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11.30 pm

The approach of some of the Secretary of State's colleagues can only be described as pig-headed, so perhaps we should applaud his attempt to find a compromise. At least he has shown some signs of realising the hopelessness of the Government's position and appears to be willing to try to build a consensus; but he has not gone nearly far enough to elicit my support or that of my party.

We have become somewhat immune to the offer of a review. After only 14 months of this Government, we are approaching 150 reviews and task forces: that is 10 reviews a month. It is as if the Secretary of State is saying, "Ah, yes. I might be beginning to understand, and perhaps you're right, but I'm not prepared to change my position, so I'll stick to it, but if it causes a problem, I'll review the situation."

We believe that the anomaly will create problems. More importantly, the so-called Scottish anomaly is unjust. In the face of injustice and inequality, we will seek every means at our disposal to persuade the Secretary of State to do what anyone should do if he finds that he is wrong: change his mind. He has shown some willingness to consider that he might be wrong. I hope that he will go further. We are prepared to enter discussions with him to help him to dig himself out of the hole that, frankly, others have dug for him. Better still, he could resolve the matter here and now for £2 million by simply accepting the Lords amendment.

Valerie Davey (Bristol, West): People outside cannot understand the preoccupation of the House with a minority of higher education students from the most well-off families. When people ask me what is going on, when the House of Lords has for the third time brought back this detail of the Bill, and I talk to them about higher education, they begin to understand. Let me try to explain to the House, as I have to those people.

As a country, we say to students that it will take them, on average, five years to get a first degree. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, for the most part, two years are spent at school and three at university. In Scotland, for the most part, one year is spent at school and three at university. [Hon. Members: "Not true."] Fine. That is exactly what I have been learning: more students now stay on for two years at school and then have three at university. The Bill's generosity towards Scotland should therefore be accepted and understood. We are saying that there are five years in which to gain a degree. That argument has been accepted for all students. The special situation in Scotland of having four-year degrees is being recognised and funded.

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Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Valerie Davey: No, it is my turn.

The Bill is fairer to more students than any of the amendments put forward in the other place.

Mr. John MacGregor (South Norfolk): I do not want to comment on the remarks of the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) because I do not believe that she knows what she is talking about.

I speak not as a former Secretary of State for Education, but as someone born, brought up and educated in Scotland. I did a four-year university degree course in Scotland as well, incidentally, as a degree course in England.

I want to address the two arguments put forward by the Secretary of State. I have followed all the arguments about Cumbria and Umbria, and so on. Relevant though they are, I do not want to comment on them. I certainly will not follow the prejudice shown by the Minister of State in previous debates and again tonight. He should be ashamed to resort to arguments about students from English independent schools, which is base, old Labour prejudice.

The Secretary of State rested his case on two arguments. The first is that the Scottish education system is different. Because students do highers, they tend to spend less time in school, and need longer at university. That argument does not wash. Some students from Scotland--I was one--do A-levels before entering the Scottish higher education system.

In addition, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) said, the Secretary of State cannot argue that his policy on Scottish tuition fees rests on the nature of Scottish education when he is allowing students from all other European Union countries, which have completely different educational systems, to benefit from free tuition. He cannot dismiss that argument by saying that it affects only 350 students. It is an argument of principle, not of numbers.

The Government have not implemented the Dearing report, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) pointed out, left the matter to the Secretary of State for Scotland. They have instead decided to follow their own route because the four-year honours degree is the norm in Scotland, but does not apply elsewhere. The Secretary of State's first argument fails on that ground.

The right hon. Gentleman's second argument was that, if students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland who went to Scotland were to be allowed free tuition in the fourth year, the same would have to apply to four-year courses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Again, that argument does not wash. It is totally bogus. The point is that we want to treat all students at the same university equally, wherever they come from within the European Union. The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) was right to say that the ability of students from the United Kingdom to go to whatever university they want is part of the cement of our universal university education system.

If students from Scotland decide to do a four-year degree course at an English university, they must accept that they will not get a year's free tuition, because that

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will not apply to anyone from England. All we argue is that students from anywhere in the EU who go to a Scottish university should be treated the same as students from Scotland. Equally, the answer to the point made by the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge)--she is not here--is that everyone who goes to an English university, whether from Scotland or anywhere else, knows that the fourth year of tuition will not be free. That is the simple point. Therefore, the £2 million argument is correct and the £27 million is a complete red herring. That is why the Secretary of State was wrong in his arguments tonight.

Mr. Willis: Like everyone else who has mentioned her, I am also sorry that the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) is not in her place.

The Bill has been a disaster for the Government from the very beginning, and the Scottish question has gone from bad to worse. Every time that the issue has ping-ponged like Wimbledon in ermine between this and the other place, the Government's justifications of their position have become more bizarre. If it were such an important issue, the Secretary of State would have mentioned it on 25 June 1997 when he responded to the Dearing inquiry. However, he did not consider the consequences for Scottish four-year degrees at that time.

Fortunately, the Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office, was on hand to help out the Secretary of State. The Minister announced that there would be a concession for Scottish students who were domiciled in Scotland and that their fourth-year fees would be paid. It was then pointed out that that was not good enough because the concession fell foul of European law and the fees of all European students would have to be paid. So that concession was made.

We then had the marvellous situation on a Radio 4 programme when the Minister justified the fact that French students at Scottish universities would have their fees paid, by saying that they were part of the European Union--of course, the fees of students from England, Northern Ireland or Wales would not be paid because they were part of the European Union. Since then, the Minister has proved singularly unable to persuade his colleagues in the Department for Education and Employment to fund those students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland who attend Scottish universities. Ultimately, the debate is about one Minister going off on his own. Ever since then, the Government have made a concerted effort to cover their tracks and not give ground. Even on this very small point, the Government are not prepared to give way, irrespective of the arguments.

Lord Sewel--who has done a remarkable job attempting to defend the Government's position in another place--explained that, because there was a difference between the two systems, the rules had to be different. He then admitted that there would be a small anomaly and added that, as students would be paying more for their maintenance, an extra £1,000 did not matter. That became the basis of the Government's argument. When that did not work, an attack was launched on the Scottish university system. There was a concerted effort to

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persuade us that it was far better for students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland to enter university at year two because they were well equipped to do so.

Mr. Hayes: Am I right in remembering--perhaps the hon. Gentleman can correct me--that the Minister described that Scottish tradition as bogus, thereby insulting Scottish universities and causing real distress among vice-chancellors, students and all those who believe that it is a decent and proper Scottish tradition?

Mr. Willis: I do not know whether I am grateful for that intervention.[Hon. Members: "You are."] I am told that I am--but one cannot toady to the Tories. It was not a member of the other place, but the Minister who made that disgraceful statement to which I shall return later.

When the Bill was on Report in the House of Lords, the arguments changed again. Then it was not because the university systems were different, but because there was a difference in intellectual attainment between students in Scotland and England. We then went on to the hidden agenda when the Minister in the Lords said that Scottish universities wanted English students because they wanted extra cash.

The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) was right to say that the Minister for Education and Industry argued that the Scottish four-year degree system was bogus and that the act should be disregarded. Tonight, we have had the final throw of the dice. The Secretary of State said that all those arguments mean nothing and that this is really a battle with the House of Lords. He said that, irrespective of the argument, this House must win. That is what we are faced with. We are to ignore the arguments and the issue's importance, and ensure that the Secretary of State and his macho Government win.


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