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Why is that outcome important? Unless we understand the outcomes we want from our universities, the debate on fees is totally out of context. I began as a sceptic. I adopted the view that we perhaps needed to row back and have a system that involved fewer people going to university. I thought that a system of grants could be better, or that we could charge less. However, the truth is that higher participation in higher education is here
to stay, which is good. We must therefore work out how we can continue to fund that, and how to ensure that our universities remain world class and experiences such as mine at university-if parents cannot contribute, the student is really stuck-are not a key factor in the equation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) mentioned a mother who is worried that she is unable to fund her daughter's education. He is right to raise that concern, because a lot of people will feel that they must dip their hands into their pockets to pay the fees. However, more than anything else, the policy shifts the burden from parents-students pay when they have graduated and when they benefit.
Mr Gyimah: If any lie has been perpetrated in this debate, it is that working class children who want to university cannot get there- [ Interruption. ] May I finish? The truth is that our education system is so bad that for a lot of underprivileged kids, the whole concept of university is simply academic.
Let us look at the proposal in simple terms. Before I went to university, if someone had said to me, "Sam, if you want to improve your life, I will give you money so you can go and do that. When you finish, come back to me only if you have found a job. I'm not going to charge you any interest unless you're earning more than a certain amount, but I want you to improve your life, so go ahead and do so," I would have bitten their hand off.
We have also seen the old notion of class warfare revamped this week. I saw it mentioned somewhere that Harvard had better access than some of our higher education institutions. What was omitted in that article was the fact that Harvard charges huge fees, and that is
how it funds access. I am not saying that we want to go the way of Harvard, but there is a way to have high participation and fees and still ensure that the least advantaged make it.
That cannot happen just through fees. We need to reform our education system in total. I am glad that the Secretary of State mentioned the need for further education colleges to get more involved in the delivery of higher education. I am pleased that the 40% of students who are part-time students, who have previously had to fund themselves, will now have access to funding through our current policy proposal. I am pleased also that he mentioned that we will help people make their investment decision about which university to go to, through information about which courses will lead to employment and benefit them and whether they will ever see their tutors. Those things drive equality in the education system.
The motion is purely about fees, but fees are just one part of an entire package of higher education reform. Rather than play politics, we have to examine the whole package before casting judgment on it.
Heidi Alexander: I thank the hon. Gentleman for finally giving way. Does he not accept that for students from poorer backgrounds, the huge debt that they could now face will act as a greater disincentive to go to university than it will for students from more affluent backgrounds?
Mr Gyimah: The truth is that under our current system, it is the middle classes who benefit the most. The people whom the hon. Lady defends are not getting to university, and we need to reform the system so that university is not the same for everyone-three years on campus, costing the same amount of money. There need to be more options for people to get to university over time.
Tony Blair gave an aspirational target of 50% going to university, and I actually like that aspiration. I am glad that, with this policy, we can continue to drive aspiration forward. The past was not right, because there was no utopia of social mobility. The present is letting students down, because they are not getting jobs-
Young people outside this building are deeply angered, concerned and frustrated by the debate that we are having, and it is right that we all reflect on a generation that may inherit something far less than many of us in the Chamber did. Many of us grew up in a period of largely full employment and pretty generous pension schemes into which the system had paid over a sustained period. Many benefited from free education, which is at the heart of this discussion.
The decision that we made in 2004 was not that we should move away from free education, because of course it was not free. Taxpayers were pooling resources to contribute to the higher education of this country. We decided, alongside the taxpayer, to ensure that individual students and universities made a contribution to higher education.
Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that those who argue that students need not be frightened of £9,000 a year fees, because they will not be paying up front, entirely fail to recognise that for someone who comes from an immediate family in which no one has ever been to university, or maybe even stayed at school past 16, the prospect of debts of £50,000, or possibly £100,000 if they want to be a doctor, must be off-putting? Coalition Members have to put themselves in the position of those ordinary families.
Mr Lammy: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We should reflect that fees of £9,000 a year could total up to debt of between £40,000 and £50,000 on completion of a university course. That is substantially more than the annual incomes of many of our constituents.
That is substantially more than the £3,000 we introduced. The essential ingredient of this debate is that we are breaking the partnership between student, state and university. We are saying that the state can step out of the arrangement, and that the arrangement should be entirely between the student and the university. It is my contention that that is unacceptable.
When we set up the Browne review, we specifically asked Lord Browne, in the terms of reference, to look also at the fourth constituent part of the arrangement that also benefits. I am talking about employers. Multinational companies in this country benefit greatly from graduates, so I am disappointed that Lord Browne spent effectively 300 words on them. It was heartening to hear the Secretary of State mention employers; I just wish he had not done it so late, and I wish he could attach a figure to what their contribution should be. If this is a genuine partnership, it must be one between students, the state, universities and employers. That is why this is so unfair and why people outside are so angry.
It is right for students to say, "What do we get for that £9,000?" There should be something before the House explaining what they will get for that money. Let us remember that, because universities had been so badly underfunded under a previous Conservative Government, the fee we introduced was topping up a big black hole in university finances. In fact, much of the tuition fee we introduced went to lecturers' pay and salaries. Many people still believe that they cannot fully identity what they got for their contribution, so as we move to £9,000, should not the Government come forward and say, "For this money, these are the contact hours you will have with your lecturer. For this money, this is the size of your tutorial. For this money, we will be able to tell
you what your employment prospects will be afterwards"? But there is nothing before the House about what the student gets for the contribution they are making.
A young girl approached me this week who wanted to go to my old university-the School of Oriental and African Studies. She wants to study development studies. She is a young black woman in my constituency. However, owing to the message the Government are sending on arts and humanities, and on the worth of doing development studies at SOAS, she is doubting whether it is worth coming out with debt to the tune of £40,000 and doing a subject such as development studies. I say to the Minister for Universities and Science that surely we recognise that we live in a multi-disciplinary, inter-disciplinary world. We do not just want scientists; we want those who study the humanities. We see in universities cross-disciplinary activity producing beneficial results, so why has he chosen to withdraw funds from arts and the humanities and teaching in this manner?
We have seen what our best universities are doing on access. Why should the London borough of Richmond send more young people to Oxbridge than Barnsley, Rochdale, Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and Stoke combined? That is unacceptable-and this measure will make it worse. It is unacceptable that 21 colleges across Oxford and Cambridge did not take on a black student. What will this do to address that problem?
That is why the people outside this Chamber are so angry and frustrated. If the Minister believes that this debate will stop as a result of the vote tonight, he is mistaken. It will continue, and I will join the students and their parents in the protest.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. I call Mr Steve Brine, but I should say that he cannot just sit and smile; he has to stand up to indicate that he wishes to speak. Fortunately, I thought that he might want to speak.
I am a new Member in this House-obviously-but there are some things that I have learned in the short number of months that I have been here. When proposals come before us, I always ask two questions: first, can we stick with the status quo and bury our heads in the sand; and secondly, can we put off until tomorrow what needs to be done today? The conclusion that I have come to on the proposals before us is that the answer to both those questions is no. The current funding model for higher education is simply not providing enough
money to support the growing number of students who want to go on to higher education. As it stands, we turned away just under 200,000 young people this year. Funding per student is now lower in real terms than it was 20 years ago. As someone once said, "We can't go on like this." [ Interruption. ] Opposition Members may want to listen.
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday, we cannot allow our universities to fall behind the rest of the world. India is building new technology institutes and new universities, and in the next 15 years the number of graduates from Chinese universities is expected to grow fivefold, so what do we do? Do we turn millions more young people-people like me-away from aspiring to go to university? I do not want to send that message out from this House. If that is what the Opposition have decided, that is their decision, but it is certainly not mine. Do we just increase state funding to higher education, so that fees can either stay as they are or, as some in this House would like, be abolished altogether? We know that we cannot do that because, once again, the country faces ruin after a Labour Government.
As Mr Blair's new Government proved, simply increasing the money from the Exchequer was not possible in '97, when we had a fantastic economy, which was bequeathed to Labour, and it is certainly not possible with the wrecked economy that we face today.
I strongly supported setting up the Browne review. I did not sign any pledges about what it might or might not recommend-I think that was the right decision-and I welcome a new system in which no students will pay up-front fees. It is also a system in which, for the first time, part-time students will pay no fees up front. That is a real development. I welcome lifting the repayment figure from £15,000 to £21,000, and I very much welcome the repayment figure being linked to earnings.
I am new here, and I have wrestled with this decision like no other. I opposed the £1,000 fee in 1998 after the Dearing report, because I feared that it would breach the principle of free higher education. I said that there would be no turning back, and I think that I was right about that. I was not in this House then, but my party opposed top-up fees in 2003-04, because we feared that they would restrict access to higher education. I have to say that I think we were wrong, and we have been proved so, because the number wanting to go keeps going up and up.
Mr MacNeil: If the hon. Gentleman is such a fan of tuition fees of £9,000 per annum, will he pay £9,000 in retrospect for every year that he was at university? He is not duty bound to do so, given that he was not charged when he was at university, but he can freely pay now. He is at liberty to do so. If he so strongly believes in the principle of paying tuition fees, will he now pay £9,000 for each year that he was at university?
Whether or not we all agree that 50% of young people should go to university, that is a decision that millions of young people and families across the country choose to take. That is the situation that the House faces. I hope that these proposals will put higher education funding and student finance on a sustainable footing, improve the quality of university degrees and put a progressive support package in place for students that will not deter access on account of the absence of up-front fees.
