Student Fees

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:55 pm on 3rd June 2010.

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Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 2:55 pm, 3rd June 2010

The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-6472, in the name of Michael Russell, on student fees.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party 3:19 pm, 3rd June 2010

It gives me great pleasure to introduce this debate today. It is important that we set out the belief held across the chamber that education is the cornerstone on which this country's social, cultural and economic success was founded, and that it will be our platform to achieving even more in these early years of the 21st century.

Scotland has a long, proud and distinguished educational heritage. We have a healthy curiosity for finding out new things. Scotland is, and always has been, a learning nation. That is exemplified by our long-established commitment to universal school education, our extensive network of colleges and our world-class universities, three of which feature in the world's top 100.

Scotland was the first nation to provide universal primary school education for its children, and we have continued to lead the way on education. Our universities are of the highest standard. They are some of the most successful places in the world to conduct research and deliver knowledge. We have 0.1 per cent of the world's population, but we have 1.8 per cent of the world's university research. Only Switzerland is ranked higher than Scotland in the world in terms of the number of research citations relative to its gross domestic product. Scotland is third in the world for the impact of its research—impact is the coming term in relation to research frameworks. Scotland's international standing is such that almost 50 per cent of university income—an important figure—is derived from competitively won sources.

We have an enviable legacy of invention and discovery, from James Watt right through to Dolly the sheep. At the University of Glasgow, clinicians adapted radar technology to pioneer ultrasound imaging, which is now used worldwide by obstetricians in the care of expectant mothers and their unborn babies.

Again and again, we have innovated and invented. We have asked ourselves the fundamental questions of science and nature, and we have found the answers. We should be proud of that history, but history moves on. We cannot rest on our laurels. We have to keep learning, continue to aspire to achieve excellence and keep innovating, and we have to be aware of what threats to our position, reputation and achievements are on the horizon.

The Government's core purpose demands that we create a successful Scotland with opportunities for all—a place where people want to contribute to increasing their own, and our country's, prosperity. Enabling everyone to participate and benefit in such a society means that we have to ensure that our lifelong learning journey is open, accessible and free from barriers. The Government has done much to widen access to education for our young people and to remove financial barriers. For example, I am proud that we have reintroduced the principle of free higher education in Scotland by abolishing the graduate endowment fee, and I praise those who did that along with us.

However, we are now operating in a tremendously difficult economic environment. It is a situation we neither created nor expected. The Westminster Government has already cut more than £500 million from Scotland's budget for 2010-11. We now know that we will have to make further savings of at least £332 million next year. In his recent report on the outlook for Scottish Government expenditure, our chief economic adviser, Dr Andrew Goudie, predicts that we will not return to real-terms growth for a decade. Clearly, we will have to work even harder at maintaining our strong focus on achieving positive outcomes for the people of this country.

The recession has brought particular challenges for education. Demand for college and university places is rising significantly. However, one should not believe all the newspaper headlines about cuts to funding and student places; still less should one believe those who trumpet those things in the chamber or in the newspapers. Unlike in England, where cuts to university budgets of £449 million for 2010-11 have already been made and where there is now a further reduction of £200 million, we have not imposed any cuts on university funding in 2010-11. In fact, funding for universities is at record levels.

When this Government came into power in May 2007, universities' share of the Scottish budget increased for the first time to more than £1 billion. By 2010-11 this Administration will have invested more than £4 billion in higher education. This year, the resource budget for universities has gone up by more than £40 million, or 2 per cent in real terms. Universities' share of Scottish Government spend remains higher under this Administration than it was under our predecessors.

Our achievements do not stop there. We have provided support for an additional 7,500 higher education students this year and will continue to do so in the next academic year. We have provided a £30 million package to increase the income of more than 75,000 students in the next academic year. We have increased discretionary funds by 17.1 per cent from the £14.04 million that we inherited to £16.44 million for the current academic year.

However, there are challenges ahead, which I will list. In relation to our universities, we cannot hide from what Lord Browne might say in his review of higher education funding and student finance in England, which is due to report by this autumn. It will pose difficult questions for us in Scotland on how we fund our universities and our university students. Any increase in tuition fees in England could lead to a funding gap for Scottish students and institutions, which could have a negative impact in Scotland. We cannot allow that to happen. It is, therefore, vital that we keep the interests of Scotland's higher education sector at the top of our agenda and that, together, we agree an acceptable and sustainable method of funding higher education in the long term.

Some have been calling for an independent review of the way forward for Scottish higher education. I understand that, but I strongly believe that it is not the right approach. I do not want it; more important, university principals do not want it, students do not want it and business leaders do not want it. They have made it clear that they do not want changes to be imposed on them by an independent commission comprised of the great and the good. I know, from my discussions with students, staff, principals and those in industry, among others, that there is strong support for a partnership approach in which those who are most closely involved with higher education work together to develop a unique Scottish solution. I believe we can do that.

We want the brightest and the best from across the higher education sector to be given the opportunity to think creatively about what that unique Scottish approach to sustainable funding for Scottish higher education might be, no matter how radical. In that discussion, only one thing is off the agenda—tuition fees. The Government does not believe that the answer to our future funding issues is tuition fees. I stated publicly this year that the Government will not introduce tuition fees in Scotland, and there has been considerable support from the sector for that. Liam Burns, the president of NUS Scotland, was quoted as saying at the time:

"This will be a relief for many hundreds of thousands of Scottish students studying at university, particularly following a great deal of speculation from university leaders ... I hope this announcement can put to rest the idea of tuition fees ever coming back to Scotland", adding significantly,

"so that we can move the debate on to how we fund our universities in a fair and sustainable way."

That is exactly right.

I am pleased to have recently signed up to the vote for students campaign run by NUS Scotland, pledging to vote against any increase in top-up fees in the rest of the United Kingdom—and I was not alone. I understand that just under 1,500 Westminster parliamentary candidates vowed to do the same, some of whom are in the chamber today.

Looking ahead to how we might meet the challenges, I talk regularly to those who are involved in the provision of higher education learning.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Mr McLetchie is surprised that I do that, but that is a sensible thing for me to do in my role. It is important that we have that dialogue and then move from dialogue to action. That is the process in which we are engaged. The action will follow once we know what the Browne report has to tell us.

I am making my way around Scotland and the sector, talking to, and listening to the views of, students, student leaders, university principals, unions and the entire stakeholder community. I have been accused by some members of holding secret discussions. There is a difference between secret and private. If members want to add their voices to those discussions, let them do so today. I am very open to listening to what members have to say, as long as there is a commitment to that discussion that leads to a collective solution, rather than a simple sloughing-off of the issue on to the great and the good. On 22 June, we will have a student summit at which I will be able to talk to Liam Burns and many of his colleagues about the progress that we have made and what is still to happen.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

Can the cabinet secretary tell us why the Government objects to an independent commission on higher education but is happy to appoint an independent budget review group to give views or guidance on how the resources might be allocated?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Those are two very different tasks. As somebody who supported the independent budget review group, Mr McLetchie will know that the task in Scotland—a small country with only 20 institutions—is for the institutions to bring solutions together to the table and to take ownership of those solutions together. That is far better than having some commission of the great and the good telling the higher education sector what to do. I have found enormous support for that approach in the universities. Any member who supports some sort of commission of the great and the good is going against what the universities themselves believe will work for them, and I do not think that they should do that lightly.

I encourage Mr McLetchie and others to raise their voices on their vision of higher education. I want to hear suggestions for future funding. I want open and constructive debate across all the political parties—even debate from a sedentary position, such as Mr McLetchie is still engaged in. I want a debate that recognises the educational, economic, cultural and social importance of Scottish universities and which produces ideas for a Scottish solution that is based on the Scottish core principles of access and excellence and will maintain the reputation and effectiveness of Scottish higher education in future generations.

We can do that—it is within our grasp if we work together. There are two ground rules: first, we must respect one another's positions and try to work constructively, and, secondly, access to education must be based on the ability to learn and not the ability to pay.

I move,

That the Parliament commends the National Union of Students' student fees pledge on the basis that any rise in fees in England and Wales would be detrimental to the interests of Scottish universities; congratulates those who have signed the pledge, and believes that student top-up fees should have no place in Scotland.

Photo of Claire Baker Claire Baker Labour 3:30 pm, 3rd June 2010

Achieving a secure, sustainable, long-term funding settlement for Scottish universities is an issue that has been lacking direction from the Scottish Government for the past few years. The Government has so far refused to address the challenges and failed to provide a serious response to the pressures that universities face.

The Government motion on the Browne review is a distraction from the real issues that face Scottish universities. Michael Russell is known as a man who has been prepared to grasp the thistle, and he has been in post for long enough now to know that university funding is a particularly prickly one.

The Government motion focuses on decisions that are to be made by the UK Parliament, and regrettably the Liberal amendment does the same. Although that appears to be an attempt to influence the decision in England and Wales, it ignores the political reality of the UK Government. It is for the UK Government to make the decision on where to go following the Browne review—a Government that is dominated by Conservative members who were honest enough not to sign the pledge and supported by the Liberals who, although they signed the pledge and even went as far as bringing forward a plan to scrap fees in their UK manifesto, have now put aside their principles for power.

