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Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, the time!

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am finishing--this is my last sentence. As suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, and my noble friend Lady Carnegy, this policy plays into the hands of the SNP. The smile on the face of the SNP when the result of the Scottish referendum was announced was very wide indeed. However, the smile has positively broken into a look of pure ecstasy as a result of this ill-advised concession to Scottish, southern Irish and continental Europeans--

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, order! It is now seven minutes!

5.38 p.m.

Earl Howe: My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Carnegy for tabling this important debate. She has posed a question which has far-reaching and worrying implications for many people, none more so than medical and dental students on whose behalf I venture to intervene tonight.

In that context, two main issues arise: first, the impact of tuition fees south of the Border and, secondly, the apparent inequality of treatment between

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Scottish medical students and those who live or study in other parts of the United Kingdom. Students of medicine and dentistry find themselves encumbered in a number of ways unique to those disciplines. Unavoidably, they have to go without professional earnings for five or six years. As was rightly pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, the length of their academic term combined with the intensity of their work means that they have little chance of supplementing their income through part-time employment. Their working expenses tend to be much higher than those of other students and when they take up their period of elective study, often overseas, medics have to fund themselves. For a whole host of reasons, the medic is disadvantaged--indeed, sometimes deterred--by the cost of his or her course of study.

Encouragingly, the Government went some way towards recognising the special features of medical training with their announcement on 23rd September that the tuition fees of medical and dental students from year five onwards will be met by the Department of Health and that new bursaries and loans will be available for those who most need them. Those are welcome initiatives as far as they go, although the adequacy of the bursaries and loans remains to be gauged once the details emerge. However, south of the Border we still have a yawning anomaly as regards tuition fees.

I deplore the Government's decision to introduce their proposals in the way that they did. But to have a situation where students doing a conventional three-year degree course pay one amount but medical students, who have to fund four years fees, pay one-third more is not only inequitable; it is a huge further deterrent to people contemplating a medical career. That is the last thing that we should be expecting them to do in the face of the special burdens which they already have to carry.

If we are to require students to contribute to the cost of tuition--and it seems that we are--will the Government re-examine the position of medical and dental students so as to ensure that at the very least they are treated fairly in comparison with other students?

That brings me to the Scottish dimension. There is a great deal of confusion in the medical community about the inequalities which the new system looks set to engender. On 27th October, the Scottish education Minister, Mr. Wilson, in a news release, conceded the principle that the fee contribution from Scottish graduates, who typically study for four years rather than three, should be on a par with the contribution for comparable qualifications gained elsewhere in the UK. He announced that to relieve Scottish students of the burden of paying for more than three years' worth of contributions, the Student Awards Agency for Scotland will pay the additional £1,000 arising in the final honours year. Where does that leave dental and medical students?

It would seem from the Government's proposals so far that Scottish medics will be exempt not only from the fifth and sixth years' fee contributions but from

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the fourth years' as well. In other words, medical students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland will have to pay four years' worth of fees but those from Scotland only three. Furthermore, when we refer to Scottish students in that context, we should remember that the preferential treatment in Scotland applies only to those whose home is in Scotland.

Those are gross anomalies. But somewhere along the line it is possible that misunderstandings may have arisen. Therefore, I ask the Minister, not necessarily today, to clarify in writing the following issues. Is it the case that all Scottish students will have to pay towards three years of their degree--in other words, a maximum of £3,000--whatever that degree may be? Will non-Scottish students studying at a Scottish medical school be eligible for treatment equal to that of their Scottish counterparts? If so, who will fund them?

Finally, on a more detailed point, I refer the Minister to the announcement in Mr. Wilson's press release that Scottish medical and dental students will be eligible for an NHS 50 per cent. means-tested bursary towards living costs in the fifth and sixth years. That is 50 per cent. of what?

The backdrop to that is the worrying picture of the declining recruitment that we are seeing currently in general practice, in academic medicine and in a number of hospital specialities. The last thing that we want--and by "we" I mean the country as a whole--is a set of funding arrangements which exacerbates those difficulties and creates manifest unfairness in different parts of the United Kingdom. I hope that the Government will be able to provide some reassurance.

5.42 p.m.

