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Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): Does the hon. Lady agree, on the issue of class, that the attraction of higher education for young people who saw their own pals going out and earning money, while they were piling up debt, would be minimal? We must be realistic about that.

Dr. Jones: That is absolutely right. When I was a young girl living on a council estate, very few of my

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friends went to university, and I was constantly asked whether I did not want to go out and get a job to earn some money, which was what the others aspired to do.

The report shows that young people from less affluent backgrounds are less likely to see higher education as the route to a higher income. They will be put off higher education by the knowledge that they will start their working life saddled with huge debts. Had I faced the prospect of debts of £5,000 or £6,000 more than the current debts, I cannot imagine that I would have been so enthusiastic about going to university.

It is not true that the majority of graduates earn more, because women graduates earn less than the overall male average. The logical conclusion of the argument that people who earn more should pay a levy for higher education is that all men should make some contribution; but of course that is nonsense.

I am deeply concerned about the proposals. There is no doubt that the Conservatives failed to fund the expansion in higher education, with the result that the vice-chancellors in 1996 proposed what they called a "political deficiency levy" of £300. That was the Conservatives' deficiency: their failure to fund education adequately. Industry had real worries about the effect on our national wealth and ability to compete in a technological, global economy.

We must give a higher priority to finding the resources for an adequately funded higher education system, with appropriately funded research and development in our universities. The previous Government failed to do that. I know that my Government want to address the issues, and that cannot be done without major changes in the Treasury rules and in the way in which universities are funded.

To those who say that people who benefit from higher education and earn higher salaries should pay more, I say, yes, but perhaps it is better to consider that many people earning higher incomes will have benefited, or will have children who have benefited or want to benefit, from a university education.

My parents would not have been able to help me out with a penny to finance my education, but I would not want my children to start their working lives saddled with enormous loans; I, as a parent, will find it incumbent on me to help my children to pay off the loans as they go through university. That is true of most parents from affluent backgrounds, who can afford the contribution.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): Does the hon. Lady accept that many parents who are expected to pay parental contributions currently do not do so? There is a qualitative difference between paying for tuition fees and paying for maintenance, because maintenance is controllable, but if those parents who have been assessed as affluent enough to pay for tuition fees do not do so, that is a bar to entering university in the first place.

Dr. Jones: I would not want to say that the parents who do not contribute to their children's education would necessarily make that distinction. I suspect that those who do not contribute are people from lower middle-class backgrounds who find it a struggle to supply that assistance, or people from working-class backgrounds who do not value education--we must do something about that--but the majority of parents give what they can afford.

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Some parents already give large sums in excess of what is required by the parental contribution assessment: the average figure is £631 per student per annum, but I bet that that is heavily skewed--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady's time is up. I call Mr. John Bercow.

6.24 pm

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): It is a pleasure to add my tribute to the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden). It was a witty, stimulating and intelligent contribution, of which he can be justly proud. He referred to the availability and calibre of bed-and-breakfast accommodation in Blackpool. If my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) were here, he would be able readily to testify to the accuracy of those comments, as the accommodation that he found in Blackpool was both high quality and extremely cheap. I am sure that the House will join me in looking forward to many future contributions of comparable calibre from the hon. Gentleman.

The Government's handling of student finance has not been adroit or sure-footed; it has been faltering and inept from the outset. They got into difficulty first and foremost because their approach was based on a deception. My right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) made the point, and it bears repetition, that, during the general election campaign, the then Leader of the Opposition, now the Prime Minister, said on 14 April--it was reproduced in the Evening Standard, so the veracity of the statement is not in question--

If that was not enough, the Foreign Secretary, as he is now, amplified the point in an interview with Leeds Student Radio a mere 10 days later. He observed:

    "We are quite clear that tuition costs must be met by the state."

If the purpose and effect of those statements was not to persuade people that the Labour party would not introduce tuition fees in any shape or form, it is difficult to know precisely what the intended interpretation was. It is shameful that the Government misled people, and they have got into grave difficulty as a result: they conned people into thinking that continuing state finance would be the order of the day; it is not. They gave no advance notice and they are therefore responsible for a breach of trust, of faith and of understanding with the electorate, whose support they were then inviting.