Although we all recognise that any changes to the fees system in England and Wales may lead to a funding gap for Scottish universities, such a divergence in policy is a reality of devolution that the Scottish Government must deal with. It is true that academics and their research will go where they can access the best departments and work with the best people, but it is a mistake to think that that will happen only within the UK. Departments do not compete only with others in Cambridge or Manchester, but with departments in Boston and Tokyo. We should not narrow the debate to focus only on the impact of decisions that the UK Government has yet to make.

It is not good enough to say that if the cap comes off in England and Wales, Scottish universities will have a problem, or that if that could only be avoided, the Scottish university sector could carry on as before. It is not accurate to suggest—as both the Government motion and the Liberal amendment do—that if only the fees remained the same in England and Wales, Scottish universities would not face severe financial challenges.

We should look at the Scottish National Party's record. In 2007, the comprehensive spending review short-changed Scottish universities, delivering an amount that was far short of what they had argued for in order to remain competitive and play their part in growing the Scottish economy. The Scottish Government's response to the sector's concerns was to establish the joint future thinking task force. That body was criticised for being too exclusive and too narrow in its focus and for not involving students and trade unions, and it was exempt from discussing resources, which was the very issue that had prompted its creation.

During the past few years we have seen real-terms cuts in university funding and increasing pressure on the sector. Scottish students continue to face financial hardship, which impacts on their ability to finish their studies. Redundancies are being announced and there is tremendous pressure on places, with the prospect of talented people being denied the opportunity of a university education.

Although we can identify the Scottish Government decisions that have led to those problems, the Government's real failure has been its reluctance to engage meaningfully in addressing those and future challenges. As we face a future of real economic challenges and a tightening of public spending, the SNP can no longer continue to put its head in the sand.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I am familiar with the Labour litany of gloom, but I want to know how much Claire Baker would spend on universities this year and next, and where the money would come from with regard to other public spending priorities. She has an obligation to tell us that, in light of her speech so far.

Photo of Claire Baker Claire Baker Labour

The very real concerns about the sector, which Michael Russell has identified, are why Labour is calling for an independent review. Those are serious problems that need to be addressed. We agree with the cabinet secretary that the issue should be taken forward on the basis of consensus, but we think that a review would be the best way to achieve that.

On student fees, Labour in Scotland is clear about its record. In the Scottish Parliament, Labour, in coalition with the Liberals, abolished up-front tuition fees, and the political consensus on that exists to this day. Different decisions were made by the United Kingdom Government, but that is devolution. Following the Cubie review, Labour introduced a graduate endowment alongside the young person's bursary. That supported the principle that graduates should make a contribution when they are working to help to ensure that others, especially those from low-income backgrounds, are given the opportunities from which graduates have benefited.

Following the scrapping of the graduate endowment, it became clear that the SNP was not prepared properly to plan for the future financial sustainability of the sector, in respect of both universities and students. Since the SNP came into government, there has been a reluctance to tackle the long-term challenges of future university funding in a way that would maintain Scotland's competitiveness; sustain the level of research excellence that we have been proud of and which is so important to our economy; produce the graduates that are needed to grow the Scottish economy; and continue to extend opportunities to more students while ensuring that students are properly supported and receive a high quality of teaching. We believe that an independent review is the right way forward because we are serious about finding a long-lasting solution to the difficult challenges that the sector faces.

An independent review is not about the great and the good getting together but about being transparent and fair. By involving people in the sector and beyond in the debate, a review would take forward policy based on reason and insight. Crucially, it would build consensus. Given the comments that have been made by Professor Bernard King of Universities Scotland, by NUS leader Liam Burns and by Sir Andrew Cubie, it is clear that the sector wants that debate. I agree with the cabinet secretary that the future of university funding should be about building a consensus. We all need to agree on the continuing, if not growing, importance of the sector, which needs a clear financial route for the future.

Although I welcome the whispers that are coming from the cabinet secretary's office that the current financial situation is not sustainable and that new solutions must be found, I question whether he is going about that in the best way. So far, the Government-led attempt to address university funding challenges through the joint future thinking task force has failed to tackle the big issues but has tiptoed around the debate. Similarly, the Scottish Government tried to control the consultation on "Supporting a Smarter Scotland: A consultation on supporting learners in higher education" by presenting three options, which were then widely rejected. The track record of such Government-led debate is not good.

However, the Government appears to be floating other solutions. It claims to have lots of ideas on university funding but refuses to detail any of them. There is no need for the cabinet secretary to be so shy. He might find that others are willing to take part in the debate. From answers to parliamentary questions, it appears that the cabinet secretary is having a wide-ranging discussion that does not exclude the option of a graduate contribution. I think that the Parliament would appreciate some clarity and transparency on the Government's direction of travel. What is the scope of those considerations and discussions?

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

In the interests of transparency, and in light of the note from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury of the out-going Labour Government that said "there is no money", can the member at least say whether she thinks that university funding should increase or decrease in advance of her proposed review?

Photo of Claire Baker Claire Baker Labour

I have already answered that question. We recognise that the sector is facing serious challenges to which there are no easy solutions. There will be difficult decisions for whoever is in government. However, the best way to achieve a long-term funding solution for the sector is to have an independent review that looks at university funding along with student support.

I imagine that, as the afternoon wears on, members will rehearse some old arguments, but we have already had those debates in Scotland. We abolished up-front tuition fees, and there is a political consensus to keep matters that way. We must now turn our attention to solutions that will provide universities with a secure, long-term financial future that allows them to flourish and which provides a fairer funding model that ensures that students are properly supported while they study.

I move amendment S3M-6472.1, to leave out from "commends" to end and insert:

"supports the continuing political consensus against the introduction of upfront tuition fees in Scotland; recognises the funding challenge facing Scottish universities if they are to remain internationally competitive, continue to achieve research excellence and widen access to higher education, and calls for an independent review of university funding."

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat 3:39 pm, 3rd June 2010

Over the past few weeks, there has been a great deal of talk of Calman—Calman plus, Calman lite and so on—but it is worth remembering what Calman is all about. It is about the powers of this Parliament, and how they can be used for the benefit of Scotland.

Today's debate reminds us of one area in which Scotland has been different from the rest of the United Kingdom and in which we believe that it should continue to be different: student fees and student finance more generally.

Colleagues from across the chamber have helpfully pointed out the views of Liberal Democrats south of the border on the matter, and will no doubt continue to do so. They are quite at liberty to do that but, as far as the Scottish Liberal Democrats are concerned, that is an irrelevance. This is a devolved matter, and the Scottish Liberal Democrats remain committed, as we have been throughout the years of devolution, to the demise of fees—up front, top up, backside foremost or whatever.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats have always been serious about supporting students and funding higher and further education, and our record in government and in opposition is evidence of that. In government, with the Labour Party, we abolished tuition fees, even though London Labour had introduced them and continued to support them. Some might say that the Labour Party agreed to the Liberal Democrats' demands for tuition fees to be abolished so that it could secure power, but I would not be so churlish. We found a Scottish solution, which has meant that nearly 200,000 Scottish students entering Scottish institutions have not paid fees, resulting in a total of £4 billion less debt for Scottish graduates. Meanwhile, English students are likely to have around £18,000 each of tuition debt alone. In opposition, we voted with the present Government for an end to the graduate endowment, and last year we worked with all the other parties to secure an extra £30 million package for student finance.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

It is unlike me to pay tribute to the Liberal Democrats, but what Margaret Smith has said is entirely fair. For the avoidance of doubt, I confirm that I will support her amendment, which gets to the nub of the matter and shows the Liberal Democrats' bona fides. I hope that others in the chamber will be persuaded by her speech.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

I welcome that statement, and am tempted to sit down at this point and say that the job may well be done. However, let me plough on.

Our record proves two things: that we will work with others to deliver change, and that we believe that access to education should be based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay. In our eight years in government, universities and colleges received an average increase of more than 5 per cent a year, and funding reached a record level of £1 billion annually. In our record of action, we have demonstrated our support for poorer students whose backgrounds could prevent them from entering higher education. We know that, with only 14.9 per cent of higher education entrants coming from the most deprived areas, there is still a great deal of work to be done in terms of social mobility in Scotland—that work would be at risk if student fees were to be reintroduced. That is why we cannot follow the route that has been mapped out by the Labour Party and the Conservatives, whom we believe want top-up fees in Scotland.

However, we also understand and recognise that living costs are a major factor in students' accumulation of debt. That is why we have backed the National Union of Students' call for a minimum income guarantee for students, and I am pleased that the Parliament continues to move towards that.

We know that times are tough. Labour's recession has hit hard. However, we want the Scottish Government to work with all the political parties in this chamber and with the UK Government to try to protect, support and enhance our education systems. That is the sensible thing to do today and the smart thing to do for tomorrow.

