Graduate Endowment Abolition (Scotland) Bill

– in the Scottish Parliament at 3:00 pm on 28th February 2008.

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Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None 3:00 pm, 28th February 2008

The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-1367, in the name of Fiona Hyslop, on the Graduate Endowment Abolition (Scotland) Bill.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party 3:08 pm, 28th February 2008

With this bill, we are finally abolishing tuition fees. The Scottish National Party Government has promised to do so before and today we can deliver that commitment. The graduate endowment fee was a sleight of hand that replaced up-front fees with a back-end charge on graduation—a new burden for our students as they leave university to enter the world of work. Today the chamber has the opportunity to get it right for our young graduates by scrapping that unfair fee and removing the financial hurdle that they face when they leave university.

Access to education should be based on the ability to learn and not on the ability to pay. Today the SNP Government is providing the Parliament with the opportunity to restore free education in Scotland.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

In supporting the abolition of the graduate endowment fee, will the cabinet secretary acknowledge that more students in Scotland will continue to pay tuition fees than will not, because part-time students, of whom there are more than there are full-time higher education degree students, will still pay part-time tuition fees?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I note the point that the member makes and welcome the Scottish Liberal Democrats' support for the abolition of the graduate endowment fee. I hope that the member welcomes the fact that the Government has already moved to tackle the unfair system that requires part-time students to take out loans to pay fees. Our introduction of a grant to help part-time students addresses precisely the issue that he raises.

Abolishing the graduate endowment fee will immediately save 50,000 young people almost £2,300 each. The young people who will benefit include: those who graduated last year; those who will graduate this year; other students who are currently at university; and all future generations of graduates.

The bill will send a clear message to students and graduates that the Scottish Parliament values the contribution that they make to society and will do all that it can to support them at one of the most crucial stages of their lives.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

Will the minister abolish student debt?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

We have to tackle student debt. Abolition of the graduate endowment fee will tackle 20 per cent of that graduate debt. If Labour members are concerned to abolish graduate debt, they should support us in abolishing the graduate endowment debt.

I am delighted to open this stage 3 debate on the bill. I take this opportunity to record my appreciation for all the hard work of officials, the parliamentary authorities and the members of the Finance Committee and the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee. Both those committees considered the bill and its implications.

In the wide-ranging discussion that took place throughout that process, I was pleased that the bill received such broad support from students, universities and many others who are involved in the higher education sector. With that overwhelming support, the SNP Government is assured that abolishing this unfair and inefficient fee is the right thing to do.

As the debate has progressed, I have heard no substantial argument for keeping the graduate endowment fee. Indeed, from the amendments that have been lodged, it is clear that Labour and the Conservatives are falling over themselves to find an excuse to vote for this popular bill.

During the budget process, Labour members of the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee unsuccessfully sought to amend the budget to divert funds from the abolition of the graduate endowment fee to provide additional funding for universities. They clearly did not understand that by keeping the fee and their original legislation, the Parliament would be locked into retaining that income for student support as the money could not be diverted into general university funding.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

No, thank you.

There are many myths about the Education (Graduate Endowment and Student Support) (Scotland) Act 2001. It was meant to widen access; it did not. It was to provide income for universities; legally, it could not. It was to provide a regular, dependable income stream for student support; it never did. The issue of university funding is important, but the act that Labour and the Liberal Democrats introduced was not about university funding then and its abolition is not about university funding now.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

Will the cabinet secretary present us this afternoon with evidence that the abolition of the graduate endowment fee will increase access?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

If the member is prepared to listen, she will find that the evidence will be presented as the debate develops. Indeed, the evidence was presented at stage 1 and stage 2.

The graduate endowment fee was a political compromise that suited no one. It bears repeating that more than two thirds of students cannot afford to pay the graduate endowment fee in cash so they are forced to add it on to their student loan. Furthermore, around one third of that loan income is lost because it is paid out in administration and other associated charges due to the inefficiencies of the student loan system. If a charity lost one third of its income to administration charges, there would be a public outcry. On the graduate endowment fee, there is a public outcry and it is being led by the SNP Government.

We are investing in the future not only of our students but of our universities. An additional £263 million will be invested in our universities between now and 2010-11. That will increase our overall investment during the next spending review period to a massive £3.24 billion. Investment in universities represents 3.77 per cent of departmental expenditure allocated by the Government. The equivalent figure over the previous spending review period was 3.75 per cent. That represents an increase under the SNP Government.

On top of that, since coming to power, the Government has provided universities with an additional cash injection of £50 million for use in improving their estates. Having said that I would explore the possibility of providing extra funding beyond that, I recently announced a further funding package of £10 million. The effects of both those allocations will be felt not just this year but over many years to come.

To raise income for our universities, we need to use innovative and sustainable solutions that make the most effective use of all the available resources without adding to the burden on students or the universities that they attend. I am exploring a number of the issues around that with Universities Scotland, as part of our joint future thinking task force on universities, which is engaged in short, sharp, focused, radical thinking, not in kicking issues into the long grass. The task force will report to the further and higher education round table, where staff and student representatives and principals are equal partners.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

Is the cabinet secretary aware of the University and College Union Scotland's comments on her joint future thinking task force? It said:

"If the new Scottish government is genuinely interested in a new approach to Scottish higher education, what is needed is something closer to a Robbins report rather than this narrow review."

How does she respond to that criticism?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Our aim is not to kick the issue into the long grass. Such a review would be too late to influence the next spending review. At the FE/HE round table to which the task force will report, unions represent staff and students as equal partners.

Let me trade quotes. Murdo Fraser might not be aware that David Caldwell of Universities Scotland has today summed up well the work that is being done in the task force. He said:

"We appreciate that those calling for an independent review are doing so with the best of intentions. However the universities think that the most promising way forward at the present time is through the Joint Future Thinking Taskforce on Universities which has enabled constructive and positive engagement with the Scottish Government."

The president of the National Union of Students Scotland, James Alexander—who I believe is in the public gallery—is also against the review of higher education that is proposed by Labour and supported by the Conservatives, as it would create the lethal cocktail of a simultaneous review of student support and university funding, which in England resulted in top-up fees.

Alongside the new partnership that we are forging with universities, we have been able to deliver new money for Scotland's students. As well as finding the funds to allow us to abolish the graduate endowment fee, we have pledged to invest an additional £30 million in student support in 2010-11. We intend to consult later this year on how to use that extra money to best effect. I assure members that our decision will see record amounts being invested in student support. In fact, our total package amounts to £119 million over the next three years.

Through the actions of this Government, students in Scotland will experience something that, in years gone by, was available to many of the graduates on the Opposition benches, many of whom might, later today, vote to deny students the key benefit that they enjoyed—free university education.

As we debate the future of the graduate endowment fee, it is important for me to address some of the issues that emerged during stages 1 and 2 of the bill's consideration so that all members are clear about what we are trying to achieve.

I acknowledge that, in itself, abolition of the graduate endowment fee will not widen access to higher education overnight. The evidence clearly shows that a number of deep-seated factors need to be addressed if we are to widen access to higher education. Debt, and the fear of debt, is one of many such factors. Debt, and the fear of debt, is a barrier, particularly to people from lower-income backgrounds. By removing a significant proportion of the debt that is incurred at university, we will remove part of that barrier, thereby aiding wider access.

Our measure will help students from low-income backgrounds. The graduate endowment fee is not means tested, as some people believe and as members such as Rhona Brankin have suggested. As a front-bench spokesperson and a member of the party that was responsible for introducing the graduate endowment fee in the first place, she should have known better.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

You are in your final minute.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Under the Education (Graduate Endowment and Student Support) (Scotland) Act 2001, which I hope will be swept from the statute book today, students were burdened with £2,300 of state-sponsored graduate debt. We will lift that burden, as part of the social democratic contract that this Government has made with the people of Scotland. Let us release our students from the burden of graduate endowment debt, let us remove a financial barrier to learning and let us restore Scotland to its proud place as the home of free education. We consider the abolition of the graduate endowment fee to be a down payment on our plans to tackle student debt. For those students who are affected, it will make a real difference as they leave university.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that the Graduate Endowment Abolition (Scotland) Bill be passed.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour 3:19 pm, 28th February 2008

In February 2007, Alex Salmond made a podcast to students, during which he said:

"the SNP's plan is to dump the debt."

I am sure that he thought that he was being very clever in communicating by podcast. Well, Mr Salmond, students are very clever, but it is not necessary to have a PhD to know who has really been dumped. The students in the public gallery know that there was not a single penny in the SNP budget for writing off student debt. That is yet another broken promise from the SNP.

Today, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, who has presided over the worst financial settlement for universities since devolution, told the chamber that the SNP cares about students and universities.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

No, thank you.

The SNP claims that abolishing the graduate endowment will improve access to higher education and tackle student hardship, but those claims are not accurate. The cabinet secretary failed miserably to produce persuasive evidence to support her claim. As Universities Scotland has recognised, Scotland's record in bringing into university education students from under-represented areas is 50 per cent higher than is the case in the rest of the United Kingdom.

The age participation index shows that overall participation rates have risen since 2001. In an answer to a parliamentary question, the cabinet secretary acknowledged that the number of students entering higher education from the 20 per cent most deprived areas is, in fact, rising. We in the Labour Party want the number to rise yet further.

