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1 Jul 1998 : Column 436

Teaching and Higher Education Bill [Lords]

Lords amendment considered.

Clause 19

New arrangements for giving financial support to students

8.23 pm

The Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office (Mr. Brian Wilson): I beg to move,


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): With this, it will be convenient to discuss motion No. 2:-


I inform the House that the Lords disagreement to the two Commons amendments and the Lords amendment in lieu involve privilege.

Mr. Wilson: The motions invite the House to insist on two amendments that it made earlier, thereby deleting two amendments carried in another place.

I return to this subject with enthusiasm. I am delighted again to have the opportunity to state the purposes of the funding changes for higher education, which are simply to widen access to it and get more money into it. As I have acknowledged at the Dispatch Box before, the Tories were good at getting the numbers in. No one criticises them for that, although they might be criticised for their motives or the haphazard way it was done. They substantially increased the numbers in higher education, but they did not put the money in to follow the students and thereby maintain the standards of higher education and research on which this country depends for its economic future. That is the inheritance which the Government are addressing. We are determined not to be distracted from it.

We invite the House to reverse the Lords amendments, because we are not going to accept changes to the legislation, under any guise or subterfuge, that will eat away at the considerable sums of money that will be available to higher education as a result of the Bill and the Government's courage in facing up to the funding shortfall in higher education.

Whatever the reservations of principals, or anyone else, on the issues that we are discussing, they, too, recognise the need for the reforms to get additional money into their universities. Faced with the chaos that the Opposition parties seek to visit on the legislation or the certainty of additional funding as a result of the Bill, there is not the slightest doubt that anyone in the academic community would accept that the Bill is good for higher education. Any dilution of the funds available to it as a result of the Lords amendments would be bad news for them, for their institutions and, most important, for the next generation of students in higher education.

On consideration of the amendments, the Lords insisted on their original amendments returning to this House. The proposed alternative to the original amendment No. 64 is

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in a slightly different form, but that does not make it any more acceptable. I repeat what my hon. Friends and I have said many times before. We oppose such amendments not only because of the financial arguments that I have adduced but because they aim to prevent the Government from making provision for financial assistance with fees that takes into account the indisputable diversity of the education systems in different parts of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): What legal advice in relation to a case that may be tested in the European Court has either the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, whose presence we welcome, or Scottish Office Ministers had on their proposals? Are they absolutely sure that it is legally watertight?

Mr. Wilson: As an honorary graduate in science of Edinburgh university, my hon. Friend will understand the dangers of the words "absolute" and "certainty". Within those parameters, it is self-evident that we would not have promoted the legislation if the legal advice was not firmly in favour of it in all its aspects.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Wilson: No.

The central charge of our critics in this matter is that the Bill creates an inequity in the United Kingdom. I want at the outset to say that the precise opposite is the truth. By following to the letter the recommendations of the Dearing and Garrick committees--I remind the Conservatives that they established them--we have created equality of opportunity for every student to study for an honours degree while contributing no more than £3,000 in tuition fees, if they are liable at all for them. That is the equity that Dearing and Garrick asked for and what we have delivered.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant): Does the Minister accept that the Dearing report said that maintenance grants could stay? If Ministers are to claim the Dearing report in aid why do they not implement it?

Mr. Wilson: If we implemented Dearing, every student would pay £1,000 a year in tuition fees. [Interruption.] Barracking will not win this argument, I assure hon. Members. We accepted the principle, as I believe everyone does, that in order to have a well-funded higher education system, it was necessary that those who benefited from it directly made some contribution to it. We decided that it was right to exempt those from households on below average incomes from tuition fees. We did that to protect those from less well-off backgrounds in accordance with our central aim of widening access to higher education.

As the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) is well aware, this debate is not a reopening of the debate on funding. It is specifically on the Lords amendments. The unpalatable truth which I have offered him is that the Dearing and Garrick committees set up by the previous Administration made a specific recommendation. We

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looked at the issue of fairness and we have come up with exactly what Dearing and Garrick came up with. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the Division lists from the Lords debate last week, it may interest him to see where the name of Lord Dearing is positioned. Lord Dearing understands the arguments with which we are dealing tonight and is not interested in the political argy-bargy. The specific point about fairness is addressed in the amendments.

Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Wilson: In a little while.

The Dearing committee recommended that we address fully what some people rather improbably describe as the Scottish anomaly, but I describe as the distinctive character of the Scottish education system, which we shall defend. It is not, need never be and should never be identical to the English one. It is based on different school qualifications. It is a different higher education system, and that is exactly what we intend to maintain.

The point of fairness with which the House should be concerned tonight is simple. The normal Scottish route to an honours degree at a Scottish university is a four-year course. It is a broadly based higher education system which fits a broadly based school system. The qualifications and the time scale for achieving them flow from the school system. The Dearing-Garrick recommendation has been met in full. Scottish students should not pay more for their normal route to an honours degree than students in other parts of the United Kingdom. That is the central point of fairness, and it has been addressed.

Mr. Welsh: I heard the Minister say that he was following the Dearing report to the letter. Had he done so, he would have maintained student grants. Just in case Hansard magically gets altered, can the Minister explain that? Or is he cherry-picking? He rightly praises the Scottish four-year degree, but in this House he called it a bogus tradition. He seems to be all over the place on this. Why does he not restore fairness by abolishing the anomaly and getting rid of the discretion against English students? If he followed Dearing to the letter, he would not have abolished grants.

Mr. Wilson: The hon. Gentleman should not talk about cherry-picking, unless he is following Dearing to the letter, in which case he will advocate that every student, irrespective of family income, should pay £1,000 a year in tuition fees. If that is the new policy of the Scottish National party, he is welcome to tell us, but if he is not telling us that, why is he talking about cherry-picking? The hon. Gentleman is revisiting the general point.

I have said clearly that we did not accept the idea of £1,000 per student per year, irrespective of income. We think that that would be inequitable. The hon. Gentleman may disagree with us, but we want to widen access and ensure that people from less well-off backgrounds do not pay tuition fees. As I pointed out to the hon. Member for Havant, the specific point is the Lords amendment and the question of fourth-year tuition fees. On that point, we are following Dearing and Garrick to the letter.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Wilson: I will not give way.

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Dearing and Garrick said nothing about the same concession for students from other parts of the United Kingdom who opt for the longer Scottish honours courses, with which their qualifications do not easily interface. Such students have always chosen to accept higher costs by choosing, as is their perfect right, the longer Scottish honours degree courses. They accept the additional maintenance costs that are obviously entailed in a four-year, as opposed to a three-year, course. They also choose to forgo a year of earnings. They are welcome to make that choice. They are an extremely valuable part of the Scottish higher education system, but they make their choice in the full knowledge that they are going into a longer course which entails higher cost.


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