Higher Education

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:34 pm on 13th June 2007.

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Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None 2:34 pm, 13th June 2007

The next item of business is a statement by Fiona Hyslop on higher education. As the minister will take questions at the end of her statement, there should be no interventions.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party 2:39 pm, 13th June 2007

I am delighted to be given this opportunity to announce to the Parliament details of a proposal from the new Scottish Government that will benefit graduates, their prospective employers and the Scottish economy in the widest sense.

As Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, I am committed to taking an holistic approach to lifelong learning, focusing on education in our children's earliest years; on supporting children and families; on improving learning in schools; on developing skills for, and in, work; and on promoting excellent teaching and research in our colleges and universities. Together, those policies will contribute to ensuring that learning will be lifelong for everyone.

This Government's pledge is to create a more successful country that will flourish through increasing sustainable economic growth. That is the overriding purpose towards which we will work in government. To do so, we must ensure that a modern Scotland is one where everyone can fulfil their economic, social and personal potential to the fullest possible extent and that any barriers that prevent them from doing so are removed.

That is why I announce our determination to honour our manifesto commitment to abolish the graduate endowment fee. Subject to other parties in the Parliament agreeing to legislate, students who are about to graduate this summer, students who are currently at university, students who are about to enter university this autumn and all subsequent students will no longer have to pay the graduate endowment fee.

The fact that around 50,000 students will no longer be asked to pay a graduate endowment fee of more than £2,000 is good news for them, for their families and for Scotland, but it will happen only if other parties who already have commitments in that area support us. I am hopeful of persuading others that our proposal is in not only the national interest, but the interest of the public purse.

Although the cost of abolishing the graduate endowment fee is approximately £15 million net, after allowing for administration and accounting charges, I can still guarantee that the amount of money that is distributed to students through bursaries and grants this year will not be adversely affected by our proposal—we will continue to fund them directly.

Some 10,000 people a year are liable to pay the graduate endowment fee, which is set at the beginning of a student's course and which stands at just under £2,300. The background to it is well known. It was introduced by a previous Government in 2001 as part of a new system of student support, which was based on the principles established by the Cubie committee that student support should promote social inclusion and enhance civic society, and that barriers to widening access and participation should be removed. Those are sound principles, which apply just as much today as they did when Dr Cubie published his work. However, the graduate endowment fee is a tool that has failed to deliver those aims in a modern Scotland.

I believe that the basic principle of Scottish education is that it should be based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay. My announcement is a critical step towards achieving that vision not just for today's students, but for tomorrow's, as well as for their families, for our society and for the whole of Scotland. Opening up access to higher education for everyone, regardless of their location, background or personal situation, is a key component of fully releasing the potential of Scotland's people.

Our country's demographic challenges over the next 20 years mean that we must make the most of the opportunities for all our people and must give everyone the chance to make the fullest possible contribution to economic and civic life. Our vision of a smarter Scotland is one in which the benefits of education are spread widely and equitably. That will be possible in the context of higher education only if access to it is driven by ability alone. For some people who have the ability to succeed, the existing structures act as barriers to their future success. The graduate endowment fee is one such barrier. We cannot let it stand in any young Scot's way.

The graduate endowment fee is an example of a policy that was formed when parties with different views adopted a compromise that has benefited no one and which has clearly failed. It has failed our graduates and their families by burdening them with excessive debt; it has failed our most vulnerable youngsters by creating financial barriers to accessing higher education; and it has failed the Scottish taxpayer by not raising the level of income that was initially projected.

The graduate endowment fee is clearly an inefficient way of raising income. In the three years in which it has been in operation, two thirds of the students who were due to pay the fee have not paid it back directly, but have simply added it to their student loan. The costs associated with the resulting interest rate subsidy mean that the taxpayer loses around one third of the income collected. In fact, the taxpayer recoups the income in real monetary terms only after 13 years—that is how long it takes for the money to be repaid in full to the Government.

As well as being inefficient, the graduate endowment fee is difficult to collect. More than 1,400 of the graduates who were liable in April this year have yet to respond to payment letters from the Student Awards Agency for Scotland. That is equivalent to almost £3 million in potential income.

Three cohorts of graduates are liable to pay the graduate endowment fee, their liability having arisen on 1 April in 2005, 2006 and 2007. At the very most, £12.7m has been paid back in cash, with more than twice as much—£26.3m—having been added to student loans. In three years, the princely sum of only £47,000 of that £26.3m has been returned to the taxpayer.

It is clear to me that the graduate endowment fee is a complicated and inefficient way of generating money for student support. Not only does it impact on graduates as a back-end tuition fee, but the law on the matter states that not one penny of the fee can go towards paying for learning or teaching at university. That is the worst of both worlds. With the taxpayer, graduates and Scotland losing out, it is difficult to see whom the arrangement has ever benefited. Abolishing the complicated and inefficient graduate endowment fee is the smart thing to do.

Fear of debt is a real and growing concern for many prospective students. The average amount of debt has increased to around £13,000. Many people who have benefited from access to higher education, including members of the Parliament, may not have participated if faced with the fear of such debt, particularly at a young age. The age participation index, which measures the proportion of young Scots who are engaged in higher education, has fallen since the graduate endowment fee was introduced from 51.5 per cent in 2001-02 to 47.1 per cent in 2005-06. Believe it or not, for the first time since the reformation, there has been a drop in the share of the population studying in higher education in Scotland. Given that participation had previously risen each year, it is clear that the fear of debt is real and is a factor in the choices that young people make when they leave school.

Evidence also shows that young people from low-income backgrounds are the most debt averse. Our system should contain the widest possible incentives so that as many people as possible with the ability to enjoy and participate in the higher education experience can do so. Young people from areas of multiple deprivation should have wider access to higher education and, although efforts on this have increased recently, the proportion of entrants to university who come from deprived areas of Scotland has still not changed significantly over the past five years.

Fear of debt can and does act as a brake on the aspirations of people from our poorest and most disadvantaged communities and moves us away from a Scottish education system that should be based on ability to learn. Therefore, it must be wrong to burden our graduates with debt and deny them every possible opportunity to contribute to a wealthier and fairer Scotland. It is wrong that they should begin their working lives encumbered by financial pressures, and that is a wrong that the new Scottish Government intends to put right.

If we reduce the burden of debt, graduates will start to gain the full benefits of employment as soon as they leave university, get on with their lives freely, make the ambitious career decisions that will help to power Scotland's economy and make personal choices that will allow them to lead a fulfilling life in this country. Is it not much better that a graduate's money should go towards buying their first home or starting their first business than that it be lost and spent instead on the first of many debt repayments?

I will now set out how and when we plan to deliver the abolition of the graduate endowment fee. The fee was introduced by the Education (Graduate Endowment and Student Support) (Scotland) Act 2001, and we will introduce primary legislation to repeal the relevant parts of the act. We want as many people as possible to benefit from the change as soon as possible. That is why I am announcing that with, and only with, parliamentary approval, students who are about to graduate this summer, students who are currently at university, students who are about to enter university this autumn and all subsequent students will no longer have to pay the graduate endowment fee. That will relieve all those who become liable to pay the fee on 1 April 2008 and all students who graduate in subsequent years.

To achieve that, we will introduce legislation that we hope will come into force by 1 April 2008. I am aware that that is a tight timescale but it is the most effective way of abolishing the graduate endowment fee. It will give the Student Awards Agency for Scotland enough time to notify students who graduate this summer and notify people who will enter university this autumn of our plans, subject to parliamentary approval. I look forward to support from across the chamber for what I have announced. I ask parties who may not have called for abolition previously to consider the compelling public finance arguments in favour of our proposals.

I intend to consult on the principle of abolishing the graduate endowment fee this summer—I will seek the views of all those involved on the benefits that that will bring. Following that consultation, and subject to the views that are expressed to me, my intention is to introduce a bill in the autumn. With parliamentary support, we have an opportunity to make an important difference for students currently at university—many of whom are sitting their final exams now or are waiting on their results as we speak.