The Minister will be disappointed in me-I am glad to see him back in his place-if I do not make a point once again about Aimhigher. I think it works and that it has been proved to work, and it worries me that it is disappearing. I urge the Secretary of State and the Minister for Universities and Science to revisit this decision or, at the very least, to do more to safeguard the functions of Aimhigher. Aimhigher Hampshire is based at the university of Winchester in my constituency; it does a very good job.
Mr Willetts: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way-unlike the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy). I would like to assure him that Aimhigher has produced some valuable initiatives and that individual universities can carry them forward. Indeed, under the new requirements we are introducing for the Office for Fair Access, we will expect them to take initiatives to broaden access. The best of Aimhigher will thus survive in a new form.
Mr Brine: I am glad to hear that. The Minister knows that I will be back and will hold him to that assurance. I also urge him-perhaps he will come back to it when he winds up the debate-to ensure that what universities such as the university of Winchester charge is not pegged at £6,000. They must be free to charge where they see fit within the £6,000 to £9,000 range.
I take no ideological great pleasure from today's decision, but to govern is, indeed, to choose. I agree with the Deputy Prime Minister that to govern is not to abstain, but to choose. I shall support the proposals. We can support or not support only the proposals before us-not those that we would like to be before us. I will support them.
Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak against the motion on behalf of all my constituents, especially the teenagers who have e-mailed me over the last few days asking me to do so. I want to talk about what the Government's plans will mean for many of those young people, if not all of them.
"If fees rise to £7,000 a year, as many rumours suggest they would, within five years some students will be leaving university up to £44,000 in debt. That would be a disaster."
I am sure that this is going to be the only time I find myself saying this, but "I agree with Nick." Even if most universities charge the minimum of £6,000, it will still be a disaster. If most of the more prestigious universities charge £9,000, it would be an even bigger disaster.
For many young people in my constituency, fees of £27,000 will prove the ultimate deterrent to carrying on their education and realising their academic potential. If their ambition were strong enough, they would still find themselves having to think very seriously about going to a local university-to avoid the living expenses-rather than to the best university that would accept them, based on their ability. Indeed, comments made by the Secretary of State in the last debate on this subject lead me to believe that this is exactly what he intends people to do. I find that totally hypocritical, given that he had the opportunity to live in Cambridge and attend a top university.
Do not get me wrong, Madam Deputy Speaker, as many of the local higher education providers in my constituency are excellent for both the quality of teaching and the student experience. The university of Sunderland was recently declared at The Times higher education awards as the top university for the student experience. That does not mean, however, that staying local offers the best possible educational opportunities for everyone in my constituency. Many of my constituents are able enough to earn a place in a highly sought-after course elsewhere in the country, and it is imperative that they should feel able to apply to such institutions to study such courses without their main focus being on the potential cost.
"There has been much misinformation about the effect of fees on access. The evidence is clear that fees do not deter poorer students from university-particularly when combined with a progressive repayment system, precisely as the Government is proposing."
Mrs Hodgson: Not at all. That is rubbish, and I totally disagree with it. As hon. Members have said, the proposal will put off people from working-class backgrounds from going to any university, let alone a top one.
Of course the headline cost-the £44,000 spoken of by the Deputy Prime Minister-will not remain static. I have done my sums, and assuming my constituents graduate with a debt of £40,000 and are lucky enough to find a job that pays £21,000 in a market ravaged by the Government's cuts, that debt will start to creep up. We hear that the interest rate will be 2.2% plus inflation. I note that for the purpose of raking money in, the Government have chosen the retail prices index, yet for paying out-say, in benefit uprating-they have chosen the lower measure of the consumer prices index. If we add the current RPI to 2.2%, we get 7.1%, which will mean an interest payment of £2,840 per annum on a debt of £40,000. To keep up with that interest and stop the debt rising, a graduate would need to earn more than £52,000 a year.
Most people in this country, graduate or otherwise, would consider themselves lucky to earn £52,000 by the age of 52, let alone 22. Where is the sense in the Government's proposals if many graduates will have a bigger debt at the end of 30 years than they did when they graduated? On my calculations, I estimate that large numbers of students will have their debt written off under the proposals. How is that a better way of
doing things? At least under the previous system graduates were able to pay off their debts, if they were working, on average within 11 years.
Concessions have been outlined over the past couple of days, as they were when the matter was discussed in a debate in Westminster Hall secured by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy). They must have been drawn up on the back of one of the Deputy Prime Minister's ever-growing pile of empty fag packets, but their announcement gives me the impression that someone in the Government must recognise the damage that their plans will do to the life chances of many young people and to the wider economy. It beggars belief, therefore, that they are still pressing ahead with them.
Christopher Pincher: I do not know who has done the hon. Lady's sums for her-possibly the shadow Chancellor-but they do not add up. Graduates in my constituency on a median salary of £24,000 are currently paying back £810 a year. Under the coalition's proposals, they will be paying back £270 a year. For graduates, that is real practical help, which her party never gave.
The Government's reckless behaviour in this and other areas of policy directly affecting young people, such as scrapping the EMA without proper scrutiny, shows that the policies are less about pragmatism and totally about dogmatism. Incidentally, I urge my hon. Friends to read the illuminating article in The Times-written in 2003, it must be said-by the current Secretary of State for Education. The article highlights exactly how the minds of those in this Administration work, and how they will be worse for our constituents than even the Thatcher Administration, who ruined lives and wrecked communities.
If Liberal Democrat Members file obediently through the Government Lobby tonight, their betrayal will not be forgotten, and they will never be taken seriously again by their constituents. For the sake of young people throughout England, I sincerely hope that they will manage to locate their spines between now and the putting of the Question, and will join me and other hon. Members in opposing this regressive and deeply divisive motion.
Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate, although, like my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland), I wish that the Government had been persuaded not to press ahead with the plans, and that they had not been necessary.
I do not intend to speak for long, because I think I made it clear last week, during the Opposition day debate, where I stand on the issue of increasing tuition fees. I will vote against the proposed increase, and I was one of the signatories to the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West.
I take no pleasure in voting against the plans presented by my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary. In fact, in many ways I welcome some of the proposals that have followed the Browne review. Increasing the level at which graduates must pay back any money to £21,000 is certainly an improvement on the current £15,000 threshold. Treating part-time students in the same way as full-time students by not charging them any up-front tuition fees will be of benefit, and providing additional support for students from poorer backgrounds is also a step in the right direction. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has rightly confirmed that the proposals are more progressive than the current regressive tuition fees system. However, I will vote against an increase in tuition fees, simply because I think that a higher cap will discourage some young people from going to university in the future.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Browne review. Coalition Front Benchers have made some play of rejecting the upper figure of £12,000, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that by also rejecting the clawback and the disincentive mechanism in the review, the coalition Government have made it more, not less, likely that the top fee of £9,000 will be charged?
Mr Leech: I rather suspect that most universities will want to reach that £9,000 limit even if they choose not to do so initially. When tuition fees were first introduced, it was clear that universities wanted ultimately to charge as much as they possibly could.
Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab): I am pleased to learn that the hon. Gentleman will be going into the correct Lobby this evening. However, he has only dealt with half the equation. Can he explain to the people in his constituency-the people of Manchester-why he voted for an £80 million cut in the Manchester university fee as part of the £3 billion cut in university grants?
Mr Leech: That is not relevant to the debate, or to the point that I am trying to make. The proposals mean that the least well-off quarter of graduates will be better off than they are under the scheme introduced by the last Labour Government. However, the flaw that I see in the proposal of my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary is that no one goes to university believing that they will be among the bottom 25% of graduates. Their assumption will always be that they will have to pay off the whole of their student debt, although for a large proportion of them, that will never be the case. I believe that a number will be put off choosing to go to university in the first place.
As I said earlier, I signed the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West. However, I also strongly support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert). Along with most other Members who
are graduates, I benefited from a free education, and left university with a very small amount of debt. I am not about to vote to leave future graduates with tens of thousands of pounds of debt. I hold to the old-fashioned principle that a university education benefits the country and the economy as well as the individual. Graduates who are successful and earn high wages after they leave university pay more taxes and repay the cost of their university education that way. I am therefore slightly disappointed that the amendment to which I have put my name has not been selected and will not be voted on, because that vote would have revealed which Members support the principle of free education, and Opposition Members would have had a chance to show their support for the existing unfair regressive fees system. We are not going to get that opportunity, however.
All we are getting from the Opposition is pathetic political opportunism. The House witnessed that last week, yesterday and this afternoon. The Leader of the Opposition has suggested he supports a graduate tax, but is not prepared to tell us how much it would cost and how many graduates would be worse off under his proposals. This week we are told that the shadow Chancellor has had a road to Damascus-style conversion to the concept of a graduate tax; either that or, more likely, he has had a North Korean conversion to the graduate tax. Both the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor were members of the Cabinet that introduced the Browne review with the explicit intention of raising tuition fees. Nobody in this House or outside it should be duped into believing that Labour would not be proposing an increase in tuition fees if they were still in government. While I welcome their convenient conversion to opposing a rise in tuition fees, the House should be under no illusion: if they were in government they would be doing exactly the same as what is being done today.
Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): I listened with great interest to the contribution of the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech), particularly when he talked about political opportunism. I seem to remember that being on every page of the Orange Book, the bible of the Liberal Democrats. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should have a word with the Deputy Prime Minister about political opportunism.
