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Universities: Fees

Volume 736: debated on Wednesday 28 March 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will ensure that students who are resident in England, Wales or Northern Ireland and attend Scottish universities will pay the same fees as those living in other European Union member states.

My Lords, as I set out on Report on the Scotland Bill on Monday, higher education is devolved across the United Kingdom. This means that all areas of the UK have made different decisions regarding the funding of higher education. Any change to the devolution settlement would risk a key principle of devolution: that the devolved Administrations have the freedom to set devolved policies as they see fit.

My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend for that very disappointing reply. Should the Government not get together with the Scottish Government and end the scandalous discrimination against students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland, who have to pay up to £36,000 to go to a Scottish university, where Scottish, Italian and French students can go for free, and where anyone else in the European Union can also go for free? Meanwhile, under the Barnett formula, people from the rest of the United Kingdom are funding a grant for Scotland that works out at about 20 per cent more per head than is spent in England. This is not sustainable; it is unfair to our young people; it is bad for the union; and should the Government not do something about it?

My Lords, I recognise the sensitivity of the issue—and the tenacity with which my noble friend pursued it in Committee and on Report. It is totally in character that he should continue to do so. As I indicated, fees are only one part of the question. Different student support arrangements are in place in different parts of the United Kingdom. Support for English students, including English students studying in Scotland, is more generous than for Scottish students studying in Scotland. The universities in Scotland have also made generous bursary arrangements for English students wishing to study at Scottish universities. It was suggested on Monday that there should be pan-UK discussions on the matter. I indicated then that I would relay that to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. That proposal has been relayed. However, I do not wish to raise unrealistic expectations. It might be useful for Administrations in all parts of the United Kingdom to come together and discuss the issue.

My Lords, why are university vice-chancellors thought to be so passive in this matter? We were told the other evening that they had no alternative, and that the lawyers had explained this to them. We were told that they could not revise their financial calculations. University vice-chancellors are supposed to be chief executive officers capable of responding quickly to sudden changes. Why can they not act to remedy an obvious injustice that stains the good name of their universities?

My Lords, it was not the university vice-chancellors but the Scottish Government to whom legal advice was given about the limitations with regard to European Union law. The noble Lord asked about vice-chancellors. I received a letter from Steve Chapman, the principal and vice-chancellor of Heriot-Watt University, urging me to resist my noble friend’s amendments. That shows that universities in Scotland have been responsive. He wrote that universities had put in place arrangements that meant that English students were not disadvantaged if they chose to study in Scotland instead of England, including the availability of bursaries and other forms of financial assistance at a level that was at least as high as that offered by English universities.

My Lords, in the past the same EU anomaly applied to Wales. The Welsh Government have subsidised Welsh students studying in Wales, as well as EU students. Now they plan also to subsidise Welsh students studying in England. Is it the view of the Government that this would place an obligation on the Welsh Government also to subsidise EU students in England?

My Lords, I recollect a similar situation arising in Scotland. I cannot indicate that the UK Government have considered the position with regard to Wales. When I visited the University of Glamorgan last summer, I got my ear bent on the university student funding issue. However, as I indicated in my Answer to my noble friend, there would be merit in all the United Kingdom Administrations responsible for higher education getting around a table, teasing out some of the issues and learning from each other.

My Lords, I have always regarded the noble and learned Lord as a very fair man. He is in the very difficult position of having to justify the manifest unfairness towards English, Welsh and Northern Irish students. I welcome the initiative in seeking to reopen discussions with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Will he also look at anti-discrimination legislation, because this is a clear case of discrimination against students from these three parts of the United Kingdom, and at the end of the day rich students will still be able to come to Scotland while those with humbler means will find it even more difficult?

My Lords, I cannot accept the proposition of the noble Baroness. As I indicated, the support arrangements available for students domiciled in England apply whether they are studying in England or at a Scottish university. Scottish universities have put in place generous bursary arrangements to help students coming from England and other parts of the United Kingdom. Students from England, whether they are studying in Scotland or England, will not have to pay off any of their loan until they are earning at least £21,000. That should not deter students from poorer backgrounds from coming to Scotland.

My Lords, is it not the case that the Scottish Government are forcing the Scottish Funding Council to cut funding by more than £100 million over the next four years, thereby jeopardising the student experience and the teaching quality of the universities? Surely the Scotland Office as well as BIS should engage with this so that we can play fair by students not just in Scotland but in the whole of the United Kingdom?

My Lords, the position with which the Scottish Government were faced, once this Parliament had agreed a position on student fees and funding support in England, was that they could not risk Scotland becoming the cheapest option for students from the rest of the United Kingdom. Doing nothing would have created an unparalleled level of competition for places at Scottish universities, and there was a concern that this would squeeze out Scottish students from Scottish universities. As I indicated in debate and in answer to this Question, these are serious issues, and I do not minimise the strength of feeling among noble Lords. However, with European Union law on one side and the principle of devolution on the other, we must try to find a course—but I will not raise expectations of something that may be very difficult indeed.