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Lord Thomson of Monifieth: My Lords, I am sure I speak for the whole House in thanking the Minister for that clarification--if such it was, because I am not myself a great deal clearer than I was before. What I proposed to say--and I hope that it is consistent with the advice we have heard from the noble Lord--was that I was rising primarily to speak to the amendment proposed by the Liberal Democrat group in this House and that in this case the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, would not be making an error if, in replying to the debate, which we would have welcomed, she were to talk about the Opposition in a more collective way than happened in the previous case. I am content, generally speaking, to support the arguments that were put with such force by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish.
I am aware that the amendment standing in my name is a flawed amendment, though not through any fault of ours. It does not, for example, refer to Northern Ireland, which is a very necessary part of the issues we are discussing in terms of tuition fees.
I shall not at this stage seek to repeat the powerful arguments put by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, on this issue. I shall confine myself to saying that in principle the Liberal Democrats have always been against student fees in general, and that position has been made clear during the long debates on the Bill. We take the view that, if we have to have student fees, it is doubly unacceptable for them to discriminate against those whose parents reside in one geographical part of the United Kingdom rather than another. I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, that the Government's policy in their Amendment No. 64 destroys the principle of equal treatment and will do great damage to Scottish universities.
I speak with, I hope, appropriate diffidence since I have not previously intervened in the prolonged debates on this piece of legislation, although I hope I have reasonably conscientiously and enthusiastically trudged through the voting lobbies on this issue. However, I thought that perhaps, after 14 years as the chancellor of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, I might be entitled to say something on this matter at this final stage. Heriot-Watt University is an intensely Scottish institution, but I think it is fair to say that it is
The other university with which I have a modest connection--many years ago I was an evening student there when it was a different institution--is the University of Abertay in Dundee. Its principal, Professor Bernard King, spoke to the Scottish Council (Development & Industry) the other day and warned about the Government's proposals in relation to student fees. He believed that in the long run it would have a devastating effect on Scottish student numbers, on the Scottish university system, on the funding of Scottish universities and even perhaps on the number of Scottish universities.
The Government's argument that English students or students from Wales and Northern Ireland should try to join the second year of Scottish courses--an argument dealt with by the noble Lord--would have a disruptive and destabilising effect in the Scottish universities. If that process was persisted in, it would set up a momentum which would end the four-year course altogether.
There is some misunderstanding about that rather glib solution of trying to reconcile the different Scottish tradition to the different English tradition of people joining in the second year. The Scottish four-year course is an integral and coherent programme. The first year is not a disposable bit of bolt-on do-gooding. The Government's cavalier encouragement to English students to join Scottish degree courses in year two is driven by cost cutting and certainly not by academic considerations. The four-year degree course is part of a long and honourable tradition in Scotland of broadly-based education. In fact, 70 per cent. of Scottish university courses are four-year courses.
I am conscious that in joining with the Official Opposition in this House on this matter, we come under the criticism of "flying in the face" (as we were told by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone) of the Salisbury convention. I believe I have a proper regard for the legitimacy of the other place--the elected Chamber. But coming to this matter at this stage with suitable diffidence I hope, though late in the day, I am baffled by the way in which the Government persist in their obstinate refusal to change their position. All those who have been in government in the past go through this process. Proposals are made, often initially because of Treasury aspects, and that may be the case here. They are then debated. They are shown to be ludicrous, absurd and anomalous. But the more that they are shown to be ludicrous, absurd and anomalous, the more the Government stick to them. I begin to feel that that is the state of the present Government on these proposals.
I conclude with this remark. I believe that there are wider than educational implications for the consequences of the Government's stubbornness in this matter. There are implications for the unity of the United Kingdom at the very time that the Government are embarking on the brave policy of devolution. Large numbers of English students at Scottish universities and a smaller number of Scottish students at English
I recall a year or two ago a vigorous correspondence in the letter pages of the Scotsman where the narrower nationalists in Scotland--there are a few of them around--were complaining about the numbers of English students in Edinburgh and some other Scottish universities. They were seeking to make the point that it was turning the Edinburgh University "un-Scottish". There may be a longer-term consequence of the Government's stubbornness over this. The narrower English nationalists who are beginning to raise their heads--we heard something of them in our debate on the Scotland Bill the other day--may begin to mutter as well and there may be an English backlash.
University education should be something that binds the nations of the United Kingdom together instead of dividing them, just as it should bind the nations of the European Union together. Educationally, it is totally absurd that for a saving of around £2 million the Government should treat students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland differently from those from the rest of the European Union, of which we are members. But seriously, constitutionally, to save £2 million will seem a high price in terms of the United Kingdom's sense of unity and that precious aspect of the unity which is provided by our educational system and is so necessary to make a success of devolution.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, I have a granddaughter who has just successfully completed four years at the University of St. Andrews on the basis of English A-levels. There is nothing I know about that university, of which I am an honorary professor, which would lead me to think that she or anyone else would have done better by joining that course at the beginning of the second year.
The argument advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, is far more important. The Scottish universities are among Scotland's main contributors to the history of the United Kingdom. Indeed, their history precedes the creation of the United Kingdom. The ancient Scottish universities were there before the Scottish Parliament and may indeed survive the parliament that we are apparently about to set up. One reason has been that they have been part of an international flow of study and learning. From the 18th century--one must not always look at things in terms of the past few years--to achieve a Scottish university education was one of the objectives of anyone preparing himself for a number of major professional or
I know that governments are, by their nature, obstinate. But this is a curious case where obstinacy is combined with self-contradiction. It was only a few days ago that the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, emphasised to this House that nothing in the devolution measures should be thought to diminish the unity of the United Kingdom. Anyone who suggested that it was part of a primrose path to Scottish separatism was out of his mind. Yet the same noble Lord, Lord Sewel, is apparently prepared, for the sake of £2 million--one could obtain a couple of nude statues of Mr. Peter Mandelson and erect them in the Dome for that price--to damage one of the most important and obvious facets of the common culture of our United Kingdom. How he can live with himself in the face of that self-contradiction I find extremely difficult to understand.
Lord McConnell: My Lords, I am against discrimination and I find it hard to think of any other word to describe a proposal whereby full fees are paid to Scottish students and to students from all the countries of the European Union but are denied to other students in the United Kingdom from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Over many years there has been a strong connection between Northern Ireland and the Scottish universities. As has already been explained, many students go from Northern Ireland to the Scottish universities. That should not be harmed by a proposal of this nature.
When it is said that other European Union countries will get the full grant, does that include the Irish Republic? Will students from the Irish Republic get the full grant whereas students from Northern Ireland or from England or Wales will not? I think it is time that the Government thought this matter through and decided to act in a fair and equitable way.
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