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Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, it is entirely consistent with what I have said. We did not rule out requiring students or their families to contribute towards the costs of their tuition on a carefully designated and designed basis which would enable all to afford higher education according to their own families' means. The Prime Minister said that we would wait for the Dearing Report. Saying that at that time we had no plans was entirely consistent with waiting until the publication of the Dearing Report. Indeed, by giving support to the Dearing Inquiry, which was set up by the previous government, we made clear that we were concerned about the funding crisis facing higher education.

Earl Russell: My Lords, next time the Minister says that she has no plans to do something, does she expect us to be reassured?

6.15 p.m.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I would expect the noble Earl to want to ask probing questions from time to time as to whether or not we had plans. Perhaps I may continue. We also made it clear that we were waiting for the Dearing Committee to report before taking decisions. I believe that we have sufficient mandate for this legislation and that there is no justification whatever for waiting until after the next election in 2002 before implementing these proposals.

For our part, we believe that it is only right and fair that the investment of the nation should be balanced by the commitment of the individual. The alternative approach underlying this amendment of subsidising all those who enter higher education or re-enter it, regardless of their families' income, would mean a heavier burden on all taxpayers. Let me remind the House of the Dearing Committee's figures for the longer-term funding requirements of universities. The committee put the figure at up to £2 billion, depending on the scale and pace of the growth in student numbers. The effect of these amendments would be that all this cost would fall on the taxpayer. Indeed, the true figure could be far in excess of that, as Dearing never envisaged that British taxpayers should subsidise overseas students as well.

However, given that the Secretary of State would have to set a maximum level of financial support for fees at the highest level of those fees in order to comply with this amendment, it would then mean that the Secretary of State could exercise no control over a university that decided to set fees at, say, double or treble or 10 times the current rate. Indeed, this amendment would allow universities and colleges to charge as much as they liked in fees. It would in essence amount to giving higher education institutions an open purse from the taxpayer or a blank cheque from the Government.

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Only a party whose living members have never experienced government could come forward with such amendments. No government can write universities a blank cheque or give them an open purse on the taxpayer's behalf. That would be abrogating our responsibilities towards taxpayers, as well as many students and parents. Indeed, the only people who would gain would be some students whose higher education would be subsidised on demand by an elite group of universities.

As I explained on Report, the only way that the Government could keep the higher education budget under control would be to impose strict limits on the numbers of students that universities and colleges could recruit. That would mean returning to a system where only a privileged handful could benefit from higher education. The economic and social benefits of widening participation would be lost for the sole purpose of indulging a few self-interested universities and colleges and allowing them to make limitless demands of the taxpayer.

The amendment would take away the power of the Secretary of State to set a ceiling on the level of financial support that can be paid from public funds for fees and thereby remove an important safeguard for taxpayers. The noble Lord and his noble friends have already lost Divisions on Report on the principles underlying Clauses 16 and 18 and it would not be appropriate at Third Reading for them to press this amendment tonight. But should they do so, my Lords, make no mistake. This amendment is against the best interests of students, of parents and of taxpayers. It would destroy a careful balance of safeguards to prevent the taxpayer from being presented with an open-ended financial commitment to meet unlimited tuition fees for every student in the land, whether from home or overseas, and it would ultimately lead to a narrowing--rather than a widening--of access. I urge your Lordships' House to reject this amendment.

Lord Glenamara: My Lords, the Minister has spelt out the dire consequences which would follow if the amendment were carried. However, the amendment provides that:

    "the Secretary of State shall not introduce a scheme to require students to pay tuition fees until a date on or after 1st June 2002".

If English words mean anything, they mean that the status quo will continue until then. Therefore, how can all those consequences flow if the status quo continues until 2002?

In my view, what the Minister has been saying is a lot of codswallop! I do not speak personally against her--she is one of my very good friends and I have tremendous regard for her. However, she has spelt out ridiculous consequences when the amendment merely provides that the status quo shall continue until after the next general election.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am not sure that "codswallop" is an entirely parliamentary term. Nevertheless, I shall accept it from my noble friend. I reject, however, what he says.