We do not share the Government's simplistic view that abolition of the graduate endowment will automatically increase access to higher education. Indeed, the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council told the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee that it was not aware of any clear evidence that the graduate endowment is of itself a barrier to access. There is no evidence to suggest that the endowment militates against increased access. Indeed, only half of all students pay the endowment, and only when they have graduated. The abolition of the endowment will not tackle the problems of access and student poverty. Students from poorer backgrounds do not pay it. They also have access to student bursaries during their period of study.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

Later on.

Labour believes that the SNP should do more to support students from poorer backgrounds when they are at university. Student support in Scotland is already falling way behind. It has fallen behind support in England as a result of the totally inadequate increase in the young students bursary.

The SNP Government has broken its promise to university principals that abolishing the graduate endowment would not impact on university funding. Is it simply a coincidence that, at the same time that the Government is seeking to abolish the graduate endowment, it has also produced a cut in university funding? In evidence to the committee, Universities Scotland said that it could not separate the two issues of student support and university funding.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

It is important that the chamber is informed by members who understand not only the current legislation, but that which is proposed. It is clear that the existing legislation does not provide opportunities for investment in universities. It is also clear that the existing graduate endowment fee is not means tested. In terms of participation, does the member acknowledge that, whereas in 2000-01 51 per cent of people went to university, the figure is now down to 47 per cent? In debating the issues, it is important that members do so from a position of knowledge, information and understanding. Does she agree?

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

The cabinet secretary is fond of quoting Universities Scotland. Let me tell her what David Caldwell said on the matter. He said that, if student support comes out of the Scottish block, funding

"will not be available for other purposes."—[Official Report, Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee, 28 November 2007; c 407.]

There we are. That is what Universities Scotland said. He could not have been clearer than that.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

The cabinet secretary wants me to quote the figures. Last year, a record 74,500 students graduated from Scottish universities.

In its budget, the SNP has shown that exactly what was predicted has happened. The universities have the worst settlement since devolution. Universities such as the University of St Andrews are planning cuts in staffing. Sir Alan Langlands, the principal of the University of Dundee, had the courage of his convictions when he spoke out about the poor settlement there.

When I talk to university principals, they tell me about their grave concerns for their universities. They tell me that they worry that whole departments could go south or abroad if we lose our international competitiveness. Indeed, university principals in Ireland are calling for a return to fees, given that abolition failed completely to improve access to university education.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

No, thank you.

The SNP has presided over a complete mess in terms of universities and student funding. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats continue to be in a complete mess on all the issues. What has the SNP Government done about the outcry that followed its appalling budget settlement? It has provided a measly £10 million in additional funding to universities that will leave them £10 million short in meeting pay agreements alone. It has set up a working party with no representation from either students or university staff and announced at the first meeting that the working party could discuss only what the Government wanted it to discuss.

Labour believes that it is time to establish an independent commission on further and higher education in Scotland, whose remit should include consideration of structures, future funding of the sector and—what is important—student support. It is eight years since the Cubie committee reported and Andrew Cubie fervently supports the establishment of an independent commission, as do students and many university staff.

To be frank, Scottish universities have just received an appalling settlement that has met universal criticism from universities, students and Opposition politicians. Labour members passionately believe in the importance of world-class universities to the Scottish economy, to Scottish students and to the well-being of everybody in Scotland.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

No, thank you.

That belief is why the previous Government put record funding into our universities. The Labour Party believes in social justice. We want to create opportunities for students from less well-off backgrounds and for those who come from communities, such as mine in Midlothian, that have little tradition of going to university.

The time is right to set a long-term direction for our universities and to support students. I urge members to support the amendment in my name. Labour will also support the Conservative amendment. In the spirit of co-operation and from a desire to go forward jointly to deliver a vibrant and world-class education sector, if those amendments are agreed to, Labour will support the bill.

I move amendment S3M-1367.1, to insert at end:

"and, in so doing, notes that the Scottish Government is no longer pledged to abolish graduate loan debt and acknowledges also the inadequate increase in the Young Students' Bursary and, as the Scottish Government has a responsibility to develop a system of student funding to provide sufficient financial support to students while they study, believes that an independent commission should be established on further and higher education in Scotland whose remit shall include consideration of structures and future funding of the sector and student support."

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative 3:26 pm, 28th February 2008

In the stage 1 debate, I set out the Scottish Conservatives' concerns about the bill. I made it clear that the Scottish Conservatives opposed the introduction of the graduate endowment, which I gently remind Jeremy Purvis and his colleagues that the Liberal Democrats—and, of course, Labour—introduced while in government. However, abolition of the graduate endowment will take £17 million per year out of the Scottish Government's budget. Our concern was and remains that that has indirectly resulted in a poor financial settlement for Scottish universities.

It is well known, as Rhona Brankin said, that our universities face a real-terms cut in funding for the next financial year. We already know of widespread concerns that our universities are falling behind their counterparts south of the border, which have the benefit of the additional income from top-up tuition fees of £3,000 per year. As we also know, in 2009, the cap on those fees might be lifted.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

Let me make a point—I might give way in a moment.

We in the Conservative party are immensely proud of our Scottish universities and of their contribution to Scotland's standards of education and economy. The Conservatives in government substantially expanded student numbers at universities in Scotland and created many more institutions. We should all be concerned if our universities' future competitive position is under threat.

In our manifesto for the election last May, we called for a wide-ranging independent review of Scottish higher and further education. That review would consider not simply funding, but the purpose of higher and further education, the number of institutions, the proportion of young people who attend institutions as students and proper student support. I am pleased that our call for such an independent review has been echoed elsewhere and that the Labour Party has reached a similar conclusion to us. I have seen support for an independent review from the likes of Dr Andrew Cubie; Dr Brian Lang, who is the principal of the University of St Andrews; from student representatives, including the Coalition of Higher Education Students in Scotland; and from the University and College Union, which represents lecturers.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Will the member take an intervention on that point?

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I will happily give way to Mr Rumbles, who voted to introduce the graduate endowment.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Do Murdo Fraser and the Conservatives find it somewhat ironic that they are using arguments from trade unions and the Labour Party to oppose a major tax cut for our students?

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

What is ironic is the position of the Liberal Democrats, who claim at every turn to be concerned about the future funding of our universities but who are prepared to vote for a measure that will take £17 million a year out of the Scottish Government's budget. That is irony.

I will make progress.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

Not at the moment, Mr Neil.

The SNP Government has established its future thinking task force on higher education, but it does not go far enough. For a start, it is internal to the Government and is therefore unlikely to ask the hard questions that we need to ask, never mind come up with the answers. Further, apart from Government, only university principals are represented on the body. There is no room to hear the voices of students, lecturers or wider interests such as those of the business community. It is no surprise that Universities Scotland, which represents university principals, has welcomed the future thinking task force, but from a wider perspective it is far too narrow in its focus.

The Conservatives are calling for an independent review to be established because we believe that it is time for a proper look at the future of further and higher education in Scotland, and in particular at threats to its future competitive position.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

If the member believes that it is time to look at the future, the structure—presumably—and the funding of higher and further education, does that include redrawing the demarcation line between the two and reassessing whether the competitiveness of the universities is needed as much as it was?

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

That is a fair point from Margo MacDonald. There are real issues regarding the relationship between further and higher education in Scotland. A lot of higher education is delivered within the setting of FE colleges, which is exactly the sort of issue that could be considered by a review.

As I have set out, our concern about the graduate endowment is about taking money out of the higher education budget. However, if Parliament can agree today to establish an independent review, that objection would be largely removed and we would be happy to vote for the abolition of the graduate endowment.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I am sorry—I am out of time.

It would be a tremendous way forward if Parliament could speak with one voice on the issue and agree to abolish the graduate endowment, while at the same time agreeing to establish an independent review of the sector. I am happy to support the Labour amendment. It largely reflects our position, which our amendment fleshes out in more detail.

We have still not heard one word from the SNP on fulfilling its manifesto pledge to write off student debt. In the run-up to the election, there was no doubt where the SNP stood on the issue. It would replace student loans with student grants and write off outstanding debts. We are coming up to the first anniversary of the election and there are still no detailed costings for the proposal, no proposed legislation and not even a consultation. It is perfectly clear that this is a manifesto pledge that the SNP has no intention of fulfilling. It is yet another broken promise from the SNP, and a betrayal of Scotland's students. We must have an independent review.

I move amendment S3M-1367.1.1, to insert at end:

"and whose remit and membership shall be agreed in partnership with the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee and which shall be set up by the end of June 2008 and shall report to the Scottish Government and the Parliament by the end of 2009."

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat 3:33 pm, 28th February 2008

Regrettably, it is still the case that, as a proportion of the population, fewer young people who go to our universities are from poorer backgrounds than are from wealthier ones. For some families and communities, that is deeply ingrained. For others, finance is the key consideration. Even considering the best intentions behind the establishment of the graduate endowment in 2001, as part of an overall package Liberal Democrats support a different path for student funding in future.

Interesting evidence in the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee's consideration of the bill revealed that many students from a poorer background have a greater fear of being unable to afford to study while studying than of post-graduation debt. That is why Liberal Democrats are pressing to uplift both the bursary support and the borrowing limit to establish a package of funding to what the National Union of Students has established is a baseline of about £7,000 in an academic year—a minimum income guarantee to allow students to afford to live. It would mean that we would provide a student with more support in one year than they would gain from the abolition of the graduate endowment.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

Does the point that Mr Purvis makes not reinforce the fact that it is more important to provide additional funding to students while they study than to abolish the graduate endowment?

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

If that is the case, Mr Baker must deeply regret moves on his and his colleagues' part to use part of the funding, if the graduate endowment is retained, to fund institutions.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

Rhona Brankin says that that is rubbish. She will regret that comment when I quote it back to her in a moment.

