Further and Higher Education

– in the Scottish Parliament at 9:31 am on 27th January 2000.

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Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party 9:31 am, 27th January 2000

Is the minister aware of any impending publication containing further statistics from UCAS that might put a rather different gloss on the figures that he has just outlined to Parliament?

Photo of Henry McLeish Henry McLeish Labour

I am always well aware of any reports that UCAS has published or is about to publish. However, an issue that we—and perhaps Mr Swinney's excellent committee—must examine is that although UCAS figures include every English college and university, they give only partial coverage of the colleges in Scotland that provide higher education courses. That tends to distort the figures. However, one issue that cannot be distorted is that the SHEFC figures show a positive trend in the number in higher education institutions, which should encourage Parliament. The important point is that the considerations of the Cubie committee and the Executive should complement what is happening in higher and further education.

Yesterday, I said that the Cubie proposals are part of an excellent report. However, it is important to stress that 30 or 35 recommendations need further work. We are quite happy to undertake that work, and I hope to have discussions with the convener of the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee to find out how that committee can participate in the development of some of those important issues.

However, I should stress that, in the near future, we want to proceed with the child care package. Many people accessing further and higher education want proper support for their children. We believe that that is vital, and I am working with my colleague Sam Galbraith to establish how we can provide the best package. I hope to have further discussions on that issue.

One thing that I was slightly staggered about was the fact that the means test, which underpins a lot of our work, has not been reviewed in the United Kingdom since 1962—almost 40 years ago. The impact of that is wholly ridiculous. Since then, life has changed. Society has changed. The structure of families has changed. A range of things has changed.

I think that the Parliament will agree that we want to examine those changes closely. It will be for both the Executive and the Parliament to do so.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

Does the minister accept that the easiest way to deal with the means test would be to remove it altogether and to treat students as standalone individuals, deserving respect and not being judged by the income of their parents?

Photo of Henry McLeish Henry McLeish Labour

It would be tempting just to say no. I would like to add the caveat that, in the rather bizarre piece of paper published yesterday by the Conservatives—bizarre is the most complimentary word I can find, Sir David—they portrayed what true conservatism still is, whether in Scotland or in the United Kingdom as a whole.

The Conservatives want students from families earning less than £15,000 to get over £4,000 full stop. That equates to a loan plus their bursary. Students from families earning £50,000, £100,000, £150,000 or £200,000 would get the same amount. In my view, that is not justice and is nothing to do with equity. What it reeks of is that while the face of conservatism may attempt to change, it remains firmly rooted in the privilege of the past. That attitude has no place in a modern higher or further education system.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

The principle is called universal provision. It applies to health. Why does it not apply to education? It is something that Henry McLeish used to believe in.

Photo of Henry McLeish Henry McLeish Labour

I am not sure David McLetchie should deliberate on what I used to believe in. That said, I think that every member of this Parliament, with the possible exception of the Conservatives, but maybe including two or three of them who might take a different view, believes in equity, justice and access.

We need to build a system that reflects all the positive considerations. I would like the Tories' education spokesman to go to different parts of Scotland and tell people, "We don't care what your income is. We don't care what your background is. We want a commercial loan to be given to you. It will be income-contingent." They do not give a damn about the real issues that Cubie discussed and that we discussed. Unless they start to do that, they will continue to be lost in the fog.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

Given the minister's comments, does he agree that the very principle he is talking about is increasing top rates of taxation? Would it not be better for the minister to argue with his party to increase the top rate of taxation, to pay for higher education and provide better grants?

Photo of Henry McLeish Henry McLeish Labour

We are getting better bursaries with our package. We are getting the abolition of tuition fees. We are getting a student contribution, called the graduate endowment. I would have hoped that Tommy Sheridan would come some way towards my position, which is to say that this is real help for those in Scotland who will benefit from the package—and thousands of them will be in Glasgow.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The minister has touched on the abolition of tuition fees. I wonder whether he can help me out on a point that I am a little unclear about from his statement yesterday. He has made it clear that for Scottish students at Scottish universities, tuition fees will be translated into a graduate endowment in time for this autumn. Can he explain the mechanism by which that will done? Is any legislation required?

Photo of Henry McLeish Henry McLeish Labour

I am sorry for repeating myself, but the graduation endowment is nothing to with tuition fees. [Laughter.]

Photo of Henry McLeish Henry McLeish Labour

I am sure that if I repeat it 500 or 1,000—or even more—times, it may penetrate the minds of some of members in the chamber.

Photo of Henry McLeish Henry McLeish Labour

I am responding to John Swinney first, but I am happy to let Gil Paterson intervene in a moment.

There is no link between the graduate endowment and tuition fees. We in the partnership appreciate that, Scotland will appreciate it and the two main Opposition parties will be isolated.

The more encouraging feature is that we will be able to abolish tuition fees this autumn. That does not require legislation. There will be an Executive action. That shows that we will not hang around on this issue. We want to move quickly.

Photo of Gil Paterson Gil Paterson Scottish National Party

I cannot believe the minister if he is saying that the Executive is abolishing tuition fees. All it has done is put them on hire purchase.

Photo of Henry McLeish Henry McLeish Labour

I will be happy to explain some of the details of the report.

Students will get financial help. People appreciate that. Tuition fees will be abolished, no strings attached. There will be a graduate endowment that allows a contribution to be made to the future well-being and welfare of students.

Photo of Mary Scanlon Mary Scanlon Conservative

If the minister wants to get more children from lower-income families into higher education, why did the Labour Government, in its first year in office, slash the maintenance grant by £1,000?

Photo of Henry McLeish Henry McLeish Labour

Yesterday, David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, announced a package of measures to deal with hardship that takes in bursary provision, child care and the raising of the threshold for loan entitlement. I believe that that acknowledges what Mary Scanlon said. However, I am interested in what is about to happen in Scotland.

The Opposition seems to have changed its position. It campaigned vigorously for the abolition of tuition fees. Now that that has been delivered, it believes that tuition fees will continue under the guise of the graduate endowment. Surely, however, the Executive should be supported by all sides of the chamber for the fact that we will abolish tuition fees in the autumn of this year. Does the SNP support that? Does the Conservative party support that? I want to know whether they will support the abolition of tuition fees.

Photo of Henry McLeish Henry McLeish Labour

I will not give way as I must make some progress.

I want to examine some of the income groups that will see substantial benefits. The Cubie committee split mature students into two groups. It said that 40 per cent of them would be eligible for a bursary of about £8,000 and a loan of £7,940. We propose to allow mature students access to a loan of £14,000 and a discretionary bursary of £8,000. That means that our mature students could receive nearly £22,000 during their period of study. That compares favourably with the best bet in the Cubie proposals, which was £15,880, and the worst bet, which was £14,055. Not only will they get that money, they will be exempt from the graduate endowment. Mature students make up 30 per cent of the students in Scotland. This package is focused to widen access and it will give those students more money in their pockets when they start out.

The Cubie committee's proposals, which the SNP is signing up to—to be fair to the Conservatives, they are being consistent and have decided not to sign up to the proposals, but to ignore the committee—would halve the loan commitment for mature students. Our proposal retains the loan commitment and gives them more money when it matters: when they are starting their course. John Swinney will have a chance to explain why he wants to reduce the amount of money available to mature students.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

Does the concept of giving money to students when they most need it apply to postgraduate students who are trying to meet loan repayments and pay off credit cards while working for poverty wages in McDonald's?

Photo of Henry McLeish Henry McLeish Labour

Under our proposals, no student will have any more debt to pay off. When it is recognised that there is substantial financial help at the lowest income levels, arguing Margo MacDonald's point is to go in two ways.

Let us spell out the facts about those who are earning £10,000 and less. Under our package, such people will have more than £16,000, combining loan and the access payment. Under Cubie's proposals, they would have slightly less than £16,000. Under our proposals, they will have slightly less debt than under the Cubie proposals—£10,055 rather than slightly over £11,000. This is an allocation of resources to where they matter.

Photo of Henry McLeish Henry McLeish Labour

I must make some progress.

My final point may be of interest to the Conservatives, if they are still interested in what Cubie is saying. Under the Cubie proposals, it is suggested that families with an income of more than £50,000 should lose access to any state funding. That would mean that the family contribution for those with a combined income of more than £51,000 would rise from £7,740 to £15,880. We are suggesting, as a sensible measure, that those people should still be able to access a loan of £3,000, which would mean that their family contribution would be £11,055. That would ensure that they have less debt at the end of the process than at present and that a family would not jump that amount, in terms of parental contribution.

That is common sense. I would have thought that, if the Conservatives were true to their past, they would welcome what we are doing for that income group.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

If we compare what the minister proposes with what Cubie proposes, yes, one has to welcome it, as it is an improvement on a poor recommendation from Cubie.

Does the minister accept that the problem lies in the fact that he is cutting the loan entitlement of the group he mentions and that the only barrier to ensuring that they have the same loan entitlement—or an increased entitlement—is the burden that it would place on the public sector borrowing requirement? Does he also accept that, by allowing those students a commercial rate at which they can choose how much they want to borrow, there would be no impact on the PSBR, and they would be able to fund their time at college or university themselves?

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

The minister has been generous in giving way, but he is now on his last three minutes.

Photo of Henry McLeish Henry McLeish Labour

To sum up, none of what Brian Monteith is suggesting makes much sense, either to this Parliament or to the students of Scotland who want some improvement in their position.

Sir David, I accept your courteous invitation to wind up. What intrigued me greatly was the SNP's contribution to the Cubie inquiry—a good letter, as usual, written by John Swinney. In that letter, there is an ingenious suggestion that this Parliament may want to debate—one that we have not considered, and one that the Cubie committee did not consider.

The suggestion is that we should consider pre-graduation sponsorship by the business community. I am always willing to consider good ideas, as are my colleagues. Tucked away in the letter is that interesting little gem. I ask the SNP—I hope John Swinney will address it when he speaks—to what extent it wants the business community to get involved in student funding, and whether that means that, under SNP proposals, resources would be shifted into the private sector and the business community so that businesses can participate more wholeheartedly. All I ask for is a definition of that refocusing of moneys from graduate recruitment packages into pre-graduation sponsorship.

Yesterday, the Conservatives made a point that encapsulates their arguments for the future. In paragraph 10 of their response to Cubie, they say:

"Our argument is simple. If students loans are offered at a commercial rate and are income contingent they should not present a barrier to access and will be taken up only by those who genuinely need them."

So, commercialisation creeps in. Yesterday, a Conservative colleague raised the question of students going south. At the same time, however—on page 19 of the Conservatives' submission—they say:

"The operation of two different schemes within the UK is perfectly feasible".

Photo of Henry McLeish Henry McLeish Labour

As a postscript they add:

"The reality of devolution, and one of the reasons why we see ourselves as the Party which has coped best with change to the constitution, is that it allows different systems to operate in different parts of the country. We are confident that on issues such as this that Scotland can dare to be bold enough to try new radical methods and are sure that the rest of the UK would follow our lead within a short period of time."

If that is not waving the saltire and saying that Scotland can take the lead, I do not know what is.

The lion has roared and the mouse in the Conservatives' submission says that we should simply give everybody £4,000. They do not care whether a person earns £1 million or less than £10,000—this is old conservatism returned in a new guise.

I hope that later today the chamber will approve the package that the Executive has proposed. I hope that there will be more consultation and more committee dialogue. I hope that we will have the useful involvement of the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee—of which John Swinney is convener—in ensuring that tuition fees are abolished in the autumn of this year. We will then move swiftly on to redressing some of the injustices in higher and further education. The Parliament should be totally committed to that.

I move,

That the Parliament endorses the Scottish Executive's framework, Working Together for Wider Access to Further and Higher Education, its proposals for the abolition of tuition fees for Scottish domiciled students studying in Scotland and its fair, focused and affordable proposals for widening access, promoting lifelong learning, alleviating hardship and providing support during study.

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

Thank you for sticking to the time limit. I see that some members who previously indicated to me that they would like to speak have not pressed the buttons on their consoles. If they still wish to speak, will they press the buttons so that we can improve our calculations on how long each member will have. Speeches should be about four minutes, but the occupants of the chair will allow injury time for interventions. That should mean that all those who wish to speak will be called.

The situation has not been helped by the fact that throughout Mr McLeish's speech my screen produced all sorts of interesting pictures that had nothing to do with the debate. That is new technology for you. [Laughter.]

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party 9:57 am, 27th January 2000

I think that I was one of those guilty of not pressing their button. I am sure that by the end of my speech a number of members would prefer it if I had not.

I welcome the opportunity to have a full debate on the Executive's framework document on student finance—it has been a long time coming.

The SNP has consistently argued for a stable regime of funding support for the higher education sector and for higher education students. At the election last year, we argued for the abolition of tuition fees. At that stage, Labour attacked us for taking that position, but the good thing was that the SNP was not alone in that battle—the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives both argued for the abolition of tuition fees for all students domiciled in Scotland.

At the election, the SNP also argued for the restoration of maintenance support for Scottish students. That was a pretty lonely battle. Labour had only recently abolished maintenance grants and the Conservatives had no credibility on and no commitment to the issue—a lack of commitment that they shared with the Liberal Democrats.

We now hear—with the benefit of the Cubie inquiry—Labour admitting the total failure of the policy that it pioneered in the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998. Cubie described the existing system as discredited. Labour has now implicitly conceded that that is the case, but its admission has been pretty ungracious. The comparisons of the Executive's proposals that the minister made yesterday in his statement and today in his speech are not with the discredited schemes of the dreaded Conservatives, but with a scheme that the Labour Government produced and promoted and that the minister supported and defended during the 1999 election.