A mere 90 days after the Foreign Secretary, then shadow Foreign Secretary, had said explicitly that it was the state's duty to pick up the bill, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment had the brass neck to come to the House and announce the proposal to introduce tuition fees. That is at the root of the Government's difficulties.

Mr. Willis: Is not it equal brass neck that a shadow spokesman spells out from the Front Bench the Tories' policy on tuition fees while their candidate in the Winchester by-election says exactly the opposite to students? Is not that hypocrisy?

Mr. Bercow: My former hon. Friend, Mr. Malone, was an outstanding Member of Parliament, and I am certain that, after 20 November, he will be so once again.

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Not only have the Government misled people about their intentions: they are guilty on several other fronts. They propose to misuse the proceeds of the new tax that they have introduced--I use the word tax advisedly. Consistently, their rhetoric--I suspect that this is true of the Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office as it is of others on the Government Benches--has contained an insistence that higher education is underfunded and that more funds should be ploughed into the sector. One would assume that the logical corollary of that thesis would be that if new funds were raised--in this case through tuition fees--they would be ploughed back directly into the system. So far, however, we have managed to discover that only about £125 million out of the £150 million that is envisaged to be raised will be invested in higher education.

That information has been dragged out of the Government; they have not offered it voluntarily to the House, which is deeply regrettable. It is inconsistent with the position that they consistently advanced in the past. Higher education will be underfunded. Instead of supporting students, the Government propose to short-change them. That is a serious matter.

The problem of access to higher education is also serious. There are strong arguments in support of tuition fees, but the idea that there is a justification for a sudden change of policy, of which the public received no notification before the election and which they were assured would not happen, is much less powerful. The dangers are very real. Some Labour Members are deeply dissatisfied with the policy; I think of the hon. Members for Hornchurch (Mr. Cryer), for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) and for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan). I must not leave out the distinguished hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), who is profoundly dissatisfied with every component part of the Government's higher education policy.

The fact that there has been a 16 per cent. downturn in applications ought to be a matter of serious concern to the Secretary of State and his hon. Friends; it should not be lightly dismissed. If people now fear to go into higher education, that is a worrying problem. The Government must reckon with that problem because it is incompatible with their ambition for greater access to, and participation in, higher education.

The problems that I have described are severe enough, but they have been compounded by two others. First, there was the breathtaking incompetence over the gap year. There was an extraordinary saga of misinformation and tergiversation by the Government. At first, there was going to be no provision for gap-year students. In rushing helter-skelter to make an announcement after Sir Ron Dearing had reported, the Government had not considered what to do. Two weeks later, they said that there would be an allowance for people who were prepared to do three months of voluntary work. They suddenly announced that that was unworkable and that the 19,000 students involved would be admitted on the 1997 arrangements.

I still have constituents--I hope that there will be a response from the Minister on this in his winding-up speech--who are losing out because, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) said, they made considered applications once they had received their A-level results. One such person, who comes from the lovely village of Cuddington in my constituency, is currently working, as she always intended to, at a school

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in Malawi where she helps the boys as a matron. She is doing good work for a year. She got good results and she always intended to go into higher education. However, she will not benefit from the concession the Government have announced. There is no intellectual justification for the arbitrary distinction that Ministers have drawn.

The Government should have the guts, the political dexterity and the will to stand up to the Treasury, and to secure the outcome that they need and that the interests of our students warrant. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State may chunter from a sedentary position, as has become his wont. I invite him to exercise what modicum of self-restraint he is able to muster in the circumstances.

I must direct one further gentle salvo at the Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office. I understand his predicament. It must be a source of the most stupefying embarrassment to have to come to the House today after his cack-handed, incompetent handling of the situation in Scotland. We assume that the Government's decision is testimony to their disbelief in equal treatment for every resident of the United Kingdom, and it is shameful. St Andrews, Dundee, Edinburgh and the other Scottish universities will demonstrate beyond peradventure the damage that the Minister's misjudgment has caused.

The Government's approach has been characterised by deception, iniquity and incompetence. The losers are the students and our higher education system. For that reason, I hope--I doubt that this will happen--that the Minister will have the good grace and courtesy to apologise to the House this evening.

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