The graduate endowment was put in place as part of a fundamental package that has had a radical impact on the reduction of debt in Scotland. Today we are asked by the Conservatives and Labour to support an independent review. Why? Our university sector in Scotland is incredibly strong and internationally renowned. We are far from complacent, however; Liberal Democrats have argued consistently, both in the 2007 election and since, that the Universities Scotland funding bid is sound and should be met in full. That would mean that there would be no requirement for the type of review that the Labour Party and the Conservatives want.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I appreciate the member's comments, but the idea that the Liberal Democrats could fund in full the universities settlement by mutualising Scottish Water, which would not be realised during the current spending review, makes that analysis somewhat remote.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

I say to the cabinet secretary that that is a regrettable and irrelevant position on the argument in our manifesto, which was that choices would be made in an overall budget. The point is that we accepted the Universities Scotland bid as a coherent approach to the future of universities, not just with regard to public sector funding, but because they would use the bid to lever in over £160 million a year from other funding sources—and not from student sources.

This is the point at which we ask the Conservatives, in particular, whether, hand on heart, they really are opposed to students contributing to their tuition costs in Scotland or whether they are hoping that an independent commission will propose that and provide them with political cover. They must be very clear about their position.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

I would normally, but I am afraid that there are time restrictions.

During the consideration of the bill and, more specifically, the budget process, the Labour and Conservative parties argued strongly that part of the funds raised from the graduate endowment should be used to fund universities directly. Rhona Brankin said that that was rubbish. Paragraph 58 of the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee's report on the budget, agreed to on the casting vote of the Labour convener, stated:

"If the Parliament should vote to retain the graduate endowment, the Committee submits that the £17 million sum which would have been spent on its abolition should be reallocated to the budgets for higher education revenue funding and the provision of more Young Students' Bursaries."

I voted against that paragraph, but it was agreed to by Labour and the Conservatives. Given that the funds raised through the endowment already fund the young students bursaries, I am not sure how they propose to spend the money twice, but Labour and the Conservatives actually wanted the law to be changed to allow the funds raised to go directly to universities.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

No, I would normally, but I do not have time.

Imaginative as it is to try and spend the same money three times over, it was a clear illustration of their policy now that they believe that graduates should pay a charge for funding the university institutions separately from their contributions on income tax. That is quite clearly a graduate poll tax.

Our amendment would make a considerable improvement to the current situation, which is already radically better than when this Parliament was established.

At stage 1, I said that since the legislation to abolish tuition fees came into force, 200,000 Scottish students entering Scottish institutions have not paid the English-style tuition fees. I offer one example. For a medical degree in England, the graduate tuition debt alone now stands at £45,000. In Scotland, the figure is zero for an eligible graduate. Liberal Democrats have a strong record on alleviating graduate debt. We wish to go further and work with students. A minimum student income guarantee would have the beneficial effect of encouraging people from poorer backgrounds to apply to university and it would quadruple the impact of the Graduate Endowment Abolition (Scotland) Bill. I hope that the measure gains overall support in Parliament today.

I move amendment S3M-1367.2, to insert at end:

"and, in so doing, calls on the Scottish Ministers, when taking forward their consultation on student support later this year, to consider a number of wider options to improve financial support for students, including specific reference to the development of a new minimum income guarantee."

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party 3:39 pm, 28th February 2008

Students today leave university with an average debt of around £11,000. We should be clear about that at the outset. With the stroke of a pen—or at least the push of a button—we can reduce that figure by around 20 per cent, or perhaps even more.

Partisan comments have already been made in the debate and there might be more before its end, perhaps including one or two from me. However, all members should be clear that we face a simple choice. Why is that choice important? As the cabinet secretary outlined, the fear of debt puts off potential students and it is precisely those young people who we should be attracting if our universities are to be fair and be seen to be fair.

Before I move on, I point out to members that students from the University of Stirling, in my constituency, are in the public gallery today. I commend the students for their action to save their campus post office, which is set for closure by the Westminster Government. Facilities, as well as access, are important.

Just a fortnight ago, the Sutton Trust educational charity published a report on the English model, which I understand Labour proposes as a model for Scotland. In theory, there is higher up-front support, with much higher levels of debt afterwards. When I say much higher levels, I am talking about debts of £20,000 or £30,000 as standard—Jeremy Purvis mentioned debts of £45,000. However, it is flawed logic to think that we can increase access to universities by increasing student debt. The Sutton Trust found that two thirds of those who had decided not to apply to university blamed the fear of debt and the crippling financial burden that it imposes. Crucially, the decision was linked with being from a low-income background.

Most damning for Labour's world view was the Sutton Trust's finding that

"Most students make their choices about studying in Higher Education before they hear about the bursary options."

Nearly three quarters did not even know what the word "bursary" meant. Young people at the age of 17, who mostly have little or no experience of financial independence, are presented with five- digit debts as the cost of going to university. Sitting here, we think that those debts are too high but, to young people at the sharp end, they must look astronomical.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

I do not mean to be facetious, but if people who have reached the age of 17 and mean to go to university do not know what "bursary" means, they should think again about their choice of career development. That brings me to the point that I made to Murdo Fraser. Does the SNP, anywhere in its planning, foresee a realignment of further and higher education, because that would have big funding implications?

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

As Murdo Fraser said, that is a fair point. The question of university specialisation is also a pressing one.

On bursaries, facts are chiels that winna ding—whether or not people should know what bursaries are, the fact is that three quarters of students do not know that, perhaps because they have not had to consider the issue previously.

The Sutton Trust, which carried out the study on the English model, has widening access as its main objective. To say the least, its founder is no enemy of the Labour Party. The trust funds the sort of summer schools and access initiatives on which, I assume, Labour would like to spend the graduate endowment money. Despite that, the Sutton Trust evidence makes the Labour Party policy of prioritising the complex and badly perceived bursary system look like mince, to borrow The Sun's view of Labour's position on the budget.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

Not just now.

We must be clear that the overriding problem is that going to university is seen by too many people as expensive. All the evidence shows that that is the case. Perhaps for the Tories, putting off people from lower income backgrounds does not matter much, but other members would be advised to drop the craven and clucking imitation of the line of their masters at Westminster—who seem to be addicted to ever-higher tuition fees—and take a look at what is on the ground. They should ask the students and the school kids. The right wing alliance that has developed is interesting. The Tories really should think about the company that they keep these days. We are talking about a party that is in bed with foreign media moguls and that believes in identity cards and huge tax breaks for non-domiciled millionaires.

A high-profile report last year by researchers from the London School of Economics and Political Science contained the shocking find that social mobility in the United Kingdom had plummeted. One of the main reasons given for that was the university system. In an ideal system, family background would not matter one way or the other, because young people would go to university on the basis of their ability, not their family income. We cannot create such a system here and now, but we can reduce student debt by about 20 per cent. More important, we can reduce fees by 100 per cent. Some argue that the graduate endowment is not a tuition fee, but it certainly is a fee of some kind that people are charged when they graduate. If something looks like a tuition fee, hits like a tuition fee and not so much smells, but stinks like a tuition fee, it is a tuition fee. Abolishing the graduate endowment will, more than any other single act, send out a signal that ability to learn, not ability to pay will once again be the key to our universities.

As I said, the University of Stirling is in my constituency. Students from there and from many other universities are in the public gallery watching proceedings. No doubt, they are taking notes, along with the teaching unions and the universities of Scotland. Even the one or two university principals who complained about being apparently cash starved are part of the consensus in favour of abolishing the graduate endowment. Today, the Parliament can join that consensus and, by passing the bill, can go from opinion to reality. I support the motion.

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour 3:44 pm, 28th February 2008

I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. As convener of the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee, I thank all those who were involved in assisting with the Parliament's consideration of the bill for their vital contribution to the process. In its consideration of the bill, the committee received submissions from a large number of individuals and organisations and I place on record my appreciation of those who submitted written evidence or gave oral evidence. I also thank my fellow committee members and the members of the Finance Committee for their thorough scrutiny of the bill; the clerking teams to both committees for ensuring that the correct procedures were followed and that the process was as smooth as possible; SPICe for producing detailed and helpful briefings; and the minister for her full engagement in the process.

The aim of the bill is to widen access to higher education. It is part of a package that is aimed at addressing student debt—an objective that I am sure everyone in the chamber shares. For too many people, especially in many of the communities that I represent, and others throughout Scotland, accessing higher education continues to be seen as something that other people do. It is the exception rather than the norm, and many of the opportunities that other young people take for granted can seem way out of reach. That is a wasted opportunity for not just the young people concerned, but their communities and Scotland as a whole.

During the stage 1 debate, I highlighted the evidence that the committee received as part of its scrutiny of the bill. That evidence demonstrated clearly that scrapping the graduate endowment will have little impact on access to higher education; will do nothing to ease the financial hardship of students who are currently studying at university; and will do little to raise the aspirations of young people who are currently being left behind.

Scrapping the endowment will be of no benefit to part-time students either. If anything, it will worsen the situation and widen the gap between full-time and part-time students.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Does the member welcome the £38 million package of support for moving from loans to grants to help the part-time students to whom she refers?

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour

Of course any help for part-time students is welcome, but the reality is that part-time students will still pay fees after today. The bill does absolutely nothing to help such students, many of whom come from constituencies such as mine and need the most help.

