Higher Education

– in the Scottish Parliament at 9:15 am on 30th September 2010.

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Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 9:15 am, 30th September 2010

Good morning. The first item of business this morning is a debate on motion S3M-7109, in the name of Elizabeth Smith, on higher education.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

On my plane journey from London to Edinburgh on Sunday, what should I find on the seat beside me but a copy of Scotland on Sunday and, in it, an article by the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning headed "Time for a consensus on Scottish education".

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

Perhaps not today.

Now, I know that funny things can happen when the air is thinner at higher altitude, but I found myself having great difficulty with the article, so incredulous was I about the content. Bold as brass, in his usual modest tone, the cabinet secretary was trying to persuade the people of Scotland that the Scottish National Party was leading the debate in higher education, so significant had been the party's 2007 manifesto commitments and the SNP Government's subsequent announcements. I asked a member of the cabin crew for a strong coffee and I read on. It got worse: three times the cabinet secretary punted the line that it was only as a result of his leadership that the other parties had been forced to start talking about the right issues.

I cannot speak for Labour and the Liberals on what they really think about the issue—perhaps we will find out a bit more about that this morning—but I say to the cabinet secretary that on this side of the chamber we have policies. If he really believes that he is leading the field when it comes to finding a Scottish solution to the problem, why is it that we have not heard any utterance from him as to what he will do, as opposed to what he will not do? I will cut to the chase. Two things need to happen and they must happen now, not at some undefined time in the future. First, students must be asked to make a graduate contribution and, secondly, there must be reform of the structure of the university system—one will not work properly without the other. I will use the debate to set out our policy stance on both issues.

I will be crystal clear: the Scottish Conservatives believe that four key principles should underpin any sustainable funding mechanism for the future. It is because of those principles that we have ruled out up-front tuition fees and a pure graduate tax and instead declared ourselves in favour of a deferred fees system that is facilitated through income-contingent loans. Let me articulate those four principles. The first principle is that any funding mechanism must be needs blind so that academic merit, not wealth or privilege, is the driver for a university place. We believe that that ethos has always been central to what is best in Scottish education. The second principle is that we must do everything possible to enhance the very important autonomy of our university system, something that Sir Andrew Cubie has always rightly argued must never be undermined by Government or commercial enterprise.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

I understand perfectly what the member says about autonomy and the need for universities to have academic freedom, but when we look at the excessive pay awards that university principals have been awarded by their courts—awards that seem to have moved in tandem—taking them almost to £250,000 per year and with excessive perks as well—

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

Does she not agree that a greater degree of accountability is required of our universities?

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

The member makes a good point. The Scottish Conservatives have argued strongly that there is need for restraint, but that is not the only issue in terms of who should control our universities. Sir Andrew Cubie's point is that we must ensure that universities have autonomy in their decision-making processes on how to deliver the best form of education. That is what I want to preserve.

The third principle that has driven our thinking is that of income contingency, which is fundamental in ensuring that, far from being dissuaded from applying to university, less affluent students are encouraged to do so. At the heart of an income contingent scheme is the loan that is repaid by the student once a given threshold of earnings is reached at a repayment rate that is affordable to the student. In short, income contingency is a form of insurance that means that individuals repay their fees only when they can afford to. The fourth principle is variability in the fees that are charged—a variability that reflects the cost of the individual course and the ability of the university to set the fee.

I will lay out some more home truths on those points. First, the status quo in Scotland is highly regressive. Our proposals are designed to make the system more progressive, so that it better reflects both the marginal social and marginal private costs and benefits of a university education. As the former aide to Tony Blair, John McTernan, rightly posited:

"Is it right that a dustman, who left school at 16, should work extra hard so that a duke's daughter can have a free education, and then enjoy the lifelong ... benefit of a university education, calculated by economists as between £200,000 and £400,000 across a lifetime?"

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

We have a good system that ensures that those who earn more money, however they get there and whether they have a degree or not, pay more tax. It is called income tax.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

We will come to why we reject a graduate tax, which I think is what the member is suggesting.

Secondly, and crucially in my view, evidence from other countries such as Australia, England, and New Zealand suggests that university fees have not deterred those from poorer backgrounds from attending university. Indeed, both the Russell Group of universities and Universities UK argue that being able to charge fees has provided them with more revenue to widen access to those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Just last week, we heard more evidence that suggests that a higher proportion of those from deprived backgrounds are making it to university in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, where fees are levied, than is the case in Scotland, where there are no such fees.

Any policy recommendations that we make on higher education must work in tandem with a more flexible and efficient structure for the sector. Without addressing some of those institutional and organisational issues, we will not fully stem the tide of the financial pressures that Scottish universities face. For instance, there are 14 higher education institutions in Scotland with university status that thus far have probably not done enough to co-operate in terms of research funding and administration. Too many universities are trying to do too much in-house. Scotland, perhaps even more so than England, has a distinct advantage: the unique geographical locations of our universities, old and new. That gives us greater scope for the economies of scale and resource sharing that are a key part of my colleague David Willetts's plans in England. Also on efficiency, we agree with those in the sector who say that there is a debate to be had on the future of the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council.

Co-operation should not be confined to the university sector alone. Just as in the independent budget review report, the Scottish Chambers of Commerce and some of our university principals have stated the need for encouraging greater private sector investment in Scottish higher education. If we can succeed in achieving greater rationalisation and specialisation within our university sector while making degree qualifications more flexible—and perhaps a little shorter in some cases—we will have a better chance of attracting much-needed private sector investment. As some of my colleagues will say later in the debate, there is much scope for introducing flexibility into the degree system—a flexibility that can deliver better educational prospects and the potential for reduction in costs.

Of course, the elephant in the room is whether far too many young people feel pressurised to go to university because sufficient opportunities for non-university-based education are not available to them. Scottish Conservatives believe that that is wrong, which is why we have policies to accelerate the pace of developing top-quality, formal vocational training and apprenticeships at an earlier age and why we have been advocating more flexibility within the Scottish Qualifications Authority examination system.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I think that I cannot; I am in my last minute.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

I am interested in what the member says about the number of young people at university. Is it Conservative policy to reduce the percentage of young people who go into university education?

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

The member makes a good point, but there is an elephant in the room: what motivates young people to go to university? Those who go to university—who should be from any background and any income bracket—should genuinely want to be there. In our view, too many people feel pressured to go to university; it is seen as the socially acceptable thing to do. That must change, because in this country we have suffered too long from a sort of class barrier, to which I thoroughly object, when it comes to whether university is better than any other form of education. That is not the case in Denmark, Germany or many other European countries. We need to address that issue. It is a difficult question, but it needs a serious answer. On top of that, we need much greater flexibility in the Scottish Qualifications Authority examinations system, which I know that the cabinet secretary is pursuing.

I could go on for much longer, but it is very clear that it is certainly not the Scottish Conservatives who are short of ideas. It might be time for some consensus—I do not disagree with that—but it is well past the time for some leadership and our universities are waiting desperately for this Parliament and this cabinet secretary to provide it.

I move,

That the Parliament believes that the present funding structure for Scottish universities is no longer sustainable if they are to maintain academic excellence and also widen opportunities and access for students who are from traditionally non-university backgrounds; welcomes the growing consensus among key groups both within and outwith the university sector that favours a graduate contribution toward the cost of a university education, and notes the scope in Scotland to provide a more cost-effective and flexible degree structure in universities and to enhance vocational training as an alternative to higher education.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party 9:25 am, 30th September 2010

I am very pleased that the Conservatives should choose to use their allocated time to bring the subject of the future of higher education in Scotland to the chamber. In the piece in the Scotland on Sunday to which Elizabeth Smith referred, I paid that tribute, too. For the record, it should be noted that I am glad that that has happened and I think that we can have a consensual debate.

We had such a debate in the chamber on 3 June, when we reached the consensus that tuition fees—both up-front and back-door—are not the right solution for Scotland. I hope that today we can build on that by working towards a broader consensus on what a sustainable funding and organisational solution should look like to preserve the excellent reputation of our universities for years to come.

I also want to set the record straight in response to Elizabeth Smith's closing words. She talked about a desperation for leadership in our university sector. Last week, at the very conference that she organised, Professor Anton Muscatelli, the principal of the University of Glasgow, said:

"I think Scotland's universities are doing extremely well at the moment. We have three in the top 100, five in the top 200. So, at the moment there is no problem."

He went on to say that he wanted to see a resolution to this issue over the next year. I am surprised that there should be laughter from the Labour Party at Anton Muscatelli's opinion. The Opposition usually quotes him with approval, but when he disagrees with it, Opposition members laugh at him. That says something about the future of higher education in Scotland.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

No. I want to make progress.

So, we have about 12 months to take this issue from where we are now—we are not at the beginning—through to a conclusion. That is the agreed and accepted timetable across the sector.

As the debate proceeds, we will hear a range of competing views, as we should, because there are many views on the subject. Let us try to start with what we agree on. I think that all members recognise the valuable contribution that the universities make to Scotland. They contribute to our economic growth, to enhancing our culture and to enriching our society.

Our university sector punches above its weight globally. That is best illustrated by the fact that we publish 1.8 per cent of the world's research citations, despite having less than 0.1 per cent of the world's population. In 2008 alone, our record on citations rose by a remarkable 21 per cent. Our universities are not simply world class; they are world beaters and are part of a Scottish success story of which we should all be proud.

Another area on which we can agree is that we need to find a solution to address the predicted reduction in public spending and the questions posed by the Browne review, from which, as I have said before, we cannot hide. However, our obligation is to deliver a Scottish response—a uniquely Scottish solution to funding universities and university students in Scotland.

The need for us to reach a consensus was set out perfectly by Professor Sir Tim O'Shea, principal of the University of Edinburgh earlier this year when he said:

"My own gut reaction in situations like this roughly goes: 'Why don't the people involved in this all sit down together and try and think it through'. You can bring in consultants, you can set up an independent review if you want to, and in a way, that lets you off the hook. I would much rather the people that are there in it get together."

That is why, since March this year, I have been speaking to representatives across the sector, listening to what they have to say and considering the ideas that they are presenting.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

When the joint future thinking task force was set up, why was it explicitly prohibited from talking about the future of university finance?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Now we are in a situation, with the Browne review and the pressures on public finance as a result of Labour wrecking the economy, where we have to make some tougher decisions. However, I was quoting university principals expressing their views and it behoves the whole chamber to listen to them.

Over the course of this year, I have met university principals individually and as a group. I have met business leaders and representatives of staff and students. I have met leading thinkers on higher education funding and I have spoken to United Kingdom ministers and Lord Browne about the situation in England.

It is my intention to bring together many of the ideas that featured in those discussions into a green paper that we will publish before the end of the year and which will present a menu of options for consultation. In the early months of next year, I want there to be a wide-ranging debate across Scotland on what the component parts of that solution should be. In considering those options, we must remember that there is no silver bullet; there will be many parts of an eventual Scottish solution. Today is a welcome staging post for that debate and I hope that the chamber treats it in that way. I look forward to building on the consensus that we have already achieved in Scotland around our shared opposition to tuition fees—both up-front and deferred—and to continuing to discuss inside and outside this chamber the new ideas and fresh thinking that Scotland and the wider world can offer. The green paper must be wide ranging and radical and we must be open minded in considering our options.

I will put forward some of the many ideas that are being discussed and which will have to be considered. Let us start with our four-year degree. It is a strength; it is the international norm and I believe that it should remain the cornerstone of the university experience. The breadth and depth of education that students gain at university does not just prepare our graduates for life after university. In the words of Gary Kildare, global vice-president of IBM and its senior executive in Scotland, it delivers

"global citizens of the future".

So we should stop attacking the four-year degree and start celebrating it. It also puts us at the heart of the Bologna process—that growing together of higher education in Europe.

There are undoubtedly ways in which the learning journey can be made more efficient to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student population. The choices that students make about that learning journey should be crucial, including the time that they take to complete it. Building on the success of higher national certificates and diplomas, what opportunities can be created on the back of the Scottish baccalaureate to allow students to begin their studies in second year? The University of Edinburgh, the University of Glasgow, the University of Aberdeen, the University of the West of Scotland and the University of Abertay Dundee are all leading the way in supporting that new qualification, but I am interested in exploring how we might encourage it to spread more widely throughout the system.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I hear what the cabinet secretary says about the Scottish baccalaureate, but to date no university has offered a pupil a place on the basis of it.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, the University of the West of Scotland and Abertay are supporting the new qualification. I spoke to Tim O'Shea just yesterday about that and other matters. There is enthusiasm to take it forward and I would like to see the Scottish Conservatives get behind those students and the new qualification, because that would help greatly.

