Tuition Fees

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:30 pm on 17th June 1999.

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Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament 2:30 pm, 17th June 1999

The next item of business is the motion on tuition fees in the name of Jim Wallace. I have selected amendment S1M-2.4 in the name of John Swinney. Mr Wallace will open the debate, and then the amendment will be moved. The debate will end shortly before 5 o'clock to allow time for the bureau motion on the setting up of committees.

At the moment, I do not propose to put any time limit on speeches. I will wait to see how many members want to speak.

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace Liberal Democrat 3:16 pm, 17th June 1999

I welcome the fact that it has been possible to debate tuition fees and student finance so soon in the lifetime of this Parliament, given the importance that was attached to those issues in the election campaign.

My party and the Executive place lifelong learning and the development of high quality further and higher education at centre stage and regard them as key factors in securing Scotland's future economic prosperity. Investment in higher and further education is also a necessity if we are to ensure that, as a nation, we provide each individual with the opportunity to develop his or her talents to the full.

Scotland is rightly renowned for its university tradition. Many of our higher education establishments are acknowledged to be world class. We can boast the highest level of participation in the UK; almost 50 per cent of young Scots are in higher education, compared with 33 per cent of young people elsewhere in the UK.

The transformation of the number of people gaining access to further and higher education, which has happened under Labour and Conservative Governments, has been a remarkable achievement. It has also thrown up deep concerns about the adequacy of funding for our universities.

Across the UK, the record of the Tory party in power was a 40 per cent reduction in spending per student in higher education. Against that background, there was agreement among the parties that the crisis in higher education funding had to be addressed. However, it was clear that the parties approached the issue in different ways.

Following the reports of the Dearing and Garrick committees, while my Liberal Democrat colleagues in the House of Commons and I were opposing the imposition of tuition fees, the Conservatives were arguing for the introduction of £1,000 tuition fees that would be payable by every student, regardless of income. To be fair-I always like to be fair-the Conservatives failed to support the second reading of the bill because of the Government's failure to provide for "an independent review body to advise on any future changes in tuition fees."-[Official Report, House of Commons, 16 March 1998; Vol 308, c 970.]

The Labour Government at Westminster opted for means-tested student loans and means-tested tuition fees. My party accepted that maintenance grants should be turned into loans, but the Liberal Democrats opposed the introduction of tuition fees-means tested or flat rate. That remains our position.

We believe that the tradition of full-time higher education students paying no fees is important. We remain concerned that the imposition of tuition fees might be a barrier to increasing access. We have expressed concern about the 6 per cent reduction in applications to Scottish universities and the significantly higher fall in the number of mature students applying for a university place. We have expressed fears that, after the introduction of tuition fees, the amount payable by students will increase, or different fees will be introduced for different courses.

It is clear that we disagree with the Labour party on those issues. That disagreement was apparent throughout the parliamentary debates on the establishment of tuition fees and throughout the election campaign for the Scottish Parliament. Those different points of view are acknowledged in the partnership agreement.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Leader, Scottish National Party

It is true that those concerns were apparent in the election campaign. Jim and I took part in many debates and, in each one, he said that if the Labour party did not have a majority in the chamber, tuition fees would be abolished. Does he not think it was wrong to say that during the campaign if he did not intend to carry it through?

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace Liberal Democrat

I believe that what we are proposing today is the most effective and immediate way of carrying forward the issue of tuition fees-and that of student poverty, which we also debated during the campaign.

Let me make it clear: we remain committed to the abolition of tuition fees for all Scottish students at UK universities. That is what our manifesto said. We will have confidence in putting that case to the committee of inquiry.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

The Conservative party made its case to the biggest committee of inquiry that was possible: the electorate, who made their decision when casting their votes for us.

Having made such great play of the £80 million for education that was extracted in the coalition negotiations, will the minister tell us why half of that sum was not deployed to fulfil his promise to abolish tuition fees, but was instead spent on areas that he did not describe as non-negotiable?

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace Liberal Democrat

Anyone who heard what we said in the campaign knew that investment in education was our most important priority. I am proud that we have managed to secure £80 million of extra investment in education that will help to tackle student poverty in a number of ways: the £9 million three-year pilot scheme to encourage students from low-income families to stay on at school with a view to going on to higher education; the loan funding for mature part-time students who are on low incomes; and the increase in access funds to £14 million a year, which will relieve the hardships that are suffered by the most disadvantaged students.

We said that education was our main priority and we have helped to deliver more resources to education.

I welcome the amendment's supporters' recent conversion to the proposal of a committee of inquiry into student funding and student hardship. No doubt the representations that they have received from people who are genuinely concerned about the financial position of students have had an effect on them, albeit belatedly. They may be willing to recognise that the commitment to a committee of inquiry, which was expressed in the partnership agreement document, was a significant step forward.

The committee of inquiry that will examine the issues of tuition fees and student hardship will be very different from its Westminster counterparts. If this motion is carried, the committee will proceed with the approval and authority of this Parliament and it will report to this Parliament. The role and importance of the Parliament in progressing this issue is vital. It is also important when we look at the terms of the opposition amendment.

We must remember that this is not a debating society; it is a Parliament. Therefore, when the amendment in the name of Mr Swinney says that we must "bring forward to the Parliament proposals for the abolition of tuition fees", we are entitled to note that motions and amendments must be clear and unambiguous.

Our position, as I have stated, is that we want all Scottish students to have their fees paid by the Government, without interfering with the funding of the universities.

The amendment gives the Executive a bald instruction to abolish tuition fees-not to restore the previous system, in which students were funded by the state. It would remove tens of millions of pounds from Scottish higher education at a stroke. Where would that leave efforts to improve quality and extend access?

The amendment would also mean that this Parliament should abolish tuition fees for all students who study in Scotland, including those from England and Wales. Scottish students studying in other parts of the United Kingdom would still have to pay tuition fees. That, expressly, was not part of the Liberal Democrat manifesto.

The Opposition amendment is deeply flawed. It bears the hallmark of a political tactic, rather than a substantial parliamentary motion addressing an important issue that we must get right. If I may use the language of Mr McLetchie, which so embellished our election campaign, it smacks more of Mr McLetchie snuggling up to Salmond on a sofa than to the serious politics that the issue requires.

In contrast, we have indicated that we want to work with the organisations that care most about higher and further education in Scotland on the issue of tuition fees and student support. We want to work with organisations such as the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals, the Association of Scottish Colleges, the Association of University Teachers and the National Union of Students in Scotland, all of which support the setting up of the independent inquiry. Indeed, the National Union of Students in Scotland also supports the abolition of tuition fees.

Unlike the Dearing inquiry, which focused on the purpose, shape and funding of higher education, the focus of this inquiry is the position of part-time and full-time students in both higher and further education. Many people in our universities and further education colleges believe that the Dearing and Garrick reports neglected that area. The entire system, including the payment of tuition fees, requires an overhaul.

Much of the system goes back to the 1960s, when social conditions and the number of people who went into universities were quite different from what they are today. We need to take account of the fact that patterns of study have changed since many of us were students. Today, about half of the people entering further and higher education are mature students, a fact that-with respect-the saltire awards proposed by the Conservative party do not reflect.

Mature students have different needs from school leavers. Many people choose to combine work with study. The support mechanism-in terms of help with fees, books and exam charges-has never been properly addressed in relation to mature students. That is why I commend the committee of inquiry.

