Tuition Fees

– in the House of Commons at 3:35 pm on 25th June 2003.

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Question again proposed.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 3:40 pm, 25th June 2003

This has been an interesting debate, which has largely spoken for itself. It was introduced with panache by my hon. Friend Mr. Green, who deployed our arguments and thinking in painstaking detail. The Secretary of State then responded, but he may have been more rattled by The Guardian poll on education than we thought. Instead of going back into his shell, although he is not known for that, he delivered a speech that can only be described as doing handstands on the edge of the precipice.

The Conservative motion was then supported, I think, by Mr. Rendel, who is going to vote with us. Most of his arguments, however, were a rather dry exposition of his reservations and to some extent a caricature of what we want to do. An interesting aspect of our debate, which needs to be seen in the context of our previous debate on Monday, is the argument that was not made. It was referred to, but it was not made explicit by the Government in their amendments on either occasion. There is no reference at all in the Government amendments to top-up fees, as Mrs. Campbell perceptively pointed out, which are the policy which may not be spoken of. It would upset Labour Back Benchers, so it is better to keep it private for as long as possible.

The only thing that the Government can salvage from this week's events is the hope that perhaps 100 Labour Back Benchers will have taken an exceptionally early bath and will not be available to oppose them this afternoon. However, we all know about the strength of feeling on the issue, which was encapsulated the other day in the vitriolic intervention of Mr. Mudie and today in the contribution of Paul Farrelly. I would only point out—and I am sure that Government Whips are well aware of this—that there are at least 86 Labour Members who sit in silent dissent. Legislation is forthcoming, if the Government get round to it, but it will be difficult to get it through the House. As an aside, two education Ministers are former presidents of the National Union of Students. One is the Secretary of State, the other the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Mr. Twigg. They supported NUS policy, but I wonder when they saw the light and realised that it was all very sensible after all. It must have been after the coming and, indeed, going of the Conservative Government. Matters are therefore interestingly poised, albeit at an intermediate stage.

To pick up on other contributions, it was interesting that Labour Back Benchers, as I anticipated, expressed a number of reservations about Government policy. The hon. Member for Cambridge believed that differential fees would have an adverse effect on access and, in a charming speech, the president of the beer club—Mr. Grogan, who deserves further preferment—expressed passionate concern about the misdirection of Government policy.

In particular, his contribution was valuable for mentioning the situation for people who are not affluent by any conceivable test and whose family income is just above the threshold. They are caught by the full weight of debt. The hon. Gentleman also spoke about poverty of ambition, and the danger of demoralising people who might want to make a wise choice and might well be fitted for higher education.

We heard a contribution in support of Government policy from Mr. Hendrick. It was difficult to find out where he thought we should go, except possibly towards an indeterminate target, regardless of cost. I am not sure his Secretary of State would agree. We have just had a contribution from Mr. Chaytor, who interests himself in these matters and sought to justify the target.

On our Benches, we had particularly interesting contributions from my hon. Friend Mr. Clappison, who was rightly concerned about intervention in the independent sector, my hon. Friend Mr. Goodman, who produced a trenchant criticism of utilitarianism and an account of the stresses that higher education Ministers inevitably endure, which I can say from my own experience was entirely authentic, and my hon. Friend Andrew Selous, who made a positive and thoughtful comment and brought the lifetime implications of debt—for example, for pensions funding—into the discussion.

One or two other interesting points emerged. When there was a discussion about the student drop-out rate, it occurred to me that if we could cut that, the whole of the mythical Labour case for the alleged withdrawal of student places would fall, because the increase in drop-out covers the wasted places and any possible run-back in the size of the sector.

There was the usual confusion between participation and access. If the Secretary of State spent a moment looking at the figures for Northern Ireland, where there is a primarily selective secondary education system, he would see that participation is more effective in that country. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman tries to tempt me to go wider than perhaps I should have done. We will discuss that in another context. He needs to reflect carefully, and we shall reflect on what he said about the amount of support that will be available to parents or students who have to pay top-up fees. In the short time available, we wanted to hear from Government Back Benchers.