The question of higher education funding and the role of graduates also needs to be discussed, although it is not the only question of income. As we know, Professor Muscatelli and our National Union of Students president, Liam Burns, have both come out in favour of a graduate contribution of some kind, not a deferred fee, as have my colleagues on the Conservative benches, as we now know. If one examines the detail of those statements, one finds that the methods proposed for that and the ultimate destination of any additional resource vary greatly. Some, like a graduate tax, are alas presently outwith the powers of this Parliament. Nonetheless, this is interesting and important territory and it must be given further consideration.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Will the cabinet secretary explain the difference between a graduate contribution and a graduate fee?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

There is a very important difference, which I think is laid out rather well in the NUS briefing note for the debate. It should not be a deferred fee. That is an important distinction, which I am happy to endorse.

As well as focusing on the issue of what graduates might contribute, we should also focus on our contribution to our students. I am discussing the future of student support with the NUS and I am clear that it should form part of the green paper. We continue to work to simplify our current student support system where we can, but we also aim to be more aspirational.

In whatever we do we need to ensure that we protect access to university for those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. We are making some progress, but not nearly as much as we should. We should start to recognise that the real solutions for widening access do not lie simply at the entrance to the university campus; they lie increasingly at the door of the nursery school and the gates of the secondary school.

In our consideration of access, we must also recognise the essential contribution that our colleges make. I acknowledge the point that Elizabeth Smith made. It is too easy to forget that 20 per cent of our higher education students attend colleges. Do we properly recognise the colleges' role in what I would call the more vocationally oriented, skills-based element of higher education?

It is essential that we have a map of who offers what provision across the country. There is not such a map, but we need one, and I encourage our universities to play their part in making one. Alongside that map of provision, we should consider developing a map of institutions and the links between them. That will be essential in considering what the respective roles of the Government, the Scottish funding council and the institutions should be. There is an issue about the bureaucracy of funding colleges and universities and whether the Scottish funding council needs to change that and develop.

Internationally acclaimed research is really important to us. We must ensure that we take that forward and that businesses at home reap commercial benefit from what is done in Scotland's universities. The knowledge base must support the growth of the country's economy, so another challenge is to increase the rate of knowledge exchange.

There is more that needs to be looked at, such as how we can build on the success of our research pooling and the role and definition of impact in the new research excellence framework. Our Scottish solution must recognise not just success—we attract 10.8 per cent of UK research council funding despite having a population share of 8.4 per cent—but the challenge of a future in which there will be a reduction in UK science and research budgets.

I thank those who are taking part in the debate and have been for many months. I have been hugely encouraged by the leadership and ownership that is being shown across the sector and by the amount of work and thought that is going into this. I conclude by making a further offer. There is a range of views and there are important contributions to be made. The Conservatives have set out some of their preferred approach and I hope that Labour and Liberal Democrat members—as well as the Greens and our independent member—will be similarly positive. Today, I formally invite all those in the chamber to submit their views. I welcome all ideas that I receive in writing and would be happy to meet to discuss these matters at any time. The subject merits mature political consideration, and we must all work together to achieve the prize of a sustainable funding solution for Scotland's higher education sector.

With that in mind, I move amendment S3M-7109.2, to leave out from "believes" to end and insert:

"welcomes the firm consensus against any introduction of up-front fees in Scotland; notes the ongoing Independent Review of Higher Education and Student Finance in England and Wales; recognises that the Scottish Government will need to consider any potential impact on Scottish universities, and further recognises the Scottish Government's intention to publish a green paper on higher education to explore these issues further."

Photo of Claire Baker Claire Baker Labour 9:37 am, 30th September 2010

I am pleased to open the debate for Labour and thank the Conservatives for providing us with the opportunity to debate this important and pressing issue. Since I was elected to the Scottish Parliament, and during all my time as spokesperson on further and higher education for the Labour Party, the funding of the university sector has been a key concern. Over the past three years, there have been continuing calls for the Scottish Government to take measures to secure a stable, long-term funding solution for the university sector that meets the challenges that we face in Scotland.

As the Conservative motion acknowledges, there is an increasing recognition that the way in which we fund universities is no longer sustainable. Even the cabinet secretary admitted that. However, it is a situation that the Scottish Government has allowed to develop through its policy decisions and it must take responsibility for allowing the uncertainty in the sector to build. Although the Scottish Government is now calling for a debate, it is the body that has stood in the way of the debate and, as the debate moves on, it is in danger of being the body that is left behind.

Since the 2007 comprehensive spending review and the removal of the graduate endowment, there have been persistent calls for an examination of university funding, reflecting fears that the SNP Government is offering no direction or leadership on the issue. The Government's initial move to address those concerns, the joint future thinking task force, completely failed in its objective of providing answers on the long-term sustainability of the sector. Criticised for being exclusive in its membership, its focus was far too narrow to provide any lasting answers, and it was excluded from discussing the one area that everyone wanted to talk about—funding.

Every Holyrood conference, every parliamentary debate on universities, every HE evidence session at the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee and every newspaper's comment piece has asked how we can properly resource our universities in the future, how we can ensure that our university sector remains competitive and world leading and how we can properly support students so that they can focus on their studies. Those questions have been consistently posed over the past few years; yet, disappointingly, the Government has been short on answers. Now, at the tail-end of a Government that has run out of ideas, we have the promise of a green paper; however, I fear that the SNP's green paper may be too little too late. We are being asked to put all our faith into a so-called green paper that is being compiled from conversations that the cabinet secretary will not reveal, the content of which is unclear, and a set of options that have the very real prospect of never being pursued by the Government, as it is running out of time.

The Government's lack of action is letting down students in the sector. The SNP talks up its achievements, but student hardship continues to be the pressing concern of Scottish students. Sure, we have seen a slight increase in support levels for many students this year, but that has always been a sticking-plaster solution. NUS Scotland's report "Still in the Red", which was published in the summer, warned that student hardship has reached crisis proportions, with 80 per cent of higher education students stating that they were more concerned about having enough money to live on than about reducing their student loan debt. Fifty per cent of students had been forced to access commercial credit to get by, and 36 per cent had considered dropping out because of financial worries. We should not allow that level of poverty to continue for the poorest students; we must meet their need by finding ways to give them more pounds in their pockets while they are studying.

It is clear that the sector will enter a more challenging period. In the past few weeks, the principal of the University of Glasgow has warned that it will run out of money by 2013, but there has been little response from the Government to that concern. According to the NUS, there is a real-terms cut in university budgets this year, and universities anticipate a 3.2 per cent cut each year from next year. That is all coming at a time when we are seeing a record number of applications and gifted students being denied places.

The Browne review is due to report next month, and that will be followed by the UK Government's spending review. Those will present further challenges for the Scottish sector, but such a divergence in policy is a reality of devolution that the Scottish Government must deal with. We cannot predict the outcome and, although we will soon have the Browne report, we do not know when the UK Government will provide a response.

One thing that is certain is that it will require a re-evaluation of the Scottish Government's approach.

Labour has consistently called for an independent review, and I believe that that is needed now more than ever. At the centre of any review must be the outcomes that we want: properly resourced universities that are able to deliver high-quality teaching and compete internationally; universities that undertake world-class research that is successfully translated into business opportunities; a student support system that is fair, funded and affordable; and a sector in which access is widened and retention improved.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

Given the principles that Claire Baker has just outlined, is she prepared to put her cards on the table as to what form of contribution, tax or whatever she thinks might be the way forward?

Photo of Claire Baker Claire Baker Labour

I very much respect the Conservatives' proposal and the ideas that they are putting forward. Nevertheless, they must recognise the fact that there is no consensus on their proposal in the sector. An independent review that considers the range of issues, recognises that there is no consensus and takes the matter out of the hands of politicians and gives it to the sector has more chance of producing a long-term, lasting solution. Labour has consistently called for an independent review. Although we acknowledge that there is debate in the sector over graduate contributions, this is the wrong place to start the discussion. We must be clear about what we want to achieve and then ask how we can fairly fund it.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

I asked the minister the question that I now put to the member. She mentioned a graduate contribution. In her view, what is the difference between a graduate contribution and a fee or a charge? Is there any difference?

Photo of Claire Baker Claire Baker Labour

These are complex issues that we believe an independent review should examine in detail. They are issues that the UK Government—including the Liberals, who are now in partnership in the UK Government—must deal with at a different level.

Of course, we must prioritise the funding of the sector and find a financial solution, but unless we re-examine the structure of the tertiary sector and how that can best meet the needs of the students, focus on a curriculum that delivers for the learner, strengthen the links between further and higher education and offer flexible education to best meet the needs of the learner, we will be missing an opportunity. We very much recognise the need for early action in the area and, along with other parties in the chamber, we have been calling on the Government for action. Nonetheless, we also recognise the need for expediency in undertaking a review. There are more questions to be asked of the sector than how it is funded.

Photo of Claire Baker Claire Baker Labour

I am sorry, but I need to make progress.

There is much of which we can be proud in the Scottish university sector. We have excellent examples of innovative universities, exceptional strength in key sectors that lead the world in their field and research assessment exercise ratings that reflect the fact that our universities consistently punch above their weight. However, there are other areas in which the Government must show greater leadership.

Scotland's drop-out rates remain persistently high. It is even more concerning that the problem is concentrated in particular universities, which have an inverse relationship with Scotland's widening access figures.

Members:

Oh!

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

I thank the member for giving way. She picked the nicest-looking one.

Has any work been done on the drop-out rate? Is whether a student drops out dependent on their financial circumstances or on whether they had the academic background to start the course in the first place?

Photo of Claire Baker Claire Baker Labour

I am pushed for time, but Margo MacDonald raises an important issue. We need to look at the complex reasons for the drop-out rate. A combination of issues is involved, including hardship and how we support students from non-traditional backgrounds once they get into university to ensure that they are successful in their courses. In Scotland, people from a non-traditional background have less chance of getting a university place than such people anywhere else in the UK. As a Parliament, we should challenge that and take bold decisions to address that educational inequality.

Mike Russell likes to talk about creating consensus. The only real consensus is that the SNP has got things wrong. It has had three years' worth of chances to secure the sector's financial future, and it has failed. It is only right to take politics out of the equation. It is time to formalise the debate through the appropriate process, which is an independent review.

I move amendment S3M-7109.3, to leave out from "welcomes" to first "education" and insert:

"acknowledges the growing consensus among key groups within and outwith the university sector that recognises the need to examine the various graduate contribution options; calls for an urgent and independent review of institutional funding and student support".

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat 9:46 am, 30th September 2010

I am pleased to speak in this debate.

I listened with interest to Elizabeth Smith's speech, and there are certainly points of agreement between us. The crucial ones are that academic merit should be the key that unlocks higher education, that flexibility in the system is worth pursuing, and that greater private sector investment is needed. Where we disagree is on who should pay. Elizabeth Smith quoted John McTernan. Not for the first time in my life, I find myself in complete disagreement with him and Elizabeth Smith. He said that we should be worried about the fact that the dustbin man pays for the duke's daughter to go to university, but the point is that the duke's daughter would go to university anyway, and we have to get a system that allows the dustbin man's daughter to go to university. The fundamental issue is not the duke's daughter, but all our daughters.

In June, I said during a debate in the chamber on student fees that the debate reminded 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".—[Official Report, 3 June 2010; c 26983.]

Our stance has not changed. The Scottish Liberal Democrats remain committed, as we have throughout the years of devolution, to the demise of student fees in whatever form they may come.

In Scotland, under the coalition Government with the Labour Party, funding for our universities and colleges reached record levels. Thanks to the Liberal Democrats, the up-front tuition fees that the Labour Party introduced were abolished. We found a Scottish solution that has meant that nearly 200,000 Scottish students who have entered Scottish institutions have not paid fees. As a result, there has been a total of £4 billion less debt for Scottish graduates. In opposition, we voted with the current Government party to end the graduate endowment because we believe that access to education should be based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay.

The Conservatives will claim that a system that allows for deferred fees, based on a graduate's income, will leave the door to higher education open to all. Widening access to higher education is supposedly on the Conservatives' agenda, but their view is naive. As the NUS has said, the Conservative proposals amount to an up-front fee, albeit with the option of an income-contingent loan, which will act as a deterrent to widening access.

Currently, only 14.9 per cent of higher education entrants come from our most deprived areas. Things have improved, but Scotland's rates on widening access and its drop-out rates are poor. Since the introduction of top-up fees in the rest of the UK in 2006, the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds who enter higher education has increased by less than 1 per cent.

