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Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

– in the Scottish Parliament at 9:30 am on 20th January 2005.

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Photo of George Reid George Reid None 9:30 am, 20th January 2005

Good morning. The first item of business is a debate on motion S2M-2273, in the name of Jim Wallace, that the general principles of the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Bill be agreed to.

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace Liberal Democrat

I am pleased to open the debate on the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Bill at stage 1. I thank the Enterprise and Culture Committee for its hard work in consideration of the bill and I welcome the committee's endorsement of the bill in its helpful stage 1 report.

As many members know, the proposal to merge the Scottish Further Education Funding Council and the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council came from a report on lifelong learning by the committee's predecessor committee, the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee, which was, at that point, under the convenership of Alex Neil. Indeed, the idea had been talked about in principle even before that, for example in the Garrick report. It is an idea whose time has come, and I am pleased to be able to recognise both committees' work and recommendations on translating the proposal into legislation. I also thank those who took part constructively in the consultation on the bill.

The Executive has proven its commitment to lifelong learning in recent years. Last September, we announced record levels of investment in higher and further education and, this week, I announced a significant improvement to the support package for young and disabled students. Moreover, when the bill is enacted, it will bring with it a number of benefits that everyone will recognise: the extension of the Scottish public services ombudsman's remit to cover students in FE and HE; statutory recognition of learners' needs and, for the first time, of a credit and qualifications framework; and the extension of academic freedom from higher education institutions to our colleges.

The Executive's vision for further and higher education is to achieve the best possible match between the learning opportunities that are open to people and what is needed to strengthen Scotland's economy and society. Further and higher education play a critical role in the achievement of a coherent, relevant and high-quality tertiary education system, which must be responsive to the needs of learners and to the Scottish economy.

Our partnership agreement addressed that vision with a commitment to merge the funding councils and charge them to have regard to the future skills needs of Scotland, but the bill takes that commitment even further by recognising the valuable role that our colleges and HEIs play in contributing more widely to Scotland's social, cultural and economic needs. Through the merger, we are creating a single body that will take a coherent overview of both sectors. Further and higher education are different from each other in character and purpose, but they are closely linked and, taken together, can provide a wide and comprehensive range of opportunities for learners at all levels. The bill will create a system that will ensure coherent strategic decision making at a national level in relation to FE and HE for the years ahead.

As I indicated, the Enterprise and Culture Committee's consideration of the bill has been remarkably useful. I will take on board the majority of the committee's recommendations, so I do not intend to address all of them today. However, in one or two of the more complex areas that the committee identifies, I do not consider amendment to the bill to be possible. I will say a few words about those areas, but before I do so, I make it clear that, in all those cases, I agree with the underlying principles that the committee identifies but think that our shared goals can be better achieved in other ways.

In response to the committee's recommendation in paragraph 87 of its report, I have asked officials to consider what implications a change in terminology from "learning difficulties" to "additional support needs" would have. When I appeared before the committee, I tried to share with it some of the reasoning behind the terminology that we had used in the bill, and I look forward to working with the committee as we move through stage 2 to ensure that the bill covers that important point appropriately.

I am aware of the issues that the committee has raised on funding for students with complex additional support needs who choose or, in some cases, are obliged to study in England. The committee makes no specific recommendation for amendment on that, but I make it clear that I am committed to ensuring that everyone has a chance to learn regardless of background or current personal circumstances. It is important that the views of a range of stakeholders and individuals are sought on the best arrangements for supporting those students who wish or have to study outside Scotland, and I intend to launch a consultation paper in the spring to seek views from a wide range of interested parties, including local authorities, FE colleges, young people, their parents and carers. The consultation will consider a range of issues, including support needs, the funding requirements and the options for future funding arrangements.

Another key area of debate, the evidence on which I followed with interest, was academic freedom for individuals. The bill extends academic freedom at an institutional level from higher education to the college sector, but the committee heard evidence from the Educational Institute of Scotland and the Association of University Teachers that individual academic freedom should also be extended to cover all institutions. I share the belief that academics in both sectors should be free to challenge received wisdom and to express controversial or unpopular opinions, and I welcome the opportunity to state in the strongest terms that that freedom of expression should exist in all institutions. The issue is important and extending academic freedom to colleges sends a strong message on the maturity and importance of the sector, but individual freedom is primarily a matter between the institutions and their employees. Since the issue was raised, I have received a number of representations, including some from those who point out that the issue is already covered in some contracts. With that in mind, I do not believe that we can amend the bill, but I am grateful to the AUT and the EIS for raising the point and I intend to give it further consideration outwith the bill process with representatives of the unions and the institutions.

The final issue that I wish to address is the one that, without doubt, has caused most controversy: the new powers in the bill to differentiate fee levels for certain subjects in situations in which we believe that Scotland-domiciled students would otherwise be disadvantaged. I welcome the committee's recognition of the issue's sensitivity and of the fact that the Executive has to respond to an evolving situation in England and Scotland, but I make it clear that the Administration's policy is that there should be no top-up fees and that Scotland-domiciled eligible students should pay no fees at all. That remains our firm commitment.

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party

I am delighted with that assurance about this Administration, but the minister might not be responsible for further and higher education for ever and there might be different leadership in the future. Will the minister assure us that the bill will not allow top-up fees of any nature?

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace Liberal Democrat

I give Mr Adam that assurance. Top-up fees as they have been introduced by the Westminster Parliament allow different institutions in England to set different fee levels up to a set maximum, but that plays no part in the bill. When I announced back in June that we would consider whether there should be a differentiated fee for medicine, I recall that Mr Adam said that he welcomed the fact that I was to

"address the difficulty with medical schools in Scotland" and that he looked forward to

"hearing detail on the level of charge that will protect the national health service in Scotland."—[Official Report, 24 June 2004; c 9489.]

I will say more about the consultation on that in a moment.

I noted Fiona Hyslop's comments on the matter yesterday. It is unfortunate indeed that she plays politics with the interests of students by perpetuating the myths that fees exist and that top-up fees are to be introduced in Scotland. Concerns have been raised that that misrepresentation of the facts could dissuade some from applying to Scottish universities, which would have a negative impact on efforts to broaden access.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Does Mr Wallace acknowledge that it is the students themselves—through the National Union of Students—who have been most vocal in their opposition to section 8 of the bill and that the Government has not persuaded them that there is no cost for university study? Students know that they will have to pay fees, but at the back end of the course, not the front end. That is not helpful.

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace Liberal Democrat

I had a productive and useful meeting with the National Union of Students last week. If Ms Hyslop acknowledges—as she seemed to do in that intervention—that top-up fees are not on the agenda and that Scotland-domiciled eligible students will not have to pay fees, it is wrong that she should perpetuate and fuel the myth that such fees are on the agenda and that such students will have to pay. That gives out all the wrong signals. The idea of handcuffs that could lead to a medical student who chose not to pursue a career in the Scottish health service having to pay some £67,000 is typical of the sort of thing that we get from the Scottish National Party.

Such an approach would not help to address the important widening access issues, about which I am sure we share concern. This week, we have increased the young student bursary by 11 per cent to £2,395 and extended eligibility for the full bursary by raising the parental income level that allows students to qualify to up to £17,500. Those are real ways in which to help to broaden access and I hope that such measures are welcomed.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

I welcome the raising of the threshold. Does the minister agree that it is regrettable that the threshold was so low in the first place?

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace Liberal Democrat

Mr Monteith would be the first to acknowledge that we can fund measures only within our capacity—within the resources that are available to us. We made a commitment in the partnership agreement to increase the bursary level and the threshold up to which students were eligible for the full amount. We have honoured that not only in the letter, but in the spirit.

The power to set a differential fee is intended to be used only sparingly and when clear evidence shows that not to act would disadvantage Scottish students. I understand fully the concerns that have been expressed and the potential for future use of the power in a way such as that about which Brian Adam expressed concern. My officials are drafting amendments that will offer more protection. The amendments will make all relevant order-making powers subject to the affirmative procedure and will create a statutory duty on ministers to consult fully before raising a fee level or setting a separate fee for medicine, for example.

It is essential that any decisions to change fee levels should be open and transparent, and those who are affected should be involved in the decision-making process. I accept that a range of views is held on the issue, which is sensitive; it is essential that all those views are heard and considered fully and fairly.

As I have made clear, the power's intent is to allow the Executive to take action only when necessary to protect the interests of Scotland-domiciled students; it will provide no additional income for individual institutions. The criteria that may apply for such a purpose now may not apply equally in the future, so I have doubts about including specific criteria in the bill. However, I will consult informally in the coming weeks on what such criteria might be and we will include details in a further policy memorandum. I hope that the opportunity will arise at stage 2 or stage 3, or both, for Allan Wilson or me to put something on the record about the criteria.

The committee asked whether any Scotland-domiciled students would pay higher fees under the powers in the bill. As the committee's stage 1 report acknowledges, the measures are designed to control demand for places at Scottish higher education institutions and, as a result, broadly to maintain current cross-border flows. When concluding that we should increase tuition fee levels by more than the inflation rate, I recognised that that could affect a small minority of Scotland- domiciled students who are not entitled to tuition fee support from the Student Awards Agency for Scotland, such as students who are repeating a year or undertaking a second undergraduate degree.

That is why I asked the implementation advisory group to consider whether any category of such students should be protected from the increased tuition fee. The group is still considering a range of issues that are associated with changing the tuition fee level and has not finally reported to me. When it does so, I will carefully consider its views and those of the committee before taking a final decision on whether any category of Scottish student will have to pay the increased fee level. Subject to considering that advice further, I make it clear that I am sympathetic to the argument that no Scotland-domiciled student should end up paying more.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

Will the implementation advisory group report before stage 2 consideration starts? I am sure that the minister appreciates that that would be extremely helpful to the committee in considering stage 2 amendments.

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace Liberal Democrat

I know that the group is close to completing its work and I think that I know when stage 2 will take place. I hesitate to give a categoric answer. In the debate, Allan Wilson or I will try to make the position clear. Even if the work is not complete, we can share with the committee a flavour of it. One point that is emerging is that the categories of students to which I referred should be given some protection. As I said, subject to further advice, I am sympathetic to meeting that concern.

Officials have sought views on higher fees for medicine and considered a wide range of options. We intend to publish all those responses in the near future. In the spirit of the protections that we plan to put in the bill, I intend as soon as possible to consult fully on the proposals for a higher fee level and for a higher fee again for medicine. Provided that Parliament passes the bill, I intend to announce the way forward before the summer recess. That consultation will also consider issues that concern self-funding students and those who are on gap years. I look forward to continuing discussions with stakeholders on the matter.

The Enterprise and Culture Committee asked for a clear indication of how the power would be used in the future for subjects other than medicine. I cannot predict whether other courses may experience similar pressures, but I can say categorically that we have no plans or hidden agenda to extend the power to any other subjects. We retain the balance of accountability, which should allow us to act to protect Scottish students' interests and should offer sufficient protection to prevent the powers in the bill from being abused in the future.

The key is properly recognising the benefits of consulting student bodies and other interested stakeholders to ensure full, proper and transparent consideration of any such decision. It is essential to give Parliament an important role in approving any move to increase or differentiate fees further in the future. The bottom line remains that no eligible Scotland-domiciled student will have to pay fees under this Administration.

I thank again the committee and those who gave evidence for an excellent report. With Allan Wilson, I look forward to continuing to work with the committee and stakeholders as the bill progresses.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Bill.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party 9:46 am, 20th January 2005

I congratulate the minister on taking steps to make what was originally a poor and misguided bill into one that is now, for the most part, fit for purpose. I say "for the most part" because a section that was introduced in the second draft of the bill is an exceptional problem and is completely unacceptable.

