Universities (Meetings)

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:32 pm on 20th March 2003.

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Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative 2:32 pm, 20th March 2003

To ask the Scottish Executive when it will next meet representatives of universities. (S1O-6686)

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

Ministers and officials meet regularly with representatives of higher education institutions to discuss matters of interest. Subject to the outcome of the election, the next scheduled ministerial meeting with key stakeholders is due to take place in June this year.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

Recently, the Prime Minister said:

"people should go to university based on their merit whatever their class background".—[Official Report, House of Commons; 26 Feb 2003; Vol 400, c 257.]

Does the minister agree? When he next meets representatives of the universities, will he tell them—if he is the minister at the time—that they should not introduce an admissions policy that subverts that principle?

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

HE institutions in Scotland are clear that widening access is a key priority. The approach here is different from that in England. There is 50 per cent participation in higher education in Scotland. Widening access is our key priority. Although admissions policy is a matter for the individual institution and should be transparent and should not compromise academic standards, the universities understand that we believe that there is merit in considering wider issues than simply exam results and considering factors that have a good correlation with the potential for achieving success and excellence at university.

Photo of Andrew Wilson Andrew Wilson Scottish National Party

Is the minister aware of the growing anxiety of university leaders in Scotland about the Executive's ability to respond to their growing funding crisis? Unlike the minister's colleagues, those people do not blame him for the system, but blame the system itself and the constraints that are placed on it by the Scottish Parliament and the Executive's outdated mode of funding. How can it make sense that, if the rest of the United Kingdom becomes more dependent on top-up fees and private funding for higher education, the Parliament and the Executive will lose out financially through the functioning of the arcane Barnett formula? Will the minister open his mind to the reality that if we have independent policy control, we should also have independent control of finances?

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

Mr Wilson is never one to let the facts get in the way of a good story. In Scotland, we fund higher education at a level that is 20 per cent higher per head of population than in England. Wales aspires to our level of funding of higher education. Our set-up serves higher education and Scotland's young people well.

Photo of Brian Fitzpatrick Brian Fitzpatrick Labour

We know that the minister will be part of a ministerial team after the forthcoming elections. [ Interruption. ]

Photo of Brian Fitzpatrick Brian Fitzpatrick Labour

If I could get the opportunity—

Photo of Brian Fitzpatrick Brian Fitzpatrick Labour

I would ask a question if I had the opportunity to do so. [ Interruption. ]

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

The member should proceed with the question. [ Interruption. ] Order.

Photo of Brian Fitzpatrick Brian Fitzpatrick Labour

I am obliged, Presiding Officer. When the minister meets university representatives, will he ensure that representatives of student bodies—and the National Union of Students Scotland in particular—will be included in discussions when decisions are to be made?

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

I have had discussions with NUS Scotland in the past couple of hours. I gave it an absolute assurance that when we come to the third phase of our higher education review, which will consider the implications of the changes in funding in England and how we will respond to them in Scotland, it will be included.