Education (Student Support) Regulations 2001
Education Standards Fund (England) Regulations 2001
Financing of Maintained Schools (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2001

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Mr. Boswell: My final point is to ask about the state of play on match funding and whether schools and local authorities are able provide it. Is the Minister conscious of any strain in that area?

Ms Morris: No. I think that 0.5 per cent. of it has not been taken up this year. That is the same as in previous years and a small amount. The increase in the standards fund has been matched by an increase in local education authority funding through standard spending assessments. They would otherwise not be able to provide the funding.

5.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship on this particular day, Mr. Amess, and to debate again with the hon. Member for Daventry. He and I had many discussions of note during consideration of the Learning and Skills Bill in particular. When in the presence of the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), many of those discussions were about cricket, but occasionally we returned to the subject of learning and skills. In a way, that is what we will do today.

Each year, regulations for the administration and payment of student support are laid before the House, and each year we make new regulations to reflect policy changes and to introduce uprated levels of support. The purpose of this debate is to discuss the regulations for the forthcoming academic year. Although some have been tempted into a general debate about student or university funding, I shall try not to be so tempted. I suspect that opportunities for such a debate will arise in the coming weeks of the election campaign.

At one stage, I thought that the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East was rehearsing debates that might, or might not, occur in a referendum campaign, should a referendum be called. Many of his remarks concerned the intricacies of Europe and the way in which they impinge on student support. I shall do my best to cope with those comments in due course, and if necessary I shall write to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): My hon. Friend said, ``should a referendum be called'', but the Prime Minister has assured us that a referendum will be called in the first two years of the next Parliament.

5.46 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

6.1 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Wicks: Before we were rudely interrupted by the Division bell, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) queried my accuracy on a possible referendum. My formulation was correct, although irrelevant to our proceedings, that, if conditions are satisfied, there will be a referendum. That was a gentle teasing on European issues that I know are serious.

Complexity has been a theme of today's debate. We recognise that regulations are complex, but they reflect the wide variety of student needs and the varying circumstances with which local education authorities and universities must deal. Obviously, it is good to reduce complexity where possible, but regulations deal with a complicated reality and we are promoting carefully targeted support of needy groups of students. I will not go into the definition of ``ordinarily living'' with a spouse, but I suspect that many Members from outside London face such a situation on weekdays.

We are working with LEAs and higher education institutions to modernise and simplify the system, but that will take time. To assist students and others in understanding the regulations, we have produced a wide range—as the hon. Member for Daventry acknowledged—and many have gained the crystal mark from the Plain English Campaign. As my constituency is the home of Crystal Palace football club and last weekend was momentous for it, I am pleased to talk about crystal marks.

There will be changes to regulations in 2001-02. The Education (Student Support) Regulations 2001 will govern student support in the 2001-02 academic year and will, for the most part, carry forward arrangements that are currently in place. The changes that we have made to this year's regulations will continue our successful policy of targeting additional support at the most vulnerable students.

We have increased the income threshold at which parents start to contribute towards student support from £17,805 to £20,000 and simplified the calculation. We have also raised the income threshold for a spouse's or partner's contribution from £15,070 to £17,200 and, again, simplified the calculation. That will mean an increase of 10 per cent. in real terms, which I know the Committee will welcome. As a result, around half of all full-time students will not pay tuition fees and will be entitled to the full loan. That will mean that an additional 50,000 families will be taken out of contributing towards student support. We see that as a real benefit to students from the poorest backgrounds in our drive to widen access to higher education. No one from a poor background will pay fees.

As for mature students, we have introduced a child care grant based on the actual costs of child care for students with children. We thought that the criteria should be uniform, rather than left to institutions' discretion via access funds, because those needs are not dissimilar across the nation. It is right and proper that parents should be treated in much the same way, whatever institution they attend and whether they live in Basildon, Southend or wherever. The provision of a grant towards one of the highest costs that students with children are likely to incur when studying full time at university will make a real difference to them.

Other changes include raising the disregard from students' income for bursaries and similar awards. It has increased from £1,025 to £4,000 to enable universities and other benefactors to give larger bursaries than currently possible without it affecting the level of support to which students are entitled. That is a sensible response to the growing number of bursaries offered by individuals and others.

We have introduced a provision that allows tuition fee support for a further course of higher education if a student has withdrawn from a previous course for compelling personal reasons. That will encourage people back into higher education and perhaps prevent a wasted investment. Remaining changes to the 2001 regulations clarify policy intent or improve the legislation technically.

In the short time available, I shall deal with the numerous points that have been raised. If I miss any or have misunderstood any questions, I shall write to hon. Members. The hon. Member for Daventry asked about the complexity of the spouse's contribution. For the reasons that I have given, it may still be complex, but it is slightly more simple than it was a year ago, as we have removed three different calculations and replaced them with just one—the major change being £1 in every £8.

I made a light reference to cohabitation earlier, but we have provided guidance to local education authorities. Definitions of ``cohabitation'' include sharing household bills, co-parenting and so on, but they are complex matters and have tested social security and other Government agencies for many decades, as some of us recall. The definitions do not apply to students under the age of 25, partly because young students often share accommodation without cohabiting in a technical sense—whatever ``technical'' means here.

The hon. Gentleman spotted in the regulations the flexible postgraduate certificate in education course, and I hope that I can satisfy him on his point. The amendment will make students on flexible PGCE courses ineligible for grant for tuition fees, because the Teacher Training Agency will pay fees for all trainees in 2001-02. The issue of how the tax authorities will treat repayment of a teacher's loan was also raised. The proposal is new, and we are exploring the details of the scheme. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be satisfied if I say that the issue of a benefit in kind will have to be considered as we develop the proposals.

The hon. Gentleman raised several issues about students from low-income families, but I fear that we do not have time to discuss all of them. As he knows, we are introducing opportunity bursaries for students from areas with no tradition of sending children to university. Students will receive £2,000 over three years—£1,000 in the first year and £500 in the subsequent years—and we hope that that will constitute a significant contribution.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about student income and expenditure, particularly in London, which is dear to my heart as a London Member. Costs are higher in London, which is one reason why the amount of student loan that can be applied for is greater than that in other parts of the country. The new child care grant is based on actual child care costs. If students are paying higher costs in London, it will be reflected in the child care grant that they receive. The figures for retention in higher education show that we are on a plateau: since the early 1990s the drop-out rate has been about 17 and 18 per cent., rising once to 19 per cent. We are not complacent about that. It is too high. We are taking steps to reduce it. I have announced one of those steps today. I am bound to say that the rate is far more satisfactory than that in the United States and other parts of Europe, if I can mention that word.

It is too early to collect much empirical evidence about the repayment of student loans. We have no evidence of problems emerging, but we continue to monitor the situation. The student income expenditure survey showed that many students did not work outside their studying: of those who do, most work for around 12 to 15 hours a week. One can debate the pros and cons of that. The hon. Member for Daventry himself said that he was not wholly against students working part time.

The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) asked a specific question. He is not now in his place.

 
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