. I also have the honour to hold an honorary doctorate from the University of Aberdeen, an ancient Scottish university, from where the Minister who is to answer the Question is on professorial leave of absence from a distinguished career as a teacher and leader.
Surely the answer to the noble Baroness's Question is that the Government's proposals for fees at universities in Scotland do not offer equality of access to all United Kingdom students. Few English, Welsh and Northern Irish students will consider coming to a Scottish university if they know that their fourth year of study is unfunded and that they may have to find £1,000 to complete their course. In the highly competitive environment of attracting the best students, Scottish universities will thus lose out, but much more significantly, the non-Scottish UK students and UK Limited could miss out on valuable qualifications.
I refer to the geology and petroleum geology course offered at Aberdeen University. Because the oil industry is based in Aberdeen, the university is probably one of the few British institutions with the technical, practical and geographic justification for offering this degree. But it must be available to all UK students, not just Scots.
The reasons for this are that the course is probably only offered at one other institution, so it is almost a national course, and because geology is an A-level subject, which results in an above-average proportion of professionally oriented students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland wishing to take the course.
I understand that there are already quite a lot of unfunded activities directly related to that course and if a further £1,000 had to be found, there is a danger that UK non-Scots students would cease to apply, with devastating results for the course and for the whole of the reputation of the United Kingdom for providing world-class, appropriately qualified, graduates for the oil industry.
I hope that the Government's reply will not include a proposal that non-Scottish UK students with A-levels should come in to the Scottish honours degree courses at the start of the second year. Sir Ron Garrick, who chaired the Dearing Inquiry in Scotland, queried why so few students took that route and was told that the A-level students wanted themselves to take the full course. Statistics reveal that students from south of the Border taking a four-year course gained markedly better qualifications than the average and got worthwhile jobs. Sir Ron Garrick went on to comment:
Unless another speaker says something untoward, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, will persuade his honourable friend Mr. Brian Wilson, the Minister responsible for Scottish education in another place, that he should fund the full 120-weeks' study which is
Baroness Young: My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Carnegy for tabling this important Unstarred Question. I should like to add my congratulations to those that have been paid to the maiden speaker, my noble friend Lord Selkirk of Douglas, whom we were delighted to hear.
My noble friend Lady Carnegy stated the problem clearly and I shall not repeat what she said. Perhaps I may advise the Minister that since the Government announced that a tuition fee of £1,000 is to be paid, this is the second difficulty that they have encountered, the first being over what is known as the "gap year", which I think that they have at last sorted out. We now have what the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, described as a totally indefensible proposition.
I have a particular interest in this debate as one of my daughters went to St. Andrews University. Like many other English students at Scottish universities, not only did she receive an excellent education but she made lifelong Scottish friends. She had opportunities at St. Andrews to take up outdoor pursuits such as mountaineering, in which she became very interested, and even skiing, which are not generally available at English universities.
As we know, thousands of English students go to Scottish universities and I am glad that many Scots are now coming to English universities. That is as it should be. Everyone interested in education knows the value of getting to know and of mixing with people of different cultures and backgrounds. It must surely be the right of any student to go to any university in the United Kingdom, provided that they are properly qualified for the course that they want to follow. They should not be financially penalised in any way. To discriminate in this extraordinary fashion against the English, the Welsh and students from Northern Ireland is not just unfair to them--although it is--but it seems to me that the fundamental difficultly is that such discrimination is against the best interests of the whole university system. There will be no winners anywhere from this proposition--in Scotland, in England, in Wales or in Northern Ireland.
However, I believe that the problem goes wider than that, as my noble friend Lady Carnegy pointed out. During the course of our long debates on the referendum in Scotland on devolution we were told time and again by the Government that it was not a precursor to an independent Scotland. I hope that that is true. However, a measure such as this sits very uneasily with what was said then. To someone like myself, it suggests that, far from looking outward, Scotland will be looking inward. When we know the importance of young people growing up and being influenced by each other's culture, that seems dangerous and damaging.
I do not think, however, that it is a numbers game. It is serious for anybody to be denied an opportunity on financial grounds and I am bound to say that I find it very surprising that a Labour Government, even a New Labour Government, should adumbrate this extraordinary policy which is bad for individual students, bad for the university system as a whole and in which, as I said earlier, there will be no winners.
Lord Beloff: My Lords, like one or two previous speakers, I must declare an interest--nothing as grand as being awarded an honorary degree from a famous Scottish university, but simply the fact that I am a professor at the coalface at the University of St. Andrews--I hasten to add that it is an unpaid professorship--and that that has enabled me on visits there to assess the very high quality of its academic community. In addition, I have a granddaughter who is an undergraduate there. As she is in her fourth year, she is unaffected by the proposals. I have therefore seen a little of how this looks from the other end.