We know from research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Scottish Government income, expenditure and debt survey that the level of debt associated with studying at university is already a deterrent for some people, particularly people from poorer backgrounds, to whom debt is simply unacceptable. That fear of debt not only influences whether individuals move on to higher education, but their courses and the institutions at which they choose to study. A review that the University of Leicester released last week showed that the amount that is charged in fees, regardless of whether they are up front or deferred, has an impact on the decisions of pupils from poorer backgrounds on whether to go on to university. Given the Tories' agenda, evidence from Australia is equally worrying. That evidence shows that an up-front price tag combined with variable institution and course fees has resulted in the most expensive institutions and the most expensive courses becoming the preserve of students from traditional backgrounds. I cannot believe that that is what any us in the chamber, including Conservative members, wants.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

Let me give Margaret Smith some statistics on the percentages of people from deprived backgrounds who go to university. Across the UK, the average is 32.3 per cent. In England, where there are top-up fees, the figure is 32.4 per cent. In Wales, where there are top-up fees, the figure is 32.5 per cent. In Northern Ireland, where there are top-up fees, the figure is 41.7 per cent. In Scotland, the figure is only 28.2 per cent. Does that not completely give the lie to the case that Margaret Smith is making?

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

I will give Murdo Fraser a statistic. When the charges that the Conservatives want to introduce in Scotland were introduced in Australia, participation in higher education by males from the poorest backgrounds decreased by 38 per cent. We already have a lack of equality in educational choice in Scotland. Reintroducing fees, whether up-front, top-up, deferred or whatever, would serve only to exacerbate existing inequalities. We want to open up opportunities, not close them down.

I agree with Murdo Fraser that we are nowhere near to where any of us wants us to be. That is why we need to have proper debates, and why we welcome the publication of the green paper and the continuing consideration of ways in which access to university education can be widened for all who are able to attain that level. We remain whole-heartedly committed to supporting social mobility through education.

Mike Russell was right: there is no silver bullet. Parental income should not be seen as a golden key to higher education. That is why we cannot follow the course that is being plotted by the Tory party and Labour, which want to see the reintroduction of fees in Scotland. Make no mistake: in spite of the improvements to student support and an end being put to tuition fees and the graduate endowment—the Liberal Democrats fought for those policies—Scotland's students are still struggling. We can see that in NUS Scotland's "Still in the Red" report.

We recognise that the findings of the Browne review of higher education funding south of the border and any subsequent UK actions will need to be considered by the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament in due course. However, until that review is published and we know the consequences for Scotland, we should not make substantial assumptions or jump to conclusions. We will not know exactly what financial circumstances we face until the comprehensive spending review is delivered and the Scottish budget is fully revealed. That is why we support the proposal to publish a green paper on the future of higher education funding by the end of the year. Whatever the findings, I am sure that the green paper will spark open and productive discussion. Crucially, I should add that we welcome the comments of the First Minister at First Minister's question time last week on the green paper not including a return to tuition fees. We acknowledge, of course, the real problems that our higher education institutions are facing, and we are aware that there are issues, but we are not willing to pass the burden on to our young people as a tax on learning.

Scotland has a world-class and world-renowned higher education system. It is in our hands to ensure that we not only maintain that system, but improve it. We know that Labour's recession has hit hard. Times are tough and cash is tight, but we need to protect and support our education system so that we can build on our existing excellence.

It is not only students who benefit from higher education; our economy is directly and indirectly boosted by good graduates, research funding and the attraction of business here because of such things. Graduates already tend to pay more tax because they tend to earn more. They pay a graduate contribution all their life if they are able and lucky enough to get the kind of salaries that most graduates get. Such salaries tend to be higher than those of dustbin men.

The Tories seem to think that they can regulate which degrees are economically useful and prioritise them. I am more inclined to agree with John F Kennedy, who suggested that we

"think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation."

At the Tory education conference, Liz Smith said:

"We start from the premise that the status quo for funding in Scotland is no longer tenable and that the decision taken by the Scottish Government to return to 'free' higher education was the wrong one."

The Liberal Democrats disagree. We say that that is the wrong premise. We believe that lifting the burden of tuition fees and the graduate endowment was the right thing to do, and that it remains the right thing to do.

I move amendment S3M-7109.1, to leave out from "believes" to end and insert:

"welcomes that, thanks to the actions of the previous and current administrations in Scotland, full-time Scottish higher education students studying in Scotland pay neither tuition fees nor top-up fees; notes the ongoing Independent Review of Higher Education Funding 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, which have a global reputation for excellence, and welcomes the Scottish Government's commitment to bring forward a green paper on higher education following publication of the review."

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative 9:54 am, 30th September 2010

Like my colleague Elizabeth Smith, I am an avid reader of newspaper articles that were written by Michael Russell. However, I prefer the articles that he wrote when he was not an MSP, in the days when he was grasping the thistle. It now appears that he is clutching at straws. His clarion call to build consensus on the way forward for funding higher education in Scotland is based on a Scottish Government contribution to that debate of absolutely nothing. Today's effort has advanced the debate no further.

One of the reasons for Mr Russell's failure is his failure to grasp some basic facts. In his article on tuition fees he wrote:

"I congratulate the Scottish Tories for finally coming out against them."

No congratulations from Mr Russell are needed, because the Scottish Tories were never in favour of tuition fees. Let me remind him and other members of a few truths—they might be inconvenient truths, as Al Gore would no doubt say, but they are nonetheless worthy of repetition. The first truth is that throughout the period of Conservative Government from 1979 to 1997 no tuition fees were levied on our first degree full-time students. Tuition fees were the creature and creation of the incoming new Labour—rest in peace—Government, and were introduced following the report of the Dearing committee.

The Scottish Conservatives opposed tuition fees. We said so in the 1999 and 2003 Scottish Parliament elections. We were highly critical of the graduate endowment and the betrayal by the Liberal Democrats, who conceded the policy to Labour as a price of the coalition deal.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

What is the Conservative view of the difference between a graduate contribution, which Conservatives propose, and a fee or a charge? Will David McLetchie explain the difference? I have tried twice to get an explanation.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

I refer Mr Rumbles to all the answers that Liberal Democrat ministers gave to that question between 1997 and 2007 and I remind him that he voted for the graduate endowment.

Where our position changed was when we said that before we abolished the graduate endowment, for which the ashamed Liberal Democrats voted, we should have a full-scale review and examination of structures and funding for higher education in Scotland. We said that it would be premature and not sensible to take steps that would add to the cost to the public purse before the issue had been thoroughly examined, particularly in light of developments south of the border. That was a remarkably prescient call, because that is what is happening with Browne in England, and even Mr Russell says that he will publish a green paper.

I repeat, for the benefit of Mr Russell and others, that at no time, in government or in opposition at Westminster or in the Scottish Parliament, have the Scottish Conservatives been in favour of up-front, pay-as-you-study tuition fees.

The second inconvenient truth that is worth repeating is that the number of full-time students in higher education in Scotland increased from 72,150 in 1980-81 to 162,335 in 1997-98. In other words, there were more than 90,000 additional students in an 18-year period, which represents a growth rate of 5,000 students a year. Moreover, that pace of growth is far superior to anything that has subsequently been achieved by Labour or the SNP in their attempts to widen access and increase opportunity. Accordingly, our record is one of unprecedented expansion in higher education, which was achieved without resort to the levying of tuition fees and was accompanied throughout by a system of grants and loans to support students. That is a proud record.

We have not been overly specific in our motion about the form that a graduate contribution might take, but it is self-evident that an up-front tuition fee cannot be a graduate contribution, because such a fee is paid by a student, not a graduate. Just as we did not favour, introduce or support tuition fees either when we were in government or when we were in opposition during the past 30 years, we do not do so now.

We are quite prepared to debate what form a graduate contribution might take. It might be made through an income-contingent loan, as Elizabeth Smith said. We could have a graduate tax, which our Liberal Democrat friend and colleague Vincent Cable advocates. There could be a variation of the graduate endowment scheme that was introduced and advocated by Labour and the Liberal Democrats in the Scottish Parliament.

The subject of graduate contributions and fees merits a section to itself in the report of the independent budget review panel, which helpfully told us:

"In 2009-10, the total cost of fee support for higher education students studying in Scotland was just over £200 million."

The panel also highlighted the substantial element of subsidy in the loans system. What is noteworthy are the implications for the Scottish Government's budget of changes that the Browne review might recommend on public funding for higher education in England, if such changes are adopted south of the border.

In that context we must consider the extent to which a graduate contribution of whatever form is earmarked as an additional source of funding support for higher education in Scotland and the extent to which it becomes a substitute for some of the funding that the Government currently provides.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

No. I am sorry, but I must finish.

In its report, the independent budget review panel acknowledged:

"Income from fees might ... be seen as a way of offsetting any budget reductions in the Scottish Government's allocation to the Scottish Funding Council while maintaining universities' competitiveness."

That demonstrates that the options that we are all considering—and those that some members might eventually disclose—will need to have additional and substitutional characteristics when it comes to funding levels and funding sources. It would be naive to think otherwise.

Photo of Bill Wilson Bill Wilson Scottish National Party 10:01 am, 30th September 2010

We are debating a strange Tory motion. It opens, bizarrely, with the phrase:

"That the Parliament believes that the present funding structure for Scottish universities is no longer sustainable".

There can be no doubt about the Scottish Government's commitment to higher education as a major priority. Let us look at the current funding: a record £1.076 billion for our universities in the financial year 2010-11. Higher education's share of Government spend also remains higher under this Administration, at 3.88 per cent, than it was under the previous, Labour Administration, when it was 3.73 per cent. In contrast with England, we did not impose funding cuts in 2010-11.

In July 2010, a comparative study showed that Scotland invests more in research and development through higher education as a share of overall gross domestic product than does any other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development country. Scotland ranks first in the world in the number of research citations relative to its GDP.

Were we simply to look at the current funding and performance of Scottish universities we would have difficulty comprehending the panic in the opening line of the Tory motion. However, there is one great disadvantage from which our universities suffer, which might indeed give rise to panic and explain the opening line of the Tory motion. We are not an independent nation. We cannot determine our taxation levels or the UK's spending priorities. Our universities are vulnerable to the caprices of a London Tory Government.

I begin to understand the panic that is expressed in Elizabeth Smith's motion. When one considers the spending plans that are being outlined in Westminster, there is indeed cause for concern. Robert M May, the former chief scientific adviser to the UK Government, has roundly criticised the current UK Government's attitude towards science. A New Scientist editorial talked of scientists taking up pitchforks to resist the spending cuts. One can imagine the scene: desperate scientists waving flaming brands and pitchforks in a frantic last-ditch effort to stop the mindless monster of savage cuts rampaging through our great institutions, leaving a trail of shattered test-tubes, broken Longworths and distorted quadrats in their wake. One can almost smell the smoke and hear the despairing cries of the few surviving scientists being drowned out by the savage roar of the bloodstained, rending maw of the Westminster Government.

Enough of such metaphors. It cannot go unremarked that the UK Government's proposals to slash expenditure on research contrasts sharply with the approach of the United States, which has provided a $21 billion boost for science, and with that of France, which has provided €35 billion. Germany and China are also increasing their expenditure. While we cut, other nations recognise the value of research and the university sector and acknowledge the sector's central role in the economy.

No doubt some people will insist that in spite of the damage that cuts will do to our economy we have no choice. I take this opportunity to offer a few choices. We could choose to have a progressive taxation system that makes the very wealthy rather than the very poor pay significantly more tax. We could opt for an increase for HM Revenue and Customs, to enable it to slash the £95 billion or so a year that is lost through tax evasion and tax avoidance. We could immediately scrap Trident, thereby saving £2 billion a year and a further £100 billion on the development of a new system. It is not rocket science, which is just as well, given that we will be hard put to find a rocket scientist after the coming cuts have worked their way through.

To be fair, the opening lines of Elizabeth Smith's motion are perhaps not so bizarre after all when they are considered in the light of Westminster spending cuts. However, all in all, the motion would have been much clearer if it had read: "In the light of the massive spending cuts planned by the Tory Government, the Parliament believes that the present funding structure for Scottish universities is no longer sustainable." The debate over graduation contributions is not a new one, and it is always interesting to listen to individuals who graduated at a time when there were student grants and no fees lecture today's students on the need for them to borrow ever-increasing sums and pay substantial fees.

I am, and continue to be, an unashamed supporter of free education. The introduction of fees and the abolition of grants actively work against equality of access. That in turn reduces the pool of potential university recruits and damages both our universities and society as a whole.