Lord Tope: My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, for initiating a debate that has been of great interest and markedly one-sided. I look forward to hearing the Minister's answer. I join in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk, on his maiden speech which I listened to with particular interest because he speaks with a great deal of knowledge and experience of the subject which I do not claim to have.

I need to say at the outset, lest I should give the impression otherwise, that my party remains opposed to the imposition of tuition fees. That is a debate for another day. I shall not pursue the matter now except to say that were the fees not to be imposed it would not be necessary to have this debate today and the Government would not be in the mess in which they clearly find themselves again.

The noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, and, indeed, every other speaker except one in the debate, has made the case very well and has in effect answered very fully the noble Baroness's Question. How can there be equality of access within the United Kingdom when a student from Dover has to pay more than a student from a Scottish town? A comparison was made between Dover and Calais and between Umbria and Northumbria. I was going to make a comparison

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between Umbria and Cumbria which seemed to go better. But the comparisons are there. It cannot be right that students from Paris, Rome or Athens pay less for tuition fees at a Scottish university than those from Carlisle. A colleague of mine remarked to me that that is perhaps why Edinburgh is described as the Athens of the North.

That cannot be equality of access. It has been suggested by other noble Lords that it also cannot be legal. We look forward to the Minister's answer on that point which must be forthcoming. I should have thought that it must fall foul of discrimination legislation, whether in this country or within the European Union. Indeed, I understand that the European Union is to introduce legislation next year which will enable people to take their own governments to court on grounds of discrimination. I know that the NUS and other interested bodies will undoubtedly pursue that course unless something is done.

Others have spoken with greater knowledge about the effect on Scottish universities. The figures have been given and I need not repeat them. I was pleased to hear the point made also that it is not only the profound effect on Scottish universities that has to be considered but also the effect on Scottish university towns. Too often, sometimes, in an education debate, we forget the wider picture. We forget that a local economy may depend greatly on a local university.

There is no doubt in my mind that an extra £1,000 will have a deterrent effect on students in relation to their decision whether or not to go to a Scottish university. None of us knows the extent of that; it is in the nature of things that those who oppose the measure will tend to exaggerate the effect while those who support it will say that the effect is negligible or there is no effect at all. That is not the point. The point is one of principle. Whether it is one person, 100 or 5,000 people being discriminated against, it is the principle which is the issue.

There is evidence to show that the effect will be significant. My noble friend Lord Alderdice spoke with great knowledge and experience of the probable effect in Northern Ireland and on students from Northern Ireland. I need not repeat that. I have said that I have no connections with Scottish universities. I have a connection with an English university in that my son is studying at one. No mention has been made in the debate of the possible effect on English universities. If students are discouraged in any numbers from going to Scottish universities and instead go to English universities, the effect on what is already overcrowding in a number of those universities will be even greater.

I heard today of the position at one university, not my son's, where the overcrowding is such that there are three students to a room without wardrobe accommodation and that some students are currently sleeping on the floor in the library. I am not in a position to suggest that that is typical. I hope very much that it is not. But that is direct personal experience at one English university. If we add to that, the situation will become worse.

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This whole problem results from a failure by the Government to think out competently the effects of their policies. Others speakers have referred to the fact that it is not the first such example; it is the second. The infamous gap year was the first. But this measure demonstrates clearly that the Government have not thought through the effects of their policy. It is dividing country against country, student against student and university against university. The matter could be cleared up tomorrow if the Government would only stand up to the Treasury and abandon this iniquitous policy.

5.48 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I too start by congratulating my noble friend Lady Carnegy of Lour on raising this important topic this evening. Also, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Selkirk of Douglas on his maiden speech. I am sure that we shall hear a great deal more from my noble friend, just as we heard a great deal from his noble kinsman Lord Selkirk in his day.

I am certain that this afternoon has not been a good afternoon for the Government. First, we had the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, trying to defend a policy which, had she been standing on this side of the House, she would have described as an abomination. And now we have the poor noble Lord, Lord Sewel, sent here to defend an education policy which, I am sure, if it had been put forward by a Conservative Government, he would have been lambasting from pillar to post. I am sorry for the poor noble Lord because I am sure that he has had little to do with the discussions. It should be his honourable friend Mr. Brian Wilson or the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, who is responsible for higher education. But it is the poor noble Lord, Lord Sewel, and I hope that he does not take too personally anything that has been said.

Mr. Brian Wilson, who is the Minister in charge of such matters at the Scottish Office, wrote an interesting article in The Scotsman recently in which he said that what he had heard--and I have no doubt he would encompass what has been said today--was "hyperbolic nonsense". Well, it takes one to know one. Over the years, Brian Wilson has written more hyperbolic nonsense than anyone else I know. If that is the best argument that he can put forward, it suggests to me that he is on quite weak grounds.

I thought it rather noticeable that the Government could not find a single Scottish Back-Bench Peer to come to talk in defence of this policy: I repeat, not a single one. The noble Lord, Lord Sewel, will remember my problems regarding my daughter in Italy during the referendum Bill. Perhaps I may pose the question that we have heard in a number of ways like this. I have two granddaughters. One lives in Italy and the other in Kent. If, in the fullness of time, they decide to follow in the footsteps of their parents and of their grandparent and attend the University of Glasgow, the one from Italy will be charged £3,000

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and the one from Kent will be charged £4,000. When that proposition was put to Mr. Brian Wilson on the programme "The World Tonight" last week when he was debating with Professor Colin Vincent (an old friend of mine from my Glasgow University days), he clutched at straws. He was asked, "Why this anomaly?"--in that case regarding France--and replied, "Well, France is in the Common Market". The interviewer on the programme, who obviously had not been cleared by Mr. Alistair Campbell, responded, "Yes, but isn't England?".

I make that point seriously to the Minister. Is not England in the Common Market? Further, is this not the most ludicrous position? Coming as it does from a Minister in the Scottish Office who I genuinely believe is a unionist to the marrow of his bones, is this not a particularly silly position for him to find himself in simply because of the general incompetence of the Department for Education?

However, there is more to that unfairness. Let us consider the abolition of maintenance grants, which means that students from the West Highlands--which is where I come from and, indeed, where Brian Wilson and a number of other people involved in the Government come from--who have to leave home in order to go to university and pay away-from-home expenses will actually accumulate during their university degree a lot more debt than their cousins whose parents migrated from, let us say, Lewis to Glasgow and can go to their local university. Is that fair? I can tell the House that if a Conservative Government or any other government had proposed that, Brian Wilson would have been vitriolic on behalf of the students of Lewis and Harris and the West Highlands against that kind of discriminatory policy. He would have been vitriolic in the columns of the Herald and, indeed, in the West Highlands free press. Although I am being short in my remarks this evening because of the time limit imposed upon me, I also feel pretty vitriolic on behalf of people who have no option but to leave home in order to study at university.

There is an even dafter proposition behind the Government's policy; namely, that they will take parental income into account when it comes to deciding whether a student should pay the fees. But it is not on the parental income that one will have to pay back: it is on one's own graduate income during the years after leaving university. Do the Government have any evidence that students from an economically poor background do not graduate and do not in fact end up earning the same as or more than those students from an economically better-off background? I can see a situation where some graduates will actually be paying back far larger debts than their better paid bosses purely on the basis of their parents' income.

Whether it be because of the daftness of the position of English students at Scottish universities, the gross inequity as regards the students who live in rural areas or this amazing decision on pay back, I believe this to be a badly thought-out policy and, frankly, yesteryear the students of this country would

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have been marching in the streets in protest. When defending the student loan system at the beginning, I should confess to the House that, when I visited a university in Scotland I was slapped across the face by one indignant young lady student. I have to point out that that is the only time that a lady has slapped me across the face and that related to government grants. Frankly, the Government deserve to be slapped about the face by every student and every potential student in the country for this iniquitous policy.

5.55 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office (Lord Sewel): My Lords, perhaps I may begin by congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, on providing the House with the opportunity to debate this issue. I should also like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk of Douglas, on his maiden speech and welcome him to the House. There is often a difficulty when people join this House because, in some cases, the names change rather radically. Indeed, in this case, there has been such a radical name change. The noble Lord is well-known--fondly and warmly known--in Scotland throughout the whole of Scottish public life as Lord James. It will be quite difficult to stop using that particular nomenclature in the future. The noble Lord comes to us as a man who is known for his love of Scotland and also for his love of our parliamentary institutions. We welcome him most warmly.

When I came to study the Unstarred Question and observed the speakers' list, given my particular background and provenance I thought that perhaps the most prudent thing to do would be to answer it by saying, "Yes", and then throw myself upon the mercy of the examiners. However, I shall try something a little more robust. I should also make it clear that my noble friend Lady Blackstone is attending an important international conference with delegates from 60 countries. She is, quite rightly, attending that conference and it is only right, therefore, that I should be here answering the Question in this House because it is a Scottish Office matter. I have no difficulty or problem with that, although I may have with the answer.

We have had a deliberate, responsible, and, for the most part, well-informed debate. Indeed, I would have expected nothing less. Before I respond to the specific points raised, I should say that I hope to be able to take up most of them in my reply but, if not, I shall write to noble Lords separately. However, perhaps I may begin with a few general remarks.

First, why are we here? We are at this particular juncture in the issue of higher education financing because the Government are determined to put the whole of our higher education sector on a sound financial footing. That was not the case for many years under the previous administration when growth was encouraged. Of course, there is nothing wrong with encouraging growth in student numbers, but it far outstripped the growth in funding. The unit of

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resource per student went down and down and created the crisis which we inherited. We are dealing with that crisis and doing so effectively and robustly.

The changes which we have announced also lay the basis for resolving the paradox which the previous government failed to grasp; namely, that we have moved from an elite system of higher education which could relatively easily be funded on the basis of public taxation to a system of mass participation in higher education where, basically, the burden on public taxation would be too great. It is therefore quite proper that we now look to those who are beneficiaries of higher education to make a direct contribution. That is what we are doing in the proposals that we have put forward.

The bold and, I believe, inevitable decision to introduce a contribution to tuition fees would always have been difficult to implement technically, even if the country had one school system and one qualifications framework for entry into universities. But in Britain we do not have one school system. The Scottish school system is distinct, and the qualifications framework is also different in Scotland. People enter university at different stages of their intellectual development in Scotland and England and, I suspect, in Wales and Northern Ireland. The prevalence of the longer honours course in Scotland is the result of that. Our Scottish based students have traditionally entered university a year earlier than has been the case in the rest of the United Kingdom. Their entry qualification is broader. It is usually now about five highers, with each higher being taken over two terms, as opposed to the three A-levels in England which are taken over two years. Therefore we have breadth but we do not have the same degree of depth. That is the heritage that the Scottish student takes with him or her when he enters higher education.

At present we have these distinct systems but they interact flexibly. The Government wish to maintain that interaction and that flexibility. However, to do so the Government recognised that they had to remove the major anomaly, which was that many Scottish students would be left in a position of contributing more towards their tuition for a similar qualification as a result of simply following through the Scottish school system and the longer honours course. Resolving that major anomaly has, however, created a smaller one. I recognise that and I shall not argue that there is no problem. However, I shall argue that the problem has been exaggerated out of all proportion.

Let us begin at the beginning. The Question raised in this debate stems from the Garrick recommendation. Let us be clear precisely what Garrick said. His recommendation was the following. He stated:

    "We recommend to the Secretary of State for Scotland that, if a graduate contribution is introduced, the Secretary of State should ensure that the contribution from Scottish graduates for qualifications gained in Scotland is equitable with the contribution for comparable qualifications gained elsewhere in the UK".

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That was the considered opinion of the Garrick Committee, whose members were drawn from higher education and the business sector in Scotland. The announcement made by the Government last Monday fulfilled that recommendation 100 per cent. We have lived up to the advice and recommendation that Garrick gave us.

The main Dearing Committee's recommendation was that only students entering higher education direct from the fifth year at school should be given such an exemption. A consequence of that recommendation is that it would favour the academically more able. One of the great successes of Scottish higher education in recent years has been the growth in participation from those who have taken a little longer to gain entry qualifications, either through longer attendance at school or through following a slightly different route such as an HNC or HND course at a further education college, or indeed entering higher education much later in life. The equity issue with which we in Scotland have least difficulty is that all of those groups should be given equitable treatment to those entering higher education direct from the fifth year.

Ensuring equity of treatment between students on different courses on each side of the Border, whatever their original domicile, is much more difficult. Concerns have been raised about the threat to cross-Border flows of students from elsewhere in the UK into Scottish higher education. Neither Dearing nor Garrick raised the issue of cross-Border flows as one of great concern, although they were clearly aware of it, as have been the Government in their deliberations on the issue. Let me make it absolutely clear that the Government and Scottish Office Ministers support the great cultural benefits that students from elsewhere in the United Kingdom, Europe and the rest of the world bring to our higher education system. We should like to see those flows maintained and, if possible, increased, and perhaps not necessarily concentrated at the University of St Andrews! They provide an important cultural diversity to student life that influences and remains with Scots students throughout their lives.

Despite these benefits and our encouragement for them, we are not fully convinced that equity is a driving argument behind giving a one-year concession to all students studying in Scotland. The Garrick Committee's recommendation for equity for comparable qualifications is based clearly on the consequences of the Scottish schools system. The principle of equity should stem from the fact that Scottish domiciled students, by and large, have school qualifications geared to entry into Scottish higher education institutions. That is why they do not tend to go to England in large numbers. We send comparatively few people south to England to study compared to those coming in the other direction. Scots must generally study four years for the typical honours degree as compared to three years in England. In this case when I refer to England I mean Wales and

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Northern Ireland, too. Equity, in our view, demands that those Scots should pay only £3,000 in Scotland because they are graduating with the comparable qualification of a student graduating from an English university with an honours degree. The qualification is the same and therefore the contribution should be the same.

There would be a great anomaly if Scottish students were required to pay £4,000 while English students paid £3,000 for the same level of qualification--the first honours degree. The Government were clear that this major anomaly had to be resolved, and we have done so. The announcement last Monday resolved the problem. However, there is a remaining anomaly; namely, that students with A-levels come to Scotland to study in a system not specifically tailored for them. That is the heart of the difficulty. As has been observed, this means that an English student could potentially pay £4,000 compared to only £3,000 for a Scot, or £3,000 if that English student had studied in England.

Of course we need to keep this in perspective. Those who are less well off do not need a special concession. They will already be exempt from tuition fees because of the means test. About 40 per cent. of students each year will gain total exemption. A further 30 per cent. will not pay the full amount. Many English students wish to benefit from the broader Scottish degree and are already willing to make a decision that costs them more. At the moment that extra year will cost them about £4,000 to £5,000 for their maintenance, plus a year of income forgone. Taken together that is about £20,000--much more than the maximum fee of £1,000. As I said, a small proportion will pay that maximum fee.

I now turn to an issue which has been raised by a number of noble Lords; namely, that of medical and dental students. They will face precisely the same contribution to tuition fees wherever they study and wherever they are from. The BMA was incorrect in its report in The Scotsman this morning. I repeat that the process is exactly the same as in England. There will be no difference in the way that medical students are treated in England, Scotland or anywhere else.

Sir Ron Garrick has said that students with A-levels may still wish to study for four years and benefit from the extra year. As a businessman his advice seems to be that Scottish universities would be better served making the case to potential applicants of the value of the four-year honours degree and not following their present course of telling potential customers that their product is not worth the extra! Our university principals should have confidence in their product and market it aggressively. Of course the structure of university degrees may change as time goes on. That is a matter for the universities and for the students as regards what they demand.

I return finally to the point made by my noble friend Lord Davies of Oldham. He referred to a letter in The Scotsman from an English student who had

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studied at Edinburgh University. She wrote that she could not see what all the fuss was about concerning student fees. She considered that the English education system was geared to the needs of English students and the Scottish system to the needs of Scottish students and that that explained the four-year system in Scotland and the three-year system in England. She said that anyone coming to Scotland was fully aware of that situation and they came for the quality of Scottish education. That student succeeded. She came to Scotland. She enjoyed Scotland. She entered in the second year.

That is part of the solution. If more universities and more students recognised that because of the difference of entry qualifications and the structure of Scottish degrees good A-levels could mean entry into the second year of an honours course, the problem would be largely resolved. That, I believe, is one of the challenges that Scottish higher education faces.

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But I am sure that it will continue to flourish; that it will continue to be an attractive option for students from England and elsewhere.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, is it possible to ask a question for clarification on medical fees before the noble Lord sits down?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, we have now exceeded the time allotted for the debate.

Lord Sewel: My Lords, I shall write to the noble Baroness.

Firearms (Amendment) Bill

Returned from the Commons with certain of the amendments disagreed to with a reason for such disagreement and with the remaining amendment agreed to; the reason ordered to be printed.

        House adjourned at ten minutes past six o'clock.

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