If the motion is passed, the Executive is anxious to consult the other parties fully, and as a matter of urgency, on the details of the committee. My view is that the committee should be asked to work intensively and to report by the end of the year. Clearly, we will need to find a suitably independent chair, without any party allegiance. We are keen that the membership of the committee should be wide enough to bring a wide range of experience to bear.

Parties will be asked for their views and suggestions and I hope that we will all agree that people should be chosen to serve on the committee on account of their expertise, rather than on account of partisan loyalty. The committee's terms of reference will also be a matter for discussion although, as the motion makes clear, it should encompass tuition fees and all student finance, for part-time and full-time students, in both further and higher education.

I also hope that we can reach agreement that the committee should take account of the fact that we need to maintain both quality and standards in our higher and further education institutions. We also need to recognise the fact that many students in Scotland, particularly in our universities, come from outside Scotland. Finally, we do not propose to constrain the committee, but the Parliament would expect to be made aware of the costs of the options and recommendations.

No person or party is being asked to make any concession on their position regarding tuition fees in agreeing to establish the committee. This proposal represents the most effective and immediate way of taking forward these crucial issues. Moreover, by consulting and by involving people with an interest, people with a knowledge, people with a commitment to students and people with a commitment to further and higher education, we will give real substance to what all the parties have proclaimed. The Parliament must consult and listen. As the former president of the AUT, Mr David Jago, said:

"Seeking a quick fix on this issue would be a betrayal of Scotland's aspirations for a new politics, in which everyone can have a say."

I hope that all parties will support the establishment of the committee of inquiry and state their case to it. That is what the Liberal Democrats will do. Although we intend the process to provide a sound basis for an agreed way forward, the partnership agreement expressly acknowledges that we are not bound in advance and, as Liberal Democrats, we are free to come to our own view on the committee's conclusions.

I may be wrong, but I rather suspect that some speeches in this debate may refer to the election manifesto.

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace Liberal Democrat

I am just winding up, Mr Gallie.

I have already referred to our manifesto position on tuition fees. It is worth reminding the Parliament that our manifesto also emphasised the importance of widening access to further and higher education and of attacking student poverty. The measures that I have referred to in this speech show that we have made a start. The committee of inquiry will give us an opportunity to give further immediate consideration to these important issues. I commend the motion to the Parliament.

I move,

That the Parliament recognises the widespread opposition to tuition fees, the growing importance of lifelong learning to Scotland's society and economy and the wide range of circumstances of those engaged in lifelong learning; and calls upon the Scottish Executive once established to appoint urgently a committee of inquiry on the issue of tuition fees and financial support for those participating, part-time or full-time, in further and higher education; the terms of reference, time scale and membership of that committee to be approved by and its report laid before the Parliament.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

I call John Swinney to speak on amendment S1M-2.4, and then to move it formally.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party 3:30 pm, 17th June 1999

I have listened carefully to Mr Wallace on many occasions. I have heard him speak on the issue of tuition fees many times. Having listened carefully to him today, I wonder what has happened to him over the past six weeks.

If the measures outlined in Mr Wallace's speech are the best way to address the crisis on tuition fees, I am left to ask myself why he did not fight the election on them. He fought the election, as my party did, on a commitment to abolish tuition fees. In the 14 minutes of his speech, history was rewritten by his articulation of what his party now represents.

Today, we all know what we are being asked to vote for. The amendment in my name is a real and genuine opportunity to vote for the abolition of tuition fees. It is also an opportunity to start to solve the problem of student hardship. We all know what our duty is-73 members in this chamber were elected on a ticket of abolishing tuition fees. That commitment was centre stage in the election-it was not hidden in the small print. We have a mandate and we must act on it.

This is the first major test of the politics of this Parliament and, critically, of whether the will of the people of Scotland can prevail. We are debating a matter of principle that affects real people outside this chamber and is close to the heart of Scotland.

In moving this amendment, I want to concentrate on two points. First, I want to make the case for this Parliament instructing the Executive to abolish tuition fees. Secondly, I want to challenge the notion, advanced by Mr Wallace and by his colleagues-in endless interviews that Mr Lyon gave this morning-that the quickest way to abolish tuition fees is to have the inquiry that is proposed in Mr Wallace's motion.

The case for abolishing tuition fees was well rehearsed during the election campaign. It comes before us as a simple question of principle: it is a question of free education, not fee education. It is a very Scottish principle. More young Scots go into higher education per head of the population than do young people in any other part of the UK-and that pays off. Scotland is the third most prolific country in the world for research published per head of the population.

However, there are worrying signs of a decline in applications to higher education and in applications to Scottish higher education institutions. There are worrying signs about applications from mature students and there is unease about our ability to encourage postgraduate study on top of heavy undergraduate debt. Our country has a strong commitment to education and we must not undermine it.

To move away from a discussion on principle with which it will be uncomfortable, the Executive will try to distract us by claiming that the abolition of tuition fees will benefit only the well-off. The SNP has always advanced the case for abolishing tuition fees and tackling the issue of student hardship, and our amendment reflects that position. There is abundant evidence that proves that the ending of the grant and the increase in the loan and debt culture for students is a real deterrent to people from low and middle-income households. During the past few weeks, many students have represented to me a growing perception that higher education costs a great deal of money, and tuition fees are the clearest illustration of that perception.

Not only the children of managing directors and Cabinet ministers are being charged tuition fees. The child of a postman and a midwife pays the full whack and the child of a phone salesperson and a bricklayer pays half of the fee. Abolition of tuition fees is hardly a perk for the rich and famous. Even for people who pay no fees at all, there is no guarantee that fees will not creep down towards them in the future. The inflation index used to update the liability threshold will mean that more and more people will be liable to pay fees.

When the case for abolition was made during the election, the electorate spoke. The decision to abolish tuition fees in principle should be taken today and we should agree steps now to tackle student hardship.

The SNP is the first to recognise that its proposals have to be paid for. Before the election, I outlined a proposal-called, interestingly, the Holyrood project-that was designed to free new resources in the Scottish block to afford this Parliament's priorities. It was based on the concept of extending value in the public finances and of seeking the best practice within the Government community to obtain the best value for public resources.

We estimated that more than £120 million could be freed up for the abolition of tuition fees and the Parliament's other priorities but, during the election campaign, our targets were described as "modest". Fundamental to our case was the opportunity to direct resources to meet the genuine funding requirements of the higher education sector, which we would not detract from and which we recognised required to be supported fully by the state.

The central issue is whether a committee of inquiry is the quickest route to abolishing fees. At 12.54 this afternoon, I was listening to Mr McLeish's impassioned speech during the earlier debate. He came out with a ringing request that there should not be another committee of inquiry. I could not agree more. I think he is absolutely right. He was talking about a different subject, but he made the point.

Photo of Ian Jenkins Ian Jenkins Liberal Democrat

Does Mr Swinney not want another committee of inquiry?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The people of Scotland were asked about tuition fees during the election and that is the only committee of inquiry that we need.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

On a point of order, Deputy Presiding Officer. Is it in order for Mr Swinney to speak about the non-necessity of committees when his amendment proposes one?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Mr McLeish has made it clear in the press that the committee proposed by the Executive will have a wide remit, and that was confirmed by Mr Wallace in his presentation today. The committee will be able to investigate every possible solution to this problem; it will have no financial constraints other than identifying where the money is coming from; and it will be chaired by an independent person of substance.