Some argue that students gain financially from having an education and that they should therefore pay the cost. That is a smokescreen. If students indeed benefit financially from their education, why are the payback levels invariably set below the median income? What of graduates who work as nurses and for charities and non-governmental organisations on relatively low levels of pay? They make a significant contribution to our society but might find themselves paying additional tax while earning less than is earned by 60 per cent of wage earners.

If students indeed earn more because they have attended a university, and society wishes them to pay extra because they earn more, the solution is simple. It is called progressive taxation, which simply involves taxing higher-income individuals at higher rates so that those who earn more pay more. That is not complex at all and is extremely fair.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

I appreciate the member's contribution, but there is a niggle that members might have heard from members of the public who have not attended university. What happens to all the students who come here from abroad? They go home and do not pay any progressively higher taxation or, indeed, any taxation at all.

Photo of Bill Wilson Bill Wilson Scottish National Party

Foreign students bring vast sums of money into the UK. Universities charge extremely high fees to the Governments of the countries involved. That is a major source of income that runs into billions of pounds across in the UK. We should welcome that source of income, which is strong in Scotland precisely because we have such well-funded universities, which are of such a singularly high quality. I thank the member for her question.

Photo of Bill Wilson Bill Wilson Scottish National Party

There is an element of hypocrisy in the debate. Bankers all but wrecked our economy, yet all those who did so walked away the richer for it. The state has had to bail out the banks, yet the scandal of low tax on bankers bonuses continues. We are told that students should pay more and that the poor should pay a greater proportion in VAT, but the culture of tax evasion and tax avoidance by the very wealthy and of low tax on obscene bonuses rolls on and on.

In the end, it is a matter of priorities. I am a supporter of independence because I believe that the priorities of Scotland and Westminster are not the same. When we debate funding in education and consider the wider picture, those differences in priorities are clear.

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour 10:08 am, 30th September 2010

Like others, I am grateful to the Tories for lodging the motion. However, I think that its wording is nothing if not ironic. As has been noted, it starts by stating:

"the Parliament believes that the present funding structure for Scottish universities is no longer sustainable".

Those words could soon become the best single transferable motion ever—members need only remove the words "Scottish universities" and replace them with the public service of their choice.

Under the savage and aggressive public spending cuts that are shortly to be inflicted on us by the Tories and delivered by their Liberal Democrat little helpers at Westminster, few, if any, public services will be sustainable in their current form. Under the new Con-Dem Government, we will return to the heartless, Thatcherite mantra of unemployment being a price worth paying.

Of course, it will not be the senior bankers and city speculators who pay that heavy price. No—it will be ordinary men and women throughout Scotland who lose their jobs and lose hope. The effects of the cuts on higher education will be the same as they will be on other aspects of public life: they will disproportionately affect the poorest. The impending budget cuts will result in fewer students from deprived areas taking up places at colleges and universities in Scotland. Already, too many prospective students turn away from higher education because they perceive that they cannot afford it, and too many students drop out because they are not able to sustain their studies. The coming spending cuts will only make matters worse. Faced with increasingly limited employment opportunities, insufficient grant and loan mechanisms and inadequate child care provision, far too many young people from deprived communities will decide that attending college or university is just not viable.

Photo of Gavin Brown Gavin Brown Conservative

I understand that the member is the convener of the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee. Given her experience in that role, what ideas is she bringing forward for getting us out of this difficulty?

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour

I will cover some of that later in my speech. We do not have a consensus about the way forward, but the Labour Party has a position on the matter. I speak today not as the convener of the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee but as a Labour politician, and I think that we need to have an independent review that considers all the options so that we can find a long-term and sustainable programme that everyone can buy into. It is clear from today's debate that we have not yet arrived at that position. The Tories have come forward with proposals today, but not everyone agrees with them. We need a set of proposals that will work.

I recognise that, even in the best of times, student funding is a difficult and hotly debated subject. Increasingly, universities compete on an international basis for valuable research funding, making the provision of adequate and sustainable core funding a key issue. That is a challenge that the SNP Administration has singularly failed to face up to. Mr Russell hides behind secret meetings and Chatham house rules—in fact, he will hide behind anything rather than be open about the current review.

Of course, that should not come as a surprise to Scottish students, because this is a Government that has broken more manifesto pledges than any other. It is a Government that promised to dump student debt, which is now worth £2.4 billion.

Michael Russell told us today that he will bring forward a green paper. I wonder whether it will be like the literacy action plan that he promised months ago would arrive before the summer recess and of which there is still no sign. Perhaps if we did something about literacy in this country we would have more students going into further and higher education.

The SNP Government has presided over a reduction of more than 1,000 undergraduate and postgraduate places in the past year and seems oblivious to the plight of thousands of students facing real hardship.

It is worth noting that the central concern of NUS Scotland is student hardship. Its report, "Still in the Red", concludes that student hardship in Scotland has reached crisis levels. The report clearly shows that many students have financial worries and difficulties that impact on their performance at university. Many are being forced to turn to commercial credit just to get by, and far too many students are working long hours, which they believe is having a negative effect on their studies. It is clear to me that, in those circumstances, students from less well-off families are much more likely to drop out of their course. That should be a worry for every MSP in the chamber.

This is no way in which to run higher education in Scotland. Scottish universities and Scottish students need something better than a Government that is burying its head in the sand and praying that the problem will go away until it finally gets around to publishing its green paper. That is why Scottish Labour is calling for an independent review of institutional funding and student support—something that the cabinet secretary could put in place today, if he were so minded. That needs to happen sooner than later. The cabinet secretary quoted Anton Muscatelli, and I will do so, too.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

As long as it is a short quote, because you should wind up.

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour

I promise that it will be.

Anton Muscatelli emphasised that the University of Glasgow

"would run out of cash" by 2013. I point out to Mr Russell that Anton Muscatelli was not saying that everything was going to be fine; he was pointing out that something needs to be done right now, rather than waiting for a green paper that might come along one day.

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour

To conclude, Presiding Officer, I welcome the opportunity to highlight the plight of Scottish students. The Scottish Government has failed and is failing them. Too many students are living on the breadline and too many Scottish students are struggling to survive. Is the minister willing to listen to that—

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

No. The member has exceeded her allocation.

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour

—and is he willing to support our call for an independent review?

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative 10:15 am, 30th September 2010

I seek during my six minutes to talk about some fairly disparate ideas that are relatively peripheral to the funding of higher education, and then to tie them together to demonstrate how important they are to the arguments that are put in the motion.

One of the perceived problems that we have in the Parliament is that everybody believes—apparently—that change is necessary in higher education. However, the previous speaker in particular, but also others from whom we have heard this morning, clearly take the view that, although something needs to change, somebody else will have to come up with the ideas, whether it be an independent commission or whatever.

The problem is that we have a lack of ideas. We desperately need ideas in Scotland today. The reason why is that we have increasingly developed a mismatch between the demands of Scottish industry and the Scottish economy and the nature of the graduates that we are producing. That not only affects the ability of Scottish industry to develop at a time when that is urgently required, but means that we are suffering from the problem of tying too many people in to courses at too early a stage, which results in their holding qualifications that are not necessarily marketable once they have been achieved.

If we are to go down a road on which, as many of us now accept, we may have to ask graduates to make a contribution, it is essential that we equip them to make that contribution when the opportunity comes along. We therefore have a responsibility to look at how we would achieve that. Many of our universities are beginning to explore those opportunities. For example, the University of Aberdeen is seeking to provide a range of options when it comes to providing courses. Of course it wants to continue the traditional four-year Scottish honours degree, but it also proposes an advanced entry three-year honours degree for applicants who have advanced highers, A levels or other qualifications in appropriate subjects and at appropriate grades. It wants to offer three-year degrees, which are simply enhancements of the old ordinary degree, and it wants to offer other options, too.

We have also seen Heriot-Watt University coming forward with proposals such as its MA2MA programme, which will offer the opportunity to move from a modern apprenticeship all the way through to a masters degree if that option is suitable for the candidate. Those are examples of the type of options that we need to bring forward.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

Sorry. I wish to make progress.

Those options have something to contribute to ensuring that the cost of a degree is kept under control. However, there is another aspect that is not specifically related to cost, and that is about the accessibility of higher education. The idea that someone might start a diploma or higher national certificate course and progress to taking a degree qualification at a later stage opens up the higher education system to people who would otherwise not consider it—the very people who we are concerned are not accessing higher education today. The evidence suggests that there is more than simply a financial plus to be achieved from opening up flexibility within higher education. That is why it is essential that we take the opportunity that is afforded by the reviews that we are all talking about today to look at ways of opening it up.

If we go down that road, we will secure financial benefits—students who go through shorter degree courses will end up with less debt. It will suit those who wish to have a more broken-up career structure, and it will facilitate those who wish to take up higher education opportunities later in life, because they will be able to do that, in some cases while they are in paid employment. It will also give appropriate respect to vocational training, which starts people at a level that is appropriate to their school qualifications and takes them through the system, delivering opportunities and enabling them to achieve as they develop their ability. It is also a catch-all that will allow us to ensure that those who are not successful at school have an option to get into higher education. That is what Scotland needs today.

Scotland needs a broader-based and more flexible approach to the provision of higher education. By going down that road, we will provide a system that is more affordable for the student, even if we ultimately pass more of that financial cost on to the student. That will also make it more attractive for the private sector to become involved in training at that level, because if we have a shortage of a particular skill—we all know that there is a shortage of engineers and scientists in Scotland today—the private sector can become more directly involved in ensuring that the right people pursue the right education and get the required support.

In an ideal world, I would not want to have the conversation that we are having today, but it is obvious that if higher education is to flourish in the years to come, we must be open-minded and flexible about how it is funded. If we are to do that, we must be open-minded and flexible about the nature of the courses that we provide.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat 10:21 am, 30th September 2010

There is no question but that the key point in this debate is how to fund Scotland's universities and keep them competitive if, as expected, universities in England and Wales receive a substantial boost to their income. The Conservative party's motion maintains that there is a

"growing consensus among key groups both within and outwith the university sector" that favours a so-called graduate contribution, although the Conservatives cannot define what a graduate contribution is. When I asked David McLetchie earlier, he could not tell me the difference between a fee, a charge and a graduate contribution. I really liked Alex Johnstone saying that they will "ask" students to make a graduate contribution. Will they give them the option of saying no?

I make it clear that I, for one, do not share the so-called cosy consensus. If the key question is how to ensure adequate funding for our universities in the face of better funding for universities in England and Wales, how does the logic automatically jump to the charging of our students?

At the moment, Scottish universities are largely funded out of the public purse by the Scottish Government using taxpayers' money, but so, too, are our schools. I do not see anyone—not even the Conservatives—rushing to say that, because we need to pump more money into our schools, we should consider charging our 16, 17 and 18-year-old students who stay on at school because they benefit from that while others leave at 16 and enter the world of work, but that is exactly the logic of the Conservative motion.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

I am interested in the analogy between schools and higher education. Schools are a universal service but, as we have heard, higher education manifestly is not. There is surely a distinct difference between the two sectors, and that is the key.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Of course it is a universal service. Students can stay on at school if they have the ability and wish to do so, and they can go to university if they have the ability and wish to do so.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Let me press on. I will take an intervention later.

We have heard it said that university students will earn more money when they enter the world of work, and that they therefore benefit at the taxpayer's expense. Indeed, that is the logic of the calls for the reintroduction of tuition fees by another name, and for the imposition of a graduate contribution. It seems to me that those who advocate either tuition fees or a graduate contribution on that basis fail to recognise that we already have a tax that is specifically designed to ensure that the more someone earns, the more they contribute in taxation. It is called income tax, which is paid at 20 per cent, 40 per cent and, soon, 50 per cent. The achievements of students in obtaining their chosen degrees does not necessarily mean that they will earn more than their contemporaries; the earning power of a degree will not apply to everybody. The fairest form of taxation is without doubt income tax. I cannot understand the logic of suggesting another tax on top of that.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

Surely the logic is about the marginal cost and the marginal benefit of having a university education. That is the key principle that underlines our proposals.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

The marginal cost? The fact is that what the Conservatives propose is based on the assumption that everyone who gets a university degree will earn more money than people who do not get a university degree. The present system is funded largely by the state, and I find the logic of the Conservative motion, which assumes that our students must somehow make a contribution—which they will "ask" them to make—ridiculous.

Rather than address an as-yet hypothetical situation—the increase in funds for English and Welsh universities that might result from the Browne review—I would much rather spend the time debating student debt, as Claire Baker did, to an extent.