If we are to ensure that in 21st century Scotland higher education is something to which all our young people can aspire, we need, as a matter of urgency, to consider ways of opening up higher education to all Scotland's young people, whatever their background. We need a strategy for widening access that begins in the early years and continues throughout school and beyond to raise not only attainment and achievement but aspirations.

As a recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report highlights, differences do not emerge only at age 16, when young people decide whether they will go on to higher education or into the world of work; significant differences can appear even before children have reached two years of age. Despite progress in recent years, the gap continues to widen when young people enter secondary school. Those who fall behind tend to stay behind. That affects not only the young person's chance of going to college or university, but their future life chances, confidence, employment prospects, health and even the opportunities that will be available to their children.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

I am anxious to discover from the various parties how they approach the issue of higher education philosophically. The member has given me the impression that if people do not go to university they can just lie down and die—I did not.

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour

I did not mean that at all. I do not think that university is for everyone, nor should it be if they do not choose to go. My point is that many young people in my constituency should be encouraged and supported in going to university if they want to do so. I still think that, at the moment, they do not get that opportunity or support.

That is why we need a strategy that addresses the gaps at every stage of the education system, to ensure that every young person can fulfil their potential and has the opportunity to succeed. The Government's proposals to scrap the graduate endowment will do little to address the vital issue. Rather than improving access, it will hit students from the most deprived backgrounds hardest. I fully support the intentions of the Government's bill, but it will do nothing to deliver its stated goal.

In evidence to the committee, Fiona Hyslop highlighted a quotation from a student who said that although she had enjoyed being at university, she did not have enough money to continue. The proposals in the bill will do nothing to help that individual. There are real problems with the proposals. That is why the Labour amendment, which calls for an independent commission, is important. I urge colleagues to support our amendment, which would enable us to look at the bigger picture and to develop a strategy to ensure that Scotland's universities are properly funded, that higher education is open and accessible to all—if people choose it—and that now and in the future Scotland's students receive the support and funding that they deserve.

Photo of Bill Wilson Bill Wilson Scottish National Party 3:51 pm, 28th February 2008

Education, education, education", Tony Blair assured us. What he meant was: education if someone is from a wealthy family; education if they can pay their fees; education that is free for members of the Scottish Parliament and members of Parliament, but not for students living under a Labour Government. That final point highlights the hypocrisy of the right-wing political parties—of the right-wing Tory-new Labour alliance. Tory and Labour MSPs in the chamber benefited from free education, but new Labour—or, should I say, the new tartan Tories—now seeks to deny others that benefit.

Photo of Bill Wilson Bill Wilson Scottish National Party

Not at this point, thanks.

Free education is a benefit that I enjoyed. As I come from a working-class family and a low-income background, I can honestly say that I am not certain that I would have gone to university had I been faced with the debts that were imposed on students by new Labour policies. I certainly would not have chosen to study the environmental sciences, because that does not generate the income that is required to pay off the debts created by fees and loans.

When I look at the debts that many students must incur, I wonder how many of my old friends could have stayed in the environmental sciences. Many of my friends took undergraduate degrees and postgraduate degrees before they went on to work in research or for environmental charities or to run nature reserves. Most of them were rather poorly paid. Many of my old colleagues never achieved the median wage—never mind the average wage—but they contributed greatly to society. Society cannot do without such contributions. However, under new Labour, students who wish to take that route—those who sacrifice earnings to contribute to society—become the sacrificial victims of new Labour fees and new Labour loans. No doubt we will hear words from some, perhaps from Richard Baker—the same member who, in 1999, assured The Herald that he was in favour of abolishing graduate endowment fees—who will argue that we need the endowments to pay for bursaries for poor students.

Photo of Bill Wilson Bill Wilson Scottish National Party

I will let Richard Baker in shortly.

We can easily discard such arguments. One has only to look at the performance of new Labour in Government to see how contemptible such promises are. The United States 2005 report into global higher education placed the UK 14th out of 16 developed nations for student support. New Labour provided exceptionally low levels of support when it came to helping students. In respect of the affordability of higher education, the UK was again placed 14th out of the 16 developed nations examined. New Labour has made Scotland and England among the most expensive places in the world in which to attend university. The graduate endowment is one more new Labour barrier to education. Two thirds of students add the endowment to their student debt. Student debt is increased by an average of 20 per cent to pay new Labour's new tartan Tory endowment fees.

Photo of Bill Wilson Bill Wilson Scottish National Party

I mentioned Richard Baker, so I will let him in now if he wants.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

I supported the establishment of the endowment as a student president, because it meant the introduction of bursaries. I was consistent on that for seven years—the SNP was not consistent for seven months on the abolition of graduate debt. If there is a more generous bursary, surely students will get into less debt. Does Bill Wilson not accept that?

Photo of Bill Wilson Bill Wilson Scottish National Party

That argument is bizarre. It is ludicrous to say that if we give students more generous bursaries, we should hit them with a £2,300-odd fee. New Labour is launching on to students debts that they should not have. It is a principle—remember that word? Perhaps new Labour has forgotten it.

The hypocrisy of the new Labour argument is revealed in the figures that I mentioned, which also reveal the failure of new Labour to support education. New Labour's right-wing credentials are also revealed in the figures. That is not the end of the dishonesty in the arguments from the right-wing, new Labour-Tory alliance. If those who imposed student fees—laughably called an endowment—really cared about inequality of access to education, they would have tackled that inequality. How do we know whether previous Governments tackled inequality? The answer is easy. The gap in attendance at universities between those from poor areas and those from wealthy areas would have vanished. How do we know that Labour did not tackle inequalities in access to higher education? Again, the answer is easy. The gap in attendance between those from poor areas and those from wealthy areas has certainly not vanished. If a person is born in a deprived area on any part of these islands, they are less likely to attend a higher education institution. What clearer condemnation of new Labour's claims could there be?

Photo of Bill Wilson Bill Wilson Scottish National Party

No. I do not have much time. Perhaps I will give way later.

In the eight years of new Labour in Scotland and the years for which it has been in power in the UK, there has been a complete and utter failure to break education barriers for poorer students. New Labour has used fees and loans to push students deeper into debt and to deny a place in higher education to students from the poorest backgrounds. Enough is enough. Unlike new Labour, the Scottish National Party is committed to social justice and believes that a person's social background should not determine their access to higher education. That is why the SNP is abolishing the graduate endowment and why it will deliver on student grants. It will do so because it is committed to a fair and just society and equal access to education for all.

If most Scots or MSPs were asked what Scots can be most proud of and what marks us out above all else, I believe that they would say "Education." Scotland was the first nation to introduce comprehensive education. It had four universities by 1583 and free education for 100 years. What became of that proud heritage? It was squandered by new Labour and the first two Scottish Executives. A hundred years of free education was replaced by education for a price, and 100 years of access for all was replaced by education for the wealthy. A hundred years of principle was abandoned by new Labour.

Today we can reclaim the proud traditions of Scotland and return to the fundamental principles of free education. We are all Jock Tamson's bairns. Regardless of status, wealth or birth, we all have a fundamental right to free education. I urge all members, especially those who have benefited from a free education, to ensure that that benefit is returned to all Scotland's people. I support the abolition of the graduate endowment.

Photo of David Whitton David Whitton Labour 3:57 pm, 28th February 2008

I do not know how many years Mr Wilson laboured for at university, but it strikes me that a poor investment was involved.

On the way to Parliament today, I met a group of University of Strathclyde students who were handing out leaflets. Those leaflets said that we should vote yes to abolish the graduate endowment. They added that the tax is one of the biggest barriers to students entering higher education. Whatever the graduate tax is, it is not the biggest barrier to any youngster entering higher education. I also heard a student representative saying on the radio this morning that most students did not even realise that they had to pay the graduate endowment, and that it was just another sum of money that was included in their overall debt.

There is no doubt that the graduate endowment fee has had a bad press. Members have heard why it was introduced, but it is probably worth reminding ourselves why that was done and what it tried to achieve. The endowment was to be paid after graduation and after the student got a job at a given salary level. The money that was raised was specifically meant to pay for bursaries for students from poorer backgrounds, whom Mr Wilson does so much to support. Indeed, Labour increased the young students bursary in the years between 2004 and 2007 by almost 17 per cent, which was well above the rate of inflation. That increase was accompanied by a steep increase in the family income ceiling for determining eligibility for the maximum bursary, which rose from £10,740 to £18,360. That led to an increase of 8,000 in the number of students who qualified for that assistance, and took the number who qualified to more than 20,000.

Photo of David Whitton David Whitton Labour

No.

The most recent statistics show that under 12 per cent of school leavers from Scotland's most deprived areas are entering higher education, compared with 53 per cent of school leavers from our least deprived areas doing so. It is clear that a lot of work still has to be done to create a more level playing field in the interests of social justice. Labour was doing that.

Let us consider what the SNP said prior to last year's elections. Its manifesto proclaimed:

"it's time to dump student debt."

That was a catchy phrase, and I am sure that it persuaded many students and even their parents—who, in most cases, end up at least sharing the debt burden—to vote for the SNP. However, there was a different story, as there was for much of the rest of its manifesto, once the SNP got into office.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party

The member has painted a rosy picture of the graduate endowment and all its benefits. Are there any circumstances in which he would vote this afternoon to preserve the endowment?

Photo of David Whitton David Whitton Labour

The graduate endowment will stay unless we get the commission.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

Will the member clarify something for me? Am I correct in thinking that the motion says that the graduate endowment will go, and that Labour's amendment merely adds a measure to that?

Photo of David Whitton David Whitton Labour

Yes, that is correct.