I have no doubt that student loans and the graduate endowment fee act as a disincentive to our youngsters when they consider going into higher education. This Government has three central proposals to reform the current student support arrangements: the abolition of the graduate endowment fee; replacement of student loans with means-tested grants; and relieving the burden of debt repayments by Scottish students. In my first few days as cabinet secretary I began working with my officials on the options for the second and third of those proposals. That work is continuing actively and detailed proposals will be considered as part of the spending review. Abolishing the graduate endowment fee is an important first step for us in delivering those commitments and I am pleased to announce our intention to do so today.

I look forward to working with parties across the chamber to deliver a package of student support that delivers the smarter, wealthier and fairer Scotland that this Government seeks.

We live in a global economy and our key economic resource is our people. Graduates from Scottish universities are among the brightest and the best in the global pool of talent and they contribute enormously to the economic and social lifeblood of our country and other countries across the world. Reducing graduate debt is therefore an investment in our future, in our people and in our economy. It is a statement of belief in Scotland's people and it acknowledges that, in order to compete, we need to remove obstacles that hold people back.

We need to take active steps to ensure that in the future the Scottish economy is supplied with the graduates that it needs in order to prosper and that everyone who has the ability has the opportunity to be involved in the higher education experience.

We made it clear in our manifesto that we would cut student indebtedness. I believe that abolishing the graduate endowment fee will show the people of Scotland that we are committed to that and that we are making progress in the early days of this Government.

Abolishing the graduate endowment fee as soon as possible is an integral part of realising our vision of a smarter Scotland; a Scotland in which educational and academic achievement throughout life are possible; a Scotland—renowned through the years as a "learning nation"—where people learn for their and our future. That will inspire a competitive, sustainable economy for a wealthier and fairer Scotland.

That is why we want to move quickly, and why I call for the support of the Parliament. We need that support to do what we know will make a measurable difference to our people, our society, our economy and the future of Scotland.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

The minister will take questions on the issues raised in her statement. I will allow about 30 minutes for questions, after which we will move to the next item of business. I intend to fit in more questions than were asked the last time that we had a statement and questions, so I ask members to keep their questions as brief as possible and the opening questions to within the time limits that I have intimated, if that is at all possible.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

I thank the cabinet secretary for the advance sight of her statement. However, the statement is meagre and disingenuous and tinkers at the edge of what the SNP promised to students. The SNP talk is all about students, but the statement says nothing about investment in universities and further education colleges; there is no promise of even a single penny of investment in either higher or further education. Labour said that education would be our priority. We promised additional investment, even if it meant squeezing other budgets.

Why has the SNP failed to tell the Parliament how much it will invest to allow our higher and further education institutions to compete against the rest of the world and against English institutions in particular? Will the SNP urgently introduce proposals to write off student debt and replace loans with grants? The party received many votes on the back of those promises.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

There was no talk before the election of waiting for a spending review—[ Interruption. ]

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

Even though the SNP was warned—

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

Order. Excuse me one moment, Mr Henry. The minister's statement was received with courtesy; I ask that questions be accorded the same courtesy.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

We should not be surprised that old habits die so hard.

As I said, there was no talk of the SNP waiting for a spending review—even though the party was warned that its proposals were unworkable and unaffordable. Last year, Alex Salmond promised to scrap the outstanding student loan debt for current graduates. Today, yet again, it is mibbes aye, mibbes no.

The minister's statement is not a first step; it is a fig leaf to cover the embarrassment of a U-turn, a con trick or both. Graduate endowments were set up to provide income to help poorer students. Where will the money come from now? The minister's proposal, despite the verbiage, does not spell out how young people from poorer backgrounds will be helped to gain access to university. Will Fiona Hyslop write to me with details of how that will be done? The minister's proposal claims that all students will be helped equally, irrespective of their financial circumstances, but the statement says nothing about recompensing those who have already paid the endowment. Will that happen?

I am dubious about the SNP's figures. All the evidence that I have seen—before the election and since—gives an estimated annual cost of between £20 million and £25 million. If the SNP Administration has money to spare, why does it not add a few million pounds, defer its proposal for two to three years, and create 1,000 jobs in August for teachers who are coming to the end of their probationary period? That would surely provide a more immediate and more beneficial impact for Scottish education.

