Has not the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals warned the Government that there is a funding crisis in Scottish universities? Does the Minister agree that a strong science and research base in our universities is essential for a strong manufacturing economy? If so, why have the Government continued to underfund and undermine our university base to the extent that we now face a funding crisis, and 1,000 university staff are threatened with the sack?
Of course I agree with the hon. Gentleman that a sound scientific base is essential for a strong manufacturing bases. That is why Scotland's work force has been transformed in recent years and why the proportion of 25 to 29-year-olds with higher education qualifications living in Scotland has nearly doubled in the past 10 years—from 12.6 per cent to 23 per cent.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that there are record numbers of students in higher education in Scotland? Can he tell the House what effect a tax-raising Scottish parliament would have on education expenditure, which is currently subsidised by taxes raised in London and in the rest of England?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: more young Scots are in higher education than ever before in our nation's history. Spending on higher education per student in Scotland is 31 per cent. higher than it is in England. Those sums would not be available for our universities with a tax-raising Scottish Parliament.
Is the Minister aware of rising student drop-out rates—currently 17 per cent.—while student debt, on average, is 50 per cent. up on last year? Why are the Government encouraging more people to go to universities while penalising them with spiralling debt and underfunded universities and now with talk of a £500 entrance fee?
The Scotland that the hon. Gentleman lives in is not the Scotland that I or Scottish students live in. We have more young people at university than ever before, and a higher proportion of those are from less well-off backgrounds than ever before. That is a record to be proud of, and the hon. Gentleman does his party and his country no good in trying to talk down what is happening.
Will the Minister join me in congratulating Lews Castle college in my constituency on developing a new university-status degree course, the first such course to be developed in the highlands and islands network? Will he welcome this important step towards achieving the goal of a highlands and islands university?
Yes, absolutely. I commend the college and congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the way in which he has doggedly pursued the issue. We have lifted the capping on further education students in the highlands and islands as, we hope, a precursor to the establishment of a full university in the highlands and islands, which is being vigorously backed by my right hon. Friend.
Why is the Minister ignoring representations from Scotland's university principals, who have already made it clear that they envisage the possibility of top-up entry fees to universities? Is he not ashamed of the fact that Government policy could lead to a return to the situation in which only the children of the rich get the benefit of a university degree?
As I said in reply to a previous question, more people from less well-off backgrounds are attending university than ever before. We will take no lectures from the hon. Lady. Since the Labour party was last in government, student numbers have doubled, spending has increased by 30 per cent. in real terms and, above all, spending is 31 per cent. higher in Scotland than in England. Does the hon. Lady really believe that that would be sustained if her party had its way?
Does the Minister accept that the excellent reputation of Scottish universities attracts many students from Northern Ireland, which is why my right hon. and hon. Friends who represent Northern Ireland constituencies are concerned about any crisis in funding for Scottish universities? Will he consider meeting his counterparts who represent English, Welsh and Northern Irish universities and making a joint representation for additional funding, bearing in mind that all universities are crying out for additional funds?
My right hon. Friend has considerable freedom with the block given to him by the Treasury. Last time around, local government—unfortunately, in my opinion—took a bigger share of it than higher education. However, my right hon. Friend has met principals in Scotland, and their representations will be fed in when we discuss the allocation of next year's block.