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Education (Student Loans) (Scotland) Regulations 1999

Volume 597: debated on Thursday 18 February 1999

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7.13 p.m.

rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 8th February be approved [8th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the regulations come before your Lordships because they need to come into force before the Scottish Parliament assumes its powers so that applications can be processed and payments made at the start of the autumn term. Student support in Scotland will, of course, be a matter for the Scottish Parliament in future years.

I can be brief because the regulations cover the same ground as the loans provisions in the England and Wales regulations which we have just approved.

These regulations govern the provision of student loans to Scottish domiciled students in full-time higher education in the academic year 1999–2000. The Scottish regulations were laid in draft on 8th February and they have been considered by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

The only significant differences between the two sets of regulations are that the Scottish ones cover only loans, and they do not spell out the administrative procedures in quite the same detail. On the first point, there are existing regulations—made under the same legislation—covering the payment of grants in Scotland which will remain in force. On the second point, the regulations reflect the fact that the administrative arrangements in Scotland are already centralised and do not involve the education authorities. In relation to the availability of loans, however, the two sets of regulations are designed to have precisely the same effect.

As in England and Wales, these regulations will apply to students who enter higher education in the academic year 1999–2000 and to those who entered during the 1998–1999 transitional year. They will not apply to students who entered higher education before 1998–99, or to those for whom special entry arrangements were made in 1998–99—principally gap-year students. Those students will continue to be subject to the previous arrangements.

The 2½per cent. increase in the resources being made available to all students to meet their living costs applies equally in Scotland, as does the fact that students' families will not be expected to contribute any more in real terms towards living costs than under the old grant/loan regime.

In addition to their loans, those students who qualify will continue to be eligible for supplementary allowances, in the form of grants, for dependants, disability needs and excess travel. These will be paid under the existing Scottish grants regulations.

Again, as in England and Wales, provision for the repayment of loans will be dealt with in a further set of regulations to be made later this year.

Scottish students seeking grant and/or loan support will apply to the Student Awards Agency. It will assess each student's application to determine the amount of grant and loan support to which the student is entitled. It will notify the student of the result and, at the same time, advise the Student Loans Company of the loan entitlement. The aim, as in England and Wales, is that all students will receive their first payment on the first day of term, and thereafter in termly instalments, provided applications are submitted in good time.

The new initiatives referred to in our previous debate will also apply in Scotland. Loans for those aged 50 to 54 who intend to return to employment are covered in these regulations, while the new vacation grant for those entering higher education after having been in care will be offered under the existing grant regulations. I commend the Scottish regulations to the House.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 8th February be approved [8th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord McIntosh of Haringey.)

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his explanation and he will be relieved that I shall not cover the same ground as that covered by my noble friend Lady Blatch. I can take a read-across when I see one.

I welcome the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, to this little bit of Scotland. I must tell him that the chief of the clan McIntosh rejoices in the simple title of "The MacIntosh". Perhaps, I may suggest that the noble Lord should have his title changed. I know that it is MacIntosh of MacIntosh but in conversation, he is known by the shorthand form of "The MacIntosh". I believe that that would be appropriate for the noble Lord because he seems to pop up, answering for every department in government. I had hoped to have one of the two Scottish Office Ministers here but there you are. I shall not say that one "makes do" with the noble Lord because that is quite unfair to him as he always attempts to answer all the points made.

I join with my noble friend Lady Blatch in welcoming some of the points the noble Lord made, especially about disabled students, which were mentioned also by the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy.

I should like to get something clear in my own mind about fees. Looking at the two sets of regulations, one is immediately struck by the fact that there is no provision in the Scottish regulations for fees in the same way as there is in the regulations for England and Wales. My understanding—and I hope the Minister will confirm it—is that the issue of fees will be dealt with at the discretion of the Secretary of State for Scotland and, subsequently, the Ministers of the Scottish Executive and that the situation will he exactly parallel to that pertaining in England and Wales.

That may have been a perfectly good way for us to proceed until now, but as education will be entirely devolved, perhaps the Scottish Parliament should make its own regulations in relation to these matters rather than merely following the regulations for England and Wales which, after 1st July, will be made separately by Parliament and the new assembly.

I fully accept that we have to deal with these regulations because it is necessary to do so before 1st July. But perhaps it is a message to the new Scottish Parliament that it should consider the question of bringing out and clarifying its position in regulations and not follow the regulations for England and Wales.

One difference concerning fees—the noble Lord would be surprised if I did not say this—is that the Scottish government, in addition to fees being paid for people from poor families, which we all welcome, will also pay the fourth-year fees of all the students from Scotland taking four-year degrees. That reminds us of the great issue that English, Welsh and Northern Irish students are going to be disadvantaged compared with other students.