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace Liberal Democrat

To clear up any dispute, I said that the committee would have to identify what the options would cost, not where the money was coming from.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I take Mr Wallace's point and he can put it on the record.

Mr McLeish has also made it clear that the committee members will have no baggage to bring to the issue. That is all very laudable and it is consistent with Mr McLeish's approach to policy making, but it does not sound like a quick way to abolish tuition fees. If a committee is required, we must assume that it has a substantial job to do.

Photo of Henry McLeish Henry McLeish Labour

I want to correct a fundamental misconception. It should be made clear that the committee that we want to establish-I hope with all-party support-will look at tuition fees and student funding, with an independent committee investigating costed options. It will not be a review committee that is set up with abolishing tuition fees as its terms of reference.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I am grateful for Mr McLeish's intervention, although I am not sure whom it was designed to help. It was certainly more helpful to me than to anyone else in the chamber agonising about what they are doing here this afternoon. His point is well made.

What I want the Parliament to do this afternoon is to vote for the abolition of tuition fees in principle. We should have a committee of inquiry on the issue of student hardship. I am the first to recognise that although the majority of members were elected to this Parliament to abolish tuition fees, that majority does not have a solution to the problem of student hardship. That has to be addressed along with the serious points made by the student organisations. Today, I want this Parliament to enforce the mandate that it was given.

If the committee of inquiry goes ahead and we do not take a decision in principle on tuition fees today, the assumption must be that there is a substantial job to be done in relation to the debate on tuition fees. The committee must therefore take evidence. The minimum information that it will need for comparative purposes is admission figures in October and application figures in December of this year, so it cannot report until next year at the earliest. By the time its recommendations are examined, debated and voted on-free vote or not-any abolition will be too late for next year's students.

No member of this Parliament has ever obtained an assurance from Mr McLeish and his colleagues in the Labour part of the Executive that they will be bound by the terms of that inquiry when it comes to the Parliament. We have no guarantee that that inquiry will recommend the abolition of tuition fees.

The time to take the decision to abolish tuition fees is today.

There is no reason why any member elected on a commitment to abolish tuition fees should find the wording of this amendment impossible to support. It calls for the abolition of tuition fees that the electorate demanded. It calls for a stable solution to student hardship. The vote is about the principle of free education and access to education. Mr McLeish admitted at the weekend that if this amendment were passed, tuition fees would have to be abolished. Mr McLeish has also stated that the Government's response to the committee of inquiry will be driven through the Parliament by the party whips for Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

There is an opportunity today to abolish tuition fees. If Liberal Democrat members pass up this opportunity, they will do so with no guarantee that abolition will be delivered at the end of the inquiry. Mr Wallace said during the election campaign that tuition fees would be dead by Friday. We all thought that he was talking about Friday 7 May, but the timetable has slipped. Mr McLeish conceded at the weekend that tuition fees could be dead by this Friday, if this amendment is passed. Tuition fees could be dead by tomorrow-Friday 18 June-so we must vote for abolition today.

I move, to leave out all after "Scottish Executive" and insert "to bring forward to the Parliament proposals for the abolition of tuition fees and to appoint urgently a Committee of inquiry on the issue of financial support for those participating, part-time or full-time, in further and higher education; the terms of reference, time scale and membership of that Committee to be approved by and its report laid before the Parliament".

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

I will now open the debate to members. As a number of members have expressed a wish to speak, the time limit for speeches will be four minutes. That may be reviewed later, but I ask members to stick to their time.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative 3:42 pm, 17th June 1999

During the past couple of weeks, we have heard many complaints that the Parliament has avoided discussion about real issues that affect real people. Today, we have the chance to change that perception and to have a discussion and vote that make a difference to people's lives. We can go beyond the rhetoric and make a difference.

I appeal to Liberal Democrat members to make the difference by putting their principles first. This amendment is all about giving them the opportunity to vote on the principle of abolishing fees while still having the benefit of an inquiry on student hardship.

The principle is about free higher education, not the hardship that tuition fees might cause. If there is an inquiry into student financial hardship, no doubt tuition fees can be part of that equation, but today we are talking about the principle that higher education should be free.

During the election campaign, the Scottish Liberal Democrats, the Scottish nationalist party-[MEMBERS: "The Scottish National party."]-the Scottish National party, the Scottish Conservative party, the Greens, the Scottish Socialist party and Dennis Canavan all campaigned against tuition fees. We went round the houses, round the campuses-some of us even wore the tee-shirt-to campaign for the abolition of tuition fees.

Unfortunately, after the electorate spoke and voted a majority of members for the abolition of tuition fees, the Liberal Democrats agreed to an inquiry in their willingness to cook up a deal. It can certainly be argued that an inquiry into student hardship is necessary, but the Liberal Democrats created a fudge by bringing tuition fees into the remit of that inquiry.

Student hardship is undoubtedly a problem, and it will undoubtedly get worse.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

Mr Monteith talks about the creation of student hardship and the principle of free higher education. Has he conveniently forgotten that it was a Tory Government that introduced 13 different measures to abolish free higher education, and that it was a Tory Government that created student hardship by abandoning the principle of free higher education during the 18 years the Tories were in power?

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

Can Mr Lyon give one of those 13 examples?

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

This is not a debate across the chamber, Mr Monteith.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

Mr Lyon should be reminded that it was under the Conservative Government that access to higher education expanded from 17 per cent to 43 per cent. If any Government had a commitment to expanding access to higher education it was the Conservative Government.

Even with scant research, it is easy to find student financial hardship. In four Scottish universities that we have investigated, student debt to their institutions has risen. At the University of Dundee, for example, debt has risen by £100,000 since tuition fees were introduced.

In the four institutions, debt currently stands at £1.9 million. There is absolutely no doubt of the need to alleviate student poverty. That is what Mr Swinney's amendment proposes. It also gives everyone-and the Liberal Democrats in particular-the opportunity to end the ill of tuition fees by voting today to abolish them. We could then come up with proposals as to how that could best be done-there will undoubtedly be different views on that.

The Conservative party has already published a bill in the House of Lords and we have lodged motions on how tuition fees can be abolished. There is no doubt that there are ways of abolishing tuition fees to people's satisfaction. This amendment makes it clear that student hardship requires an inquiry, but that free higher education is a principle that this party-and many other parties here-should not give up on. We can end tuition fees.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

Mr Monteith keeps referring to his party's commitment to the principle of free higher education. I wonder whether he recognises this quotation of a certain Mr Stephen Dorrell:

"The student goes through higher education and receives enhanced earning potential as a result and so should be expected to contribute towards the cost of that education"-[Official Report, House of Commons, 16 March 1998; Vol 308, c 976.]

Does that sound like the principle of free higher education?

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

No, it sounds like Stephen Dorrell. Our party has embraced devolution and is quite at home with the concept of creating policy for our party and our electorate in Scotland. We are free to make our own decisions. I hope that members of Mr Smith's party will be free to make their own decisions and to vote for the abolition of tuition fees. It is worth reminding the Liberal Democrats that in the past month their share of the vote has fallen from 13 to 9 per cent.