I am glad that the minister took steps to remove from the bill STEPs—that awful policy development of specified tertiary education providers. "STEPs"—the shortest-lived acronym in the history of public policy—has been binned. The term "STEPs" had a shorter shelf-life than the pop group of the same name; it has been disbanded and is busted.

The lesson of the bill, which the Enterprise and Culture Committee described quite generously, is that starting with a particularly bad bill and making a mess of it can mean that stakeholders redraft the bill into something acceptable. Members can call that a success of the parliamentary consultation process if they want. I judge it to be a triumph of the higher and further education sectors over the adversity of an initially problematic bill.

Photo of Christine May Christine May Labour

Does Fiona Hyslop accept that the initial document was not a bill, but a consultation document—a draft bill—and that the minister should therefore be congratulated on listening to stakeholders' views?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

If the member listened to me, she would know that the position could be interpreted in two ways. Starting with something extremely bad allows that to be redrafted to make sense. All parties acknowledge considerable movement from the draft bill to the bill as introduced.

The minister needs to think seriously about section 8. In essence, the bill concerns the administrative functions and merger of the two funding bodies, which are uncontroversial. The committee produced a focused and comprehensive report that contains key recommendations about parity of treatment—I listened to the minister's points on that—in relation to academic freedom; the division of competencies, an important matter to which I am sure that we will return at stage 2; additional support needs; and who is eligible to chair the governing bodies.

I have no problem with the general principles in relation to merging the funding councils. However, the SNP has a serious problem with the sudden insertion, under a tenuous association, of powers to enable the minister to introduce additional top-up fees that are variable by course. Section 8 is a cuckoo in the nest of an otherwise reasonable bill.

The minister who said that tuition fees were non-negotiable is playing an active part in introducing legislation that will allow the charging of top-up fees that are variable by course. The minister's Labour colleagues were quite keen on tuition fees in 1999 when he said that the issue was non-negotiable and they are using him to produce primary legislation for any future move to charge top-up fees across the board. Parliament deserves to be told about that. By presenting section 8 in such a form, the minister is auditioning for the part of minister for top-up fees. Placing the section in the bill is out of order. If its inclusion is covered by the bill's "connected purposes", that connection is by a tenuous string; the provision is certainly not central to the general principles of the bill. Top-up fees are wrong in principle and in practice.

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace Liberal Democrat

I remind Fiona Hyslop of what her colleague Brian Adam said in the chamber, on behalf of the SNP:

"On the detail of the minister's statement, I welcome the fact that he is to address the difficulty with medical schools in Scotland. I look forward to hearing detail on the level of charge that will protect the national health service in Scotland."—[Official Report, 24 June 2004; c 9489.]

There was no question of challenging the principle—he wanted to know the detail. Does Fiona Hyslop object to what Brian Adam said, or is she willing—as he is—to make a commitment in principle, without being willing to provide the means to do things?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I hope that Brian Adam will have the opportunity to speak in the debate. He is right to say that we must address the problem of medical students in Scotland—I acknowledge that.

We must increase the number and percentage of Scottish students, but if we want to tackle a health policy and get more doctors to stay and work in Scotland, the issue is not the initial stage of decision making. We want to keep doctors who are at the senior house officer stage, when they are looking to move away. We want to increase the total number of medical students by 100, and to increase and improve access and the decisions that universities make about who they take and when they take them.

The issue of wider access must certainly be addressed, particularly by the University of Edinburgh and the University of St Andrews. Pricing poorer English students out of medicine in Scotland is not the right way forward. Top-up fees are wrong in principle and in practice. Access to education should be based not on ability to pay, but on ability to learn. If it is unamended, the bill will provide the primary legislative mechanism with which to introduce the principle of having additional top-up fees that are variable by course in Scottish universities.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I want to move on.

Mr Wallace confirmed to me during an Enterprise and Culture Committee meeting that we are talking about the introduction of a top-up fee. He said:

"The same fee would apply to everyone".—[Official Report, Enterprise and Culture Committee, 16 November 2004; c 1271.]

The minister has made commitments, on behalf of the Administration, for Scotland-domiciled students, but including a provision in the bill that will allow an open season later for another Administration is problematic. The bill provides the legal gateway to top-up fees for any course for any student in Scotland—that is not in dispute. The minister can bluster and protest until the cows come home, but the proof of the bill's real intention is there in black and white in its text and in the policy memorandum, paragraph 35 of which states:

"subsections (5)-(10) outline the way in which Ministers can use a condition of grant to set maximum fee levels ... On 24 June 2004, the Deputy First Minister made a statement to Parliament, outlining the Executive's policy to increase fee levels in order to control demand for places in the Scottish HE system from English/Welsh/Northern Irish students once variable fees are introduced in England and Wales. This plan also raises the possibility that in specific areas such as medicine, where demand is especially high, fees could be raised to a higher level again."

We must determine what is in the bill and what is in the policy memorandum. What is in black and white leaves open a legal opportunity to have top-up fees that are variable by course throughout Scotland.

The purpose, as stated in the policy memorandum, is to increase fee levels to deter cross-border flows in general, with the possibility that fees could be raised again to a higher level. That has been decided and legislated on before the working group that the Executive established on potential cross-border flows has reported publicly. The minister is responsible for the content of section 8 and the policy memorandum. The NUS, the AUT and the British Medical Association have all expressed concerns about the section. Why, therefore, is it included in the bill?

The Executive has made a smokescreen argument about justification for English medical students. We must blow that argument away, because it is wrong in practice. If the minister wants to tackle the problem of there being too few doctors as a result of bad workforce planning by the Government, that issue should be addressed properly as a matter of health policy and not used as a Trojan horse to ensure that there is a legal opportunity for top-up fees in the future.

We must increase the total number of medical students and the percentage of Scottish students within that total, as they are more likely to stay, but there are better ways of achieving such policy objectives. My colleague Shona Robison has set out positive and constructive proposals. There should be 100 extra medical student places. Admissions policies should be addressed, taking into account wider access factors. There should be a widening of access generally, and Scottish pupils should be allowed and encouraged to take five highers at one sitting if that is a requirement of the admissions process. There should be a fast-track graduate entry programme. There should be more generalists, rural medicine faculties, and exit interviews should be held at different stages of people's careers in order to influence decisions that are made at the SHO stage in particular. We urge the minister to examine the possibility of contractual golden handcuffs, rather than trying simply to price English students out of the system. If we train 14 per cent of Britain's doctors, why do we not try to keep more of them here, particularly when they reach 27, 28 or 29? That is the fresh talent that we should have in this country.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

The member's golden handcuffs proposal is interesting, but she must be aware of concerns about the legal enforceability of such a proposal. Has the SNP taken legal advice on that policy? If so, will the member make that advice available to us this morning, so that we can reflect on it during the debate?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

It is important to ensure that those who are trained in Scotland and whose training is paid for by the taxpayer should have the opportunity to contribute to the national health service in Scotland. I am saying that, in principle, golden handcuffs at the latter stages of training are far better than a policy that introduces top-up fees at the start.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I am conscious of time and must move on.

It is already more expensive for English medical students to study in Scotland, but that does not deter them from doing so. They come for the quality of teaching.

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace Liberal Democrat

The member said that golden handcuffs are preferable to trying to price people away. What would she say to a student who, after perhaps a year of practising, finds that medicine is not for him or her and wishes to pursue a career that is more satisfying, but finds that they must repay the cost of their course, which could amount to around £67,000? What if a student should wish to go away and help with medical aid in Africa or south-east Asia? A £67,000 fine would be held over them. Is that not the reality of a golden handcuffs policy?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

The minister and I know the reality of the situation. We are trying to address the issue of students who train in Scottish universities, benefit from that training and then go off to private practices, particularly in England, where there is a far more active private practice situation. That is where the real problem lies, and it is far better to face up to that than to make spurious points about our contribution to the wider world. We train more medical students than we keep. We must ensure that we keep them for the right reasons. If people want to contribute to the wider world—I absolutely support that—there is no way that the SNP would put barriers in their way.

It has been established in answers to parliamentary questions by Bristow Muldoon, David Davidson and Richard Lochhead that the issue that we must address comes later in the medical graduate's life. If we want to recruit and retain more doctors for the Scottish health service, there are better ways of doing so than what has been proposed.

Not only is the concept of top-up fees wrong in principle, but top-up fees are wrong in practice. The reasons for the Executive wanting to apply such fees, and the way in which it wants to do so, are seriously flawed, and the bill will be seriously flawed unless the minister commits himself to amending it and addressing the serious concerns that have been expressed. As the committee report states, a minister's verbal assurances in the chamber can be presented in a court if the act is challenged, but in the final instance—as the legal officers acknowledged in evidence to the Enterprise and Culture Committee—it is the wording in the bill and the wording of the act as agreed by the Parliament that count. If Jim Wallace does not want to go down in the annals as the minister for top-up fees, he must amend the bill. I urge him to amend it accordingly.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative 9:58 am, 20th January 2005

As the first member of the Enterprise and Culture Committee to speak in the debate, I will start by thanking the clerks for all their assistance in the preparation of the stage 1 report and for helping in the thorough process that we went through.

The Scottish Conservatives welcome the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Bill, which will merge the funding councils for further and higher education and will continue the trend of legislation that was started under the previous Conservative Government. It was the Conservatives who incorporated the further education colleges and set up the Scottish Further Education Funding Council. That resulted in a flowering of the FE sector, with outside expertise coming on to the boards and driving the sector forward. We now welcome the proposed merger of the Scottish Further Education Funding Council with the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council.

The bill is important, not least because it will bring into legislation the principle of parity of esteem between the two sectors. Higher education and further education have complementary and equal roles. Higher education has a more academic focus and a greater research role. In contrast, further education is more technically based in general and more focused on skills and meeting the needs of the economy. It is quite wrong to suggest that one sector is more important or of a higher priority than the other, and having a single funding body for both organisations is helpful when making that point.

Although the bill is generally acceptable to us, there is some history to the current position, as Fiona Hyslop mentioned. The original draft of the bill caused concern in education circles. There was a flurry of anxiety that the universities were all to be renamed STEPs. So, instead of the University of Edinburgh, we would have the Edinburgh STEP. Frankly, some of that was just bad journalism, but I am pleased that the proposal has been dropped from the bill.

There were also more serious concerns about some aspects of the draft bill, particularly the conferring of additional ministerial powers. I do not know why the draft contained those and I am sure that the minister had no intentions in that direction. I can only put it down to an over-zealous civil servant in his department. There was vocal opposition to the proposals from both the further and the higher education sectors. I pay tribute to the minister for listening to those concerns and for coming back with a revised bill that addresses the concerns and, by and large, meets the needs of the two sectors.

That said, there are a number of concerns about the bill that is before us. A primary issue of concern to the committee was the right of ministers to set fees for students undertaking full-time courses of study. We know all about the introduction of top-up fees down south and the impact of that in Scotland—the committee has already looked at that issue in detail. I appreciate that the situation is not of the minister's or the Executive's making. He is in the difficult position of trying to protect Scottish students' opportunities to gain places at Scottish universities. However, any legislation has to be carefully worded. The minister must be explicit about his intent now and in the future with regard to the possibility of varying fees for any course or programme other than medicine, which was the area highlighted in evidence.

There is another issue to do with other students who are domiciled in Scotland—for example, those who study part-time, those who have changed course during their studies, or those who are studying for a second or subsequent degree. I was pleased that the minister addressed that point in his opening speech. We wish to reserve our position on possible amendments at stage 2 to deal with the issue. It would be extremely helpful to committee members if the review that the minister mentioned in his speech were to be published before stage 2; otherwise the committee will have some difficulty addressing amendments on the issue without that information.