I always ran the argument, as your Lordships will remember, entirely on the basis of fairness; the Government argued on the basis of numbers. They said that no one would be affected and people would not stop applying. I did not think they would stop applying because obtaining a degree from a Scottish university is such a good buy. I therefore kept my argument to "fairness". The interesting point is that the most recent figures given to me by the NUS from UCAS suggest that there has been a decline in English, Welsh and Northern Irish students applying for entry to Scottish universities.

Overall in the United Kingdom there has been a decrease of 1.8 per cent. in the indications at this time of year compared with last year. In the UK as a whole it is interesting that the under-21s have gone up by 0.4 per cent., so we can give a small cheer for that. But the interesting factor is that applications from English, Welsh and Northern Irish students to Scottish universities have gone down by minus 6.5 per cent.; by 12.8 per cent. in the case of Wales; and by 4 per cent. in the case of Northern Ireland. That is actually a bigger decrease than the decrease for Scottish students applying to Scottish universities or for students applying overall in the UK.

That is therefore an interesting piece of arithmetic and I wonder how the committee is proceeding—the noble Lord probably will not be able to answer but he may well have been briefed on this—which was set up thanks to the insistence of your Lordships in our little tussle with the House of Commons on the issue. The figures are significant. I am very surprised by them, but they underline the problem that some people felt when they looked at the unfairness of the way with which the fees were being dealt. It was always the unfairness aspect that bothered me. It is interesting that the statistics may well show that there will be a problem.

I cannot disguise the fact that I am amazed at the way the Government have taken fees and loans to their bosom considering how they opposed them a decade or so ago when we started the concept of student loans. But so be it. There have been many U-turns along the road from the 1980s. What is interesting is that my friends in Scotland who are fighting for the Scottish Parliament make clear that such is their determination to keep alive the traditions of Scottish universities and the importance of education in Scotland that they are proposing that bursaries should be paid to all Scottish students to cover the fees at any university, whether in Scotland or any other part of the world. I am hopeful that the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party will hack those moves and that in a year's time Scottish students will not be inflicted with the fees of their courses.

I do not want to go on any longer. I am grateful to the noble Lord for his explanation. I take all the points he made to my noble friend and to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, as applying to Scotland as well. I just hope that the student loans body can meet its targets and that students are not left in the lurch for a few weeks with a great deal of worry at the beginning of term.

My Lords, I thought for a moment we were reliving the happy days of last summer and were to hear again about the noble Lord's grandchildren. We came very close to it. I shall not follow his remarks although I too have seen the figures to which he referred and draw the same inference. I look forward to answers either tonight from the Minister or in due course from the Quigley Committee.

I have been asked by my Scottish colleagues to raise a few points of concern, many of which I could just as well have raised in the previous debate. The first is of particular concern to Scotland. Regulation 5(2)(a) refers to students residing at university. This does seem to be a concern because in Scotland particularly there is to be an increasing amount of distance learning. particularly when the university of the Highlands and Islands comes more into being. That point was made in the debate in the other place. It appeared to be accepted by the Scottish Minister but I would welcome some comment from the Minister here tonight—perhaps a reassurance that the Government recognise the anxiety and that students involved in distance learning will not be disadvantaged, as might appear to be the case.

Next was raised the question of what was called student bureaucracy, or rather their ability to cope with bureaucracy. I referred earlier to the one-month limit on students completing their paperwork. My honourable friend in the other place, Donald Gorrie, has some experience of students, as indeed do I. and suggests that it is highly optimistic to expect most students to complete paperwork at all, let alone within one month. The response he received from the Minister was that learning to do their paperwork on time was a proper part of their education. That may well be so. But I suspect that that is more optimistic than realistic. I am interested to know from the Minister what will happen and how and if students will be penalised if they fail to complete their paperwork within one month. I accept fully the strong desirability of their doing so. The reality, I suspect, is that one or two of them will occasionally not succeed in doing so within the month.

A similar requirement under Regulation 9(2)(f) is that students must inform the Secretary of State every time they change their address and telephone number. In my experience students do not always remember to inform their family of such changes, let alone the Secretary of State, who just possibly may not be on their mailing list. That seems to me a rather unrealistic requirement. I would be interested to hear the Minister's response as to how the Government intend to enforce that. It could be a helpful lesson for parents as well.

