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Mr. Willetts: The longer the Minister's speech went on, the feebler his arguments became. It was a completely unnecessary speech, on a completely unnecessary measure. The Government have got what they asked for when the Secretary of State for Education and Employment made his statement on higher education almost a year ago. In every essential respect, the Bill before the House delivers what he announced. It is not the purpose of this debate to go into the strong disagreements in Committee--suffice it to say that the Secretary of State has got what he announced last July.

This debate is about something that was not announced in July. To be honest, I do not believe that Ministers ever intended to get themselves into such a position. I do not believe that any of the Ministers sitting on the Front Bench said in a Whitehall ministerial meeting, "I've had a bright idea. Why don't we charge more for students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland if they go to Scotland than we charge those who live in Scotland?" No Minister came up with such an idea. Whatever I may think of the ministerial team, I do not believe that they would be quite that daft.

I do not believe that a second Minister then chipped in, saying: "I've an even better idea. Why don't we exempt students from fourth-year fees if they come from the rest

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of Europe but not if they come from England, Wales or Northern Ireland?" We are debating not a policy, but an accident as a result of the failure of Ministers in the Scottish Office and the Department for Education and Employment to get their act together as they were developing higher education policy.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk): Will the hon. Gentleman explain why the policy is an accident, given that the exemption for four-year degree courses was part of the Denning recommendations, and that that noble Lord still supports what he recommended?

Mr. Willetts: That noble Lord is dead. The hon. Gentleman may be referring to Lord Dearing. I am, of course, familiar with the arguments in the Dearing report. Following comments on exemption for tuition fees, the very final sentence of the Dearing report on this subject states:

That was an open invitation to the Secretary of State for Scotland to consider making arrangements so that we would not get into the anomalous position in which Ministers have landed themselves. I should be interested in whether the Minister wished to deny at the Dispatch Box that, as I believe, Scottish Office Ministers have prepared in their budget a contingency plan for the £2 million that will be necessary to deal with the anomaly. That is what Lord Dearing invited them to do.

Let us consider briefly in turn--I shall certainly not speak for the same length of time as the Minister--some of the unbelievably convoluted and complicated arguments that have been put before the House in this debate, and earlier today, by the Prime Minister in Prime Minister's Question Time. First, let us turn to the figures on university applications.

Last week, the Prime Minister told us in Prime Minister's Question Time:

Unusually, the Prime Minister apologised in today's Question Time for getting that wrong. It was simply incorrect; the figures clearly show that applications to Scottish universities from English students are down by 4.1 per cent.

Then we heard an even more ingenious argument. We were told that, although applications to Scottish universities from English students have fallen, it does not matter, because overall applications to Scottish universities have fallen by even more. I should not have thought that that is something that anyone would want to celebrate. In racing down to the bottom, which is the best that Ministers can come up with, they tell us that such a fall does not matter, because the overall figure has fallen by 5.4 per cent.

The statement by the Universities and Colleges Admission Service of 12 June gives its figures. They indeed show a fall of 4.1 per cent. in applications to Scottish universities from English students, and an overall fall--in students from Scotland, the rest of the United Kingdom and the rest of the European Union--of 4.5 per

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cent. Why is that? A fall of 30.3 per cent. in applications to Scottish universities from students in Eire has brought down the average.

The Prime Minister said that such wider changes were irrelevant to the policy; they are not. Applications from Eire have fallen by 30 per cent. because it has just got rid of tuition fees, and more students in the Republic of Ireland are staying at Irish universities. To claim that phenomenon as the explanation or defence of what the Government are trying to do is to pile distortion on distortion.

Miss Melanie Johnson (Welwyn Hatfield): The hon. Gentleman neglected to mention the figures for Wales, which show a 4.5 per cent. increase in applications. I invite his comments on the point, which was made by the Minister, that the figures are for applications, which fill places many times over. All we are arguing about is the massive over-subscription for places. Spending more money on those limited places for the few people occupying them, rather than on a larger number of students, will only increase the number of unsuccessful applicants and reduce the number of those who are able to attend universities and complete the degree courses.

9.15 pm

Mr. Willetts: That was equal to about three interventions. The figure for Wales, which I have here, of an increase of about 40 in applications, is trivial compared with the problem of a fall in applications from England and, as Northern Ireland Members have mentioned, from Northern Ireland.

Mr. Beggs: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the position with applications from Northern Ireland is even more serious, because of the absence of adequate university provision within Northern Ireland? Many of our able youngsters, who could compete favourably with others at Scottish universities, may lose completely.

Mr. Willetts: The hon. Gentleman is correct, and, although the Minister seemed rather uncertain about this idea, he is talking about a well-established tradition, under which many students from Northern Ireland have gone to Scottish universities, partly because of historic links between the two countries. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out--

Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willetts: I want to make more progress. I shall finish this point.

The tradition is attributable also to the absence of sufficient higher education provision in Northern Ireland.

In the text surrounding its figures, UCAS said:

That is a perfectly obvious and comprehensible point, and I do not understand the attempts to create ever more confusion about it.

Mr. Murphy: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willetts: No, I want to move on to a different point. I shall not speak for as long as the Minister did.

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The other argument we hear is about the treatment of European students. Whatever ingenious arguments the Minister tries to put before the House tonight, he does not have a reasonable prospect of sustaining this policy through the European courts in the months and years ahead. The idea that the European Court of Justice will not interfere in a manifestly discriminatory policy comes from cloud cuckoo land. He would be much better off finding the £2 million necessary to concede the point now, rather than being hauled through the courts in future.

Mr. David Jamieson (Plymouth, Devonport): The figure is £27 million.

Mr. Willetts: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that remark, which is the next point that I should like briefly to consider. When the Minister has run out of all the ingenious and intricate claims he has made tonight, the one argument that remains is that we are on a slippery slope, that this is the thin end of the wedge--we all know the Whitehall arguments--and that the cost would be not £2 million, but £27 million.

The figures from the House of Commons Library--and, indeed, from Ministers themselves in written answers--are absolutely clear. The cost of exempting students from England from fourth-year tuition fees in Scotland would be £1.5 million; for students from Wales the cost would be £45,000, and for students from Northern Ireland it would be £550,000. That is the cost of dealing with the anomaly that we are debating tonight. The anomaly is one in which two students born in different countries of the United Kingdom, going to the same Scottish university, will face different levels of tuition fees simply because of where they were born. What we are talking about is what goes on within a Scottish university. That is the point at issue tonight.

Mr. Wilson: From what the hon. Gentleman says, am I right to conclude that he would not support the extension of the same concession to four-year degree courses in England; and, if so, will he vote for the Lords amendment, which envisages exactly that happening?

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