As I said, I appreciate that the difficulty that the minister is in is not of his own making. However, my party opposes top-up fees for Scottish students and indeed for all students in all parts of the United Kingdom. It is essential that there is no attempt to introduce top-up fees by the back door, even with the best intentions.

I listened with interest to what Fiona Hyslop said and I think that she overstated her case. Her rather manufactured outrage this morning at what she said the minister was trying to do did not lend any credibility to the SNP position. She gave the game away about the marvellous proposal that the SNP trumpeted this morning in its press release on golden handcuffs. The SNP has taken no legal advice on the enforceability of that proposal—it is a back-of-an-envelope proposal and exactly what we have come to expect of a party that is not an effective Opposition.

Scotland is and always has been an exporter of education. Education is one of our international strengths and we should be encouraging people from all around the world, even from England—I know that that might stick in the craw of the SNP— to come to study in Scotland. What sort of message does it send to people from around the world if we seek to penalise those coming from elsewhere? That is a narrow nationalist proposition and it should be rejected.

Apart from fees, we have a number of concerns. The Association of Scottish Colleges has made representations about its concern that the new funding council will seek to reregulate institutions, which is the proper responsibility of the governing body of the institution or Scottish ministers. It is important that the new funding council does not engage in any empire building. Ministers exist to set policy and make direction. Thereafter, it should be the institutions that decide how money is spent at a local level. We do not need a raft of policy makers in the new funding council passing instructions down the line and providing another tier of administration. We must protect the independence of the further and higher education sectors. Moreover, we should ensure that the new funding council is a lean operation with a tight budget to ensure that the maximum amount of money is passed down the line to front-line services.

The bill proposes that there will be one statutory committee for the new funding council and that that will be a research committee. Having such a committee is certainly important. Although the Enterprise and Culture Committee does not recommend in its report that a skills committee be statutory, we encourage the new funding council to consider the need for a skills committee as an early priority when the council is properly constituted and operational. That is an important point, not just because a skills committee would be relevant to the work of the funding council, particularly in connection with further education, but because of the parity of esteem to which I referred earlier. It is inevitable that a research committee will deal primarily with the higher education sector. Therefore, it makes sense to have a skills committee to deal primarily with the further education sector. That would create a balance and ensure that those who run the funding council treat both sectors equally. It would also make sense for any skills committee to have sitting on it people from the business community and enterprise bodies.

The Scottish Conservatives welcome the bill. I hope that the minister will address the specific points raised on fees either during the debate or at stage 2, so that we can move forward with the formation of the new funding council with support from across the political spectrum.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour 10:06 am, 20th January 2005

There is an established consensus in Scotland that our further and higher education sectors should take steps to work closely together to ensure a unity of purpose and give our people the knowledge and skills to allow Scotland to prosper.

I am pleased that we come to this stage 1 debate at a time when there is broad agreement on the details of the bill. It has been said that the bill has had a rollercoaster journey on its way here in terms of the reactions that it has provoked. That we are now at a stage of broad consensus is a great compliment to the consultation process in which ministers have engaged. I say to Fiona Hyslop that that is what consultation is about—the fact that the bill that we are discussing today is different in important areas from the draft shows that ministers have listened to different points of view. That is a clear example of Executive consultation working.

I am pleased to open for Labour in the debate because, throughout our party's history, we have promoted education as being key to empowering people and giving them new opportunities and skills. A new merged funding council will be perfectly placed to support colleges and universities in their collaborations, which will mean even more points of access so that more people from a wider section of society have better educational opportunities.

It is worth looking at some of the early history of the bill because a lot of work has been done to get to where we are today. The proposal to have a single funding council was a policy that was first promoted by the NUS in the early 1990s. That shows that the policy is embraced by students and not only by those who form education policy. The policy was first promoted in the Scottish Parliament by the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee in its report on lifelong learning. It is a tribute to the work of that committee and that excellent report in particular that this initiative is now becoming a reality.

It strikes me that part of the reason why there was some heated—at times overheated—debate about the draft bill was because the tertiary education sector expected it to be a tidying-up exercise. The two funding councils were already sharing staff and offices and had a joint chief executive. The sector believed that the bill would simply bring the organisations together as one council with one membership. However, the draft bill ended up proposing more than that and legitimate concerns were expressed about the proposals for new definitions of institutions and powers that could be seen to impinge on areas that were properly matters of institutional autonomy. However, those concerns were listened to and acted on and the bill has widespread support in the education sector today.

A total absence of debate over a bill is an unusual occurrence in Parliament and there remains one area of contention in this bill. The NUS has objected to the limited power proposed by ministers to vary fees for medicine in order to address potential issues of cross-border flow of students. As always, the NUS has stated its case eloquently and strongly, but for once, I do not agree with my erstwhile colleagues. I am sure that the Executive would prefer that we did not have to deal with the consequences of a new system down south, but we do. In the context of some calls for drastic measures to ensure that Scottish universities are not overwhelmed by applications from south of the border, that power is very limited and it should be subject to affirmative resolution. The power is included to ensure that we are able to train enough doctors for the NHS in Scotland. I have to say that I have grave reservations about some of the alternative proposals that we have heard to address that issue.

Photo of Chris Ballance Chris Ballance Green

If the power is so limited that it is not likely to be used, should we not wait for the system to settle down and see what happens with the changes south of the border before we introduce it in legislation?

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

I do not think that the power is so unreasonable. However, we should consider other issues, which I will mention in a few moments.

It is greatly unfair for some people to imply that the power will lead to top-up fees by the back door. Indeed, ministers are not the only people who claim that such a presentation is unfair. I ask Fiona Hyslop and even Murdo Fraser—who, I have to say, was much more measured in his questioning of the proposals—to respond to what David Caldwell from Universities Scotland had to say on the matter. On 2 November, David Caldwell told the committee:

"It is important to say that our interpretation of the bill is that it does not permit the introduction of variable top-up fees in Scotland and that, instead, it means the possible reintroduction of banded fixed-level fees that might be different for various courses. It is only a few years since we had band 1 fees and band 2 fees that were different for various courses of study."—[Official Report, Enterprise and Culture Committee, 2 November 2004; c 1157.]

Fees will be set by ministers and not by institutions. The proposed system is nothing like the system in England and any suggestion that the proposal means top-up fees by the back door is irrational and, at the very least, over-egging the pudding. The provision is neither unfair nor unreasonable, particularly given that it means that no Scottish or Scotland-domiciled student will be asked to pay any more for tuition.

However, as Chris Ballance mentioned, the committee has asked the Executive to find other ways of addressing this issue. For example, the NUS has made some suggestions that should be considered. That said, I should repeat that I do not find the proposal itself unreasonable.

During the process, some misinformed reporting of the proposals unfortunately suggested that the Executive wished to merge individual universities and colleges. Of course, the bill contained no such proposal. Indeed, that issue did not form any part of the debate between universities and colleges, which have for a long time embraced the idea of articulation between the two sectors. They have sought ways of enabling people to enter universities and higher education courses not just from schools but from colleges and a variety of other access routes. In fact, Scottish universities and colleges have led the way not just in the UK but in Europe in developing agreements between institutions. For example, an increasing number of two-plus-two courses are being introduced, in which students spend the first two years at a college and the second two at university. Moreover, the Scottish tertiary sector has led the way in developing a credit and qualifications framework.

A new merged funding council will give extra impetus to such developments. It will give further encouragement to finding a united approach to strategic planning in tertiary education. Most important, it will help to support the institutions in the cross-sectoral initiatives that they have developed. When combined with record funding for higher education and increased bursaries for students from poorer backgrounds, the bill shows that the Executive is developing an important unity of vision in higher education and is giving universities and colleges the necessary resources and support to allow them to play their vital role in creating a skilled knowledge economy and a vibrant, successful Scotland.

Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party 10:13 am, 20th January 2005

As a member of the Enterprise and Culture Committee, I thank the clerks and the variety of organisations that provided oral and written evidence at stage 1. Like the majority of members, I welcome the decision to merge the two funding councils. Indeed, it reflects particularly well on the parliamentary process that the bill has been introduced as a result of recommendations in a previous committee report.

I was impressed by the Executive's evidence that it had been able to develop from an early stage a close working relationship with the various stakeholders that had an interest in the proposed legislation. However, like many other committee members, I was surprised to find that, despite such a close relationship, the Executive introduced a fatally flawed draft bill. Surely that raises questions about the nature and adequacy of the consultation that had been carried out. That said, the Executive took the right course of action in withdrawing the draft bill and publishing a more appropriate bill, instead of clogging up the parliamentary process by trying to amend such a flawed bill at stages 2 and 3.

The bulk of the evidence that the committee received on the bill broadly supported its proposals. However, as my colleague Fiona Hyslop pointed out, people's central concerns focused on section 8. The NUS, the AUT and the University of Strathclyde students association all expressed concern that section 8 could open the door to variable top-up fees. Furthermore, the BMA was concerned about the impact of such an approach on access to medical courses and Fiona Hyslop and the NUS presented a number of different ways of addressing the matter.

I welcome the fact that the minister has taken on board the BMA's concerns that a minority of students whose first degree is not in medicine might be put in a difficult situation because they will not be able to attract funding from the endowment grant scheme. I hope that the minister will make further suggestions on this matter at stage 2, as that will help us to consider the bill more fully. However, the Deputy First Minister's comments this morning suggest that ministers are intent on continuing with the existing proposals in section 8. If so, they should seriously consider amending the bill at stage 2.

The minister has made it clear that the present Administration does not intend to use the powers that are set out in section 8 to vary top-up fees for courses other than medical courses. However, the wording of the section does not confine the use of the power exclusively to medical courses. Although I accept the Executive's intention at this stage, I see no reason why it does not wish to make that explicit in the bill. The minister well knows that he is not in a position to tie the hands of a future minister or Administration on this matter. As a result, it seems only reasonable that if the Executive intends to use the power to vary fees only for medical courses, it should clearly state as much in the bill.

Given the level of concern that has been expressed, I hope that ministers will reconsider this matter. If they are not prepared to do so, many people in the higher and further education organisations will continue to view the bill with some suspicion.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat 10:18 am, 20th January 2005

I am acutely aware that I am not a member of the Enterprise and Culture Committee. Previous speakers have mentioned the committee's work and its positive relationship with the minister, which will no doubt continue. I unashamedly wish to use an example from my constituency to highlight why I will support the bill's general principles. Indeed, most members will be able to point to examples in their constituencies and regions of the excellent work that colleges and universities carry out. There are examples of innovative methods of co-operation within and across both sectors.

As Murdo Fraser has pointed out, students are increasingly receiving their higher education from further education institutions and being matriculated by higher education institutions. The reformation of the funding procedures, which is one crucial element of the bill, will ensure that we get best value both for school leavers entering higher or further education and for adult learners.

This time last year, Heriot-Watt University announced that the university court was examining the case for relocating the school of textiles and design from the Galashiels Netherdale campus in the heart of my constituency to Riccarton on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Such a move would have ended 130 years of education and skills training in textiles in the Borders and removed 400 full-time students who live—and frequently work—in the area. The impact on the development of a higher and further education base in the Borders would have been serious. It would, of course, also have had a human impact, by taking away many creative people of different cultures from an area that warmly welcomes them. Indeed, that is contrary to the work of the local agencies in seeking inward investment and investment in infrastructure.

Shortly after the announcement that they were considering that option, the directors of the Netherdale campus of Heriot-Watt University were made clear about my views, because within two days they had been summoned to Parliament for a meeting with me. Shortly after that, the two Borders MPs, Archy Kirkwood and Michael Moore, and the two Borders MSPs, Euan Robson and I, met the principal and vice-principal to state our opposition to such a move.

Regrettably, the university had not considered that the problems with the campus in Galashiels that necessitated consideration of a move were problems shared with other partners. That jars with some of the evidence that Professor Archer, the principal of Heriot-Watt University, gave to the Enterprise and Culture Committee. He said:

"It is about remembering that in addition to the hugely important area of economic development, social and cultural engagement are equally important within higher education."—[Official Report, Enterprise and Culture Committee, 2 November 2004; c 1163.]

The new ways partnership of local community planning authorities exists because there are shared issues across government agencies and public sector bodies. There are similarities in the education sector. I convened and chaired a working group of the new ways leaders, student representatives, local industry and Borders College to deliver a considered and long-term tertiary education strategy for the region. At the time, Borders College was working on a positive initiative to co-locate with Heriot-Watt at Netherdale.

From the meetings that I chaired with the leadership of the university and the new ways partners, three steering groups were established to examine the centre of excellence in textiles, the requirements of a vibrant and financially sustainable campus in Galashiels, and the future of further and higher education in the Borders. I was delighted that the university court decided late last year to stay in Galashiels and to continue to teach textiles.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat

Is it not a great pity that Christine Grahame is not here to hear the member say those things?

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

Indeed. It is worth while remarking that when this issue was last raised in the chamber, in May, Ms Grahame attacked the work that I was doing locally with the new ways team.

Photo of Chris Ballance Chris Ballance Green

Will Jeremy Purvis join me in congratulating the local students associations on their part in the campaign? Does he agree that the strength of their campaign is the primary reason for the retention of the college?

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

Absolutely. I have a close working relationship with James Alexander, the leader of Heriot-Watt University students association, to whom I pay tribute. I have met him on more than 20 occasions, most recently last week, to talk about progress. I pay tribute to the students and to David Parker, the leader of Scottish Borders Council, to David Gass, of Scottish Enterprise Borders, to local industry representatives and, in particular, to Peter Lee, of Eildon Housing Association. The work of those community planning bodies in putting together an option for the university to stay, and their work on new residences, renewed residences, the incorporation of a conference centre, and a co-located campus of higher education for the university and Borders College, will be the building blocks of a long-term and sustainable future for the higher education base.

We must consider how the bill, which seeks to co-ordinate funding for the tertiary sector better, will benefit the Borders in future. It is recognised that there is little to be gained by continuing to separate the funding functions of the sectors. Indeed, there are considerable benefits from not dividing those functions. I am hopeful that the Scottish Further Education Funding Council will soon agree to award a considerable capital grant for the redevelopment of Netherdale campus and that that will be supported by funding from the south of Scotland European structural funds, and by the welcome initiative of Eildon Housing Association to redevelop the outdated and below-standard residences, with private and public investment creating new, flexible, high-standard accommodation for the students at Netherdale.

The aims of the bill can and should be delivered locally. The council, enterprise body, housing associations, industry, students and others have, arguably, been ahead of the Parliament and the Executive in their commitment to working together. It is welcome that the bill reflects the kind of partnership that we seek throughout Scotland. I commend the minister for bringing about the bill, which I hope will stimulate further developments throughout Scotland.

The Netherdale campus will be governed efficiently, will ensure better education provision and will have a wide local impact. Much work is still to be done on the campus and co-location of the college and university, but we have the prize of a sustainable base for further and higher education in the Borders; co-located college and university teaching with other college premises throughout the Borders, especially the new build in Hawick; shared commitments, risks and successes; and a substantially redeveloped and broader campus with conference and other facilities. My vision of a university college of the Borders, incorporating a renewed Scottish centre for textiles, fashion and design, could become a reality. It would be developed for the learners and the community of the Borders.

From research funded by the Scottish Executive, Borders College has identified the work that is required to build on the current very good standard of education in the Borders. The key areas for development in locally delivered higher education are social studies, art and design, business management, and health, including social care. Attracting new providers to work in the Borders is crucial to that. Support from a reformed funding mechanism will assist in addressing areas where development is needed, but it will also provide support for a new campus and for a new spirit of education within the Borders.

Photo of Mike Watson Mike Watson Independent 10:26 am, 20th January 2005

This is an important debate on an important bill to which we have given detailed consideration in the Enterprise and Culture Committee. There is still some way to go, given that we are about to commence stage 2, but nobody doubts the importance of the post-school sectors in Scotland in helping to grow our economy and in ensuring that people have the skills and knowledge to achieve that aim in the years ahead.

The standard of our universities is well known worldwide, and that of our further education colleges is increasing, as is the role that they play in closing the opportunity gap and creating learning opportunities for many people in Scotland. That will continue under the strategic direction of the joint funding body that will be established by the bill.

Consideration of the bill necessarily has come down to a major issue. I will refer to that and to one other issue. The Enterprise and Culture Committee's report states that the most controversial issue—it is probably the only controversial issue—is contained in section 8, on variable fees. Fiona Hyslop and Murdo Fraser found it necessary to reiterate in their speeches that their parties are opposed to top-up fees. That was quite unnecessary, because every single party in this Parliament is opposed to top-up fees and has been since they were first mentioned about a year ago. There is no question of any wavering on that, certainly by the Labour Party or the Scottish Executive, although I do not know about other parties.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

Mr Watson should have qualified his remarks. His party is only opposed to top-up fees in Scotland. His Scottish Labour colleagues voted for top-up fees in other parts of the UK.

Photo of Mike Watson Mike Watson Independent

I am well aware of that. I do not support that position, and I am on record as saying so. I am talking about parties within this Parliament. I circumscribed my remarks in that respect.

It is perfectly clear to anyone who has read the bill or listened to the evidence that the proposed variable fees—about which it is legitimate to raise issues—are not top-up fees. That cannot be made any clearer, and scaremongering around the issue is not helpful. Although I appreciate and admire the work that the NUS has done, it has gone over the top on this issue. I am conscious of its concerns—its main one being any impact on students, of course—but the case has been overstated. That said, there are concerns. The Enterprise and Culture Committee expressed them and raised in our report five in particular, which need to be dealt with.

The most important concern is ministerial intent. I have a question for the minister, although I am not looking for a reply immediately. I looked back at the Official Report of the committee's meeting on 16 November, and there are different interpretations of what the minister said. I take it that his opening remarks were almost certainly written by civil servants and for that reason would have been extremely carefully worded:

"Scotland-domiciled students who are studying medicine or any other first degree will continue to have their fees paid for them in full ... but students who are not eligible for fee support from the Scottish Executive will pay more."—[Official Report, Enterprise and Culture Committee, 16 November 2004; c 1262.]

Initially, we in the committee failed to pick that up. We had to have our attention drawn to the matter by the British Medical Association in Scotland and the University of Strathclyde students association, which deserves great credit for writing to us—late in the day, admittedly—to outline situations in which students could be affected. Such situations involve students who have had to repeat years of study, those with a higher national diploma who have progressed to level 1 or 2 of a degree course, those who have changed course during their studies, those who, for various reasons, do not meet residency requirements and those who are taking their second or subsequent degree course, perhaps as a result of having dropped out of their initial course. I am not suggesting that a huge number of students are involved, but those categories are significant and it seems to me that when the minister made his opening statement at the meeting in question, his civil servants had them in mind; he might have had them in mind, too.

Later on in the same meeting, the minister said:

"I emphasise that the position will be no different for Scotland-domiciled students who are studying medicine, who will continue to have their fees met".—[Official Report, Enterprise and Culture Committee, 16 November 2004; c 1267.]

There are situations in which that would not be the case. I draw that to the minister's attention and urge that he uses stage 2 proceedings to clarify the position. The minister made it clear that he was "sympathetic" to meeting the committee's concerns. We have heard that the implementation advisory group may not report before stage 2, and those issues must be dealt with, just as we must ensure that cross-border flows are maintained and that we do not try to shut the gate on Scottish higher education. I do not think that anyone would suggest that that is what is being done; I certainly would not. We want to ensure that the supply of doctors in this country is increased because, as the BMA has identified, it is clear that that is a problem. We need to ensure that we deal with those important issues; that is why the committee highlights them.

I will not address all five of the concerns that the committee highlights. The second one that I will consider is that over alternative approaches. The NUS has come up with highly credible alternatives to the minister's proposal. Before we began our consideration of the bill, I was not aware of the fact that students who study medicine must not just achieve all the necessary higher passes; they must achieve them all at one sitting, in secondary 5. That is an unnecessarily restrictive condition. I do not see why young people of that age should be disqualified from ever studying medicine just because they do not manage to meet that condition. Given that there is a need for more Scots to be admitted to medical courses, that condition could be relaxed.

I have another suggestion, to which I think Michael Matheson referred. It relates to students who want to study medicine as a second degree. They could have any number of reasons for wanting to do so, but the fact that the study of medicine is their second choice should not disqualify them from such study. I can understand why there should be no funding, payment of fees or loan facilities for students who do a second degree in normal circumstances, but I am suggesting that the circumstances that I have described are not normal. My proposal could be considered as a way of increasing the number of Scots who enter the medical profession. That is all that I want to say on fees, but the minister and his officials will have to work on the issue to overcome at stage 2 some of the remaining concerns that the committee has articulated.

An aspect of the bill that we have not heard much about today is academic freedom. In his opening speech, the minister expressed his belief that individual academic freedom should apply to all tertiary sector academic staff. However, if I picked him up correctly, he thinks that it would be unsuitable to amend the bill to achieve that. He gave no reasons, other than to say that the fact that the bill deals with institutions rather than individuals means that it would be more appropriate to deal with the matter in a different way. Although institutions are certainly the focus of the bill, they confer academic freedom on individual members of staff. In my view, the extension of academic freedom through those institutions to individuals could be built into the bill. I hope that at stage 2 we will at least have the opportunity to investigate that and perhaps to listen in more detail to the minister's reasons for believing that the bill is not an appropriate vehicle for extending academic freedom in that way. It is appropriate not just for all universities and further education colleges to be brought up to the level of the pre-1992 universities, but for that freedom to apply not just to institutions but to individuals.

My final point is a reiteration of a point that Richard Baker made about the effectiveness of the process. Fiona Hyslop was less than charitable about the fact that changes had been made to the draft bill. In committee, we asked officials why the draft bill was so far wide of what the further and higher education sectors appeared to be comfortable with. That is not the point; amendment is part of the process. When the bill was introduced, it was evident that significant amendments had been made. That is a huge strength of the system. I want that strength to be developed at stage 2, when we will deal with further amendments. I am sure that the bill can be further improved and that the speeches of committee members and of other members in today's debate will inform that process.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative 10:35 am, 20th January 2005

I am pleased to speak in the debate.

The Deputy First Minister began by mentioning how the merger of the funding councils had been suggested by the Garrick committee. That happened a long time ago: it was not last month or last year, but before the Scottish Parliament was convened; in fact, it was before Labour eventually won an election in 1997. I would argue that the merger of the funding councils is not so much an idea whose time has come as an idea that is long overdue, so we welcome the bill's general principle of merging the two councils.

The minister also spoke about his recent announcement on state bursaries, which of course are funded by a cross-subsidy from one group of students to another. In other words, students fund the system by paying a tax, levy, endowment or whatever one wishes to call it. The minister announced a rise in the threshold of earnings of parents of students who might qualify for that cross-subsidy, but unfortunately—as far as I am aware—the corresponding threshold at which students repay their loans and their graduate endowments has not been raised; it remains unrealistically low. I believe that the threshold should be raised to a level of about £20,000.