I am conscious that I do not have much time to speak in this debate, which is a great pity. Yesterday we debated, at insufficient length, how much time we would have for today's debate but, yet again, a Liberal henchman moved the closure motion at the behest of his Tory string-pullers. [Interruption.] Thank you.
I should declare an interest. My daughter is currently at university. She is studying a course involving applied theatre and education. The course will not exist after next year, however, because the university is cancelling it, as it is one of the courses the university will not have the funding for because of the 80% cuts.
Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): When my hon. Friend's daughter made the decision to enrol on that course, did she follow the advice of the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), who said young people should choose which course to study as an investment decision?
Robert Flello: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, because the course my daughter chose is of great benefit to the community as it looks at applying theatre in places like prisons and special schools. She looked upon the course not as an investment for herself, but as an investment much more broadly.
Mr MacNeil: In Scotland, Labour's tuition fees were abolished by the Scottish National party. Does the hon. Gentleman think that Labour made a mistake by putting tuition fees on to the political landscape?
Staffordshire university and Keele university serve my constituency and the wider local area. Combined, they are looking at £100 million-plus of cuts: cuts that will affect every possible course, and certainly ones that greatly benefit my constituents. We have heard from Government Members that the cuts are all somehow the fault of the previous Labour Government-I am sure that they will all start shouting, "Yes," in a moment-but they seem to have forgotten the bankers. They have forgotten that it was the banks and the global banking crisis that got us into this mess and that other countries were looking to the previous Prime Minister and Chancellor for a way out of it. If the problems, which require such massive cuts and therefore these fees, are all about cutting the deficit, will Government Front Benchers say that in four years' time-when they intend to have paid off the deficit-these proposals will be reversed and the money will go back into the higher education sector?
Let us consider the impact on students. We are trying to raise aspiration in areas such as Stoke-on-Trent and wider north Staffordshire and to get more students into university. Indeed, in the past few years, the number of students from north Staffordshire going to university has gone up by more than a third, which is a huge increase. I have been contacted by a great number of students who are at university in and around north Staffordshire. Many constituents and families have been in touch. I have with me a handful of the e-mails I have received. I have also received many letters and callers to my office.
Let me quote from what Jasmine wrote to me. At 20, she is the eldest of four children. Her family are all professionals, being in the police force, the civil service or the army. Her mother is a social worker. Like many of my constituents, her family are good, decent, working people who work locally in and around north Staffordshire. Jasmine is currently at Staffordshire university and wants to be a teacher after she graduates-something she could not do if she did not have a degree. She tells me:
"I am enraged that the government is going to raise university fees".
She receives only a maintenance loan because her parents work in areas such as social work and the police force and are not therefore able to fund her. Like many people in the Chamber and the wider community, they have children from a previous marriage who also need to be funded and taken into account.
Tristram Hunt: My hon. Friend's constituency and mine share Staffordshire university, which is also dealing with the cuts to its university quarter being driven through by the Government. Why does he think the Government are so anti-university when every other nation in Europe is investing in its science and universities at this time of recession?
Robert Flello: My hon. Friend puts the point extremely well. I do not think the Government are anti-university per se, although we have heard some interesting comments from the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), who said that our education system is "so bad"-perhaps he was following the Prime Minister's lead in talking down British universities, students and teaching. I think they are more interested in promoting elitism.
"This generation and the one following are the future of Britain and the government should be investing in them-not making it impossible for people to afford, grow and be educated."
A ComRes poll for ITV News found that 70% of the public agree that higher tuition fees will deter students from poorer backgrounds from going to university and that only 17% think they will not. A recent Ipsos MORI poll found that raising fees to £5,000 a year would deter almost half those from deprived backgrounds who would otherwise go on to higher education and that raising fees to £7,000 a year, let alone £9,000 a year, would cut the number who do so by nearly two thirds.
This is a shamefully short debate, because hon. Members should have had a proper opportunity to take part. I would have taken interventions had the Government not shamefully curtailed the time available. This debate will rage on outside this place among the disgusted people of this country. [Interruption.]
Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. It is not necessary for Members of this House to count down. The clock is perfectly accurate. Although feelings are running very high and arguments are being put forcefully, courtesy can still be shown in this Chamber.
Alok Sharma (Reading West) (Con): We have heard much self-righteous indignation from the Opposition about the proposed rise in tuition fee levels, but no real acknowledgement of why these decisions are having to be made. The fundamental reason why the coalition Government are having to make difficult choices on public expenditure is the shocking state of the public finances left to us by the previous Government.
Anas Sarwar (Glasgow Central) (Lab): Is it not the case that the UK spends only 0.7% of its gross domestic product on higher education, compared with the OECD average of 1%? So this is not an economic decision, but a political decision taken by the coalition.
Alok Sharma: This is an economic decision. The Labour party left us with a mess, they have absolutely no plan and they come here trying to oppose a fair policy that we are putting forward. The Opposition have talked about the proposed tuition fees increase "pulling the ladder" away from poorer students, but that clearly is not the case. Such talk is pretty rich coming from a party whose policies in government were pulling the ladder away from the whole country. In case Labour Members are suffering from collective amnesia, I should remind them that it was their party that first introduced tuition fees, that subsequently increased tuition fees threefold in 2004 and that cut hundreds of millions of pounds from higher education when in office. It was also their party that initiated the Browne review, because it knew that changes had to be made in higher education funding. In The Times of 13 November, the shadow Chancellor, who was the higher education Minister in 2004, was reported to have said that Labour should have gone for higher fees at that time, perhaps of £5,000 a year.
Gordon Birtwistle: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is a total disgrace that the previous Prime Minister has not been seen since May and has not returned to this Chamber to explain this and apologise to the students outside for putting them in this position?
Alok Sharma: I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, who makes a very good point. It is clear that Labour's opposition to the change in tuition fees is all about party politics and opposition for its own sake.
No, I will not give way now. That approach comes from a party that appears to have no consistent or developed policy on higher education funding. The Leader of the Opposition, who is not in his place, has said that that Labour party policy is a "blank sheet of paper". Well is it not time that he started scribbling on it? The Opposition have raised a number of objections to the proposed tuition fees increase. They say that it will put people off going to university,
that it will have a negative impact on social mobility and that, overall, the increase is just not fair. Let us examine each of those points.
Will the increase put students off going to university? Tuition fees have been in place for more than a decade and the number of students has increased by 44%. Why the increase? It is because students realise that having a good degree adds value to their prospects and is a passport to a better job. OECD figures clearly indicate that UK graduates earn, on average, 50% more than those who finished education at A-level.
Alok Sharma: No, I will not just now because I want to make some progress. The proposed changes will be an important step in ensuring that the money follows the student and will go further towards making universities more accountable to students as customers.
I do not subscribe to the view that the proposal will reduce social mobility, because it ensures that no one has to pay anything up front and no one has to repay anything until they earn at least £21,000 a year, a 40% increase on the current figure. Everyone, whatever their background, will be able to take advantage of the opportunities offered by a university education.
Alok Sharma: Another tax rise. That is what we get from the Opposition. Another tax rise. They left us with the biggest budget deficit of all time, and now the hon. Gentleman proposes that we increase taxes further. That is their answer to absolutely everything.
Let me continue with the proposed extra help. Through the national scholarship programme, the increase in maintenance grants and the required checks to ensure that universities take people from disadvantaged backgrounds before they are able to charge more than £6,000, social mobility will be further encouraged. But social mobility-
Social mobility starts at school, and a report in November 2008 by the Teaching and Learning Research Programme, called "Widening participation in higher education", concluded that a lack of attainment at secondary school was the biggest factor in non-participation in higher education. So it is highly disappointing to see the OECD figures, published over the last few days, which show that secondary school pupils in the UK have fallen well behind their international counterparts, a fall presided over by the previous Government. Between 2000 and 2009, we slipped from seventh to 25th place in reading skills, from eighth to 28th in mathematics and from fourth to 16th in science. The Opposition are not in any position to lecture us on improving social mobility.
I urge all Members also to take note of all the university vice-chancellors and principals who, in a letter in The Daily Telegraph yesterday, expressed their
fears that social mobility would be curtailed if the regulation were not passed this evening. They said:
"If the vote on Thursday fails, the alternative is likely to be a reduction in students numbers that would be enormously damaging to social mobility and would seriously hamper Britain's ability to adapt to the economic needs of the future. We urge MPs and peers to support the Governments proposals."
Are the proposals being discussed today fair? Well-[Hon. Members: "No!"] Well, we cannot continue with the current system. All parties agree, and that is why the former Labour Government proposed the Browne review in the first place. Labour seems to be flirting with the concept of a graduate tax.
Alok Sharma: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. A graduate tax would mean that poorer graduates paid more and richer graduates paid less, which is neither fair nor progressive. A graduate tax would also be a tax for life, rather than the maximum period of 30 years in the proposed scheme.
The coalition's proposed system is fair. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says that it is more progressive than the current system, and the Opposition have proposed no system at all. It is fair to all taxpayers that students, who will on average earn significantly more than non-graduates in their lifetime, make a contribution to their education after they graduate; it is only fair to full-time and, now, part-time students and their parents that they do not have to find any money up-front; and it is fair because graduates will pay less per month than do they under the current system.
I hope that, rather than playing grubby politics with the aspirations of a generation of students, the Opposition will be honest with students and taxpayers. I hope that they join us in offering students increased opportunity and a greater stake in their own education, instead of raising false expectations that an as yet unexplained utopian alternative exists. I urge all Members to support the regulations.