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On the occasions when my noble friend has intervened in these debates, he has done so from a position of surprising ignorance on the part of someone who has so much experience in these matters. The fact is that we do not have free higher education at the moment as my noble friend has claimed on a number of occasions. Part-time students pay fees, as do postgraduates and overseas students. Nor is it the case that further education students over the age of 19, most of whom are far less privileged than those who go to university as full-time undergraduates, have free education. Therefore, this amendment would have all the dire consequences that I have described because it provides that there should be no scheme to require students to pay tuition fees until a date after 1st June 2002.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, will the noble Baroness say specifically what it is in the amendment which repeals automatically all the present schemes that are in place because they would have to be repealed in order to fit with what the noble Baroness said?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, my advice is that the amendment provides that the Secretary of State should not introduce a scheme to require students to pay tuition fees until a date on or after 1st June 2002 when in fact students pay tuition fees at present.

Under this legislation we are changing the nature of the grants that are paid so that students will have to make a contribution which is greater than that which they have to make at present if they can afford to do so. Therefore, under the Bill we are seeing a completely new arrangement for the grant for those who pay tuition fees. However, as I understand it, and as I am advised, the amendment will create a situation in which students generally will no longer have to pay tuition fees.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, again, with the leave of the House, I must return to the noble Baroness. She may be relieved to know that I shall not be supporting the amendment. However, I should point out that if this Bill were not before this House today, nothing would change in terms of the schemes which are in place at present. As far as I can tell from the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Tope, he is simply saying that a scheme--namely, that being proposed in the Bill--should not be introduced before there is an electoral mandate to support it.

The noble Baroness really must say to the House what it is in this amendment which repeals all the arrangements that are in place at present in other statutes and the way in which this amendment does anything other than refer to a scheme, another scheme; namely, the scheme that is proposed in the Bill.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, arrangements for paying fees are changed all the time. They are being changed because universities can charge fees as can further education colleges. Different arrangements are

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made by universities as private institutions. As far as I understand the matter, this amendment will have an effect on those arrangements in the way that it is drafted.

Lord Tope: My Lords, sadly I did not hear the Minister on "Any Questions?" last Friday but I did hear the response on "Any Answers.?" A lady rang in saying that when a government say they have no plans, it was her belief that they mean that they might do it. That is exactly the situation in which we find ourselves with this Bill and with the introduction of student payment of tuition fees.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said, the Government went further than saying they had no plans. They said specifically that they would not do it. I listened with interest and concern to what the Minister said in reply. I was already concluding that this is a case of "the lady protests too much"--and not for the first time during the passage of this Bill. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Glenamara, who put the point much better than I can. The noble Lord expressed the matter extremely effectively. The effect of the amendment is to maintain the status quo. The effect of that is that the Government would have to think much more carefully than they have thus far about the funding of higher education and the specific issue of tuition fees.

I explained at an earlier stage my party's alternative proposals. It is not appropriate for me to return to those now. But we do have them and, in the event of the status quo being maintained by the passing of this amendment, we shall be in a position again to project them.

I am sad and sorry that the Conservative Front Bench feels unable to support the amendment. We tried very hard to frame it in a way that met their concerns. I am not entirely clear why the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, is not supporting it. Almost all that she said appeared to support the amendment.

This is an extremely important issue. I am more convinced about the rightness of the amendment because the Minister, almost for the first time during the passage of the Bill, started getting quite close to abuse in terms of answering it. That is uncharacteristic and certainly uncharacteristic of our discussions on the Bill.

The Minister said that only a party which has no living experience of government would have proposed such an amendment. This amendment is proposed by a party that expects to be in government in the year 2002. For that reason, and because this is such an important issue, I wish to test the opinion of the House.

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