Let me remind Parliament of the Labour party's history on the matter.

"The new student support arrangements . . . are fairer than the present system."

Mr McLeish could easily have coined those words in setting out the Executive's latest position. They are not his words, however—they are the words of Brian Wilson, from a letter he wrote on 8 December 1997 to fifth-year and sixth-year pupils in Scottish schools about the proposals that the Executive has now dumped. If it takes just two years for the previous bunch of Labour proposals to fail the test of fairness and equity, why on earth should we take seriously the latest proposals, which were designed in a political environment to obtain a political fix and not in the considered environment of an independent inquiry?

The Labour party fought the election with a determination to keep tuition fees and denied, throughout the campaign, that there were any problems with the maintenance arrangements for Scotland's students. I am pretty sure that Mr McLeish denied the existence of those problems directly to me during the many debates in which we both participated during the election campaign. A bit more honesty from Labour ministers about the distress and anguish that they have caused Scottish students and their families would not go amiss.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

Does John Swinney maintain his position that Labour has performed a complete U-turn on this matter, an accusation that he made during his appearance on "Scottish Lobby"?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I have made it clear in my speech that Labour has implicitly accepted the failure of its higher education policy. During the election campaign, the Labour party argued that there was no need to contemplate the abolition of tuition fees or to address the maintenance crisis for Scottish students. In his speech today, the minister has implicitly admitted that that policy has failed.

As I shall outline later, we now have exactly what Mr Lyon hinted at—a complete and total mess of a higher education policy. The Government has failed entirely to win confidence for its position and is now trying desperately to cobble together a compromise.

Photo of Henry McLeish Henry McLeish Labour

Will Mr Swinney make the SNP's position clear? On the one hand, the SNP is saying that tuition fees have not been abolished but, on the other, it is accusing Labour of making a U-turn by abolishing tuition fees. Which is it?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Let me clear that up— [Interruption.] I would love to respond to Mr McLeish's intervention, if our distinguished Deputy First Minister could contain himself long enough to hear my response.

Mr McLeish has performed an absolute U-turn on maintenance grants. That is a fact. He is also, in my interpretation, supporting a position that has translated tuition fees into deferred tuition fees. Mr Wallace and his Liberal Democrat colleagues—a distinguished band, who are all here today—have supported a position whereby their manifesto commitment to the abolition of tuition fees of all Scotland-domiciled students at UK universities has not been fulfilled. That is a fair, factual statement of all that has happened.

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar Labour

I cannot resist the temptation to intervene.

My understanding of the SNP position is that it is implacably and totally committed to the abolition of tuition fees. However, one morning, I woke up to hear John Swinney say on "Good Morning Scotland" that Labour must implement in full the Cubie report. As the Cubie report would retain tuition fees, why does the SNP support its implementation?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The First Minister—I was going to call him the secretary of state—should take care when he listens to the radio in the morning. Perhaps it is getting a bit difficult for him—I know that listening to the media is a bit of a tortuous exercise for him these days.

The First Minister has been merrily peddling that line in the Scottish media, but he should recognise that I said that I supported the Cubie recommendations with one exception—I could not accept the inquiry's commitment to the abolition of the principle of free education. I cannot be responsible if broadcasters trim answers that people give—[MEMBERS: "Oh!"]—nor can I be responsible if the First Minister is a bit hard of hearing when he gets up in the morning.

It is opportune that the First Minister intervened on that point as, later in my speech, I will address the principle of free access to higher education in order to clarify beyond doubt the point that he misheard over his cornflakes that morning.

The SNP did not support the establishment of an independent inquiry as proposed by the Government. Back in June, we supported the immediate abolition of tuition fees and the setting of a remit for the independent inquiry that would allow it to examine the serious issues of student hardship.

I am glad that this debate has got too much for the First Minister, who is having to leave. I hope that he will listen to what I have to say on the television. [Laughter.]

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I take pleasure in recording the SNP's admiration for the careful way in which the Cubie committee conducted its business. I say careful, because the committee listened with care to many representations from around Scotland. I say admiration, because the inquiry produced a dispassionate set of proposals that—with one exception, as I have just explained to our departed First Minister—I am happy to support. Because the committee listened with care, we, too, should listen with care to what it said. The Executive has not done that.

Mr McLeish made his position on this issue very clear in an interview in The Scotsman on 13 September. He said:

"It doesn't serve the interests of the political debate if two or three Lib Dems say 'we have a committee but we will totally ignore the findings'. Public money is being used for this committee and the [public] want to see its findings."

I could not agree more. However, it is not two or three recalcitrant Liberal Democrats who are ignoring the findings, it is the entire Administration. We should be listening with much greater care to the findings of the Cubie committee and taking its views much more seriously than the Executive is doing in its proposals.

I have made it clear that on one point the SNP parts company with Cubie. We part company on the point of whether the principle of free access to higher education is a principle worth sustaining. Why do we take that view? The reason is clear. We believe that a majority of MSPs were elected to this Parliament expressly to defend that principle. That is why back in June we moved our amendment to the Executive motion—to hive off the issue of tuition fees and settle the matter then, enabling an independent inquiry to tackle the issue of student finance dispassionately. We cannot support the Cubie proposal for a graduate endowment, because it breaches the principle of free access to higher education. This Government's proposal to replace the old tuition fees with a new tuition fee called the graduate endowment should be opposed for exactly the same reason.

The Executive tells us that the graduate endowment is required

"to recognise the benefits all graduates obtain from higher education".

What benefits do students receive when they are in higher education? The principal benefit that they receive is tuition. The principle of free access to higher education was breached by tuition fees. The breach has continued with the failure of the Executive to abolish tuition fees for all Scotland-domiciled students. It has been perpetuated by the establishment of a graduate endowment that is founded on the recognition of the benefits that all graduates obtain from higher education.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

I am unclear about the SNP's position on one point. We know that stage 1 of this process is the Executive's abolition of tuition fees at the earliest practical opportunity—

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

That is stage 2, if you want to call it that. The Executive is moving to abolish tuition fees for students starting in August and September at colleges and universities. Does Mr Swinney support that abolition this year, at the first practical opportunity—yes or no?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

My position could not be clearer. I want to see the abolition of tuition fees for all Scotland-domiciled students as quickly as possible. However, I do not want them replaced 12 months later by a graduate endowment, which is what is on offer.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

Mr Swinney may be coming on to address this, but will he advise the chamber how the SNP would pay for the £108 million net cost of its proposals to support Cubie without the graduate contribution?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I have no idea where Mr Brown gets his numbers from, but we can debate that later.

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour

Tell us what the figures are.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I have no idea where Mr Brown gets his numbers from.

Photo of Henry McLeish Henry McLeish Labour

Perhaps I can help. The Cubie committee's proposals would have cost £71 million. If the graduate endowment proposed by Cubie is excluded, £34 million can be added to that figure. If the SNP rejected any graduate contribution, the total bill would be £105 million. Those are the figures, and it is important that John Swinney tells us today where he would find that money. We will feel pain in finding £33 million. How much pain would there be in finding £105 million?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Not for the first time in this debate, the minister is very helpful. Of course, he will realise that the net difference between the proposals for which we have argued—Cubie plus—and the proposals that the minister is funding is £12 million this year. If the minister can find the resources that he says he can to fund the current proposals, I have no doubt that we can find the £12 million to fund the proposals for which we have argued.

In addition, the minister should consider our range of proposals to expand the revenue base of this Parliament, such as the extension of value programme. Perhaps the Liberal Democrats could align themselves with their federal leader and try to persuade the Government not to proceed with its ludicrous cut in the basic rate of taxation at a time when our public services are under enormous pressure. The Liberal Democrats should not give me any lessons in finance.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I have given way to Mr McLeish several times, but I want to proceed with my arguments—there is much more to come in this speech.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

No. I am running out of time and have much more ground to cover.

In considering the continuation of tuition fees and the translation from upfront to back-end tuition fees, I am struck by a religious comparison. We are witnessing a battle between the Free Church and the Free Church (Continuing). Our version of that is tuition fees and tuition fees continuing. A fee is a fee is a fee, whether one is charged today or repays tomorrow. Either education is free or it is not.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

In the wreckage that remains of the coalition agreement lies the issue of Scotland-domiciled students at universities south of the border. Perhaps this is the moment for Mr McLeish to address—this may be the point that he rises to make himself clear—the difficulties that will be faced by Scottish students attending universities in England and Wales, when the course of their choice is offered only there. I did not get an answer when I raised that issue yesterday; perhaps Mr Stephen will give me an answer when he sums up.

It is time for the Executive to come clean on that point. European law does not prevent the payment of the tuition fees of Scottish students at UK universities. The problem lies in the unwillingness of the UK Government to deal with any consequences of the Scottish Parliament's rightful entitlement to take decisions within its jurisdiction. If Westminster were prepared to pick up the tab for the fees of EU students at English and Welsh universities, as the Scottish Executive proposes to do for the fees of EU students at Scottish universities, the issue would be resolved. The reluctance of Westminster ministers to face the realities of the total failure of their higher education policy holds Scotland back from a fair and stable regime.

The Executive statement makes great play of the 10,000 young students who will receive access payments of £2,000 per year, and the 5,000 students who will benefit from more support while studying. We welcome that, as we have long supported maintenance regimes.

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace Liberal Democrat

I am interested to know how the SNP would fund its proposals. It is obvious that Mr Swinney has not understood the Cubie economics, but perhaps he will understand the economics of his own manifesto, which said that the SNP had allocated £38 million to abolish tuition fees for Scotland-domiciled students attending higher education institutions in Scotland and furth of Scotland. What part of that £38 million did he earmark to pay the fees of European students attending institutions in England and Wales? How much of that £38 million was earmarked to fund the fees of English students who, if Scotland were independent, would be foreign nationals?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Mr Wallace has raised two separate issues. The first question is adequately explained in our proposals for funding the arrangements for students from outwith Scotland. The figure was sourced from the House of Commons library, which I take to be a reputable source of estimates of the amount of money that would be required.

If Scotland were independent, of course there would be differences and changes. However, if Mr Wallace thinks that English students coming to Scotland are to be viewed with hostility, he demonstrates a little Scotlander attitude with which I do not associate myself.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Mr Wallace should sit tight while I give a critique of his position. Much of the—

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

No, I want to proceed with my speech.

Much of the heat of this debate has centred on the role of the Liberal Democrats in the coalition partnership. On 17 June last year, Liberal Democrat members argued in this chamber that the quickest way of securing the abolition of tuition fees was to have a committee of inquiry. During that debate, I asked a Liberal Democrat member—I think that it was Mr Rumbles—to explain the logic of that idea. Now it is clear. The minister has told us this morning that no legislation is required and that this is an Executive action. So what was preventing the Liberal Democrats from voting for a motion to abolish tuition fees last June rather than wasting time to reach the position that we are now in, where we will have an extra year in which that burden will continue to fall on Scottish students?

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

I must declare an interest. Before coming to this Parliament, I was a lecturer at Aberdeen College for four years. I therefore have first-hand experience of how colleges work and of the receipt of those fees. If Mr Swinney were to read the Official Report , he would see that I said at the time that to abolish tuition fees then would ruin the finances of further and higher education establishments. The SNP motion called on the Executive simply to withdraw fees, but suggested no alternative plans for the universities and colleges. What is being proposed is the fastest possible practical way to abolish tuition fees for students starting courses in the next academic year.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I simply do not understand that logic. The Liberal Democrats say that there must be a graduate endowment to complete the picture, but tuition fees are allegedly to be abolished this October. We cannot have it both ways, but that is exactly what the Liberal Democrats are trying to do.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I have only one minute left and I still have other points to make.

In June 1999, Mr Wallace raised a point—

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

Mr Swinney has been generous in giving way, but he has indicated that he is winding up and will accept no more interventions.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Not happy with the wording of the Opposition amendment in the June debate, Mr Wallace said:

"The amendment would also mean that . . . 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."—[Official Report, 17 June 1999; Vol 1, c 594.]

It may not have been part of Mr Wallace's manifesto then, but it is now. The Liberal Democrats have signed up to a position in which they have delivered an unsatisfactory package and failed on their manifesto commitments.

On the day of the publication of the Cubie report, George Lyon said in a radio interview:

"The deferred system is unacceptable to us."

A repayment of £3,000 on a threshold income of £25,000 is unacceptable, but take £1,000 off that fee and drastically lower the threshold to £10,000 and, somehow, the deal is acceptable.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I have to wind up now.

The style of the scheme is the same, but the shape is a bit fatter, a bit wider and hits more people. The hypocrisy of the Liberal Democrats' submission to the Cubie committee could not be clearer.

The Liberal Democrats' submission is a wonderful document. I could not quite believe it when I saw it. It is entitled "Towards Free Education". Were they in the ministerial car when they decided to go towards free education? Was the ministerial car so comfortable that they decided not to reach that destination? They have certainly failed to reach it.

This is a shabby deal. It is not a mature, sensible, modern view of where Scottish higher education funding should be going in the 21st century—the description that Mr McLeish gave yesterday of the Cubie report. It is a political fix designed to keep two parties together in coalition. It is an admission of failure of Labour's higher education policy from Westminster. It is an abandonment of the principles of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, who, despite their protestations, have replaced front-end tuition fees with back-end tuition fees, creating a big disincentive for Scottish students to go to the university of their choice.