Although the matter is devolved, we recognise that the findings of the Browne review of higher education funding and student finance in England and Wales, and any subsequent UK actions, will need to be considered by the Scottish Government and this Parliament in due course.

At the moment, funding for Scottish and English universities is roughly comparable, but there are concerns around the possibility that any cuts in university funding in England will lead to consequential cuts here, and it has been suggested that, if English universities charge higher tuition fees or have uncapped tuition fees following the Browne review, a split could emerge in the standards of our institutions and of our teaching between Scotland and the rest of the UK. However, we cannot and should not make substantial assumptions about what changes will be made before the Browne report is even published.

Others might think that they know what the coalition agreement says, but it is worth remembering what it actually says. It states:

"We will await Lord Browne's final report into higher education funding, and will judge its proposals against the need to: increase social mobility; take into account the impact on student debt; ensure a properly funded university sector; improve the quality of teaching; advance scholarship; and attract a higher proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds."

Everyone in this chamber would share all those aspirations with regard to the future of Scottish universities .

The Scottish Government should be ready to respond to whatever decisions are made. It must ensure that it is thorough in its examination of the matter and the potential impact of fee increases in England, and then it and this Parliament must make the right decisions for Scotland .

The cabinet secretary is right to say that there will have to be consultation and possibly some form of green paper. Although we do not yet have much detail about the cabinet secretary's proposal, we believe that the consultation will have to be inclusive not only in terms of its subject matter, so that it can cover the question of fees and the wider issues of student finance and impacts on university services and competitiveness, but in terms of the consultees. On that, Claire Baker was absolutely right. Lessons must be learned from the experience of the joint future thinking task force on universities, from which staff, unions, students and some universities felt very much excluded. The solutions will and must come from inside the Scottish university sector, but the review will have to listen to the views of industry, colleges and other key partners.

We believe in open, accessible and attainable higher education that is available to everyone, regardless of their background. Bringing back tuition fees would be a huge step backwards for Scotland and its students. Scotland has built a consensus against up-front tuition fees and we have shown that we can have a world-class higher education system without them. Let us do all that we can to strengthen that consensus, to build a sustainable way forward and to strengthen Scotland's university sector for the future not only of the sector, but of our country.

I move amendment S3M-6472.2, to leave out from "commends" to end and insert:

"notes the ongoing review of higher education and student finance in England and Wales; recognises that the Scottish Government will need to consider any outcomes of this review and the potential impact on Scottish universities; commends the National Union of Students' student fee pledge, and welcomes that, thanks to the actions of the previous and current administrations in Scotland, full-time Scottish higher education students studying in Scotland do not pay tuition fees or top-up fees."

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative 3:45 pm, 3rd June 2010

The cabinet secretary began his speech by expressing how strong the tradition is in our university system, and he was right to do that. That we have three universities in the top 100 in the world is a considerable feat for Scotland. As politicians, we have a duty to ensure that that tradition endures, but the Parliament should be in no doubt about the extent of the challenge that we face.

Scotland is at a major crossroads on the funding issue. The latest statistics show unprecedented levels of entrants to higher education in Scotland. In the previous decade alone, the number of students attending university increased by almost a quarter. That comes at a time of the most severe budget constraints for a generation, when £17 million has been lost from the education budget following the abolition of the graduate endowment; university pension funds are in crisis; there is a growing funding gap between England and Scotland; and the proportion of gross domestic product that we allocate to higher education is less than that in nations such as the US, Australia, Korea, Japan and even China.

That extent of the financial challenge is bad, but so too is the extent of the social and economic challenge. Just how can we maintain and increase levels of academic excellence and the quality of our research base as well as widen access to higher education institutions while keeping higher education affordable and competitive? From that perspective, I am sure that many members have sympathy for students' concerns, as expressed in their petition on the issue. They are right to flag up the possibility of worsening financial discrepancies between England and Scotland and they are right to be concerned about the implications for higher education in Scotland.

The issue runs much deeper than that. I agree with the cabinet secretary and the Liberals that it would be unwise to make too many pronouncements on those issues of concern until the Browne review reports later this year. However, I do not accept that waiting for the Browne report should preclude the Parliament from pursuing urgent action on other matters. It is in that respect that I want to repeat our call, first made by my colleague Murdo Fraser in 2007, for a full and independent inquiry into the future funding of higher education, and that is why we will support the Labour amendment this afternoon.

I know from the cabinet secretary's previous utterances, and from his speech today, that he will reject that call outright, so let me explain why he is wrong to do so and wrong to insist that any review of higher education can be carried out from within the sector.

First, we need to have the courage to address some of the most difficult and perhaps controversial questions that face the sector at large. That includes the question whether far too many people are at university. Far too many people are frightened to ask that question.

Before I am attacked for heresy, let me be clear about why the question must be asked. If we are to continue to deliver the highest quality of education possible, we must make that education available to all students who are genuinely academically able and well motivated, irrespective of their background or income levels. We should never allow ourselves to be dictated to by a percentage target, such as the 50 per cent target that was a mantra of the Blair era, as such targets put additional pressure on our young people and on schools to push them towards courses for which many are unsuited. I flag up the high first-year drop-out rates in some of our universities, which are higher than those in other parts of the UK and abroad. That suggests that some of those students should not be at university in the first place. Why does that happen? It is partly because of the culture of insisting that higher education is always a more socially acceptable option than vocational professions and trades are. That myth—and it is a myth—has done a great disservice to education in this country. It is high time that we did something about it. To do so, we need to take on board the opinions of many more stakeholders than just those in the sector.

Secondly, there is a need to take a much more holistic approach to education. I have heard the cabinet secretary say that several times, and I agree. We need far better articulation of higher education with schools and colleges, and with business and industry. That is another reason why we should be keen to listen to other perspectives within an independent inquiry. How ironic it would be, at a time when other stakeholders in Scotland are being fully consulted about the curriculum reforms that may underpin the new Scottish Qualifications Authority exams, and when the Browne review board in England has included representatives from all walks of life, for us to allow only the higher education sector to have an input into higher education reform. In my view, that would be extremely short-sighted. It is just another reason why the cabinet secretary is wrong.

The cabinet secretary is wrong for a third reason—because of the nature of the question that must be asked about future financing. I have heard the SNP rant on about saying no to top-up fees and that we must do nothing to lose the right to free education in this country. I am happy to say, just as my colleague Murdo Fraser has said in the past, that we do not believe that students should pay up-front fees for their education. However, I will not rule out students making a contribution to their education in some way once they have graduated, and I strongly believe that Scotland cannot afford to rule that out. Conservative members have been consistent in that view for some time.

We agree whole-heartedly with key figures such as Sir Andrew Cubie and Dr Brian Lang and with those student and lecturer representatives, including the Coalition of Higher Education Students in Scotland and the University and College Union, who argue vociferously that we need a full and comprehensive debate about the financial perspective. We are no longer in a world in which we can continue to encourage more and more people to go into higher education, at the same time as maintaining and enhancing academic excellence, without addressing the funding issue, especially the growing gap between north and south of the border.

Like the cabinet secretary, I began my speech with a statement of fact: that Scotland has been a proud standard bearer of excellence in university education. As a politician, I am not prepared to accept anything less, and neither should any other politician in the chamber. We need a full and independent inquiry, and we need it now.

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party 3:52 pm, 3rd June 2010

It was a good day for Scotland, a good day for Scottish education, a good day for Scottish students and a good day for the principle of egality when the SNP Scottish Government finally abolished tuition fees in Scotland by getting rid of the graduate endowment tuition fee. That was some eight years after the Lib Dems had said that the removal of tuition fees was non-negotiable, just before they negotiated it.

I will take a second or two to quote Jim Wallace, speaking in the chamber on 17 June 1999. At the time, he was the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats. He is now a member of the Westminster Government, so his comments were pertinent then and still have resonance now. Mr Wallace said:

"The Labour Government at Westminster opted for means-tested student loans and means-tested tuition fees. My party accepted that maintenance grants should be turned into loans, but the Liberal Democrats opposed the introduction of tuition fees—means tested or flat rate. That remains our position."—[Official Report, 17 June 1999; c 592.]

The Lib Dem manifesto for the recent election contained a commitment that stated, very simply:

"We will scrap unfair university tuition fees".

In what I am about to say, I do not ignore Margaret Smith's passionate confirmation in her speech that the Liberal Democrats in the Scottish Parliament support free education. However, the question is what the Liberal Democrats consider to be an unfair university tuition fee. Do they think that there might be fair university tuition fees? If so, are they prepared to impose them?

At the end of April, on a visit to Oxford Brookes University, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg said that he would abolish tuition fees but, during his party's conference in September last year, he made clear that he had already decided to dump that pledge as part of his "savage cuts". It has sometimes been said that the Liberal Democrat is the only animal in the world that can sit on the fence and keep an ear to the ground on both sides. I think that that is unfair and would like to believe that there is a firm commitment somewhere in the deep, dark recesses of the Clegg bunker.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

Ms McKelvie's comments on the dumping of pledges by the Liberal Democrats are interesting, but could she tell us about the dumping of the pledge to dump all of the debt that students have incurred? Was that not in the SNP manifesto? I have not heard a word about it in the past three years.