At the moment, a Scottish student who attends a course that is available only in England has to pay tuition fees and, in a great many cases, has very limited access to a student loan. The non-means-tested loan is only some £900 a year. That is a complete nonsense, as it means that many students rely on commercial loans with high rates of interest, in addition to the tuition fees that they have to pay. It is a big issue, which I raised in Parliament many times with the previous education minister, and I am disappointed that no action has been taken to allow those students greater access to the student loan funds. That could be done if the political will existed. I appreciate that the issue might not have been bright on the minister's radar screen, given all the other problems that exist, but I would like him to make a genuine attempt to end the reliance on commercial loans with high interest rates. The minister could take action, at a relatively marginal cost, that would really help those students.

Photo of Claire Baker Claire Baker Labour

I am interested in the member's view on the position of NUS Scotland, which is debating what a true graduate contribution would look like as a means of increasing student support. He has expressed concerns about student hardship. Does he agree with the NUS that discussing a graduate contribution is a way of resolving the present situation?

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

You are very near the end of your time, Mr Rumbles.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

The short answer to that is no, I do not. I think that that is the wrong way to approach the issue.

At the moment, our universities are funded largely through general taxation. I would have more sympathy for the university heads such as Anton Muscatelli who are calling on the Parliament to legislate to charge our students for the privilege of attending their institutions if they themselves had moderated their huge salaries. Anton Muscatelli is on a salary of £250,000. How dare he? I have little sympathy for those calls for our struggling students to pay up.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

We have now used up most of the slack in the debate, so members should stick fairly closely to the time limits.

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party 10:27 am, 30th September 2010

I was delighted by the recent news—which the cabinet secretary mentioned—that the University of Edinburgh would be fast-tracking new students who have passed the Scottish baccalaureate by allowing them to proceed straight into second year, where appropriate. It is heartening that the University of the West of Scotland in my region has committed to the Scottish baccalaureate, too.

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party

I want to make progress.

That recognition of the excellence of the award and the hard work that pupils put into gaining the qualification is a very welcome development in Scotland's education system, and the University of Edinburgh, the University of the West of Scotland and all the other institutions that are looking at the baccalaureate should be congratulated on their foresight.

The quote in The Herald from Edinburgh's vice-principal, Professor Mary Bownes, makes it quite clear why the university has chosen to mark the qualification. She said:

"The breadth and depth of study required is ideal preparation for higher education, and lends itself particularly well to the Scottish degree."

It is good to see one of Scotland's universities joining Scotland's business community in acknowledging the Scottish baccalaureate, and I look forward to the other higher and further education institutions across the country following that example, and to the continued growth and success of the baccalaureate as an important part of Scottish education.

That, I believe, answers—at least in part—the call in the motion for a more flexible degree structure. We cannot forget that our universities are not public institutions; they are independent of the state, and decisions about their degree structures and cost-effectiveness are for them to make. Ministers have restricted room for manoeuvre here, and that is exactly as it should be.

What funding the state is prepared to offer the universities is a different matter, of course, and it is on that issue that we will find political differences. I appreciate where the Conservative motion is coming from, and it may surprise some members to find that I agree with part of it—the part that refers to a graduate contribution. In fact, the graduate contribution is a traditional part of our education system, but it is usually called by another name: income tax.

The proposal that was made recently by one of the new Conservatives—one Vince Cable—rested on the idea that graduates who earned the most would make a larger graduate contribution than their peers, so we are talking about not only income tax, but progressive taxation. Who would have thought that the Westminster coalition would have led to the Conservatives advocating progressive taxation in less than six months? I find that I can readily agree with my Conservative colleagues that progressive taxation is the way forward. The times truly are a-changing.

Interestingly, Ed Miliband wrote an article for The Guardian in June that called for a graduate contribution, but not at different levels. Ed is a flat-tax Labour leader who opposes a Conservative coalition that advocates progressive taxation. Westminster is, truly, through the looking glass.

Importantly, though, Vince Cable's remarks on research funding impact on Scottish universities because it is the UK research councils that he is talking of cutting into.

Photo of Claire Baker Claire Baker Labour

The member talks about a progressive taxation system. Does she support Vince Cable's proposals for a graduate tax?

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party

No, I do not support those proposals at all.

I will quote Vince Cable directly:

"My preference is to ration research funding by excellence and back research teams of international quality—and screen out mediocrity—regardless of where they are and what they do."

He talked of concentrating funding in the 54 per cent of research that has been identified as world class, and of driving down the number of centres that undertake some forms of research. Let us make that clear: it is the 17 per cent of research across the UK that was defined as "world-leading" in 2008 and the 37 per cent that was defined as "internationally excellent" that Mr Cable thinks should be funded. That would mean cutting funding for the 33 per cent that is

"of a quality that is recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour" and the 11 per cent that is

"recognised nationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour".

However, I am confident that my enlightened Lib Dem colleagues in the Scottish Parliament are committed to free education, and I believe that they will have an extremely positive impact on the proposed green paper.

In the light of the proposed cut in research funding, I took a look at the figures on the website of the Higher Education Funding Council for England. In 1998-99—the year in which tuition fees were introduced in England—the teaching grant for England's universities was £4.68 billion. For this academic year, the teaching grant and Government-funded fees amounted to £5.1 billion. That is a real-terms cut of £1.1 billion—17 per cent of what the English teaching grant would have been if it had just kept pace with inflation. Tuition fees have not added to the income of English universities; they have reduced Government funding and dipped into the pockets of the students.

The motion talks about new funding methods. The Conservatives—both the old-fashioned kind with blue rosettes and the new ones with yellow rosettes—seem to be in favour of a graduate contribution and they have been joined by not-so-red Ed, who is leading the Labour Party into the same paddock.

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party

To save Margaret Smith the trouble, I say that I welcome her reassurances and know that she wears a vibrant, bright yellow rosette and that, like me, she believes that education should be based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay.

I turn to widening access. The NUS-Labour claims that Scotland's record is worse on that issue are based on Higher Education Statistics Agency figures, which are based on students who go to Scottish universities rather than on residents of Scotland who go to university. We have more students as a whole than England, so the fact that we have a smaller share of students from non-traditional backgrounds may mean that a similar rate of people from non-traditional backgrounds go to university.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

You should be finishing now, Ms McKelvie.

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party

Scottish universities receive a cross-border flow of students, predominantly from higher occupational class backgrounds. HESA figures do not take into account higher national certificates and higher national diplomas.

In conclusion, the Institute of Directors' publication concluded—

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

No. You are concluding now, Ms McKelvie.

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party

—that a graduate tax would be a burden on employers. I do not agree—

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

I do not agree, either. Will you sit down, please?

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour 10:34 am, 30th September 2010

I think of myself as an optimist. In fact, I would go further: I would suggest that despite the presence of the occasional doom-monger among us and the reputation of politics as a cynical business, the majority of members of this Parliament are optimists, too. Perhaps we need to be. Every now and then there are moments that test our fortitude. One such moment—certainly for Labour members—was May 2007 and the election that ushered in the SNP Government.

I do not mind admitting that I consoled myself with the thought that, nominally at least, the SNP claims to be a progressive party. I do not even mind admitting that there are good people in the SNP, some of whom are probably not that far removed from where my colleagues and I stand on some issues. In fact, particularly on education, I took comfort from the fact that the Scottish Government agenda was supposedly to pick up from where we left off by narrowing the opportunity gap, raising attainment, widening access and maintaining the cornerstone of the comprehensive system.

On higher education, the SNP promised to be even more progressive. It promised to return us to a supposed golden age of free education and famously—or, rather, infamously—to dump student debt. That makes it even more disappointing that we find ourselves in the current situation. Who could have predicted, or would have wanted to predict, that three years on the SNP would end up leaving our students and universities in the mess that they are in? Who would have thought that the party that optimistically promised so much could have delivered so little?

Little or no progress has been made on the widening access agenda. Universities are struggling with the funding settlement and are gloomily looking to a future of cuts and cutbacks. Students are still in the red because of a lack of support, and Scotland enjoys one of the highest drop-out rates in the United Kingdom, at 1 in 10. I am sorry, but even for an optimist it is difficult to see the upside of what the SNP has done to higher education in the past three years.

I suggested that the SNP claims to be a progressive party. However, time and again on education the SNP has demonstrated a lack of leadership or progressive policy direction. At a time of plenty, Mr Salmond could demonstrate his populist touch with the promise of free school meals, free university education and free this, that and the next thing, but the SNP has been unable to deliver on any of its education promises. The trouble with promises and policies that are based on populism is that they are directionless. The SNP has proved to be incapable of steering us through times of difficulty. To take advantage of people's optimism and to make promises on the back of people's hopes for the future is not only deceitful, but damaging to all of us who want to use the Parliament to build a fairer and better society.

None of the strategic decisions that could and should have been taken on higher education has even been fully considered. Instead, the education secretary has suggested that we should all just wait—optimistically, of course—for his big brain to get to work to produce a green paper. He will not tell us what is likely to be in it and there is no discussion or sharing of ideas. We simply wait and rely on Mr Russell to magically pull the rabbit from the hat. That is no way to plan the future of higher education.

Our universities are currently struggling with a 0.6 per cent real-terms cut across the board. Just as the institutions are finding it difficult to cope, the SNP's failure to deliver on its promises on student support mean that those who have worked hard to get to university are now even deeper in debt. Students in Scotland already have the lowest level of support in the UK—Scottish students can be entitled to £1,300 less than their counterparts in England. Hardship funds have been cut, despite the increase in need because of the recession.

The NUS Scotland report "Still in the Red: Student Finance in 2010" highlights how bad the situation has become. Almost two thirds of students worry frequently or all the time about finances. Almost two thirds said that not receiving enough money was having a negative impact on their studies. More than two thirds said that they were working more than 10 hours a week, and half of those said that that was having a negative effect on their studies. Harking back to the SNP's oft-repeated claim to have restored free education, I was particularly struck by the pertinent words of the NUS Scotland president, Liam Burns, in his introduction to the report. He said:

"Despite what many commentators say, education is not currently free in Scotland. When a student is forced into thousands of pounds worth of commercial debt, education is not free. When a student has to work over 20 hours a week on top of their course work to survive financially, education is not free. And when the price tag of tuition fees hangs over all but the traditional full-time undergraduate student, education is not free."

Photo of Ian McKee Ian McKee Scottish National Party

Does the member not recognise that, when the party that he supports was in government, it played a part in bringing about the situation in which students are in such debt?

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

I certainly do not. When we were in power, we recognised the difficulty of finding a sustainable solution for student support and university finance, which is why we introduced a graduate endowment scheme. Somehow, we have all come back round to that way of thinking and we are all considering a graduate endowment scheme again.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

No. We are not all considering it.

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

Mr Rumbles interrupts from a sedentary position. What is the Liberal Democrats' position? They voted for the graduate endowment and they voted against it. Now they say that they have not brought forward any ideas whatever, yet in England they support the Conservative Government. I am not sure what the Liberal Democrat position is.

Whether it is parents, taxpayers or students, somebody pays for education. The SNP would like to conduct the debate using misleading soundbites and talking of supposed free education. That is because its guiding principles are populist, not progressive; because it wants to take the easiest option, not the right option; and—heaven knows—because it certainly does not want to face up to difficult decisions.

Photo of Gavin Brown Gavin Brown Conservative 10:40 am, 30th September 2010

As members from all parties have fairly said, we should all be immensely proud of our institutions and their students and staff. They have an incredibly outstanding history and still punch well above their weight today. The difficulty is that, if we want them to punch well above their weight in the future, we have to do something different.

Our university sector is staring at a future funding crisis. Members have referred to Professor Muscatelli's point that he believes that his university will run out of cash in 2013. Recently, we heard from Lord Sutherland that

"we cannot fund the status quo on current cash flows."

That is the reality. The Parliament and Government must find a solution to it. Some people say that the solution is to do absolutely nothing and to allow our universities over time to run into the ground and drop down the league tables. Some people think that the solution is more central Government funding for our universities. That was the main plank of the NUS report. That is a perfectly legitimate position, but the difficulty with it is the crisis that the country faces in the funds that are available to us.

We have all read the independent budget review report. Although we do not know what the outcome of the spending review will be, there are pretty clear indications in that independent report that we will be about £1.7 billion down in real terms next year and, potentially, £3.7 billion down at the end of four years of the spending review period. The difficulty is not just short term. Rather worryingly, the independent budget review report suggests that it could take us 15 years to get back to where we are today in real terms. We therefore need a solution that does not simply bridge a gap for a couple of years. It has to be a long-term solution.

