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6.34 pm

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes): This has been a worthwhile, interesting and revealing debate. We heard a maiden speech by the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) on which I congratulate him. I say in a friendly way that I look forward to the days when the conventions of the House allow us to hit back at his speeches.

We heard a number of powerful speeches by my right hon. and hon. Friends. I think particularly of the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), who rightly pointed out the missing faces on the Government Benches today--the dogs that did not bark, the disappeared and those who were told that they had better keep away.

My hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) rightly reminded us of the Conservative Government's record, when we saw the number of students entering higher education increase from one in eight to one in three.

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow): I am new to the customs of this House. Is it customary for only 12 Opposition Members to be present for the summing up in an Opposition day debate?

Mr. Ancram: The hon. Gentleman might count the proportion of Members on the Government side compared with the proportion on our side. One of the difficulties of having a very large majority is that questions such as the

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hon. Gentleman's tend to rebound. We certainly made up for numbers in terms of the quality of the speeches we made.

My hon. Friend the Member for Guildford made a powerful speech in which he reminded us of the Conservative Government's achievements. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) reminded us that, for all their protestations to the contrary, the Government have not endorsed the Dearing report and that their policies are not on all fours with that report. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) made it clear that the Government have misled people about their policies.

The most extraordinary thing about the debate has been the fact that many speeches made by Labour Members have been consistent in only one respect--that none of them supported the Government's policy of higher tuition fees. Labour Members blamed the previous Conservative Government and talked all around the subject, but they avoided tuition fees like a ghost avoids garlic.

The worst culprit was the Secretary of State himself. On three occasions, he was asked a question and, on each occasion, he failed consummately to defend the policy, obviously because he is embarrassed by it. The reasons for his embarrassment are also clear. He failed again, as he had previously, to explain what his leader, the Prime Minister meant when, on 14 April--I quote his words, as have many of my colleagues--he said:

We were told the other day by the Prime Minister that he said that because the Dearing report had not yet come out. Why did he not say that the Government would have to wait for Dearing? He did not say that. He said during the election campaign to the people of this country that Labour had no plans to introduce tuition fees for higher education.

What does the Secretary of State believe that students were led to understand by the Prime Minister's statement? Were they to understand that the Government would wait for the Dearing report or that tuition fees would be introduced? Alternatively, were they to understand before they voted that the Government had no intention of introducing tuition fees for higher education? That is an important point, which must be answered.

Throughout the election campaign and beyond, Labour Members have told us that they are to be trusted, that they have made a contract with the British people and that we can have confidence in their words, yet here we have a blatant example of an undertaking given during the election which has been refuted 100 per cent. by Labour's policies in government.

I shall now deal with the other question that has arisen during the debate--Scottish students and English students attending Scottish universities. I have had a soft spot for the Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office, who will respond to the debate, since the days in 1979 when he and I campaigned together on the no side in the devolution referendum campaign. He made a powerful argument then about the need for parity between the respective parts of the United Kingdom. He has obviously changed his mind on devolution, but to judge from Labour's education policy, as enunciated over the past few weeks, he has also changed his mind about parity.

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For all the huffing and puffing, the facts are straightforward. Scottish students at Scottish universities will not have to pay the tuition fee for the fourth year of degrees, and nor will Italian, German, French, Spanish Greek or southern Irish students, but English, Welsh and Northern Irish students will. The Government call that fair. They say that that creates equity in the system. Is it fair for a German student to be paid for in a way that a Northern Ireland student cannot be? Is it fair for an English student at Edinburgh to pay £1,000 for the final year when a Greek student gets it for free?

I have just seen an answer from the Minister to one of my colleagues that says that tuition fees are expected to be £1,000 a year and will be increased in line with inflation for subsequent years. That is an interesting departure. Until now, students had thought that it was bad enough having to find £1,000 a year but, given the previous Labour Government's record on inflation--taking average inflation over their last period of office--students will have to find another £150 a year in their first year, and every year afterwards. Once again, the Labour Government speak with one voice in one direction and another in another. The Government call it fairness when Scots will, rightly, still be able, without penalty of a tuition fee, to come to English universities but English students will have to pay to go the other way. That is the fairness of the madhouse, compounded by the arrogance of the Minister in responding to criticisms.

I am not going to personalise the debate but I should like to refer to the editorial of The Scotsman on 30 October, which said that the Minister had reacted to criticism with rancour and stated that it

Hon. Members who have spoken today have comprehensively proved that the Minister is wrong. When the principals of the Scottish universities say that their institutions are endangered by the Government's policy, it is not enough for him to say that they are talking "hyperbolic nonsense"; he must address their points. I have some questions that I hope that he will answer in this debate.

What budget will bear the cost of the fourth-year subsidy? Will it come from the Scottish block, and what will have to be forgone to pay for it? From what budget will the cost of European students in their fourth year come? Will that come from the Scottish budget? If so, what is the expected cost? How can the Government justify that the Scottish block should bear the cost of students from Greece, France, Germany and southern Ireland when it is not prepared to bear the cost of students from England, Northern Ireland and Wales?

Are the Government really arguing, as I understood from an earlier answer, that the first year of a Scottish degree is not of university standard, so that English students can come to their university degrees a year late? If so, why is not the same argument made for European students who come into Scottish higher education? Is it not an insult to the basis of higher education in Scotland that such a suggestion should be made?

For four years, I was the Minister responsible for education in Northern Ireland. How many Northern Ireland students will be affected by having to pay for

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a fourth year? What will that do for the close link between the higher education systems of Scotland and Northern Ireland, which has been a matter of pride for the two countries for many years? Is it the Government's intention ultimately to make Scottish higher education for Scots alone? What will that do for the quality and reputation of Scottish universities?

Mr. Wilson: Shame.

Mr. Ancram: The Minister may say that, but it was he who argued last week that the numbers were insignificant. He argued that all that mattered in Scottish education was that Scottish students were supported and devil take the hindmost. If he denies that, what robust calculation has been made about the overall viability of Scottish higher education institutions if students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland stop coming? How many would be threatened with closure? Where would the closures take place? Again, the Minister laughs, but there are people in the Scottish higher education system who predict that that will be the outcome of his policy.

Mr. Wilson: I did not laugh; I looked astonished because the right hon. Gentleman knows something about Scotland and cannot possibly believe that what is proposed will have a significant effect on the number of students who come from outside Scotland to Scottish universities, not least because more than half of them will not be touched by tuition fees at all.

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