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party

Absolutely. It was in the SNP manifesto, but David McLetchie knows that Treasury rules prevented us from doing that. Now that he has friends in the Treasury, perhaps he should ask them to look at it again with a favourable eye and consider whether Scotland can do it.

I wonder whether the position of the Advocate General, Baron Wallace of Tankerness, remains the same as it was in the good old days when he was Jim Wallace MSP. Do the Lib Dems still oppose tuition fees, as he suggested they did when we were all young—or maybe when some of us were young—or do they now oppose only unfair tuition fees? Do they believe that there might be fair tuition fees somewhere? Is it the Clegg of the campaign or the Clegg of the conference? Might we see Baron Wallace fix another fudge like the graduate endowment? That is the UK Government's tail. The dog, of course, is the Conservative party.

Today, the most senior Conservative in Scotland is the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, David Mundell MP. In the 1999 debate that I have already mentioned, Mr Mundell, as an MSP, made clear his opposition to tuition fees when he said:

"I hope that Liberal Democrat members will be prepared to follow Neil Wallace's brave words and join us in lifting the iniquitous burden of tuition fees from Scottish students."—[Official Report, 17 June 1999; c 614.]

I could not agree with him more. Unfortunately, it seems that he will not be holding that position. He must have taken the lady's advice when she said,

"You turn if you want to."

David Mundell is part of a Government that will raise the top-up fees at English universities because that will be Government policy and because the loyal Opposition at Westminster is the shower that introduced tuition fees in the first place. Increasing top-up fees is a Labour policy from before the election. The Conservatives will push through the increase in university fees with the support of the Labour Party and the Lib Dems will abstain so that they can say, "It wisnae me, guv. A big boy done it and ran away." We know that increased tuition fees will not result in increased funds for the institutions; we know that they are a means of reducing public investment in education; and we know that they will just result in lower public investment in English universities. They might have a knock-on effect for the Scottish budget, as the NUS and others fear. Universities in England are about to be on the end of yet another funding squeeze and another hard round of cuts.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

This is all very interesting, but would the challenges be any different if Scotland were independent?

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

We would have the resources to tackle them, for a start.

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party

Aye—absolutely. My colleague Kenny Gibson has just answered that from a sedentary position. There will be increased resources at the time. We expect the sun to shine on Scottish education then, and it will continue to shine. If Robert Brown is coming over to the idea that independence is a better idea for the universities, I will send him a membership form.

Fortunately, we have a different set of circumstances here in Scotland. While the Labour Government in London in the shape of Peter Mandelson was cutting £398 million from the English universities' budget for the current financial year, the SNP Government was increasing the Scottish universities' budget by £40 million. In 2008, Universities UK produced research called "Devolution and higher education: impact and future trends", which showed that, in 2006, Scottish universities had a funding advantage over English universities of some £454 per student per year. The fact that that gap will now have widened is evidence that the SNP Government has served Scotland well. I wish for England's sake that it had a Government as committed to high-quality provision.

We cannot be complacent, though. We are already in a tight financial situation and the news from south of the border suggests that it will not be getting better any time soon. I do not believe that any party in the Parliament will be able to guarantee any future budget without reservation. Access to education should be based on the ability to learn and not on the ability to pay. I am delighted to be in a country that still has free education, but we have a hard task ahead of us to ensure that it remains. I am clear that we should ensure that the principle of free education remains in Scotland.

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour 3:59 pm, 3rd June 2010

I hope that there can be a degree of consensus during today's debate. I am sure that we all recognise the importance of higher education in Scotland. In a world where it is becoming increasingly unsustainable, not to mention unpalatable, to compete in the low-wage, low-skills economy, it is vital that our training and education establishments provide us with a highly skilled workforce. It is also worth stating that higher education has its own intrinsic value and that a better educated society is a culturally richer society.

We agree on the value of higher education, but there is some debate about how we can fund a high-quality and inclusive higher education system. No serious or mature politician in this chamber can think that we can simply wave a magic wand and independence will deliver money for higher education. No matter how Scotland is governed or what Government it has, we will all have to face up to the funding of our higher education system.

I hope that we can agree on some issues, but there will be issues on which we disagree. I do not think that any of us wants up-front tuition fees to return to Scotland. There is political consensus on that in Scotland, but recent press reports have made it clear that there might not be such a clear position on student funding in England. It will be difficult for many students to understand how a politician who pledged to vote against any proposal to increase top-up fees best demonstrates that in-principle commitment by abstaining in a vote and allowing the Tory Government to remove the cap.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

Does the member accept that it is almost as difficult for many students to understand why a party should have said that it had no plans to bring in tuition fees but then brought them in in government, as the Labour Party did?

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour

We abolished tuition fees in Scotland. The question for Margaret Smith is what the Liberal Democrats will do in the next few years. I am sure that people will be interested in that. There will undoubtedly be many difficult policy pills for both parties in the coalition in England to swallow over the next few years.

I fully understand why the Government has sought to highlight and exploit the issue of student fees in its motion. The motion attempts to divert attention away from the looming funding crisis that the Government is facing and for which it is ultimately responsible, but the SNP tactic of blame and claim—of blaming others for bad news and claiming credit for good news—is wearing thin. Any Government that is worth its salt must have the courage to take responsibility for difficult decisions as well as for easy decisions. To be fair to the cabinet secretary—I am not often accused of being fair to him—he has recognised that there is a significant and complex challenge. I commend him for that, but it must be said that he has been very short on detail on how he will deal with the problem. Vague hints about partnership with the private sector are all well and good, but we all know that that will never address the funding gap that Scottish universities face.

A recent report in The Herald stated that the Scottish Government told universities to expect cuts of 3.2 per cent each year for the next three years. That will make it next to impossible for universities to expand the number of places that are offered to meet increasing demand.

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour

I will let Mr Russell in shortly. I noted that he said that we should not always believe everything that we read in the papers. If The Herald got things wrong and Scottish universities will not face such cuts over the next three years, will he say so and give the universities that reassurance?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

There are no figures attached to the discussions about the pressures that exist, except those that I have given. The overall pressures on the Scottish budget are in great part the result of the Labour Party's mismanagement of the economy. On saying that there should be no cuts, I echo what the First Minister said during First Minister's question time this morning. It is utterly unrealistic to take the stance that Karen Whitefield is taking across every part of the public sector, and I am afraid that the people of Scotland will not believe it.

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour

It is utterly dishonest of the SNP Government to say that there are cuts, when the Scottish budget has grown year on year, every year under devolution, and is now greater than it has ever been in the past 11 years. Any cuts that are made now are as a result of the mismanagement of Scottish government by the SNP.

Will the minister tell us how he plans to enable universities to raise the levels of funding that will allow them to remain competitive with universities throughout the UK and globally? Will he tell the Parliament with whom he has had discussions about funding and what feedback he has had from the heads of Scottish universities about his proposals?

Scottish Labour is in favour of establishing an independent review, which would help to take some of the party politics out of the issue and would seek to offer solutions that could be supported by all parties—not a review by the great and the good but a review by all key stakeholders in order to provide a long-term solution and sustainability for the higher education sector in Scotland.

It is clear that, with impending spending cuts, the status quo is not a viable option. Action must be taken to ensure the sustainability of our universities. Funding is central to that. I mention the role of our further education colleges. At present, they are often seen as the poor relation of Scotland's universities, in terms of funding and perceived status. That is not acceptable and must change. Colleges provide valuable training and educational opportunities for many of my constituents and often provide a valuable gateway into higher education or employment.

It is vital that the minister encourages far stronger partnership working between Scotland's universities and colleges. That can only be of benefit to Scotland's students and could provide opportunities for cost savings.

Any future funding arrangement for Scotland's universities needs to provide stability and long-term security. The best way to achieve that is through political consensus—consensus that can be achieved only by taking some of the political heat out of this difficult issue and by establishing an independent review into the funding of higher education. After that, the challenge will be for all members—or, rather, for those elected to the next Parliament—to do what is in the best interest of students, universities and the nation.

I urge members to support the amendment in Claire Baker's name.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 4:07 pm, 3rd June 2010

It has been a rather odd debate. It is particularly odd that the background to the debate should be a situation that we have inherited from the previous Labour Government, which introduced tuition fees throughout the United Kingdom and top-up fees in England and Wales, and was all set to increase top-up fees had it continued to govern after the recent election. Against that background, it is also rather odd that Karen Whitefield appears to be nit-picking about what the coalition Government in London may or may not do in future. By its nature, coalition government involves an element of coming together of policies from different perspectives and an element of compromise. Neither party in a coalition has the absolute ability to implement policies that, in an ideal world, it would have liked to implement. The Labour Government had none of those difficulties. It had an absolute majority in the Commons, albeit on a minority of the vote in the country, and was able to do what it liked. We saw what it liked, and the country did not like what it saw.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

I will leave that one. We have gone far enough on that rather esoteric issue.