The abolition of tuition fees is non-negotiable. We should not be discussing whether tuition fees should be abolished in the future, once they have been shown to cause hardship. We should be discussing abolishing tuition fees today.

Where do all these fees stop? Will fees be introduced for hospital care-possibly means-tested to make the Government feel better about introducing them? Let us make sure that we end the concept of fees. Let us vote against the motion and for the amendment. The Liberals should seize the day.

Photo of Sylvia Jackson Sylvia Jackson Labour 3:49 pm, 17th June 1999

One of the key themes surrounding the establishment of the Scottish Parliament was the emergence of a new kind of politics: where we would put aside party political posturing and look rationally at the arguments before us; where we would recognise genuine policy differences where they existed; but where we would seek to develop consensus around the priorities of the people of Scotland. Today's debate is one of the first tests of that new kind of politics.

Will we address the financial support that should be offered to students on the basis of party political slogans, and on the basis of policies developed hastily during an election campaign in order to provide a media soundbite, or will we rationally examine the issues that are involved? Let us be in no doubt that those who work and study in higher education want us to take the latter road.

That is clear from the briefings of the Association of University Teachers and the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals. I quote from the AUT briefing:

"It will be all too easy to get it wrong-to rush into a quick fix that creates new anomalies or leaves a massive hole in the Parliament's budget. Getting it wrong will discredit the Parliament and disrupt higher education. Getting it right will take a bit longer but in the process we can prove that the new Parliament offers a new, more robust approach to resolving difficult issues and building a real consensus."

The AUT, COSHEP and-as we have mentioned-the National Union of Students in Scotland all recognise the complexities of the issues. They have argued consistently for an informed debate that takes into account all the available evidence and recognises that what seems like a simple and straightforward solution is rarely that. If this Parliament genuinely believes in the new politics, it must put aside short-term party political expediency and support the establishment of a committee of inquiry.

In setting up a committee of inquiry, we must be clear about the objectives that we want it to address. Let me suggest two objectives that I believe should be paramount. First, nothing must be done that threatens the world-class reputation of Scottish higher education. That reputation has already been mentioned by Mr Wallace and is well deserved. Scotland's academics rank third in the world for the number of research publications per head of the population. Scottish universities attract students from more than 100 countries. That means that if the committee of inquiry recommends additional financial support, it must do so as part of a package of additional resources for higher education. To do otherwise would be a disaster.

The Labour Government has started to repair the underfunding that resulted from 18 years of Tory rule, yet much remains to be done. One of the consequences of the historical underfunding is that salaries have fallen well below those of comparable professions. The AUT reports that there is a 36 per cent slippage in pay. Next week the Bett commission on pay in higher education will report. It is already clear that it will recommend significant increases, but universities and colleges will not be able to meet those recommendations without increased financial support.

What is critical is that greater financial support for students cannot be bought by reducing support for institutions. In helping students to pay the bill, we must not reduce the value of what they buy.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

Did Dr Jackson benefit from a free higher education? If she did, why does she wish to deny that same privilege to future generations?

Photo of Sylvia Jackson Sylvia Jackson Labour

If Mr Lochhead will allow me to finish, I am just coming on to that point.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

Could you do so quickly, please?

Photo of Sylvia Jackson Sylvia Jackson Labour

The second objective is to broaden participation. It cannot be acceptable that 80 per cent of children from social class 1 go to university, but only 14 per cent of social class 5 do. It is not a new problem. It is as old as higher education. One of the great disappointments of the expansion of higher education in the 1990s is that the proportion of students from the lower socio-economic classes has changed little.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

I must ask you to wind up now.

Photo of Sylvia Jackson Sylvia Jackson Labour

The abolition of this form of educational apartheid is a social and an economic priority.

Finally, for me grants and loans are a much more important issue than tuition fees, but I am happy for that argument to be tested by a committee of inquiry. That is why I support the unamended motion and why I urge other members to do the same.

Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh Scottish National Party 3:55 pm, 17th June 1999

I agree that we must maintain the world-class reputation of our higher education institutions and universities, but that should be funded responsibly by central Government from general taxation and not at the expense of and by placing extra debt on individual students and their families. That is what the Westminster Government has done and it is entirely the wrong way to go about it.

The tradition in Scottish education is of a system that is open to all and which allows each individual to develop to the fullest of their abilities, irrespective of economic, social or other circumstances. That traditional view has served Scotland well over the centuries and we abandon it at our peril.

In a rapidly changing information age, Scotland needs to maximise the intellectual skills and potential of all its people if it is to survive and prosper in the 21st century. Scotland's education system has fundamental strengths that are well suited to such a rapidly changing future if-and only if-we build on them and provide an education service not only for Scotland, but for the world.

The greater the financial or other barriers placed before our people, the greater our failure as legislators will be. It is to the shame of the Westminster Government that it has imposed tuition fees on the Scottish higher education system at a time when other countries, such as Ireland, have abolished tuition fees to encourage expansion of and access to education for their citizens. It is all the more ironic, as the Westminster Cabinet ministers who abolished student grants and imposed tuition fees and student loans were the people who benefited from the grants system. I am thoroughly ashamed that we have now imposed on a generation debt burdens and barriers that were not in place when many of us went to university.

Today's decision on tuition fees has important consequences for the Scottish economy. The McNicoll report published by the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals two years ago identified that students from the rest of the United Kingdom contribute more than £110 million annually to our higher education system. In addition, each year they contribute more than £100 million in off-campus expenditure on Scottish goods and services. Therefore, any fall in applications to Scottish higher education establishments from students from other parts of the United Kingdom will have a considerable impact on the wider Scottish economy, as well as striking at the heart of our traditional system of four-year honours degrees and endangering the breadth of courses on offer to Scottish students at our universities.

It is patently unfair that English, Welsh and Northern Irish applicants to Scottish universities are expected to pay up to £1,000 more than Scottish or European Union students from the same background for exactly the same course. That means that a student at a Scottish university, from St Ives or St Albans, will have to pay £1,000 more than a student from St Etienne or St Andrews. Such discrimination against English, Welsh and Northern Irish students has to go-and now.

Tuition fees simply add to the financial barriers imposed by the student loans system. Once in place, they will not stay at present levels.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

When tuition fees were introduced by the Westminster Government, Mr Welsh asked it to wait and to allow the Scottish Parliament to look at the proposals in detail before their introduction.

Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh Scottish National Party

Now that we have a Scottish Parliament, we should take action on that. That is the whole point and that is why we have a Scottish system. To put Mr Lyon's comments in context, the measure was put through by English ministers and there was hardly a Scot at the debates. I attended them all and opposed tuition fees at every opportunity-on my own. That was the problem.

The matter should be left to the Scottish Parliament, where we can take sensible decisions with Scottish needs and aspirations in mind.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

Will you wind up now, Mr Welsh?

Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh Scottish National Party

I want to point out that this is a moving feast. Once tuition fees are established, they will not stand still. When the Australian Government introduced tuition fees, students paid an average of only 23 per cent of the total fee. That figure has now risen to 45 per cent. Top-up fees were also ruled out, but will now be permitted in Australia. Now that the door has been opened on tuition fees, all that is possible.

The reassurances that the United Kingdom Government has given to students here are similar to those that were given to Australian students.

Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh Scottish National Party

Student organisations and educational institutions are right to be wary about the future as long as this system of tuition fees remains in place. I never want to see an education system in Scotland where credit ratings count more than grade averages, where bank balances count more than qualifications or where pay-as-you-learn is in a two-tier system that is based on ability to pay rather than ability to learn. We must trust our traditional Scottish education system.

For those reasons and many others, I opposed tuition fees at every opportunity in the Westminster Parliament, and I oppose them again here. The difference is that here we can do something about it. This Parliament should not just recognise the "widespread opposition to tuition fees", as stated in the motion; it should take action to abolish tuition fees, and our education system should expect nothing less.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

Members have been exceeding the four-minute speaking time quite considerably. I ask them to bear that in mind as they proceed. If members cannot keep to the time limit, I will have to reduce it, which I am sure no one wants. Similarly, I ask members to make interventions as brief as possible.

Photo of Marilyn Livingstone Marilyn Livingstone Labour 4:01 pm, 17th June 1999

I will try to be brief. I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate and welcome the independent committee of inquiry proposed by the Deputy First Minister.

I cannot understand the opposition to the motion. Now that the fervour of the election is over, I had hoped that all members would accept that it is inappropriate to debate student fees in isolation. We need a much wider and comprehensive debate on the funding of and access to post-16 education and training.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Did the member also hope that once the election was over, this new Scottish Parliament could ignore the wishes and the votes of the Scottish people?

Photo of Marilyn Livingstone Marilyn Livingstone Labour

Setting up an independent inquiry is taking on board the views of the Scottish people.

For the past 16 years, I have worked in further and higher education in Fife College of Further and Higher Education in Kirkcaldy. I have first-hand experience of the issues that affect the sector and the students it serves.

Underfunding has been inherent in further and higher education during 18 years of Conservative government; there has been capping at all levels of education. We are redressing and will continue to redress underfunding. In response to a question that I asked at question time, the Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning intimated that there would be £493 million additional funding for further and higher education. We must also address qualitative as well as quantitative issues. We need to address support and funding for full-time and part-time students and for students with special learning needs.

I am interested in the issue of widening access. Our goal must be to raise skills levels and to assist young people and those who are not so young to achieve the highest and, most important, the most appropriate qualifications. For many members, lifelong learning is now an accepted principle. We must develop that principle with nothing less than a radical and lasting change in the attitude to learning and education among all the Scottish people.

If we achieve our vision, we will be able to prevent the creation of the trap of social exclusion through low attainment, unemployment or low-skilled, low-paid employment, and the subsequent disaffection that can ensue. Most important-and this is why I support the committee of inquiry-the challenge for us is that there will be no single solution to overcoming the problems of barriers to access, underachievement, non-participation and student hardship. Our goal must be to ensure that our further and higher education training provision meets the differing needs of the Scottish people. I agree with Dr Jackson that student funding is of paramount importance.

In our debate and in the inquiry, I ask people not to forget further education. Further education is crucial and is often the step to higher education and higher skills as well as a route out of poverty. I am pleased that it features in the inquiry and look forward to the results.

We need a comprehensive and holistic approach if we are to provide everyone with the opportunity to reach their potential. I ask members to support the comprehensive and wide-ranging review proposed by Jim Wallace.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat 4:05 pm, 17th June 1999

Throughout my working life of the past 20 years I have been involved in adult education, the last four or five years of which were at Aberdeen College of Further Education. I do not need anyone to tell me of the importance of abolishing student tuition fees. I am committed to their abolition, and when I have the first practical chance to do so, I will. I am interested in practical politics.

The hypocrisy and cant that I have heard today from the Conservative National party about its amendment is unbelievable. The Conservatives started off the process of attacking students in our further and higher education colleges. I am afraid that, by introducing tuition fees, the Labour Government at Westminster has also failed students miserably.

As Jim Wallace rightly pointed out, nothing can be done until 2000-01. We cannot abolish tuition fees now because that would cause utter chaos in our further and higher education colleges-I can tell members that because of my experience. The amendment will not help students. It is impractical in every way and I will not be voting for it. However, I repeat that at the first practical opportunity I will be voting-

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

No, Mr Gallie. I am finishing because many members want to contribute to the debate. I will not dominate even four minutes.

I will finish by warning the coalition Government. I have heard mention of abolishing tuition fees in 2001-02. That is not on. It is my clear understanding, and I was delighted to hear Jim Wallace confirm it today, that the committee of inquiry will report to this Parliament by the end of this year-that is practical politics. We will have an opportunity to vote on the issue in the new year, and we will abolish fees for the next academic year at the first practical opportunity.

Photo of Dennis Canavan Dennis Canavan Independent 4:07 pm, 17th June 1999

When the issue of tuition fees was debated in the House of Commons, I voted against them; I voted in favour of the restoration of student grants, especially for students from low-income families. Perhaps that is part of the reason why I am sitting in this part of the chamber rather than with Labour members.

During the recent election campaign, I gave commitments on how I would vote on tuition fees and I also expressed the hope that this Parliament would take a far more enlightened view than did the House of Commons. However, that remains to be seen. In recent years, the House of Commons has, in many respects, been trying to turn the clock back with regard to opportunities in higher education.

People who try to defend tuition fees tell us that about half the students in Scotland are exempt from paying them. I am not sure about that. I am told that the Scottish Office expects that figure to drop, so that in all probability in the next academic session the majority of students will face tuition fees. The current threshold shows that parents with a residual income of approximately £17,000 must pay fees for their sons or daughters at college or university. Parents with a residual income of £17,000 are not rich in this day and age. Nevertheless, we must admit that if we were to abolish tuition fees full stop, the main beneficiaries would be parents with high incomes.

That is why we cannot examine tuition fees in isolation. The abolition of tuition fees must be accompanied by the restoration of grants-for students from low-income families in particular.

The Executive's response is to set up some kind of inquiry into tuition fees. I admit that there might be a case for an inquiry into the level of maintenance grants, relative to income, but we must bear it in mind that the majority of members of this Parliament were elected on clear-cut commitments to abolish tuition fees-no ifs or buts or maybes; we were elected to this place to abolish tuition fees, and people outside want us, as members of this Parliament, to do that at the earliest opportunity.

Sadly, the only party that did not have a commitment in its manifesto to abolish tuition fees was the Labour party. That is rather ironic, because the Labour party used to be the party of free education. However, new Labour has become the party of fee-paying education. It is now in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, although I, perhaps along with many other people, suspect that when the partnership agreement was being negotiated, people down in London were attempting to pull the strings. I am not opposed in principle to coalition, and I accept that the Liberal Democrats could not seriously expect every aspect of their manifesto to be included in the partnership agreement. However, I think that they sold themselves short-and sold the people of Scotland short-by not sticking to their principles, given that in the recent election those principles were supported by the majority of the people of Scotland.

I see the demand for an inquiry as a fudge. We have had inquiries-we have had Dearing, we have had Garrick-and we can see the results. The latest figures show that applications are down by 8.4 per cent at Stirling, 7.4 per cent at St Andrews, 8.4 per cent at Napier, 6.5 per cent at Glasgow, 5 per cent at Edinburgh and 5.9 per cent at Dundee. The students are voting with their feet. Unless we change the policy, that trend will continue, meaning that fewer of our people, particularly our young people, will have the opportunity to benefit from higher education, as many-probably most-members of this Parliament have.