Mr Speaker: Order. In view of the level of interest, after the next speaker has spoken I am afraid I am imposing a new limit of four minutes on Back-Benchers' speeches to try to get as many in as possible. I call Naomi Long. Six minutes.
Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the debate, which will have profound implications for the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland and for my constituents. I hope to come to that point later. However, given the time constraints, my remarks will not be as comprehensive as I would wish. I shall consider briefly just three aspects of the proposals with which I take issue: the first is the principle underpinning the changes; the second is the effect on social mobility; and the third is the impact on Northern Ireland's students and universities.
First, I shall discuss the principle underpinning the introduction of tuition fees. The increase in fees and the reduction in the grant to universities for teaching is based on the premise that students are the main beneficiaries of a university education and that they should therefore make a specific contribution to the cost. I take issue with that. I may be unusual in doing so, although I am glad to see that some Liberal Democrat and Conservative Members have indicated that they also take issue with it.
One of the principal benefits to a graduate from their education is higher earnings. However, that is already accounted for in a progressive manner through general taxation. Over their lifetime, graduates pay more than 40% more tax than a non-graduate. The higher earnings of a graduate are therefore accounted for through taxation. However, although graduates benefit from studying, society also benefits from their degree. For those hon. Members who have asked how, I simply say that every time someone goes to their pharmacist, dentist, doctor, sends their child to school or university, drives over a bridge or on a road, or turns off a tap in their home, they are benefiting directly from someone else's university education. Employers benefit from increased competitiveness. In Northern Ireland, our international competitiveness and ability to attract direct foreign investment and develop spin-out economic activity linked to research and development is dependent on having well-educated graduates in our population. That benefit is extended to everyone.
Like the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland), I was opposed to the introduction of tuition fees and top-up fees. I am also opposed to these proposals, which will further shift the responsibility for university funding on to individual students and away from wider society. A number of hon. Members have referred to the introduction of tuition fees as opening a Pandora's box. I think the introduction of tuition fees is akin to a conversation between a man and a woman in which the man says, "Would you sleep with me for £1 million?" The woman then says, "Yes," and the man says, "Now we've established the principle, let's negotiate the price." What we are doing today is negotiating the price, not the principle. Labour Members should take that into account in what they have to say.
When Labour established the principle of tuition fees and top-up fees, market forces were introduced into the university system. Yesterday, the Deputy Prime Minister said that he would like tuition fees to be scrapped, but that he lives in an imperfect world. I share his aspiration. I am opposed to the measures, not least because by cutting the teaching grant and moving reliance on to individual contributions, the chance for scrapping fees moves from being an aspiration to a pipe dream.
Social mobility is hugely important and my views have been influenced heavily by my personal experience. Neither of my parents had the opportunity to go to university and both went out to work when they were 14. Indeed, my father did so to fund the education of his younger brother. That situation may become more common in the future, as tuition fees rise. For me, the opportunity to attend university was life changing. I had the benefit of a maintenance grant and did not have to pay fees. That financial support was critical to
me. My father died when I was 11 and my mum was on a state pension by the time I made it to university. Without making the sacrifice of what was, effectively, six years of deferred earning, when I could not contribute to the household and was reliant on my mum, I would not have been able to get my education. It was the right decision for me, but it is one I fear that other students might not have the opportunity to take.
People from lower-income backgrounds tend to be more debt adverse, and that is deeply engrained in their psyche. Full cognisance has not been given to that in developing the proposals. I want other young people to have the opportunities that I enjoyed. I therefore cannot support the proposals.
As I said last night, the decision taken in this House today will have a profound effect on students from Northern Ireland and on the devolved Administration. An independent review is taking place under the auspices of the Department for Employment and Learning in the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, the report made it clear in its initial phase that it would be very difficult for us significantly to vary from the situation in England.
It was also made clear in the Grand Committee that the Barnett consequentials of a decision that has not yet been taken have already been factored into the budget. I have no doubt that the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) will have more to say about that in due course.
Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): I agree almost entirely with the hon. Lady's comments. Does she now regret that during the election campaign she received the wholehearted endorsement of the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg) and that she was so effusive in her support for the Lib Dems?
Naomi Long: No, I do not regret receiving the right hon. Gentleman's support during the election campaign. I am thankful to be here as an Alliance party Member representing its policies and not as a Liberal Democrat Member. I think that the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) is well aware of that.
In Northern Ireland, this will be a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, if a balance cannot be found between protecting Northern Ireland students who may be deterred from attending university, and underfunding our participation rates, there are serious implications for rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy, which the Government have said is a priority for them. It is hugely important that our universities in Northern Ireland are considered powerfully in this. Northern Ireland universities have some of the best participation rates among lower socio-economic groups. One of those is a Russell group university-Queen's university Belfast. Lessons could be learned from the arrangements that it has put in place to widen participation to support students into education. We should not simply dismiss this as a matter that concerns only English students without giving full consideration to students from Northern Ireland. It is hugely important that the situation in Northern Ireland is fully considered. Although there are progressive measures regarding the repayment of these fees, I cannot, on balance and in the absence of a full package, give my support to what has been put before us.
Nick Boles (Grantham and Stamford) (Con): In the short time available to me, I want to focus on the question that really vexes most people in all parts of this House: what effect do the different systems of university finance available to us have on social mobility? Will this Government's proposals encourage more people whose parents did not go to university to do so? As we have often heard, there are many very strong opinions in this House on the answer to that question. Many Members believe fervently that the fees proposed by the Government will deter people whose parents did not go to university and who come from families on low incomes from going to university. It is also true, as we heard earlier, that some opinion polls suggest that a very large proportion of people say that they will be deterred from going to university. Yet people do not always do what they say they are going to do- [ Interruption. ] We are all flawed.
I have tried to find research to give us some facts to work with, because projections of what people will do are not nearly as interesting as the facts about what they have done. Several countries operate their university systems on the basis of quite substantial fees, chief among them the United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, as well as ourselves. Unfortunately, there is not much research out there that goes into the question of the kinds of people who go to university, but fortunately I have found one such piece of research conducted by a group called Higher Education Strategy Associates. It carried out a truly systematic comparison of what it calls educational equality and it discovered, extraordinarily and against our expectations, that high fees do not deter people from low-income families from going to university.
Mr Gyimah: Is it not the case that in countries such as France, Italy and Holland where there are no fees for university education-that is, where it is free-there is not the mass participation that occurs in countries that have fees?
Nick Boles: My hon. Friend is, as ever, way ahead of me and exactly right. The reverse of what one might have expected is true. In Germany, 63% of the student population- [ Interruption. ] Please listen to this, because it is important. In Germany, 63% of students have fathers who also went to university. That means that only 37% of the students in Germany are the first in their family to go to university-the figure in the UK is 51%. Only 29% of students in Australia have fathers who went to university. The figure is only 31% in Canada and 39% in the United States.
The countries in which universities make the biggest contribution to social mobility are therefore those with the highest fees. How can that be? I agree that it is counter-intuitive. I will not deny to Opposition Members that that is not how one would expect people to behave. However, it is explainable.
First, such universities have an incentive to expand the number of places, because they receive additional money for each place-enough money to pay for the costs of that place. They therefore massively expand the number of places. That makes it easier for people who have not had huge advantages in life, who have not been able to go to the best schools and who do not have the highest grades, but who are nevertheless huge potential reservoirs of talent, to get places.
Susan Elan Jones: I am reluctant to disturb the hon. Gentleman, but I wonder whether he has read the Institute for Fiscal Studies report, which states that under the proposals, graduates from the poorest 30% of households
"would still pay back significantly more than under the current system".
The second explanation is that universities that earn a substantial income from fees are able to devote more resources to active steps to woo students from poorer families. They need a lot of wooing because they are frightened about what will happen. Such universities not only invest in wooing students from poorer families, but support them with bursaries and scholarship grants. The university with the best record in the world in participation from low-income families is Harvard university, which charges tuition fees of $32,000 a year. It can do that because it offers scholarships and bursaries to ensure that people are not put off. It goes out into schools and actively recruits people from low-income families.
Finally, this idea works because universities innovate. They come up with different kinds, shapes, lengths and costs of courses. Some courses take place over longer periods with lots of part-time study.
I believe that this House should operate on the basis of fact and evidence. The evidence is that the Government proposals will increase the participation of people from poor families, and that is why I support them.
Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab): I place on record my opposition to the huge rise in tuition fees and the disproportionate effect that it will have in Makerfield, compared with more affluent areas of the country.
I will commence my remarks at the stage before people apply for university. We have lost the Aimhigher programme, which succeeded in raising the horizons of disadvantaged learners in my community and in motivating them to achieve and to progress. Many young people in my constituency have low aspirations and narrow boundaries, and feel that many of the goals that we are discussing are not for them. That was illustrated when I toured one of the last schools to be completed under Building Schools for the Future. A year 7 pupil, who went around it with me, kept saying, "Look at this, isn't it wonderful? Is it all for us? Isn't it a bit too good for us, really?" Unfortunately for my constituency, the untimely demise of Building Schools for the Future has reinforced that view. That makes the Aimhigher project all the more vital. At all costs, we must avoid a return to the situation in 2004, when schools in Wigan had no links to universities and when many pupils had never been to a university campus, nor spoken to somebody who had started at university.
