Higher Education Bill

First Minister's Question Time – in the Scottish Parliament at 12:00 pm on 15 January 2004.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat 12:00, 15 January 2004

To ask the First Minister what the implications of Her Majesty's Government's Higher Education Bill will be for students studying in Scotland and Scottish universities. (S2F-522)

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

Given earlier exchanges, Mr Smith will not be surprised to learn that we expect to receive the report from phase 3 of the higher education review next month. That will allow us to assess the situation and to make decisions as appropriate.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

Will the First Minister reaffirm the commitment in the Liberal Democrat-Labour partnership agreement that there will be no top-up fees in Scotland? I am sure that he is aware of the concerns of many excellent research and teaching universities in Scotland, including the University of St Andrews in my constituency, that the introduction of top-up fees in England may put them at a financial disadvantage. Therefore, will he give a commitment that the Scottish Executive will vigorously pursue the potential for consequential funding as a result of the UK Government's proposals to introduce top-up fees if those proposals are successful? Will he also give a commitment that the Scottish Executive will direct any such additional consequential funding towards higher education?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

Mr Smith will be aware that we do not directly link the consequentials that we receive from our colleagues in the UK to the budget that they have attached them to. As I hope the earlier exchange showed, I believe that funding for higher education in Scotland and for universities is an important priority for us, and it will be considered as such in our forthcoming spending review. However, we need to ensure that those decisions are balanced against important decisions in other priority areas. We are absolutely determined to ensure not only that Scottish universities retain their position as universities that welcome students without tuition fees, but that, in their research and teaching, they are among the best universities in the world. We will make those decisions having rightly made a comparison between additional spending on universities and additional spending on schools, hospitals, roads, rail, tackling crime and our other important priorities.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Does the First Minister agree that there will be no long-term Barnett consequentials from top-up fees in England? Does he acknowledge that, in assessing what resources are available to universities to spend on research and teaching, the important figure to use is spend per student, the figure used by Tony Blair only yesterday? Does he acknowledge that the spend per student in Scotland three years ago was only 3.6 per cent ahead of the spend in England? That was even before top-up fees and before the current period in which higher education spending in England is double the rate in Scotland. Does he admit that the Executive is doing less, better, in that area and that it is in danger of causing problems for the competitive advantage of our universities in the future?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I do not agree that we are doing less, but we are certainly doing better—I agree with Fiona Hyslop on that. Of course Scottish universities, and higher education in general, receive additional support in England. I do not entirely accept the figures provided by Universities Scotland, but I do not think that they are too far off the mark in terms of money per student. However, we spend a considerable additional amount of money in Scotland on such things as four-year degrees and the quality and commercialisation of our research. Those additional funds, which are not even in the calculation that I was quoting last Wednesday, are not available to English universities, so they are very important.

I would like to correct something that Fiona Hyslop said about consequentials at the beginning of her question. Where Government money is provided—and a substantial amount of new Government money is being provided to English higher education as a result of the Prime Minister's announcement last week—we will get the consequentials of that money. We will consider whether or not to spend that on universities, on higher education in colleges, on student financial support or on the many other important priorities here in Scotland as part of our spending review. We shall do that logically and rationally and we shall have the best interests of Scotland at heart when we make our final decisions.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

If the First Minister's constituency counterpart at Westminster, Frank Roy MP, were to come to him and seek his advice on how he should vote on the bill on tuition fees, how would the First Minister advise him to vote? Would he advise him to vote in favour or against, or would he advise him to abstain?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

If my constituency member of Parliament came to tell me how he thought I should vote in this chamber, I would use a good Wishaw phrase in replying to him and say, "Cheery!"

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

Having had a constituent inquiring about the matter today, I want to ask the First Minister what effect he envisages the bill having on Scottish citizens who wish to study at English universities.

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

Those are some of the details that we need to study and resolve over the coming months. We have made our position very clear. For example, we established phase 3 of the higher education review, which is designed to assess all the implications and has secured the total involvement not only of the leaders of Universities Scotland but of the National Union of Students and its president. As a result, we will have a very accurate assessment of the issues that require to be addressed. We will receive some advice from those organisations on the matter; examine the finances that are available; and make our decisions as appropriate.

Furthermore, we will continue to discuss the implications of any decisions with our colleagues south of the border, which is something that we have been doing more and more over the past four and a half years. The Enterprise and Culture Committee made a very good point about the importance of close liaison between ministers in this Parliament and ministers in London. That liaison has improved over the past 12 months and will help us to resolve the issues before 2006, when the new regime is introduced.

Photo of George Reid George Reid None

Because we started late, there is time for one last question.