Further and Higher Education

Oral Answers to Questions — Scotland – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 27th April 1999.

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Photo of Rachel Squire Rachel Squire Labour, Dunfermline West 12:00 am, 27th April 1999

What steps the Government are taking to improve access to further and higher education in Scotland. [80996]

Photo of Mrs Helen Liddell Mrs Helen Liddell Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office, Minister of State (Scottish Office) (Education and Industry)

Last month, we announced major steps to improve access to further and higher education. We challenged further education colleges to widen access to under-represented groups—a challenge that we are backing with more than £100 million, which will create an additional 40,000 places for such students. In higher education, in the next three years we expect to spend £60 million on measures to help widen access for students from less-advantaged backgrounds, and particularly to assist low-income or disabled people to study part-time. From 1 July 1999, this will be a matter for the Scottish Parliament.

Photo of Rachel Squire Rachel Squire Labour, Dunfermline West

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the previous system of funding further and higher education failed to reach the majority in our most deprived communities and to give them access to educational opportunity? Because of the Government's introduction of the Scottish grant for widening access, and the partnership between Fife council community services and Lauder college, I had the pleasure of opening a learning centre in High Valleyfield, which is a former mining community in my constituency that has some of the area's highest levels of deprivation and unemployment. Since January, 115 people have applied for courses, the range of which is being expanded, and some people are considering establishing a community business.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to all those who have been involved in the centre? Does she agree that it is a step-by-step example of how the Government are delivering lifelong learning and giving people new skills, greater belief in themselves and real hope for a better future?

Photo of Mrs Helen Liddell Mrs Helen Liddell Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office, Minister of State (Scottish Office) (Education and Industry)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her involvement in the High Valleyfield project. I have visited a number of projects in Fife that testify to the accuracy of her comments. The Government are committed to widening access, especially for those who are particularly disadvantaged. On higher education—which has a proud record in Fife—I have been talking to the Higher Education Funding Council for Scotland, encouraging it to examine means whereby premiums could be paid to higher education institutions that make particular efforts to enlarge the number of people from disadvantaged communities who attend those institutions.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Opposition Spokesperson (Constitutional Affairs, Scotland and Wales)

When, 16 days before the general election, the Prime Minister uttered the words: Labour has no plans to introduce tuition fees for higher education", what did he mean?

Photo of Mrs Helen Liddell Mrs Helen Liddell Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office, Minister of State (Scottish Office) (Education and Industry)

Prior to the general election, the Prime Minister was awaiting the result of the Dearing committee, which was established by the previous Government. I deplore the scaremongering of opposition parties in trying to dissuade people from entering applications to higher education institutions. Last year, there was a 4 per cent. increase in the number of those entering higher education, and there are now two applications for every higher education place in Scotland. It is deplorable that one party in Scotland is determined to ensure that those who are most disadvantaged in information technology and do not have access to computers should have to give up that opportunity so that tuition fees might be removed for those who are the wealthiest, coming from families who earn more than £35,000 a year. We are in favour of widening access.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Opposition Spokesperson (Constitutional Affairs, Scotland and Wales)

It is a pity that the right hon. Lady—with such an ability to reinterpret political history—has become the invisible lady of the Scottish election campaign. The truth is that within a couple of months of uttering the words that I quoted, the Prime Minister announced a £3,000 tax on learning and the abolition of the student maintenance grant. Moreover, in complete contrast to what the Minister has just told us, there has been a 12.8 per cent. reduction in the number of Scottish students applying to go to Scottish universities. The numbers are already going down. After the Government's betrayal of Scottish students, we cannot believe a word that they say on education in advance of the Scottish elections.

Photo of Mrs Helen Liddell Mrs Helen Liddell Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office, Minister of State (Scottish Office) (Education and Industry)

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman refers to me as the invisible lady; my diet must be working. To the invisible man, whom we have not seen during the Scottish election campaign, I say that as there are no Conservative Members of Parliament for Scotland, he might at least have felt able to join in the collective apology from his colleagues in Scotland to the Scottish people for the policies of the previous Government.

Forty per cent. of students from low-income families pay no tuition fees, and only a minority pay the full fees. As a consequence of the Government's policies, there will be more places in higher education in Scotland. Our aim is to have 750,000 young people in further and higher education in Scotland—a considerable achievement, and a great improvement on the record of the previous Government.

Photo of Mr Malcolm Savidge Mr Malcolm Savidge Labour, Aberdeen North

May I assume from my right hon. Friend's answer that the Government will never consider benefiting better-off tertiary education students by plundering millions of pounds from schoolchildren and divorcing them from computers, as is proposed by the Scottish National party, which is scarcely represented here today?

Photo of Mrs Helen Liddell Mrs Helen Liddell Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office, Minister of State (Scottish Office) (Education and Industry)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is no surprise that the Scottish National party is scarcely represented; it seems likely to be even less well represented in future.

I visited Clackmannan primary school yesterday, where I saw primary 4 pupils working on computers as part of the success makers programme, which gives an opportunity to those who, perhaps because of their parents' lack of income, do not have access to information and communications technology. Those will be the skills required in the 21st century, and although I am aware that the Scottish National party has a great affection for Scotland's history, I regret that it expects our children to live in Scotland's past.