So, should we do nothing, provide more Government funding or introduce a different system—as has been suggested by Elizabeth Smith and the Scottish Conservatives—revolving around some form of graduate contribution? Elizabeth Smith outlined the case clearly. It has been misinterpreted, perhaps unintentionally—although perhaps not so unintentionally—by various members. It would be a deferred contribution; that is why we call it a graduate contribution, rather than a student contribution. It would not be paid until the graduate was working. It is also an income-contingent contribution. Until the graduate reached a threshold of earnings, they would pay back not a penny of the sum. If, at some point in the future after they had begun to pay it back, they were unlucky enough to be made redundant or lose their job, there would be a pause in the payment. They would not pay a penny until they were again above the threshold for payment.

We heard some good rebuttal to the worries that the proposal might reduce access to university. The NUS paper to which a couple of members have referred states that since 2006 and the top-up fee introduction—that is south of the border—

"the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds entering higher education has increased by less than 1 per cent".

That is a small increase, but it is an increase nonetheless, which goes some way to rebutting the argument that our proposal would reduce access.

In an intervention, my colleague Murdo Fraser pointed out fairly that the percentage of people from lower-income backgrounds going to university is higher in England, Wales and Northern Ireland than it is in Scotland. He pointed out that in all three of those cases there is a deferred graduate contribution, while in Scotland there is not.

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

I thank and commend the Conservatives for bringing forward an option, but does Gavin Brown not recognise the concern that making the graduate contribution variable based on course and institution could be a route for the privileged few to have access to a few of the institutions and for the rest to have access only to courses of lower status?

Photo of Gavin Brown Gavin Brown Conservative

Ken Macintosh put his point across in fair way, but I do not accept his argument. There would be a clear threshold and any money to be paid back would be income contingent, so I do not accept that the graduate contribution would put people off in the way that he suggests. The benefit of making the contribution variable is that we would give greater independence to the institutions, instead of having a flat rate that treats all institutions in the same way.

This is a critical issue, and I think that Elizabeth Smith has been extremely bold in taking it forward.

Let me close with another quotation from Lord Sutherland:

"An additional flow of funds will be necessary to avoid generally slipping down the world performance tables".

Slipping down the performance tables for higher education would be seriously bad news for the country because, once we start to do that, four or five years later we will slide down the entire economic tables. None of us wants that.

Photo of Ian McKee Ian McKee Scottish National Party 10:46 am, 30th September 2010

In the spirit of consensus, I wish to speak in support of Elizabeth Smith's contention in the motion that graduates should contribute towards the cost of their university education. It is only right and proper that those who increase their earning power by benefiting from higher education, free from tuition fees, should in turn pay back more money to the community that funded that education. Where Elizabeth Smith and I slightly part company, however, is on the nature of the mechanism that should be employed in achieving that aim. Although her proposal initially sounds very reasonable, it contains serious flaws—and here I will add my personal contribution to the debate, as the cabinet secretary requested in his speech.

For a start, many graduates do not enter work at a higher rate of pay than those, perhaps in other fields, who have never taken a university degree. Some do not enter work at all. I appreciate that there are a variety of mechanisms, such as income floors and others mentioned by the Conservatives, through which lower-earning graduates can have extra contributions deferred or even written off altogether, but they automatically involve means testing and a cumbersome and—dare I say—expensive bureaucracy.

Furthermore, what would the Government do to collect its money if a person immediately emigrated the moment he or she was awarded a degree? Could an unintended consequence of such an initiative be an extra incentive for our brightest and best to leave the country and for their talents to be utilised by those who had no input at all into their university education? Would the notion of a large debt hanging over a student deter potential entrants, especially from low-income backgrounds?

There is another, equally serious, misunderstanding embedded in the philosophy behind the motion. It is that by increasing the pool of intelligent well-educated graduates we are benefiting only the individuals concerned, whereas nothing could be further from the truth. Modern society is so integrated and interdependent that we all depend on having such talent in our midst.

As John Donne wrote in 1624, in words that are familiar to us all,

"No man is an Island, entire of it self".

He went on to say:

"every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less".

Let us think of those words. If a humble piece of earth be washed away by the sea, he argues, the entire continent of Europe is the poorer. If that was true almost 400 years ago, how much more that analogy is true today when we are so much more dependent on each other.

Therefore, where do I agree with Ms Smith? I agree that, despite what I have said, most graduates are in the happy position of earning more precisely because they have a university degree. Those extra earnings—earnings they otherwise would not have received, as others have said—are taxed, perhaps even at 40 or 50 per cent. It is no secret that I would like those tax payments, along with all others, to come directly to the Scottish exchequer so that we could continue to fund Scottish universities in a way that enables them to compete in an important international market without having to depend on handouts from Westminster. However, the concept that the more someone earns the higher the taxes they pay is universally considered to be fair and is relatively simple and inexpensive to operate—as Mike Rumbles said—so why consider anything else? It is not often that I agree with Mr Rumbles, but on this occasion I do.

Photo of Gavin Brown Gavin Brown Conservative

One problem with the member's suggestion is that if the money goes to the exchequer—at UK or Scottish level—it does not necessarily go to the institutions themselves.

Photo of Ian McKee Ian McKee Scottish National Party

Indeed it does not, but the Government—whichever one we are talking about—has the responsibility for funding higher education, and if that is the mechanism it is up to us in politics to see that it keeps that commitment.

Remaining true to the "No man is an island" theme, it is probable that an entrepreneurial non-graduate who has made his or her fortune in business still depends very much on the existence of a skilled workforce that includes university graduates. Therefore, the benefit is shared, and it is fair that a proportion of the tax paid by such an entrepreneur goes towards providing the pool of graduates for future advances. We all benefit from higher education, not just graduates.

Let me now turn to another part of the motion on which Elizabeth Smith and I are as one. A university degree was once a sign of great status, as only a tiny section of society were graduates. When university education became more widely available, there was an entirely understandable stampede to gain this status symbol. "You're bright enough to get into university so go for it," was the common refrain of parents and teachers alike. However, the inescapable truth is that not all university degrees are of equal worth or value to society, and there is a crying need for skilled tradesmen. Perhaps the answer is to abolish the gap between higher education and vocational training altogether—a gap that has narrowed in practice considerably in certain disciplines. What would be wrong with a BSc in plumbing or plastering? We already pay many tradesmen more than graduates, so let us abolish the social stigma.

What I want to do is challenge the assumption that our universities will inevitably suffer if we do not go down the route of adding to the financial burden already faced by our students. We all benefit so we all should pay—but pay according to our means by the most progressive tax of all: income tax.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour 10:52 am, 30th September 2010

I begin by thanking my Conservative colleagues for lodging the motion, and I am grateful to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate.

We all agree that the higher education sector is vital to the Scottish economy. It contributes in the region of 38,000 jobs and accounts for an annual turnover of about £2.7 billion. The world-class research in Scotland's universities contributes both to our economic growth and to our health and wellbeing. That is not in doubt; the challenge is how we continue to have a world-class university sector in Scotland and to ensure the sustainability of the sector.

It is noble of the Conservatives that they wish to widen opportunities and access for students who are from traditionally non-university backgrounds. Maybe somewhat less noble is their answer in the motion of how to do so in a fair and sustainable way. If the Conservatives speak to NUS Scotland, which I am sure they do, they will be advised that there is no growing consensus on graduate contributions. For NUS Scotland, Conservative plans constitute a rebranding of tuition fees rather than a graduate contribution.

In Labour, we are open to ideas. The problem is that with the Conservatives now plumping for the Australian model, we do not believe that there is evidence at this stage that it is the correct way forward. That is why we are keen to see a genuinely independent inquiry into the sustainability of higher education in Scotland.

In Labour, we wish to widen access and opportunity for young people. Indeed, during our time in government we did exactly that for thousands of young people, many of whom were the first generation in their family to go to university, with a Labour-led Executive behind them that scrapped up-front tuition fees and allowed them to embrace the opportunities that were traditionally closed to those from non-university backgrounds.

However, the Conservatives are correct to point out the growing consensus about the lack of sustainability in the SNP's approach to higher education funding—or, more accurately, the lack of sustainability in the SNP's approach to many matters across policy divides. That is—regrettably—of little surprise. The SNP has failed on many counts throughout Scotland and its education policy sits at the top of a long list of failures. The promise to dump student debt was broken, the number of students who go to university is at its lowest in three years and Scotland's figures on widening access to higher education are the worst in the UK. We can debate those figures.

The situation is entirely unforgivable, and come May 2011 Mike Russell and the SNP can count on it being unforgettable for the students whom they have let down badly. I assure him that, like every other Labour MSP, I will at every opportunity between now and May remind my constituents of his failures and those of the SNP.

Photo of Bill Wilson Bill Wilson Scottish National Party

Given what Rhona Brankin says, does she now regret her original opposition to dumping the debt? Is she saying that if Labour was in power, it would dump student debt and abolish it?

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

Students in Scotland are well aware of who made and broke the promise to dump student debt.

Another failure is that, in 2008-09, a lower number of young people in my constituency of Midlothian left school to go to higher education than the Scottish average and the level in all the surrounding local authority areas. Such failures leave massive employers in Midlothian—such as the Bush estate, which is at the forefront of biotechnology—having to look outside my constituency to find the highly skilled workers they need to continue to develop and stay ahead of the game.

The gap in academic attainment between rich and poor is simply unacceptable and must be tackled in a variety of ways. Unlike the Government, we have led on that policy by establishing the literacy commission, which reported last December. We have adopted the commission's recommendations, but we have had nothing other than warm words from Mike Russell. Where is the literacy action plan? It was promised before the summer recess, but there has been nothing since then.

Widening access means not only increasing aspiration and providing opportunity but putting more cash in students' pockets, to allow them to tackle their studies and benefit as much from the overall experience of higher education as anybody else does. In government, Labour worked hard to alleviate student hardship, but under the present Government the number of poor students who are eligible for student loans is at its lowest level since devolution and such students receive less support than those who study elsewhere in the UK.

Now to Mike Russell's volte-face. First, the class size policy was abandoned, and now the SNP appears to think that perhaps higher education should not be free, but it really does not know. After three and a half years of the SNP Government, we have had nothing—all that we have is a promise of a green paper. To be frank, that is unacceptable.

The SNP has stuck its head in the sand for years on university funding. The SNP claims to talk to university principals, and I am sure that it does, but we do so, too. They tell us that the Government has not faced up to the potential funding crisis for Scottish universities. They know already the challenges of the funding that they have been given, but they genuinely fear for the future. The sensible way ahead is to have a genuinely independent review of university funding. There is no consensus on future funding, but solutions need to be developed as quickly as possible.

I join my Labour colleagues in calling for that review. A genuinely non-partisan approach needs to be taken and the sector needs to be consulted properly, to allow it the greatest say in securing the future of what is undoubtedly one of Scotland's greatest assets—its world-renowned education system and its institutions.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party 10:58 am, 30th September 2010

The motion wants to take us to a point at which a university education is the preserve of the well-off more than it currently is and at which the debt burden on graduates threatens to stall further our younger generation's prosperity. I welcome the Conservatives' debate, as it gives us the opportunity to reject such prospects.

With an election year on the way, we all need to be frank about where we stand, so that it is easier for electors to make conclusions about their decisions. I stand against a graduate tax and tuition fees, be they up front or otherwise.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

I would like to make progress, Mr Henry.

To varying degrees, I am pleased by the Labour and Lib Dem amendments—if not by the tone of Labour members' speeches, unfortunately. I am grateful for the amendments. However, the SNP is the only party in the Parliament that has consistently refused to entertain the introduction of tuition fees, and we have rejected a graduate tax. That is where I stand now. I take a principled stance that is backed with strong arguments.

The Labour Party opposed fees back in 1997, but it went on to introduce them. As we have heard, the Tories opposed fees and voted against top-up fees in 2004. We are having the debate today because the Tories have switched sides and seem to have the convert's zeal.

The Lib Dems in Scotland opposed fees until their coalition with Labour in 1999. I will not reopen the debate about whether a fee at the point of exit from higher education ceases to be a fee. I hope that we have moved on from such debates and that the Lib Dems in Scotland are coming on board with the SNP in abolishing—as we have done—the £2,000-plus tuition fees.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

Mr Doris was not a member of the Parliament in 1999, but it is clear that the Liberal Democrats opposed tuition fees then. We entered into a coalition with the Labour Party, which was in favour of tuition fees. We now no longer have tuition fees. I will leave it to him to join the dots.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

I suspect that we might join the dots differently, but I genuinely want to agree with the consensus today on how we move forward together rather than to discuss various interpretations of history. I am grateful for the Lib Dem amendment.

