Previous SectionIndexHome Page


Mr. Canavan: Scottish universities--possibly more than many of their English counterparts--have always had an international outlook. It would be a tragedy if they became narrow-minded nationalist institutions rather than international institutions.

The trend to which the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) referred has already started. This year, compared with last year, applications from England are down 4.1 per cent., and applications from Northern Ireland are down 5.5 per cent. If the trend continues, it will pose a threat to the viability of many four-year honours courses and to the Scottish tradition of a broad-based university education following on from a broad-based school education.

The other point that I should like to mention was repeated in this debate by the Secretary of State--the Government's claim that acceptance of the Lords amendment would create a new anomaly, as students doing a four-year course in England, Wales or Northern Ireland would not qualify for a fee waiver for their final year. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge)--who intervened earlier in the debate--is not in the Chamber now, as I seem to recall that there was a vote to eradicate that specific anomaly, and that she, most of my hon. Friends and every Minister voted against eradicating it. I should welcome any proposal to extend the fee waiver to such students. However, the Government rejected such a proposal because of its cost, reckoning that £27 million would be too expensive.

There is also a uniqueness about the Scottish anomaly. Under the Government's proposals, a student at a Scottish university may have to pay £1,000 more than a student in the same class doing the same course at the same university and with the same parental income, simply because he or she comes from a different part of the United Kingdom. That situation will arise not at any university or college in England, Wales or Northern Ireland but only in Scotland. It would cost only £2 million to eradicate that unique and unfair anomaly.

The Government have probably already incurred a six-figure sum in debating the matter continually here and in another place. If the measure is challenged in the courts, as it is likely to be, they will face paying a bigger sum out of public expenditure in legal fees. I am pleased that, at this eleventh hour, the Government are prepared to think again.

Finally, I have one comment on my right hon. Friend's rant about the House of Lords, that we also heard during the previous debate on the matter. It would be a sad day for British democracy if even the reactionary, unelected House of Lords were seen to take a more enlightened view than a Labour Government--especially a Labour Government who were elected on the mantra and the priorities of education, education, education.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I am absolutely delighted to follow the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) who conducted a forensic examination of the Government's position. He effectively pointed out that the Government have not been consistent on the issue. If my

13 Jul 1998 : Column 143

hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he will pick up that point.

The House well knows that the Liberal Democrats are opposed to the main plank of the Bill--the introduction of tuition fees--and we voted against it on Third Reading. We have argued consistently that the Bill was hastily prepared without any real attention to detail, as the fiasco over gap year students clearly demonstrated.

We are discussing another example of the effects of legislation that has been prepared too hastily--the Scottish anomaly. Already we have heard from the hon. Members for Havant (Mr. Willetts), for Angus (Mr. Welsh) and for Falkirk, West--and the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) certainly implied it--that the Government have now created a ludicrous, incoherent and unjust position. Surely it cannot be acceptable to right hon. and hon. Members that students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland should pay more than students from Scotland for the same course at the same university. That is the anomaly that we are debating.

Sadly, the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) simply fails to understand the difference between that anomaly and the fact that students from the same area may choose to go to different universities in different locations, study different courses and possibly pay different fees. That is not an anomaly of the same order.

Equally, it cannot be right that students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland should pay more than students from all other European Union countries. Why should a student from Cumbria in England pay more than a student from Umbria in Italy? Why should a student from Manchester pay more than a student from Madrid? The Secretary of State should be aware that many others agree that that is ludicrous.

Lord Shore of Stepney, a former Labour Cabinet Minister described the position as


Another Labour peer, Lord Stoddart, remarked in the same debate:


    "Ordinary working folk, the people in factories and offices, will not understand why English, Welsh and Northern Ireland students have to pay £4,000 for a course in Scotland, while Italians, Southern Irish and Scots have to pay only £3,000. They will laugh their sides off. They will ask 'What sort of people can do this? Who is advising them? Why do they take the advice they are receiving if that sort of nonsense is being handed out to them?'"--[Official Report, House of Lords, 7 July 1998; Vol. 591, c. 1103-05.]

No wonder Lord Stoddart went on to describe the Government's position as nonsense and an absurdity.

Dr. George Turner rose--

Mr. Foster: I happily give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Dr. Turner: Will the hon. Gentleman deal with what I think is an important point on whether there is an issue worthy of debate? Lord Dearing was appointed by the Conservative Government to head the commission whose recommendations this Government are applying. Will the

13 Jul 1998 : Column 144

hon. Gentleman explain why Lord Dearing still supports his commission's recommendation if, as the hon. Member says, there is no academic or reasonable argument for it?

Mr. Foster: It is a great pity to hear the hon. Gentleman make the same mistake as the Prime Minister has been making day after day at the Dispatch Box. His argument would be infinitely more credible if the Government had accepted the Dearing recommendations, but they have not.

There is no question but that the Government's position is nonsense and an absurdity. One would have thought that they would be grateful to my right hon. Friend Lord Steel, who tabled in another place an amendment that did not seek to wreck the Bill, or even to tear down the arrangements for tuition fees, much as we would like to; it merely sought to get the Government off the hook--to allow them to avoid any further embarrassment--by ending the Scottish anomaly.

I hope that the Secretary of State has carefully examined the vote in another place, as the amendment made clear the feeling about this issue--it commanded an almost unprecedented majority of 211. The majority was so large that, if all Conservative peers had abstained, the amendment would still have won the day. It was so large that, if all hereditary peers had stayed at home,the amendment would still have been agreed to. The amendment's supporters included a former Master of the Rolls, a former Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, a former vice-chancellor of London university, the president of the British Academy, three bishops, a former Clerk of the Parliaments and a former Speaker of the House of Commons. Those people are not negligible; when they and so many others are joined by senior Labour peers, their voices surely cannot be ignored.

The Government rightly want to reform the House of Lords, and we support them in that. Like us, however, they still want a second, revising chamber. The House of Commons must accept that, from time to time, the revising chamber will want to revise, which is what legitimately happened on this occasion in another place. An unacceptable anomaly was identified, and a proposal to rectify it was agreed.

The Government's reaction was remarkable. On 8 July, Glasgow's The Herald said:


[Interruption.] The Secretary of State may ask, "Who said that?" He should check with The Herald, from which it is a direct quotation.

Toughing it out will perpetuate the ludicrous anomaly that is perhaps most starkly illustrated in today's Daily Telegraph. The article tells us that Tom Laycock from Lamberton, 100 yards north of the Scottish border,will pay £1,000 less than Tom Maxwell, from Berwick-upon-Tweed, two miles south of the border, when they both attend an English, film and media course at Stirling university this year.

Last week, the Prime Minister made clear his determination to tough it out. He seems to have misunderstood even the Government's position. He frequently tells us that the Bill reflects the Dearing

13 Jul 1998 : Column 145

proposals, when it does not, and at Prime Minister's Questions last Wednesday he got it wrong again. He initially implied that the cost of Lord Steel's amendment would be £27 million. Even had free tuition to all students in their fourth year been proposed in the amendment, which it was not, the figure would have been wrong: definitive calculations by the Committee of Vice- Chancellors and Principals over the weekend show that even then the figure be only £18 million. In fact, the amendment, which would remedy the incoherent and unjust position, would cost only £2 million.


Next Section

IndexHome Page