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace Liberal Democrat

The threshold will be raised to £15,000 from April this year.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

I thank the minister for advising me of that and for the progress that is being made. However, as I am sure that he will understand, I will keep pressing for the threshold to be raised even further. At £15,000, the threshold will still be lower than it was back in 1997, when power changed hands. If we take inflation into account, a great deal remains to be made up.

I have a brief observation on Fiona Hyslop's nonsensical proposal; indeed, it is so fantastic that Edward Lear himself would have been proud to have thought it up. The idea of having golden handcuffs for medical students to discourage them from going into private practice—the use of the phrase "private practice" was interesting—would be like going to sea in sieve: it simply does not hold water. How many graduates go directly into private practice? Gey few, I suspect. How long would such an embargo on their employment last? Would it last for five years or 10 years? We need to know more about the proposal. What would happen to the medical students at the University of St Andrews who go to the University of Manchester to complete their degrees? Would the handcuffs get put on at the border, in St Andrews or in Manchester?

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

I agree with the point that the member makes. What would the SNP's golden handcuffs policy, which would chain young doctors in Scotland to the national health service against their will, do for the motivation of those involved?

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

As the minister suggested, the SNP's proposal would be demotivating. I know many people who, in striving to become medical graduates, do not necessarily seek to work in the NHS. One must ask whether working for a private voluntary body in an area such as south-east Asia would constitute a breach of the restriction. Once one introduces exemptions to cater for certain categories, one creates a panoply of anomalies. The idea is nonsensical and was not worthy of the envelope on which it was written.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

The problem of students from the University of St Andrews having to go to Manchester that Brian Monteith identified is important. I understand that that situation has been addressed and that arrangements are in place whereby those students can take up positions that are offered by Lothian NHS Board. That is an example of the alternatives that should be provided to ensure that we keep more doctors—particularly junior doctors—and medical students in Scotland. That is the key issue and the policy objective. Let us have policy answers that meet that objective and do not interfere with the higher education system.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

That rather long intervention did not tell me anything that I did not already know about the situation at the University of St Andrews. I am well aware of the university's attempts to ensure that all its medical students are taught entirely in Scotland. Margaret Jamieson suggested that Fiona Hyslop's ideas had been put together on the back of a fag packet, but I know that Fiona Hyslop does not smoke. If we were talking about Tricia Marwick, I might have used those words, but I gave Fiona Hyslop the benefit of the doubt by suggesting that she used an envelope.

As Murdo Fraser said, we welcome the general principles of the bill, albeit with detailed concerns. One such concern is over any diminution of the independence of further education colleges. The history of SHEFC is littered with examples of interventions, central planning and direction in which the council attempted to second-guess the graduate employment market. We should refocus the proposed new funding council and create a far smaller body, thereby ensuring the real independence of universities and colleges, so that instead of granting teaching funds from the centre and second-guessing what is required we empower students and ensure that moneys and teaching funds follow the students. Such an approach would release institutions from failed central direction and restore the proper supplier-customer relationship to institutions of learning. The creation of a genuine market that is responsive to student demand will strengthen the international reputation and quality of our institutions, be they universities or colleges. I have every faith in the ability of the governing bodies of the institutions to respond to the demands that students make on them.

Although we welcome the bill, a great deal remains to be done and we seek improvements to it. We will achieve greater success when parties in the Parliament waken up and recognise that further work needs to be done and that Conservatives are needed in a ruling coalition if we are to make real progress in higher education. That moment cannot come soon enough.

Photo of Christine May Christine May Labour 10:42 am, 20th January 2005

I wonder whether that was a bid to join the Executive. I think that it was.

I am a member of the Enterprise and Culture Committee and I am pleased to speak in the debate. I am also pleased to hear how widely welcomed by members the bill has been. A major consultation exercise led to a draft bill that was subjected to further consultation, which resulted in the introduction of a bill about which I think that we can all say—at least in principle—"This bill is right for Scotland and we welcome it." The bill has been welcomed by members, by the professional associations, by student bodies and by employers, which is a very important point. The committee took a considerable time to scrutinise the bill and had help both from a very good clerking team and from the Scottish Parliament information centre team, which provided us with a considerable amount of documentation. We were also helped by the evidence that was provided in person and in written submissions.

I welcome the minister's clarification and his comments on future intentions in relation to possible amendments at stage 2, in particular with regard to the contentious issue of fees. I urge the Scottish National Party to consider what their proposed golden handcuffs might mean for a Scotland-domiciled student who qualifies in medicine but wants to work down south to expand their experience.

I ask the minister whether the implementation advisory group, which will report shortly, will take account of concerns about fee levels for part-time students or students in employment whose fees are met not by their employer but by themselves. I would welcome clarification on the matter.

What proposals are before the Parliament? The merger of the funding councils was a recommendation of the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee, which was convened by Alex Neil, now the convener of the Enterprise and Culture Committee. The involvement of the Scottish public services ombudsman can only be welcome in situations in which disputes cannot properly be rectified by the established mechanisms in institutions. The proposal for the extension of academic freedom might need further clarification, but I think that it has been welcomed by all. We will have better organised, better funded, guaranteed higher-quality institutions that offer further and higher education to Scotland's young people and to people who seek to return to learning. We will have institutions that take what is good from existing practice and adopt such practice for the benefit of all.

If we are to concentrate on our top priority, which is to grow the economy, it is vital that the workforce should be equipped with the right knowledge and skills to compete in the economy. Our further education colleges have proven success in closing the opportunity gap, creating learning opportunities and assisting in regeneration, as has been said. In my constituency, Glenrothes College and Fife College of Further and Higher Education are the institutions of first choice for the majority of people who enter the further and higher education sector. Thanks to the two-plus-two system, which is unique in the United Kingdom, students from both colleges progress to the universities of Abertay, Dundee, Edinburgh and St Andrews. We know the quality of the work—particularly the research—that is done in those institutions. The colleges also work closely with other stakeholders, such as the local authority, the local enterprise company and the sector skills councils, to ensure that the courses that are offered are appropriate, in relation not just to the expansion of students' knowledge and understanding but to the need to meet employers' economic needs. This morning I spoke to the associate principal of Glenrothes College, who confirmed that he welcomes the bill and thinks that it offers opportunities for the further and higher education sectors to learn, collaborate and work in partnership.

I have come across a very interesting statistic. For every graduate employee in industry, seven support staff are required to provide technical and administrative skills, and further education institutions teach many of those skills. If members consider the importance of improving the skills and qualifications of the vital employees who support the people who perhaps do the blue-sky thinking, they will appreciate why the bill is a good idea and why the merger of the funding councils is necessary.

I welcome the scope in the bill for the recognition of new institutions that might be formed as a result of mergers. For example, discussions are going on about a merger between Glenrothes College and Fife College, which serve my constituents. I also welcome the assurance that the committee received in response to a question that I raised about the potential for growth of private institutions and the eligibility of such institutions for public sector funding. We were assured that a fundable body, although recognised as a provider, would not be regarded as the same as a funded body. I think that everyone will welcome the fact that there will be scope in the system for market intervention if that is appropriate.

I am a member of the Subordinate Legislation Committee and I remind members of and draw the minister's attention to the committee's recommendation that the provisions in the bill that confer powers on ministers to make significant modifications should require such instruments to be subject to the affirmative procedure and therefore to the will of Parliament. The recommendation was included in the Enterprise and Culture Committee's stage 1 report and I hope that the minister will take it on board at stage 2.

To sum up, the bill has been welcomed by all. We look forward to further discussion at stage 2 and to further clarification about the powers of ministers and agencies, and we recommend that the Parliament be the final arbiter in any significant decision.

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party 10:49 am, 20th January 2005

I, too, formerly served on the Enterprise and Culture Committee. I took an active interest in the matter during the early stages of debate on the bill and am still interested in it. One never reads all of a committee report, but I read parts of the Enterprise and Culture Committee's stage 1 report with great interest and I am delighted that the committee has taken a structured and detailed approach. I am also pleased that the minister accepts without reservation the bulk of the committee's recommendations. The issues on which the minister is not yet prepared to accept the committee's recommendations are those on which there are differences between us.

I share the five concerns that the committee expressed about section 8 and I look forward to future changes to the bill to satisfy those concerns, particularly those on fees, which are the key issue. Other members have expressed graphically their concerns on the issue. As I said when we discussed the matter way back in June of last year, two principal issues arise in relation to medicine. One is about access to courses in medicine in Scotland by Scotland-domiciled students. We have significant concerns about matters that are not under the control of the Parliament—choices are being made elsewhere that will have a direct impact in Scotland. I do not doubt for a minute that the minister and his colleagues are having a genuine stab at addressing those potential problems. I accept that I asked for more detail of that work—which we have not got yet—but merely because I asked for it does not mean that I endorsed the principle. To suggest that I endorsed it by asking for the detail is taking the matter a little far. However, I accept that the Executive's proposals are one way of addressing the difficulty.

Subsequently, many stakeholders have raised detailed and well-argued concerns with the committee, which are laid out clearly in the report and which were articulated by Richard Baker, Mike Watson and Michael Matheson. Genuine alternatives to fees have been offered. My colleagues Fiona Hyslop and Shona Robison have built on some of those suggestions and offered an alternative. I seek an assurance from the minister that he will consider alternatives to using fees to regulate the number of students who access courses in medicine in Scotland.

As well as a duty to allow access to courses in medicine and to educate students, we have a duty to provide a health service. However, for successive Governments, workforce planning has not been a strength and we have serious issues with it that we must address, particularly in relation to medicine. Not all those issues are relevant to the debate, but we must address them to ensure that we have enough doctors.

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour

I accept that we must consider all possible measures to address some of the disparities, but does the member accept that it is completely inappropriate in the current international climate to suggest that medical students who qualify in this country and then go to work and use their skills in the third world should owe us £67,000 as a consequence?

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party

It is absurd to suggest that the SNP is not interested in helping people in other parts of the world, particularly those who cannot help themselves. One great strength of the Scottish tertiary education system is that we have many students from outwith Scotland. All our institutions have an international dimension, no matter what proportion of their students are local. It was not my intention in June to restrict that dimension, nor is it Fiona Hyslop's or Shona Robison's intention to do so. Any suggestion along those lines is a deliberate misrepresentation and I hope that the minister will not continue to pursue that argument.

The notion of being well-qualified or suitable to study medicine does not refer only to persons who achieved five highers at A grade in one sitting, which our educational system currently finds difficult to deliver for any young person. We must consider the entry requirements for professional courses, particularly—but not only—for medicine. The present arrangement significantly disadvantages those who attend schools at which pupils can take only four highers at one sitting because of the size of the school or the approach that it takes. That issue is perhaps not within the scope of the bill, but we must consider it urgently in addressing the overall issue of accessibility to our universities.

Beyond that, we have a duty to look after the health of Scots. People who are domiciled in this country deserve a high standard of health service and we must supply doctors to provide that. The suggestion of my colleagues Fiona Hyslop and Shona Robison is a welcome contribution to the debate.

Photo of Christine May Christine May Labour

Given the difficulty that Brian Adam and his colleagues have had in answering even the simplest questions from Labour members on the golden handcuffs policy, does he agree that he should dissociate himself from it at once?

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party

Good try, but nae chance. Christine May's attempt to adhere to some party line shows her continued pursual of ministerial office. To return to Brian Monteith's comments, her opportunities might be restricted if the unionist coalition is broadened even further to accommodate Mr Monteith's desire for the ministerial Mondeo.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

I did not rule out Mr Adam's party from coming into bed with us.

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party

I welcome the offer, but I shall politely decline.