Mrs Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): I have given the progressive nature, or otherwise, of the proposals a great deal of thought throughout the debate, and I have managed to find one way in which they are progressive. It is that they will enable some hard-pressed Labour candidates to progress into Liberal Democrat seats at the next election.
Encouraging young people in Makerfield to consider university, and to consider which university course is right for them, has been difficult enough without bringing in the added complication of the huge rise in costs due to the trebling, in some cases, of tuition fees. Not only will potential students from poorer backgrounds be deterred from further education completely, but those who are determined to proceed will feel pressure to choose the most affordable course, even though it may not be the right one for them.
The average student debt will rise massively to £40,000, according to the University and College Union. In Makerfield, that equates to just over half the cost of the average terraced house, the kind of property in which many of my constituents live. The idea of taking on that amount of debt at a young age, and also having to plan for a future later, is unimaginable and frightening to many people.
Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): Many of my hon. Friend's constituents live fairly close to my constituency, which houses the university of Central Lancashire. Many of our constituents probably thought that £3,000 was quite a lot when the Labour Government originally voted to introduce tuition fees. In fact, we found that £3,000 fees did not close the market. The vice-chancellor of the university of Central Lancashire tells me, however, that fees of £9,000 will close the market, as they will frighten people off going to university.
In my constituency, a traditional working-class community, debt is regarded as a bad thing, and parents do not encourage their children to take on levels of debt on this scale. For me, education has always been a partnership between the individual and the state. It involves an investment on both sides. However, this rise in tuition fees, coupled with the cuts to the university teaching budget, has shifted that. The loss of funding for many courses, particularly in the arts, humanities and social sciences, has transferred the funding solely to the students of those subjects.
Those shifts in funding cannot be fair or right. Is this the society in which we want to live, where we know the price of everything and the value of nothing? Young people in my constituency are angry; they feel let down. They have been e-mailing me and urging me to vote against this increase. I am glad that those people are angry, but I worry about the ones who have not contacted me, who perhaps feel that this unfair policy is all that
they deserve, and that they can expect nothing better. It is not what my constituents deserve; they deserve the best chances in life, and I shall vote against this policy to ensure that they get them.
Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): I rise to support the Government's proposals on the basis that they are fair, just and progressive. I have formed that opinion on the basis of my own personal experience, having gone to a local secondary modern high school in a tough catchment area which closed the year I left, and having been the first in my family to go to university. I am still paying back the tuition fees from the Bar vocational course that I took before qualifying as a barrister. I was also an executive member of the National Union of Students in Wales between 1998 and 1999.
In the light of that experience, do I feel that the Government's proposals will allow students from all different backgrounds to go to university and reach their potential? The answer is that I most certainly do feel that anyone who wants to go to university will be able to do so, and will be able to reach their true potential. The concepts of aspiration, hard work, determination, dedication and perseverance are crucial to getting someone to university, through university and beyond.
Paul Uppal: I come from a working class background-seven children in a two-up, two-down. My parents took two jobs and I did not qualify for a grant because they supported my extended family in India. I worked my way through university. Is not it the case that it is not money, but individual personal ambition and aspiration that drives people?
Rehman Chishti: I thank my hon. Friend for making that pertinent point. It is not simply about money, but about aspiration, commitment, dedication and determination to go to university. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point.
Chris Bryant: May I put a slightly different version of the facts to the hon. Gentleman? By the end of a three-year, perhaps four-year course, somebody could have debts of £40,000 or £45,000. For many people in my constituency and in many mining constituencies in this land, that is more than the value of their home. That is the equation that goes through their mind.
Rehman Chishti: The hon. Gentleman makes a pertinent point. I was at university in Wales and I know the community there. However, the key element is that there are no up-front fees and that is why the motion is a good one.
One has to consider the overall package rather than single elements for its progressiveness, fairness and justness. As well as there being no up-front fees, the increase in the threshold from £15,000 to £21,000 has to be a good thing. There will be a cap at £6,000 and then at £9,000, linked to exceptional circumstances. Some of the highest-performing universities will have to go out and ensure that students from less privileged backgrounds take part. That is absolutely right and fair.
Richard Graham: Does my hon. Friend agree that, a student who goes on to earn £25,000 a year-the average salary-will repay that loan at the rate of £30 a month for 30 years, and that that represents a substantially good deal?
Rehman Chishti: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. To ensure that students from different backgrounds can go to the some of the highest-performing universities, we must also make sure that students from less privileged backgrounds have better grades at GCSE and at A-level. I therefore welcome the initiative of the Secretary of State for Education on the pupil premium and the student premium as a way forward.
Increasing the maintenance grant to £2,900 to £3,250 is a good thing for students from families earning under £25,000. Students whose parents earn above £25,000 and up to £40,000 will still be able to get a partial maintenance grant. Beyond that, those from families earning £42,000 to £60,000, can be given loans so that they can go to university. Students in my constituency who go to study in London can have London weighting paid on their maintenance grants.
Part-time students were treated unfairly and unjustly for so long. They often got a raw deal-and they were often mature students and disabled students. It was wrong that they could not get funding to ensure that they could go to university and fulfil their potential. Our policy on that is absolutely right.
The previous Government's policy of 50% going to university was wrong and misplaced. Instead, they should have ensured more vocational qualifications and apprenticeships because we all have different abilities and talents, and they must all be nurtured. In essence, we have to look at the reason for being in this mess: the previous Government's mismanagement of the economy. [hon. Members: "Oh!"] That will not do. We have one of the worst financial deficits in the G20-the legacy that the previous Government left us.
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): I feel some sympathy for the Liberal Democrats, having served in a coalition in Northern Ireland and knowing the compromises that people must make. I can understand that they were in a difficult position, but when people put their signature to a pledge, stick a photograph of themselves on it to make sure that people know who signed it and make that pledge a main part of their party manifesto, going for the kind of policy that we are discussing today is not a compromise-it is an abject surrender.
Of course, there are other things that the Liberal Democrats could have compromised on. Was a referendum on a voting system that happens to benefit their party-although perhaps no voting system will benefit them in future-a higher priority than their manifesto pledge on fees? Given the choice between increasing fees by
200%, despite making a firm commitment not to do so, and creating a voting system that happens to benefit their party, I suspect that most people would say that the priority ought to have been to stand firm on fees.
People may say, "What's this got to do with people from Northern Ireland, because after all, under devolution, it is up to the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to decide their higher education policy?" but that is factually incorrect, because ahead of this vote the Government decided that resources that would have been taken out of higher education were taken out of devolved budgets. Northern Ireland will therefore lose more than £200 million as a result of a decision made on the basis of a vote that has not yet been taken. That restricts the ability of devolved Administrations to set their own policies.
Jim Shannon: My hon. Friend is in a unique position, because he is the Finance and Personnel Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive. Will he indicate what impact the increase in tuition fees will have on the Executive's budget?
Sammy Wilson: I have indicated the impact of the policy on the budget, but the policy also impacts on the ability of the Executive to restructure the economy. It is important for us to have a supply of skilled labour that will attract inward investment.
Let us consider two of the arguments that have been made today. First, people have said that the policy has everything to do with helping to reduce the deficit and dealing with the economic mess that was left. However, the proposals will lead to more borrowing. The flow of money from graduates will not come through immediately -it will take a number of years-so the deficit will not be reduced. That is not even good economics, let alone good politics. The Browne report says that 70% of those who take loans over the next 30 years will default on all or part of them. Who will pay for that? It will be the taxpayer. Therefore, the public finances will be no better off, unless the plan is to pass greater costs on to students in future. The policy does not make economic sense.
Secondly, many Government Members have argued that the policy will have no impact on the poor, but the proposed scheme accepts that it will. Why have a national scholarship scheme or all the other things that have been put into the system if the policy will have no impact on the poor? Of course it will have an impact the poor, as the Government themselves admit.
Lady Hermon (North Down) (Ind): The hon. Gentleman is the Finance and Personnel Minister in the Executive, and I am curious, as I am sure the House is, to understand how much consultation the Secretary of State undertook with the devolved Executive. The Secretary of State knows how serious the implications of his policy are for students from Northern Ireland who go to universities in England and Wales.
The hon. Lady makes a very good point. We hear a lot about the respect agenda for the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but as far as I am aware there have been no such discussions. Members have argued that there needs to be far more discussion of the details of the scheme and its impact on other Administrations across the UK.
That would have been another argument for supporting amendment (b), which was not selected, and it is therefore an argument for voting against the motion.
I have one more point to make, which has not been made so far. Raising fees to the suggested level of £9,000 will make it easy for universities simply to take the easy way out. Rather than examine whether they deliver an efficient service and spend every pound well, they can simply pass the cost on to the consumer-in other words, the student. That will be unfair to students, but it will also go totally against what the Government say they want to do, which is to make public spending more efficient. For those reasons, we will oppose the motions. We believe that they could have been introduced in a much more consensual way, but that was not done. The Government will be poorer for that, and the whole system of higher education will suffer as a result.
Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con): May I first declare the following interests? I have a daughter who is currently a student in her second year, and my youngest daughter anticipates going into higher education and going to university in 2012. I am also a former member of the executive of the National Union of Students, which was obviously a considerable time ago. I took part in many a march to this place with people who are now Members not just on my side of the House but on the Opposition side. We did not march peacefully, we shouted out our protest, but we did march lawfully. We should all say that the cause of those who oppose the motions has been done no service whatever by the antics of what may be a minority. That has done nothing but set back their cause, and we should all condemn that criminal activity.
