Higher Education

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:22 pm on 14th September 2004.

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Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Education & Skills, Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 1:22 pm, 14th September 2004

I beg to move,

That this House
notes with regret the emerging consequences of the passage of the Higher Education Act 2004;
believes that fees and expanding student debt create significant disincentives for those considering university entry, particularly from less well-off backgrounds;
congratulates the efforts of those in the House of Lords who achieved significant concessions during the passage of the Higher Education Bill, particularly for part-time students;
regrets that Her Majesty's Official Opposition has completely ignored the needs of part-time students in its new policy;
notes that Conservative proposals ask students to pay for the abolition of tuition fees through higher interest payments on their loans, leaving them no better off;
further notes the conclusion of the Institute of Fiscal Studies and others that Conservative proposals penalise the poor in order to subsidise the rich;
notes the recent Times Higher Education Supplement/Opinion Panel Research opinion poll of students which finds that 47 per cent. support the Liberal Democrats, 20 per cent. support Labour and 23 per cent. are backing the Conservatives;
and therefore calls for the immediate abolition of all tuition fees, the re-introduction of maintenance grants of up to £2,000 for students from low-income homes, and the development of a higher education system which brings together universities, further education and e-learning, opens up routes to vocational and technical as well as academic qualifications, and makes it easier for those who wish to study part-time.

It is a pleasure to speak to a packed House on the important issue of higher education. I should like to begin by welcoming the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, Dr. Howells, to the Front Bench in his new role. When I first came into the House, he was the Minister for Lifelong Learning, and was incredibly courteous to those of us who were starting our careers here at the time. We remember that, and thank him for it. If today's announcement by the Secretary of State for Education and Skills on post-result applications to higher education is a measure of the Minister's immediate influence, we welcome that, too. The Schwartz committee's recommendations, which have been so swiftly accepted by the Secretary of State, represent an important step towards encouraging university applications from the less traditional groups.

Will the Minister use his influence to dovetail the proposals of the Schwartz committee with the forthcoming proposals by Mike Tomlinson? It is crucial that those two strands of policy development sit together. Schwartz talks almost exclusively of post-A2 level entry into higher education, while Tomlinson shifts the emphasis to four-level diploma entry, with an emphasis on vocational as well as academic credits. I see that Mr. Sheerman is in his place, and I wonder whether this is an issue that the Education and Skills Committee could also look at. It would be sad if two separate silos, each of which placed an emphasis on trying to get under-represented groups into higher education and to further their education, could not come together. Schools, colleges and universities need a single, integrated entry system, and there is a danger, if we adopt the Schwartz system, that we might prejudice what is proposed later by Tomlinson. I hope that the Minister will take that on board.

We wish the Minister well, however. When I looked at the Guardian Unlimited website this morning, a most unusual fact was revealed to me: the Minister was the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on industrial development between 1995 and 1997! That was a fact that I did not know, but I am sure that the Minister will reap huge rewards from having represented us on that vital brief during those two years.

Such surprises are the magic of the House of Commons, but few surprises can rival the announcement last week that the Conservatives at last have a policy on higher education. It has only been six years since the passing of the Teaching and Higher Education Act in 1998, three years since the Prime Minister launched his review, two years since the White Paper was published, one year since the current legislation was published and three months since it received Royal Assent. However, we welcome their announcement.

I have to confess that I was as nervous as a schoolboy with his first top-shelf magazine when I read the Conservatives' policy. Would it live up to expectations? That was the key question. I am delighted that Chris Grayling has now joined his colleagues on the Front Bench, because it was he who stung me in Committee when I challenged him to tell me when the Conservatives would reveal their plans for higher education. He boldly replied:

"I can assure him that when we publish our policy he will be immensely jealous of it, as it will be much more attractive than the one that either he or the Government propose."—[Official Report, Standing Committee H, 24 February 2004; c. 252.]