Workforce planning must start with the admissions policies of medical schools in Scotland. At present, the gender balance among medical students is skewed significantly. Overall, 60 per cent of medical students are female and, in some universities, 70 per cent of medical students are female. Although no one wants to prevent young women from studying medicine, the present gender balance will have consequences down the line, but soon. We must address the admissibility criteria to ensure that we get people from a wide range of backgrounds.

In admissions to universities in general, the balance is heavily in favour of young women, which may not necessarily reflect inherent ability but the way in which exams are structured—they may be biased against males. That is perhaps not the most popular view, but the present situation will have consequences and we must address them. However, I have addressed them for long enough this morning.

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat 11:00 am, 20th January 2005

I am happy to support the bill. Like other members, I applaud the degree of consultation on the bill and the flexibility shown by ministers. I have confidence that between them the minister and the Enterprise and Culture Committee will produce a bill at stage 3 that covers the various reasonable points that have been raised. What we need to achieve, if the Parliament finds the bill acceptable, is an act that has arrangements written into it, so that any major change will have to be with the approval of the Parliament. We cannot bind future Governments and future Parliaments; all that we can do is ensure that any future Government with funny ideas has to bring those ideas to the Parliament for approval. Whether it produces a new bill or affirmative instruments, a Government with a majority can get its ideas through, so what is written into an act does not make all that much difference.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Donald Gorrie raised an important point, which is of concern. All that it would need for a future Government to introduce top-up fees for Scottish students—variable by course—is an affirmative instrument. That is not satisfactory as it does not involve a three-month consultation or proper legislative process.

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat

The reality is that if a Government has a majority it will get through the Parliament what it wants, whether by bill or affirmative instrument. We need to make it as clear as possible that any proposed changes have to come to the Parliament. We are always looking forward to—or rather, anticipating with fear—some malign Government consisting of all sorts of awful people who will sneak things through. We want to prevent that.

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat

Present company entirely excepted.

What worries me about bills is that we debate and pass them, and it is all very sensibly discussed. We control the bill, but we do not control the money that is usually necessary to deliver its objectives; the Executive does that. The ministers are excellent people for whom I have a high regard. However, we must ensure that the Executive reflects the views of the Parliament in the way in which it allocates its money. I would like the way in which the Executive deals with the proposed new funding council to pay more heed to the quality of teaching and of student support. Research is important, and our future as a nation and as a people depends especially on the quality of research in science and engineering and so on, but the main purpose of universities and colleges is to teach. That is often neglected. When I was involved with a university there were complaints, for example, about totally inaudible lecturers. The quality of teaching has improved a bit since then, but it is still not that great. We need to give more reward to institutions—colleges and universities—for the quality of teaching and student support. When I have visited colleges in central Scotland I have been struck by the fact that they all have good pastoral care for their students. Sadly, that is often lacking in large universities, where students are left to sink or swim in a sea of alcohol. Institutions should be rewarded for teaching and student support, as well as for research.

Richard Baker referred to the increase in the number of people doing part of a degree at college and part of it at university. That is good, and it should be encouraged and developed. It is an argument for having one funding source for colleges and universities. Murdo Fraser said that Scotland had a history of exporting education, and that we should be worried about discouraging people, even from England. That is true, but we must balance that with the duty of the Executive and the Parliament to provide Scotland with the skills it needs. Whether those are craft skills or medical skills, the Executive has a duty to provide them. We must balance that with our noble record of exporting education. To take one example, we owe our examination system to Macaulay, who came up from England and studied at Edinburgh when the Scottish universities were vibrant. Oxford and Cambridge were sound asleep, and nowhere else in England had a university. Macaulay introduced exams—instead of patronage—for getting jobs and promotion. That was a step forward. Exams are not all that good, but being the nephew of a duke—the previous system—was even worse. Our export of education has led to the modern system.

Murdo Fraser referred to the idea of a skills committee, which is mentioned in the committee's report. That is a good idea, and it would follow on from the idea of the quality of teaching, and the fact that we need to provide skills and not just research. The individual freedom of staff at colleges and universities is important. The minister has said that, and I hope that he will manage to enshrine it in the system in some way. It is good to have institutions that are free, but they should also be internally free. We could use the hypothetical example of a political system in which each party was free, but the internal arrangements of which were totally unfree. That would be a bad thing.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour 11:06 am, 20th January 2005

I declare an interest as a board member of the Glasgow College of Building and Printing, which is soon to be launched as the Glasgow metropolitan college when it merges with Glasgow College of Food Technology. I congratulate the colleges on that. Glasgow Kelvin probably has the highest concentration of further and higher education institutions in Europe. I recently took Jim Wallace on a tour to see for himself the three universities, two specialist institutions and five FE colleges that I try to represent in the Parliament.

In commending the Enterprise and Culture Committee on its stage 1 report and its considered recommendations, I must say how much progress we have made in bringing higher and further education closer together in recent years. That is in no small measure due to the commitment of our universities and further education colleges to ensuring a smooth passage for students in the transition that some of them will want to make from further education into higher education. Our institutions should be commended for that.

For my part, I am unequivocal about the bill's purpose in restructuring the system to make it more accountable to elected members and to Government and, more important, in widening opportunities—as Richard Baker said—for our people and our country. While I endorse growing our economy as the top priority, I urge ministers constantly to monitor, review and act to set the conditions that break down the obstacles that prevent students from lower income backgrounds entering further and higher education in particular. The debate on prospects for medical students is a case in point. We know that too few students from unskilled backgrounds have the qualifications to gain entry to medical school.

Hundreds of Scottish students are denied a place at our five medical schools in Scotland. I have a constituent who gained five straight-A passes in one sitting and was refused entry because of the exceptionally high demand for places. It worries me a wee bit that so many Scottish students are not getting places, and I would like us to address that. I find myself agreeing with Murdo Fraser for the first time—it is a bit scary. I know that Scotland has maintained its five medical schools because of the historical nature of its system, which has enjoyed a high demand from English, Welsh and overseas students. Without that influx, we would not have been able to sustain five medical schools in Scotland. It is the quality of our provision that has been the main attraction.

One of the barriers to entry has always been people's ability to support themselves through university, particularly if no one else in their family has ever been to university. That is why I welcome the Executive's commitment to increasing the threshold in bursaries, which is too low and should be higher. I am pleased that the Administration recognises that it is important to have a system of non-repayable support.

In view of what I have said about obstacles to entry, there must be a systematic and constant review of student financial support and the level of student debt. If that becomes a genuine obstacle to entry, we must know about it and the Government must do something about it. Debt is a worry for some medical students, although the current evidence suggests that demand is so strong in medicine that debt is not necessarily a barrier. We should continue to monitor the situation, however.

There are complex reasons why many young people do not aspire to go to university. It is not all to do with student financial support. It is also about a lack of encouragement and a lack of self-belief. People can lack the belief that higher education is for them. A difficult family environment can also be a factor. Too many young people in Glasgow do not have any qualifications or skills. We face a real challenge in Glasgow as our economy grows. Glaswegians are not necessarily benefiting from that economic growth, and we need to tackle the issue of providing them with skills.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

Would the member agree that school leavers who do not go into further or higher education are increasingly finding that they regret it? We must ensure that the system works for people in their early 20s who wish to return for further or higher education. Increasingly, it will be the further education institutions that will be most appropriate for them.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

I agree with that. The lifelong learning policy is just that: it is all about second, third and fourth chances. That said, I would in no way want to box students from low-income backgrounds into further education. Jeremy Purvis is right, but the transition from FE to HE must be a smooth passage for those who want to make it. The merging of the two funding councils sends out the message that we expect institutions to make that transition easy.

The role of further education institutions has never been greater and, in my experience, their response to Government priorities and student need has never been greater. I would point out on behalf of the further education institutions that I represent that they would want parity in funding as well as parity in status.

I have been asked to mention a couple of further issues. The bill contains provision relating to the Scottish public services ombudsman. The question is how wide that provision should be and who should be able to appeal to the ombudsman. The Scottish credit and qualifications framework is important, and I refer to what I have already said about the agreement on qualifications. What is the point of someone not knowing the transfer value of their HND into higher education?

I turn to section 8 and fees. I have some questions that I would like the Deputy Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning to address in his summing up. This is an important point of debate. Will fees be designed to provide a regulatory measure? If so, what kind of regulatory measure? Will fees be set so high as to provide a barrier so that demand does not outstrip supply if our fees are cheaper than those in England? Or will it simply be a matter of establishing parity with English fees? I seek clarity on why we need such a broad power. Could students on all Scottish courses be identified as a class of people for whom variable fees would apply? How far can we go, given how section 8 is structured? I probably know the answer, but I would be grateful if, in summing up, the minister could put something about that on the record.

It is clear that the Executive is saying that there should be more accountability to ministers as far as higher education is concerned. Demand for that is probably shared by the whole Parliament. I have asked 29 written questions on further and higher education. Each time, those have been referred to the appropriate funding council, but I think that ministers should be answering those questions. We should be taking powers to ensure that ministers are accountable in this area.

That leads me to academic freedom. I know that institutions guard it strenuously, and I do not intend to interfere with that. I have no difficulty in acknowledging that academic freedom is what makes a vibrant education system. I think, however, that some qualifications need to be attached to it. We need some control in the planning of what courses we require in Scotland, particularly if we believe that growing the economy is our top priority. In qualifying what is meant by academic freedom, ministers must have the power to direct the provision of courses where that is required. It makes no sense that a college or university can set up a course that already exists, which could damage the existing provision. Where there are gaps in provision, Government should have the overall strategic responsibility for making something happen.

We desperately need to review the governance of the further education sector. That boards are accountable only to themselves is an idea of the past. Although I recognise some of the positive aspects, I think that governance must change. I know that the Scottish Further Education Funding Council has a review taking place and I hope that ministers will look at the results carefully. Changing existing arrangements would be beneficial not just to the Parliament and the institutions themselves, but to students—after all, that is why we are here. I think that that benefit will be immense. I congratulate the Enterprise and Culture Committee on its report.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat 11:16 am, 20th January 2005

I pay tribute to my colleagues on the Enterprise and Culture Committee, and indeed to the clerks, who have worked hard on the report. It has been a most interesting process, as Murdo Fraser indicated.

I have enjoyed the debate hugely, and I will comment on some of the contributions that members have made. The Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning, Jim Wallace, talked about the idea behind the bill. He pointed out several facts that I do not think have been contradicted. Record levels of funding are going into further and higher education. There is new support for disabled people, which will be incredibly welcome. The proposals for the enhanced role of the Scottish public services ombudsman have been well received across the board. The minister referred to the fact that this is about strengthening our economy and society. All that we do in this area helps us in that aim.

The policy is quite clear: there will be no top-up fees in Scotland—it is as simple as that. The number of young student bursaries is up by 11 per cent. That is one example of the increase in funding. As the minister said, no Scotland-domiciled student will have to pay fees under this Administration. Donald Gorrie made the point that in future, no matter how much people may scaremonger, if a minister were minded to introduce some measure to change the proposed policy, that would have to come to the Parliament and be subject to a majority vote in the chamber, as that is how the affirmative procedure works. Donald Gorrie said that we cannot predict what might happen. That is the nature of democracy—all sorts of things can change—but we cannot take away from the sincerity of what ministers are saying today. Any other argument intended to scaremonger is disingenuous—we might just as well say that the slaughter of the first born is a terrible thing. The minister's intention is quite clear. I think that, to be honourable about it, the SNP should accept that.

I listened to Fiona Hyslop's speech with great interest and I think that Alex Neil, if he can do so when summing up for the SNP, must address the legal advice that lies behind the golden handcuffs proposal. It may be right; it may be wrong, but we must know the detail. We have heard allegations of the repayment of some £67,000 being required if someone heads off to work halfway through their course—two or three years in. We need such matters to be addressed.

