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Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe: Can my noble friend confirm that bursaries provided by institutions to their studentsincluding those which OFFA will require them to providewill not be taken into account when those students apply for means-tested benefits? Could the Minister further confirm that the combined higher education grant, totalling £2,700, will also be disregarded by the Department for Work and Pensions in assessing eligibility for benefits?
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: I shall respond to that point, which is tangential. My noble friend gave me notice that she planned to raise the point so that I could have the relevant information before me. We are looking actively at this with the Department for Work and Pensions. Members of the Committee will know that only a small proportion of students receive benefits, but they are the most vulnerable groupslone parents and those with disabilities.
Fees support and targeted support are not set against benefits, but support for living costs could be taken into account. We have reached an understanding for new students in 200405 that the higher education grant will not be taken into account in assessing entitlement to means-tested benefits. We are working closely with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that
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students receive real benefit from the grant and bursary and to reach agreement about the arrangements in a similar way.
The Lord Bishop of St Albans: I apologise to the Committee for being absent at the beginning of the debate. I want to speak in support of the amendment. At Second Reading, the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, spoke of the important role that the House has in highlighting the possible unintended consequences of the legislation before it. He referred to the Secretary of State's clear statement that social equity lies at the heart of the proposals for change. Yet we cannot deny the historic aversion to debt among many people. That aversion may have a negative effect on entry levels, particularly in economically vulnerable areas.
As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth and others on these Benches have made clear, we share the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, about debt aversion and I am pleased to support his amendment. In the Second Reading debate, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth said that people might well be put off by the prospect of finding themselves at graduation owing substantial amounts of money. He said,
Vital though financial assistance is for everyone to participate fully in higher education in the future, there is a need for a kind of support which goes well beyond pounds and pence. The amendment underlines that. We are calling not simply for assistance, but also for advice.
The point is well made that our students will not incur a debt in the traditional sense of the word because, if necessary, after 25 years that "debt" will be written off while the benefit of receiving higher education will remain. The fact remains that many people will perceive it as a debt being incurred and some may not enter or remain in higher education for that reason.
Therefore, in stressing the need for personal support that includes advice as well as money or information, the amendment draws attention to two important issues. First, the work already carried out by many universities in offering financial advice and support to their students. That clearly needs to be available to everyone. Secondly, the important truth that the purposes of higher education are far more than economic ones. They go beyond individual personal fulfilment in serving the needs of the economy, important though those are, and they extend to promoting the common good.
The right reverend Prelates the Bishop of Portsmouth and the Bishop of Manchester and others have suggested that the purposes of higher education must include promoting the spiritual, moral and cultural well-being of individuals and society. And so, too, the issue here is not just about money but about the well-being of the community of studentsand, indeed, graduates, as the noble Lord's next amendment makes clear.
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The Minister, in responding to comments made at Second Reading by several noble Lords about values and purposes, made clear that people should read the UNESCO normative statement on higher education, which the Government signed in 1998. Our attention having been drawn to it in Article 1which concerns the mission to educate, to train and to undertake researchwe were pleased to discover that the very first core mission and value is:
Citizenship, as many young people in our schools are learning, is about responsibility, community and the common good. If we as a nation are to expect our students to be responsible citizens, able to meet the needs of all sectors of human society, then we must make certain that we take our responsibilities seriously in meeting their needs as best we can during their progress through higher education. Surely that should include offering not just money and information about financial assistance, but actually advice on how to cope with the new financial realities that face students in higher education in our country today.
Baroness Sharp of Guildford: I refer to the answer that the Minister gave to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam. She made the distinction between advice and financial assistance. As I understand it, the argument she was making was that there is no need to add advice to the words already in the Bill because to do so would involve the complication that it would mean advice regulated under the DTIofficial debt advice that would have to be regulated. I find this slightly surprising because the citizens advice bureaux do provide, as she rightly pointed out, extensive debt advice. I did not think they came under the DTI's regulatory schemebut I may be wrong here. Can the Minister advise on this? There does seem to be a distinction between advice and just assistance. Therefore, the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, and the right reverend Prelate are right to ask that there should be advice as well as just assistance.
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: I will attempt to answer, but not surprisingly I do not know about the citizens advice bureaux. I will find out and of course make sure that I pass that to the noble Baroness. I was saying that we have lots of institutions who already provide advice, and many of them are members of the National Association of Student Money Advisors. My understanding is that if we were to move forward in the way proposed in this amendment we would be requiring those who offer advice to be licensed by the Office of Fair Trading. I am sure that is the result of the way in which this is framed, but again I shall make sure that I give chapter and verse on that to the noble Baroness.
These are important issues. The question is whether the amendment represents the most appropriate way to proceed, and I remain unconvinced that we should
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regulate in this way. I have already said that universities can put forward what they wish in terms of access plans.
I say to the right reverend Prelate that I have responded at length to the amendment. I will not go over it all again, for the benefit of other noble Lords. I have made clear what the Government are already doing. We have discussed some of the good practice followed by institutions. I have already said that we will continue to look at what more the Government might be able to do, and I am grateful for the right reverend Prelate's comments.
Lord Puttnam: I thank all those Members of your Lordship's House who have supported this amendment. I picked up three or four words that I would like to stress once more. The underlying purpose of this Bill is social equity, to get people into universities who in the past, for one reason or another, may have been able in terms of their intellectual capacity but have not made the move. That includes their parents. I point out to the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, that we are talking about a sum of money which for many people in this country is the equivalent of the cost of their parents' house. These are not small sumsfor many people these are terrifying sums.
I will of course listen to what the Government come back with, and I am sure they will come back with something. However, the words I want to stress are "high quality". I want the bar high, not a situation where there is a race to the bottom by the institutions and the Government because of cost. I want very high quality advice, however the Government wish to define advice. Also, the Government must acknowledge that they must be the default provider. It is the Government who have brought tuition fees into being, therefore the Government must be the default provider in ensuring the social equity they seek is arrived at as a result of the Bill. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
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