It seems a most extraordinary proposition to limit one of the factors which I think give particular quality to the University of St. Andrews, to Edinburgh University which, again, has a high proportion of students from other parts of the United Kingdom, and to Dundee University which, as the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, pointed out and as was pointed out to me by a very eminent figure in Northern Ireland, has very particular relations with that Province. After all, Scotland now has a complement of universities with very varied histories and of very different kinds. The University of St. Andrews is the third oldest university in the United Kingdom; others are quite new. The University of Glasgow is a very eminent institution and has been so since Adam Smith's day at least. It is true that there it is not a question of a £1,000 tuition fee because I understand that students there customarily brought a sack of oatmeal as the fee for their professor! The direct payment of professors might at least ensure that such an imposition as this would benefit the university and not merely fill holes in the Treasury. It seems extraordinary that anyone should wish--that any Scot or that any friend of Scotland should wish--to see an inroad made into that great feature of Scotland and its particular ways of handling higher education which, as the noble Earl said, are somewhat different from those in England and Wales.
The proposition that the privilege of escaping the fees should be extended from Scottish students to students in the European Union is peculiar. It is peculiar to give a preference to Dublin over Belfast. However, I am not at all sure that it is legal. I would be the last person to regret it if it were suddenly announced that the
I therefore appeal to the Minister to tell his colleague in another place, whose statements on higher education suggest that he is not fully aware of the complexities inherent in the problem, that there is in this House and probably in the country unanimity in the view that in matters of higher education the United Kingdom is a single unit, and that the financing of it, whatever form it takes, must take that fact into account.
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, for introducing this subject and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk of Douglas, on his excellent maiden speech. His qualities in the other House were well recognised. It is a great advantage to this House that he now sits on the Benches here. As is the wont with maiden speakers, the noble Lord said that his contribution was non-controversial. Given the consensual views that have been expressed so far, he has certainly fulfilled that obligation. However, he was far too controversial for me. I shall put a point of view different from those expressed so far in this debate.
I emphasise that the deterrent effect of this aspect of the fees with regard to Scottish universities can be greatly exaggerated. One is talking about £1,000 spread over a 20-year repayment period under the Government's proposal. That £1,000 must be seen against the background where anyone who undertakes a four-year course at a Scots university already incurs substantial costs: the loss of earnings for the year in which they could have been employed if they had pursued a three-year course; the costs involved in maintaining themselves at university; and the additional cost, which is not insignificant in these days of privatised rail and the uncertain fare structure, of travel from England, Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland to Scottish universities. There are substantial costs of which this particular feature is quite marginal.
I agree that if throughout student bodies and parents there is considerable alarm that students will undertake obligations that they cannot be expected to fulfil, then the cost will be borne by students, by Scottish universities and by the wider society. In replying to the debate it behoves the Minister to emphasise how the Government will succeed in communicating to students the fact that the introduction of fees is made necessary by the key priority of this Government to expand higher education further, not least among students or young people who come from deprived homes. They will not be put off by the costs of tuition because by definition they will be exempt from such fees. Those fees come into play only where parental income is £23,000 a year.
If there is a fear that the introduction of these fees will somehow produce a superfluity of places in British universities, in particular Scottish ones, with large numbers of students not taking up places which would otherwise be available, the answer lies in the Government producing policies that encourage wider participation by students from social groups who at present feature all too little in higher education.
I respect the points that have been made by the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, as to the value of four-year degree courses. But the reason why Scottish higher education is different is that the preparation for it is different. One English student identified this aspect when writing in The Scotsman. She said that she had started in the second year of her degree. She did not believe that her education had suffered as a result and could not see why others could not do likewise. She said that she had gone to Scotland, as others would, because she valued the institutions and the courses, not their length. She identified the fact that her preparation on the basis of English A-level qualifications, particularly for anyone who spent three years in the sixth-form of an English school, had adequately prepared her for Scottish higher education. One must recognise the difference between the two.
Far from Ministers being criticised today for having introduced what is regarded in some areas as a major deterrent to young people entering Scottish higher education, Ministers have succeeded in protecting Scottish university degrees by ensuring that Scots have access to them on the basis of four years' support.
Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn: My Lords, first I should like to congratulate my noble friend Lady Carnegy for introducing this important matter, which I believe has wider implications than for Scotland alone. I also congratulate my noble friend Lord Selkirk on his admirable maiden speech.
I declare a personal interest, although not a financial one. One of my sons graduated from St. Andrews. So much did he enjoy the experience that currently I have a second son at St. Andrews who is greatly benefiting from the experience and thoroughly enjoying it. I support what has been said about the excellence of Scottish universities, and certainly the proportion of students who are not Scottish--about 40 per cent.--greatly benefit from the experience.
