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Mr. Willetts: The Lords amendments are permissive--[Hon. Members: "Ah."]--they put no obligation on Ministers in either the Department for Education and Employment or the Scottish Office to spend £27 million. All they require is that, at any given university, students who come from different parts of the United Kingdom should be treated on the same basis for tuition fees.

I quite accept that at St. Andrews and at Edinburgh university there is an historic different way of delivering higher education from that at English universities. We are not saying that students at English universities should be exempt from fourth-year tuition fees--we accept that, at £27 million, that would be too expensive. All we are asking is that students from different parts of the United Kingdom going to the same university should be treated on the same basis. That is why dealing with the anomaly would cost only £2 million, not £27 million.

Mr. Willis: There are two amendments for debate tonight, and we would hope to have two separate votes, if that is necessary. The second of the amendments, which refers to page 22, lines 31 to 39, is very specific. It deals specifically with students from England, Wales and

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Northern Ireland going to Scottish universities. It is bogus of the Minister to claim otherwise. That debate is at the heart of our deliberations this evening.

Mr. Willetts: The hon. Gentleman is quite correct. What we are talking about is the regime in Scottish universities, which is what the amendment tabled in another place to which he refers is all about.

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

Mr. Willetts: Yes, although the Minister did not accept my second intervention, so I am treating him better than he treated me.

Mr. Wilson: I had more competition facing me than the hon. Gentleman has. He makes a fundamental point and it seems to me that we could abandon proceedings now. He is simply wrong when he says that the amendments are permissive--they are not. The Lords amendment in lieu of Commons amendment No. 64 states clearly:

and so on and so forth. It is not permissive. As the hon. Gentleman appears to have renounced the meaning and the spirit of the amendment on which we shall vote later, I wonder what we are debating.

Mr. Willetts: This is very interesting. If the Minister is going to tell the House that he will accept the motion that specifically covers students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland in Scottish universities for a cost of £2 million, the Opposition will happily accept that. That is the anomaly about which my hon. Friends and I are complaining. There is not a complaint in Bristol--

Mr. Wilson: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is essential for the House to know whether the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) is moving the Lords amendment in lieu of Commons amendment No. 64, given that he has renounced its content.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The motion before the House has been properly moved. That is a debating point, not a point of order.

Mr. Willetts: It is the Minister who is moving the motions to tonight. My point is that we are not imagining, claiming or demanding that students in English universities should be exempted from fourth-year tuition fees; we are saying simply that, when students from different parts of the United Kingdom are studying side by side at Scottish universities, they should all be treated on the same basis. That is the point, that is the anomaly and that is what the argument is about. There have not been protests in England about this matter; it concerns the Scottish universities.

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

Mr. Willetts: No, I must conclude now.

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The motion is about establishing that there should be equal treatment of English, Northern Irish and Welsh students at a university in Scotland. If all that the Minister can do is to offer us evermore ingenious and intricate arguments for something that no reasonable man would defend, that is the beginnings of the decay of a Government when Whitehall arguments triumph over practical common sense.

Mr. Dalyell: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Perhaps it was inadvertent, but the Opposition Front- Bench spokesman seemed to kill off the noble Lord Denning, who I am told is in fact alive and flourishing.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I am sure that the House will be glad to hear that.

Mr. Donald Gorrie (Edinburgh, West): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Public Bill Office agrees with my interpretation of the Lords amendment that the House is seeking to overturn, which is different from the Minister's understanding. The hon. Gentleman was trying to say that the Lords amendment--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. That is not a point of order for the Chair. The hon. Gentleman is extending the debate.

Mr. Willetts: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wish to extend my gratitude for the correction, and my apologies to Lord Denning.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's apology will be noted.

Dr. George Turner: The slip of my tongue was certainly outdone by the slip of the dagger on the Opposition Benches. First, I must briefly remind the House that among Sassenachs, because of Scottish ancestry, I have a warm spot in my heart for a number of Scottish traditions.

Mr. Willis: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise to the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) for interrupting, but this matter is germane to the whole debate. There is a difference of opinion between the Government and both Opposition Front- Bench spokesmen about interpretation. Can you ask for an official interpretation of the amendment?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: It is for Ministers to explain to the House the motion that is before it.

Dr. Turner: When the House last discussed the issue, I at least understood the emotional content of some of the debate. If I did not understand where the arguments appeared to have come from, certainly the politics seemed straightforward. The politics of the Opposition are that they will lay their hands on anything, even if it means abandoning the principles that they have argued elsewhere on the Bill, to find something that can be represented as the Government being unfair.

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As the noble Lord Dearing explained last week that equity was the motivation behind his committee proposing the exemption for Scottish students attending Scottish universities, I find it difficult to understand why a party that says that it wants to implement the Dearing proposals will argue against them when it suits their political purposes.

After many years spent as a university teacher and admissions officer, and in being involved with course design work, particularly for courses that allowed students to join in different years and which tried to encourage applications from Europe and further afield, I know that one must face many issues when considering the merits of three and four-year courses.

When I first joined the university system many years ago, the word "elitist" could rightly have been used to describe the attitude of many in higher education who believed that they had some right to a level of funding and support that was but a dream for those in further education, particularly those at our schools. I know from my political experience of the changes that took place in the universities. In the name of efficiency, they were forced to impose unacceptably low unit costs to meet what I believe was the admirable objective of an increase in the numbers of students.

However, as a member of a local education committee, I saw that that had to be balanced against the many funding needs of the local education authority, which were unmet almost every year--in my county of Norfolk, three and four-year-old nursery provision was non- existent, and almost all sixth-form provision received inadequate funding.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): Like the hon. Gentleman, I was a member of a local education authority for many years. He seems to be saying that there was an imbalance between the resources for higher education and those for schools and nurseries, so is he arguing that, for 18 years, the previous Government funded universities too generously?

9.30 pm

Dr. Turner: I said that I saw an inequity. There was an elitist attitude in the universities--when I joined the university system, only a tiny minority of people were able to go to universities, which meant that there was less funding to support those who were unable to go to them. The nation faces a challenge in trying to strike the right balance between supporting those who are unable to go to university because they have failed at an earlier stage and the aspirations of those who are already at university.

I spent many years in university circles, and I know that many people in English universities want the four-year course to be the norm. Indeed, it would be good to think that, in the next millennium, the nation could afford a standard honours course that lasted four years, as that would allow for a relaxation in what can be an intense pace of study.

I have to ask myself whether that is the priority that I want to support as a Member of Parliament. I believe that better funding for--not the extension and relaxation of--what we already do should be our highest priority; we cannot afford the luxury of four-year courses as the norm in these isles before we have improved the quality of three-year courses and opened the doors of our

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universities and further education institutions to larger numbers of pupils. If hon. Members do not recognise that the argument is about priorities, they are missing the point.

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