The deal will not last. It will not pass its essential tests. Scotland's students have been betrayed by the Executive. They deserve better, and we will hold the Executive to account for its failure to deliver. [Applause.]

I move amendment S1M-461.1, to leave out from "endorses" to end and insert:

"resolves that the principle of free access to higher education must be restored; calls upon the Scottish Executive to abolish tuition fees for all Scottish students at UK universities and opposes the proposals for a Scottish Graduate Endowment as tuition fees by another name, and demands the implementation in full of the other recommendations of the Independent Inquiry into Student Finance."

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative 10:19 am, 27th January 2000

In the beginning, there was a man called Tony Blair, who was determined to be Prime Minister at all costs and to say anything and do anything to achieve that objective. In the style that has become his trademark in his first thousand days in office, he promised before the previous election that he had

"no plans to introduce tuition fees for higher education".

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

I shall accept interventions in a moment, but I would like to get started first.

Tony Blair then broke that promise within months of coming to office. Not only that; he abolished what remained of the student grant system at the same time.

The Labour party in Scotland stuck with that policy throughout the Scottish parliamentary election, although fees were highly unpopular, and it won seats in this Parliament on that basis. I respect the Labour party for its integrity on that issue during the Scottish election campaign. It was not easy to defend that policy on the hustings, given that it must have run counter to the political instincts of most of the party's candidates. So I give the Labour party respect for sticking to its guns. However, the coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, are an entirely different proposition. How much must they now regret all those pledges about abolishing tuition fees that they made during the Scottish election campaign. Who can forget those old election favourites, Jim Wallace and Sir David Steel, the Presiding Officer?

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

Who can forget them duetting on that catchy little number,

"tuition fees are dead as of next Friday"?

That was Friday 7 May 1999, lest we forget. Another number was:

"The people of Scotland have made it non-negotiable".

Presiding Officer, we then had your good self taking the lead with words such as:

"tuition fees will go if Labour do not get an overall majority", and, of course, with that much-loved comedy record:

"Mr Dewar has no choice but to accept that tuition fees are effectively dead".

After the election, that happy little duo broke up and went their separate ways. Jim Wallace disowned his earlier compositions and the promises that he made to his fans in his famous election rhetoric piece, and went off to join Donald's rival group, which he had been planning to do all along. Meantime, the Presiding Officer moved on to much higher things, and it was left to a few die-hards to keep the faith alive. Donald Gorrie put out an angry release, calling Wallace's new group

"the biggest bunch of liars you could meet".

Given the events of the past few days, how prescient that remark was. And of course, we had the redoubtable Mr Raffan maintaining that he would

"never, ever compromise on tuition fees".

The Liberal Democrats were given an early opportunity in this Parliament to vote to abolish tuition fees, and to do so with effect from September 1999, because it could be achieved by Executive action, as the minister acknowledged. Instead, most of them meekly followed their leader in voting with Labour to establish the committee of inquiry.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

Not just now.

Not surprisingly, that about-turn was not popular with supporters of the Liberal Democrats, who concluded, along with the rest of us, that the party was not one of principle, and had promised to abolish tuition fees only for short-term chart success. The party had no real artistic integrity, and simply was trying to be all things to all men, as per usual. So it came to pass that for the first time in our history, a political party was beaten at politics by a football team.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

I will take Mr Jenkins first, and Mr Smith later.

Photo of Ian Jenkins Ian Jenkins Liberal Democrat

If I remember after all this time, Mr McLetchie said at the beginning of his speech that in the beginning was Tony Blair. Am I right in thinking that before the beginning there was chaos and darkness?

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

Very good. The Bible also has a lot to say about— [Interruption.] Before Tony Blair, we had seen the fastest expansion in higher education this century. That is a fact, and I will address it later. In addition, in the Bible, which Mr Jenkins clearly is fond of quoting, there is a great deal about truth, honesty and integrity—qualities that he and his party have failed to exhibit in the past eight or nine months.

Photo of Andrew Wilson Andrew Wilson Scottish National Party

Rather than quote Genesis, would not it be more accurate to say that Maggie begat Tony?

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

We have probably had enough of the Old and New Testaments.

When we were in office, we did not introduce tuition fees for our students. One of our proudest achievements—as I attempted to explain to Mr Jenkins—was that during that 18 years the number of students going into higher education in the UK rose from just under 800,000 in 1979 to just under 2 million in 1997. In Scotland, the number of school leavers going on to further or higher education rose from 17 per cent to 43 per cent in the same period. We are proud of that achievement, which came about without the introduction of front-end or back-end tuition fees or tuition taxes.

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour

Is David McLetchie equally proud of the fact that the efficiency savings that the Conservative Government imposed on higher education reduced it to a parlous state? This Government has begun to restore it.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

Dr Simpson should not delude himself. That is complete nonsense.

No one pretends that there is an unlimited pot of money for higher education or any other branch of expenditure— [Interruption.] Perhaps the Scottish National party does, but I certainly do not. As we demonstrated in the debate yesterday on the Budget (Scotland) Bill, it is absurd for Dr Simpson to pretend that the Executive has unlimited pots of money and that universities are exempt from producing efficiency in the delivery of education to our children, when no one else is.

An even more significant achievement in the period while we were in office was the fact that the proportion of students from low-income families going on to higher education went up from 4 per cent in 1980 to 25 per cent in 1997. That proves that our policies were making higher education more accessible for all.

In keeping with that tradition, we were the first party to produce a costed scheme to abolish tuition fees, the Saltire award, costed at £42 million and agreed at that figure by the Cubie committee. We were naturally delighted when all the other parties—bar one—joined us in the Scottish Parliament election campaign: the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish Socialist party and the Green party all joined us in the call to abolish tuition fees for Scottish students.

Our scheme and the other parties' ideas were based on listening to the concerns of people in Scotland, listening to the fact that the tuition tax—the tax on learning—was highly unpopular. Our scheme would abolish fees outright for Scottish students—no matter where they studied—and give them real choice as to the university that they attended and the course that they followed. We do not accept that it would fall foul of any European Union law. As I said, it has been fully costed.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

Is it not the case that under the Conservative scheme, the abolition of tuition fees would be funded by charging students double the current interest rates for their student loans? They would be charged commercial interest rates on their loans, which would make them worse off.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

That is not true. The detail of the scheme is that the repayment timetable of the loans is income contingent. We do not deny that an element of state subsidy is involved in providing for the maintenance of our students. What we say is that it should be directed through a commercial loan scheme, so that the amount of money involved does not become a burden on the public sector borrowing requirement and a constraint on the spending policies of the Executive. I do not accept that it makes people worse off.

We have lodged a member's bill in this Parliament, on which I hope members will have an opportunity to vote, to bring in our scheme, notwithstanding the fact that we are now being invited to proceed with the dog's breakfast of a proposal produced by the Scottish Executive, which takes the Cubie recommendations and makes them even worse.

A particularly inglorious aspect of this saga is the parochialisation of Scottish universities and the discrimination against Scottish students who wish to study at universities elsewhere in the United Kingdom. That has apparently happened because of legal advice given to the Executive.

We are told that it cannot be done, and that EU law forbids it and presents an insurmountable obstacle. We asked yesterday whether the Scottish Executive would publish the reasoned opinion on which that decision was based, but that request was refused point-blank. So Henry and Jim's lawyers say no. They are a busy band of legal eagles, not only ruling out the proposals of Mr Cubie's committee—and he is himself a distinguished lawyer—but busy analysing our proposals and those of the SNP and the Liberal Democrats and saying that they would not work either.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

What do Mr McLetchie's lawyers say? If he comes forward with a proposal to get round the problem, as was said yesterday, the Executive will look at it and act on it.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

We are convinced that our scheme will work. If the Executive and HM Government would publish the detailed reasoned opinion, we could have an informed debate on the subject in Parliament. We are being asked to accept the simple assertion by the Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning that it cannot be done. This is a major constraint on the policy-making power of the Parliament. The minister says no and we are supposed meekly to accept that without examination or scrutiny.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

One minute, Mr Swinney. That is from a minister in an Executive that preens itself as a champion of freedom of information—what a fraud.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Is not it incumbent on a Government that supports freedom of information—as my party does, although Mr McLetchie's party does not have much to be proud of on that in the past—and which is asking Parliament seriously to debate an issue and to recognise serious legal obstacles to proposals being taken forward, to treat Parliament with more courtesy and to make that legal opinion available to Parliament?

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

I agree. Mr McLeish talks a lot about openness, inclusiveness and involvement and I believe he is sincere in that, so I hope that when the proposals are examined by the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee, he will give the legal facts and allow the matter to be scrutinised and debated.

After all, if we look at the record of the lawyers advising the Scottish Executive to date, they have hardly covered themselves in glory. The same lawyers allowed Mr Ruddle to walk out of Carstairs without pulling out all the legal stops to prevent him; they did not think it worth while appealing the case involving temporary sheriffs. The Scottish Executive was singularly ill prepared for that landmark decision. Perhaps we should import a few French Government lawyers—as we have seen with the beef ban, they do not quail in terror before EU law when it comes to defending the interests of their citizens and their Government. They use their creative talents to further the policies that their people want.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

Why is it that the £700,000 investigation undertaken by Mr Cubie's committee did not examine the EU implications of its recommendations, so that our debate could be fully informed by his research?

I think Mr Smith was first.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

I ask Mr McLetchie, who is himself a lawyer, whether he is advocating—as he seems to be—that the Executive should ignore and break the law. Is he seriously suggesting that?

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

Of course not. I wish that the member would not make such fatuous remarks. Everybody who knows anything about the law knows that it is capable of many different interpretations. There are many creative minds that could be put to work to find a non-discriminatory solution to the problem that would not fall foul of European law. I call on the Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

Not now, Mr Swinney. I must move on.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

No. I have had enough, Mr Jenkins. I am sorry. [Interruption.] No. I have been very generous.

The compromise deal that has been agreed by the Executive is a con that simply substitutes a tuition tax for a tuition fee. It increases division in education and reduces the opportunity for Scots to study elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Jim Wallace and his colleagues have hailed it as a great triumph for their party and a fulfilment of their commitment. I hate to lecture Jim Wallace on his election manifesto—a work of pulp fiction, if ever there was one—but it committed his party to

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

Indeed, during our debate on 17 June, Jim Wallace reminded Ms Sturgeon of that fact by repeating the quotation. He went on to attack her, and the amendment that she moved that day, on the ground that

"Under the proposal that she is asking us to vote for, Scottish students at English universities would still have to pay fees."—[Official Report, 17 June 1999; Vol 1, c 618.]

Those were Mr Wallace's words; they are on the record.

Under the Executive's proposals, those students will still pay fees—

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace Liberal Democrat

I accept that those were my words. I have indicated that I am dismayed and disappointed that we cannot deliver on that.

If Mr McLetchie would stop for one moment and think, he would realise that the amount concerned would be affordable if we did not, potentially, have to pick up a tab of about £20 million to fund European Union nationals at English and Welsh universities. It is something that we want to do, but it is not being done because the consequences are that we could end up spending substantial money from the Scottish block on funding EU nationals at English, Welsh and Northern Irish universities. I think that the Scottish people would rather see us invest that vast sum of money in Scottish education.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

I understand Mr Wallace's point—

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

Order. Mr McLetchie must be allowed to speak. He is in the last minute of his speech.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

I understand Mr Wallace's point; I accept it, but the fact is that he is accepting a blithe assertion on the legal position, and the creative minds have not been employed in achieving the fulfilment of his pledge.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

No, thank you, Mr Jenkins.

This is a cost-cutting exercise. After all the time and money that went into the Cubie proposals, and the discussions that have been had, it seems now that we will go from a position where 60 per cent of students pay fees in whole or in part, to one where 50 per cent of graduating students will pay a tuition tax in full.

The Executive says that things will be no worse. That may be okay for members of the Labour party—they can square that with their own consciences—but the Liberal Democrats were supposed to make things better. They may be able to kid themselves, but they cannot kid the Scottish people. Contrary to what Liberal Democrats may think, we did not all come up the Clyde on a bicycle. Henry McLeish has—

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

No, thank you, Mr Jenkins—you probably could manage to come up the Clyde on a bicycle.

Henry McLeish demonstrated the amazing capacity for self-delusion in the Executive when he said today that the graduate endowment had nothing to do with tuition fees. That is absolute nonsense.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

The minister also talked about repeating that point 500 times, but the "big lie" theory of politics did not work for its previous practitioner and it will not work for him or the coalition.

The truth of the matter is—

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

No, I am sorry. I am in my last minute.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

The truth of the matter is that the majority of students going from school to university will be worse off as a result of the new arrangement. That is nothing to be proud of.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

No. I am summing up.

The proposals are a stealth tax—a tax on learning and achievement—and they demonstrate the poverty of the Executive's ambitions. The Liberal Democrats in particular should be hanging their heads in shame for recommending this shabby deal to the Parliament. The only edifying thing that will come out of the whole affair is that no one will ever believe a word that the Liberal Democrats say, about anything, ever again. Thank goodness—it is about time, too.

The motion is yet another reason for the Scottish public to be cynical about the Parliament and politicians in general. We need to get the Parliament back on the right track, as a matter of urgency, to address the issues and concerns that matter to people in Scotland. That means abolishing tuition fees before, during or after the completion of education—as Mr Gorrie said; I agree with him on that. Our amendment seeks to achieve that; the Executive's shabby deal does not.