The statement was profoundly disappointing. It badly lets down the many people in Scotland who took at face value promises that the rest of us know to be false.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Hugh Henry's praise for the announcement reflected his usual generosity.

This Government will deliver on its manifesto commitments, unlike other Governments. Within three and a half weeks, we have made proposals to tackle student indebtedness and abolish tuition fees. I seem to recall a certain other Government that promised, before 1997, to get of top-up fees and not introduce them, but three months later it did indeed decide to introduce top-up fees.

We need to study the issues to do with university funding very closely indeed. That is why I met the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council and university principals last week, to discuss with them the need for more detailed information. They want to supply that information so that we can make progress. On Friday, I will meet the principals of the Scottish colleges to discuss the same issues. That is what this responsible Government will do.

Mr Henry talks about the problems facing probationary teachers. Responsibility for those problems lies with Mr Henry's Government, which caused the difficulties when it was in power. If he wants reassurance, I say to him that I hope to come to Parliament before the recess to make announcements on what I will do to help to tackle the problems that Mr Henry's party caused in education.

Had Mr Henry been listening to my statement, he would have realised that this is the first step of our progress. Our proposals are ambitious because we believe in an ambitious Scotland. We want all the people of Scotland to be involved, which will mean ensuring that children and young people from deprived areas have access to higher education and are not prevented from gaining such access, as they were under Mr Henry's Administration.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I thank the cabinet secretary for providing an advance copy of her statement. Today's announcement will doubtless be popular with student groups, but there is more to government than grabbing a few cheap headlines and a few cheers from the back benches.

Scottish Conservatives are no fans of the graduate endowment, but my criticism of the cabinet secretary's announcement is that it utterly fails to address the real issue in relation to higher education. The cabinet secretary said in her statement that she wishes to focus on

"promoting excellent teaching and research in our colleges and universities."

She must be aware of the growing concern among Scottish universities that they face a competitive disadvantage compared with English institutions because of the additional revenue that those institutions can derive from top-up fees. The situation will be exacerbated in a few years' time when the £3,000 a year cap on top-up fees will be lifted.

The real issue for the Scottish Government is how to fill that funding gap. In her first statement on higher education, the cabinet secretary had not one word to say on that vital issue. Scottish Conservatives, recognising the serious nature of the issue, have called for an independent review of higher education funding and student support. The Scottish National Party's response has been to propose a policy that will take money out of higher education rather than put it in.

In 2003, the SNP manifesto pledged:

"We will reconvene the Cubie Committee with a remit to review financial support for students at present, as well as the overall context of further and higher education funding. The committee will not be restricted in its remit".

Why has the SNP abandoned that perfectly sensible commitment, for which it would have had our support? Is it because the balance of expert opinion is likely to run counter to its stance and question the scrapping of the graduate endowment that was announced today?

Will the cabinet secretary join us in committing to establish an independent review of higher education funding, or is she happy to sit back and do nothing while the future of our great universities is put in jeopardy?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Many students and parents will be deeply disappointed that the member does not think that student hardship and £13,000 of debt on graduation is a real issue. It is a very real issue for many families.

The member talks about responsible government. It is responsible to introduce the proposals that we have introduced. He calls for an independent review. It would be hasty and inappropriate to conduct an independent review a matter of weeks before decisions have to be made on the delivery of the spending review.

England will not review the cap on variable fees until 2009, with implementation expected thereafter. The situation in England is certainly a case for a spending review, but for the next spending review after this. That is a responsible way forward to ensure that we reach the right decisions for universities with regard to investment and teaching, in order—as I said in my answer to Hugh Henry—to maximise the potential not just of our people, but of our institutions.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

I thank the cabinet secretary for the statement and the advance notice of it.

The Liberal Democrats welcome the opportunity to work with the minority Government to end the graduate endowment, as a move towards reducing student debt. I also welcome the clarity—perhaps for the first time—that not one penny of the graduate endowment has ever contributed to student tuition fees in Scotland. That is helpful confirmation of the reality.