Murdo Fraser's contribution was supportive. In many ways, he reflected the work of the Enterprise and Culture Committee. Murdo welcomes the amalgamation of the two funding councils, and he was right to use the expression "parity of esteem" in referring to higher and further education. He made the first reference in the debate to the internationalism of Scottish education and the fact that we export some of our best training and education beyond the borders of Scotland. That is something that we have been proud of for many years, and we should be proud of it in future.

I am taken with Murdo Fraser's raising the possibility of there being a skills committee. That relates to the idea of parity of esteem, and I do not believe that ministers would rule out consideration of that. Murdo Fraser also referred to the involvement of the business sector and the private sector—the wealth creators. He was correct to do so. Co-ordinating the powerhouse of our economy and higher and further education is crucial.

Richard Baker referred to the two-plus-two programme. It is happening at my alma mater, the University of St Andrews, and it is welcomed there. He also talked about the NUS evidence. He cut to the chase, saying that if we are to live in the real world we must deal with the real consequences of what has been done south of the border.

On the subject of why what is in the bill is in the bill, let me say this: things could happen in future and if the bill does not provide for that, we could be making hostages to fortune. Let me put it this way: legislative buses do not come every day of the week. The bill gives us our only chance to make such provision. We have heard the minister talk about the safeguards that will be placed in the bill at stage 2. I remind members that an affirmative instrument must be dealt with in the chamber.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Jamie Stone says that legislative buses do not always come along when we might want them to, but I suggest that the problem is that we have not even seen the report of the working party on cross-border flows and that, if it is decided that that proposal should be pursued, it would be far more appropriate to do so in a separate piece of legislation than it would be to hijack the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Bill.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat

I do not agree with Fiona Hyslop's position, which should be no surprise to anyone. I would rather deal with the issue in the bill, as it is proposed, with the inclusion of the safeguards that the minister has talked about. The fact that the proposal would have to come back to the Parliament is important. All 128 of us—not including the Presiding Officer—will be able to vote on it.

Michael Matheson and Brian Adam accepted the intention of the bill in a generous spirit. Their speeches were generally supportive.

Jeremy Purvis made a characteristic speech, for which I applaud him. He brought to our attention the work that he and others do across the board.

Mike Watson summed the issue up when he said, simply, that variable fees are not top-up fees. That is the point of today's debate. He made a thoughtful speech that, in many ways, provided a clear pointer to the work that lies before the Enterprise and Culture Committee at stage 2.

Brian Monteith made a humdinger of a speech and I liked the point that he made about the need to ensure that there is no diminution of the independence of our universities and colleges. We would all accept that point. There was a certain amount of misrepresentation—purely accidental rather than mischievous—when we were first considering these matters some months ago. However, there is no question of a diminution in their independence.

Christine May accurately summed up the work of the committee and, as I have said already, Donald Gorrie drew our attention to the point about the affirmative instrument, which is crucial.

The bill is a hugely positive step. There has been a constructive working relationship between ministers and all members of the committee, regardless of political colour. That is a tribute to the convener. We have never written a report that was not unanimous. That is an indication of how the committee works.

I am proud of the state of the bill at the moment—it is going in the right direction, although we have work to do at stage 2—because I believe that it is a fundamental right of everyone in this country, of whatever age, whether they are fit or disabled, rich or poor, to realise their maximum potential in education. I mean that in an altruistic way. That is a basic human right. The funding council, the support, the additional funding, the ombudsman's role and everything else will be steps along an important road.

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative 11:23 am, 20th January 2005

Donald Gorrie referred to Lord Macaulay, who was a prominent Edinburgh member of Parliament. The Prime Minister of the day passed personal judgment on Macaulay, saying,

"I wish I was as cocksure of anything as Tom Macaulay is of everything."

I can say that we are sure that we support the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Bill in principle and think that it represents a sensible step forward.

I welcome the opportunity to conclude the debate for my side. The previous Conservative Government was instrumental in enacting the legislation that granted further education colleges academic autonomy and spearheaded the movement to increase parity of esteem between academic, vocational and professional qualifications. We see the proposed merging of the funding councils as a logical progression of that development.

The bill is supported by a significant proportion of the relevant bodies, such as Universities Scotland and the Association of Scottish Colleges and we echo their support. The legislation has the potential to improve articulation between Government and the academic institutions and might provide opportunities to improve co-operation between the research, skills and industry sectors. We believe that such co-operation would improve Scotland's academic and economic performance.

However, although we are broadly supportive of the bill, there are three issues on which we seek clarification and possible amendment before the bill returns to the Parliament.

First, it is important that the higher education and further education sectors are kept distinct within the new funding council and that the claims of both are given equal consideration. The establishment of a skills committee would ensure a balanced agenda and could promote better co-ordination of educational, research and economic interests. Demand for vocational and professional qualifications is increasing and the further education colleges should not be sidelined in favour of the universities. We want the Parliament to encourage the closer monitoring of the new funding council to ensure that a skills committee is established and given due consideration.

Secondly, we think that the Parliament should seek assurances from ministers that they will use the powers proposed in section 8 of the bill only in exceptional circumstances. Regardless of the provisions in section 8, the minister already has the power to vary the fees that the universities can charge. That makes it all the more pressing that we have a clear commitment from the Scottish Executive in relation to the conditions under which it might impose fees. We remember, of course, the significant statement of the Deputy First Minister and Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning on 16 November, when he told the Enterprise and Culture Committee:

"categorically, this provision will not permit top-up fees."—[Official Report, Enterprise and Culture Committee, 16 November 2004; c 1261.]

We are committed to preserving the independence of our universities and colleges. We would abolish top-up fees and provide the saltire scholarship to cover the entire tuition cost, which would remove inefficient central planning from the sector.

Finally, we believe that the role of the funding council should be more clearly defined. The funding council's job must be, primarily, to distribute funds in a transparent, fair and efficient manner. It must not be allowed to have a high-level, policy-making role. There should be clearer provision for monitoring the council's operation to ensure that academic institutions retain individual autonomy. We think that it is essential that the funding council be kept lean. Universities and colleges have developed effective self-governing systems and are supported by Universities Scotland and the Association of Scottish Colleges. They do not need another vast quango to interpret legislation and offer guidance on implementation. The Scottish funding councils' declared direct staff costs of £2.2 million in 2004 are up around 14 per cent from their 2003 level of £1.9 million. The councils jointly employ 129 staff. The University of Glasgow pointed out during the consultation process that

"The UK Government's own advisers have recommended a significantly lighter touch regulatory and accountability regime for well-run universities, in the interests of efficiency, entrepreneurship and responsibility".

We believe strongly—indeed, passionately—in advancement on merit. We think that the education system that we have is the passport to fulfilment and that every citizen in our country should have a place in that system. Although the bill is likely to require amendment at stage 2, we give it an overall welcome as we believe that improving the bill with appropriate and necessary amendments should not be an insurmountable task. One of the great strengths of the Parliament is the committee system and I believe that the Enterprise and Culture Committee is likely to give the bill the necessary attention and do justice by it.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

I call Alex Neil. I say this with some trepidation, Mr Neil, but, at this stage, we have a degree of flexibility with the clock and you may have slightly longer than usual to speak.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party 11:29 am, 20th January 2005

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I will restrict myself to half an hour.

This morning, I am wearing two hats; I am summing up on behalf of the Scottish National Party and I am speaking as convener of the Enterprise and Culture Committee. I will try to strike a proper balance between partisanship and statesmanship—always erring on the side of statesmanship, of course.

As I am the only member of the Enterprise and Culture Committee who was a member of the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee, it might be useful to remind members why we recommended in our lifelong learning report the merging of the further and higher education funding councils. Fundamentally, there were four reasons for that conclusion, which was reached with cross-party consensus and without any dissent whatever.

The first reason was the increasingly blurred line between higher education and further education. As Christine May pointed out in relation to Fife, many people follow the first two years of their higher education in an FE college. Some 40 per cent of those who go on to take a degree at university take the FE route. We have two separate funding councils—the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council and the Scottish Further Education Funding Council—but the Further Education Funding Council funds higher education as well as further education. Given the level of crossover, which did not exist 20 or 30 years ago, it seemed to us that it no longer makes sense to have two separate silos of funding.

The second reason for our conclusion was a result of study visits that we undertook to the Crichton campus in Dumfries and the UHI Millennium Institute in Inverness and the surrounding area. The Crichton campus is an interesting project in which four universities have come together. I believe that it is the only place in the United Kingdom, and maybe even in Europe, where people can get a degree from four universities on one campus. The relationship between Dumfries and Galloway College and the Crichton campus is close, as indeed is the relationship between the 13 FE colleges in the Highlands and Islands and the UHI Millennium Institute. Uniquely, the university of the Highlands and Islands is being formed from the bottom up, as it were, through the 13 FE colleges. The evidence that we took on both the Crichton campus and the UHI Millennium Institute suggested that major problems result from the need to negotiate separately with the Higher Education Funding Council and the Further Education Funding Council. It makes sense to have a single pot of money that can be allocated easily on a priority basis.

The third reason was that the two funding councils are serviced by a single executive, so it makes sense to have just one council. That is where the recommendation came from and I am glad to say that we have reached the stage at which we have—I think—unanimity on the principle of the proposed merger.

The merger is the centrepiece of the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Bill but, as has been mentioned, the bill also covers a number of other areas. I start with fees. I speak as convener of the Enterprise and Culture Committee when I say that although I oppose fees in principle, I accept that the Executive has a majority on the committee. I welcome what the Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning said in his opening remarks when he accepted the recommendation in the committee's stage 1 report that we should use an instrument that is subject to the affirmative procedure, rather than an instrument that is subject to the negative procedure. In fact, I think that I am right to say that two instruments will be needed to implement section 8 of the bill. I also welcome his commitment that before any such instrument can be brought to the Parliament there will be a statutory duty on the minister and his successors.

I welcome the minister's acceptance of the committee's recommendations, but there is a case for going a wee bit further. I accept that the minister will never introduce top-up fees for as long as he is the minister but, with all due respect, we are writing legislation that will outlast him. At this point I become slightly partisan. I ask members to suppose that the Liberal Democrat minister is replaced by a new Labour minister, à la Charles Clarke, who believes in variable fees and top-up fees. If the legislation is not right, he or she will be able to introduce such fees.

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour

Is not there an inherent contradiction in the member's position? He argues that Parliament will have the final say on whether top-up fees are introduced by a future Administration, but he also argues that the minister will have the sole authority to do that.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

The realpolitik is that a minister will be drawn from the majority Executive. The concern, which was expressed articulately by Mike Watson, is that the legislation has to outlast not only the current Administration but many Administrations to come. I ask the minister to accept our recommendation, to analyse the alternatives that have been suggested and to give us his assessment of them. In particular, as we will start stage 2 consideration of the bill on 22 February and we are scheduled to discuss fees on that day, I say to the minister that it would be helpful to the committee if the report from the implementation group were made available to us before we discuss the amendments. I say that in a non-partisan way. The evidence that we took suggested that there are, at the very least, loopholes to be closed; Mike Watson, in particular, covered that point extremely well. The committee will work with the minister to try to ensure that we get the legislation right.

I will raise one or two other issues that members touched on in the debate. First, on the idea of a skills committee, I do not want to go into the detailed argument for such a committee because I do not believe that we should be over-prescriptive to the new council.

