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Mr. Ancram: The hon. Gentleman is closing his ears to what is being said by the principals of the Scottish universities. We have heard evidence from St. Andrews university that the number of students applying from England is going down as a result of the policy. If he is to be worthy of his office, he must stop blocking his ears and treating the matter with the arrogance of his talk of hyperbolic nonsense. He must start listening to those who know about higher education in Scotland: those who have to operate within it.

The whole policy has been a saga of incompetence, deceit, indecision, muddle and, ultimately, discrimination. That can serve only to undermine confidence in higher education across the United Kingdom but particularly in Scotland. If that is yet another example of the arrogance of this Government, who believe that rhetoric rather than reality is what counts and that public criticism of them is a new form of heresy, they will learn from us, and, increasingly, from the public, that that is not the case. They have to listen to what people say to them. If today's debate is anything to go by, they will learn it soon enough from their own Back Benchers. If the Minister had looked around, he would have seen that the faces behind him had all the warmth of the gathering storm.

We welcome the expansion of higher education and recognise the good work that has been proposed by Dearing, but we condemn the Government's deliberate attempt to ignore and distort the report. I ask the House to support the motion.

6.46 pm

The Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office (Mr. Brian Wilson): This debate has been a great intellectual reinforcement of what we are doing.

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As exercises in amnesia allied to brass neck go, even by Tory standards, this has been a classic. The right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) gives a new meaning to the term cross-border flow. Even though he was a Member of Parliament for most of the 18 years during which the Tories were in power, he made no attempt to explain why the funding crisis in higher education that the Dearing committee was set up to address even exists.

I congratulate my hon. Friends on some excellent contributions. In particular, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) on an excellent maiden speech. I congratulate him not only on being the first Labour Member for Blackpool, South but on being a Labour Member with a majority of 11,616. That may remind some Conservative Members of the realities of the past 18 years. I thought that his contribution, particularly in rebutting the golden age mythology of higher education, was outstanding.

As was pointed out, I did indeed benefit from the Scottish higher education system but I am mindful of the fact that when I benefited from it, I was the one in 14 of Scottish school leavers who did so. I am acutely and humbly aware that many of the 13 who did not go into higher education were every bit as able and eligible to benefit from it as I was but that the funding regime in place at the time meant that they never had the chance of seeing the inside of a university. Whatever else we can say about the Tories, we cannot deny that they increased the numbers in higher education.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): Hear, hear.

Mr. Wilson: The hon. Gentleman says, "Hear, hear," but the tragedy, the disgrace and ultimately the hypocrisy of tonight's debate is that the previous Government did not provide the money to follow the students. As a result, Scotland has 44 per cent. participation in higher education, but the funding per student--the money that follows the student into higher education--has dropped by 40 per cent. under the Tories. That is what created the crisis in higher education.

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Ochil): On the question of funding, is my hon. Friend aware that some of the small to medium-sized institutions such as Stirling, 31 per cent. of whose student intake comes from outside Scotland, are extremely worried? Can he give the House an assurance that due account will be taken of that, as we could experience a drop in student numbers and places not being filled as a consequence of the fourth-year rule? Will he bear that in mind in his calculations?

Mr. Wilson: I shall come to that later in my speech. I am sure I will satisfy my hon. Friend that those fears have been greatly exaggerated.

Congratulations are also due to the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) on producing a splendid leaflet written on behalf of the Tory candidate in Winchester, which portrays a somewhat unrecognisable slimline figure, besweatered on the campus like a latter-day Winchester Daniel Cohn-Bendit and promising to stand four square to back the student fight. It says that a vote for Gerry Malone will ensure that the issue is not allowed to go

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away. Presumably, if Gerry Malone had been here today, there would have been six rather than five Tory Back Benchers behind the shadow Secretary of State for Education and Employment. That is a true measure of Tory concern for students--[Interruption.] There were only five behind the shadow Secretary of State when he opened the debate. I can count and see. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. There is far too much noise from the Opposition Front Bench.

Mr. Wilson: Most of them have only just woken up, so they have a lot of energy to get rid of, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

There are three key elements in the Government's policy. First, we aim to put substantial additional funds into higher and further education. We are committed to increasing the number of students in higher education, but because of the Tories' record, the money is not there. Secondly, one third of students in higher education and 40 per cent. in Scotland will continue to pay no tuition fees because of the application of the means test. It shows real political irresponsibility when politicians from any party try to give the impression that every student would be paying £1,000 a year when that bears no relation to reality.

Mr. Jenkin: It is not fair, is it?

Mr. Wilson: The hon. Gentleman says that it is not fair, but we are not talking about what is fair to me or to the Government. We are talking about the fact that it is not fair that people from less well-off backgrounds should be frightened away from higher education by the irresponsible scaremongering of people such as him.

Thirdly, the vast majority of graduates will repay less than they do under the current scheme which we inherited from the Tories: it is absolutely crucial that people realise that. Taken together, those elements--more money for higher education; 40 per cent. of Scottish students and one third of those throughout the United Kingdom being exempt from tuition fees; and the vast majority repaying less each month--represent a package that need deter nobody from a lower-income background from entering higher education.

Mr. Dorrell: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that last time one of his ministerial colleagues with responsibility for education spoke about irresponsible scaremongering, Baroness Blackstone was obliged to make a total retreat from her position a week later? Is he about to make a similar announcement? While he is answering that question, will he also explain to the House whether he is describing the view of the Scottish higher education principals as irresponsible scaremongering?

Mr. Wilson: Let us be clear about gap funding. There was a statement on gap funding at the conclusion of the discussions on it. However, there was no U-turn because there was no initial statement of the opposite--[Interruption.] Public school histrionics are the privilege of a Tory Opposition, but they do not change the facts. I am interested that the right hon. Gentleman and a number of his colleagues slavishly read out their brief, now appearing to take as gospel truth everything said by

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university principals as if it came down to them on tablets of stone. For a long time under the Tories, university principals were saying that more money should be pumped into universities: the Tories never reacted to that in such a positive way--all they did was cut, cut and cut again.

Those who know about Scottish education know that St. Andrews is a rather distinctive case because 41 per cent. of its students are from England. That is fine. I am all in favour of diversity. But that is in marked contrast with the position of Paisley university, where 4 per cent. of students are from England, or Robert Gordon university, where 3.5 per cent. of students are from England.

I know from his political history that the right hon. Member for Devizes is a very naive politician, but even he need not accept as biblical prophesy every word that comes from the principal of St. Andrews university. If he is aware of the geography of Scotland, may I suggest that he goes a little further south and listens to the much more reasoned, rational and measured comments of the principal of Edinburgh university, which has an even higher proportion of English students than St. Andrews? [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman says, "It is very worrying." He has made an interesting statement that it is very worrying that the principal of Edinburgh university should take a more rational view of these matters.

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