I am among the people who benefited from a student maintenance grant and free education at university. Although it did not occur to me at the time that there could be such a thing as tuition fees, which are an evil modern invention, I have always thought that I was privileged to go to university—it was a privilege that my parents and those who went before me did not have. Not least as a consequence of my experience, I have always been a strong supporter of the expansion of university access, choice and opportunity over the past 40 years, and I have consistently opposed university tuition fees. It was a significant achievement when Liberal Democrats, entering the new coalition in Scotland in 1999, were able to reverse the direction of travel from the then Labour Government and to abolish tuition fees in Scotland. Kenny Gibson rightly pointed out where the introduction of the fees came from. I have no doubt that that decision represented not just my views and those of Liberal Democrats but the views of the broad majority of public opinion in Scotland, championed by the NUS and many others throughout the UK. I am therefore glad to welcome the on-going campaigning on the matter by the NUS and its student fee pledge.

Of course, the difficulty is that the context and the costs involved have changed radically since I was at university in the 1960s. Many more students are at university and there has been a shift towards greater reliance on both term-time employment and loan finance to support students during their time at university. There is the undoubted challenge of top-up fees in England which, as I suggested to Christina McKelvie, would still be a challenge were Scotland to have some form of independent Government. There is now the added pressure of the banking and financial crisis, with its substantial effects on the public finances.

There has been an element of shadow boxing about the debate because, on the one hand, the cabinet secretary has ruled out the idea of an independent review but is very much into engagement and consensus and, on the other hand, people want an independent review, but it is to be all about trying to move forward on the matter. Not terribly much has been put forward by way of new ideas about what the review would do, what the engagement would produce or what the context would be. I do not particularly blame the cabinet secretary for that. It is a very difficult issue and, as Margaret Smith rightly pointed out, it is probably premature to make firm decisions until the Browne review has reported and we see the context in England and Wales.

A significant feature, in addition to the student side of the matter, is the fact that our university sector punches well above its weight and makes a substantial contribution to the Scottish economy. The fact that many of our universities are highly placed in international ratings tables and have very close and developing links with institutions in other countries is a credit not only to our institutions and our academics but to our students. They are, of course, a valuable resource—both those that come from Scotland and those that come to Scotland for their education. Both those aspects will be vital for the economic growth and social development of Scotland in the coming years.

Student debt is, of course, an issue. It is estimated that many students will owe more than £21,500 by the time they graduate. There is no question but that that is a challenge for many, but the key issue remains the challenge of securing an acceptable level of student income while people are at university. We must not only get a wider range of students into higher education but keep them there. The Scottish Government and Parliament should be—I think that this is recognised throughout the chamber—working to create a supportive framework to allow people to realise their potential. For our part, the Liberal Democrats have consistently campaigned for a £7,000 minimum income guarantee for students, to ensure that anyone, regardless of their financial circumstances, can go to university and can further their skills.

The point has already been made about the dumping of the student debt promise by the SNP

Government, and the explanations that have been given are not particularly satisfactory. Nevertheless, we are where we are and we must look at what can be done to move forward on these agendas, because the downside is that increased financial pressures can drive students to engage in unrealistic external workloads, can cause worrying mental and physical afflictions and can increase the drop-out rate, as has been mentioned. A recent report from the Higher Education Statistics Agency showed that Scotland's record on drop-out rates and on attracting students from poorer backgrounds to university remains the worst in the UK, with 9.9 per cent dropping out in first year. That is a difficult and challenging situation.

Curiously, the issue of student fees has been contentious both at the start of our current coalition in London and in 1999 in Scotland. There is again a review examining the issue. Then it was Cubie; now it is Lord Browne's review of higher education funding and student finance in England and Wales. That will make for challenging reading north and south of the border. Any recommendations will have to be studied very carefully by the UK Government and also by the Scottish Government in view of the potential implications for our universities.

I think that it has been acknowledged by all the parties that there should be no implications for student fees for Scottish students. Those have been abolished, they should stay abolished and the agenda should be one of how we secure the finance for higher education funding and for student support that is necessary to achieve the consequences that we want to see for the future of the realm in Scotland.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party 4:14 pm, 3rd June 2010

I join colleagues around the chamber in commending the National Union of Students for its student fees pledge.

I also congratulate this Government on its approach to student fees thus far in straitened times. The SNP, of course, stands against both fees and debt. Where possible, we have made genuine attempts to alleviate the problem; it is regrettable that previous Governments have stood against student debt in word, but have increased it.

This Government, with Liberal Democrat help, abolished the graduate endowment tax, removing a charge of £2,289 from about 50,000 students. In addition, the SNP replaced loans with grants for part-time students. I realise that that was not particularly popular with everyone. I remember reading an issue of Holyrood magazine in which Rab McNeil took Ken Macintosh to task for suggesting that a loan is as good as a grant. Mr McNeil suggested that Mr Macintosh might prefer to have his salary in the form of a loan.

The Scottish Government has boosted discretionary hardship funds and trebled career development loans. By contrast, the previous Executive left 370,000 of Scotland's students and former students collectively more than £2 billion in debt. The Opposition has showed where it stands when it comes to fees, and it is not on the side of students.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

My God. That took you about 20 seconds, Ken. I was wondering when you were going to come back to me.

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

I do not mind Mr Gibson taking a loan of me.

Has overall student debt, by which I also mean credit card debt, gone up or down under the SNP?

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

One has to look at the context in which we are living; for example, Labour's catastrophic recession. Labour introduced a recession that has cost 1 million jobs in the UK over the past year and has given us the biggest financial deficit. Also, according to former Labour Secretary of State for Health, Alan Milburn, the gap between rich and poor is wider than it has been for over 80 years.

Of course, it was Labour's Scottish MSPs who rammed top-up fees down England's throat in the first place. In so doing, they had to overcome a party rebellion that they had created by blatantly breaking campaign promises. How would English students have answered the West Lothian question after Scottish Labour MPs foisted that now failed new Labour policy on them—although that is not to say that old Labour has not also failed them. I do not know what to believe from the Labour Opposition. It opposes fees in its manifestos, but introduces them when it is in Government. Back in 1997, when all this began, Labour did not even mention the fact that, right after the 1997 election, it intended to bring in tuition fees—fees that have hurt the pockets of so many of our students over so long.

It is sad to see how the Conservatives have U-turned on the issue over a number of years, given that they fought against tuition fees in high-profile campaigns in at least two elections in Scotland and south of the border. Liz Smith said in the debate that students should make "a contribution ... after graduation." By and large, when students graduate, they get jobs that pay more than those that people who have not had a higher education get, which means that students pay higher taxes than others do. Students make a significant contribution to their education through the taxes that they pay as doctors, lawyers or whatever—

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

Whenever I mention a member, they immediately want to come back to me.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

How can we continue to allow the high number of students at our universities and at the same time provide a funding base at current levels and the money for academic research and excellence if we do not allow those students to make a contribution?

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

I could have asked Elizabeth Smith exactly the same question a decade ago. If I had done so, she would have said that she supported free education. The SNP believes that free education is a right. Education should not be only for the sons and daughters of the wealthy people who support the Conservative party in ever dwindling numbers north of the border.

Our universities are highly regarded. On a per capita basis, our students and academics produce world-leading research. Only Switzerland is ahead of Scotland in that regard. Our institutions of higher education need to be funded properly and responsibly to ensure their competitiveness for years to come. Thus far, we have kept up with competing universities south of the border and overseas that receive extra income by hanging debt, like the sword of Damocles, over the heads of their students.

Professor Steve Smith, the former president of Universities UK, testified that Scottish university funding has kept up thus far despite the extra income down south. He said:

"The issue is almost completely irrelevant in Scotland ... It's not something we are thinking about. Because the funding level is roughly comparable, it seems to me there is no issue."

A Times Higher Education Supplement report said that Scottish universities had been planning for a freeze with a worst-case scenario of 5 per cent cut in the current financial year. Instead, higher education received a 3.6 per cent uplift, courtesy of the cabinet secretary. Robin McAlpine of Universities Scotland said:

"This has been a good day for us ... This budget puts universities right at the heart of the Scottish Government economic-recovery strategy."

The Scottish Government has done everything that it can to support higher education with 7,500 more students in Scotland this year, compared with 6,000 fewer in England. An increase in the cap on tuition fees south of the border would limit our ability to support universities in the future. Financial support to English universities brings Barnett consequentials to Scotland. If that support is instead brought through top-up fees, no such consequentials would come, even through such fees are set out in law and are centrally regulated. As a result of the top-ups, funding per student from central Government revenue in England has fallen in real terms. If England wants top-up fees, that is its business, although I doubt that its students do.

As the motion states:

"any rise in fees in England and Wales would be detrimental to the interests of Scottish universities".