Photo of Christine May Christine May Labour

Before Alex Neil leaves the issue of fees, will he tell Parliament—with either of his hats on, or with both, if the answers would be different—his view on the SNP's policy of golden handcuffs? I think that it is important for us to know his view.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

I am married to a former policewoman, so the concept of handcuffs is not new to me. If we look back at the history of the proposal, we see that something similar came out of the Calman report. It is not an entirely new suggestion and I think that it should be given serious consideration. The issue about medical graduates being able to travel to third-world countries is adequately catered for in the proposals. No one would want to stop medical graduates practising in the third world—indeed, we want to encourage that.

I return to skills. The merged council will have a total budget of nearly £1.5 billion by the end of the current parliamentary session. That is a substantial amount of money. Some of it will be devoted to research, but about two thirds will be devoted to universities and colleges. The word "skills", of course, refers to the skills of doctors, dentists and vets who are trained at universities as well as to the vocational skills that come from further education colleges. The minister needs to consider skills policy and how it is implemented.

Given the way in which the responsibility for skills policy will be diffused among different agencies—Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise have a responsibility for skills and careers, as do the new sector skills councils and their parent body the Sector Skills Development Agency—any new skills committee should be more than just an internal committee of the new funding council. The logical conclusion is that any new skills committee should be a cross-agency committee that can examine all aspects of skills and thereby provide a holistic approach to skills policy in Scotland.

Speaking personally, I suggest that there is a strong case for making Futureskills Scotland a hybrid organisation between the enterprise network and the new funding council. Futureskills Scotland's work ought to inform much of the work of the new council. Although such policy matters are not specifically for the bill, they will need to be addressed as a result of it.

Our stage 1 report also considered the make-up and membership of the new council and its sub-committees. The bill is absolutely right not to require members of the council's sub-committees, such as the research committee, to be members of the council itself. We want diversity in the membership of the research committee and the other committees. I strongly urge the minister that, when the time comes for him to appoint members of the council, he should not look for members from only within Scotland. Similarly, he should encourage the council to recruit international expertise for its sub-committees, especially the research committee, because that will help us to stay at the leading edge in many of the research activities that the new council will fund.

My final major policy issue relates to academic freedom, which Mike Watson covered extremely well. We must address two fundamental issues, the first of which concerns academic freedom within the post-1992 universities. Our committee believes—on a cross-party basis, I think—that the legislative safeguards of previous education acts should be extended so that they cover not only the pre-1992 universities but the post-1992 universities. That would provide a level playing field between the two sets of institutions. Some people, such as the principal of Glasgow Caledonian University, have argued that such an addition to the bill is unnecessary because staff contracts already guarantee academic freedom. My answer to that is similar to my answer on fees: whereas staff contracts can be changed quite easily, it would be difficult to undermine academic freedom if it was built into legislation. A strong case exists for simply extending the existing legislative provisions for the pre-1992 institutions to the post-1992 institutions.

Secondly, academic freedom should also be extended to the FE colleges. We all agree that that is a desirable objective. For the same reasons that I have given previously, it is worth considering the insertion in the bill of a new section to that effect.

Having gone through four sets of consultation, including the original Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee inquiry into lifelong learning, the bill is now near the end of the road. In this instance, the pre-legislative scrutiny process has done its job of ironing out the difficulties and sorting out the problems. Apart from on fees, the bill is the subject not only of cross-party agreement in Parliament but of a pretty broad consensus out there in the academic community in universities and colleges, and in the student community and elsewhere. We should address fees by reassuring people that the bill will cater for all possible future scenarios, when we might not have a minister who is so committed to not introducing top-up fees.

On that basis, I hope that Parliament will give unanimous support to the bill. It is possible that some of us might have to abstain or vote against the bill because of the fees issue, but that will not be because we do not accept that the rest of the bill is highly desirable.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

I call on Allan Wilson to wind up the debate. Minister, there are 14 minutes left and they are all yours.

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour 11:46 am, 20th January 2005

You are very kind. I will try to use those minutes to best effect.

It is a pity that Alex Neil's speech was spoiled at the very end—he had been doing so well—as I agreed with much of it, although I agreed with little of what his colleagues said earlier.

As Alex Neil said, it is important to establish what the bill sets out to do. The bill will provide for a more integrated view of lifelong learning by establishing one strategic organisation for tertiary education in Scotland. As Murdo Fraser did well to point out, the bill will allow decisions to be made for both HE and FE in such a way as to maximise the benefits of providing a direct read-across of the experiences of one sector to the other. The bill will also provide a coherent link between the objectives of post-school education and Scotland's economic objectives, which are of course vital to the Executive. In addition, the bill will be important in aiding achievement of parity of esteem between the different types of learning providers in Scotland.

Given the debates of the past six months or so, it is interesting that Alex Neil was the only one to mention the fact that having one council to oversee both HE and FE will ensure that we get the best possible results from our substantial investment in those sectors. Let me remind members of the scale of that investment over the period of the spending review. By 2007-08, annual funding for higher education will exceed £1 billion, which is almost £300 million more than in 2003-04. That represents an increase of almost 40 per cent in cash terms, or 28 per cent in real terms. It would have been churlish of the Opposition not to welcome such an increase in higher and further education funding, so I am glad that Alex Neil referred to that substantial increase in resources.

As my colleague Jim Wallace said, perhaps the single remaining point of controversy concerns the new powers to set fee levels. From some of the comments in the debate, it is clear that there is a general concern that differential fees might be introduced under the bill, and a particular concern about the fees imposed on medical students who come to Scotland to study and those imposed on self-funded students. I will address the general concern first, then the particular concern.

For the record, let me restate what the Deputy First Minister said in his opening statement. The power to set fees is designed to be used only sparingly and only where there is clear evidence that not doing so would disadvantage Scottish students. Chris Ballance asked why we do not wait until the position south of the border is clearer. As Jamie Stone correctly pointed out, we have a legislative vehicle currently at our disposal and such vehicles are not like corporation buses, in that they do not regularly arrive in threes. The fact that we are making use of the legislative opportunity to protect the interests of Scotland-domiciled students by retaining powers to introduce differential fees does not mean that we will necessarily choose to exercise those powers.

The claims of the NUS have been properly described by other members as "over-egging the pudding". The Deputy First Minister has made it clear that we do not intend to introduce variable fees in Scotland. The partnership agreement between Labour and the Liberal Democrats states clearly that there will be no top-up fees here in Scotland. One would have to be akin to Rumplestiltskin and have slept through the past five years in Parliament not to have noticed that the Labour and Liberal Democrat—

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour

Talking of Rumplestiltskin—

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party

Given that the principal bone of contention between members today relates to fees and the Enterprise and Culture Committee has given ministers the opportunity to consider alternatives, can the minister tell us in his summing up on behalf of the Executive whether ministers will do so, without committing to alternatives that they might consider?

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour

I said that in my intervention during Brian Adam's speech. There are issues that we need to address, and I assure the member that we will do so. I am making the simple point that the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties in the coalition have made it clear that top-up fees are not on the agenda here in Scotland. I respectfully submit that the situation cannot be clearer than that.

As Richard Baker correctly said—I am sure that Brian Adam would agree—the introduction of the new variable fees scheme in England means that doing nothing is not an option.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I am grateful to the deputy minister for giving way to me in the competition for his interest.

The deputy minister referred to the work that the Executive is doing to examine alternatives. He must appreciate that the Enterprise and Culture Committee has the important job of considering amendments to the bill at stage 2. Conservative members will want to consider carefully what amendments need to be lodged. It would be immensely helpful to us and to other members of the committee in that deliberation if the Executive could make available to us as much information as possible about the work that is being done elsewhere on alternatives. Can the minister give us that commitment?

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour

Yes. I am familiar with the stage 2 process and the dynamic that is attached to it. I will address the issue that Alex Neil raised regarding the process and I supplement that by pointing out that—as the Deputy First Minister said—it is our intention to hold a wider public and stakeholder consultation over the piece on the issue of self-funded students.

The implementation advisory group can report to ministers before stage 2 on principles. Detailed technical work will need to be done, so the final report will not be available before April or May. We will not have access to that work at stage 2, which begins on 22 February. However, because of the support funding systems that the Executive is already considering, we have powers to take measures to provide support finance without making further legislative change. There is the prospect of wider internal consultation with the Enterprise and Culture Committee and we have powers at our disposal to address the issue of self-funded students.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

The minister argues that the issues that are raised by the introduction of variable top-up fees down south need to be addressed in Scotland. However, his argument has been limited to medical students. If the introduction of top-up fees down south will cause a problem of cross-border flows, why does the minister not see the logic of addressing the issue in total? Why is the Executive focusing solely on medical students, when it could be argued that there will be a problem of cross-border flows in all subjects?

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour

I agree with Fiona Hyslop in principle and will address the detail of the SNP's proposal later, although she will probably not like what I have to say about it. We have taken a holistic approach to this issue. I will come on to the points that Pauline McNeill and Murdo Fraser made very ably in respect of the wider credit and qualifications framework and the particular issues that are faced by medical and, potentially, other students.

FE and HE have worked hard to develop the sectors in a number of areas. One such area is the development of the Scottish credit and qualifications framework. I welcome the committee's support for inclusion of the framework in the bill and I am pleased that we have been able to support the excellent work that the sectors have driven forward. Pauline McNeill made a relevant point about that work and, specifically, the requirement to attain five A grades in a single sitting during S5 for access to medical courses. Rightly, we have no control over university entrance standards. However, we support a range of access activities in higher education, including the Scottish wider access programme. We expect new access to medicine to be developed jointly in programmes with our medical schools.

There is clearly a balance to be struck. We must maintain the cross-border flow of students to which Pauline McNeill referred, which sustains our medical schools, while ensuring—importantly—that there is opportunity for Scotland-domiciled students, in particular, to access places in those schools. I say to Pauline and other members that we must maintain existing cross-border flows. I oppose Fiona Hyslop's proposal to set up a fees system that would require England-domiciled students to pay more to study in Scotland, because we welcome English students to our country to study. As internationalists, all of us would want that to continue.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

What the minister is saying is extremely interesting, but it proves that the question is complex. I understand that the technical work will not be completed until after stage 2, but it is incumbent on us to consider the full report of the implementation advisory group before stage 3 of the bill, which is scheduled for April.

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour

As I have said, we can share the principles of the group's work. I cannot today give the member the commitment that he seeks, but we will work actively with the committee to bring together the timetables of the two bodies, if possible. As Alex Neil correctly pointed out, moves on medical fees affect not just staffing of the NHS but, critically, the opportunity that is provided to Scotland-domiciled students to study medicine and to use their skills and professionalism here in Scotland, in the rest of the UK and internationally. That is an important point. The Minister for Health and Community Care is considering a range of developments in response to the Calman report to ensure that there is greater staff retention in the NHS in Scotland. Those will include wider measures that have been discussed in general terms here today.

I question some of the motives of Fiona Hyslop and the SNP on this issue. As my colleague Jim Wallace said, she continues to play politics with the interests of students and to perpetuate the myths that fees exist and that top-up fees are to be introduced in Scotland. Concerns arising from such misrepresentations are not confined to this chamber but are disseminated to the wider public. They become a self-fulfilling prophecy, because people are dissuaded from applying to Scottish universities, which has a negative impact on our wider objectives of broadening access.

The most recent contribution to the debate—the £67,000 prospective golden handcuff—is the desperate act of a desperate nationalist party. It is another gimmick that is designed to drive the voters away. As Brian Monteith correctly said, it is not worth the paper or the envelope on which it is written. As an internationalist, I could not possibly accept its narrow nationalist connotations.

I thank all of the members of the Enterprise and Culture Committee for their thorough consideration of the bill's general principles. I commend the general principles of the bill to the Parliament.