Today we have a chance to examine the Scottish dimension of the problem and, by supporting the amendment, to find, in the First Minister's words, a distinctly Scottish solution to a Scottish problem.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

To try to accommodate as many members as I can who have indicated that they wish to speak, I must reduce the time limit for speeches to three minutes.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour 4:13 pm, 17th June 1999

As I represent a constituency with three universities and five colleges of further education, I intend to take a strong interest in education. As Glasgow Kelvin contains a high concentration of the student population, I want to take this opportunity to address the important issue of student hardship and get on record some of the figures for the problem.

We do not generally think of students as being on the poverty line, and when discussing low pay we seldom associate that with students. However, student hardship has been a feature of the system since the 1980s. Although I give credit to the Conservative Government for expanding education in the 1980s, I say to Mr Monteith that it is wrong for the Conservatives not to take responsibility for the mounting debt that they created by successive measures to reduce the levels of grant: abolishing the special grant for art students, abolishing the repeat-year grant, and freezing student grants for two years running. It is dishonest of them not to take responsibility for the debt that students now face.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

As a former art student who applied for the art grant, I can testify that the art grant was used for materials, not living expenses. Its abolition is not, therefore, a contributory factor in student hardship.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

I have to correct Mr Monteith on that. He is correct in saying that the special grant was for materials, but I made representations to Mr John MacKay, the Scottish Office minister responsible at the time. I pleaded with him not to abolish the grant because it was such a minute amount of public expenditure. Mr Monteith's Government still said no.

This September, the student maintenance level for those living away from home is £3,635 a year, a weekly expenditure of £69.90. Given that the average student rent in Scotland is £45 a week, that leaves £24.90 for living costs or £3.56 a day. That is more or less what most of us spend on a cup of coffee and a newspaper at the Scottish Parliament. That is the average amount that students are left with to buy books, clothes and stationery. It is no wonder that the drop-out rate is quite high.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

In just a minute. It is important to note that there has not been a review of the level of student maintenance in modern times. No body or Government department has considered what students need to survive on. Whether we support a grant or a loan system, we cannot continue to pluck figures from the air. For students to survive, the figures must be based on real costs. Mr Wallace mentioned particular concern over mature students.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Pauline McNeill, like many here, has the experience of having been a student leader. Is she speaking for the motion or for the amendment? I entirely agree with the content of her speech. Students are suffering, and does she not agree that we should be examining hardship, which the amendment would allow us to do? Does she agree that the fees element adds very much to hardship and contributes to the figures that she has mentioned in her speech?

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

To make it clear, I am supporting the motion, but I will say why fees must be included in the review, because of my beliefs about access-which I will get to.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

Could you begin to wind up, please.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

It seems I will not get to talk about it. The reason why I think student tuition fees should be included in our review is that we have all failed to address the issue of access to those from working-class families. We cannot put our hands on our hearts and say that this country has found the fundamental reasons why we do not have higher participation rates. I support the motion and, within that, I support the inclusion of tuition fees. I do not think that we can afford to exclude £40 million of public expenditure before we even begin to address the question of access. That is why the second review, as contained in the motion, is the most important.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

I ask members to limit interventions to the bare minimum so that we can include as many speeches as possible.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party 4:18 pm, 17th June 1999

The issue concerns the principle of free education. Today, we are seeking to make a start on re-establishing free education, first, by abolishing tuition fees. Every member-Mike Rumbles-has the opportunity to do that today. We all know that tuition fees are a deeply unpopular measure introduced by the Labour Government. It was Pauline's Government that abolished the remnants of the maintenance grant, in case she has forgotten. Tuition fees are unpopular not just with those who have to pay them, but with 65 per cent of people who have expressed, in recent polls, their opposition to them.

Support for their abolition has come from various quarters. Only this morning, we received a deputation from Dundee City Council, which, last Monday, passed a motion in support of the widespread campaign of opposition to tuition fees. It is clearly the will of the people to abolish tuition fees. They elected 73 of us to do just that. We are supposed to be here to represent their wishes: we can do that today by supporting the amendment. Many members benefited from free education. Perhaps they would not be here today if they had not done so, yet they wish to deny that opportunity to others.

The impact of the attacks on free education can already be seen with the 6 per cent drop in university applications. To argue, as Labour members often do, that abolition of tuition fees benefits the well-off is utter nonsense. Over the past few weeks we have heard a number of speeches claiming "I'm more working class than thou". I do not intend to make one myself, but I was the first person in my family to have a university degree and I know that if the education system of today had been in operation then, I would not have gone to university and I would not be here today.

It sounds crass to talk about abolishing tuition fees as benefiting the better-off when we are earning a minimum of £40,000 a year and many ministers are earning £70,000 to £80,000. Jack McConnell's household income is probably more than all of ours collectively. We talk nevertheless about better-off people. Are they the clerical worker and the joiner with a joint income of £17,000, who have to pay tuition fees? Is it the spouse who earns £14,000 and who has to contribute to their partner's tuition fees? Or is it the postman and the nurse, who pay full tuition fees? Are these the better-off people that we are talking about? I do not think so.

The amendment allows us to go further than abolishing tuition fees because it gives us the opportunity to re-establish a free education system-and we have to look at student maintenance to do that. The First Minister talked yesterday of the need to achieve a Scottish education system of excellent quality. The state of an education system says a lot about a society. I would have thought that the message that we want to send out is that Scotland has an education system that is free at the point of delivery, not one based on ability to pay. The quickest way to abolish tuition fees is not to have an inquiry but to vote for the amendment today, which I urge members to do so that we can begin to return Scotland to a system of free education.

Photo of Phil Gallie Phil Gallie Conservative

On a point of order. There have been many good contributions to this debate. Pauline McNeill's was one-she participated in a debating way and allowed interventions and so lost time. Perhaps the Deputy Presiding Officer would consider extending the debate, given the number of people who want to speak and that the shortness of speeches is spoiling the debate.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

This afternoon I indicated that a time limit would be imposed. Members are not keeping to it. I am being flexible and giving additional time to those who take interventions, but there is a limit to how far I can go. We have to come to decision time at 5 pm and there is other business, so we must adhere to the programme that was outlined earlier.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative 4:23 pm, 17th June 1999

Whether or not students should pay tuition fees in Scotland or elsewhere should be decided on principle and not on the allocation of budgets or taxation. That is not only my view but that of the Liberal Democrats. I was told so many times during the election campaign in Dumfries by no less a person than Mr Jim Wallace's brother, Neil. Mr Neil Wallace was no less uncompromising than his brother in his commitment to abolishing tuition fees. He saw the new politics of Scotland as the coming together of the Liberal Democrats with the SNP and the Tories and as leading to their abolition.

I particularly remember an all-candidates debate in my old school, Lockerbie Academy, where Mr Neil Wallace expressed that prediction with passion, to the obvious pleasure of most of the audience and the equally obvious displeasure of the local Labour MP, who was present.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative

That same night, my SNP opponent and I pledged ourselves to that same objective. Today, that opportunity is before the Parliament and I still hope that Liberal Democrat members will be prepared-I am sorry, Elaine, I did not see you.

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour

Would Mr Mundell remind us who actually won the election in Dumfries?

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative

Indeed I am happy to, as I am about to come to the election result.

