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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 06 February 2018

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Draft Budget 2018-19 (Equalities and Human Rights Levers), Women’s Right to Vote (Centenary), Decision Time, Cyber-resilience (Young People)


Topical Question Time

University Applications

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service recording a fall in university applications by 18-year-olds from the most-deprived areas. (S5T-00913)

UCAS figures that were published yesterday show that the number of applicants of all ages from our most-deprived communities, and in particular those in their 20s, is increasing. That is welcome. However, we have also seen a small decrease, of around 70, in applicants who are aged 18, and that is of course of concern. In 2017, we saw a 13 per cent increase in the number of people from the most-deprived communities getting places to study at university. If we are to see a similar increase in 2018, there is clearly is much more work to do.

The commission on widening access made a clear recommendation for universities to try to maximise applications from disadvantaged learners by promoting access thresholds to pupils, parents and teachers. Universities must do all that they can to make learners aware where there are still opportunities to apply before the 30 June deadline.

It is indeed the case that modest progress has been made in closing that gap. That makes it all the more important that we examine the reasons why that progress appears to have stalled.

In his report late last year, the commissioner for widening access pointed out that not only are students from more-deprived areas less likely to apply, they are also less likely to be accepted or to complete their course. We should be concerned indeed. One factor that Sir Peter Scott identifies is support for living while studying. Does the minister agree that a worthwhile response to those figures would be to restore the cuts to grants that her Government made in 2013?

Mr Gray is absolutely correct to point to the commissioner’s concern about not just who gets into university but who completes it. I have made that concern clear to university and college principals since I became minister, and it is a concern that we are intensifying through our outcome agreements with the universities. When they are making good progress, we will encourage them to keep doing so, and when we believe that they need to pick up the pace of change, not just in access to applications and entrance but in completion rates, we will address that through the outcome agreement process.

The commissioner pointed to a variety of issues that may impact on application, entrance and completion rates; student support was one of them. As Mr Gray knows, the Government has recently increased the income threshold from £17,000 to £19,000, which ensures that an extra 3,000 students will get a non-repayable bursary. We will increase the payment threshold and reduce the payment period for loans. The Government has taken action and will continue to take action to ensure that we support the poorest students at university.

I think that the Government and the minister know that student support matters, as it is one of the factors driving the gap in applications. If the Government did not know that, why would it have commissioned the independent review into student support? However, that review reported, with some modest proposals to improve the circumstances for both higher and further education, back in November 2017. When will the Government respond? “In due course” is not a good enough answer.

The Government will respond in due course to the review.

I disagree entirely with Mr Gray when he talks about “modest proposals”. As I said to him in the chamber last week, the review is asking us to look in particular at an entitlement to funding for further education students. That would have an implication for their ability to access social security. As I said to Mr Gray last week, we could get into a situation in which the Government makes a rush decision to ensure an entitlement or to make changes to FE bursaries only for the Department for Work and Pensions come along and say, “That’s great—we will now take that money off the benefits from social security.” We are continuing to discuss our progress on the matter with the National Union of Students, and we are discussing progress with the DWP in relation to the interaction between what the review has asked us to do and what the social security benefits system will do, but I will not take action for the sake of an easy headline if, at the end of the day, students would lose out.

Yesterday, I met the principal of Maxwelltown high school in Dumfries, who told me that students from less privileged backgrounds often take time out of education before going on to university. For example, one student took a year out before enrolling at the University of the West of Scotland for mental health nurse training. She is now attending university, but the numbers do not recognise that. Does the minister agree that there are different routes for young people into higher education and that the figures quoted do not take account of that?

It is important that we bear in mind the different ways in which people can get into university and indeed higher education at our colleges. It is important to recognise that it may not be the right track for a young person to leave school and go directly into university, and we should respect them and allow them the flexibility in the system to make that decision if it is right for them. That is entirely the point of us looking at the matter through the prism of what is right for the learner and not what is right for the statistics or indeed for institutions. We intend to continue to encourage that approach.

The figures from UCAS suggest that more people of all ages are applying to go to university. The number of Scotland-domiciled applicants aged 21 to 24 has increased by 4 per cent and the number aged 25 and over has increased by 7 per cent. That is welcome news.

The minister will be aware from the deliberations of the Education and Skills Committee that there are issues to do with careers guidance in schools and that the real focus, if we are going to improve the situation, should be on talking to youngsters who are much younger than the university application age. Does she agree that much more work needs to be done on careers guidance to ensure that, in future, we do not have the patchy advice that the evidence to our committee shows that we have had?

Liz Smith is correct to point to the work that we need to do long before we get to young people sitting with application forms. This is about encouraging young people to decide what is right for them and recognising that success for them may be an apprenticeship, going to college or going to university: it is about what they want to achieve and the best way for them to achieve that.

An important aspect of that is careers guidance, and a great deal of work is continuing to ensure that we are getting better careers guidance out there and getting the message out, not just to the young people but to teachers, parents and anyone who has an influence on their decisions, about the parity of esteem that we should hold for the different opportunities that are available to our young people, university being an important one of those.

How does the number of applicants to Scottish higher education institutions compare with the number of applicants in the rest of the United Kingdom? Does the increase in the number of non-European Union international applicants have an impact on the places that are available for students applying from Scotland?