However, students and graduates have not heard clarity from the cabinet secretary about whether the sums raised from the graduate endowment will continue to contribute to the funding for poorer students, not just in the next year but in every year of this parliamentary session and subsequently. Will she confirm whether that is the case? Will she honour another SNP manifesto commitment to remove the burden of debt? I did not hear a clear answer to the question from Mr Henry on whether all previous payments of the graduate endowment will be written off by the SNP Government. Will she confirm that?

Does the cabinet secretary accept that the statement, in isolation, has no net benefit for current students? The Liberal Democrats will work constructively, but we will not support any moves that are uncosted or which provide no net benefit for existing students.

Finally, I have two specific questions. First, has the cabinet secretary, on behalf of her department, formally made a submission to prioritise higher education funding in the comprehensive spending review? If not, why not? Secondly, what information does the cabinet secretary have that has led this new Government, in the period of one month, to downgrade from its manifesto commitment to

"remove the burden of debt repayments owed by Scottish domiciled and resident graduates" to today's statement, in which she said that the Government proposed to relieve the burden of debt repayments by Scottish students? Does "relieving the debt burden" mean removing it in its entirety?

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

That was about six general questions and two specific questions.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Yes. I ask members to bear with me; I will be pleased to answer questions subsequently if I miss any now and if the member wishes to write to me.

I welcome support from the Liberal Democrats on the proposal. Together, we can abolish the graduate endowment fee, as is our intention.

The member asked an important question about what we can do for students who have already paid the graduate endowment fee—a point that Hugh Henry also raised. We have great sympathy for graduates who have had to pay the graduate endowment fee. We voted against the fee while we were in opposition, but unfortunately the previous Administration introduced it. As a general rule, law is applied retrospectively only in exceptional cases and only with the consent of the law officers. In this case, the operational burden of such a move would be prohibitive. We would like to move forward quickly, but the issue of retrospectivity would pose a problem.

The member asked whether we would continue with the young student bursaries. The answer is yes. The problem is that the young student bursaries cost an estimated £65 million. As the member heard me say, the graduate endowment brings in only £15 million, so it meets only a proportion of the cost of the bursaries. We will continue to pay the bursary directly.

The member spoke about our manifesto commitments. The people of Scotland will be delighted that, over a period of just weeks, the Scottish National Party has said not only that it will do things, but that it will introduce legislation to deliver on its manifesto commitments. That is a bit different from the experience that we have had to date.

On the importance of university funding, I agree with the member that we must protect and promote our universities as world-class institutions. That is what I said when I met university principals at a Scottish funding council meeting only last week. I will pursue that in government. With the support of colleagues, I am sure that we will come to a solution that helps everyone.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

We come to open questions, which—I repeat—should be brief and to the point.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

We are still looking for an answer. When will the SNP's proposals to pay back all graduate loans be brought to the chamber? Retrospectivity did not seem to be a problem before. That was the SNP's manifesto pledge, after all, although other parties pointed out that it was unaffordable. On the Labour side, in the coalition, we increased the student bursary significantly year on year. By how much will it increase in this session?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I cannot give the member an immediate answer on that point, but I will come back to him. I would have thought that the member, as a former leader of the National Union of Students Scotland, would recognise the importance of tackling the fear of debt, particularly for people from more deprived areas, to allow them to participate in education.

The member is concerned about other aspects of our manifesto—we are quite happy to implement our commitments. Labour included a number of commitments, not least on class sizes, in its previous manifesto but, four years later, the Government had not implemented them. Introducing manifesto commitments in three and a half weeks is pretty good going.

Photo of Aileen Campbell Aileen Campbell Scottish National Party

Does the cabinet secretary agree that the graduate endowment and the prospect of massive student debts are scaring a generation of young Scots and preventing them from entering higher education? Does she agree that that point was proven through the publication yesterday of the age participation index for Scotland for 2005-06, which showed that, since the introduction of the graduate endowment, the percentage of young Scots entering higher education has significantly declined?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

The member addresses the central point. If we want a well-educated graduate economy, we must at least maintain the number of graduates in that economy. Under the previous Administration, that number went down.

