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Higher Education

Volume 175: debated on Wednesday 4 July 1990

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To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement about trends in the numbers in higher education since 1979.

I am glad to be able to tell my hon. Friend that the number of full-time students attending higher education in Scotland rose by almost 25 per cent. between 1979 and 1989, to nearly 85,000. 1 hope that this excellent trend will continue.

Does my hon. Friend agree that those statistics underline the Government's commitment to the future of higher education in Scotland, and does he join me in welcoming the decision by Stirling university to double its intake in the near future?

My hon. Friend is an authority on Scottish universities, having attended St. Andrews and graduated there, and having been a lecturer at Aberdeen and Glasgow universities. I am delighted to be able to reassure him that the Government are committed to continuing further expansion, even above the dramatic levels of improvement that we have achieved in the past few years.

Despite the Minister's statement, fewer than 10 per cent. of working-class youngsters get to university in Scotland, while failures from the English public school system receive first preference at certain universities, especially Edinburgh. What does the Minister intend to do about that?

Access to university must depend on academic qualifications. I am delighted to say that more than one in five school leavers in Scotland now enter higher education, which is much higher than the United Kingdom average. The Government are committed to increasing the population in higher education, and hope that it will be as high as 30 per cent. of the relevant population in six years' time.

Did my hon. Friend notice the recent remarks of Lord Chilver, the chairman of the Universities Funding Council, commending the broadly based Scottish education system? Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that that system, based on a four-year honours course, puts additional financial burdens not only on the universities but on the students? Will he ensure that resources are made available in both sectors, to maintain our excellent record in terms of the additional number of students that we have gained in the Scottish universities?

Lord Chilver certainly had some kind and complimentary things to say about the quality of Scottish higher education. The fact that in Scotland a substantially higher proportion of the relevant population enters higher education shows that the four-year degree course is no disincentive. Overall expenditure this year is up by 11 per cent. on last year. That is the highest-ever level of student awards, and reflects the Government's commitment.

When it is cheaper to produce a graduate in this country than in almost any other western European country, the United States or Japan, why are the Government intent on cost cutting and standard cutting? Why is the Minister satisfied with one in five of our youngsters' receiving higher education, when in Japan, Sweden, America, Canada, France and Denmark the proportion is already one in two?

The hon. Gentleman might like to reflect on the fact that we have the most generous support for students in the western world. Eighty per cent. of full-time students receive support in this country, compared with 12 per cent. in Japan. The expansion that we are achieving was not achieved by the Labour party. I am delighted that we are moving down this road, and I am sure that the Scottish economy will benefit from it.