Today, we have that opportunity before this Parliament, and I hope that Liberal Democrat members will be prepared to follow Neil Wallace's brave words and join us in lifting the iniquitous burden of tuition fees from Scottish students. Liberal Democrat members have given us many quotes. I have a quote from Mike Rumbles, from The Leader (Mearns), in which he says that he will vote for the abolition of tuition fees, and that Thursday is the start of the process.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative

I shall continue, as we have heard Mr Rumbles's quote.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

I said that here in this chamber earlier.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative

In his explanation he is misguided as to what he is going to vote for-it is the amendment that will achieve that objective.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

Will you wind up now, please, Mr Mundell.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative

Mr Neil Wallace made another brave statement, following the declaration of the Scottish parliamentary election result. He declared that, on the basis of the rise in the Liberal Democrat vote, the Dumfries constituency had become a four-way marginal seat. Mr Wallace was not present on Sunday night when the European election count in Dumfries was declared. That demonstrated something quite different: a complete collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote, which was not unique to Dumfries. The Liberal Democrats lost in 10 of their constituencies, and came fourth in Aberdeen South-hardly a vote of confidence in our new deputy minister for lifelong learning.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

Mr Mundell, will you wind up, please.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative

I am spending plenty of time speaking to Liberal Democrat supporters, as should Liberal Democrat members. Those supporters are now much more favourably inclined to vote for the Conservatives because they know that we at least will stick to our commitments.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

I call Mr Duncan McNeil, who will be the last speaker unless he is brief.

Photo of Duncan McNeil Duncan McNeil Labour 4:27 pm, 17th June 1999

There has been a lot of discussion about the university aspect of the debate. I have not been to a university, and would like to remind people of the importance of further education colleges, which provide around 50,000 student places in Scotland. James Watt College, in my constituency, provides 1,400 of those places.

As members will know, further education colleges are an important gateway to second-chance and lifelong learning. As someone who benefited from that second chance, I can testify that it was never given free. People who went to night school paid to go there to get themselves out of the shipyards. People who went on plumbing, welding, car maintenance and other courses paid or got their employers to pay. Principles may be the experience of some members, but they are not the experience of many people I know, nor are they my own experience.

Photo of Colin Campbell Colin Campbell Scottish National Party

Mr McNeil has just said that he benefited from free education. Why does he then seek to deny it to others?

Photo of Duncan McNeil Duncan McNeil Labour

I think Colin Campbell must have misheard; I must have been talking too fast for him. I said that the experience of many people in further education colleges is that they must always pay; they either pay their own fees or employers pay them. That was my experience.

To get an angle on the issue and to get a feel for the debate, I tried to exclude myself from the accusations, bluster and confusion of the political debate. I visited my local college, not only to better inform myself about the debate, but to establish a link between this Parliament and the college, including those at the sharp end of the debate. I found out that 76 per cent of students who attend that college pay no fees, and that only 4 per cent pay the full fees-53 out of 1,444 students.

Photo of Duncan McNeil Duncan McNeil Labour

Wait a minute, Tommy, I am in full flow here. Ninety-six per cent of students at that college received either full or partial support for their fees.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

I intervened because Duncan McNeil was in full flow; I hope that he does not mind. Does he agree that, along with the abolition of tuition fees, part of this debate has to be about the earliest possible reintroduction of student grants to support working-class kids and help them to get an education?

Photo of Duncan McNeil Duncan McNeil Labour

I fully support a wide-ranging review and all the- [Laughter.] Well, I do, and I think that it is very important to have a review and an independent inquiry to discuss all the issues. Dennis Canavan alluded earlier to the fact that there is more than one thing at issue here, and that is what I am trying to get at.

As I said, I found the college in a period of investment and expansion. It is employing 12 new lecturers on a permanent basis. All those things are happening and we must take them into consideration.

To vote against the inquiry and support the amendment would not automatically create fairness. I do not see how it could; it defies my logic. It would exclude the students, management and unions from the opportunity to participate in influencing the decision-making process. I thought that was what we were supposed to be about.

Every action has a consequence. If we do not spend a bit of money on examining the issues, it could lead to poorer quality courses, fewer teachers and an end to the investment environment that we have now. We must, therefore, think hard and support the wide-ranging inquiry.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party 4:31 pm, 17th June 1999

I have listened very carefully, and sometimes angrily, to contributions from members on all sides of this debate. We should all remember that this is the first decision of substance that this Parliament is being asked to take. That is why it is vital that we get it right this afternoon and do what the people of Scotland instructed us to do on 6 May.

The debate can essentially be boiled down to the consideration of two fundamental principles. The first is the principle of free access to further and higher education. The cry from students for free education for all has been a consistent one down the years, but we should stop and consider just what that principle means for the people of Scotland, not least for those in our own ranks who have benefited from a free education.

In this country, we have a great tradition of learning. We send more young people into higher education than any other part of the UK. We believe that access to education should be based on the ability to learn and not on the ability to pay.

Tuition fees and the abolition of the student maintenance grant-twin issues that are of equal importance-have ripped the heart out of that principle. The effects are already there for all to see. Applications are down by nearly 6 per cent since last year. I have heard it said that, because the biggest drop is among low-income students who are exempt from tuition fees, that makes it all right. It does not make it all right. It strengthens the argument for a review of student funding and financial support, but it is not an argument for tuition fees. In any event, the figures show an above-average drop among those at the lower end of the scale, the people who have to pay a proportion of the tuition fees.

In short, Mr Presiding Officer, but in truth, we are pricing our students out of education. The Government's manifesto commitment to create extra places in higher education should be considered in the light of that fact. Based on present evidence, all that the Government will be doing is creating a lot of empty seats in lecture theatres across Scotland.

The second principle that is at stake in this debate is the principle of democratic accountability. In the long years and varied arguments that have preceded the establishment of this Parliament, the one theme that kept emerging again and again was accountability. This Parliament was to be about bringing politics closer to the people and making politicians more accountable for their actions and decisions, forcing them to keep their promises. That theme emerged earlier this week, albeit in a different context, when Charles Kennedy entered the Liberal Democrat leadership race. He said that politicians must reconnect with the people. He was absolutely right and, in this Parliament, we in Scotland have the opportunity to do just that. However, if Liberal Democrat members-and I make no apology for singling them out-do not vote for John Swinney's amendment this afternoon, they will blow that opportunity.

Seventy-three of us were sent here on a clear pledge to abolish tuition fees. That was not a peripheral campaign issue, but the central, defining one. It was the Liberals who made their commitment to abolition non-negotiable. It was Jim Wallace who said that tuition fees would be dead by Friday. In his opening remarks, he rather astonishingly criticised what he called the bald statement in the amendment which calls for the Executive to bring forward proposals for the abolition of tuition fees. I checked the Liberal manifesto, and it says that the Liberal Democrats would "abolish tuition fees"-remarkably similar wording.

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace Liberal Democrat

Ms Sturgeon is being very selective. The manifesto says:

"Abolish tuition fees for all Scottish students at UK universities."

The amendment would not do that. Under the proposal that she is asking us to vote for, Scottish students at English universities would still have to pay fees.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Mr Wallace's playing with words will not wash with the Scottish people. I have not been involved in politics for as long as many members of this Parliament, but even in my time I have witnessed more than a few U-turns by governing parties. They would be as nothing, however, compared to the betrayal that will occur in this chamber today if Liberal members do not vote for John Swinney's amendment.