The consequences of that could be solved, however, if the Parliament had full fiscal autonomy or, even better, independence, rather than our hoping that Westminster budget policies will meet the needs of our students. If our students need more debt hanging over them, Westminster policies would certainly meet their needs. We note, however, that our students do not need debt—they need a Government with full financial powers that can deliver unique Scottish solutions.

What about access in the first year of top-up fee applications? The number of English students going to universities in England fell by 4.5 per cent against a previous trend of year-on-year rises. That same year, the number of applications by English students to universities in Scotland increased by 2 per cent.

Should not higher education be available to all Scots, regardless of their ability to pay? The SNP abolished the graduate endowment and, in the two years since, the number of acceptances through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service for Scottish universities has gone up by 17 per cent. We have, by dumping the debt, supported the least privileged people who seek higher education. Although not all of it has been dumped, it is smaller than it was. This Government is moving in the right direction and has already provided much more relief than any other party has even promised.

As for Karen Whitefield saying that, ultimately, Scotland's budget is the responsibility of the SNP Government, I thought it was the Scottish block that decided the resources that the Scottish Government had to work with. Labour's infantile stance of arguing for an increase in every budget yet not suggesting moving anything during budget debates will be seen for the opportunism that it is.

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour 4:21 pm, 3rd June 2010

Like my colleagues, I am pleased to have a chance to discuss further and higher education, in particular the issue of student fees. I have a slight concern about the terms of today's debate, however. Worries over the funding of our universities and colleges have been growing for several years. With job losses, cuts in courses and problems with student hardship and widening access, those worries are now very much upon us, rather than it being possible to deal with them at some unspecified time in the future.

My concern—indeed, my disappointment—is that the Scottish Government's motion is framed in terms of what is happening in England and Wales, rather than in relation to the decisions that face us here. It is not as though there is not a host of problems and issues facing us now, as we have heard this afternoon, on which we need Government direction. Some of them are long-term problems, including the structural changes that are already taking place. Universities are putting far more emphasis on postgraduate education than on undergraduate education, part of the motivation for which seems to be that it attracts more funding. The consequence is a rather undignified scramble to attract Chinese and other foreign students at the expense of Scottish undergraduates.

Institutions are beginning to regard themselves as businesses and to discuss business models, rather than being academies of learning. Again, the worry is that that is motivated by the need and desire to attract more funding.

There are further immediate worries, too, including those on science, technology, engineering and maths—the STEM subjects—which are being capped this year, and on threats to courses such as applied music at the University of Strathclyde. Concerns over funding underpin far too many of the decisions that are having to be taken in our colleges and universities.

The National Union of Students has described the system in England and Wales as "broke and broken", and we certainly cannot be complacent about what is happening before our eyes here in Scotland. For example, some institutions are concerned that their budgets might be cut by up to 20 per cent. According to The Heraldas my colleague Karen Whitefield has already mentioned—the Government has told universities to expect 3.2 per cent cuts each year for three years, from 2011. I notice that the cabinet secretary did not deny that in his intervention on Karen Whitefield's speech.

Elizabeth Smith suggested that too many students may be going to university. We cannot deny demand. UCAS has experienced a record increase in applications, which are up by almost a third this past year. Despite that record number of applicants, the Scottish Government has refused to fund any more university places.

We know that the recession has been particularly hard on young people. Colleges have responded well by providing more places to cope with the sudden increase in demand. That, in turn, has had a knock-on effect on the number of college places that are available for the winter intake and on the widening access agenda, with some people who would have benefited from further education being displaced by the additional applicants.

As I mentioned earlier, there is a fear that undergraduate education is being abandoned at the expense of postgraduate courses. Teacher training is one worrying example. There seems to be little commitment from the universities to teacher education. Jordanhill college of education is destined to be sold off, and the Moray House school of education was similarly threatened until the University of Edinburgh reconsidered the matter. The universities know that there is little money to be had from teacher training, and they give every impression of not being interested, with the result that 70 staff have left positions at Strathclyde university alone. The response from the Scottish Government has been to cut the teacher training intake by 600 places—nearly 40 per cent of places. That does not fill one with confidence in the Scottish Government's commitment to education.

We have the lowest proportion of Scottish students going to Scottish universities since devolution and record numbers of Scottish students are going to England to study. On student support, there has been a series of problems to do with hardship funds, and many institutions are expressing deep anxiety. Last month, management at James Watt College decided that further education students' bursaries will be cut by half in the final month of study. Students were made aware of that only on 13 May. As the James Watt student association and the NUS said, that is unacceptable, because students use bursaries to pay the rent and feed their families and not just for travel, as the college tried to assert.

I have described some of the problems that are before us. Scottish further and higher education might not yet be completely "broke or broken", but there is no doubt about the seriousness of the situation. The crucial point is that it is up to the Scottish Government—not the Browne review or Westminster—to decide how to fix the problem. My worry is that the SNP's motion has more to do with political positioning than with providing answers or even working towards a solution. I am not sure that any party thinks that it has all the answers on further and higher education for the long term, but surely the onus is on us to try to work together to reach agreement, rather than focus on our differences.

Scottish Labour's approach is clear. We are ruling out up-front tuition fees. We will not introduce an up-front price tag on education. It is 10 years since we had the debate about tuition fees in Scotland. The argument has moved on. I think that that is the view of the further and higher education sector, too. People who work in education can see the crisis developing. The University and College Union is balloting members on action in the University of Glasgow and the University of Dundee. The union reports 140 job losses at the University of Stirling and 200 job losses at the University of Strathclyde.

I am sure that no member wants us to reach a point at which our universities are so chronically underfunded that a degree from a Scottish university is not worth having.

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

If someone from the back benches wants to intervene, I will be happy to take their question and respond. It appears not, though.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

I will.

I apologise, because I have only just joined the debate. Will Mr Macintosh say which degrees might not be worth the paper they are written on?

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

That is not the current situation; it is a fear that we have. If the Government does not take action to address the long-term funding problems of Scottish universities, our international standing will begin to decline. We have built up a reputation in this country over centuries, and by not taking action the Government is allowing that reputation to slip through its fingers.

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

Given that Ms MacDonald was not willing to take part in the whole debate, I will not take another intervention from her.

The argument has moved on in the NUS, too. The NUS is openly discussing graduate student contributions as a workable solution. It would be interesting to hear the cabinet secretary's views on the matter. Claire Baker asked him about it, but he did not respond. Is Mr Russell considering the possibility of a graduate student contribution?

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

No. The member is in the final seconds of his speech.

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

My anxiety is that the Scottish Government's approach is unsustainable. The motion tells us what the SNP is against but not what it is for. I am not sure that the cabinet secretary and his loyal back benchers believe their own slogans. They try to take credit for supposedly free education, but education is not free: someone has to pay for it. The question that faces us all is whether the taxpayer will continue to foot the entire bill. It is time to move on. The debate on higher education is moving on, with or without the SNP.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

We come to closing speeches. Mr O'Donnell, you may have a little more than six minutes.

Photo of Hugh O'Donnell Hugh O'Donnell Liberal Democrat 4:29 pm, 3rd June 2010

Many points have been made but I will resist the temptation to allow the cabinet secretary extended time in which to respond to them.

There is a consensus in the Parliament that there are challenges ahead for higher education. We have heard some interesting speeches, although I felt slightly nauseous about the unique manner in which Mike Russell expressed his support for the amendment in Margaret Smith's name.

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

That aside, some good points have been made in the debate. The cabinet secretary gave a litany of our higher education system's successes, while acknowledging that there are major challenges to face. He also acknowledged that finding a solution will have to be a kind of community project, although I have to say that many members were sceptical about how such an approach will actually pan out, given the scant detail on it. I have to say that that was a little disappointing.

I was also disappointed by Claire Baker's position, which seemed to be based on accusing various parties of changing their positions on tuition fees and other matters. I think, however, that Margaret Smith clearly addressed that point.

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

Why are the Lib Dems trying to have it both ways? Why in Scotland are they trying to pretend that they are in favour of the NUS pledge while at Westminster they are supposedly abstaining on the issue?

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

I find it quite surprising that a member of the Labour Party would ask that question. It seems to indicate that Mr Macintosh does not have any concept of how devolution actually works.

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

So are your Liberal Democrats at Westminster—

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

I am sorry, but we cannot have a sedentary debate. Either we have a debate or we do not.

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

I beg your pardon, Presiding Officer. I was trying to find words of one syllable that would be appropriate, but clearly I could not.

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

I also welcome Claire Baker's recognition of the consensus on the reintroduction of tuition or top-up fees in Scotland.

Liz Smith made some very interesting points about the number of students, the challenges that are faced by many of our universities and pension funds, and the general financial circumstances that the country faces. However, the danger with a review is that it lets the Labour Party—I do apologise, I mean the SNP Government—off the hook with regard to how it addresses the matter. Historically, at least, reviews have all too often been used as a way of kicking controversial and challenging issues into the long grass. If we press the SNP Government to do something now, we do not give it that opportunity.

