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Mr. Blunkett: I know that we have introduced a numeracy programme, but I should have thought that even the Opposition could count. Only one Labour Member voted against on the previous occasion.

Mr. Willetts: The rebellions, which included 31 Labour Members on one occasion, were against proposals put forward by the Secretary of State under the Bill.

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The Secretary of State now steps in and appears to offer a crack of light. We are told that the door is ajar, inasmuch as we shall get a review, but we are not told whether he is willing to accept the fundamental point of principle--whether he understands the anger that is caused by the idea that two students studying side by side, doing the same course at the same university, should pay different tuition fees simply because of where they happen to live within the United Kingdom. That is the point of principle which the Secretary of State has signally failed to address tonight.

The review seems to involve students from England, Wales or Northern Ireland applying for places at Scottish universities without knowing whether they face three or four years' fees. That is not a reasonable basis on which any student should be asked to apply.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): Are not the Government trying to pick up on the Dearing report, in which a three-year degree course in England and Wales takes four years in Scotland? If a course takes four years, whether a student comes from England or from Scotland, he or she still has to do four years, but the Government feel that they should pay only three years' tuition fees. Why are the Government so against following the logic of their own principles in this matter?

Mr. Willetts: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. What I find extraordinary is that the Secretary of State is now trying to defend a position that he did not advocate when he made his original statement on the matter to the House last July. I do not believe that he intended that there should be a Scottish anomaly when he first announced his alternative approach, on the very day of the Dearing report's publication. I think that this mess is caused entirely by the Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office announcing a concession in October without clearing it with his colleagues in the Department for Education and Employment. The only explanation for the Government's obduracy is a row going on between that Department and the Scottish Office.

The Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office (Mr. Brian Wilson): Whether under-performing or over-performing, I was certainly performing well enough to see the hon. Gentleman off on the last occasion. Does he think that, when Lord Dearing and his committee made precisely the recommendation that we have acted on, they intended to create an anomaly or resolve one?

Mr. Willetts: All that I can say is that I am still leading for the Opposition on this subject, whereas the Minister is no longer leading for the Government, so it is pretty clear to me who has been under-performing.

The Dearing report is absolutely clear that


That is what Sir Ron Dearing said, and that is why we are inviting the Government to consider the matter again.

The only argument that we heard tonight was theclaim that the anomaly would cost not £2 million, but £27 million. In other words, we were told that, instead of simply having to ensure equal treatment among students from England or Scotland at the same Scottish university, the Government would have to get rid of fourth-year

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tuition fees for every university in the United Kingdom. That is no part of our policy. I do not believe that that was the intention of any of the very many peers fromall parts of the other place who voted against the Government. The argument is a complete red herring, because the two systems are indeed different. There is no reason why a regime that should apply to a Scottish university should also apply to an English university.

Ms Margaret Hodge (Barking): Is the hon. Gentleman seriously asking the House to accept that a constituent of mine from Barking could attend a Scottish university and pay only three years of fees--not the fourth--whereas the same constituent, reading the same subject at an English university, would be expected to pay fees for the fourth year? Is he not, by his policy, creating a new set of anomalies?

10.45 pm

Mr. Willetts: All I can say is that they are different education systems. [Hon. Members: "Oh."] They are different education systems.

Mr. Blunkett: Is it not precisely the fact that Scottish students go through the Scottish education system and students in Barking do not that makes the difference between what the hon. Gentleman proposes and what we propose?

Mr. Willetts: No; that is not the case. That approach--the claim that the first year of the Scottish four-year university course exists only to allow students to catchup with English A-levels--produces great anger and irritation in people in the Scottish educational world. That is not the case, but what is? I quote the secretary of the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals, Ronald Crawford:


course


    "is the norm in Scotland and it's the exception in the rest of the United Kingdom. It's inappropriate to consider the two analogously".

There is absolutely no need, therefore, for the principle of equal treatment of students at the same Scottish university to require that one also abandons fourth-year tuition fees at all English, Welsh and Northern Irish universities. That is why the concession would cost only £2 million.

The Secretary of State failed to explain on what basis he moved from contemplating having to concede on the Scottish anomaly to saying that he would have to make the wider concession in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Is he saying that it would be a legal requirement on him, as we were told at one point? We were told that, as soon as the matter went before the courts, he would be obliged to abandon fourth-year tuition fees in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Is he saying that? If so, I must tell him that the courts would be familiar with the different higher education system in Scotland; they would understand perfectly that one was entitled to have a different regime in Scotland from that in England.

If the Secretary of State is not saying that it is a legal requirement, is he saying that it would have to be done as a matter of policy? The present Government are supposed to believe in devolution. They are the Government who are supposed to believe in allowing things to be different

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in Scotland from in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. I do not see why any Minister should feel obliged to take a policy decision to enforce uniformity in that one small area of higher education when, throughout the rest of education and higher education in Scotland and England, the situation is different.

Mr. Simon Hughes: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the argument that, above all, puts an end to that used by the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) is the fact that the Government have never argued that her former students in Islington, when they were secondary school pupils, could not go out of Islington, as many pupils did, to another education system, paid for by the taxpayer? That is exactly the same parallel in secondary education as in higher education, where people may choose where to go to advance their studies. The hon. Lady never previously argued that Islington 15-year-olds could go to school only in Islington.

Mr. Willetts: That is a very useful point, whatever it might mean.

I shall revert to the argument that I was developing. If the Secretary of State claims that he is on a slippery slope and that he cannot make a concession for a footling £2 million without being obliged to make a concession for £27 million, he should explain to the House where that requirement comes from. Is it a legal requirement? Is it a policy decision? Or is it a political judgment about the forces that he would face? Is he saying that the political campaigns around the country would be so powerful that he, a poor weakling of a politician, would immediately have to give way and abandon fourth-year tuition fees in England, Wales and Northern Ireland?

I do not find that credible. I have a higher opinion of the Secretary of State than to believe that he would immediately give way on the £27 million. The argument that he is trying to use with the House of Lords is that he is such a tough guy and such a macho Secretary of State that he is willing to jeopardise his entire Bill, rather than pay £2 million to deal with a glaring, absurd anomaly facing students going to Scottish universities.

The only way in which the House could accept the argument advanced by the Secretary of State tonight is to believe two contradictory propositions--first, that the political pressures for an entirely different higher education system in England immediately to abandon fourth-year tuition fees would be so irresistible that the Secretary of State would give way, and secondly, that the Secretary of State is so tough and macho that he is willing to sacrifice his entire Bill, rather than make a £2 million concession.

I am prepared to believe one proposition or the other, but not both. The only way that the Secretary of State can win the argument tonight in the House is by maintaining that both are true.


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