I had the benefit of getting my degree at no cost to myself-I am of that generation, as are many others in the House. However, I wish to say, notably to the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), that this comprehensive-educated girl needs no lessons, please, on social mobility. It is to the eternal shame of the Labour party that after 13 years, far from advancing people who attended the sort of school that I went to, it set the process back.
I feel that there should be considerably more honesty, notably from Labour Members, about the legacy they left us. That legacy is not just in relation to the deficit, because 45% of youngsters leaving school now go into higher education. I pose this question: has that actually been to the benefit of them and the nation? There is a really good argument that we have had an over-expansion of higher education that has devalued degrees and falsely raised the expectations of young people of my daughters' generation. It has also led to an undervaluing of the skills, ability and achievements of those who have
not gone into higher education. That is why I am so proud that this Government have increased the number of apprenticeships by up to 75,000.
What I would say to the Secretary of State, apart from the fact that I admire his courage in all that he has done in recent times, is that I wish him to look again at our proposals in relation to those who repay early. Many families will now save to assist their children through higher education, and I respectfully submit that it would be wrong to penalise them for their thrift in saving for their children's future.
If we really want social mobility, and if we really want to give people from the most deprived backgrounds the opportunity to enter higher education, we need to improve our schools, to ensure that those who are bright but from bad and difficult backgrounds have the opportunity to move into higher education. That is all part and parcel of our determination to increase social mobility in a way that has not been done in the past 13 years.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): This debate takes place with an unprecedented number of young people all over the country following the proceedings in Parliament and discussing in their colleges, universities and sixth forms what their future holds and what life has in store for them. Tens of thousands of them have come to London today, and I am disappointed that a very large number of them are apparently being kettled by the police in Parliament square and the streets around Parliament. Surely we want to send out the message that we welcome students to London, welcome their supporters and welcome people who wish to take part in the democratic process and lobby MPs peacefully. I hope we can get the message out that that is what we are trying to achieve today.
Those young people who are discussing and debating-and, indeed, occupying some universities-are arguing for the right of all young people to have the opportunity to go on to college or university education.
I believe that many of the students are protesting for altruistic motives. Most of the current generation of university students will continue to pay the existing-and, in my view, exorbitant-level of fees. They are protesting for the next generation. They are doing it because they believe in the value and opportunity presented by higher education. The coalition Government have come up with a threefold increase in fees that will saddle students with debts of £27,000 for fees alone-never mind the rest of it.
When young people in inner-city areas or the poorer communities in our country are asked, "What are your prospects? What do you want to do?", many say, "I want to study. I want to qualify. I want to go to
university. I want to achieve something in life." If we tell them, however, that unless they are very poor they will have to pay these fees and borrow money to survive and get through university, they simply will not do it. They will go and do something else, and the result will be that all the progress we have made over the past few years on widening participation in education will be set back. If we add to that the ending of the education maintenance allowance, which is a crucial factor in encouraging young kids from poorer backgrounds to stay on at school and do A-levels, national vocational qualifications and all the things that are good for them and their lives, those kids will simply leave at 16 instead.
By this vote today, we are destroying the opportunities, hopes and life chances of a whole generation. I believe strongly in public investment in public services and public education. The Secretary of State should be utterly ashamed of himself, because in effect the Government are reducing to 40% the level of funding for universities, increasing the privatisation of universities and courses, and ending academic independence. We need to tax the wealthy. We do not need a graduate tax or an increase in income tax to pay for it. Some £6 billion has not been collected from Vodafone thanks to a cosy deal with Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. That is actually more than the total amount paid through tuition fees over the past year.
I signed a pledge not to vote for a fees increase, I voted against the fees increase in 2004 and I voted against the introduction of fees in 1998. Liberal Democrats were on the same ticket at the time-hon. Members should stand up for what they believe in and vote no.
Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): Normally when I am called immediately following the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), it is to disagree with most of what he has said, but today is an exception. I endorse most of what he said.
I begin with an apology to the House and the Business Secretary, in that an unbreakable commitment on the Intelligence and Security Committee prevented my being here for his opening speech. Had I been here, I would have sought to intervene and remind him of our exchange when he made his statement on 12 October. I asked him:
"Will it not be a sad day for academic meritocracy if and when able students from poor backgrounds are deterred from going to top universities because those universities are allowed to charge more than other universities in fees to students?"
"Yes, the hon. Gentleman is quite right, and for that reason he will recall my comments about the need to be careful about following through the request of the Russell group universities for unlimited fees. There are serious problems with that. Of course there are advantages in terms of world-class universities, but we need to be careful about going down that road, and we will reflect further on it."-[ Official Report, 12 October 2010; Vol. 516, c. 165.]
Well, the right hon. Gentleman has reflected. He has wrestled very publicly with his conscience, and his conscience has turned out to be the loser. Of course we have not gone right down that road, but we have gone a good way down it by allowing some universities to charge 50% more than others.
Geraint Davies: I am grateful to the Swansea-born Member for giving way. Taking that further, is he sympathetic to the Welsh Assembly's position of limiting fees to £3,000 and limiting cuts to 35%, rather than 80%, accepting that what is proposed is a political choice, not just an economic choice?
Dr Lewis: I do not know what the Welsh Assembly plans to do to balance the books, so it would depend on the context. I will, I hope, come to the context that I would propose, which hon. Members may agree with or quite violently disagree with.
Guto Bebb: As a Welsh Member, I think that it is worth pointing out that the university system in Wales is already underfunded compared with that in England. As a result of the Assembly's decision, which was made for PR purposes, the situation will get worse.
If I have any reputation at all, it is as something of an expert, but in one, rather narrow field-defence and security. I claim no expertise at all in matters of education policy or financing. However, I do claim experience in the matter that we are talking about today. It may be worth people knowing that every hon. Member gets about 15 seconds of fame-if not 15 minutes-when, eventually, The House magazine comes to him or her and invites them to take part in the production of a profile of their past and their value system. I want to go back to that one occasion, in January 2001, when I was asked to supply my profile. I said:
"I grew up in Swansea and went to the same state grammar school as my father, Sam. The difference was that he had to leave at 14 to help his father as a tailor. He used to tell me,"
"he would be the last of the tailors in my family,"
"He is an exceptionally intelligent man who would undoubtedly have succeeded at university if he had been able to complete his education in the late 1920s,"
"The university grant system gave me my opportunity, and I never approved of the changeover to top-up loans-let alone for tuition fees."
I have been listening to some of the arguments-we are beginning to go round and round the same track-but I was particularly struck by the elegant process of ratiocination by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles). He was able to make a convincing case that the more we charge people to go to university, the more people will go and the more poorer people will go. In that case, I am tempted to vote against the Government on the grounds that they are not charging enough. Perhaps we should charge quadruple fees, quintuple fees or even sextuple fees, to ensure that the entire population of the country can go to university.
I am worried about the prospects for my party. I remember an earlier time when we thought we had a good policy. In fact, I worked with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and one of his most effective speech writers-a very good young man called Peter Campbell-on trying to sell the poll tax to the people. There were all sorts of elegant arguments to show that the poll tax was actually the best and the fairest policy. Well, even if we have a policy that we genuinely think is fair, unless we can convince people that it truly is a fair policy, it will fail and be rejected. I can hear people talk about percentages until they are blue in the face-or yellow in the face-but they will not convince me that young people from poor backgrounds will not be deterred. If they would not be deterred, why was it necessary to introduce the special measures for those who have free school meals? I would have been deterred, and I do not want others to be deterred.
Mr Pat McFadden (Wolverhampton South East) (Lab): The Browne review takes as its starting-point the changes that the Labour Government introduced in 2004. We all know that those changes were politically difficult, but they achieved two major things: they brought more money into universities and they resulted in a large increase in higher education participation, including and, indeed, particularly among students from poorer backgrounds.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England released figures earlier this year showing that, back in 2004, just one in eight young people from the poorest backgrounds went to university; it is now one in five. Of course there is still a gap in participation rates between rich and poor. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) showed this week, our top universities must do much more to attract a wider variety of students. We did, however, see a big increase in opportunity and participation, following the changes of 2004.
Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): I tried to intervene on the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) as I wanted to correct some of his figures before he started scaremongering. The university of Cambridge takes 15% of students from ethnic minority backgrounds as compared with 10% across the country. He spoke about the one British black Caribbean student out of the 35 applying who gained admission to Oxford university, but failed to mention the 23 black Africans, the three other black students, the seven white and black Caribbean students, the seven white and black Africans, the 35 others of mixed descent and the nine others or, indeed, those directly from the Caribbean-
As my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) said, there are some good points in the Browne report. Browne was right to maintain the position
whereby fees are not paid up front by students, but by graduates and only after they start earning. This has been portrayed as a new change in the system, but it is not; it has been there since the 2004 changes, although it is still widely misunderstood. Browne is also right to increase the repayment threshold and to include part-time students in the system. Let us be clear, given that the point about part-time students has been portrayed as some great gift from the Government, that the Labour Government explicitly built that into the terms of reference for the Browne review.
It is also right to place a greater emphasis on providing more and better information for students about the quality of courses and teaching. If students are being asked to pay more, they deserve more power within the system, even if that is sometimes uncomfortable for academics or institutions.
Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op): Has my right hon. Friend seen the Government's impact assessment, which suggests that even they recognise that as the teaching grant is withdrawn, fees for part-time students will go up and participation could go down as a result?
