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The Government are firmly committed to increasing the opportunity for people of all ages to gain access to higher education. In the past eight years, the number of postgraduate students aged over 55 has increased by more than 130 per cent.—from nearly 4,000 to more than 9,000—and the number of undergraduates aged over 55 has increased by 154 per cent., from 22,000 to more than 57,000.
We provide a range of financial support, including some elements that students aged 55 and over can access if they are eligible. For students with dependants, those grants include the adult dependants' grant, which is worth up to £2,280, the parents' learning allowance, which is worth up to £1,300, and the childcare grant, which is worth up to £8,840. As the grants are targeted at students with dependants, the main beneficiaries are older students.
We have no plans to change our policy on the eligibility for grants of students aged over 55. Therefore, subject to parliamentary approval of the Higher Education Bill, older students will be eligible for the new combined grant of £2,700 from 2006–07.
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply, but he will be aware that when the Government signed the European directive on equal treatment in October 2000, they committed themselves to implementing age discrimination legislation by 2006, which will cover higher education, further education and vocational training. He has admitted that students aged over 55 are currently unable to access student loans, and the Bill before Parliament seems to include no plan to change that. In the light of the ageing work force and the need for people to work longer to have a substantial pension fund, does he not agree that such age discrimination needs rapid review?
No, I do not accept that. We support the article 13 changes in respect of age discrimination, but we believe that the decision not to give loans to students aged 55 and over was objectively justified. Indeed, a recent request for judicial review was turned down at the appeal court stage, because the court agreed with us that insisting that students aged 55 and over be unable to access loans constitutes a sensible and proper use of taxpayers' money, given that we wipe out any debt at the age of 65. I should add that under previous Governments the age limit was 50, so we have increased it.
We are committed to making it easier for mature students to get to university, but we do not believe that we need to go further in respect of loans to do so. Of course, mature students aged 55 and over are eligible for grants, and there will be specific help for them, in that the current loan for part-time students will be replaced by a grant.
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that, whether we are talking about students aged over 55 or under 55, the real task is to encourage people from poorer backgrounds—those in social classes 4 and 5? According to some reports, as a result of the expansion that will include another 10 countries in the European Union—countries whose students will be able to access British universities on the same basis as our own students—middle-class, quite wealthy students from such countries will affect the opportunity to open up access that I know the Government intend to provide. Is he worried about such reports?
I do not agree with my hon. Friend on his last point, but I entirely agree with his first point about widening participation, for which we are increasing funding. As to the accession countries, our estimate and that of the Higher Education Funding Council is that there will be an 8 per cent. increase in students from those countries, but that is a tiny proportion of the overall student population. Given that those students cannot access maintenance loans or grants, we believe it unlikely that those estimates will be exceeded. There are huge benefits from getting students from other countries to study in this country, and there is no basis for any fear that those students will interfere with our clear objective to widen participation in higher education.