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Mr. Boswell: My right hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Was not the basic error that on the very

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day that the Dearing report was published, the then Secretary of State came to the House with his conclusions, which differed from Dearing's? Is not the moral that a period of reflection on what had been offered to the country at great length and expense should have taken place then and ought to take place now?

Mr. Dorrell: I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. It took Dearing 14 months to produce—if I remember correctly—18 volumes. It took the Secretary of State a matter of hours to receive the report and come to the House of Commons with his conclusions. It is a classic example of acting in haste and repenting at leisure. My central point this evening is that we are in danger of seeing exactly the same thing happen again, because the Prime Minister has rushed off to the newspapers with a press release, and six weeks later has rushed back to announce the conclusions, without allowing the policy-making process proper time to assess the alternatives.

Mr. Sheerman: I agree with much of what the right hon. Gentleman has said. However, no one has found the answer to the problem about which he speaks. When we had full maintenance grants and no fees, we could not get young people from low-income backgrounds into higher education. The answer probably lies elsewhere: perhaps in education maintenance allowances for 13 and 14-year-olds, but not in the old system.

Mr. Dorrell: It would be a mistake to rerun the Dearing committee's debate in an intervention and a response. Clearly, it is true that not only student finance has an impact on participation rates for students from low-income families. However, I have often said that although the Dearing report comprises 18 volumes, all of us who are interested in the issue should remember one sentence at its heart. The report traced the way in which the argument had changed during the committee's deliberations. The sentence states:

I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) was in the Department when the Dearing review was set up and perhaps he could confirm that the Conservative Government and the Labour Opposition expected Dearing to recommend the abolition of the maintenance grant and its replacement with student loans, but the continuation of free tuition. Everyone expected that, including, as he has often said, Lord Dearing. That is why the sentence that I quoted is so significant.

The committee considered the evidence and the options and concluded that if public money continued to be directed at supporting students in higher education, equity of access should be provided by focusing public money on means-tested maintenance grants and expecting a private contribution from the individual through a tuition fee. Dearing's central conclusion was that we should have means-tested maintenance grants to support students from low-income backgrounds who go away to university, but that all students should be expected to contribute to the cost of their tuition from their future earnings through fees supported by a loan system.

The Prime Minister and the then Secretary of State rejected that conclusion in a hurry at the beginning of the previous Parliament. I believe that the Government should

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return to it and assess it more carefully at the beginning of this Parliament. Dearing's recommendation deals directly with equity of access, which is clearly and rightly important to the Secretary of State, given her earlier comments. However, Dearing also recommended that approach because he realised that if students pay tuition fees to universities, an important extra benefit accrues to the university system. It would make the universities more directly accountable to students and therefore, rightly, more responsible to the student body than to the Secretary of State and the Department for Education and Skills.

I have not said so previously, but I sharply disagree with the policy in the Conservative party manifesto to sell the spectrum to endow universities. That is an original Father Christmas policy, which would undermine the objective of making the universities accountable to their students. It would make them accountable to nobody. That is an unattractive idea. Contemplating selling spectrum to mobile phone companies almost seems like another world. That policy now seems less attractive for many reasons and I hope that we shall not pursue it.

Such a policy undermines the key message of Dearing: a proper, accountable and more independent university system, which moves away from the over-centralisation for which we were responsible in the 1980s and 1990s and gives universities genuine independence to develop a more flexible system, is provided through students being supported to pay fees. That would enforce a principle that the Government have not respected: extra money raised from students should be ring-fenced for the higher education sector. If students pay fees straight to the universities, that is the end of the problem.

Mr. Levitt: The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting contribution. Although we have a system of students paying fees and of accountability, half the students who go into higher education are not required to pay fees because of means-testing. Yet that has not tackled the problem of the differences in university attendance between the various social classes. On accountability to students, I am worried that the right hon. Gentleman comes close to advocating top-up fees, which the Government have rightly opposed. Will he clarify his position on that?

Mr. Dorrell: I shall not get into an argument on top-up fees, because I am basing my argument on the findings of Dearing. There are aspects in any document that runs to 18 volumes that I would not necessarily have written in exactly the same way. However, on policy mix for higher education, the Dearing report comes closer to setting out a coherent programme, which is likely to provide a vigorous university sector, than the policy that the Government have pursued in the past four and a half years or the policy idea in our manifesto for the general election.

Mr. Willis: Does the right hon. Gentleman concede that we have moved on since the Dearing report? I agree with almost all his comments apart from his conclusions, about which we have always argued. Since the Dearing review, the Cubie commission was set up in Scotland and produced some compelling evidence, and the Rees review has taken place in Wales. Does the right hon. Gentleman

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believe that that academic research is a vital complement to the Dearing report? After all, Lord Dearing's inquiry began almost six years ago.

Mr. Dorrell: Of course, I do not suggest that Dearing is the end of knowledge on the subject or that we should substitute one 11-day policy-making process for another. The lesson of events in the past four years is that we should take time to reflect. The Dearing report is the most serious, coherent and comprehensive review of the subject in the United Kingdom in the past six years.

I want to emphasise the value to the higher education sector of creating a world where a larger proportion of university income comes directly from students and does not pass through the Department for Education and Skills. That would provide a more flexible and responsive higher education sector. Let us revert to objectives—a subject that is not controversial. The Secretary of State made it clear in her speech on 22 October that she agrees with that objective. She said:

That is a pretty damning criticism by a Secretary of State of a Government who have been in office for four and a half years. What type of institution will be required if we are to increase participation in higher education from the 30-odd per cent. today to the 50 per cent. that is the Prime Minister's objective? Surely it is absurd to believe that a vision of what a university ought to be, based originally on Oxbridge, the London School of Economics and a few other traditional universities, which had much less than 10 per cent. participation in the pre-1960 era, can be extended and made available to 50 per cent. of the population.

I am certainly not arguing for a return to polytechnics and colleges for advanced technology, or for creating artificial pigeonholes; quite the contrary. I seek a system in which institutions are more responsible to their student body, and are freer to work through for themselves how to meet the needs of their student bodies more accurately.

In this connection, it is worth recording the words of two distinguished people who have worked in the higher eduction sector and who have described in colourful terms what is wrong with the unduly straitjacketed world that higher education has become. Professor Zellick, the head of London university, states:

That is from the vice-chancellor of London university.

The former principal of Strathclyde university, Professor Sir Graham Hills, states:

There is no disagreement in the House that we want to create a system of world-class institutions with equitable access. However, I sometimes think that hon. Members on both sides of the House are in denial about the

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consequences of the policy prescriptions that have been followed by the Labour Government over the past four and a half years. I do not absolve the Government who went before them from pursuing a policy of over-centralisation or from over-bureaucratising the university sector.

World-class institutions will not be created by bureaucratic diktat from the Department for Education and Skills. They will be created by providing a framework within which institutions are able to develop genuine world-class expertise. That result would flow from a much more liberal system, of the kind that Dearing envisaged—a much more attractive and compelling vision than the one currently on offer from the Government.

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