The number of applicants to Scottish higher education institutions has increased by 1 per cent to 114,160, and that includes a 13 per cent increase in the number of non-EU international applicants. It is something that we can be exceptionally proud of as a country, and our universities should take great pride in the fact, that we have seen an increase in the number of non-EU international applicants. The number of non-EU international applicants has no impact on the number of places that are available for Scottish students. Scotland-domiciled students, those from the rest of the UK, those from the EU and international students all play equally pivotal roles in making our campuses the proud and diverse campuses that they are today.

Live Animals (Export)

I declare an interest as the convener of the cross-party group in the Scottish Parliament on animal welfare.

To ask the Scottish Government for what reason it does not support a ban on the export of live animals. (S5T-00925)

The Scottish Government is committed to the welfare of all animals during transport, whether within the United Kingdom or for export purposes. Animals should be exported only in line with strict welfare standards, which ensure freedom from harm and sufficient rest and nourishment, and ensure that transport welfare rules are fully complied with.

The current European Union regulations and standards provide a rigorous framework to protect and promote the welfare of animals, and have been adopted into our law through the Welfare of Animals (Transport) (Scotland) Regulations 2006. We have been clear since the outcome of the EU referendum that we wish to maintain adherence to current EU standards and regulations, particularly regulations on animal and plant health and food safety, because those remain essential for our reputation and for access EU and other international markets. We will therefore not support any move that creates further challenges or difficulty for our livestock sector or that places Scottish agriculture at a disadvantage.

I refer the cabinet secretary to a written answer—albeit that it is from 10 years ago—by Richard Lochhead. It states:

“we would prefer to see a trade in meat rather than live exports. This avoids long distance travel of live animals whilst ensuring better returns across the industry from added value product.”—[Written Answers, 22 January 2008; S3W-08022.]

Apart from the not-insignificant matter of animal welfare, can the cabinet secretary outline why he thinks that better returns for the industry are secured by live exports, which seems to depart from what his predecessor said?

I do not agree with that. I agree with Richard Lochhead that live animal exports for breeding are vital for the pedigree livestock sector, and his expressed sentiment that, ideally, animals be killed as close as possible to their farm of origin.

The important point that I wish to stress is that animal welfare is paramount and that the rules and regulations cover very detailed provisions to secure that objective. They do so by making provisions on nourishment, rest and hydration that must be strictly complied with. That is the approach that the Scottish Government believes should be taken and it is one that I believe is supported by the NFU Scotland and other key stakeholders in the sector.

I thank the cabinet secretary for his answer, although I think that some of the issues around animal welfare in long transportations will be disputed—and are disputed—by many animal welfare organisations. Can the cabinet secretary reconsider having, at the very least, a consultation on banning live exports, because we are exiting the EU and will not be tied to the regulations? I have to say to the cabinet secretary that I would hate to become by default a fan of Michael Gove.

I am not responsible for whose fan clubs Christine Grahame is in. However, I am responsible for agriculture and can assure the member that the matters to which she has referred are taken with the utmost seriousness.

The position down south on the issue is very confused. There is talk about a ban of live exports for slaughter, but very few or no animals are exported for slaughter from Scotland. The export of live animals from Scotland is done for other reasons—breeding and production. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has indicated that the value of that totals £50 million a year. Unless one takes the view that that £50 million should be reduced to zero overnight, it would be better to concentrate on ensuring that we all support the high standards of animal welfare that are rightly required by the regulations.

I declare an interest as an honorary member of the British Veterinary Association.

What evidence does the cabinet secretary have that a UK-wide ban on live animal exports would damage the livestock sector, specifically in Scotland? Does what the cabinet secretary has said now mean that he will oppose the ban on the export of live animals from other UK countries? In effect, will the Scottish Government be leading a race to the bottom in animal welfare standards?

No. That is complete nonsense. The proposals from Westminster are not clear, although I understand that the manifesto commitment by the Conservative Party was to restrict the ban to animals that are exported for slaughter.

We have taken the view—as, I think, the vast majority of members would—that most animals should be slaughtered as close to the farm as possible. That is why it is so important that our abattoirs continue to function properly. Of the official veterinarians who work in our abattoirs, 95 per cent are European Union nationals, so the greatest practical matter that we should consider at the moment is to ensure that those EU nationals, many of whom are from Spain, are able to continue to staff the abattoirs. Otherwise, the practical problem will be to ensure that slaughter of animals—if Mr Ruskell will care to listen, rather than chattering incessantly behind me—will continue to be done in local abattoirs, which will depend on whether the people from the EU who work in them will be able to stay to carry on their good work.

I emphasise to Mr Ruskell that we are all concerned about animal welfare, consideration of which remains paramount in such matters.

Mr Gove is reported as wanting a ban on exports of live animals from UK ports. If that occurs, what would be the practical implications for exports from Scotland?

The question is this: what is Mr Gove proposing? I do not know whether Mr Rumbles is clear what is in Mr Gove’s mind, but I am not, because he has not set the proposal out clearly. The manifesto commitment was restricted to a ban on exports for the purposes of slaughter. As I understand it, no animals are currently exported to other EU member states for the purposes of slaughter, so the impact of such a ban would be zero, at the moment.

An impact would result if the ban were to be extended to exports for other purposes: namely, pedigree breeding or production. The impacts would be felt by the poultry sector in particular, and by the pig and other livestock sectors. The value of such exports to Scotland was estimated in 2015 by HMRC to be £50 million. If the figures are accurate—I have not had time to study them, because this topical question was raised only yesterday—the answer to Mr Rumbles’s question is that there would be a considerable impact on farmers and farming, especially in the Scottish islands, where transportation of animals, albeit that it is intrastate, is a necessary fact of life.