It has been said, before and during this debate, that the establishment of a committee is the quickest way to secure abolition. As Mr Swinney has already pointed out, that begs the question why that was not the manifesto commitment; it is utter nonsense. Putting aside the fact that this morning Mr McLeish would not commit the Executive to carrying out the committee's recommendations, if we had a committee and it decided to abolish fees, that would bring us back to the point we are at today: that is, the point of calling on the Executive to bring forward proposals.

This afternoon, we have a choice. We can honour the 6 May verdict of the Scottish people, or we can choose to ignore it. I put it to the Liberal Democrat members of this Parliament that they will ignore the wishes of the Scottish people at their peril. I support the amendment.

Photo of Henry McLeish Henry McLeish Labour 4:37 pm, 17th June 1999

I would like to build some harmony and unity out of what seems to have been a fairly disparate debate. We have election campaigns and politics is about seeing through commitments. It is also about looking at issues in their wider context.

The remarkable thing about Jim Wallace's motion is that it does not ask any party to concede its position. The Liberal Democrats forcibly pointed out that they are sticking with the issue-they want abolition. A very important point of practical politics was also raised by a Liberal member-there must be a practical way of making decisions. The motion asks that no one shifts position, and there might be some agreement on that.

If every party-every member-in this chamber is confident of the wisdom of their position, why not put it to the examination of a review committee? That committee's composition, terms of reference and time scale will be agreed by this Parliament. Without shifting positions, we can then look at the issue in context.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Mr McLeish has set out the position that he represents. If the committee of inquiry recommends the abolition of tuition fees, will he guarantee that the Labour party will support and implement those recommendations?

Photo of Henry McLeish Henry McLeish Labour

I commented on the radio this morning that it would be absurd for anyone to make a commitment to a hypothetical situation. That is why we are having a review inquiry. [MEMBERS: "Oh."] The SNP simply does not like being challenged on the wisdom of its position. It may want to get hooked on that hypothetical question, but let us go further to explore what Scotland wants. The SNP talks much about being in the vanguard of the people, but the National Union of Students, which is committed to the abolition of tuition fees, says:

"NUS Scotland has supported the establishment of a review committee to examine student financial support in Scotland. Indeed NUS Scotland publicly called for a review prior to the Scottish General Election."

Photo of Henry McLeish Henry McLeish Labour

The Association of Scottish Colleges says:

"The proposal to abolish contributions to tuition fees for full-time undergraduates needs careful consideration in a wider context."

Professor John Arbuthnott, in a letter to Donald Dewar, says:

"It is in the national interest to institute a comprehensive review immediately . . . to establish a coherent long-term framework for student support and the provision of higher education in Scotland."

In a letter to Alex Salmond, Dr Ian Graham-Bryce of the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals says:

"Without prejudice . . . to their commitment to the solution they believe to be right, we hope all parties will support our call for a swift and independent review of student support in general."

Jane Denholm, deputy secretary of COSHEP, says:

"This should be the time for parties to work from their shared principles to achieve the grown-up, joined-up and evidence based policy solutions which Scottish students need and deserve" and which taxpayers should expect from us.

Photo of Henry McLeish Henry McLeish Labour

No, I am not giving way at the moment. I want to give way to Tommy Sheridan in a second.

Robert Kay, chair of the Association of Scottish Colleges, says:

"The Scottish Parliament should take a broad and balanced view, not just of tuition fees but all aspects of student support and all types of student."

Finally, David Jago, past president of the Association of University Teachers, says:

"Seeking a quick fix on this issue would be a betrayal of Scotland's aspirations for a new politics in which everyone can have a say, not just party leaders meeting behind closed doors."

The emphasis is that it would be arrogant for us simply to say, without looking at the consequences of the action, "Let us take an issue. Let us spend £40 million to £60 million of taxpayers' money." Today, I am saying, "Do not concede your position." Let us agree on that. Let us listen to the rest of Scotland, which wants to be involved in the debate. Are the SNP and the Tories going to say, "No, we do not want to listen to COSHEP, the NUS or anyone else. We want to go our way without due consideration"?

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

In the spirit of listening, will Mr McLeish join me on 1 July and meet the student march against poverty, which is leaving Glasgow on 28 June and is supported by Glasgow Caledonian University Students Association and seven other university students associations?

Photo of Henry McLeish Henry McLeish Labour

I have signed up to meet the AUT, which has grave concerns about higher education. I am willing to consider Mr Sheridan's invitation, diaries permitting.

What an amazing degree of consensus there is in the chamber this afternoon. I have heard people talk about widening access and about student hardship and maintenance grants. We have also heard about part-time students, mature students, colleges, bursaries, fees and fee waivers. As we are involved in the totality of funding, is it not prudent-without conceding our positions-for us not only to look at the matter in the context of student funding, but to ask, as the AUT does, "What about the teaching infrastructure? What about the quality of higher and further education? What about the fact that £493 million is being injected into Scotland's higher and further education over the next three years?" I tell my colleagues in this chamber that this issue is too serious for us to allow ourselves to get bogged down; we should not ignore the education community and the wishes of many members and just state that we will go forward with our plans.

Photo of Henry McLeish Henry McLeish Labour

No, I want to press on. Pauline McNeill made a point in which, historically, Scotland has had a big interest. Remember the Robbins committee of the 1960s? We wanted access to be widened and we have made tremendous progress. Pauline McNeill's point concerned skilled manual workers, partly skilled workers and unskilled workers-socio-economic groups 3, 4 and 5.

Socio-economic group 3-manual workers-represents 21 per cent of the population but only 17 per cent of people in higher and further education. Those figures are not too bad, but the partly skilled group represents 16 per cent of the population but only 9 per cent of people in higher and further education. The unskilled group represents 6 per cent of the population but only 2 per cent of those in higher and further education. If we want to use the cloak of poverty and social injustice, let us remember those figures.

The mythical days of free higher education probably never existed in post-war Britain. They certainly did not exist in pre-war Britain. I would rather take a principled position on the review committee and say that Scotland believes in social justice and in widening access-Scotland wants to examine how the abolition of tuition fees would impact on the objectives that we all share. It is a great aspiration to be able to say that not only can we stick to our position on tuition fees, but-for the better interest of higher and further education-we can look at the big picture, which I have tried, briefly, to pinpoint.

There has been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing in the chamber about betrayals and principles. I like to think that we all have principles. Are there any charlatans here who do not believe in what they are doing? I do not think so. We must try to keep a moderate tone.

If we are clear, if we feel principled and we have knowledge of a particular matter, we should put that matter to an expert group to examine. I emphasise a point that Jim Wallace made: this is not a fix and there are no constraints on the committee. I agree with Dennis Canavan: if the committee wants to consider maintenance grants, we should let it.

The chamber has serious difficulties and differences on a point of principle. That is fine, but we should not disguise the fact that, if we have a review committee, we can explore every avenue. The time for decision making will be when the report is presented to the chamber and to the Executive. If we agree to the motion, I will speak to all the Opposition parties over the next two or three days. We must have an inquiry that we can be proud of and that the chamber can support. We must ensure that widening access is the kernel of our approach to higher and further education in Scotland.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

The division on this matter will be taken in decision time at 5 pm.