I move amendment S1M-461.4, to leave out from "endorses" to end and insert:

"rejects the Scottish Executive's framework for its failure to abolish unconditionally tuition fees for all Scottish students and its introduction of a new tuition tax which together with the reduction in loan entitlement for a significant number of applicants puts many Scottish students in a worse position than before."

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat 10:39 am, 27th January 2000

Thank you, Presiding Officer. [MEMBERS: "Here we go."]

The cheers have started already.

I give a warm welcome to the new package of student support, as announced by the Executive. I remind everyone that the package is worth £200 million over the lifetime of the Parliament. That is a huge investment in student support.

First, I pay tribute to the hard work of Andrew Cubie and his committee. They established the guiding principles that student support should maximise the opportunity for everyone to gain access to high-quality lifelong learning, and that it should promote social inclusion and the knowledge economy, and enhance a civil society. The package addresses those basic principles.

Cubie identified the present arrangements as being broadly discredited—John Swinney alluded to that in his speech. He identified loan aversion and, most important, tuition fees, as barriers to accessing higher and further education. The £200 million package, which abolishes tuition fees and reintroduces grants of up to £8,000, removes those barriers and provides the best student support package in Europe.

It is a fair package that reverses—

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

I seek some advice from George. I do not intend to make a habit of it.

The son of one of my constituents is a medical student at the University of St Andrews. He has to spend three years at St Andrews and two at the University of Manchester. Will George tell me whether a different set of rules will apply for the three years the individual concerned spends at St Andrews to those that will apply when he is at Manchester? How should I respond to my constituent?

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

Of course there will be a different set of rules. Devolution was designed to set up Scottish solutions to Scottish problems.

This is a fair package, which reverses 20 years of cuts in student support by Tory and Labour Governments and abolishes tuition fees.

John Swinney, in an interview yesterday, and Tommy Sheridan, in the Parliament yesterday, both accused the Labour party of doing a U-turn on abolishing tuition fees and reintroducing grants.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

I am glad that John Swinney and Tommy Sheridan recognise that the U-turn came about because the Liberal Democrats are in government, delivering their manifesto commitments. Members cannot have it both ways: they cannot accuse the Labour party of doing a U-turn and accuse us of not delivering.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I am grateful to Mr Lyon for giving way.

He said that the Liberal Democrats had delivered their manifesto commitment. Correct me if I am wrong, but did the Liberal Democrats not have a manifesto commitment to abolish tuition fees for all Scotland-domiciled students at UK universities?

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

We did. As I have said already, if the Scottish National party or the Conservatives have the solution, they should bring it forward. We are willing to listen to it.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

I have just taken an intervention. I need to make progress.

The new £200 million package of student support, which abolishes tuition fees and brings back generous grants of up to £8,000, demonstrates that the Liberal Democrats, in government, are delivering on education. Coming on top of the £80 million for education that is already in place, over the period of this Government that is a total of £280 million extra for education. That is a significant investment in our children's future. It is the Liberal Democrats who have delivered that.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Will Mr Lyon clarify whether the new arrangements for tuition fees, to be introduced in August this year, will apply to all students, whether new or existing? If they apply to existing students, perhaps he can answer the following question, which was e-mailed to me this morning by a member of the public:

"My daughter is in first year of a University course. I will have paid £1025 fees this session. With the abolition of fees will my daughter only have to pay £975 after she graduates and is earning £10,000?"

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

Next year she will pay nothing.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

What about when she is earning £10,000?

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

She will pay nothing. Does the member not understand that student fees are abolished from 1 September? [Interruption.]

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

Order. Please continue, Mr Lyon.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

She will not pay the endowment grant; from 1 September, tuition fees are abolished.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

I have given way several times.

Photo of Nicol Stephen Nicol Stephen Liberal Democrat

It might be helpful if I clarify the situation. Student fees are being abolished. That means that the fees of students in the situation that Nicola Sturgeon describes will continue to be paid until the end of their course. Those students will not have to pay the graduate endowment.

I remind members that the graduate endowment is being introduced to fund a package of maintenance for students from disadvantaged families. That is its purpose.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

I would like to discuss some examples of the benefits of the new package. Mature students will no longer have to pay tuition fees. They will also benefit from £10 million additional grant support, worth an average of £2,000. They will be exempted from the graduate contribution scheme, but will still be entitled to full loan support. That means £2,000 extra cash while they study and not a penny extra in debt when they graduate.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

Can George Lyon give examples of employees whose daughters and sons will qualify for the full grant or access fund entitlement? Given that he referred to the comments that I made yesterday, does he agree that his new Labour partners should apologise to the students of Scotland for introducing fees in the first place?

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

I support the comments made by Tommy Sheridan yesterday.

Students with a family income of less than £10,000—10 per cent of students—will not have to pay tuition fees. Those students will benefit from £8,000 in three maintenance grants and a total of £2,000 extra to live on. Furthermore, they will graduate with £4,000 less debt than under the current arrangements. That is a huge benefit to those students who are grossly under-represented in higher and further education.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

I have taken several interventions and I would like to make some progress.

Students with a family income of £22,000 per annum will have their fees abolished and will receive £1,200 extra grant. They will graduate £4,330 less in debt than under Cubie's proposals.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

I am conscious of the time.

Those figures demonstrate that, across the range of income levels, the majority will benefit from the package. However, the biggest beneficiaries—this relates to Tommy Sheridan's point—are the students from low-income families who are currently vastly under-represented in our Scottish universities. That is a significant step forward.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative

If those benefits are as Mr Lyon describes—and I do not accept that they are—why should a small group of people living in a community such as Langholm be deprived of those benefits because of their geographic location? They have little or no choice but to study in Carlisle.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

As the minister said in his reply yesterday, he is very willing to consider providing the grant maintenance package to those students who are attending universities and further education colleges south of the border.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

I have taken many interventions. [Interruption.]

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

I want to discuss the graduate contribution scheme, which the Opposition is trying to present as some form of tuition tax. Let us get the facts straight: 50 per cent of students will be exempt from repayment. There is a cast-iron guarantee that the majority of students will have less debt than under the present system, even with the loan and contribution combined.

We have also guaranteed that, with the loan and the £2,000 contribution combined, no student will owe a penny more than they would under the current loan system. No graduate will pay a penny extra on their monthly payments, and the majority of graduates, even with the loan and the contribution taken together, will pay off their debts much more quickly than they would under the current arrangements.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

No graduate loans will take any longer to pay off, and most students will pay off their debts much quicker. That is good news for students, and it deals with the issue of loan aversion that Andrew Cubie highlighted in his report.

Photo of Andrew Wilson Andrew Wilson Scottish National Party

I have listened closely to Mr Lyon. Will he explain to the chamber and to the watching public why on Scot FM, on 21 December, he said that the Cubie report did not go far enough?

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

Exactly—and that is why this deal abolishes tuition fees with no deferment whatsoever. Fifty per cent of students will not have to make any contribution to the graduate endowment.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

I have given way a good number of times, but Fergus should not worry, because I am keeping an eye on him and he will get a chance yet.

We have heard a good deal of criticism from the SNP and the Tories that Scottish students at English universities will not have their fees abolished. I am glad that they recognise that they are being abolished in Scotland. I repeat our challenge of yesterday: if they have a sensible solution to that intricate legal problem, let us see them put their money where their mouths are and come forward with proposals.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

As the minister indicated yesterday, he will be willing to examine and act upon any real solution to the problem that is proposed.

I will give way to Fergus, who has been very patient. I am always very generous to him.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Thank you. Speaking as a humble lawyer, I feel that a debt renamed is still a debt, and that a debt deferred is a debt preserved. To illustrate the logic that has been employed by the Liberal Democrats, I ask George Lyon whether he thinks that to defer capital punishment is the same as to abolish capital punishment. Would the answer be different if capital punishment were renamed as involuntary discontinuance of respiration? [Laughter.]

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

Fergus has just demonstrated why he needed a career change.

What do the Opposition offer us? David McLetchie of the Tories is now pretending to be the students' champion. That is nothing less than two-faced political opportunism. The Tories have no credibility on higher education and student support.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

Eighteen years of Tory rule featured cut after cut, 13 separate cuts in all, from the abolition of minimum grants to the removal of benefits and the annual cuts in grants. Eighteen years of Tory cuts created the crises in student funding and the higher education sector. The Tories were the architects of student poverty, so I hope that we will see no crocodile tears from Mr McLetchie.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

Tony Blair is the architect of student poverty. And if it was all cut, cut, cut, will Mr Lyon explain why the number of students in higher education in the United Kingdom rose from just under 800,000 in 1979 to nearly 2 million in 1997, a major expansion of which Conservatives are proud? Answer that.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

Mr McLetchie has given the explanation of why the Tories were the architects of student poverty. The numbers rose and no extra money went in; indeed, the money was cut.

The other Opposition party and partner, the SNP, has so far had five different policies on student support since the previous general election. There have been no fewer than three in the past seven months. The SNP has been consistent in only one respect—the price tag keeps rising, from £50 million at the election in May to more than £110 million today.

John Swinney pledged yesterday that another £20 million would be made available for English students studying in an independent Scotland. Indeed, Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP education spokeswoman, told The Sunday Times in September 1998 that the Scottish Parliament could not afford to reintroduce grants. She said:

"When we have got the resources of independence, then we will restore student grants."

Perhaps that is why the SNP manifesto for the May election promised a grant of just £500 a year for the poorest 20,000 students.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Will George Lyon set out to Parliament both the Liberal Democrat manifesto commitment on student maintenance for last May's elections and the proposals for student maintenance that his party suggested to the Cubie inquiry?

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

On our commitment on student maintenance, the manifesto mentions

"maintenance of up to £2,000 a year".

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

No, I want to finish.

A Scottish Parliament run by the SNP could afford only a grant of £500 a year. The grant proposed by the Liberal Democrat/Labour Executive will be four times greater and will cover 30,000 students—10,000 more than the SNP pledge.

On every issue faced by the Parliament, the SNP's policy has been quite simple: if the Executive spends £100, it will spend £200. Time and time again, the SNP doubles the spend.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

For example, when the Executive says that it will spend £100 million on roads, Kenny MacAskill doubles that figure again and again and again and says that the SNP will spend £800 million on roads. It is the same again today. The Executive is spending £50 million and John Swinney says: "I'll double your money. We will spend £110 million". This is game show economics.

The SNP's spending pledges since September stand at £2.3 billion, which is £15 million a day of promises. Even supposing the jelly chancellor Andrew Wilson's balls come up in the lottery every Wednesday and Saturday for the next year, he still could not raise enough money to meet SNP pledges. The SNP's double-your-money policies are more suited to Chris Tarrant on the telly, but of course Andrew Wilson would need to phone a friend.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

If it were not for the Scottish Liberal Democrats in government, there would be no Cubie report, no abolition of fees, no reintroduction of £8,000 of grants and no £50 million package for education. We have demonstrated that, under devolution, radical Scottish solutions can be delivered for Scottish problems.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

The question today for the Tory and SNP Opposition partners is whether they will vote with us to abolish tuition fees and restore grants, or whether they will abandon their manifesto commitments and vote against a package that delivers £200 million extra to Scottish students.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

We now move to the open session of the debate. As normal, members will have four minutes to speak.

Photo of Malcolm Chisholm Malcolm Chisholm Labour 10:59 am, 27th January 2000

The debate about student funding is a variant of the wider debate about universal versus targeted benefits, and is helped by the concept of opportunity cost, which is unfortunately outside the conceptual universe of the SNP. In other words, it may be desirable to implement Cubie plus at £105 million or even Cubie plus plus at £200 million a year, but not if that means raiding other budgets.

Since 1997, I have taken the view that, ideally, university tuition should be available as a universal benefit, but not if the opportunity cost of that is fewer students in higher education and slowing down the process of widening access for students, particularly those from lower-income backgrounds. I am therefore delighted that the package before us today enables tuition fees to be abolished and access to be widened. Because the opportunity cost of less access is not there, I fully support that aspect of the package.

My primary concern in this debate about student funding has always been about the abolition of grants. Let us remember that grants have always been a targeted or means-tested benefit. I am an honest enough Labour politician to admit that the Labour Government at Westminster has made one or two mistakes in its first 1,000 days. I think that the abolition of grants was one such mistake.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

I would just like to make a short intervention. I have been a wee bit encouraged by the Liberal Democrat members behind me. Could Malcolm Chisholm tell us what he thinks are the other mistakes that the Labour Government has made?

Photo of Malcolm Chisholm Malcolm Chisholm Labour

Well, I was going to say something about one that I was involved in, but I will stick to student funding.

Labour has the primary objective of widening access to higher education, in particular for those from low-income backgrounds who would not have gone to university in the past. This is the point that people who praise the old funding arrangements should remember. Those arrangements did not deliver that wider access for students from low-income backgrounds. I am, therefore, delighted that today's package restores a measure of grant to such students. That is the best thing about the package.

I was pleased that Henry McLeish said yesterday that he would investigate the possibility of Scottish students who are studying in England also benefiting from the bursaries. I think that we should all accept—including, I hope, the Opposition parties—that there is a definite problem in European law about tuition fees, with reference to Scottish students in England. I am by no means convinced that there would be such a problem with bursaries.

I am also delighted by Henry McLeish's announcement today about a forthcoming child care package. I like Cubie's proposal of a £1,500 child care grant for lone parents and I hope that such a proposal will be included in the child care package.

We have to keep an eye on the situation with grants, and I hope that my colleagues in England will do so too. David Blunkett showed yesterday that he is prepared to revise his views on the matter, because there is now a wider access package for England.