Mr McFadden: I was coming to that, because Browne also called for an increase in participation of 10%, yet one of the first acts of this Government was to cut the number of student places by 10,000 when compared with the plans that Labour had put in place. Since the election, both Tory and Lib Dem Ministers have repeatedly attacked Labour's aim to have a participation rate of 50% for our young people. Their attack on higher participation is an attack on opportunity, which we should resist. I stress that participation is about not just the fee level, but getting people to the point where they can make the choice in the first place. Therefore, abolishing the education maintenance allowance and Aimhigher is a direct attack on participation and opportunity for young people.
There is one big problem with the Government's package: the degree of the reduction in the teaching grant for universities. That is what is forcing the fees so high. Hon. Members have even referred to Labour's cuts announced this time last year. Let us do a comparison: we announced a small reduction of 1.6% in the teaching grant; the Government's proposals are accompanied by an 80% reduction in the teaching grant. That is a huge transfer of responsibility and cost from the state to the individual, and it lies at the root of the large increase in fees. Also, rather than the package resulting in more resources for universities, it requires large fees just for universities to be able to stand still. Therefore, the issue is not so much the Browne review as the spending review. That is the problem with the proposals.
Higher education brings a shared benefit to the country and to individuals. As it is a shared benefit, and we believe in a high level of participation, we share the costs. That was Labour's approach when we made changes in 1998 and 2004. Instead of sharing the cost,
the Government's plans go wrong by replacing, to a large degree, the responsibility of the state with that of the individual. That is why fees are being driven up so much.
The politics of this does matter. The Liberal Democrats are in such trouble not just because they have broken an election promise, but because what they have done is a revelation about how they have conducted politics for years. They signed the NUS pledge because they did not think that they would be in the chair when the music stopped. They are in the chair, and to govern is to choose. The commitment was not just a line in their manifesto but front and centre of their holier-than-thou election campaign. The truth is that they will never be thought of in the same way again.
Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): In the debate since the Browne proposals were published, and so far today, many have found it easy to reject what is proposed, but there has been too little presentation of alternatives. I have attempted to bring constructive criticism and fresh ideas to bear on the Government's proposals during the past few weeks. In the House, just over a month ago, the Prime Minister agreed with me that if graduates are to make a greater contribution to the cost of their education, contributions should be related to ability to pay.
Like the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), I find much in the Government's proposals to welcome, and much that serves to make higher education funding fairer. I particularly welcome the end of up-front fees for the 40% of students who study part time. Retaining the cap on fees, albeit at the higher level, is indeed an improvement on Lord Browne's report. The raising of the repayment threshold from £15,000 to £21,000 is also an improvement on the current system, as is the annual uprating of the threshold in line with earnings. However, I did not believe that it would be fair, come 2015, for today's students to have to make payments from the substantially lower threshold of £15,000, while the most recent graduates would be able to earn up to £21,000 before beginning their contributions. I have made that point on the Floor of the House to the Minister for Universities and Science.
Therefore, I truly appreciate the movement that the Government showed yesterday in announcing the annual uprating of the repayment threshold for existing students and graduates, not just for those starting their studies from 2012 onwards. The measure should not be underestimated. It calls a halt to repayments for more than 100,000 graduates on modest salaries, and it cuts the contributions asked of 2.5 million graduates by hundreds of pounds each over the course of this Parliament. However, I hope that when the new system is in place, the gap between the existing repayment threshold and the £21,000 level can be closed entirely. At the very least, under the existing system recent graduates should be offered the option of transferring to the new system, with whatever outstanding contribution they have left at the time. In that way, they could indeed benefit from the increased threshold.
Claire Perry: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's reference to the progressive nature of the measures. Is it credible that the Labour party, which introduced the principle of graduates paying and voted for two increases in tuition fees, is able to drum up quite so much fake anger this afternoon?
Back in 1997, the Dearing report concluded that the cost of higher education should be shared among those who benefited from it: the student, the state and the employer. For the past 13 years, the Government have ignored the conclusion that employers should also contribute to the cost of higher education. Not only are graduate employers not required to make a direct contribution, there appears to be no method of facilitating that, even on a discretionary basis. I invite the Government and industry to develop broader proposals to facilitate, and even encourage, direct employer contributions to graduates' higher education. Such contributions would effectively reduce what is being asked of graduates themselves. They could even prove to be more tax-efficient for the enlightened employers who chose to make them.
In the weeks since the publication of the Browne review, I have persistently sought to persuade the Government to amend their proposals to make them fairer. The Government have responded constructively, and have listened while others have failed to set out a fair and affordable alternative. In this way, we are making things fairer; and although there is more to do, I am confident that Ministers will continue to engage with the issues. That is why I will join them in the Aye Lobby.
Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab): I know that many hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall be brief and focus on what is, in a sense, a niche issue: the impact on students who want to pursue longer, more prestigious and therefore often more expensive courses. A rise in tuition fees will have an adverse effect on all students of all disciplines, but those who wish to pursue longer courses, including architecture, veterinary science, medicine and dentistry, will be particularly affected.
Jake Berry (Rossendale and Darwen) (Con):
I wonder whether the hon. Lady would agree with my constituent Anna, who is protesting here today. She told me that her greatest fear was that universities were not prepared to offer shorter courses. She was given only six hours of lectures a week, and had asked to increase that to 12 to complete a degree in two years. Does the hon. Lady
think that it would be possible for those taking longer courses to attend more lectures, thus compressing the time?
Pat Glass: I am sure that in an ideal world that would be fabulous, but we do not live in an ideal world. An architectural course can take between seven and eight years to complete, depending on the placement element of the course. A student taking such a course at one of the Russell group universities could end up with a debt of £100,000. That is the size of some mortgages, especially in a constituency such as mine. It is terrifying for most people, but it is absolutely terrifying for an 18-year-old student from a constituency, or a background, where no one else has ever gone to university.
The location of medical schools and universities delivering longer courses means that for many living at home is not an option. The intensity of their courses often rules out part-time work, which exacerbates the potential debt problem for those students. For those who want to enter one of the more prestigious professions, there is often no alternative route of entry other than to study at university. Young people whose families cannot afford to pay their fees for them, or who live in communities where going to university is not commonplace, are being put off going to university.
Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): Yesterday I met Liam Cunningham and Joe Short at an event in Maghull in my constituency, and they made a similar point to me. They said that what they and their friends are most concerned about is the prospect of starting their working lives saddled with tens of thousands of pounds of debt. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is one of the fundamental problems with what the Secretary of State has announced?
Pat Glass: Yes, I agree. It goes further than that, however. Professions such as medicine, dentistry, law and architecture should be representative of the society they serve, but despite all the efforts to achieve that, they remain largely populated by people from higher-income families. The Secretary of State comes to the Chamber and lectures us, saying it is unacceptable that only 46 young people on free school meals went to Oxbridge last year. I agree that that is unacceptable, but I do not think even the Secretary of State, operating out of his ivory tower on the top floor of Sanctuary Buildings, can possibly believe these proposals will improve that. Evidence from the Secretary of State's own Department clearly shows that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are more debt-averse than others. These proposals are highly damaging, and will result in fewer, not more, young people on free school meals and on low incomes getting to university, let alone Oxbridge.
Ian Mearns (Gateshead) (Lab): I thank my very good hon. Friend for giving way. Social mobility is an important issue, because it is not just about tuition fees. The coalition Government have cut child trust funds, child benefit for some, school sport partnerships funds, Building Schools for the Future, education maintenance allowance awards and the future jobs fund. They are also scrapping Aimhigher and are now trebling tuition fees. What have they got against children and young people?
Pat Glass: Several Government Members have asked why non-graduates should pay for graduates. If we take that to its logical conclusion, we would also ask why couples who have no children should pay for the education of those who have children, or why the healthy should pay for the NHS to care for the sick. That is where that argument would take us.
The Government are creating a society in which access to university will return to being for those who can afford it, rather than those who deserve it. Talent will be ignored and un-nurtured, and ultimately we will all pay the price as our economy fails to keep pace with those of our competitors. This is not simply a moral argument, therefore; there are also strong economic arguments against the proposals.
I have said a number of times in the House that more people in this country are aged over 65 than under 16. That skewed profile will increase, so we will need a better educated and more highly skilled work force in the future. These proposals would give us the opposite, however; they would simply waste our seed corn for the future.
Finally, I want to talk briefly about the young people themselves. I regularly meet a group of young people who come from the schools councils of all the secondary schools in my constituency. When I met them two weeks ago I expected anger, but I was surprised at the depth of their anger. It was not just about tuition fees; it was about EMAs too. Not a single one of them was in receipt of an EMA, but they were angry about what it was going to do to their peers and their sixth forms. They asked me to give a message to the coalition Government. They feel particularly let down by the Liberal Democrats-they feel they have been callously and cynically misled by them-but their feelings about the Tories were more straightforward. They told me to pass on the message that this was the same old Tories and the same old cuts, and that they were not to be trusted with our public services or our futures.
Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): I have listened to this debate with great attention, and I was struck by the comments of the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), who said that there is an issue of principle at stake. I was confused by that comment. What did the hon. Lady mean? The concept of free higher education has been lost as a result of previous Labour Governments' actions, so that issue of principle was lost under them. Another principle that we have heard much about from Opposition Members is the need for the general taxpayer to pay for the education of all higher education students, but the graduate tax proposed by some Opposition Members would mean that some people would pay and some would not.
Claire Perry: May I point out that with a graduate tax, the money would flow directly to the Treasury? We know that Labour Members like it when money flows into the Treasury to be doled out, but is not our principle much better for universities?
