Higher Education

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:41 pm on 14th September 2004.

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Photo of Mr David Rendel Mr David Rendel Shadow Minister (Higher Education), Education & Skills 3:41 pm, 14th September 2004

I understand that point. Nevertheless, the amount that the average graduate could borrow would be higher under the Conservatives' scheme, and would therefore take longer to pay off.

I would like to turn briefly to some of the points that have been raised during the debate. When we talk about the extra money to be raised through income tax on earnings above £100,000, we have made it clear again and again that that money would pay for three things, and three things only: the higher education changes that we intend to make; free personal care for the elderly; and some help for local authorities to keep down their council tax bills. Those are the only things that will be paid for out of that money.

Several hon. Members have mentioned the difference between the United States and elsewhere, and how US universities have been able to encourage a lot more private endowment. My hon. Friend Mr. Willis made the important point that public spending on higher education in the US represents a higher proportion of gross domestic product than it does here: roughly 0.9 per cent., compared with 0.7 per cent., according to figures produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. That makes it clear that it is the public commitment to higher education—the fact that the public authorities demonstrably believe in the importance and value of higher education—that encourages the extra endowment from the private sector. To suggest, therefore, that endowment from the private sector could take the place of public funding would be fatal, as it would almost certainly lead to a reduction in the endowment coming in, rather than an increase.

I made a point in an intervention on Mr. Collins about the bureaucracy involved in his national scholarship scheme. He simply did not answer my question, so I shall raise the matter again. If the Conservatives introduced a national scholarship scheme, someone would have to administer it, and the amount of bureaucracy would be far worse if it had to do be administered on a student-by-student basis. Each student who gained a place at university would have to ask the university exactly how much money was involved, then apply to someone—it is not clear who—to ensure that they got that money to give to the university. It would be a hugely bureaucratic system, and I suggest that it would cost an awful lot more than the current one.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale also seems to have a conflict between two ideas. One is that it would be entirely up to the universities to give places to whomever they wanted, and that they would then be able to get scholarships to pay for those places; and the other is that a minimum proportion of those scholarships would be allocated to certain subjects. Quite how that would be administered, alongside the universities having complete freedom to give places to whomever they wanted, in whatever subjects, I fail to understand.

A fundamental point about the Conservatives' policy is illustrated by the fact that the hon. Gentleman failed to answer the criticism made by the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough that the Tories' scheme would inevitably involve money being taken from the poor and given to the rich. That would happen because the poorer graduates—those in less well-paid jobs—would take much longer to pay off their debts, so the bulk of the money that would replace the current fees would come from them.