Regulation 10(4) states:
"Where an eligible student does not reside at his parent's home but the Secretary of State is satisfied that in all the circumstances he could conveniently reside at his parent's home while attending the course … the student shall he treated as if he were residing at his parent's home".
I wonder how the Secretary of State intends to enforce that. It seems to go well beyond educational matters and to involve the Secretary of State in some quite sensitive family matters. I wonder how he intends to make a judgment.

I was further confused when I read the debate in the other place. As the Scottish education Minister said when "her memory caught up with her", or perhaps having received a piece of paper:
"There is provision in existing schemes to cover students who choose to move out of the parental home for no good reason and that will continue".—[Official Report, Commons, First Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation, 15/2/99; col. 15.]
The Minister's reply and the regulations seem directly contradictory. I hope that the Minister tonight can clear up my confusion.

Finally, reference has been made to regulations coming later for the repayment of loans; indeed, there is a reference on page 43 of the explanatory notes which says that,
"it is intended that regulations providing for the repayment of loans through the tax system will be made, and provision for repayment by persons not subject to that system will also be made".
It was asked in the other place that the Government should perhaps make their intentions more clear at this stage when we are considering these regulations. There was no response. I hope tonight that the Minister will be able to give at least some response as to what sort of repayment regime the Government have in mind for the regulations that are to come later.

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for their response. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, was kind enough to refer to that half of me which is Scots in origin and the chief of my clan—the last one was called "Wee Lachie" when I visited him; I do not know what the present one is called. I have a problem with this. The reason that I do not do Scottish business is that I tend to recover a Scots accent. My youngest son starts to speak Scots when he gets to within 10 miles of Carter Bar. Those of us who are copycats have to be very wary of such things.

The noble Lord said that there is no reference to fees. Indeed, there is not. Fees are dealt with under the existing regulations which, to be precise, are the Student Allowance (Scotland) Regulations 1996 made under the Education (Scotland) Act 1980. He is quite right to say that future regulations will be the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament. I have no doubt that he is better equipped to anticipate what they might do than I am.

I must caution him as a maths teacher to beware of the figures that have been leaked to him by the National Union of Students from UCAS. If he had taken the trouble to go back to the figures for last year, he would have found that comparable figures available in February showed a reduction in applications for all sorts of courses at all sorts of universities—some were up and some were down, but in general they were down. The final result, as of October this year—for this year's entry—was an increase in students in Scotland of something like 4 per cent.

A major problem with the figures that he has been using—I say this to my noble friend Lord Shore of Stepney who seemed to think that there was something disgraceful about the Government's behaviour on this—is that the February figures, of course, are for applications rather than applicants. Individual students can make anything up to half a dozen applications and, therefore, there is no predictive value from the February figures to the results when the term actually starts. The Opposition fell into that trap last year and I am astonished that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, as a former teacher of mathematics, should fall into the same trap this year.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I do not want this to go on, but I presumed, as they are UCAS's figures, that UCAS was comparing the figures at this time with the figures at the same time last year, so that it was applications at this time in both years. 1 accept the point made that the outturn is different, but I am long enough in the tooth not to compare new figures with last year's outturn.

My Lords, of course, the noble Lord is right. The comparison is this year with last year, but one of the possibilities that he ought to consider is that people are learning the system and are making fewer applications than they needed to at the same time last year. I speak modestly, as a statistician rather than a mathematician, but I am cautious about these things. The noble Lord seems to think that I shall be briefed to anticipate what the Quigley report will say. No such thing!

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, seemed to give some significance to the phrase "residing at a university". I am reminded that the Scots use the word "stay" for live or reside. We had better be careful about our language. When he is talking about the prospective university of the Highlands and Islands and the need for special consideration for distance learning, I can assure him that the Scottish Parliament, in due course, will be very sensitive to the needs of distance learning students both in the Highlands and Islands and elsewhere in Scotland.

I am surprised at what he said about bureaucracy and the difficulties for students in dealing with bureaucracy. The regulations simplify the system. At the moment there are two financial assessments, one by the local education authority, or in Scotland by the Student Awards Agency. and the other by the Student Loans Company. Now there will be only one financial assessment and I should have thought that the chances of students getting it right when there is only one will be greater than otherwise would be the case.

The noble Lord referred to the difficulty of keeping track of changes of address. All of us who have had children know that that is true. However, it is in students' own interests to give notification of changes of address, otherwise they simply will not get their grant or loan. Similarly, if they reside at their parents' home, it will he in their interests that that should be well known.

I shall certainly not anticipate the repayment regulations, as the noble Lord invites me to do. They will be published in good time and they will be subject to an eight-week consultation period so that they can be introduced in time for this financial year—in other words, they will come into effect by 1st August this year. I commend the regulations to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.