It did not take long for the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth, John Swinney, to announce that, instead of dumping student debt, he was dumping the promise. To try and maintain some semblance of credibility with Scotland's students, the SNP has opted to get rid of the graduate endowment.

Labour members believe that the more important issue is widening access and providing financial support to students during their time at university and college. That is why I support the amendment in the name of my colleague Rhona Brankin, which calls on the Executive both to develop a system of student funding that provides sufficient financial support to students while they study, and to establish an independent commission to consider further and higher education, with a remit that includes consideration of their structures and future funding. It is not only students who are suffering under this SNP Government: the very institutions that the students attend are facing cuts in real terms to their financial support.

However the SNP and its spokespeople want to portray things, there is a reduction of £5 million for the year 2008-09. No wonder places such as the University of Dundee have announced job cuts. More may follow elsewhere. That is why Labour's call for a commission—to consider funding for universities and, more important, funding to deal with student hardship—should be supported.

Photo of David Whitton David Whitton Labour

Not yet.

I am surprised that SNP members are not supporting us, because the SNP said in its 2003 manifesto:

"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".

A lot has changed.

I find it incredible that Liberal members also refuse to support Labour's amendment. They are members of the party that, time and again, has raised questions on university finance in this chamber. During the debates on the spending review, those members made claims about inadequate funding, but now, when they can actually vote for something that could investigate the issues, they will sit on their hands. How typically Liberal—a complete refusal to take any responsibility for anything. Let us not forget that it was the party's leader, Nicol Stephen, who raised the issue of redundancies at the University of Dundee with the First Minister. What will he say in Dundee now? As someone who comes from that city, I have a fair idea of what they might say to him, but I would be accused of unparliamentary language if I repeated it.

Labour introduced the education maintenance allowance to provide financial support to pupils from low-income families to enable them to stay on at school beyond 16. Almost 30,000 youngsters benefited, many of whom went on to university or college. The SNP is taking 20 per cent out of that budget, so fewer youngsters will get the support. It is safe to assume that fewer people from less well-off backgrounds will find their way into higher education. So much for social justice, SNP style.

The SNP refuses to increase student bursaries beyond the level of inflation. We have heard that the current maximum funding available to students through grants and loans is £4,000. It will soon be £6,000 in the rest of the United Kingdom, and the National Union of Students would like to see a level of £7,000. Coincidentally, that is about the same as the average cost of annual school fees in the private sector, which I read about this morning. While people who have always been able to afford to pay for their education carry on as normal, the SNP does nothing for youngsters who are not born with a silver spoon in their mouths.

This Government is not doing enough to support students; it is not doing enough to support universities; and—as is clear from its actions—it is not doing enough to help Scotland's education system to keep pace with the rest of the UK, never mind the rest of the world.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat 4:04 pm, 28th February 2008

I am pleased that we are debating a party policy of the Liberal Democrats—the abolition of the graduate endowment—that was hard fought for at the election. As I have said before—during the stage 1 debate and earlier than that—the issue of the graduate endowment is unfinished business. As the SNP and Tories have discovered in the course of their budget negotiations together, coalitions between political parties invariably involve compromise. There is no question but that the introduction of the graduate endowment was a compromise between two political parties with very different views on education.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

In a moment.

The Liberal Democrats believe in the principle of free education. The Labour Party clearly demonstrated that difference between us when, in one of its first acts, Tony Blair's Government introduced tuition fees and scrapped student grants. The Labour Party does not believe in the concept of free education for all, and its opposition to that principle continues in the chamber today. Therefore, the introduction of the graduate endowment was, inevitably, a compromise.

I am proud, however, of the role that the Liberal Democrats played in abolishing tuition fees in Scotland. Since we did so, Scottish students have been paying £2,000 at the end of their studies instead of £9,000. If I was a student, I know which I would prefer to pay.

As I mentioned, the abolition of the graduate endowment was included in our election manifesto last May. It was, of course, also in the SNP's manifesto. It must be fantastic for SNP MSPs to be here today to deliver one of their manifesto commitments. I congratulate them on that, as they have failed to deliver on a range of other issues in their manifesto, such as reducing class sizes, providing 1,000 extra police officers, building new schools—I could go on and on, but I will not.

As well as promising to abolish the graduate endowment, the SNP manifesto said:

"We will remove the burden of debt repayments owed by Scottish domiciled and resident graduates."

It is very clear on that point.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

Does the member agree that the burden of debt on students was created by the Labour Government between 1997 and today? Student debt prior to the election of Tony Blair's Government was never a big issue—it was Labour that plunged students into dire poverty.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

As so often, Alex Neil makes a pertinent intervention. When that particular promise from the SNP manifesto—to dump our student debt—will be delivered, I do not know; I have a feeling that I will wait a long time for a specific commitment to an actual debate. I know that the minister has been writing to students to say that there is no majority in the chamber to do that, and that the Government will therefore not bring anything forward. Why does it not test the chamber? I would be delighted to be able to vote for a bill that abolished student debt—the Government should bring it on. It is a bit disingenuous of the Government to say that that cannot be done, when it has never been tested in the chamber. I will be interested to hear what the cabinet secretary says about that when she sums up.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

Not having a majority, and therefore not testing it, was precisely the reason that the Liberal Democrats gave for not supporting my bill on proportional representation by single transferable vote when it came to the chamber in 2002.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Does the member not realise that we have proportional representation, and the single transferable vote? That is why we delivered it, and that is why there are Liberal Democrats in one third of the administrations of local councils throughout Scotland. Once more, I thank an SNP member for a pertinent intervention.

I am very pleased—I am laughing, as it is a good news day for our students and for everybody who is involved with this—that we are ready to scrap the graduate endowment.

I turn to the Tories. Having been attacked for years by the Conservatives for introducing the endowment in return for abolishing fees, we find it slightly galling that they will vote today to retain it. However, I can assure them that I am only too happy to point out to my constituents in West Aberdeenshire the Conservatives' position on this issue—

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

In a moment.

I am only too happy to point out to graduates who already find themselves with thousands of pounds of debt when they leave university that the Conservatives support this additional burden. The Conservatives' position is completely bizarre. They are in favour of cutting taxes by cutting business rates—

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

I will let the member respond in a moment.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

The member has one minute left.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

The Conservatives are in favour of cutting taxes by cutting business rates—and they want more business rates cuts, and again, and faster—but when it comes to cutting taxes on our students, they say, "Oh no—it will affect other budgets and should not be done". Murdo Fraser has just said that. I think that our young people have got the measure of the Conservatives—the Tories are just not interested in them.

I happily give way to the Tories.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

Please be brief, Mr Fraser.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I will be brief, Presiding Officer.

Is Mr Rumbles, as a unionist, not concerned about the dangerous game that he is playing today in propping up the SNP Government?

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

Mr Rumbles, you should be finishing now.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

I came to the Parliament having been elected on a manifesto. I hope that the SNP will implement its manifesto promises as well.

The argument that students should pay for education because they will earn more in later years is simply ridiculous. We already have a system that ensures that those who earn more contribute more. It is called income tax. The Labour Party should remember that.

There can be no doubt that the graduate endowment is a barrier and a disincentive to those who wish to go into higher education. Access to higher education must be based on the ability to learn and not on the ability to pay. I will therefore take pleasure in voting for the abolition of the graduate endowment.

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party 4:10 pm, 28th February 2008

I am sure that Jeremy Purvis, Mike Rumbles and my other Liberal Democrat colleagues are delighted that, today, at last, the removal of tuition fees for Scottish students is truly non-negotiable. I am also sure that the Conservatives will welcome the opportunity to remove an education tax from the shoulders of Scotland's students.

There are long-running debates about funding of students through higher education, but we can be fairly certain that student poverty and graduate debt have a negative effect on our country. Gurjit Singh, who is president of the University of Strathclyde Students Association, laid out the case by saying:

"Students are facing spiralling levels of debt and immense hardship, and the graduate endowment only adds to this burden."

I am delighted that David Whitton confirmed that in his speech.

Gurjit Singh's view is representative of the opinion of students the length and breadth of the country who support the bill and who asked us to end the graduate endowment. He also said:

"Today's vote will be an important milestone in making sure Scotland has an education system that is accessible to all."

That is what we are looking for. The principle that underpins the SNP's policy on education is that access to education should—it has been said already today, but I say it again—be based on the ability to learn and not the ability to pay. Education should be free at the point of delivery.

We all pay for education in our contributions through the tax system, but we have to consider reducing the massive burden of debt that our graduates carry. At present, they leave university with debts that hamper their life chances and make it more difficult to start a family, buy a house and get on with their careers. As Keith Brown said, 20 per cent of their debt is due to the graduate endowment.

Removing the graduate endowment tuition fee will not, in itself, address all the issues around student poverty and graduate debt, but it is the first step. As Fiona Hyslop said, it is "a down payment" on the duty that we all have to improve the education system in Scotland and open up life chances for all.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

Is the member disappointed by her party's failure to dump student debt?

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party

I am not disappointed at all today—I am delighted to be standing here. I believe that Rhona Brankin is trying to engage me in a battle of wits, but I will not go into combat with someone who is unarmed. I remember the days during the Thatcher years when Labour campaigned for grants instead of loans. Labour has lost its principles.

The NUS's support for the SNP's policy might have been predicted, but the support of lecturers, through the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, is pleasing. The ATL noted that the SNP has moved swiftly to deliver on its manifesto promise to reduce student debt—another promise delivered. Edinburgh College of Art pointed out that the abolition of the graduate endowment will make it easier to attract students from less affluent backgrounds and will therefore help to level the playing field. I am sure that that widening of access is an important touchstone for us all.