Again, I assert the principles underlying our approach. First, of course we accept that there is a continuing role for public finance in higher education, because there is a national interest in higher education. There are benefits to students. We do not believe that they are automatically of the order of £400,000, as Ministers said rather glibly. If there are such benefits, which will not be available for every student, the right way to capture them is through income tax, which is a progressive system. It follows that if we are guardians of public money, it must be used to best effect and not wasted on fruitless courses or excess drop-out.

Secondly, we should respect the autonomy of institutions. Too little has been said about that. The Secretary of State says that we are taking it away, but any vice-chancellor who derived further resources from what was on offer under the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor, now the Home Secretary, as a new deal for higher education has much to think about. Any such additional funds have been bought at a high cost in intervention. That will be much worse when OFFA comes along as a political sop to the Provisional wing of the Labour Government to lend plausibility in respect of access. For the avoidance of doubt, I can say that there will be no diminution of access under our plans in relation to disabled student allowance, and we will be able to offer a measure of support for individual students. More details will be available on that matter in due course.

Finally, we need to provide a fair deal for students. We need to remember that there are opportunity costs for students, particularly for those from less advantaged backgrounds who choose to go to university. They are not earning for three years and they have to maintain themselves, often at additional cost, in a strange town or city. The level of debt is significant and oppressive and it does represent a tax on learning. That is a tax that has been introduced by the Government. They may well recruit one or two more vice-chancellors to support them in their present course, although I think that those vice-chancellors are ill advised, but I can assure the House that they run the risk of losing the support of 1.5 million students and their parents and associates—a constituency of 5 million persons who know about the £9,000 a head price tag and will draw the appropriate electoral conclusion.

Photo of Alan Johnson Alan Johnson Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education) 3:50 pm, 25th June 2003

This debate, unlike Monday night's, highlights the stark choice before the British people. The Liberal Democrats have always added to the gaiety of the nation, but it will be a long time before they rule the nation. We enjoyed listening to their policies on Monday, but today we have seen the real stark choice. This issue concerns the future not just of higher education but of this country and where we want to be in the 21st century.

What I find really amazing about the Conservative party is that, even after the full process of Letwinisation, even after the caring Conservative phrase, even after the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition had visited working-class estates in Edinburgh, and even after several focus groups and bonding sessions—or bondage sessions as they were called on Monday—we have this Tory policy.

What we are debating here is not whether we should see a growth in numbers, although that is an important issue to which I shall return, nor whether we could do more to widen participation, although that too is an important debate. Those are not the central issues. What we are talking about here is whether to expand higher education and to maintain investment in higher education for the good of the nation, or whether to contract and cut back, squeeze and freeze and damage opportunities for our young people.

At best, 10 Conservative Back Benchers were present for this important Opposition day debate, yet the Conservative proposal is to remove £430 million of funding for higher education—90,000 university places and 13,000 lecturers would go as part of their policy—and to end payments of £193 million currently going through the Higher Education Funding Council for England to widen participation for youngsters from working class backgrounds in higher education. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies, to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred earlier, said in its press release this morning, that is a clear redistribution from poorer to richer households. That is at the core of the Conservative party's policy.

In opening, Mr. Green made a number of remarks with which we fully, wholeheartedly, 100 per cent. agree. He said that fair access should be based on merit. That is absolutely true. We have said that over and over again and it is in our document on wider participation. It will not be the role of OFFA in any way whatever to interfere in the basis for access to university. [Interruption.] I shall come to the purpose, but let us deal with the points on which we can agree.

We also agree that we should concentrate on skills when we unveil our policy in the next week or so, and I assure hon. Members that it will be worth waiting for. They will see that we are investing a considerable amount in skills. We also agree that the key is to improve secondary education.

Our White Paper deals with all those issues, but it does not duck the central question of how we will secure expansion and ensure good-quality higher education into the 21st century without additional funding. Much of Monday's debate was about how to provide that funding, but today's debate has been about reducing the amount that we invest in higher education.

Mr. Rendel told us how terrible Tory policy was and how the Liberal Democrats would therefore support the Conservatives in the Lobby this evening—an argument that lost me. He also asked about provisions to protect extra investment, which were also raised by Mr. Willis on Monday. I have given an assurance about that, as has the Secretary of State, but, perhaps more importantly, legislation already protects the funding council from taking fees income into account in its funding of institutions. Such provision already features in legislation and we have no intention of interfering with it.