Let me address the issue of better access. I am proud to be a graduate of Aberystwyth university, and when I graduated 20 years ago, the university had 2,700 undergraduates, whereas the current figure is almost 10,000. That increase is most welcome; I think both sides of the House welcome the fact that more young people have opportunities in education. However, those opportunities come at a cost and the Labour party continually allowed a situation to develop in which more and more people were going to university but sufficient funding provision was not put in place.
It is important to point out that access comes with a cost. The coalition Government are trying to introduce a system that will ensure that fair and reasonable access to further education continues. Access has been discussed at length. I particularly welcome the fact that we are doing so much to ensure that there is fair support for people who study part-time. I have mature-student and single-parent constituents who want to move into further education, and they will be supported as a result of these decisions.
Affordability was discussed at great length by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), who made an impressive speech. The cost of tuition fees might seem very daunting to some, and I am sure that many students will be daunted by the prospect of having debts of £20,000 or £30,000, but we need to consider this issue in the round. The other day, I had an e-mail from a parent asking whether their child, who hoped to become a teacher, would end up having to pay those astronomical fees. My response was clear: on a teacher's starting salary of £20,500, that person would not pay those fees, because we are raising the threshold.
The average salary in a constituency such as mine is £25,000 a year. Someone on such a salary would make repayments of about £360 a year. Dare I say that many people from north Wales will spend £360 on a weekend in Cardiff for a rugby international? Let us consider the option of spending £360 on a rugby weekend or £360 a year for an education: I think the choice is fairly clear.
Opposition Members have been heckling me about Wales. Yes, I stand here as a Welsh MP and I am embarrassed by the public relations stunt of the Welsh
Assembly Government. I am embarrassed by the fact that they are willing to raid the education budget to pay for a policy to take them through to the next Assembly election. I am embarrassed that, increasingly, the Welsh education system will not be able to deliver a quality education and that as a result more and more Welsh students will choose to study in England, leaving less money for the Welsh system. I support the measures because they will improve access, increase affordability and ensure proper funding for the higher education system in this country.
Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): As we debate tuition fees, it is worth reminding ourselves that 90% of us in this House have benefited from university education; the overwhelming majority, right up to the youngest in the House, will have benefited from free education, as I did.
Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op): I am one of only a few Members of this House who went to university under a loans and fees system, so may I point out to the House that there is a real risk that the increased debt will put off poorer people? That will be even more the case when the fees are £9,000.
Jonathan Edwards: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point that comes from his personal experience, and I am sure that everyone in the House has listened to those concerns. A very serious accusation has been laid at the door of not only this Parliament, but those before us. It is that, having benefited from free education paid for by taxation, we are pulling the drawbridge up behind us and leaving others to pay.
I need not remind hon. Members that the Labour party, whose Members are now complaining so passionately about an increase in tuition fees, was the party that first broke the compact with our young people and undermined the concept of free education for all. Fees were introduced in 1998, with a higher rate following in 2004. The very fact that this new funding regime is being introduced by a statutory instrument indicates that this is a continuation of Government policy, rather than a new development.
Pete Wishart: We all know the record of the Labour party, which includes having introduced tuition fees, but does the hon. Gentleman share my surprise that Scottish Liberal Democrats will be voting for this English-based measure? It offers no benefit for Scotland, only pain and hurt. Does he welcome the opportunity that his nation and my nation will have to cast their verdict on the Liberal Democrats next May?
As always, my hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Education is a right, not a privilege. The benefits that a highly-skilled and well-educated population and work force provide are crucial if we are to maintain our position in the world, and to continue to develop a knowledge and value economy. In Wales, we believe that with the right support we can become a small, clever country, like our Scandinavian friends, delivering a better quality of life for our people. That is why last week's announcement by the Welsh Government is to be welcomed. It shows why it is important that we have our own Government in Wales, so that policy can
be based on our values as a nation. It is also why I believe the electorate of Wales will vote next March to confirm further powers for the National Assembly, so that Wales can achieve full political sovereignty over devolved policy areas.
Many hon. Members will not have heard that announcement in detail. Made by a different Member for Rhondda than we usually hear from in this House, the announcement by the "One Wales" Government affirms that: they do not support full cost or near full cost fees; they do not believe that higher education should be organised on the basis of a market; and they do not believe that it is sustainable in the long term for the UK to adopt a policy of having the highest tuition fees for higher education in the world outside the USA.
In "One Wales", we in Plaid Cymru and Labour, committed ourselves to doing whatever was possible to mitigate the effects on Welsh-domiciled students if the Westminster Government lifted the cap on fees, because we believe that access to higher education should be based on academic ability, not the ability to pay. In other words, the increase in fees for Welsh-domiciled students, whether they study in Wales, England, Scotland or Northern Ireland, will be paid for by the Welsh Government. Welsh-domiciled students will continue to be eligible for subsidised loans to meet the cost of fees up to the current level.
Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): That is an interesting concept. If the Welsh Government are allowing the fees to be paid to the universities at the higher level but are subsidising their students, is that not a good recommendation for the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish National party?
Jonathan Edwards: My Scottish friends have an even better and honourable position of having no tuition fees, and I wish that that was the case in my country. We are putting forward the best-case scenario given what we face in our country. The Welsh Government will pay for this measure by top-slicing the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales teaching grant, but Welsh higher education institutions will still enjoy a higher level of teaching grant support than institutions in England. The UK Government are proposing an 80% cut in the university teaching grant in England, moving the cost of education almost completely on to the student-it is the consumer who pays. The cut in teaching grant in Wales will be 35% and, thus, the vital contribution and principle of public funding for higher education will be maintained.
Chris Bryant: But is it not also important that one of the measures introduced in Wales ensures that individual youngsters in Wales can study any course anywhere in the United Kingdom that is right for them? The money will follow them, including to English universities. For example, they could not train to be a vet in a Welsh university, but they will be able to do so elsewhere under this system.
Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman not recognise the funding gap between Welsh and English universities, and that the Welsh Assembly Government's policy is wholly unsustainable and merely a stunt before next May's election?
In the lead-up to this debate, I have been happy to sign amendments by Liberal Democrat Members who oppose the fees increases, and I have tabled my own. I congratulate them on their principled stance, but that action needs to translate into voting against the substantive motion in the name of the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Vince Cable). To those Government Members who are considering abstaining tonight, I say that abstaining on this issue would be just as good as voting in favour, so I urge them to join us in the Lobby later.
Damian Hinds (East Hampshire) (Con): There are some very real and big choices in this debate. The three biggest are, first, how many young people we want to be able to go to university; secondly, the extent to which we want those who do not benefit directly to pay for those who do; and, thirdly, how to ensure that we widen access and promote social responsibility. There is no perfect answer, but on those three choices the Government have it about as right as one could get it.
It is sometimes difficult when people of our age have conversations with teenagers about university tuition, because it is startlingly obvious that we had an incredibly generous deal. That deal, however, was always based on such education being available to a relatively small number of people, and we were just the beneficiaries.
In the year I was born, 414,000 people were in full-time higher education; when I went to university, the number was 660,000; and now, it is 1.3 million. When we experience changes of that magnitude, we must fundamentally rethink how we pay for such things. Members from all parts of the House agree on that fundamental point, as they do on pension reform and on long-term care.
There has been another major change over those 40 years: real household income per head is 2.5 times what it was in 1970. That does not come from nothing; it comes from economic growth, an increased number of higher, value-added jobs and, most of all, growth in the professional and managerial classes, which is enabled by more people participating in higher education. We need those trends to continue, because never again will we make T-shirts cheaper than China. We need wider participation in higher education to thrive, and we need
to excel in the necessary markets: advanced manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, financial services and, indeed, education itself.
The global market for higher education is growing at 7% compound per annum. This country is uniquely well placed to take advantage of that, first, because of the gift-literally, the gift-of the English language, and, secondly, because of the marvellous higher education brand names in England and, I must say, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. To thrive in that market, however, our universities need to be properly funded, and top universities have long complained that, even with the Government contribution-
Top universities have long complained that, even with the Government's contribution and the fees, they were underfunded and could not cover their costs. Incidentally, the cost also applies to EU students. There were 61,000 such enrolments last year, a number that is growing fast, and they are also partly subsidised by the British taxpayer. The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) made light of the following point, but universities have used non-EU students as a cash cow to plug the funding gap, and that is not sustainable in a competitive, global market. Universities must be funded properly and sustainably.
It is true that, in higher education, there are what economists call both private returns and social returns, in other words, matters of social benefit, but all the studies say that the private returns outweigh the social returns, so it is fair that the students, over time, bear much of the cost.
With the package before us, with variable fees, requirements-rightly-to widen access and the higher £21,000 repayment threshold, we can continue to increase the number of young people accessing university, with all the benefits that that brings, and gear up the UK to take advantage of that key global growth market.
Mr Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich West) (Lab/Co-op): As the Chair of the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills, which is charged with monitoring and scrutinising Government policy in this area, I have to make the point that this issue has aroused more interest than any other that my Committee is charged with considering.
I have received submissions from many students and would-be students, from various groups of universities and from parents. However, above all, I have had submissions from different sectors of industry that know that their future well-being and capacity to grow the country out of recession will be crucially affected by such legislation. I am therefore very disappointed that, in bringing this item forward now, the Government are precluding the sort of scrutiny that is necessary and that will be introduced following the White Paper.
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