Opening up education opportunities for all is an important contribution to Scotland's future. A well-educated and highly skilled workforce will be Scotland's best economic weapon in the future and, indeed, is needed now. The more members of our population we can get through the system, the better served our country will be.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

The member said that the more members of our population we can get through the system—I presume she means the higher education system—the better. Does she believe that higher education and further education must be structured as they are just now and that the students in both sectors must be supported as they are just now?

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party

I think that Margo MacDonald knows the answer to that question. The matter is already being examined.

The Coalition of Higher Education Students in Scotland is also clear about the effect of the removal of this barrier. CHESS says that

"for a working class family it"—

"it" is attending University—

"becomes a question of economics; 'can I afford it? Do I want to spend the rest of my working life trying to clear debts incurred because I chose to study?'"

In other words, the choice for potential students from poorer backgrounds is stark, and the fear of debt can be enough to persuade them that further study is not an appropriate route.

We have seen unprecedented levels of support for the bill—the students demonstrated that today—and we cannot but be persuaded that it is in the best interests of the people of Scotland that we return to fees-free education. The universities are behind the bill, too. Napier University went as far as to point out that the abolition of the graduate endowment would aid the welfare of students. The Association of Scottish Colleges welcomed the bill, as did the Educational Institute of Scotland, which argued a case with which I agree.

The bill is the first step. I am confident that the Scottish Government intends to deliver more in due course and that it has every intention of moving towards a system that allows participation in further and higher education for everyone who wants it and can benefit from that learning. The SNP believes in providing education opportunities from the cradle to the grave and in ensuring that those opportunities are open to all.

The benefits of education for individuals and for our society far outweigh the cost of education. We are constantly reminded about the economic benefits of education—the increased earning potential that it provides for individuals and for our nation, which brings greater taxation returns that pay for the education. We should also bear in mind the improved self-esteem of a successful learner, the improvement in public awareness and the greater engagement in public life that come with learning. We should be doing everything in our power to increase and widen access to education, to improve the educational experience and to bring the benefits of education to us all.

The graduate endowment tuition fee has failed completely to serve Scotland's students and potential students. It is time for it to go.

Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour 4:17 pm, 28th February 2008

When I speak in the chamber, I usually—as many members do—welcome the opportunity to do so. Whether I agree with the motion or oppose it, it is always good to hear other members' views in a democratic chamber. Today, however, I have little enthusiasm for the debate because it is a sop—a fraud. It is a nod in the direction of students who were cruelly misled by the SNP prior to the May 2007 elections. Students were told by the SNP that it would "dump the debt". Despite many warnings that were given by many people that that would cost millions of pounds that the Government could not afford, it brushed aside all protests. The reality is that the SNP is scrapping a graduate endowment that does nothing for student hardship because it is not paid until the students are in employment.

The only thing I can say in favour of the bill is that it is a piece of legislation—and we are here to legislate. Some members might say that there was too much legislation in the past, but that was because there was—I suggest that there still is—much that we have to do. However, the Government's approach of avoiding legislating while, at the same time, calling for additional powers for Parliament is nonsense.

So, what would be better than today's debate? It would be to face up to the two big issues that we really face: first, the need to widen access by addressing student hardship; and, secondly, university funding. I will start with the need to widen access. Abolition of the graduate endowment will not, in itself, widen access—even the cabinet secretary has accepted that today. I am glad that the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee accepted Labour's amendment at stage 2, which requires the Government to publish an annual report detailing how the policy has contributed to widening access. I suspect, however, that we will be disappointed.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

The Education (Graduate Endowment and Student Support) (Scotland) Act 2001 had as a stated up-front policy intention the widening of access to, and participation in, university for people from poorer backgrounds. On the basis that that has not happened, does the member agree that the 2001 act has clearly failed?

Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour

The graduate endowment allowed us to provide bursaries and, as the cabinet secretary well knows, there has been an increase in student numbers, so what she is saying is not true. The most recent statistics on the destinations of Scottish school leavers note that just under 12 per cent of leavers from the most deprived areas enter higher education, compared with more than 53 per cent of those who come from the least deprived areas. It is foolishly optimistic to think that removing the graduate endowment from a larger debt burden that will not be paid until the graduate is working will address that huge gap.

I understand that students say that they fear debt and that it might put them off becoming students.

Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour

I will give way in a moment.

There might be some members for whom this is not true, but I suggest that, for most of us, debt is a part of our adult lives. It is a problem if we have no income to pay it, which is why the graduate endowment was only to be paid when there was an income out of which it could be paid.

The biggest financial problems for students are their living costs—paying rent, buying food and heating their properties. Abolition of the graduate endowment does not tackle those problems, but providing more bursaries at a higher rate would, and that is what we should be discussing this afternoon.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

The Cubie committee report recommended that the point at which people should pay the endowment should be £23,000, which is what I was earning at the time as a teacher with 37 years in the profession. In other words, repayment was some distance in time from leaving university, which would allow people to establish themselves before they had to pay back the debt. Why did the Government of the time reduce that limit by 50 per cent, thereby bringing almost everyone who left university immediately to the point where they had to pay it back?

Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour

If Mr Harper remembers, we raised the threshold. If the debt is delayed, people will get other burdens and responsibilities. There are pros and cons and they would have to be resolved.

It would be wrong to think that widening access is just about money. There is clearly a cultural issue. Some people do not believe that university is for them. Abolition of the graduate endowment does not tackle that.

I am running out of time to raise the issue of university funding. By establishing a commission, we could consider several issues, including student hardship and how we fund our universities. We are already coming under pressure because, around the world—not just in England—investment in universities is increasing and we seem to be unable to respond to that. The figures that the Scottish Government included in its budget settlement for university funding show that it is half-hearted about it.

Do we just ignore the challenges, as the SNP Government appears to be doing? The Labour proposal for a commission is a positive way forward. What does the SNP fear from a commission? Other cabinet secretaries seem to be happy to introduce independent bodies, for example, to review our health service—I see that Shona Robison is in the chamber—and there does not seem to be a problem with that. However, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning seems to fear such a commission that would consider widening access, student hardship and university funding. I hope that she will change her mind and vote to support the Labour amendment.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green 4:23 pm, 28th February 2008

Like the SNP and Liberal Democrats, the Green party believes in free education. I support the Liberal Democrat amendment and the motion to abolish the graduate endowment.

I have been lobbied by students who wish to see the graduate endowment abolished, but I have received no lobbying on the Labour and Conservative proposals. Whether they came too late for overall discussion or whether their students are simply not interested in lobbying me on the issue, I do not know. As I will not be voting for them, I do not particularly care.

The Green party believes in parity of esteem for all young people who enter further and higher education. In a quiet way, Margo MacDonald made the same point. The Green party's basic income scheme would provide parity of esteem because, on attaining the age of 16, all young people would qualify for a basic income that would allow them to opt for part-time education. Such a scheme would also allow people to receive the same level of support if they were to return to university or college education as mature students at any time in their lives.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

The member makes an important point. Because an increasing number of part-time students are taking higher education courses at colleges, we have moved quickly to equalise the system by ensuring that they do not have to take out loans to pay their fees. That will not happen overnight, but it is on the horizon and I have discussed the matter with students. Only last week, I met 30 college principals to discuss the future of the college sector in that regard.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

I thank the cabinet secretary for her intervention.

I turn to the Labour and Conservative amendments. This is not the right time—as has been explained—to set up an alternative to the discussion that is already taking place between the Government and the universities. I hope that that direct relationship will lead fairly rapidly to solutions that take us forward.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

I want to finish the point that I am making. The proposed commission could take up to two years to report and its conclusions could be ignored totally by the Government, as happened with the principal conclusion of the Cubie committee, on the point at which debt should be repaid. The establishment of a commission would simply delay matters.

We must address as a matter of urgency the problems of student debt, student funding and the funding of our universities; the quicker we get on with doing so, the better. I see the Labour and Conservative amendments as delaying tactics—perhaps not intentionally so, but delay would be the unintended consequence of establishing a commission.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

The member has voiced concerns about the timing of the proposed commission's work. However, that need not be a problem if Parliament were to say that the commission must report within the timescale that is set out in the Conservative amendment.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

I still think that the proposal is not productive and could turn out not to be the best use of everyone's time. A process is already under way and, hopefully, it will come up with some answers. Why should we interrupt that with a new process?

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

Mr Harper is rector of that fine institution, the University of Aberdeen, of which I am an alumnus. Does he share my concern that the process that has already been established and that he described does not allow the voices of students and lecturers to be heard? The only voices that are being heard are those of university principals. Would it not make sense for us to support a wider review to allow other voices to be heard?

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

I have some sympathy with Murdo Fraser's observations on the need for us to listen to students and university staff. However, the current process does not preclude the Government listening directly to students and university staff. I hope that the cabinet secretary will say whether she intends in due course to initiate a similar process with students and university staff, as would be wise and proper.

Perhaps I should have declared an interest as rector of the University of Aberdeen. However, I have not been lobbied directly by the university's students or staff—or by the principal—so I have felt myself free to say what I like in today's debate.

The fact that there has not been much time for people to respond to the Conservatives' proposal is one of my principal concerns about the Tory amendment. The Conservatives have given us pretty short notice. They should have been campaigning on their proposal for months beforehand to give people time to respond.

I thank the Government for introducing the bill, which I hope Parliament will pass.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

We now move to wind-up speeches.