Another interesting point about that survey concerns the percentage of students from areas of multiple deprivation who are accessing university. Good work is being done to improve the situation, but that percentage has remained static over the past five years, at only 12 per cent.

Photo of David Stewart David Stewart Labour

First, I warmly welcome the cabinet secretary to her new post. I wish her well with her challenging and demanding portfolio.

Does the cabinet secretary share my view that equality of opportunity is a key principle in the development of higher education? What action does she propose to redress the unequal geographical distribution of universities, with particular reference to the Highlands and Islands?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

The member raises a serious issue, which I am already addressing with officials—indeed, it is one of the issues that I addressed when I spoke to the university principals last week. When we provide the detail of what we will require going into the comprehensive spending review, the geographical needs of Scotland, the articulation between colleges and universities and provision, particularly in the Highlands and Islands—and, indeed, abroad—are areas that I, as cabinet secretary with responsibility for lifelong learning, will be keen to progress. I would be happy to meet the member if he has any suggestions that he would like the Government to bring forward in that regard.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

The equivalent to the graduate endowment for those from other parts of the United Kingdom who currently study in Scotland is the £1,700 annual tuition fee. Before the election, the cabinet secretary gave the commitment to the 28,000 students in that category that they deserved exactly the same deal as Scots and that they would pay nothing under an SNP-led Administration. Will she honour that commitment and, if so, exactly when will it be in operation?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

The member refers to the situation whereby English medical students were being charged more to try to deter them. Of course, we saw from the figures that that policy did not work. We think that there should be equity and fairness. Our issue, as the Government, is that we have to prioritise the most important issue to address, which, at the moment, is abolition of the graduate endowment fee. To those who complain, as the member's colleague Boris Johnson does, about English students having to pay fees when they come to Scotland, I say that we have to reflect that independence would mean that English students would be treated exactly the same as French and German students. The member therefore makes a very good case as to why Scotland should be independent.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party

Given the failure of the previous scheme—the graduate endowment—to ensure that people from poorer backgrounds in particular were attracted into higher education, will the cabinet secretary, in pursuing her new policy, learn from the successful examples of countries such as Ireland, where participation in higher education has risen steadily since fees were abolished in 1995?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

The member will acknowledge that the Government will look to Ireland for many examples of good practice. Abolishing fees and increasing levels of participation, which he cited, form one such example. We have to have responsibility in how we increase participation among those from more deprived areas in Scotland, and that will be a priority of this Government.

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

I, like other members, question whether what the cabinet secretary proposes is the best use of available funds. Will the investment pay for one more teacher or one more student place? How does today's announcement address the biggest anxiety facing higher education in Scotland, which is the potential growing funding gap between universities in Scotland and those in the rest of the UK?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

On the issue of investment in teachers, I have indicated that the legacy left to us by the previous Administration—of probationers who are trained but who have no jobs in our classrooms—is very sad indeed and is causing difficulty and heartache for many individuals. However, I have taken early action to see what we can do about that, and I intend to make an announcement to Parliament.

On higher education funding in Scotland compared with other areas, I think that our universities are well funded. The argument that is being put forward is about what happens when the tuition fee cap is lifted in England. As I said in answer to a previous question, that is not due to be reviewed until 2009 and implementation would follow thereafter. We must ensure that we have a good deal for universities in this comprehensive spending review, but it would be a mistake to indicate that universities are somehow cash strapped, because universities do not want to be given that description at this stage. They want a good, fair deal that takes them forward.

I say to Murdo Fraser that the issue is that we have to make decisions in the weeks ahead in the comprehensive spending review for this session, but we also have to look forward. It is not just about competing with England; universities have to compete abroad, so we have to consider what is happening in Asia, America and other places.

We will not have a successful Scotland if we have a well-resourced university base but students who cannot afford to study there. That is why we have to have a twin-track approach that involves supporting our universities in terms of research and teaching and also ensuring that our students are not encumbered with excess debt that holds back them and their families and puts a millstone of debt around their necks.

