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The Earl of Limerick: I would like to remind the Committee of an interest I declared on Second Reading as chairman of the governing body of one of the new universities--one which, as it happens, apart from the institution in which the noble Baroness served for so long, has just about the highest proportion of part-time students in the country.
There are two points to make. First, the importance of professional courses, education and continuing education, is being more widely recognised and is something which we must strive to support. Secondly, reference was made to the falling proportion of students receiving financial support for part-time courses. That
Part-time education has been relatively disadvantaged over the years by the funding methodology that we have adopted. Therefore, I have great sympathy for the amendment before us. I hope that it might be possible to move at least some way towards redressing this balance and give more support to those undergoing part-time education on a continuing basis.
Lord Dormand of Easington: I hope that the Committee will forgive me if I intervene to repeat most of what my noble friend Lord Peston has said, and also what the noble Lord, Earl Russell, said in his contribution.
Things have changed very much indeed. There is no question about the number of part-time students. Perhaps I can give another example. The number of mature students now exceeds the number of those under the age of 21 who attend a college or university. Although that does not directly relate to this amendment, it does support the fact that things do change and are changing in education in the same way as they are changing in other areas.
This is where I simply underline what my noble friend said. It really is a matter of public expenditure. The Government have said that they will remain within the restraints of the former government for two years. That seems to be a reasonable length of time in which to say whether this system will work. I have no doubt--I think I have no doubt--that after two years the present Labour Government will look at the whole matter again, when we might be able to meet the kind of suggestions that are being made in this amendment.
Baroness Lockwood: I too have a great deal of sympathy with this amendment and I am sure that my noble friend on the Front Bench has a great deal of sympathy for it too. During the 20 years that I have been in this House I have consistently argued for part-time education to be treated on the same basis as full-time education. I think it is still the principle which I shall support. But we have to look at the situation that we are in. We came to power and inherited a situation where higher education is in the middle of a funding crisis of dimensions that we have not known in the past. I must say I think it is rather strange for Members opposite who have been in power for the best part of those 20 years to be now arguing for part-time education to be covered.
I agree entirely with my noble friend that it is a matter of priorities. I hope that in the foreseeable future the Government--it may not be two years because we shall have to cope with many problems--will be able to bring before the House another Bill which will put part-time and full-time students on the same basis. I do not know
Lord Beloff: It would seem to me that there is great force in the argument for public expenditure, and clearly if more money was to go to part-time students--and I think it should--it would have to come from elsewhere in the higher education budget.
I remind the Committee that we hear many reports of students who begin full-time education and give it up after a period because they find they are unsuited either to higher education itself or to the particular course they have chosen. Should some way not be found of minimising this factor of waste and would that not save money which could go to part-time students? I would go a little further and say that some, at least, of the courses are in themselves wholly unsuitable for higher education. The noble Lords who heard me speak before will know what I have in mind, but I do think there is fat in the higher education budget which could be squeezed in order to meet what, I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Russell, is essentially a part of changing the form of society and of education.
Baroness Blatch: I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood. There has been widespread sympathy across all Benches for extending into this area because of some of the difficulties. But it has always been a matter of priorities. At this stage the issue being addressed is the crisis in higher education, which was precisely why Dearing was commissioned in the first place with all-party support. It is rather a pity that the Government have deviated from Dearing's recommendations.
However, I have to say this to the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood. I would have liked to have sat where the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, is sitting and received that degree of understanding about this issue. I can remember being pilloried by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, the noble Lord, Lord Peston, and others, who called us an uncaring and unthinking government simply because we argued at the time that it was a matter of public expenditure and a matter of priorities. Indeed, the noble Baroness supported keeping benefits for students and extending them to part-time students. I remember an impassioned plea from the noble Baroness using her position as Principal of Birkbeck College to give an incredibly forceful speech about the plight of many students there. All I would add is that we will support the Government when they say it is a matter of priorities, but there is a real will, when funds are available, to extend into the area of part-time students.