Photo of Hugh O'Donnell Hugh O'Donnell Liberal Democrat 4:30 pm, 28th February 2008

Much of what has been said today has been a rehash of the stage 1 debate. To that extent, the debate has felt a little bit like groundhog day.

I should first declare an interest. Upon being elected to Parliament, I think that one of the first pieces of correspondence that I received was a letter from the Student Loans Company requesting that I start repaying my current student debt. Therefore, I have first-hand experience of the issue that we are debating.

For the Liberal Democrats, the debate on student finance goes well beyond the measure that we are considering today. As my colleague Jeremy Purvis said, we believe that the Government needs to give a commitment to provide a minimum student income. That is why we have lodged our amendment. Such a guarantee is fundamental to ensuring that quick progress is made on the widening access agenda, to which every party has signed up.

The need for quick progress is the key difficulty that the Liberal Democrats have with the Labour and Conservative amendments. All too often, commissions are simply mechanisms—all Governments have been guilty of using them—for kicking issues into the long grass. Liberal Democrats believe that our students are already under excessive pressure because of the need to balance study and work, which many require to do almost full time in order to make a living. The sooner we make progress, the better.

The abolition of the endowment fee is not a bad thing in itself—far from it. Indeed, its abolition was a Liberal Democrat manifesto commitment. We costed our manifesto proposals as a whole package. Rather than simply tinker around the edges of student finance, we wanted—and continue to want—to consider the wider issues such as housing costs, living costs and student income as a whole. To that end, our manifesto commitment is reflected in the amendment in the name of Jeremy Purvis.

On its own, the bill will have limited impact on the widening access agenda. Fewer than 50 per cent of students currently pay the graduate endowment fee in any case, but the fee is only a small part of the burden on students. As other members have said, we must scotch the myth that such education is completely free. We have received assurances from the cabinet secretary in relation to part-time students. I look forward to further support for them, but issues remain about people who study for second degrees and those who have come to Scotland from elsewhere in the UK. Such students, who will not be affected by the bill, will still be liable to pay something in the order of £2,700 a year in fees.

Strong evidence suggests that debt worries are a disincentive to studying. Students from less affluent backgrounds are likely to incur far higher levels of debt because their parents lack the ability to provide additional support—they have a smaller bank of mum and dad. Parental contribution to student maintenance costs varies markedly by social class. Most students from semi-skilled and unskilled backgrounds desperately rely on bursaries, grants or loans. In that regard, such students will be disappointed that—yet again—the SNP Government has not completely fulfilled its manifesto commitment to dump student debt. I fully acknowledge that the bill is a small step in that direction, but to take only baby steps in dealing with a problem on such a scale is far from acceptable.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that there is a sense of fear among young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are deterred from entering full-time education. In a previous existence, when I taught in FE, I found that that was a barrier even at FE level. That sense of fear results in a continuing cycle of economic hardship in those communities. If people do not recognise the opportunity that full-time education offers or are frightened by the prospect of stepping outside their comfort zones, they will not create role models or have the opportunity to see their peer group progress, which is not good for improving the outcomes for those poorer communities to which previous speakers have referred.

The Liberal Democrats welcome the removal of the graduate endowment fee from the debt burden on our students, but we will continue to press the Government hard to meaningfully address student debt and student support as a whole and, more specifically, the development of a minimum income guarantee for Scotland's students, which we request in our amendment.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative 4:36 pm, 28th February 2008

At 5 o'clock, members will face a stark choice. They can either show courage, by standing up and confronting the difficult task of delivering the long-term sustainable future of our universities and colleges—to which Margo MacDonald alluded—without which Scotland cannot retain the standards of excellence for which she is renowned and which the students in the public gallery represent, or they can show timidity, by opting to merely tinker at the edges and deliver nothing but more headaches for the years ahead.

This debate is one of the most important to come to Parliament in recent times. It is important not just because the Government chose to make the abolition of the graduate endowment a flagship policy, but because, in doing so, it has, perhaps unwittingly at times, sparked off—not just in the Parliament—one of the most vigorous and passionate debates about the future of our university and college structure.

Let me again put firmly on the record that it is our belief—and, I believe, that of at least one other party in the Parliament—that we have no less than a moral obligation to Scotland and to our future generations to ensure that that wider debate takes centre stage.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I appreciate the sincerity with which the member makes her point, but would she be satisfied with an independent review that reported at the end of 2009 but which had not received the Government's response, had not engaged with staff and students to come up with policy solutions and which arrived after the next spending review was published? Do we not have an obligation to move quickly to develop the bold and radical thinking that we need in this area?

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I will be happy when there is a moral obligation to examine from all angles how to achieve a sustainable future for our universities and colleges, not just for the next few years but for decades ahead. Such a moral obligation seemed to appeal to the Liberals on 8 October 2007, when Jeremy Purvis said that unless we got a clear commitment from the Government to meet in full the Universities Scotland recommendation, Scotland would sleepwalk into an uncompetitive higher education sector, with potentially disastrous long-term implications for the Scottish economy.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

I am grateful to Elizabeth Smith for highlighting the Liberal Democrats' consistency in stating the importance of the higher education sector. We were the only party that said during the election campaign that we would meet the sector's funding in full.

Was the member as surprised as I was when, after the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee had reached its unanimous conclusions on the need for additional support for the sector, the proposals were voted down by her colleagues on the Finance Committee?

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I am grateful for Mr Purvis's intervention. What I find extraordinary about the Liberal Democrats' position and cannot understand is why they cannot agree to the Labour and Conservative amendments that are on the table, which not only agree with the SNP on the abolition of the graduate endowment fee but propose a future independent inquiry.

I have listened carefully over many months to what the cabinet secretary has said about the joint future thinking task force on universities. She has claimed that the Graduate Endowment Abolition (Scotland) Bill is only the first step in dealing with student debt. I understand some of her points, but the overall supposition is naive and disingenuous. Before the election, in campaigning around the country, SNP members ingratiated themselves with the student body by making wild promises that they knew they could not keep—promises that would do nothing to secure the long-term future of our colleges and universities. As Jenny Hjul said in The Sunday Times at the weekend, the SNP took a calculated risk in the hope that its policy of underfunding would not upset as many people as would have been the case if the same policy had been directed at hospitals or schools.

What the SNP Government should have done—and what every MSP should do if they really care about the long-term future of colleges and universities—is recognise that the issue requires root-and-branch review to address not only the funding levels that are required to ensure that Scotland can compete on the international stage, university by university and college by college, but how university courses will articulate with the proposed changes in school education and those that may be made to the examination structure.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I agree entirely with the point that Margo MacDonald made earlier.

At committee and in the stage 1 debate, I said that the connection in the debate on the graduate endowment and future funding and structure issues, which the Government persistently chooses to ignore, is simple: the principles and priorities of policy making. That theme was eloquently expounded by Professor Duncan Rice in a recent lecture to the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

There is one simple fact in the debate: the structure and funding of the university and college structure is not built for the 21st century. At 5 o'clock, with the courage of our convictions and minded of the moral obligation about which I spoke earlier, we have the opportunity to deliver on that. We must ensure that the structure and funding is so built. I ask members to dig deep into their consciences and support the Labour amendment and its Conservative addition.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

I call Richard Baker. You have eight minutes, Mr Baker.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour 4:42 pm, 28th February 2008

The debate has to be about what is best for students and our universities and colleges. The abolition of the graduate endowment may provide the SNP with a fig leaf for its failure to fulfil its manifesto promise to abolish all graduate loan debt, but it does not mean one penny more for one more student. The fact is that, under our proposals, students, particularly those from poorer backgrounds, would have seen a significant increase in their bursaries. Under the SNP, they will receive only an inflationary increase in the young students bursary.

Unlike the SNP, which has simply not been honest with the student community, members on this side of the chamber have been consistent on the issue of student funding. We believe that the retention of the endowment would have secured better student support. One crucial reason for doing that is that we must tackle the problem of the drop-out rate at our universities. For students to drop out is a waste of our investment in their education and a waste of an important life chance for them. The previous Executive knew the importance of improving bursaries. It knew that they make the difference between people being able to continue their studies and dropping out.

Indeed, there has been an increase in students from poorer backgrounds dropping out of university over the period.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

In the debate, we have heard talk about the moral obligation on members. Does Richard Baker not feel that there is a moral obligation on Labour MSPs—as there is on Tory MSPs—to address the issue of our young people having to set out on their start in life with huge levels of debt?

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

The moral obligation is fulfilled by the examination of that very issue in the commission that we have proposed.

The issues that are involved in student support should be examined more widely, which is why we are pleased to endorse the proposal for an independent commission of inquiry into student support and funding for further and higher education. The Scottish Conservatives' amendment will ensure that the inquiry will be undertaken in a tight timescale. The proposed commission will have real teeth and will be truly independent, as the Government will need to agree the full remit and membership with the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee. There is a clear need for such a commission to examine the wider issues, as well as student support. The proposal to abolish the endowment without significantly increasing bursaries is typical of the Government's chaotic and damaging approach to further and higher education funding.

We are already seeing the consequences of the Scottish Government's decision to cut university funding, with the announcement of 100 job cuts at the University of Dundee. That is damaging not only for our universities but for the Scottish economy. The job cuts fly in the face of the Government's economic strategy, particularly when one considers that the University of Dundee has been at the forefront of making Scotland a world leader in biomedical research. The university has helped to attract some £50 million of private investment from Wyeth Pharmaceuticals.

It is disastrous for Scottish universities that English universities will have a funding advantage of 5 per cent when, in the past, we in Scotland had the advantage.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

In a moment.