We need to monitor how the new student support systems operate, and the test should be to ask whether they enable wider access, in particular for students from low-income families. If we do not get the desired results in terms of our policies for social inclusion and wider opportunities, we will have to revisit the issue of bursaries and grants, possibly with a view to increasing them and widening their scope. Today's package is a sensible first step, and I welcome it totally.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party 11:03 am, 27th January 2000

I support John Swinney's amendment. It gets to the central issue of this debate. The Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning tried to define the central issue in about five different ways in his opening speech. The central issue of the debate is clearly the principle of free access to education.

That is a principle which our predecessors, to their credit, in all the Scottish Parliaments before the union, strongly defended. Scotland was the first to have free access to education. Even in the Westminster Parliament, which I do not refer to often, there was a consistent attempt to continue that principle, largely by the Labour party now in government here. Of the 10 members in this chamber who were MPs when student grants were abolished in 1990, only two in this chamber voted for it. As a little historical footnote, one was, of course, Lord James Douglas-Hamilton. The other was that stout defender of the rights of students to finance, Mr Keith Raffan. The Executive's proposals breach the principle of free access to education. That is what this debate should be about, and we should restate that.

I am sorry that the minister is not in his seat because I have a lot of admiration for Mr McLeish. He can put in some nifty footwork when called on to do so. However, what we heard from him yesterday and today was not so much nifty footwork as bare-faced cheek. He is trying to present himself as the caped crusader, rushing to the aid of the Scottish student population, which is being threatened by the awful imposition of tuition fees, but he is more like those fantasists who set fires and try to get the credit for putting them out. Who imposed tuition fees? Henry McLeish and his colleagues. The reality is that Mr McLeish is not Batman and Nicol Stephen is not Robin. Mr McLeish is the Joker—he created the problem that he is now trying to take away.

Mr McLeish is guilty of another bit of cheek. He is not doing what he claims to be doing. There is a three-card trick going on—find the lady. It is a trick designed to fool the gullible, and the gullible have been fooled. There sit the Liberal Democrats, content in the belief that tuition fees are being abolished. As Fergus Ewing pointed out, tuition fees are not being abolished. The Executive's sleight of hand has taken in those who want to be taken in.

Photo of Ian Jenkins Ian Jenkins Liberal Democrat

John Swinney made a fuss about a student wanting to go to Loughborough. Why does he think that there is a disincentive to going to an English university? The reason he thinks that is because students get a better deal in Scotland.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

The point is simple: certain courses cannot be studied in Scotland. The course at Loughborough was an example of that. I am sure that Mr Swinney will be able to furnish Mr Jenkins with a long list of courses that cannot be studied in Scotland.

Photo of Ian Jenkins Ian Jenkins Liberal Democrat

I reject that. As I have said umpteen times, we should find a way forward together. However, the SNP cannot complain about people not going to England because they are getting good treatment in Scotland. It is ridiculous that a party that calls itself Scotland's party does not like it when a Scottish Parliament produces a good solution for Scottish students in Scotland.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Mr Jenkins does not want to understand this point because gaps appear in his argument once one starts to think about it. We hear that the problem is due to a legal opinion, but nobody can produce the evidence. Mr Wallace let the cat out of the bag and revealed that it was all about money. Access to free education is an inalienable right and the Executive is prejudicing that by the actions that it is taking.

The honest position would be to say that tuition fees should go. The Liberal Democrats said that endlessly in the election campaign. In May 1999, Jim Wallace said that the people of Scotland had made the scrapping of tuition fees non-negotiable. We have since had the longest period of non-negotiations that we have ever seen. There have been six weeks of non-negotiations designed not to help students but to ensure that the makeshift coalition goes on as long as possible.

The principle of free access to education is dear in Scotland and produces great results. We are used to the shifting sands of new Labour, but the Liberals—although known to be vacillating and vague—once had principles. As I was falling off to sleep last night, I was reading the Liberal party's 1945 election manifesto. [Laughter.] I find Liberal manifestos to be more effective than any sleeping draught. It said:

"Our place in the world will depend on the character of our people and on minds trained to understand and operate the complex technical achievements of the modern world. We cannot afford to neglect talent which lies unused because of the poverty of parents."

If the Liberals had stuck to their principles, today we would be voting down tuition fees, not imposing new ones.

Photo of Sylvia Jackson Sylvia Jackson Labour 11:09 am, 27th January 2000

In a previous debate on tuition fees, I supported the need for an independent review to examine not just tuition fees, but student finance in general, including student hardship.

Listening to SNP members this morning, it seems to me that they cannot get out of the groove of tuition fees to look at the wider issues. That is one of their big problems.

I remind all members that the Scottish Executive's "Partnership for Scotland" document not only emphasises the importance of education and lifelong learning, but talks about

"a culture of lifelong learning which cuts across traditional boundaries and reaches Scottish people of all ages and all backgrounds."

The key intention is to maximise opportunity for all to be able to access high quality lifelong learning.

I would argue that the principles in the partnership document are the same as those in the Cubie report and the proposals that were announced yesterday. Henry McLeish spoke yesterday and today about widening access. At the moment, only 10 per cent from the lowest income groups go on to higher education. I ask Mr McLetchie where he gets 25 per cent from. He also seemed to be somewhat overstating things when he talked about funding. As I understand it, funding decreased by 30 per cent per student during the Tory years.

Henry McLeish also talked of the importance of widening access in terms of social justice and—for the Scottish economy—the knowledge economy. Because I believe widening access and the need to focus precious resources—this is an important aspect of affordability—on those who might otherwise be excluded from further and higher education is important, I shall spend the remainder of my speech addressing the ways in which the proposals will affect students in further education.

We all agree that, up to now, further education has been the Cinderella of the system. Further education is the sector in which 40 per cent of Scots enter full-time higher education for the first time, and the sector in which, on completion of an HNC or HND—according to the figures for 1996-97—53 per cent continue in full-time study. It is the sector in which 70 per cent of those who receive Students Awards Agency Scotland awards make no contribution because of low family income, and in which colleges distributed £44 million of bursary awards to 26,000 full-time students in 1997-98. It is the sector in which students suffer hardship.

What will the new proposals mean for the 52,000 full-time students in further education colleges? I will quote from the briefing of the Association of Scottish Colleges. They will mean:

"Abolishing . . . tuition fees for all full-time students.

Exempting students on Higher National courses (as well as students who are mature, disabled or lone parents) from having to contribute to the Scottish Endowment or graduate endowment scheme."

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party

Does Dr Jackson share my view that that is yet another example of new Labour spin-doctoring and an abuse of language? My understanding of the word endowment is that it is a gift. As far as I can tell, there is no gift here at all—merely a tax. Does she share my condemnation of the use of the term endowment when a tax is meant, which is the opposite of a gift?

Photo of Sylvia Jackson Sylvia Jackson Labour

I disagree totally with Brian Adam. It is money that is going to be put back into the system to help students from poorer backgrounds.

The ASC briefing continues by saying that

"Offering £2000 Access payments towards living costs of students from the poorest families"

will also help.

Photo of Andrew Wilson Andrew Wilson Scottish National Party

According to the logic that Dr Jackson has just used, the poll tax—or community charge, as the Government liked to call it—would be called the poll endowment.

Photo of Sylvia Jackson Sylvia Jackson Labour

Let us stick to student funding this morning, please; time is running out.

Although the Association of Scottish Colleges recognises that the proposals constitute a substantial step forward, it accepts that there is still some way to go. It

"welcomes . . . the assurances given in the Scottish Executive's 'Framework Documents' that:

No Scottish student will be worse off than under the present arrangements

The shortfall from abolishing tuition fee contributions will be made good in grant funding for colleges (and universities)".

It is obvious that more can be done in a sector in which 81 per cent of students study part time. That figure includes the 350,000 students who currently receive no help with paying their fees and study expenses or with costs such as travel and child care. Henry McLeish mentioned, however, that some measures to deal with that are in train, including funding for part-time students and students continuing at school.

Finally, while I recognise that the proposals could not deliver everything for everybody and that affordability is a big issue, I urge the chamber to support the coalition motion. It is a valiant attempt to address the key issues of widening access to education and social justice within the resources that are available to Parliament.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative 11:15 am, 27th January 2000

I should point out that I prepared my remarks before I understood that Mr George Lyon was speaking on behalf of the Executive, so they were, perhaps, written in a slightly different context.

I always understood that the purpose of devolution—and the result of it—was that no group in Scotland would be unduly discriminated against. The word fairness appears in very large letters on the front cover of the Cubie inquiry consultation document. I was therefore particularly disappointed yesterday by Henry McLeish's response to my question on the position of students from the south of Scotland who study in Carlisle and elsewhere in the north of England. They will be forced to pay tuition fees while other students— [Interruption.]

Sorry; given his constant bobbing so far this morning, I thought Ian Jenkins was about to bob up just then.

Students from the south of Scotland who study in the north of England will have to pay tuition fees, while those who move to Glasgow or Aberdeen will not. That is all the more disappointing as it was announced by a minister who has, on previous occasions, given such a boost to students in the south of Scotland through his support for the Crichton College of the University of Glasgow in Dumfries.

The Crichton campus is not a solution for all students in the south of Scotland—at least until further technological links are developed. The geography of, and the transport links in, Eskdale and lower Annandale, for example, mean that Carlisle is the only practical option for many students. We are not talking about a purely academic choice, such as whether to go to university in Oxford, Cambridge or even Loughborough; the choice is influenced by bus services to the only place that can be reached in a reasonable time. It is ridiculous to suggest that students from Eskdale should travel to Carlisle and then on to Dumfries—as the transport routes would require—to qualify for the Executive's new proposals.

Many other students in the Borders are in a similar position.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative

As Euan Robson is not present, it would be useful if Mr Jenkins would address the important issue of students from the Borders.

Photo of Ian Jenkins Ian Jenkins Liberal Democrat

I agree with everything David Mundell has said and I will join all those who want to improve the proposals to support such students. Let us not kid ourselves—this is a problem. Stepping back from the current position does not mean that we must not introduce some of the other proposals for giving students a better deal in Scotland. David said that it is a shame that students from the south of Scotland who study in the north of England should have to pay tuition fees. Tuition fees are being abolished, but it is a pity that there are problems in the Borders. We should try to solve them

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative

That was a generally useful contribution, but simply saying that tuition fees will be abolished does not make it happen. I have said many things that it would have been extremely helpful to have become reality just because I said them often enough.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative

I will not, unfortunately, give way to Mr Raffan.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative

Having seen Mr Raffan's voting record on the issue, I will give way.

Photo of Keith Raffan Keith Raffan Liberal Democrat

Will Mr Mundell congratulate the Executive on abolishing tuition fees for more than 97 per cent of higher education students and for all full-time further education students? That means that 40,000 more students will benefit than would have benefited as a result of the original pledge. Will Mr Mundell accept and acknowledge that?

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative

No, I will not acknowledge that, Keith. However, I will acknowledge that an arrangement has been put together to allow the coalition to stay in place—that is the reality of the situation.

I shall now return to my speech. The minister previously argued that no one would be worse off under these proposals. I contend that students for whom studying in Scotland is not a practical option should not be deprived.

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour

David Mundell is aware that we share a concern for students who live in the areas he mentioned, for whom there may be no alternative to studying in the north of England. Does he accept that it may be a question of what is legal, as making out an exceptional case for those students may be prevented by EU law? Does he agree that we should ask the Executive to investigate whether other imaginative solutions exist that could alleviate the problem for those few students who fall into that category?

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative

I agree in broad terms with Elaine Murray. Yesterday, I asked the Executive to apply as much imaginative thinking to come up with a solution for those students as it applied to keeping the coalition together. If as much effort went into dealing with those students as went into preserving the coalition, given the number of meetings that were held and the amount of resources that were used up, the Executive would probably have come up with a solution.

I am pleased that there is consensus that that issue must be addressed and that it goes wider than the issue raised by Richard Simpson yesterday, which focused more on poverty than on the broader issue of accessibility.

The Conservatives are confident that our proposed saltire awards scheme would meet the legal requirements. We are not confident in the legal advice that the Executive says it has been given, but will not show us.

Recently, the Executive seems to have been good at getting rid of advisers, whether for reasons of advice that it did not like or otherwise. It seems to me that it is time the Executive got rid of its present legal advisers and employed someone who will give an objective view of the EU issue.

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour 11:22 am, 27th January 2000

I welcome, in general, the package that has been put together and recognise that some transition arrangements—the fine detail—still have to be made. Frankly, if the opposition parties are reduced to attacking that fine detail, they should at least acknowledge as valid and important the changes that the Executive has made.

I have raised already the issue of poorer students who study in England. I welcome the fact that the minister will consider that issue. David Mundell raised important elements, which must be considered. If we can find a way to help those students, we should do so.

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour

I will not give way yet—I want to get into my stride.

Margo MacDonald said that independence would help. Independence would add further to the SNP's problems of finance. It would have to fund all the English students who study in Scotland, as fees would also be abolished for those students. I cannot see how independence would help our budget to any great extent.

I wish to pick up on the myth of free education, which has been peddled during the debate. What about the further education students who have had to pay fees for years? It is nonsense to talk about free education.

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour

I wish to address serious issues that lie beyond the present agreement. In my submission to Cubie, I raised concerns about students on longer courses. While I welcome the £2,000 for poorer families, I remain concerned about the fact that very few people from poorer backgrounds get on the longer courses, such as medicine, dentistry and veterinary science. I hope that, as we develop our economy and generate more money, we are able to consider increasing access for those people.