I look at how our tax pounds are spent and how our oil wealth is squandered and I despair when the chronic waste in the system is mistaken for value and when education is so undervalued that it is mistaken for waste.

The Tories have come to the chamber to call for

"a graduate contribution toward the cost of a university education".

It is a contribution to society to spend four or five years without a full wage and to leave university with significant debt but with a skills base that will benefit our country in the longer term. Let us be clear—the Tories are not asking for a contribution; they want to squeeze harder young people who are already squeezed financially.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I make it absolutely clear that education involves a social responsibility and a private responsibility. We do not suggest any system that would remove Government funding for universities—that would be bizarre. We suggest that, on top of such funding, some form of graduate contribution will have to be made to ensure that we move away from the current unsustainable system and provide greater income. As Mr McLetchie said, the contribution would be an additional source of income.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

A country raises income by raising taxes and not by targeting one sector of society, such as our students, so I reject what Elizabeth Smith says.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

I apologise, but I will run out of time if I give way.

I could not oppose more the Conservatives' vision for Scotland's future. In that future, education would not be valued. I want an education system in which opportunities abound and in which people are not crippled by debt. This year, more than 17 per cent of non-European Union undergraduate applicants to UK universities chose Scotland as their destination. Progress has been made and we should not play down the Scottish higher education sector's contribution to the UK and beyond.

I will paint a picture that I see of Scottish society. I do not believe that students should pay for higher education via a graduate tax, just as I do not believe that ill people should pay for our national health service. I do not believe that parents should have to pay for all child care responsibilities—that would be wrong, but that is the Tory logic. I do not believe that communities in deprived areas should have to pay for policing those areas—that would be wrong.

As soon as we start to pick one strand of society and tell it, "You pay for that—you've got your higher education," we are only a short step from saying to mothers, "You pay for your child care"; from saying to parents, "You pay for secondary school education"; or from saying to the ill, "You pay for hospitals." That is the situation in the States, but this country rejects that.

I have two words: progressive taxation. I wish that we in this place had the powers to fund higher education properly. We need independence for that. We are short of those powers, but we must still fund higher education. Our SNP Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning will produce a green paper on whether we can square that circle, short of independence. Our students deserve better, but the constitutional settlement denies them that opportunity.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour 11:04 am, 30th September 2010

Ken Macintosh was right to point to the dithering of the present Administration and the chaos that that is bringing to Scottish universities. As members have said, it is right that we recognise the contribution that our universities make. We also need to recognise that we need to invest in order to deliver the best-quality education—not just for the students who attend universities but for the secure future of our society.

It is right that we take this opportunity to re-examine fundamentally the role and function of our universities. It is a scandal that many bright young people in this country from poorer backgrounds are still denied opportunities to attend university in Scotland: as Murdo Fraser and others pointed out, Scotland has the worst record in the United Kingdom for widening access to universities. We need to consider how we can ensure that equity and fairness underpin our approach to higher education, and to commit ourselves to more and better financial support for less well-off students.

However, we also need to recognise that, in the current financial climate, hard decisions about funding will need to be made. It is no good for politicians of any party to try to out-promise people as the SNP did in 2007, when it made false promises that were there to be broken. That leads to cynicism and apathy among electors.

When we talk about hard decisions about funding, we need to seek a fair and sensible system that sees students making a modest contribution. As other members have mentioned, previously we had a system under which students made a modest contribution once they had started earning, and then only for a limited period. Regrettably, the SNP decided to scrap that system, which still has much to commend it to those who are looking at the future of Scottish education. I hope that it will be one of the options that is considered. I have a personal preference for a system that involves students contributing for a limited period, rather than through a lifetime increase in income tax that would financially penalise teachers and other relatively low-paid workers but take no additional contribution from millionaires who make their money without the benefit of a university education.

Photo of Christopher Harvie Christopher Harvie Scottish National Party

One theme that has not come up so far in the debate—I may have missed it at the beginning, because I was delayed on the bus—is the role of part-time education and the Open University, which I played some part in setting up in 1969. I would be interested to hear Mr Henry's views on that.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

That is an issue for another day and a more specific debate, but such options have much to commend them.

Unlike many of my colleagues in the chamber, I think that there needs to be a debate about the number of students who attend university. Boasting about who will have the most students at university should not be a test of political virility. It ignores the fact that just over 20 per cent of higher education students study in the college sector. Why are universities paid more than colleges of further education, often for providing the same courses? As a country, we need to address our future skills requirements and to consider what institutions are best placed to do that. We ignore at our peril the critical role that our excellent FE colleges can play and the flexibility that they offer in getting students into jobs. That issue must be part of any sensible debate.

There needs to be a debate about the four-year degree. I accept some of the cabinet secretary's warnings, but Alex Johnstone put the issue in a better context. We need to look at the structure of the academic year and at how the exam system in our schools prepares people for university. Simply saying that we will not touch the four-year degree is not the best way forward. We need to consider where the four-year degree—or any degree—fits into our broader education system.

Liz Smith raised the issue of enhancing autonomy. I agree that there should be autonomy in relation to academic freedom, but we need to question the lack of accountability in our universities and the way in which they use—and abuse—valuable public resources. University principals are accountable only to university courts. Is it a coincidence that, right across our universities, the courts have decided to increase substantially the salaries and perks of our university principals? Most are earning around £250,000 plus perks, at a time when they are holding down staff pay, increasing workloads and making staff redundant. It is time for the cabinet secretary to take action to end the excesses and abuses in too many of our universities. That display of greed contrasts with the hardship faced by students and the stresses faced by staff.

Photo of Hugh O'Donnell Hugh O'Donnell Liberal Democrat 11:11 am, 30th September 2010

It is only right that the first education debate since the recess should be on higher education. As we have heard from across the chamber, there is a considerable lack of consensus on the way forward. Liberal Democrat colleagues who have spoken have stated the Liberal Democrat position on the issue; there is no need for me to rehearse their comments.

In her opening speech, Liz Smith referred to Mike Russell's article in Scotland on Sunday about leading the debate. He was a little disingenuous—the SNP has been leading the debate in the same way as Cardigan led at Balaclava. It is clear that there have been opportunities during its period in government. The joint future thinking task force could easily have addressed, as part of its remit, some of the issues that we are debating today. However, for reasons best known to themselves, some of the universities and other participants in the task force decided that they did not want to do that, which is a disappointment. I hope that the green paper that the Government will produce, combined with the Browne review—the outcome of which we are all eagerly awaiting—will give us some indication of where the Government will take us.

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

Presiding Officer, if we are all eagerly awaiting the Browne report, what is the objection to an independent review in Scotland? Could that not look at all sorts of issues, including barriers to education?

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

I may have incorrectly picked up Elaine Smith, but I thought that her question was directed to the Presiding Officer. Is that the case?

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

No, the member was speaking through the chair.

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

Thank you for that clarification, Presiding Officer; I genuinely thought that her question was directed to you.

In my view, the combination of the forthcoming spending plans and general uncertainty about what the economic future will be makes it inappropriate at this stage to consider an independent review.

There have been many interesting speeches. Alex Johnstone's speech was well considered. Both he and Hugh Henry touched on many of the issues that we need to address. I know that all of those who have briefed us on the issue have a particular agenda to follow, and it is right that they should do that. However, I have a couple of thoughts about the barriers to accessing education that the less well-off face. The NUS's figures suggest that, generally, students are most concerned about day-to-day living. I wonder how much investigation and analysis has been done to determine why people from poorer backgrounds do not go to university. Are the barriers purely financial? Are there problems—Hugh Henry touched on this—with the pre-university education system in respect of literacy, numeracy and general academic achievement that we are not looking at and which may be a constituent part of not getting into university?

I was honestly a little disappointed by the Labour Party's apparent short-term memory problem in relation to where tuition fees began, and I was surprised by David McLetchie informing us that the Tories had never supported them—perhaps until now, although that remains to be seen. It is surprising that the Labour Party, which ostensibly stands up for sectors of the community that it has traditionally supported, introduced tuition fees, resisted their removal—until it was in coalition with the Liberal Democrats—and, if memory serves me right, voted in favour of the abolition of the graduate endowment tax during this session of Parliament. I am not sure where the Labour Party stands in relation to all that.

Not once in any of the contributions from Labour members did we hear a mea culpa. Plenty attacks have been made on the coalition at Westminster, and Labour members are quite entitled to do that, but there was no sense of balancing something like 130 days' responsibility against 13 years' responsibility in respect of the state of our country.

I look forward to seeing both the green paper and the Browne report. I particularly look forward to hearing Ken Macintosh's view, given that he says that he is an optimist. Goodness me, I would hate to know what his definition of a pessimist is if he is an optimist.

This has been an interesting debate with useful contributions and I thank all members for taking part.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour 11:17 am, 30th September 2010

I commend Elizabeth Smith for her approach to the debate, as the future of Scottish higher education is a serious matter that deserves a proper debate. Even though I disagree with some of the points that she and David McLetchie made, I think that their speeches highlighted many of the key issues that we now have to face.

Elizabeth Smith's motion suggests that there is an emerging consensus favouring a graduate contribution as the way forward but, as Claire Baker pointed out, there are significant differences in what people mean when they talk about a graduate contribution—their versions of the concept range from a permanent unhypothecated tax hike imposed on all graduates to what amounts to a deferred fees model.

Whether a graduate contribution would apply only to future entrants to higher education or whether it would affect those currently in the system or even those now out of the system who have benefited from higher education needs to be made clear. The acceptability of a graduate contribution model will depend not only on the form that it takes but on, among other things, the rate at which it is set, the mechanisms for payment and the thresholds at which payment is triggered.

On the other side, universities have a strong interest not only in how much money will be made available to them as the result of the introduction of a graduate contribution but in how it will affect their business model—the prices they are permitted to charge per student for different courses, the number of students they can recruit and so on. Before I became a member of the Scottish Parliament, my job was to co-ordinate the strategy of Glasgow Caledonian University—authoring the strategic plan, modelling the impact of changes in provision on funding and vice versa, and managing change. For example, I was responsible for bringing into the university about 1,000 students from the nursing colleges in Glasgow. The funding arrangements for the nursing diploma students at the time were very different from those that applied to degree students, even nursing degrees students.

Like the other post-1992 universities, a significant proportion of Glasgow Caledonian's full-time equivalents are day-release, block-release or part-time students. The debate so far has taken little account of how any new system would affect the increasing proportion of students who are not school leavers on conventional four-year, full-time degree courses. I would refer also to Open University students, but our colleague from Tübingen is no longer with us.

Because the system is so complex, because people mean very different things when they refer to a graduate contribution as the way forward for university funding and because the system that we have is so different from the system that we might end up with if we move towards any of the graduate contribution options, a substantial amount of preparatory work is needed before any final choice can be made. We must build a consensus, because whatever we put in place has got to last for a long time. We cannot afford mistakes or misunderstandings and we must not introduce a system that has any serious flaws.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

No.

Above all, we must not now allow anyone to think that the entire cost of higher education could or should be funded through a graduate contribution. There will be a continuing requirement for an Exchequer contribution and the ratio between what is raised from individual beneficiaries and what is contributed from general taxation is a crucial question.

It is because those questions are avoided by the Scottish Government that I am so critical of the approach that Mr Russell is taking. Even as the graduate endowment was being removed with a great fanfare, it should have been obvious that we would end up returning to the Cubie principles. Before May 2007, the SNP made huge promises to students—the abolition of student debt and the perpetuation of free higher education—all of which it is unable to keep.

Mike Russell's amendment omits any reference to the unsustainability of the present funding structure and instead refers to the Scottish Government needing to respond to the outcomes of the Browne review. The Browne review will undoubtedly change the game, but let us be clear that the game has been a bogey for some time.

Scottish arrangements for the funding of higher education have compromised the effectiveness of our higher education institutions. The unsustainability of what we have does not date from whenever the Browne review is published; it is recognised by all the key groups to which the motion refers. What has been lacking has been any political will on the part of the SNP to allow these issues to be addressed.

Mr Russell and his predecessor set their face against an independent review and pretended that our universities were not facing severe financial difficulties, but they are. The Scottish Government set up a joint futures task force involving the universities but prohibited its members from addressing the funding issue. Mike Russell now wants to have a private chat with the principals to see whether he can come up with a "Scottish solution"—a kilt will not do it.