Baroness Blackstone: Perhaps I may take that last point first. I cannot believe that I ever wanted to pillory the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. What I readily admit to is making passionate speeches about the value of part-time higher education.
Clause 16(2)(d) provides for regulations for prescribing categories of attendance on courses which are to qualify for any purposes of the regulations. That is one of the advantages of having some flexibility in relation to regulations. To come back to what was said earlier, if we were to try to put all of this on the face of the Bill, we would have had to exclude, for reasons I shall explain in a moment, part-time students. But we do not have to. I hope very much that at some future date it will be possible to do something for them because I genuinely sympathise with all the arguments put forward.
In considering this amendment it is important to bear in mind that the Bill is intended to create a framework which will enable us to provide adequate support for all students in both further and higher education. As drafted, the Bill enables the Secretary of State, if he so wishes, to make grants or loans available to part-time as well as full-time students. Clause 16(2)(d) enables him to prescribe in regulations the categories of attendance which will qualify. In that sense, if I may say so to the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, the amendment is unnecessary. But it is, in a sense, a probing amendment designed to elicit general views.
Baroness Blackstone: No, it is not the intention to confine anything to any particular category of students. It is our intention, as I shall explain in a moment, for the time being to accept the Dearing recommendation in relation to part-time students.
I should like to develop further what I said at Second Reading in response to the request of the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, that loans should be made available to part-time students. The Government do not at this stage intend to extend the loan scheme to the generality of part-time students. While we recognise the immensely valuable nature of part-time higher education, we agree with the Dearing Committee's conclusion--this was said by my noble friend Lord Peston--that extending loans to part-time students should not be a priority at present.
As the committee pointed out, a high proportion of part-time students are in employment and are therefore able to support themselves, although I accept, as the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, and others have said, that many of them do not have their fees paid by their employers. I know that from my own experience. Means testing access to loans for all part-time students would involve a great deal of effort of a nugatory kind, given
We have carefully studied the report to which the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, referred. It was commissioned by the Open University. However, while the 1.5 per cent. per annum additional costs that she cited may appear modest at first glance, they would amount to some £147 million in 1995-96 prices by the year 2015-16. That is a quite substantial sum of money by any standards. As my noble friends Lord Dormand of Easington and Lord Peston said, given the public expenditure constraints under which we are working, it would at this stage be very difficult to justify extending the loan scheme to all part-time students.
In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, I see no reason why part-time student numbers should drop. Part-time students have always had to make a contribution towards tuition costs and have had to cover their maintenance costs. Their position will not be any worse under the new legislation; in fact, in some respects it will be better. I remind the Committee that we have taken alternative steps to ensure that those part-time students who might experience financial hardship are not disadvantaged. Unlike the previous government we will be extending eligibility for access funds to part-timers from 1998-99 so that part-time students in serious financial difficulty will be able to go to their university and ask for support from the access funds. They were never able to do that previously. It means that the Open University, with which I know the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, has had a long association, will get access to those funds in a way that did not happen before.
Moreover, our funding package for the sector for 1998-99 included £2 million for fee remission for part-time students in higher education who are unfortunate enough to lose their jobs. I know from my own experience that a part-time student may start a course with a quite well paid job but then loses that job for a reason which is completely out of his or her own control and finds it difficult to continue with the course. We want to avoid that and we are providing some funding to help them. We are currently consulting interested bodies on the criteria for fee remission in those circumstances.
I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, that we are also considering with colleagues from the Department of Social Security the Dearing Committee's recommendation that the Government should review the interaction between entitlement to benefits and part-time study. Currently, unemployed people may study part-time while receiving the jobseeker's allowance, subject to their meeting certain eligibility conditions. We will be reviewing these rules on study for the unemployed in the light of the work skill pilots that we have introduced and of early experience of the new deal. We are also looking at ways to ensure that there are no financial disincentives to part-time study by those on low incomes. In summary, the amendment is unnecessary since Clause 16, as drafted, already
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