I will take an intervention from Andrew Wilson now.

Photo of Andrew Wilson Andrew Wilson Scottish National Party

I am grateful to Dr Simpson for giving way. He is to be congratulated on asking about bursaries for students south of the border, which was one of yesterday's more helpful questions.

If it is illegal to pay tuition fees for students from Scotland who study south of the border, but legal to pay them a bursary, can Dr Simpson tell me whether it is illegal to pay them a bursary that covers the cost of their tuition?

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour

I cannot give Andrew Wilson an honest answer to that question, as I am not a lawyer. This is a complicated situation and, undoubtedly, his question raises just the sort of issue that must be addressed. Ian Jenkins and, I am sure, other members, would welcome a positive input from the opposition parties on how we can manage the situation in the best possible way.

I welcome in this package the exemption of disabled students from the graduate endowment, which is very much in line with new Labour's philosophy of focusing resources to the best advantage of those who are disadvantaged. I also welcome in the framework document that has been produced, Sam Galbraith's commitment to examine child care. In my evidence to Cubie, I pointed out that only eight establishments currently provide free child care and that at 23 there is no provision. In the interests of greater access, we need uniformity in that area.

A number of the Cubie committee's recommendations relate to reserved matters. In my evidence to the committee, I indicated my concern about prescription charges for students. The problem is that student loans are treated as income when assessing benefits, irrespective of whether students take out loans. We need to address that, as some students are unable to afford prescription charges. The £2,000 access charges will help the poorest students in that regard.

In this speech, I have chosen to look forward and to raise issues that are of continuing concern, and I call on the Opposition to join me in that. I am concerned about the fact that the SNP is talking about £100 million plus—throwing the money around willy-nilly, rather than focusing it on groups that need it. The SNP needs to tell us precisely which problems it would address, or whether it simply intends to continue spraying money around.

Mr McLetchie responded to my intervention by saying that university funding had been increased. I do not doubt that, but the per capita expenditure was so reduced and the universities' position so disabled that the Dearing committee had to be set up, which led to the introduction of tuition fees. We must remember that tuition fees were introduced in a way that was designed to protect the poorest families and the poorest students. The intention was to provide universities and colleges with an income stream. I welcome, therefore, the Executive's absolute commitment to maintain the £42 million that is being invested in the higher and further education sector, because we must preserve its competitiveness. I hope that, as the economy grows, we will address some of the discrepancies in funding certain groups of teachers in the higher and further education sector.

I welcome this package. We need to address some of the issues that are left outstanding, in both reserved and general matters. However, I call on the Opposition to work positively with us, instead of carping or calling for us to spend vast amounts in a totally profligate manner.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green 11:28 am, 27th January 2000

Yesterday, at its invitation, I visited the National Union of Students at its offices in Forth Street and listened to its concerns about the Executive's proposals. I remind all members present that on the front of the Cubie report is the word "Fairness". Representing my party, I am absolutely opposed to the introduction of a student tax. Whatever the Executive says about this proposal, it is a student tax. Standing here on behalf of people who have been listening to constituents—

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Does Robin Harper recognise the limitations on the authority of this Parliament, and that it is not allowed—even if it wanted to—to create a new tax, other than to raise income tax?

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

I will come to that. Of course I recognise what Mr Rumbles has said. If he had not interrupted me, he would have heard my next sentence, which is that I am prepared to face the realities that are before us. I am, therefore, addressing the Executive's proposals from a realistic point of view—from the perspective of what needs to be debated in this chamber, rather than in the context of basic policies that have been adumbrated in the past. We must move forward.

The Executive proposal is very different from recommendation 35 of the Cubie report, which seemed fair to the students. Recommendation 35 states that only people who go straight or soon into jobs with salaries of more than £25,000 should contribute to the endowment fund. Students do not think it is fair that people must start to repay once they have a salary of £10,000. The measure is, in effect, a student poll tax.

Mike Russell describes the Executive's proposals as a three card trick—the £2,000 that students pay in addition to everything else has suddenly gone. Where is it? In winding up, will the minister explain how the £2,000 disappears in the Executive's calculations?

It appears that the Executive has examined the realities but has addressed them through a philosophy of fiscal and administrative convenience—similar to the philosophy of Wendy Alexander in extending the right to buy to housing associations. The endowment fund will be the quickest way of raising the money needed to pay for maintenance grants, which I congratulate the minister for addressing first, as that is to get things the right way round.

I ask the minister to pay careful attention to the concerns expressed by Malcolm Chisholm, and by the students in the short time they have had to consider the proposals. The students feel that although maintenance grants are a start, they will not do enough to encourage pupils from poorer families to enter higher education.

I shall have to vote for the SNP amendment. I do not know what I will do in the final vote, because I am not satisfied that the Executive has accepted Cubie in the spirit of fairness in which it should be accepted, either for students who must pay money back or for students who are held back by their straitened circumstances.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party 11:32 am, 27th January 2000

I should declare an interest, as I worked in financial services and, unlike the Government, know the difference between an endowment and a mortgage: an endowment is a gift and a mortgage is a debt. The Executive proposes a debt to pay for university education, so this package does not deliver free education; it just delays when the debt accrues so that, instead of accruing during the period of study, it becomes liable at the end. It is a fee system that produces a millstone mortgage debt or, worse, regressive taxation. We have back-door instead of up-front fees.

I want to take up Robin Harper's point about fairness. Let us consider the threshold for repayment of this debt. Yesterday, Henry McLeish said:

"We think that the £10,000 level is imaginative, as it removes the need for another administrative burden. It is important that we spell out that message throughout Scotland."—[Official Report, 26 January 2000; Vol 4, c 428.]

It is important not that the level should be fair, but that it should be convenient to the Government. Presumably, the minister thinks that the level is fair and that graduates can afford repayments.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

No. The Lib-Lab coalition is keen to gloss over the fact that £10,000 is less than the figure for male median earnings. We all know that in the current job market many graduates' first jobs are low paid. Under the Executive's proposals, a person earning as little as £4.80 an hour will have to pay back tuition fees. An adviser in a call centre or a charge-hand in a fast food restaurant is deemed by this Government to have earned sufficient premium from their education to warrant the repayment of their debt to the state.

The principle of deferred fees that Cubie outlined relies on an education premium. Cubie's proposals recognise that the possession of a degree gives a premium, but that it is not always immediate or inevitable. The important issue is when the education premium should kick in. Page 128 of the Cubie report states:

"A high threshold for repayments provides an in-built mechanism to ensure that no student or potential student need be dis-inclined to study for a degree. They are 'insured' against the risk of not earning a graduate salary premium, in that they will not be expected to contribute to the Endowment unless they are earning a salary significantly higher than annual average income."

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

That is all very well and I think members will have sympathy for the points Fiona Hyslop makes, but is the SNP proposing a separate system of collection for those repayments?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

To spell it out, we would not have tuition fees, so we would not have to find solutions to the coalition's problem of fee repayment.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I would like to move on.

The minister assures us that fewer people will repay the graduate contribution than pay tuition fees. That is the nub of the problem. In straight language, the proposals mean that whereas only 30 per cent of students paid the old full tuition fees, 50 per cent will have to pay the new tuition fees. That is double-speak. It is quite clear that if 50 per cent of students are liable, more people will pay the new tuition fees than pay the old tuition fees. That is Orwellian in the extreme—and that is with only seven spin-doctors.

Many people who are thinking about going into higher education will be deterred. Steve Durrant, president of the University of St Andrews students association, was quoted in The Scotsman yesterday as saying:

"We are particularly unimpressed with the idea of repaying tuition fees once a graduate is earning £10,000."

The Scottish Low Pay Unit recognises that £10,000 is a poverty wage.

This Parliament condemns the Executive, because the Lib-Lab coalition insists that recent graduates—people who may want to set up home and have families—must pay tuition fees. It is feeble to try to shift the burden of the old tuition fees from middle-aged parents to young families starting out in life. Where once the Labour party sought to lift people out of poverty it now condemns them to return again to poverty. This is a face-saving exercise for the Lib-Lab coalition and a slap in the face for the young people of Scotland.

The new tuition fees are a form of regressive taxation. There is much talk from the Executive about social inclusion, but people can see through that sham. The Scottish people are sharper than the Executive thinks. They know that the Liberal Democrats have sold out. With a £10,000 annual threshold, they also know that the Labour party has sold them short.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat 11:37 am, 27th January 2000

I have spent the whole of my adult life in adult education and training. In the four years before I entered Parliament, I worked at Aberdeen College, which has many higher national diploma and higher national certificate students, so I know something about the sharp end of student funding.

On 17 June 1999, in the previous debate on tuition fees, I said:

"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 . . . and we will abolish fees for the next academic year at the first practical opportunity."—[Official Report, 17 June 1999; Vol 1, c 608-09.]

Well, the time has now come to end tuition fees and this is indeed the first practical opportunity to get rid of them. I welcome enthusiastically the Executive's proposals.

In the media and among Opposition MSPs, attention has unfortunately focused almost exclusively on the issue of tuition fees. However, I must point out that our manifesto last May highlighted two main issues. We said that not only would we abolish tuition fees but that we would widen access and attack student poverty by funding maintenance of up to £2,000 a year. Is that familiar?

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Wait a minute; wait for it. We said that that maintenance money would be paid to mature students and to those in greatest financial difficulty. We have improved on that with this agreement.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Give me a moment. It is no wonder that the Liberal Democrat group was unanimous in welcoming the Executive's proposals, which are without doubt first-class news, as they mean that fees will be abolished now. There is no longer any question of anybody writing out cheques to go to university. I wish that David Mundell were still in the chamber to hear me say that. It is not wishful thinking; it will actually happen if he votes for it.

Students in further education establishments, such as Aberdeen College of Further Education, will be pleased, as not only will there be no fees for HNC and HND students, but there will be no requirement on them to make a graduate contribution. We are talking about thousands of students.

Next, we shall introduce a new endowment programme, which will mean the restoration of student grants of up to £2,000, especially for the poorest students. As we all know, that will be funded by contributions from the Executive and from ex-students, once they are in a financial position to contribute to a special endowment fund for future students.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

I am seeking an explanation. I am a simple person. If someone pays their tuition fees now, they will not have to pay the £2,000. If they have them paid for them under the new scheme, they have to pay back the £2,000 when their income reaches £10,000. Obviously, there is a link between not having to pay under the old scheme and having to pay back the money under the new scheme. When is a loan not a loan, or a tax not a tax? Mr Rumbles is dealing in sophistry.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

The tuition fees of £3,075 that students currently pay will be abolished if Christine Grahame votes to abolish them. Students who go to college in September will not pay any fees and will not pay a contribution to anyone. Christine Grahame should put her vote where her talk is.

I have one technical point to make to the Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning about the fund.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Hang on a minute. I want to make my technical point and have a proper debate. To be effective, the fund must be separate from, and be administered separately from, general taxation. That would improve the scheme. I hope that that point will be addressed when the legislation is brought forward in due course, so that we can see clearly that the fund is an endowment.

Two of our manifesto commitments—the abolition of tuition fees and the widening of access to further and higher education—are now being delivered and the supporters of the Liberal Democrats in this country are well pleased.

Photo of David Davidson David Davidson Conservative

Would not it have been clearer and more honest to the Scottish people for members to acknowledge that three separate issues are being fudged today? One is the issue of tuition fees, on which we had clarity of view before the election. The second is student poverty and the third is adequate funding of further and higher education. Does not Mr Rumbles honestly wish that the Liberals had gone down the original route, where we could have disposed of tuition fees—as we said we would—and then dealt with the other issues properly and not put them together in a fudge? That requires a yes or no answer.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

I will answer those questions about the fudge that Mr Davidson keeps talking about. In his letter that was published in The Press

and Journal this morning, he said that he was moving to my constituency of West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine. Are we starting the election already? Can we keep the rhetoric down and just look at the facts?

Let us turn to the nationalists. I know that their frustration is genuine, because they cannot successfully portray this agreement between the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats north of the border as a U-turn by Labour and a sell-out by the Liberal Democrats. The agreement cannot be both at the same time. They are frustrated because they do not understand.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

I have been relaxed about time, Mr Rumbles, but you have one minute left.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

In conclusion, this is a first-class agreement. I am delighted that our partners have agreed to scrap fees and establish a new package from 2001 for the reintroduction of grants for at least a third of our students. I would like to think that this is not an example of the tail wagging the dog, as it was described in yesterday's The Scotsman , but that it is an example for the Westminster Government to follow. I am sure that it will take action, because demand to follow our lead in Scotland surely will increase down south, as it is obvious to all that the partnership deal—made by the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party north of the border—for students is so much better than the current system.

Photo of John McAllion John McAllion Labour 11:45 am, 27th January 2000

I, for one, am not sure whether the darkness and chaos, which was referred to earlier, came before or after Tony Blair.

I am reminded of a statement made by my colleague, the Welsh Labour MP Paul Flynn, in his book about the Welsh Labour party leadership elections, "Dragons led by Poodles". He said that, for new Labour,

"Only the future is certain: the past is always changing."

I firmly reject any suggestion that the Labour party that I joined in 1977 is the equivalent of darkness and chaos.

