Prime Minister (Meetings)

First Minister's Question Time – in the Scottish Parliament at 12:00 pm on 22nd January 2004.

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Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party 12:00 pm, 22nd January 2004

To ask the First Minister when he next plans to meet the Prime Minister and what issues he intends to raise. (S2F-544)

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I have no formal meetings planned with the Prime Minister for this month.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I thank the First Minister for his answer. On Tuesday evening, Sam Galbraith said that the so-called abolition of tuition fees had been a con. He said:

"In Scotland we have already accepted fees ... it is just a question of our universities being allowed to top them up."

He also said:

"The role for me now is to be able to say the things that others would like to say but are not able to do so".

Is Mr Galbraith speaking for the First Minister?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I am glad that the First Minister has cleared up that particular point.

What intrigues many of us is where the First Minster stands on the key issues that affect the people of Scotland. This week, senior figures in his own party have launched a concerted campaign to apply top-up fees here in Scotland. The former Scottish Office minister with responsibility for education, Brian Wilson, says that top-up fees in Scotland are "inevitable." The former First Minister, Henry McLeish, says:

"I don't think we can avoid universities charging higher fees."

Sam Galbraith said:

"Top-up fees in Scotland are not only inevitable, they are actually good in principle."

The Prime Minister himself said that the principle of top-up fees is

"essential to our success as a Labour government true to Labour values."

To avoid any uncertainty about the First Minister's position, will he make it absolutely clear whether he considers top-up fees to be good in principle? Or does he agree with me that they are bad in principle?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I want to be clear. First, as I think I have said in the chamber previously, I am proud that the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties in the Scottish Parliament abolished tuition fees in Scotland and that Scottish students do not pay up front for their higher education.

Secondly, I am also proud of the fact that we reintroduced student grants ahead of the game in the rest of the United Kingdom. We will build on that, too.

Thirdly, I am proud of the fact that for every year of this devolved Government we have increased spending on higher education in Scotland in real terms; we will continue to do so.

Fourthly—and most important—I am absolutely convinced that we are right to ask Scottish students, when they have finished their degrees, to contribute to the welfare of their peers in years to come through the graduate endowment or any other contribution. That is an important principle, which is, I think, widely accepted by both students and taxpayers across Scotland.

So, yes, I am proud that we have abolished tuition fees in Scotland; yes, I am proud that we have reintroduced student grants; yes, I am proud that we have increased and will continue to increase higher education spending in real terms in Scotland. However, I also believe that students contributing once they have graduated is an important part of the overall mix of spending on higher education.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

That took a hang of a long time, but there was no answer to the question in any of the First Minister's statements. So, to go back to the original question: does the First Minister believe that top-up fees are a good measure in principle or a bad measure in principle? Are top-up fees good or are they bad? The answer that we want is an answer to that question.

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

Mr Swinney has been asking that question for 48 hours—although it sometimes seems like 48 days. As a reasonable shadow First Minister, as he likes to call himself, I think that Mr Swinney will accept—I hope that he will accept—that it is impossible for me to predict what decisions might be made in the Scottish Parliament about top-up tuition fees, or any other matter, in years to come. However, I want to make one thing perfectly clear: there will be no top-up tuition fees for Scottish higher education students as long as I am First Minister, elected by this chamber to represent this country—Mr Swinney should be in no doubt about that. We will ensure that our universities are world class and that they are well financed, but we will do so using the principles that we established four years ago and that this Government retains.