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Higher Education (Scotland)

1.29 pm

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland): I certainly welcome this opportunity to raise the issue of higher education in Scotland. It follows the successful debates that were held earlier this year on scottish education: on general scottish education, initiated by the hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh), and on further education in Scotland, initiated by the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan).

This debate is being held at an opportune time and gives me an opportunity to welcome the progress that has been made at the university of the Highland and Islands--especially after the recent announcement of millennium funding. Progress has been made at the university since I first raised the issue in the Scottish Grand Committee in February, and I willingly acknowledge the personal interest and helpful support shown by the Secretary of State for Scotland in the project, which has helped to make progress.

This debate also occurs at an opportune moment because it is being held a week after the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council published its "Analysis of Financing Forecasts for Scotland's Higher Education Institutions for the Period 1996-99", which somewhat ominously concluded that

The analysis went on to state that the forecast surpluses

    "leave little scope for the sector to generate the resources necessary to maintain and replace fixed assets or to implement strategies for future development."

As the Minister will know, this debate is being held at a time when he and his colleagues are considering the share-out of the Scottish Office block funding. Last year, during one Question Time, the distribution caused the Minister to express his disappointment that higher education did not receive a bigger share of funding.

This debate also takes place against a background of both success and crisis. We are all aware and proud of Scotland's excellent educational heritage, but, in recent times, there has been no question of Scotland's higher education institutions resting on their laurels. Student numbers have risen in Scotland, so that, by 1994-95, it was estimated that 42.7 per cent. of young Scots under 24 had entered full-time higher education courses, which is 10 per cent. higher than the average for Great Britain overall.

The record of Scotland's universities in research is outstanding. The commercialisation inquiry conducted by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and by Scottish Enterprise found that Scotland's publication performance in peer-review journals confirmed Scotland's international status in many subjects, and that, on a per capita basis, Scotland ranked third in the world--well ahead of both the United States and England.

The Scottish higher education system has managed to retain its distinctiveness. We still have our four-year honours degree, which perhaps explains why the Minister was able to claim, at Question Time on 3 July 1996, that Scottish students are funded 31 per cent. more per student than are students in England and Wales. The fact that courses are 33 per cent. longer for many Scottish students may be an important contributory factor in the funding difference.

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It is important that we have the four-year degree course--although the popularity of the three-year degree is increasing again--and the flexibility that they allow in postponing until a late stage the decision to specialise. It is also important that our higher education institutions retain the ethos and approach demonstrated at earlier stages of education, which enables the breadth and depth of the Scottish educational system.

Quality has been identified as an important part of Scotland's international marketing strategy, and the latest "Survey of Scottish Service Sector Exports" states that Scottish higher education is leading the services sector as a top export market performer. Moreover, the McNicoll report on the "Impact on the Scottish Higher Education Sector on the Economy of Scotland" evaluated the very significant contribution that the higher education sector makes, directly and indirectly, to the Scottish economy in jobs and added value.

Scotland has established a background of success, and it is important that that success is sustained if Scotland is to compete effectively in global marketplaces by developing the skills and talents of Scotland's young people. Sustaining the success of Scotland's universities is important not only for Scotland's young people, however, because a great many students from the firth down--from England, and even from European countries and from Africa and the Pacific rim--take up study at Scottish universities because of the quality of education they provide.

The fact, however, is that higher education in Scotland is facing a financial crisis of dramatic proportions--a crisis that many people fear might threaten to undermine the achievements that I have mentioned. The downward trend in funding, with the year-on-year efficiency savings, was made worse last year by the Secretary of State's decision to impose a further 4.5 per cent. cut in funding for this financial year and by the additional cuts that are expected to amount to more than 10 per cent. in the three ensuing years.

The impact of the cuts is likely to be profound. The Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals believes that institutions are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain quality. The joint working group on higher education expenditure--which was established through the collaboration of the Scottish Office, the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council and the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals, and which is under the chairmanship of a senior official in the Scottish Office--noted the upward trend in the student-staff ratio, and concluded that it

COSHEP provisionally estimates that, without any relief from the funding cuts that are either taking place or are in train, approximately 1,100 full-time jobs will be lost in Scotland's universities between now and 1999. Almost half of those job losses will be suffered by academic staff. COSHEP stated that the job cuts may mean the loss of specialists, who can be very difficult to replace.

The cuts are having an effect on capital estate and equipment. There is a growing and significant backlog of repair and maintenance to buildings. The Scottish Higher

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Education Funding Council has had to provide £26 million over a three-year period--almost as emergency aid--to deal with items on the backlog which pose a threat to health and safety. The £26 million sum is modest compared to the £700 million that is thought to be required for investment in the capital estate over a 10-year period. I am not speaking only about buildings, but about furniture, computers, microscopes, other laboratory equipment and all the items that are essential if Scotland's universities are to maintain and enhance the level of quality that has been their hallmark for generations.

The impact of the cuts has not been only on buildings and staff but also on students. Students are obliged to use over-crowded and understocked libraries. They do not have the same opportunities as they had previously for laboratory work, and they face a reduction in quality learning time and face-to-face time with their tutors. Those are only some examples of the likely consequences that have been clearly described in many reports, none of which bode well for the future of Scottish higher education.

I do not think that it is an exaggeration to describe an educational sector that is in financial crisis. What has been the Government's response? They have implicitly realised the degree of the crisis, which has been caused to some extent by the threat of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals to impose top-up fees. Because of the pressure, the Government appointed an inquiry, under the chairmanship of Sir Ron Dearing--which also has a Scottish committee, under the chairmanship of Sir Ron Garrick. The concern that has been expressed in many quarters of higher education, however, is that those committees' report will not be made available until next summer at the earliest. The conclusions, if accepted, would be unlikely to be implemented for some time after that.

The message from university principals, lecturers, students or anyone connected with higher education that Scotland's higher educational institutions cannot wait for Dearing's committee to report, let alone implement its recommendations. Preferably, we should start by restoring some of the funding that has been cut in the past year. At the very least, there should be a moratorium on further efficiency gains pending the outcome of the Dearing inquiry. That plea has been made forcibly by COSHEP in its submission on the 1996 public expenditure survey and was supported by the recently published report of the Commission on Scottish Education.

In recognition of the growing concern within the educational sector, the Government have also set up a joint working group on expenditure in publicly funded higher education institutions. Not only did it note many of the concerns to which I have referred, but it reached a sceptical view on the extent to which the private finance initiative could meet the needs for much-needed capital investment. It concluded that PFI is

Yet the Scottish Office publication "Serving Scotland's Needs" of March this year places much emphasis and reliance on access to private sources of capital to meet the shortfall in funding from the public sector. Even a committee with a significant input from the Government Department and the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council--a public body--questioned the efficacy of the PFI in relation to funding capital needs in the higher education sector.

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The other dimension of the funding crisis is that faced by our students. They now have the prospect of leaving university with a degree and a debt of several thousand pounds. Some do not leave with a degree, as is shown by the drop-out rate. Recent research by the Association of University Teachers in Scotland found increasing incidence of students taking evening and weekend work and lecturers reporting students falling asleep in class because of the strain of trying to combine work with full-time study. Worse still, students were missing lectures altogether because they had to be at work.

Surely that cannot be allowed to continue. My party voted against the tax cuts in last year's Budget.

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