It is unfortunate that most of the speeches today have been made from a party political perspective. If members examine the SNP amendment, they will see that it deals only with tuition fees, because the SNP senses that it can make political capital from tuition fees. The other recommendations of the Cubie report are added on at the end of the amendment, almost as an afterthought. There is no reference to student hardship, student poverty or widening access for low-income groups. I know that it is the nature of the beast that we all manoeuvre for party political advantage but, if that is all that we do today, we will not have a sensible and constructive debate about the future of higher education in Scotland. I would like to see less party political rhetoric and more members addressing the real issues that face the higher education sector in Scotland.

I do not agree that tuition fees are the central issue. This debate should be about widening access, tackling student poverty and doing something about the awful debt burdens that most students have when they leave higher education.

I have a number of questions for the Executive about the package that it proposes. I welcome the fact that £50 million is to be injected into higher education in Scotland, but I want to know why £27 million of that is to go towards scrapping tuition fees when students from low-income backgrounds will not benefit from a single penny of that money. The main beneficiaries of that £27 million will be those who come from middle-income and high-income families. Why is the balance in favour of the better-off rather than the worse-off? That is not what Cubie recommended.

Cubie made two main recommendations for students from families with lower incomes. The first was that each of those students should be given a bursary of half the level of student support whether they are staying at home or living away from home, which I work out to be a grant of about £2,050. He also recommended that a wider access bursary scheme for especially disadvantaged students should be set up to fund those students to the tune of another £2,050, which would restore a full grant to students who came from very low-income families. He estimated that that would cost about £19 million in the first year and £45 million in the longer term.

Cubie also indicated how many students would be affected. He defined what a low-income background meant—families who had incomes of less than £17,000 a year. He estimated that, currently, about 15,000 students in the higher education system came from that background. Why were his recommendations for families from low-income backgrounds rejected? Is the Executive's position that they will be phased in eventually or is it opposed in principle to what Cubie recommended?

What are the first-year and longer-terms costs of the Executive's proposal that students from families with incomes of less than £10,000 should receive only a £2,000 bursary? If the cost is less than what Cubie proposes and less than the cost of abolishing tuition fees, why is that?

Why does the Executive disagree with Cubie's definition of a low-income family? Why is such a family now defined as one with an income of less than £10,000 rather than less than £17,000? If that definition were used in the poverty statistics that are issued by the same Executive, the number of people counted as living in poverty would collapse. If we agree with the definition of poverty that is used by the Executive in its poverty statistics, why are we not giving grants to students whom we recognise to come from families who are in poverty? That question must be addressed.

I recognise the constraints imposed by affordability. I also recognise what Malcolm Chisholm calls opportunity cost. This Parliament has limited powers, especially in terms of finance. For all our proposals that will cost money, we must indicate where the money is coming from. That is an important point.

However, we should not allow the limits of devolution to act as blinkers that will prevent us from looking at what Tony Blair likes to call the bigger picture. There is a bigger picture in higher education. Part of this debate should be about the alternatives to the limited support that we give students at present and about what, as a society and a nation, we can afford. How do we begin as, I hope, a socialist society to find a way of funding higher education? I do not want this debate to be limited to only what devolution can offer; I want it to be widened out to what we, as a society, can offer.

Photo of Andrew Wilson Andrew Wilson Scottish National Party 11:50 am, 27th January 2000

It is about seven years and two stone since I was a student. I congratulate John McAllion on an excellent speech. I think that we are all concerned with the wider issues of access and student finance. This is one of the defining issues of the Parliament and the fact that we are having this debate and in this manner marks the Scottish Parliament out as very different from the London legislature. There can be no question but that Scotland demands a more just and social democratic programme from its Executive and Parliament. The only issue now is the ability of Parliament to meet that demand.

Like my colleagues, I have been struck by the Lib-Lab pact's Orwellian doublethink and Newspeak. We are told that fees do not exist anymore because people will pay them after they graduate and because the budgets are being shifted about so that the payment does not go towards tuition. What is the equity or sense of imposing a specific charge on one section of the community to pay for a welfare payment to another, rather than funding that welfare payment out of general taxation? This exercise in political fixery does not wash. More people are paying more than they were before Labour came to power and that is why student leaders are calling the deal a sell-out.

The Executive gives something a nice name and expects people to believe that it is fair, just as the Conservatives did with the community charge. However, the community charge was a poll tax; people called it a poll tax and rejected it. The inequity of the charge on students, irrespective of what it is called, is that it will be paid by people on just over half average earnings and will be linked not to average earnings but to the retail prices index—that means that, within a few years, people on poverty wages will have to pay the charge.

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour

I share some of Mr Wilson's concern about the level of repayment and hope that the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee will look at that. Will he accept, however, that the repayment figure is 9 per cent of the income above the eligibility figure, which is £7.50 a month per £1,000 above £10,000? When the sum of money is translated into the repayment figure, it is not huge.

Photo of Andrew Wilson Andrew Wilson Scottish National Party

I accept that but, as I was about to say, that is equivalent to a marginal rate of taxation on the lowest earners of 49p. That is more regressive than the higher rate of income tax, which applies to people who earn more than £60,000 a year. It is not fair and it is not progressive.

This is happening because higher education budgets have been plundered. For every pound per student spent in 1979, Scotland is now investing 65p. How can we hope to take advantage of the knowledge economy if we are putting less per student into higher education than we were before the Thatcher era? That is the harsh and shameful reality. The Government's focus is entirely on a numbers-based approach to higher education rather than on quality.

The cost of our proposals has attracted a great deal of mirth from other parties, which I take as a compliment— [Interruption.] Members from the Executive parties are saying, "You can't, you can't." [Interruption.] Yes, I hear Mr Rumbles shouting. In their manifesto, the Liberal Democrats proposed the abolition of charges and the introduction of a grant. I do not remember reading in their manifesto how they were going to pay for that. In our manifestos, we have fully costed what we have proposed; we would have liked to have done more and I fully understand what John McAllion said about student grants—

Photo of Andrew Wilson Andrew Wilson Scottish National Party

I will just develop this point and come back to Mr Gorrie.

I understand that we have to take into account the Parliament's powers in a devolved context; I agree with Mr McAllion on that. Following the publication of the largely excellent and "mature", as Mr McLeish described it, Cubie report, we decided to accept its recommendations, with the exception of the income stream that would come from the deferred payments.

The net cost of the Cubie recommendations—and I ask members to focus on the actual cost, rather than the imagined one— [Interruption.] If Mr Rumbles would listen, rather than engaging mouth before brain, he might learn something.

The net cost of the Cubie recommendations would be £12 million per year. The net cost of the loss of the income stream, which is deferred, will not kick in until 2005. In other words, through the course of this session, the net cost per year of our proposals—including the abolition of any fee—is £12 million per year. None of those costs will kick in before the next comprehensive spending review.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

If I understand Mr Wilson's rather peculiar figures correctly, there is a payback, which will increase in years to come. Does Mr Wilson accept that?

Photo of Andrew Wilson Andrew Wilson Scottish National Party

Clearly. That is the point that I am making.

The deferred income stream, which we would forgo, would not kick in until 2005. It does not exist yet. The figure of £105 million, which Mr Brown's colleagues give, is an error of 875 per cent. That is bizarre. As Mr McAllion said, we should engage seriously in the facts of the debate. In this session, to do what the SNP suggests would cost £12 million a year. The key question is, can we afford it? In answer, I point out that that is 0.075 per cent of the entire Scottish budget, or 4 per cent of the £309 million underspend this year that Mr McConnell announced.

Mr McAllion is totally correct. We have to make judgments about how we allocate the resources that we have at our disposal now and about what we want Scotland to achieve in future. What the SNP suggests can be done; it is a question of choice. We would all do well to look to the bigger questions, as Mr McAllion said. We should not dismiss that in a bizarre fashion by using big numbers to scare the children, when the reality is quite different. Our plans can and should be afforded. We are richer now than we have ever been before, but the way in which we invest in students does not reflect that fact.

Photo of Nick Johnston Nick Johnston Conservative 11:57 am, 27th January 2000

It is obvious that we will not agree today on what is a fee and what is an endowment. This morning, I looked up the definition of a fee in Chambers dictionary. One definition is

"the price paid for services".

I presume that a university education is a service, in some meaning of the word. Another definition of fee is

"the sum extracted for any special privilege".

By any definition, a university education is a special privilege. I think that we are talking about the retention of fees, albeit fees that will be delayed rather than paid up front.

Photo of Nick Johnston Nick Johnston Conservative

I have listened to the Liberal Democrats this morning and I hope that Mr Rumbles will not think me offensive if I refuse to take interventions from him.

We are not debating student finance or even access to university; we are debating what is, as Henry McLeish admitted yesterday, a point of principle. The point is, however, that the Government has no principles. Right from the time before the 1997 election, when Tony Blair promised that there would be no tuition fees, the Government has abandoned any principles. That is the only reason why we have spent seven months and £750,000 on the Cubie inquiry only to see the major part of its recommendations shelved.

The Executive's shabby deal—I have resisted the temptation to call it the lapdog's breakfast—throws up many questions. I understand that a student from Birmingham, who is studying in Scotland, will be subject to tuition fees, whereas a student from Belgium, also studying in Scotland, will not. Will the student from Belgium be subject to the graduate tax, and how will it be collected and enforced? What does the Executive intend to do about students who drop out of university in their first, second or third years? Will the bursary—or maintenance grant, or enhanced help—that we are led to believe will be available be recovered from those students? Will they be liable to pay a proportional amount of graduate tax, or will they just take up a place that could have been used by someone else and then get away scot free?

Furthermore, I understand that HND students will be exempt from the graduate tax. Will the minister shed some light on the situation that pertains in some of our further education colleges, whereby the achievement of an HND can lead straight to the final year and an award of a bachelor's degree? Will the graduate in that case be subject to a graduate tax, or does the Executive hold to the view that only university graduates, and not graduates from further education colleges, will be subject to the tax?

As a member of the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee, I support Mr McLeish fully in his desire to raise skills in the work force, but will he explain how the further education anomalies will be addressed? How will the new graduate tax drive forward the Executive's desire—which the Conservatives have supported whole-heartedly—to improve skills and continue the cause of lifelong education? I doubt that it will. Does Mr McLeish feel that one of the results of this package will be to drive students away from universities and into further education colleges, or other methods of study, to escape the fees?

Will Mr McLeish also address the concerns of the Association of Scottish Colleges about part-time students and the fact that significant improvements are still needed for many of the 350,000 part-time students who currently get no help with their fees, study expenses, travel and child care costs? Does the Executive not regret having narrowed the horizons for students? Does Mr McLeish not think that that is regressive, and contrary to all that was achieved under the Conservative Government from 1979?

Are not the public entitled to expect that, when politicians say that they will not impose tuition fees, they mean that they will not impose tuition fees? Are not the public entitled to expect that £750,000 will not be spent on an inquiry just to keep the shabby coalition in power?

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour 12:01 pm, 27th January 2000

I want to address some of the general principles behind the package. Any objective assessment of the education system in the 1980s and the 1990s would conclude that expansion in higher education primarily benefited the better-off.

It is easier to get into university now than it has ever been, with fewer qualifications in some cases. However, people from lower-income families are still five times more likely to enter a low-paid job. The proportion of that group among those participating in education has remained tiny for too long. We aim to change that.

The Opposition may disagree with what Labour and the partnership are trying to achieve, but our motivation in designing wider access principles is the need to support those already in the system, while ensuring that continued expansion is not carried out at the expense of those who have historically been excluded.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

Does the member accept that all studies that address our higher education system since 1962 have shown that the introduction of the maintenance grant to which Ms McNeill is so attached made no significant difference to the social profile of those attending university? When we consider countries such as Sweden, we find that the gender and social profile is considerably different from what she would advocate. Surely it is not the question—

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

I get Mr Monteith's point. It is surprising, but I do not disagree with him. It is important that members understand that the introduction of grants in 1962 has not significantly increased the participation of marginalised groups. That is why we have to move on to wider access principles; it is why we have to go beyond finance, and address attitudes. That is what I would like the chamber to address. Why is it that the people from the groups that are excluded do not apply in the first place?

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

Would the member allow me to get a wee bit further? I have addressed Brian Monteith's point.

One or two members have talked about the importance of the further education sector. However, members must understand that the FE sector represents the link to higher education for people who have struggled in night classes and through sandwich courses without financial support from the state. We need to find money in our budget, beyond the £50 million package, to ensure that money is available for those in higher education.

The exclusion of the HNC and HND from any fee is of major significance, because that is the link from further education to higher education. It is a link that we can all embrace.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

I agree with what the member has said about students in FE colleges and so on. However, I was a student when the regulations changed. If I had been considering entering higher education at that point, I would not have done so. That is a personal testimony. I agree that we must change attitudes, but please do not move away from understanding that people from very low-income backgrounds will not take on debt unless they can be sure of repaying it.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

Lifelong learning, which we all talk about in the Parliament, has become a buzzword. We cannot allow it to remain a buzzword; we must make it happen. All parties must be committed to ensuring that lifelong learning becomes a reality. The £50 million package—£8 million more than the saltire award scheme proposed by the Conservatives—is expensive, but has been cleverly focused on the principles to which we adhere. We have exempted disabled students and mature students. We believe that the contribution scheme is necessary—I know that the Opposition disagrees. I remind Andrew Wilson that a tax is something that never ends, yet under the contribution scheme, once the money is repaid, the contribution will come to an end. That is an important difference.