I must give credit to Liz Smith for posing the very interesting question whether we have too many people at university. Are we creating challenges for them by undermining the value of higher education? Should that be included in a review?

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

I acknowledge Margo MacDonald's response from a sedentary position.

To Christina McKelvie, who did not take Margaret Smith's intervention and might well regret taking David McLetchie's, I simply reiterate the point that was made by Margaret Smith, who said:

"This is a devolved matter, and the Scottish Liberal Democrats remain committed, as we have been throughout the years of devolution, to the demise of fees—up front, top up" and—here I paraphrase—any other way.

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

Indeed. We are in Scotland.

Robert Brown rightly pointed out—

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

What will be the view of the Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury on this matter?

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

A response to that question is for someone well above my pay grade.

Robert Brown rightly pointed out yet again the contradictions in the Labour Party's position, although he was clear about the Scottish Liberal Democrat position on the matter. In highlighting the changes that have occurred between his time at university and the current situation, he mentioned the high drop-out rate. That issue, which ties in to some extent with the points that were made by Elizabeth Smith, certainly requires serious consideration.

In his usual calm, reserved and controlled manner, Ken Macintosh delivered a flurry of facts and figures but did nothing to convince me that the Labour Party's position on the matter is supportable or, indeed, trustworthy. Consequently, I close by saying that we will, of course, support our own amendment and that we look forward to receiving the Government's support for it.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative 4:35 pm, 3rd June 2010

I apologise to the cabinet secretary for missing his opening salvos. Perhaps in the future, those who demand ministerial statements should have enough questions to fill up the time that is allocated to them.

I would like to bring to the attention of Parliament what some may regard as inconvenient truths that the myth makers of Scotland would prefer to ignore or deny, but which are nonetheless germane to the present debate. There are three particular truths relating to the Conservative record in higher education between 1979 and 1997 to which I draw Parliament's attention. The first of those truths relates to the participation rate in higher education, which increased from a mere 12 per cent of our young people in 1979-80 to 34 per cent in 1997-98. The second truth is that that expansion in numbers was achieved without our home-based students being required to pay a penny piece in tuition fees. The third truth is that during that time, there was access to grants and loans, albeit on a means-tested basis, to help students from lower-income families to maintain themselves while they were studying.

As Margaret Smith, Robert Brown and others pointed out, the introduction of tuition fees and the abolition, initially, of grants was, of course, the handiwork of the incoming Labour Government that was led by Mr Blair, albeit that its policy proceeded on the basis of the recommendations that were contained in the Dearing and Garrick reports that the previous Government had commissioned. Whether a re-elected John Major Government would have done the same is one of the "What ifs?" of history, but the near threefold increase in the number of graduation photographs gracing the mantelpieces and unplayed pianos of Scotland in that 18-year period is a tribute to a Conservative policy that was born of a desire to widen access and opportunities for our young people, one of whom might even have been Mr Russell.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Indeed. David McLetchie and I had the benefit of such an education at the University of Edinburgh. Does he accept that one of the reasons why so many people went into higher education during the Thatcher years was that there were no jobs for them to go to?

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

I do not accept that, because the highest increase in participation levels came after Mrs Thatcher ceased to be Prime Minister—as Mr Russell will find if he cares to consult the statistics.

In fairness to successor Governments both here and at Westminster, they have continued that policy. We all want to widen access and increase overall participation levels, but the fundamental problem in Scotland—which is now more acute than ever, thanks to the catastrophic state of the public finances—is about how we can sustain that investment in our young people and their futures.

This Parliament inherited the fees policy of the Blair Government. After some tortuous flip-flopping on the part of the Liberal Democrats, about which we have heard, we ended up with a deferred fee in the form of a graduate endowment, albeit that it was window-dressed as a contribution to the cost of maintenance bursaries. When that graduate endowment was abolished in an act of irresponsibility by the SNP and an act of contrition by the Liberal Democrats, we said at the time that such a decision was premature, and that what we needed was an independent review of the funding of higher education and student support in Scotland that paid regard to trends elsewhere in the UK. That prescient call, which was first made by my colleague Murdo Fraser, was repeated today by Liz Smith, and I am pleased to note that it is supported by the Labour Party. It remains pertinent, given the clueless leadership of a Scottish Government that is allegedly bursting with ideas about how to improve the income of Scottish universities, but which is remarkably reluctant to specify them. If further proof of that was needed, all we have to do is note the cabinet secretary's totally barren contribution on that front today.

There is also a nomenclature issue in the debate. For example, the cabinet secretary referred to "student top-up fees". Does he mean by "top-up fees" any fee or fee contribution that is paid by students while they are at university, or after graduation? Just as we could do with greater clarity on that from the Government, the same might also be said of NUS Scotland, whose pledge is referred to in today's motions and amendments. For example, in its briefing note NUS Scotland says that it is

"still willing to at least look at a graduate contribution", which Ken Macintosh highlighted in his speech. However, it also goes on to say that

"Tuition fees, deferred or upfront, would be unacceptable."

There is a great sophistry in the language of this debate, and it is designed to obscure basic truths. Whether it is called a graduate endowment, a graduate tax, a graduate contribution or a tuition fee, and whether it is deferred, up-front, or income related, in the last analysis, it is a compulsory contribution that is paid by a student or a graduate, referable to his or her receipt of a higher education. The motivation for exacting such a payment is to increase the funding that is available to universities and colleges to provide that education, and thereby to supplement the support that is given out of the general body of taxation, or it is to fund bursary or grant schemes to help people from lower-income households. Most likely, it is a combination of the two. In the present state of public finances, we need to look seriously at what we can continue to afford to finance wholly out of taxation, and we need to look at what, if any, contributions students or graduates pay, however that contribution is assessed or determined, or whatever it is called. That seems to those of us on this side of the chamber to be the sensible way to proceed. As Elizabeth Smith said, it is madness for the Government to rule out having an independent inquiry into how we address the issue.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour 4:42 pm, 3rd June 2010

Before I entered Parliament, I spent 22 years teaching in higher education in one institution, while serving for six years as a member of the court of another university. I can name many people who were, during the Conservative years, displaced from employment and ended up as students in higher education. However, I take David McLetchie's point that there was a substantial increase in participation rates under the Conservative Government, which was a significant step forward.

I wonder what my colleagues and former students would make of the debate that we have had this afternoon. Everyone who is in higher education is aware of the crisis in the sector. People understand that the funding situation is difficult at the moment and that it will get worse in the years to come. They want to make progress towards solutions, but the tragedy is that no progress is being made in Scotland. The universities are shedding staff, and university departments all around Scotland are slated for closure. Any higher education principal will tell us that the current funding model is unstable.

If every university is reorganising, retrenching, and seeking to attract new sources of income by boosting the number of postgraduate students and taking in more overseas students, that might be a form of salvation for an individual university, although in a competitive world, it is difficult to see how it will provide a route to survival. It is not, however, a route to survival for the whole sector. That is why Labour is in favour of a properly structured independent review of higher education. The urgent task in front of us is to map out the options and alternatives, to identify the parameters within which we should move forward, and to involve all the stakeholders—not just the principals and the NUS, but everyone who has a stake and interest in how our higher education system looks. We have to do that systematically, but the Government is resisting that.

It is clear, from the Scottish Government's motion and the Liberal Democrats' amendment, that they do not want to talk about the future of higher education in Scotland, but would rather have a debate about what is going on in England. In my view, that is not what devolution is for. We have a responsibility to the people of Scotland to organise and deliver services in this country. Why on earth do the Government and the Liberal Democrats not want to talk about the crisis that exists and the pressures that are very obvious?

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

No. I will not.

When the debate was mooted, it was suggested through the usual channels that the SNP had cooked up the subject for debate, perhaps in conjunction with the National Union of Students, in order to put pressure on the Liberal Democrats by embarrassing them. Surely, one should realise by now that the Liberal Democrats are unembarrassable—they have demonstrated that so many times.

It was interesting to hear Margaret Smith try to slide around the question that was put to her by several members. She has an interesting definition of who is in and who is out of the Scottish Liberal Democrats. Apparently, she is part of the Scottish Liberal Democrats up here, but people such as Jo Swinson, Michael Moore and Danny Alexander, who are Liberal Democrats from Scotland down south, do not have to adhere to Scottish Liberal Democrat policy.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

I will just finish the point. The promise that those people signed up to in the NUS pledge was to vote against the introduction of top-up fees. That is what they said they would do. What they have now said they are going to do, as part of the coalition agreement, is abstain from the vote on the issue. That is a broken promise—clear, straightforward and simple. What excuse is Danny Alexander going to give when he signs off the financial arrangements for the new Westminster Government's introduction of top-up fees, should that happen? Is he going to say, "It wasn't me. I didn't mean it. I didn't sign it"? How could he do that? Perhaps the Liberal Democrats can explain that embarrassment. I will let Margaret Smith have another go.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

I remind Des McNulty that we are in a devolved Parliament. It was the Labour Party in the United Kingdom that introduced tuition fees and top-up fees. By working with Labour in the Scottish Parliament, we allowed Labour members to redeem themselves to some extent by abolishing tuition fees for Scottish students. That happened because we were in a coalition Government in a devolved Parliament. That is what coalitions are about and that is what devolution is about. I am not sure where you have been for the past decade.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

I have been in the Scottish Parliament, Ms Smith. I ask you to speak through the chair.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

It is absolutely clear what the Liberal Democrat policy was, what the individuals whom I have mentioned—in fact, all the Liberal Democrats in Scotland—said they were going to do and what they are now saying they are not going to do.