Today, we have shown how an inventive, creative Government with a will to deliver on its manifesto can produce a result that not only works for individuals, but makes better use of public finances.

Photo of Hugh O'Donnell Hugh O'Donnell Liberal Democrat

Will the minister give a commitment to Parliament, now or in the future, to introduce a widening-access unit in her department so that a wider range of the potential student population in Scotland can access universities? In that regard, I seek assurances of the continuing support of the minister and her department for the greater opportunity of access and learning with schools—GOALS—project. Finally, can the minister give a commitment in relation to the raising of bursaries by a minimum of 10 per cent?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

On the latter point, I would be reluctant to give any commitments without looking at the details of the books, as I am sure the member will appreciate.

I have not been able to visit the hundreds and thousands of civil servants who are located across Scotland but I know, from some of the papers that I have received, that there is a unit that deals with widening-access priorities. I am not sure of the name of that policy team, but I will find out its name and write to the member so that he knows what it is called.

I am familiar to some extent with the GOALS project, which has been successful in Lanarkshire and gives young people an opportunity to find out where they want to go after school and opportunities while they are in school. One of the debates about widening access concerns whether it is the responsibility of schools or universities. However, it is the responsibility of schools and universities. Much can be done in schools to inspire young people and to widen their aspirations and enable them to understand that they can achieve their goals, whether or not those goals relate to higher education. I will be pleased to find out more about the GOALS project, should I ever visit Lanarkshire.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

I welcome the cabinet secretary's statement as the first step in implementing our manifesto commitments. I remind her that, in 2003, the Scottish Tories' manifesto contained a commitment to get rid of the graduate endowment. If the Tories flip flop again, they might support the cabinet secretary's legislation when it comes before the Parliament.

Following on from the point that Hugh O'Donnell made, I remind the cabinet secretary that a report that was produced last year by a group led by Jim McGoldrick of the Scottish funding council pointed out that about 14 per cent of people from working class backgrounds—the same figure as 30 years ago—get to university. Will the cabinet secretary monitor the policy on improving access for people from the lower income groups?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

We will monitor the impact of that policy. We think that fear of debt is one of the biggest barriers that prevents those from the more deprived backgrounds from entering higher education.

Alex Neil mentioned the Conservatives. I was trying to be gentle to Murdo Fraser and not remind him of his party's past policies. He was quite keen to quote the SNP's 2003 manifesto, but I was being rather gallant—perhaps the fact that I was being gallant tells us something about this Parliament's equal opportunities policies—and did not remind him of his party's previous manifesto commitments.

We have heard arguments about responsible Government. We know that the Conservatives want to ensure that we have astute public finances. I ask members to reflect on the inefficiencies that arise through the policy of delivering student support via the graduate endowment fee. We might as well cut out the middle man and give people the money directly, which will ensure that students are not burdened by current levels of debt.

Photo of Lord George Foulkes Lord George Foulkes Labour

I will be gentle to the minister and ask whether she remembers the SNP's slick election slogan, "It's time." In particular, does she remember the leaflet that featured the slogan,

"It's time to dump the debt monster"?

The leaflet also said:

"Student debt. It'll lurk around your home like a bad smell on the landing."

It continued:

"That's why SNP will replace student loans with student grants."

There are no ifs or buts in the leaflet, which also said:

"And we will write off the accumulated debt still owed".

It did not say, "We will do that if John Swinney agrees to it."

Photo of Lord George Foulkes Lord George Foulkes Labour

When will an announcement be made on those two policies? If not today, will it be next week, next month, next year, sometime or never? Is this the first of many promises that the SNP will renege upon?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I am concerned that the member might be getting overexcited at the pace of the SNP's announcements in recent weeks. As I said, I am working with my officials and drawing up the plans that are required. We want to implement those.

As the member is new to the Parliament—I welcome him and I think that he will bring flavour and colour to the Parliament—I suggest that he reads the Official Reports from the summer of 1999 and the summer of 2003. He should count the number of manifesto commitments that the Labour and Liberal Democrat Scottish Executives actually delivered.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

I apologise to the number of members who pressed their buttons but whom I was unable to call because of time pressures.