We need to give security to those institutions that run our higher and further education systems. The £50 million package addresses that. It also addresses the issue of non-traditional entrants. The removal of a charge on entry to higher education is a relief to thousands of students and parents. That is very important. All members have received letters from parents who felt that the thresholds were not right. The package will allow them to choose for their sons and daughters. We have given at least some independence to those 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds to whom Nicola Sturgeon referred.

The demise of the student grant began in 1981 and I would like to think that, some 19 years after that, our acceptance of the principle of reintroducing a maintenance award represents a turning point. I know that the National Union of Students welcomes that principle, even if it disagrees with the thresholds. Those who disagree can make their arguments, but let us all embrace the change in direction, which is for the better.

Photo of Dennis Canavan Dennis Canavan Independent 12:06 pm, 27th January 2000

I pay tribute to the work of Andrew Cubie and his committee in highlighting the extent of student poverty and the disincentive that that creates for many potential students from low-income backgrounds.

The Cubie recommendations did not go far enough. I am sure that many potential students and their parents will be very disappointed that the Executive thinks that Cubie was too generous. The Cubie proposals would have cost about £71 million per year and the Executive proposals will cost about £50 million—that is a cut of about 30 per cent.

The Executive is proposing a maximum grant—or access payment—of £2,000 per annum. It is worth recalling that, back in 1979, the maximum grant was £1,250, which would now be worth £3,450. After 1,001 days of new Labour, we are nowhere near the level where real Labour left off, more than 20 years ago.

Under the Cubie proposals, graduates would not have to start paying money into the endowment fund until their salary reached £25,000 per annum. Under the Executive proposals, that salary threshold would be cut to £10,000, a reduction of 60 per cent. Average earnings are just over £20,000 per year, so people who are on less than half of average earnings could find themselves liable to pay a contribution to the endowment fund.

The Executive claims that it is abolishing tuition fees, yet 6,000 Scottish students attending universities elsewhere in the UK will still have to pay up-front tuition fees. Since the introduction of fees and the anomaly whereby students from other parts of the UK who study at Scottish universities will have to pay up to £1,000 more, we have a seen a reduction in the number of students from other parts of the UK enrolling at Scottish universities. As a result of the Executive's proposals, we will almost certainly see a reduction in the number of Scottish students going to universities in other parts of the UK. Such moves will impoverish the university system, because the cross-border flow of students, in both directions, helps to ensure a better mix and greater opportunity for the cross-fertilisation of ideas from people of different backgrounds.

Universities should not simply be local, parochial institutions. They should not simply be national institutions either. They are international institutions, and many universities have traditionally taken students not only from other parts of the UK but from many other countries in the world. My fear is that the combined actions of the British Government and the Scottish Executive will do very little to alleviate student poverty. They will also impoverish some of our universities by diminishing their international status.

The Executive claims that it would be a breach of European law to give the 6,000 Scottish students who attend universities elsewhere in the UK the same benefits as Scottish students who attend Scottish universities. However, I understand that the legal advice that was given to the Cubie committee did not support that view. I suspect that those in the Executive are just making excuses for the failure of their colleagues at Westminster to take action to abolish tuition fees throughout the rest of the UK.

The Executive's response to Cubie is simply not good enough. I urge the minister to take appropriate action and to demand that the British Government take appropriate action to abolish all tuition fees and introduce a much more generous system of student grants, especially for students from low-income backgrounds.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 12:11 pm, 27th January 2000

About 30 years ago, along with a few colleagues, I graduated in law from Aberdeen University. I had a means-tested student grant, without which my parents would not have been able to send me to university. The iniquitous concept of imposing tuition fees on British students to pay for education was unknown to us at that time. It therefore gives me huge personal pleasure to stand in the chamber today and say that I played a part in writing the Liberal Democrat manifesto, that I played a part in supporting the stand that we took during the partnership negotiations, that tuition fees should be abolished, and that I played a part in the discussions that led up to yesterday's announcement that tuition fees would be abolished and student grants reintroduced.

However, I am disappointed—to say the least—at the unreality that has permeated much of the discussion today. As John McAllion said, it has been far too party political. The Opposition's attitude has been extremely niggardly towards the good package of proposals that has been put forward. The Scottish National party in particular has made a way of life of vituperative abuse of the Liberal Democrats. A stranger looking in on our debates last May might have thought that Jim Wallace, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, had ordered the death of the first-born of the nation. In fact, he and his party were instrumental in setting up the Cubie committee, whose work is now praised by all sides and, more important, whose work has moved the debate on to a new level. That is seen clearly in the movement in the five different SNP policies that we have heard in the chamber.

The result of our work is a set of proposals for consideration by Parliament that—and I say this without hesitation—is significantly better than we thought possible at the time of the election and significantly better than the SNP, with its miserable pledge of £500 as a maximum grant, thought possible.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

Mr Brown will recall that Cubie recommended that the threshold for the access funds would be £17,000 per annum. The Executive's proposals lower that to £10,000 per annum. That is below the official poverty line. Does Mr Brown agree that that will exclude thousands of students who should have access?

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

Tommy Sheridan makes a good point. However, he will be aware from earlier contributions that there is a very good reason for the figure of £10,000—the mechanism for recollecting. Access funding is linked to the student loan arrangements, and that is why there is a £10,000 link.

It is fair to say that people in my party share the concern over the level of income at which repayment will start. We hope that representations will be made to the UK Government—which put the student loan arrangements in place—to try to increase that figure. That is important.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

No. If Fiona Hyslop does not mind, I will proceed with my speech, because I do not have much time.

It is noteworthy that the Opposition has concentrated on the issue of Scottish students studying in England, which is to some extent a side issue. I was tempted to suggest that the First Minister, who is lacking a special adviser or two at the moment, should take on Mr McLetchie as his legal adviser and Mr Swinney as his financial adviser, but I am not entirely convinced that those choices would carry credibility with the European Court of Justice or with financial people in the City.

More seriously, a small issue emerged from some members' comments about the problem of the border and people who study in England because there is no equivalent course in Scotland. Perhaps, when the detail is examined, the department might consider the discretion of paying tuition fees to Scottish students in England where there is no alternative course in Scotland. That might provide a way of dealing with the matter without opening the European floodgates that we have heard about. Important comments have been made about colleges, and we have touched on the question of the repayment threshold.

This package of measures has the benefit of being even better in detail when it is examined. It fits together; it is prudent and radical and gives a lot of help to poorer students; and it is a tribute to and triumph for this Parliament, the consultative processes that it uses and the democratic support in the chamber for the abolition of fees, which has been recognised and effected by the Executive. There is cross-party agreement on many issues in the chamber. Will the Opposition parties rise to the challenge today and give this Parliament's united backing to a higher education and student support system that is fit for the new century?

I support the Executive's motion.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent 12:16 pm, 27th January 2000

In Mr Brown's concluding remarks, he suggested that this chamber should let Westminster off the hook for the new Labour Government's continuation of the mistake made by the past Conservative Government in introducing tuition fees. We should not be in the business of letting Westminster off the hook. Instead, we should make it realise the folly of its ways and we will not do that if we accept the cobbled-together compromise in front of us.

When Henry McLeish introduced this package of measures, he said that the parties differed in the margins. However, the Scottish National party does not differ in the margins; it differs fundamentally. We would not have endorsed or reintroduced tuition fees, because if we start from such a position of compromise, we simply add that layer upon layer of compromise to that position and produce an anomalous situation. Henry McLeish, who is a very decent man, was embarrassed when he tried to deny the link between tuition fees and endowment; what cannot be denied is that the latter is instituted as a consequence of the former.

We would not have produced such an anomalous scheme. We might have produced a scheme with which many people disagreed, but it would not have been as fundamentally flawed as this. We would not have had to preserve a coalition in the way that this coalition has had to be preserved, and that flaw has fed through to the quality of the legislation that we are about to pass. This is poor-quality legislation which reflects badly on the chamber at a time when we should be trying to raise aspirations and to demonstrate our ability to produce better-quality legislation.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

With all due respect to Mike Rumbles, I will not give way because I do not have time.

I have listened to everyone and agree with many of the comments that have been made. I am proud to associate myself with John McAllion's remarks, and I share the priorities that I think he and Pauline McNeill have. Furthermore, I appreciate that the compromise tries to reach areas that grants and loans have not reached in the past. However, the scheme is not equitable; there is too much indication of how difficult it will be for students who do not walk into good jobs immediately after graduation to repay their tuition fees. Many of us are concerned about that, because we feel that lifelong learning is an aspiration to which the legislation introduces all sorts of barriers.

I regret that the Liberal Democrats—many of whom are friends of long standing—have departed from the principle that was enshrined in their submission to the Cubie inquiry. In it, they said:

"A majority of votes were cast for candidates supporting the abolition of tuition fees. The people of Scotland will expect the new Parliament to deliver on this issue."

I appreciate that, in the sophistry of political debate, a case can be made for the compromise. However, outside this chamber, people will see that tuition fees have been retained, and we will be blamed for that. That is why I am opposed to the Executive proposal.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

I am sorry, but I must carry on.

When this anomalous legislation was produced, did anyone consider—

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

Proposed legislation—but because the coalition has to be preserved, it will unfortunately become legislation. The committee of which I am a member will be asked to clear up all the anomalies that we have already heard outlined this morning. I have no doubt that we will hear more this afternoon.

What about the position of students who, like me, come from homes which would normally have been awarded the maintenance grant, even as in the current Executive proposal, and who then get lucky after graduation and get very rich? They would not be asked to repay anything.

What about the student who comes from a household that earns £24,000 per annum? That is not exactly a high-earning household. The student from that family would be expected to repay that fee once they had graduated—admittedly only £7.50 a month, as Elaine Murray reminded us. That sum might not represent all of their bus fares down to work at the call centre or at McDonald's, but it is a considerable amount of money to be repaid by someone who is already deeply in debt because of student loans, and now because of deferred tuition fees.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

I am sorry, Nicol. I have a very short time.

Are the Executive's proposals an equitable way to sort things out? Of course not. We have arrived at this situation because tuition fees have been kept by another name, and I greatly regret that.

Photo of Bristow Muldoon Bristow Muldoon Labour 12:22 pm, 27th January 2000

There seems to be a dilemma among Scottish National party members as to whether the proposed measures are a good or a bad thing. In Mr Swinney's first question yesterday, he suggested that one of his constituents might feel it necessary to take the Executive to court because she was not being treated as well as students studying in Scotland. If that is the case, why is Mr Swinney opposed to the proposals? They are a good deal for students, which is the real reason why the SNP is upset about them.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

This is a classic case of missing the point. I raised a particular circumstance with the Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning yesterday, and I took the trouble of looking at the Official Report to clarify what he said. If I am supposed to reply to my constituent, clarifying how her circumstances have changed as a result of the Executive's cobbled-together package, I am none the wiser from reading the minister's response.

Perhaps, in his speech, Bristow Muldoon will address the issue that I raised yesterday. If my constituent cannot get on the course that she wants in Scotland, and has to go to a university in England, will the Scottish Executive do anything to address the difficulties that she faces? Will she have any entitlement to raise a legal action against the Scottish Executive for failing to meet her aspirations?

Photo of Bristow Muldoon Bristow Muldoon Labour

Mr Swinney fails to address the point. If his constituent has any grievance at all, it starts from the proposition that there is a better system for students in Scotland than exists in other parts of the United Kingdom. If he accepts that, he should be backing the Executive's proposals.

The real reason why the SNP is upset is that the Executive's aims will be delivered through the proposals. They will be delivered by widening access and by providing a better deal for students. That will be done in a number of ways. First, the aims will be delivered through the abolition of student tuition fees. I thought that the SNP was in favour of that, although it does not want to give its backing to the proposals. More important, they will be delivered through the introduction of bursaries of up to £2,000 for low-income families.

Other parts of the Executive's proposals are also to be welcomed. They include the exemption from the graduate endowment for mature students, disabled students, lone parents and higher national diploma and higher national certificate students.

Further education has already been mentioned in today's debate. Yesterday, I attended a ceremony to mark the start of construction of the new West Lothian College, another part of the Executive's proposals to widen access to further education. In West Lothian alone, there will be a further 3,000 places. Nicol Stephen attended the opening to mark the occasion. At the ceremony, the principal of West Lothian College, Tony Godden, welcomed the proposals that he had read in the press. He believed that they would have a positive effect on students and would contribute towards the delivery of the Executive's aims in further education and lifelong learning.

As many members have mentioned, too few people from poorer backgrounds go to university. The reintroduction of support for people from the poorer backgrounds is one of the most welcome aspects of the proposals.

The SNP has not addressed the question that was put by Henry McLeish yesterday and was also mentioned yesterday in Iain McWhirter's column in The Herald. In every debate in the chamber, the SNP claims that independence will solve all our problems. Can the SNP explain how independence would help us to deal with England-domiciled students who, as EU citizens, would qualify for the same system of support in Scotland that we are proposing to introduce? How would the SNP pay for that? Would not it result in an increase in applications from England-domiciled students to Scottish universities? I suggest that those questions point to the advantages of the devolution settlement as opposed to the SNP's policy of separation from the rest of the UK.

Margo MacDonald might be right: perhaps the SNP leadership is going soft on independence and this debate is an example of that. Perhaps the party's leadership has started to realise that independence would not work.

The proposals put forward by Henry McLeish represent a fair deal for students and illustrate the advantages of having a Scottish Parliament that can deliver Scottish solutions to Scottish problems. The other thing that upsets the SNP is that the proposals represent the fact that the partnership Executive is working to deliver for Scotland.

Meeting suspended until 14:30.

On resuming—