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Mrs. Browning : Is this not another case of loaves and little fishes? The same thing happened with regard to the extra 1p on income tax. For years, the Liberal Democrats made spending pledges against that policy, which they subsequently ditched. They are now going to introduce what I suppose must be known as the Neath tax, as they intend to charge an extra tax on those earning more than £100,000, and are making yet another spending pledge that has to be set against that increased tax. Again, the figures do not add up.

Mr. Boswell: I was about to make the same point. A distinguished Cabinet member, the Secretary of State for Wales and Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Neath (Peter Hain), who has a lot of jobs to do for the Government, was lobotomised when he tried to say the same thing on Friday and was not allowed to say it. Looking at the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, I am delighted to see that there is no sign of his having been lobotomised yet. Perhaps his party is committed to a plurality of views. More seriously—we need not go into what might be termed the control freakery on either the Labour or Liberal Democrat Front Benches—it was very interesting that a number of other Labour Members attacked the said Cabinet Minister on the grounds of his economic

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ineptitude and the incompetence that had been shown in the matter. I believe that both the political analysis and economic calculations that drove the suggestion of a 50 per cent. rate are equally suspect.

Before somebody fantasises the opposite, it is important to point out that in historical terms, Conservative Governments have never charged tuition fees to students. Incidentally, they have also offered maintenance grants to students. When I was Minister with responsibility for higher education a decade ago, we did not charge students. I may say to the House—I do not think that this will be generally known—that we carried out a desk study long before Dearing into whether or not we should do so. The study showed that, provided that growth in numbers was restrained, we could hold the line and not charge. I think that that is an interesting point, and it is the judgment that we made when we considered the matter.

David Wright: Has the hon. Gentleman seen the report by Professor Barr about the £1.6 billion funding gap in the Conservative party's current proposals? Indeed, no investment is proposed for vocational training, which his party is also proposing to enhance.

Mr. Boswell: I am interested in that. I do not necessarily have to agree with Professor Barr about everything, not least the fact that he does not think that loans function as a kind of tax. I would say to the hon. Gentleman that we all need to reflect hard on the contingent liability on the Treasury of the uplift in student loans that will be required to finance the increased tuition fees. Only last week, the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education gave me a commitment that they will be financed in full by additional student loans. That liability is not fully charged for because it has zero real interest, so there is an effective interest rate subsidy of some 3 per cent. It is rolling up into a gigantic contingent liability that will sink some of the Government's expansion plans. That is quite apart from this week's speculation in The Times Higher Educational Supplement.

I return to the Liberal Democrat motion. The Liberal Democrats claim to have scrapped tuition fees in Scotland by the simple expedient of saying that they have done so. In their alternative Budget, they pledged that there would be no tuition fees or top-up fees. The motion says nothing about tuition fees, although we have had a certain amount of discussion about the subject.

Mr. Willis: It is about top-up fees.

Mr. Boswell: The hon. Gentleman says that it is about top-up fees. He could have had a debate on the whole range of student finance, but for some reason he was diffident about tuition fees. I do not know why.

If the hon. Gentleman wants to talk about top-up fees, let me in return talk about Scottish graduate endowment liabilities. In my view—and I have heard no adequate argument to the contrary—that is like paying for one's summer holiday with one's Barclaycard. One pays in the end, and usually ends up paying a little bit more on top. Conservative Members believe that student debt, which the Secretary of State admitted is

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likely to average £15,000 to £21,000—of course, that excludes any additional private debt—will be unsustainable. It will be particularly difficult in cases where there is more than one child in a family and the parents feel obliged to make a contribution towards their education and in cases where courses are expensive or protracted for academic reasons.

The whole paraphernalia of notional tuition fees and rebates according to income has already become impossibly complex. It brings in very little in real terms—less than half its nominal yield—and is an example of a Government chasing their own tail. We therefore propose radical plans to abolish all fees, including top-up fees. It is estimated that that would cost £700 million. We would take the hard decision to abolish the 50 per cent. target and accept that some of the less successful higher education activity might be curtailed. We would definitely abolish the Office for Fair Access, because that function should be carried out by the institutions, which are well committed to that objective. We would put a fresh thrust behind vocational education. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford said, Liberal Democrat News provided a ringing endorsement of our policies in the shape of Jonathan Calder's article, which explained that my hon. Friend's idea of

I agree. It is useful to have allies on occasion.

If we stay with Labour policies, we will have a tax on learning. We will not have lifelong learning, but at least half-lifetime debt.

If we were to support the Liberal Democrats' ideas without further equivocation, we should be copping out on the hard choices, and we should not be able to resource individual courses adequately. I give them credit, however, for seeing that the Government's fees policy will not work, and we shall give them our electoral support in the Lobby tonight.

Mr. Bercow: Will my hon. Friend accept that, in seeking a philosophical justification for the admirable commitment to the abolition of the 50 per cent? participation target, he need look no further than the wise words of R. H. Tawney, who said:

and suggested that doing the best for every young person did not mean, and ordinarily should not mean, doing the same for every young person.

Mr. Boswell: I am immensely reassured to have that endorsement from my hon. Friend, and I do not have too much difficulty with the words and wisdom of R. H. Tawney. I genuinely feel that one of the built-in difficulties in the Government's present stance is that, by concentrating on the target of getting 50 per cent. of young people into higher education that they are driving forward, they are both making a judgment and

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distorting or devaluing the offer that is made to the other 50 per cent. of young people, who also need to have their skills, aptitudes and talents developed.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Boswell: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, not least—this is a dreadful thing to have to admit—because I happen to know that he was taught by my mother-in-law.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Indeed. The hon. Gentleman will also be aware that I taught in an institution that was not an ivory tower institution but one that was proud of its record of expanding greatly the number of people from disadvantaged backgrounds who came into it. If he believes in supporting that kind of student and encouraging their access to higher education, and if he is also arguing the case for restricting the numbers—for whatever reason—how many students from middle-class or better-off families will he cut out of the system to encourage students from communities such as mine to come forward?

Mr. Boswell: That is an interesting question. I would say to the hon. Gentleman that I am not in planning mode, now or ever, but we need to make arrangements whereby students of ability can go forward to the kind of education that is most appropriate for them. Students of lesser ability might perhaps not be encouraged or gulled into going on expensive enterprises round the country which do not enhance their career or other prospects. This is a desperately serious matter.

Mrs. Anne Campbell: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Boswell: I have given way to the hon. Lady once. I must now conclude my remarks.

When this debate has run its course, although we might not have seen the colour of the Government's proposed legislation, it will fall to the next Conservative Government to discharge their historic responsibilities. We can, we will and we must offer a fair deal for students, and we need to get out of the disastrous hole into which the present Government are leading us.

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