Oral Answers to Questions — Higher Education

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 17 February 1998.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Brian H Donohoe Brian H Donohoe Labour, Cunninghame South 12:00, 17 February 1998

What action he proposes to take to ensure that there is less disparity in the proportions of Scots from (a) affluent and (b) deprived areas going on to higher education. [28073]

Photo of Mr Brian Wilson Mr Brian Wilson Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office

The Government regard wider participation as one of their key priorities and have advised the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council accordingly. A national conference on widening participation in higher education will be held on 1 May this year.

Photo of Brian H Donohoe Brian H Donohoe Labour, Cunninghame South

I welcome that reply, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will be aware of the survey undertaken by the Educational Institute of Scotland that shows that more than 80 per cent, of children of affluent households go on to higher education whereas only 11 per cent, of children from deprived areas do. What is my hon. Friend going to do about that?

Photo of Mr Brian Wilson Mr Brian Wilson Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office

I am familiar with the figure quoted by my hon. Friend. It reflects the miserable reality of the current funding arrangements, which some Opposition Members are anxious to defend. The system simply has not delivered to people from lower-income backgrounds and I assure my hon. Friend and the House that one of our top priorities is to ensure that nobody who has the potential to benefit from higher education is cut off from doing so because of his or her social and economic background.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest

What steps is the Minister taking to protect the traditional four-year Scottish degree course at Scottish universities, given the introduction of tuition fees?

Photo of Mr Brian Wilson Mr Brian Wilson Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office

The two are not causally related. Perhaps the hon. Lady does not understand that the four-year degree course is not quite as traditional as she thinks—it is a relatively recent phenomenon—

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

My hon. Friend did it—and so did I.

Photo of Mr Brian Wilson Mr Brian Wilson Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office

The hon. Gentleman says that the hon. Lady did it, but I am not sure that she embodies tradition in the Scottish education system. Having so many doing four-year degree courses is a relatively recent phenomenon. With the advent of "Higher Still" and advanced highers, many more Scottish students will look for more flexible entry into higher education.

Photo of Ian Davidson Ian Davidson Labour/Co-operative, Glasgow Pollok

Does my hon. Friend accept that access to higher and further education is partially determined by the chances that youngsters have throughout their time in education, from the nursery sector through the primary sector to the secondary sector? Does he agree that unless the Government are willing to spend substantially more on education in areas of deprivation, such as in my constituency, we shall not be able drastically to increase the number of children from modest backgrounds who go on to higher and further education?

Photo of Mr Brian Wilson Mr Brian Wilson Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend's comments. That is why we are pumping as much money as we can into every phase of education. I am especially proud of the £24 million extra that we have been able to put into early intervention in primary schools, which I am certain is crucial in improving the life prospects of every child.

Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh Scottish National Party, Angus

Is the Minister aware of the Edinburgh university student association survey that shows that 91 per cent, of Scottish head teachers believe that tuition fees and the abolition of grants are incompatible with the principle of equal access for all, regardless of financial circumstances? Will he now put pressure on the Department for Education and Employment to abandon its short-sighted policy and look again at Labour's tuition tax and student loan policies?

Photo of Mr Brian Wilson Mr Brian Wilson Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office

Anyone who thinks that tuition fees are a barrier to low-income entry into university has probably made the mistake of reading The Scotsman or listening to the hon. Gentleman, as 40 per cent, of students—indeed, everyone from households with an income of less than about £23,000—will not pay a penny in tuition fees. My purpose is to get £140 million extra each year into Scottish higher education, which will not only safeguard the quality of the product but give access to people from all backgrounds—low, middle and high.

Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander Labour, Paisley South

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Paisley university, which this year has experienced an increase of 8 per cent, in applications for undergraduate courses?

Photo of Mr Brian Wilson Mr Brian Wilson Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office

I certainly shall, because I think the experience of Paisley gives the lie to an awful lot of the rubbish that has been spoken on this subject. Paisley university draws its students mainly from lower-income backgrounds. It has increased its applications by 8 per cent. However, most of the whingeing in the higher education circle has emanated from St. Andrews university, which has also had increased applications, including from students south of the border. The figures show what rubbish has been talked on the subject. My interest is in addressing the message to the people whose life prospects depend on applying for university and not listening to the scaremongering and politicking that have come from the Conservative Benches.

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat, Edinburgh West

In the Muirhouse area of my constituency are a number of organisations that are vital for getting people back into the education system. They are at serious risk because of the ending of urban aid money or as a result of the reduction in grant to the City of Edinburgh council. Will the Minister consider making available some funds to pick up those organisations, which are right on the button for the social exclusion policy that the Government support but in dire straits? They will go under if they do not very quickly receive help.

Photo of Mr Brian Wilson Mr Brian Wilson Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office

As I said in my original answer, access to education from the widest range of social groups is a very high priority for me and for the Government. I invite the hon. Member to write to me if he knows of specific organisations in that category. He knows that urban aid funding is not meant to be a permanent funding solution for any organisation and that, inevitably, if new organisations are to qualify for urban aid funding, others must drop out. One hopes that the main stream will find other ways of continuing, but I invite the hon. Gentleman to write to me.