At the end of the day, politicians can position themselves as they like—they respond to the electorate. However, I return to the question of what we are going to do in Scotland. Higher education in Scotland faces some difficult issues and I want to see a rational process that identifies all the issues and considers them systematically. I am talking not just about student funding, but about university funding. They are not the same thing. Let us consider access and the relationship between what universities do and economic development in the broadest sense. Let us talk about our competitiveness in research and how we can advance that while maintaining our competitiveness elsewhere.

According to the Government's motion, Michael Russell sees the Browne review as being the only catalyst for change. If the Browne review is acted on, it will be a catalyst for change, but it is not the only trigger for change. The crisis exists and is evident to everybody in higher education now. So, what is the way forward and why is Mr Russell prepared to speak to principals and students organisations, but not prepared to put any of his ideas in the public domain? He told The Times that he was having conversations, but we have no information about the content of those conversations. He has not put on the record any of the individual issues that he raised. He said that a graduate contribution might be on the agenda, but it is clear from listening to his back benchers today that they do not think that it is. If he cannot even be honest with them, how can he be honest with the rest of us or with Scotland?

The Parliament deserves a lot better. The important question that is before us today concerns what we do about the university sector in Scotland, student funding and all the surrounding matters. That issue deserves not a review by the great and the good in isolation, but a systematic evaluation in which options and alternatives are identified, examined and debated throughout Scotland. That is what the universities want, but are being denied by the Government.

The reality is that in any rational debate about the future of the universities, there will not be a single universities' view: every university will have its own interests and its own point of view, as will other stakeholders. Why cannot we debate the issue openly in that way and reach a sensible resolution? We should be having such a debate in Parliament today, and I regret that the Scottish Government and the Liberal Democrats would rather have a different and partisan debate of their own.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party 4:51 pm, 3rd June 2010

David McLetchie and I, having benefited from the same university education, have one similarity in our approach to the debate: we both view it as important for myth busting. Unfortunately, however, the myths that I want to bust are much more destructive to higher education than the ones that Mr McLetchie wanted to trumpet. I have no doubt that access to universities increased during the period in which the Tories were in power. There are many reasons for that, some of which may even have been to do with the Tories.

We have heard some very dangerous myths this afternoon from members on the Labour side of the chamber, particularly in what I can only describe as three very dismal speeches from front-bench members. Those myths deserve to be destroyed.

Every Labour speaker has mentioned the need for consensus, which echoes my own desire. However, consensus must be based on facts, and I want to give the facts about a number of things that front-bench Labour members raised, because they need to be corrected. The first is the delusion about resources and funding. The Scottish Government's budget has been cut by £500 million, and further cuts are coming. We must all face that problem.

I was trying to think of a comparison to illustrate the Labour approach—this morning at First Minister's questions, this afternoon and no doubt in the health debate earlier—to the reality of the situation in which we find ourselves. The only comparison I could think of was that, astonishingly, Labour now resembles a group of arsonists who, having laid waste to the Scottish budget and the finances of this entire island, now run about complaining about the heat, the smoke and the sound of fire engines. They are the people who are to blame, and nothing will allow us to avoid that. [Interruption.]

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

No, I will not take an intervention—I have listened to Mr Macintosh quite enough this afternoon. I want to tell the truth, which differs from some of the things that I have heard from a range of Labour members during the debate.

The second thing that needs to be corrected is the extraordinary delusion of front-bench Labour members with regard to devolution. They have spent most of the afternoon attacking the Liberal Democrats for their inconsistencies north and south of the border. Well, there is an answer to that—it is independence, and I dearly wish that members in the chamber would wake up to it.

Even if that were to strain my new-found relationship with the Liberals this afternoon to breaking point, I have to say that for the Labour Party, of any party in the chamber, to accuse others of inconsistency in their stance north and south of the border beggars belief.

I come to some of the financial facts. I was astonished to hear Claire Baker say that the Government had short-changed universities. The figures, which I have in front of me, indicate that universities are receiving more this year than they have ever received. The figures indicate that even in the year in which this Government came into office, we continued to honour the commitment that the previous Administration had made. If we short-changed universities in 2007-08, it was because that was what Labour had planned to do in its budget.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I will not take an intervention.

We have not short-changed universities. We have continued to increase the resources that are available to universities.

On the comparison between north and south of the border, the extraordinary assertion was made that the previous Westminster Government had somehow invested in universities while the Scottish Government had not. Let me just make it clear that half the universities in England have already had their budget allocations for 2010-11 reduced. In Wales, the cut was such that all the universities bar one received a reduced budget. That is not the case in Scotland.

Among that whole range of myths, the final myth that we heard from Labour came from Ken Macintosh—always one to make speeches full of half-truths masquerading as facts—who actually made a point of using the word "crisis". That was an extraordinary thing to do. Incidentally, he also talked down the value of Scottish degrees, which I think was most regrettable. Let me just quote Alastair Sim, who is the director of Universities Scotland. When asked specifically whether a crisis was brewing in higher education, Alastair Sim said, "I don't really think there is." Universities Scotland says that there is no crisis, but Ken Macintosh says that there is a crisis. There are no prizes for guessing which of them I would choose to believe.

In all those myths that we heard this afternoon, not a single good argument was given for supporting a review, but three very cogent reasons were put forward by Liz Smith. Although David McLetchie indicated that he hankered after the ability to be true to what he actually felt by just imposing student fees, Liz Smith was, as ever, much more reasoned. She gave three reasons for demanding a review: to be able to discuss the overall number of students in higher education; the need for an holistic approach that brings in business and industry; and her desire for an open debate about the nature of the question, which in other words means that, as the NUS briefing suggests, we should debate the possibilities of postgraduate contribution.

Now, I am not taking a position on any of those things. I am not listening to the siren voices of Labour members, who just want me to say something so that they can contradict it. During this afternoon's debate, I was very much reminded of the remark from my old friend Andrew Wilson, who said in the first parliamentary session that, if the SNP had invented the light bulb, Labour would have called it a dangerous anti-candle device. That is precisely what we have heard this afternoon. We cannot say anything but it is contradicted.

However, if Liz Smith would like an assurance from me that everything can be included in the discussion and that it will include a wide range of people, I can give her that assurance. Therefore, I hope that I have helped her to withdraw from the pact with the devil—

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

Order. There is too much noise around the chamber.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

—which is how Labour described the relationship between the Tories and Liberals in respect of tuition fees south of the border. Let me help Liz Smith to withdraw from that terrible pact and to come and join the forces of progress and reason on higher education in Scotland.

Quite contrary to what some have said, I have been absolutely clear about where the debate is going. First, it is vital that we find out what is in the Browne review. It is absolutely unreasonable to say that we in Scotland can ignore that. We need to know what is in the Browne review. However, in the process up to Browne, we need a good discussion about all the possibilities, right across the sector and beyond. That is what is happening.

The next thing that we need to do—Margaret Smith called for this—is to assess the Browne review and to discuss it in this Parliament. We will then need to bring forward a range of possibilities—there is no one set of solutions to the problems that face Scottish universities—and to debate and discuss those in a rational and reasonable fashion. Having heard this afternoon's debate, I have some hope that some members of the Parliament are prepared to do that.

My real problem this afternoon, if I may go back to where I started, has been the complete lack of reason and thought that we have heard from members on the Labour benches. It is quite impossible to argue that the solution to all the problems is simply to ignore the financial reality that we find ourselves in as a result of Labour's mismanagement of the economy. The right solution is to have the type of debate that I am already engaged in. If Labour members wish to engage in that constructively, I would warmly welcome them, despite their performance this afternoon. If they do not, they are the ones who will be devaluing Scottish higher education and undermining Scotland's great reputation.

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour

The fault is always someone else's and never the cabinet secretary's.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

However, I will not let that happen. I hope that the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives will also work with me on that.

Karen Whitefield may, as ever, shout on, but the reality is that there have been no answers from Labour members this afternoon. The job of this Parliament is to find the answers. We are devoted to doing that.

I hope that members will support not just my motion but the amendment in the name of Margaret Smith, because I think that the Liberal Democrat amendment just has it. That will tell the people of Scotland, and elsewhere, that we support our higher education sector, that we know that free access is vital and that we know that we have a task ahead of us to produce a sustainable future for that important sector.