Let us be clear. Scottish universities and colleges must be involved in any deliberations, but surely the way forward is not private discussions, which Mr Russell has favoured up to now, nor a green paper, which is simply a device to kick the issue into the long grass beyond May 2011, but a systematic review that not only deals with funding for universities but addresses the equally important issue of student support. Any review must ask hard questions about how the sector can adapt to better meet the needs of students, to maintain its international competitiveness and to help to stimulate economic growth, together with addressing the important questions that Hugh Henry raised in his excellent speech.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

Mr McNulty should be finishing now.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

An independent review could have been set up at any time in the past 18 months. The reality now is that our universities are on the brink of crisis. We have had three years of procrastination from the SNP and it is still refusing a proper review of funding arrangements. The spending review is due next month, but no ideas or plans have been put forward by the SNP. That is a disgrace and it is time for the SNP to move over. If it is going to deny the issue, let us have a change of Government and have the issues properly addressed.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party 11:24 am, 30th September 2010

I will deal with the Labour contribution—or lack of it—in the first part of my summing-up and I will then deal with those who were prepared to contribute positively to the debate, which seems to have been everybody else in the chamber. I exempt most of Hugh Henry's speech, because I thought that he, as a former education minister, addressed some of the crucial issues. Later in my speech, I will touch on the issue of the four-year degree, which he raised some very interesting points about.

In today's debate, Labour was the dog that did not bark. It yapped a lot, but it did not bark, and there was not a single—not one, zero, nada—policy contribution from Labour members. Indeed, what Labour said was not only dismal but factually wrong. For example, student support has not gone down; it has gone up in a variety of different ways. More is being provided in difficult times than Labour ever provided.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

No, I will not. You have been wrong so far and I will tell you—I will tell Ms Baker how she is wrong. I was almost carried away, Presiding Officer.

Funding for universities is not down; it is up. We have provided a record £1.1 billion for our universities this year. Participation has gone up under the SNP; it went down under Labour. The sector supports the approach that I have taken; it does not reject it. Indeed, the NUS says so specifically in its briefing for the debate.

All the things that Mr McNulty said would not be in the green paper, I included in my opening remarks. If he had listened, he would have discovered that they are the key issues and are recognised as such.

Not only does Labour fail to listen to the sector, it does not even listen to its newly elected leader who, this week in Manchester, told the Labour Party that it was just not credible to approach everything on the basis of oppositionalism or demanding more money. He could have added that it is just not credible to oppose everything simply because the SNP says it. There is no new thinking. Everything is as usual. It is simple oppositionalism and inconsistency.

In a parliamentary answer to Claire Baker on 9 March, I laid out the procedure that I was going to follow to build a sustainable future for Scottish higher education. I repeat once more the offer that I made in my opening speech: I would welcome Scottish Labour's contribution to that thinking. That offer remains on the table. It is regrettable that, throughout the debate, it has seemed that Labour has nothing to contribute.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

No, I will not.

I come to the serious contributions to the debate. I commend Alex Johnstone first of all. He made a distinguished contribution to the thinking on the matter. There is a need to consider more broadly based, more flexible systems. Such a contribution needs to be made to the green paper and I would welcome it.

David McLetchie raised an interesting point. He spent half his speech trying to write history once more, in effect. He and I were at university together and I know that he has expertise in telling the story his way.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

No, I am sorry. David McLetchie is right to raise the issue that the problems that the Browne review will pose are about substitution, not addition. That is a change from the position a year ago, when the expectation was that whatever review took place south of the border would provide additional resource. Real challenges now arise out of the situation and we will have to consider the Browne report carefully. That is one of the reasons why the timetable for what we are doing is driven externally. For the Labour Party to fail to understand those drivers is bizarre. It shows that it understands as little about higher education as it does about school education.

Mike Rumbles raised an interesting point about loans at non-commercial rates and the issue of Scots studying south of the border. I will consider those matters carefully. There is a place in the green paper to consider them because, as I indicated at the beginning of the debate, the paper will consider student support.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

Are the Scottish university principals panicking? Do they have time to wait until the cabinet secretary sorts the situation out, whether with a review or a green paper, or must he come up with the sort of mid-term solution that Hugh Henry suggested?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

That is an interesting point. I broadly agree with what Anton Muscatelli said last week. He said himself that his assessment of the timescale had been misquoted. We have about 12 months within which to put in place the solution and it will have to implemented for two or three years from introduction because some of it will not be immediate. However, there is an opportunity to do that.

The external factors that drive that timetable are of concern. We have to take into account the Browne review, the cuts by the coalition south of the border, which are going too far and too fast, and the incredible mess that Labour made of the public finances. However, Anton Muscatelli's timescale is about right. I am working to that timetable and working hard on it.

Elizabeth Smith mentioned the number of graduates. That is an interesting issue, which Hugh Henry also raised. There is nothing that should not be discussed in the debate, but let us focus on what Universities Scotland said about the matter in a letter that, I think, all spokespeople have had:

"According to the CBI and Bank of England, most growth in employment over the past 15 years has been at graduate level. ... the CBI's 2010 report on education and skills ... reported that the majority of employers were concerned about the ability to fill high-skill posts, and projected a 55% decline in demand for lower-level skills".

Most tellingly of all, the proportion of graduates in Scotland

"is low in comparison to many competitor economies and the equivalent figures are 31% for the USA and 24% for Australia."

We are rising from 21 per cent. It is not as simple as saying that we have too many or too few graduates, but there are issues.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

I note what the cabinet secretary says, but the point that I was driving at is that many people come to the same conclusion—a degree—by different routes, such as through our FE colleges. Christopher Harvie also talked about the contribution of part-time degrees and other ways of achieving the same end result.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

That is true. Vocationally focused higher education, to which I referred in my opening speech, is important. Colleges deliver 20 per cent of higher education. We have to debate and discuss the issue. The articulation between colleges and universities is key for us all.

I commend that comment and Hugh Henry's view on the four-year degree. I make it clear that, as I said in my opening speech, the four-year degree is not the absolute answer to everything. However, I counterbalance the argument that there is something abnormal about the four-year degree by saying that it is actually the norm and that it plugs us well into the Bologna process. Flexibility is an issue: if a student wants to take two, three, five or seven years to complete a degree, I understand that. The universities have to be more flexible.

Although universities have a good record on efficient use of public money, I agree with the speakers who said that transparency and restraint are important. Universities are individual independent institutions, but no university principal in Scotland is in doubt of my view about the need for restraint in what is, in essence, public sector pay and I would not support those who have gone too far. I commend the example set by the new principal of the University of Aberdeen, who has substantially reduced the overheads of his office since coming into office.

Gavin Brown's comment on variable fees was interesting. However, an up-front tuition fee and a deferred tuition fee are, in fact, the same thing. The Government does not support tuition fees.

Bill Wilson and other SNP speakers who made the point that independence would give flexibility of funding and better higher education are bang on. We should take that away from the debate.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative 11:32 am, 30th September 2010

The debate has been extremely useful and has helped us to understand the approaches that different political parties take to higher education funding, which is an important issue. However, anybody who watched it looking for solutions or substantial proposals would have been disappointed by the speeches other than those from Conservative members. Indeed, the other parties seemed to spend all their time attacking each other for not making any concrete proposals while having none of their own. I hope that the irony of that was not lost on them.

Let us be in no doubt that we face a serious situation in higher education. As we heard earlier from Gavin Brown, the principal of the University of GlasgowAnton Muscatelli, who was well quoted throughout the debate—warned a fortnight ago that the university could run out of cash by 2013. That is only the latest in a series of comments that senior figures in higher education in Scotland have made about the unsustainability of the current funding model.

The Scottish Conservatives have been talking about that for years. We were always concerned that the Labour Government's introduction of top-up tuition fees in England would provide a substantial funding advantage to universities down south and that, if the cap—currently £3,000 per year—were lifted, it could have serious consequences for the Scottish universities. We await the outcome of the Browne review to discover what will happen with the cap or whether some alternative funding method such as a graduate tax—much loved by Vince Cable—will be proposed. In the meantime, it is clear that, in Scotland, the status quo is simply not an option.

I welcome the fact that others have now joined the Scottish Conservatives in calling for a new approach. At the higher education conference that we ran last week, a diverse range of figures from across the political spectrum called for a new approach to university funding. They ranged from John McTernan, a former adviser to Tony Blair and Jim Murphy, to Liam Burns of NUS Scotland.

I pay tribute to NUS Scotland for the mature approach that it has taken to the issue. I understand the pressure that its leadership is under from its members, who say that it must support free education and nothing less, but at least the leadership is realistic enough to understand that the debate is now not about whether there should be a graduate contribution but about what form it should take.

Let me address the important issue of access for people from deprived backgrounds. Margaret Smith mentioned the NUS Scotland briefing for the debate, which talks about the Australian model. However, the NUS briefing quoted selectively from one Australian study. In fact, numerous studies have confirmed that the participation rates in Australia of those from deprived backgrounds have not declined since the introduction of deferred fees. Indeed, as I pointed out earlier to Margaret Smith, we in Scotland—alone of the four home nations—have so-called free education, but that has been coupled with a poorer rate of participation of those from deprived backgrounds than in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. As Gavin Brown said, even the NUS accepts in its briefing that participation in England has gone up following the introduction of top-up fees, albeit by a modest amount. However, that is completely the opposite of what the NUS warned prior to the introduction of top-up fees, when it said that levels would be decimated.

We do not support up-front tuition fees and never have done. We need to base the debate on facts and evidence and not on assertion.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I am sorry. I will not.

For the past four years, the Scottish Conservatives have been calling for an independently chaired review of higher education to consider a range of issues, not least funding. We still believe that an independent review would be useful but the funding issue has become so urgent that it is incumbent on all political parties to bring forward their proposals. We should not, as Karen Whitefield did, use calls for an independent review as a cover for having no positive ideas of our own.

I welcome Mike Russell's announcement that there will be a green paper from the Scottish Government later this year. I look forward with great interest to reading what he says, although, having heard the contributions from SNP back benchers such as Ian McKee and Bob Doris, I seriously wonder what options are left open to him.

All political parties should come forward with their own proposals and we must strive to find a consensus on the best idea to safeguard the quality of Scottish higher education, while ensuring that we do not put an unreasonable burden on new graduates or deter new students from non-traditional backgrounds and poorer families. We believe that up-front tuition fees have failed that test, and we are happy to restate our opposition to that model. As David McLetchie reminded us, we have consistently opposed it since the Parliament was established. We are sceptical about proposals for a graduate tax, not least because it could mean some graduates paying back many more times the cost of their education. Our preference has been set out in this debate in the form of deferred fees with income contingent loans, based on a model that already exists in countries such as New Zealand. We appreciate that others will take a different view, but it is up to all parties to come forward with their proposals and to contribute to the debate—a debate that we have been proud to lead until now. For the sake of our universities, doing nothing is no longer an option.

I listened to the contributions from the other parties and was disappointed that Claire Baker for Labour had nothing concrete to offer. I understand the Labour strategy in the run-up to the election is to refuse to be pinned down on the basis of any policies or to fall out with NUS Scotland, but for a party aspiring to be in government within seven months, it is not good enough to have nothing concrete to say on such an important issue.

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

Does Murdo Fraser recognise that the only party that has ever done anything concrete about the issue is the Labour Party? Whether he likes it or not, we introduced tuition fees and a graduate endowment in Scotland. That was an attempt to find a sustainable way forward. All that the other parties, apart from the Conservatives, can do is find reasons to decry what has been done and say what they are against rather than what they are for.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

If the Labour Party wants to hang its hat on the proud introduction of tuition fees in Scotland, I will leave that to the Labour Party to celebrate. Today, however, it has nothing concrete to say on the issue. The only exception to that was Hugh Henry, who made some positive comments.

I turn to the Liberal Democrats, as I fear I must. Margaret Smith had no new ideas—indeed, no ideas of any kind. When it came to Mike Rumbles, his idea was to increase income tax. It does not seem so long ago that the Liberal Democrats in this Parliament proposed cutting income tax by 3p in the pound. Now, it seems, they want to increase it.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

No. The member is concluding.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

Sorry. I do not have time.

Has Mike Rumbles asked Mr Clegg or Danny Alexander? Thank goodness—

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. The member knows that he is misinforming Parliament about what I said—

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

Mr Rumbles, that is not a point of order.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

Thank goodness the resident Liberal Democrat intellectual pygmies are overshadowed by the towering intellectual colossus that is Vince Cable, a man who supports a graduate contribution.