We face the prospect of losing vital academic expertise to south of the border, particularly given the funding gap for universities next year in meeting previously agreed pay deals.

I will take one final intervention.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party

The member has set out his position on abolition of the graduate endowment. Do his former colleagues in the National Union of Students share his position?

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

My erstwhile university colleagues will remember that I have been consistent on the issue. I will not preach to my successors about what they have said today.

The additional £10 million from the Scottish Government meets only half the £20 million funding gap for previously agreed pay deals, which is a fundamental difficulty. That is why we are pleased that the University and College Union supports the call for an independent commission.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

I am sorry; I do not have time to give way.

Student presidents support the abolition of the endowment, but some believe that a review is also essential, because students want to be properly supported while they study and they want to study at institutions that receive the right funding, so that they can provide an excellent education.

Universities Scotland might be bound into the future thinking task force, which we believe is totally inadequate, and some principals might be reluctant to speak out for fear that a touchy Scottish Government will jump down their throats, but the sector realises that, for the future of Scottish education, which is important to us all, an independent review is essential. That is why Andrew Cubie supports the proposed review.

I understand why the SNP does not want an independent commission to scrutinise its policies on student and institutional funding.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

I am sorry; I cannot.

However, it is extraordinary that the Liberal Democrats, who have attacked the funding settlement week in, week out, and who have argued that there is a crisis that needs to be addressed, have, when given the opportunity today to vote for an independent review to scrutinise and provide solutions to the issues, stood by culpable and supine. Any future criticisms from them on the issues will ring hollow. They stand in the way of consensus today.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

I thank Mr Baker for pointing to the fact that Liberal Democrats have asked why Labour did not accept Universities Scotland's funding bid in full, did not campaign for it and now seeks an independent review that would be a Trojan horse for what Labour wishes to do—use funds raised by the graduate endowment and ring fenced for student support to contribute to revenue funding for universities. That is a graduate poll tax from the Labour Party.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

That is a ludicrous misrepresentation of our position. Like Liberal Democrats, we have campaigned for the funding settlement. However, although the Liberal Democrats say that they have campaigned for that settlement, they have not lodged amendments to that effect. In fact, they have objected to other amendments and moves to increase university funding, so I accept none of the points that Jeremy Purvis made.

We must ask why the SNP is rounding up troops against an independent commission when, as David Whitton said, the SNP's 2003 manifesto said—

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

You should be finishing now.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

I understood that I had eight minutes, Presiding Officer.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

I am sorry; you are absolutely right.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

The manifesto said:

"We will reconvene the Cubie Committee ... The committee will not be restricted in its remit."

What has changed between then and now to make such a review unnecessary? Then, universities had the funding edge and we had increases in bursaries, for which more students were becoming eligible. Now, universities face a funding crisis and we have barely any increase in the bursary. Students from poorer backgrounds in Scotland now have some £2,000 a year less to live on than do their English counterparts.

The arguments for a review are far more compelling now than they were in 2003. Is the SNP's reluctance born of a fear that putting its plans to abolish all student loans before a commission would reveal that, despite its protestations, the SNP always knew that its sums did not add up and had no intention of proceeding with the policy?

There is no doubt that debate in the chamber on the issues is heated, because they are crucial, so there is all the more reason for them to be taken into a context where they can be considered in detail by people with specific expertise—by a body that involves not just the Government and principals, but students and campus unions. That would provide a blueprint for ambition for how we fund our universities and our students.

Along with the Conservatives, we have lodged a reasoned amendment that presents the opportunity to build a consensus and move forward on these vital questions for Scotland's future. Not supporting such a review would not only deny the potential for that consensus but let down our education system, our students and our country.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party 4:49 pm, 28th February 2008

In opening the debate, I tried to dispel some of the myths that surround the graduate endowment fee and to set out our intentions in abolishing it.

I shall address a number of points from the debate, First, I ask Rhona Brankin why the Labour Party is now so desperate to use graduate endowment fees for bursaries, when for years on end previous Labour Administrations did not use the graduate endowment fee for student support—they used it for in-year pressures and loan charges. I do not expect Ms Brankin to answer that, because her contribution showed a clear misunderstanding of the subject.

Karen Whitefield said that she fully supports the intention of the bill. Is that the self-same Karen Whitefield who used her casting vote to try to stop the bill at stage 1? I welcome her conversion. However, David Whitton said that Labour will vote for abolition only if its amendment is passed, and asked whether nothing was gained from the budget process. Labour members are all over the place. Members either support the abolition or they do not.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

No.

Elizabeth Smith said that university funding is an issue of moral conscience. Does she not recognise that, for many members, the principle of free education can be described as such? Some members seem to choose not to recognise the impact that abolishing the fee will have on widening access. To remove any doubt, I shall repeat the basic premise.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

If Labour members had been more receptive to interventions in their speeches, I might have allowed them the opportunity to intervene now.

Debt and the fear of debt are barriers to university access. That has been clearly shown in numerous pieces of research. In fact, two weeks ago, a new study from the Sutton Trust—referred to by Keith Brown—showed the impact that increasing debt in England has had on attempts to widen access.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Let me develop my point.

While university applications in England have increased since the introduction of top-up fees, when we look underneath those figures, as the Sutton Trust has done, we see that opportunities have been reduced for those from the lowest income families. They are forced to stay at home in an attempt to minimise their debts—that is, if they actually go to university in the first place. The study also shows no increase in applications from the lowest income groups and that almost two thirds of students who choose not to go to university cite financial concerns. It is clear that the expensive and complicated system across the border is doing nothing to help those most in need.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

The member replied to my parliamentary question, when I asked how many students from areas of multiple deprivation had entered higher education each year since 1999—

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

Ms Brankin, will you use your microphone? Speak into your microphone.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

Sorry.

The member claims that we have not increased access for poorer students and students from areas of deprivation. However, when she replied to my question—

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I am stuck for time. Can I say to the member, it is absolutely clear—

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

Excuse me. I have not finished my question.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

Minister, will you sit down for one moment? Ms Brankin, I ask you quickly to finish your question.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

I am interested that the minister has a response when she has not heard the question.

In a reply to a question that I asked about access to higher education, we discovered that more students entered higher education in 2006 than in 2002-03. The minister should be consistent.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

It is clear that there has been a reduction in participation in higher education—51 per cent in 2001-02 down to 47 per cent in 2005-06. The graduate endowment fee has failed in its attempt to widen access. It was a stated objective—[ Interruption. ]

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

It was introduced by Labour and the Liberal Democrats and has done nothing to help young people, as funds to provide bursary support have been made available without that income.

As I stated at stages 1 and 2, abolishing the endowment fee will not on its own widen access; it is one part of our commitment. In the budget, we have earmarked an additional £119 million for student support over three years, including £30 million for support in 2010-11. Above that, we have introduced a simpler and fairer income assessment in further and higher education. The Government has not been idle on student support.

It is interesting that the Labour amendment raises the issue of debt. I find it strange that while Labour members are concerned about student debt today, at stage 1 they voted against the principles of the bill—a bill that will reduce the debt burden on the individuals who pay the graduate endowment by more than 20 per cent. If they voted against abolishing 20 per cent of student debt, why should anyone believe that they would support removing the rest of student debt?

The universities do not think that a review of student funding is necessary, and neither does this Government. [Interruption.]

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

Order. Far too many conversations are taking place that could take place outside the chamber.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

We need the opportunity to challenge each other on the key issues affecting the sector. As David Caldwell of Universities Scotland remarked:

"We appreciate that those calling for an independent review are doing so with the best of intentions. However the universities think that the most promising way forward at the present time is through the Joint Future Thinking Taskforce on Universities which has enabled constructive and positive engagement with the Scottish Government."

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

No, thank you.

David Caldwell's view is consistent with that of the president of the NUS, James Alexander, who, as I stated earlier, believes that such a review would create the lethal cocktail of a review of both student support and university funding, which resulted in top-up fees in England.

The task force will report to the HE/FE round table, where colleges, staff unions and student representatives meet as equals.

I agree with Margo MacDonald that we need to have great alignment, collaboration and articulation between the college and university sectors. However, we also need to involve the school sector. As the first minister to have responsibility for schools, colleges and universities, I am determined to take that forward.

I suspect that the Labour and Tory amendments are more about scrambling to find an excuse to perform a volte-face and support the bill—or, perhaps, abstain on it. They are a face-saving exercise for those parties that voted against the principle of the abolition at stage 1. The Liberal Democrat amendment is worthy of more consideration, however. The consultation that we are planning later this year needs to provide a forum where we can have an open and frank dialogue about some of the key principles. I have no problem with widening the scope of that consultation to include the issue of a minimum income guarantee. I am aware that the NUS proposed that before the election, therefore we are content to support the amendment and consider it further during our consultation.

Today, we have the opportunity to support our students by getting rid of this unfair education tax on graduation. I say to Mary Mulligan that abolishing the graduate endowment fee for 50,000 students and graduates is not a sop or a fraud; it is extremely popular. I appeal to all members to do the right thing today and vote in favour of the bill. In voting for it, members will be doing the right thing for our students and their families and providing increased opportunities for future generations of Scottish students. Scotland will, once again, be a country where access to learning is based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay. The principle of free education has served Scotland well in the past, and it will provide new opportunities for young Scots in the future.

I urge all members to support the abolition of the graduate endowment fee.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

I have no option other than to suspend this meeting until 5 o'clock.

Meeting suspended.

On resuming—