Initially, I was shocked by the real anomaly announced by the Government. When I read the debate in Hansard on 30th October I was impressed by a number of the arguments put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone. The majority of Scottish students take four-year courses, whereas the majority of
As an aside, I am disappointed not to see the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, in her place this evening. There are no doubt excellent reasons, but the noble Baroness is the Minister responsible for higher education. It seems that part of the anomaly in this affair arises from the circumstance that it is in part a higher education matter and in part a Scottish matter. Therefore, we shall hear the noble Lord with responsibility for Scottish affairs in this House answering the debate. One wonders whether one is already entering an area of anomalies. If this represents the first fruits of devolution, bring me back the days of Queen Anne!
There are further anomalies. We have not yet heard about the Scottish students who attend English universities. I have always regarded it as a sad aspect of the educational system that a limited number of Scottish students attend English universities because of the differences in the school system. I have always regretted the fact that we do not see more Scottish students. There are many science courses in English universities that are four-year courses. Will Scottish students who attend four-year courses in English universities be paying their fourth £1,000 or not? No doubt a factual answer can be provided to that question.
I understand the problem as outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone. The main point I make in this debate is that by setting up differentials at the margin a financial market in educational matters is being created. This is the first or perhaps the second example. We saw the difficulties produced by the gap-year enterprise; the sudden switch in the number of applications and students deciding to take up their places. The noble Lord opposite said that the £1,000 will be multiplied by other factors and added to a larger debt paid over 20 years and that difference will scarcely be noticed. I assure your Lordships that impoverished students notice the difference of £1,000 and these issues operate at the margin. It is to be anticipated that many students, probably wrongly, will be making their decisions on relatively small matters; that is, the £1,000 at the margin.
I wish to draw the attention, in particular of noble Lords opposite, to the fact that if we introduce £1,000 here and £1,000 there we shall be introducing a series of distortions into the educational system which will have serious effects. Applications in some universities have declined for next year. I see much of the logic of the Government's response to the Dearing Report and I am not arguing against it now. However, if by accident we introduce market forces into the British educational system we will be setting up a situation which will have
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Carnegy, for introducing the debate. It is an important subject which deserves an airing. Furthermore, I warmly congratulate my noble friend Lord Selkirk on his admirable speech. We look forward to hearing more from him.
Perhaps at the outset I may respond to the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, who dismissed the issue of an extra £1,000 as derisory. Tell that to the students! The noble Lord entirely missed the point that the issue is one of unfairness; we are discussing the application of a policy of differential rates for the same course. The noble Lord also ignored the point that the proposal comes on top of the wholesale abolition of the maintenance grant and students from low income families will be most disadvantaged by the policy.
As recently as 14th April, in an article in the Evening Standard, Mr. Blair pledged that Labour had no plans to introduce tuition fees for higher education. Indeed, during the election campaign--and I know because I was there--an unsuccessful Labour Party candidate spoke to a hall of sixth-form school-leavers and made the same pledge.
The Dearing Report was received, considered and rejected in unseemly haste. As a result of the Government's policy, those who have most to lose will be those about whom the Government purport to be most concerned--the least well off. There has also been a lack of openness and honesty in the debate. If it is the Government's intention to save all of the grant from maintenance costs and to levy £1,000 per student per year as a tax without guarantees that the money will be returned to higher education, they should say what their plans are--or is that a closely guarded secret of the Treasury? Perhaps the Minister will clarify the issue by telling the House the extent to which higher education will benefit from moneys saved at the expense of students and their families.
We have also seen a number of knee-jerk reactions since the introduction of the policy. First, we had the incredible gap-year fiasco. How could the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, not have predicted the reaction from students who had delayed taking up places at university for one year? Not for the first time did the Prime Minister have to come to the rescue of the noble Baroness by agreeing to delay by one year the introduction of fees for those gap-year students. Although we shall be discussing the issue at greater length next week, it is strongly rumoured that the Prime Minister has had to intervene in the plans of the noble Baroness to remove money from the Oxford and Cambridge colleges. Again, we look forward to clarification on that point.
I repeat a question which was posed by my noble friend Lady Carnegy. Is it within both the letter and the spirit of the Government's obligation under domestic and European laws of equality of access for students throughout the European countries to be charged differential fees for the same course? It would be most interesting to know precisely what was the legal advice on that point.
Do the Government envisage any decline in applications for places at universities? If so, do they have any contingency plans? Will the money saved and income raised from fees be returned to higher education, or will it simply be tax revenue for disposal by the Chancellor? What was the legal advice as regards differential fees? What system is in place to verify whether or not a gap-year student has undertaken three months voluntary work in order to qualify for the 1998-99 concession? How will the Government know that someone has undertaken voluntary work, and who will be administering the system? Is there any plan to legislate against higher education colleges charging top up fees?