My hon. Friend Mrs. Campbell showed her usual good grace and courtesy, and gave paeans of praise for the Government's policy. She mentioned pay for higher education lecturers. Of course, we have invested a considerable amount in the past three years and we will invest more in the next few years. She has a difference of view about the key issue, which we have not tried to hide: our proposals for variable fees. We say that, just as Dearing argued four years ago, graduates should make a contribution and that it should go to universities and not be centralised. She said—I hope this is correct—that someone's decision whether to go to university should not be determined by their parents' finances or the money in their pocket. Of course, the basis of our argument is that that will not happen. We are doing away with up-front tuition fees, students will repay money only when they are in work earning £15,000 a year or more and the debt will be repayable at very modest levels. If the difference between us were simply about the level of the increased tuition fee, it would not be so wide, but it is about much more.

Mr. Clappison referred at the start of his speech to somebody whom I suppose could be described as "Paranoid of Hertsmere" and what they had written to the newspapers. I think that there was paranoia and scaremongering in his speech. He spoke about supporting the reintroduction of assisted places and made it absolutely clear where the Conservative party wants to go in that regard. He accused the Government of attacking the middle class, when it is clear that the issue is about money moving from the poorer to the more wealthy, as this morning's report pointed out.

My hon. Friend Mr. Hendrick made a very important point about the perception of debt. As my hon. Friend Mr. Chaytor pointed out, we are talking not about whether there should be debt for students and graduates, but about the level of that debt. My hon. Friend the Member for Preston made the important point that, if we scaremonger and frighten people about the level of debt, which is obviously an issue, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. What we need to do is ensure that youngsters understand that the money is an investment in their future and that, in terms of our proposals, it is not an onerous burden.

Mr. Goodman was simply wrong. He said that the drop-out rate had increased, as did the hon. Member for Ashford. The rate has not increased; it was 18 per cent. before we took office and it is 17 per cent. now. Indeed, it is now 17 per cent. of vastly increased student numbers, so that argument is not reasonable. Neither is the argument that the funding per student has been reduced. It is now 36 per cent. more; we reversed that trend.

My hon. Friend Mr. Grogan, who will be seeing more of me on our train journeys between London and Selby—I congratulate him on his appointment as president of the parliamentary beer club—said that we need Dearing II. Let us look at Dearing I. Dearing represented a very important contribution to the debate. The Conservative Government set up the Dearing committee of inquiry. Conservative Members supported tuition fees through the Lobby, yet they cannot accept Dearing's central proposal, which is that there has to be increased funding, some of which needs to come from the graduate.

This has been an extremely interesting debate. We believe that universities are powerful instruments for transforming society and that they are a civilising influence on society. The Conservatives' policy is a triumph of opportunity over integrity—[Interruption.] I meant of opportunism over integrity—I correct that slip straight away. Even the families whom they purport to help will find that they have been sold a pup when they realise that their child will find it harder to find a place at university. If we are to pull youngsters through to the stage where they have two A-levels and the chance of a university place—as all hon. Members agree that we should—and they find that the place is no longer available, that entire generation will have been let down. Even worse, the Conservatives' policy would drive down attainment, because those who get two A-levels will not have those university places to go to. So, to the delight of our international competitors and to the dismay of the higher education sector and business—

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to

Question put accordingly, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 191, Noes 293.

Division number 256

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.

Mr. Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House rejects any proposal to abolish the existing fee of £1,100, which would lead to substantial reductions in the numbers of places in higher education and, as a consequence, fewer lecturers and a lower quality higher education experience; congratulates the Government on its plan to abolish up front tuition fees and to raise the threshold for repayment of loans from £10,000 to £15,000; welcomes the steps that the Government is taking to widen participation amongst students from deprived backgrounds, the establishment of the Office for Fair Access, the introduction from 2004–05 of a £1,000 grant for students from the poorest backgrounds and better support for part-time students; condemns any proposal to withdraw the funding that is already being spent on widening participation, which would lead to fewer students from deprived backgrounds entering higher education and completing their degrees; and supports the continued expansion in participation planned by the Government and the part to be played by foundation degrees designed in collaboration with employers as an appropriate strategy to equip the UK workforce with the high level skills needed to compete in the global marketplace.