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As set out in the grant letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England issued on
I thank my right hon. Friend for that very pleasing answer. He knows that it goes without saying that all Labour Members support efforts to make sure that more people from non-traditional backgrounds get into universities. Will he comment on that aspect of the funding that provides a premium or incentive to universities so that those from non-traditional backgrounds can be encouraged to get into university? What sort of incentive is provided by universities under the funding for next year?
I can give my hon. and learned Friend the assurance that he seeks. The widening participation premium will increase by 2.5 per cent. next year, which means that £273 million will be available to universities. Everybody recognises that not only the recruitment but the retention of non-traditional students is important. Although we have one of the lowest university drop-out rates in the world, an examination of social class shows that non-traditional students find it more difficult and are more likely to drop out. The funding premium is available in recognition of the fact that it costs more to teach non-traditional students. We will certainly increase the amount of funding available and move towards our objective of ending the obscene social class gap in higher education.
The Minister will be aware that his own departmental figures show that, by the end of this Parliament, Government funding per student will still be substantially lower than it was under the last Conservative Government. Yesterday, the Chancellor made comments about student grant funding, but they apply only up to 2008, before top-up fees fully come into effect. Will the Minister therefore give a clear and unequivocal commitment that he will maintain Government grant per student after 2008 as well as before?
I will answer the question in a second. It is a fact that funding per student fell by 37 per cent. in the 10 years up to 1997, and, as the Dearing inquiry showed, that planned funding over the next two years of the previous Government—thankfully that was the first two years of this Government in 1997 and 1998—was due to reduce by a further 6.5 per cent. a year over both years. It is important to understand that the Conservative party is the party of underfunding higher education and that the Labour party is the party of ensuring that our higher education sector is properly funded and able to maintain its world-class status.
If in due course the House of Commons decides, in its wisdom, that a better way of complementing the welcome increase in Government funding for higher education is to retain fixed fees rather than imposing variable top-up fees, will the Government accept that with good grace?
We on these Benches accept everything with good grace. It is extremely unlikely that anyone will accept an argument saying that rather than allowing universities to charge up to £3,000—we say that universities may charge £3,000, but that they are free to charge less—we should absolutely insist that every student on every course at every university must pay £3,000, and that universities must have no flexibility to charge less. I would find it amazing if the House or any other group decided that that was the way forward. I know that my hon. Friend has serious concerns about the matter, which is why we said that, three years after the introduction of variable fees, an independent commission will report directly to the House to show their effects. We believe that my hon. Friend's genuine fears will not materialise, but a report by an independent commission is the best way to examine the issue.
The Minister will be pleased to know that Liberal Democrats will support the aspects of the Higher Education Bill that will devolve responsibility for student funding to the National Assembly for Wales. Does he agree that that will give the Assembly an opportunity to devise a scheme for people over 55 who wish to access higher education and attain the skills necessary for the longer working life that the Government keep advocating?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the one institution that encourages access to higher education perhaps more than any other is the Open university? However, in recent discussions on the Higher Education Bill, the Open university has expressed genuine concerns that such part-time students might be disadvantaged. What reassurance can my right hon. Friend give the House that the Open university will be secure and able to continue its excellent work?
I am happy to repeat the assurance that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave on