Higher Education (Student Support)

Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 12:33 pm on 5th July 2007.

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Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills 12:33 pm, 5th July 2007

With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I wish to make a statement on reforms to support for students in higher education.

I am delighted to make my first statement as the first Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills. In establishing my Department, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister charged my colleagues and I with the twin aims of providing a strong, integrated permanent voice across Government for effective investment in research, science and skills at all levels and ensuring that research, higher education and further education serve their wider purposes—supporting social mobility and inclusion for the disadvantaged, and cultural growth. Success in higher education will be one key measure of my Department's work. The skills and talents of our people are our greatest natural asset, and our universities and colleges must offer world-class standards of teaching and research.

Since 1997, the number of home and overseas students has increased by over 400,000, and the funding of higher education institutions has risen by over 20 per cent. in real terms. Before 1997, funding per student had declined by 36 per cent. in less than a decade. In today's global economy, we cannot afford to stand still. The growth in the number of graduates being produced in India and China is dramatic. Around the world, countries are increasingly investing in the high-level skills and the cutting edge research that universities provide. To compete and prosper in this world—to respond to the needs of leading global and national businesses—we must enable many thousands more people to study and graduate each year. To become a world leader in skills, as Lord Leitch recommended, we must aim for at least 40 per cent. of adults to have higher level qualifications by 2020.

Everyone who has the potential and qualifications to succeed in higher education, whatever their family background, should have the opportunity to participate. No one should be held back from realising their potential. That is fair, and it is right for our economy. We cannot be satisfied when only 28 per cent. of students come from low-income backgrounds. We are wasting the talents of too many young people for whom university study should be a realistic ambition, not out of reach. We recognise, too, that hard-working families on modest incomes have concerns about the affordability of university study. They have high aspirations—rightly so—and we should help them to fulfil those aspirations. To meet the challenges of achieving world-class skills, and to make the most of the talent and ability of every individual, we need to be willing to change.

That is why I propose four major changes to our system of student support. First, we will increase substantially the number of students entitled to maintenance grants. These changes will take effect for students from England entering higher education in 2008. More students will receive full grants worth £2,835. From September next year, full grants will be available to new students from families with incomes of up to £25,000, compared with £18,360. We estimate that 50,000 more students each year will receive full grants once the system is fully up and running. With the addition of £310 bursaries from higher education institutions, these students will be guaranteed £3,145 a year.

Moreover, eligibility for maintenance grants will be extended to many more students from families on modest and middle incomes—hard-working families who are doing the right thing by encouraging their children to go to university. Students whose families have household incomes of up to £60,000 a year will in future benefit from eligibility to a grant. More than 100,000 extra students at any one time will be entitled to a partial grant once these proposals are fully implemented. More than 250,000 students will gain from our proposals once fully implemented. Of those, 35,000 will gain by more than £1,000 a year and a further 125,000 by more than £500. For a student from a household on £25,000 a year earnings, that will mean an extra £1,100 a year in maintenance grant. For a family on £50,000 a year with two children at university, it will mean that each student receives a grant of £560 a year. Today, just over half of students who entered higher education in 2006 received a maintenance grant. From 2008, two thirds will do so. A third of students will get a full grant, compared with 29 per cent. now, and a further third will get a partial grant, compared with 22 per cent. now. To fund this improvement and the other measures that I am announcing today, we will be investing over £400 million a year when the system is fully in place. That is a major increase in support to students.

Secondly, able young people from low income homes should aim for university, confident of the financial support they will receive. From the 2008-09 academic year, a 16-year-old who qualifies for an educational maintenance allowance will be guaranteed a minimum level of maintenance support at university. This 16-year-old will be guaranteed at least five years of maintenance support for their studies—through school, college and university. The guarantee will support aspirations for higher education. It will provide certainty about the financial support to fulfil their potential. Young people starting their studies at sixth-form or college will see a clear route into higher education. More than 250,000 16-year-olds a year will get the guarantee. Of course, in developing that package, I will work closely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families to ensure that support goes to those students who are qualified and demonstrate their rigorous compliance with the system.

Thirdly, for students whose parents have not attended university, the support of others can be crucial in deciding to go to university. We want to give new emphasis to students acting as role models and mentors for young people who might not otherwise go on to higher education. I propose to double the number of such mentors on our popular and successful student associate scheme from 7,500 to 15,000. That means one generation of students supporting the next generation of children towards college or university.

Finally, we also want to offer graduates more choice about the repayment of their loans. Students starting in 2008 will have that option once they complete their degree. When graduates face significant new out-goings in their lives, such as buying their first home or starting a family, they will have the option of taking a break from their loan repayments. They will be able to take a break of one year, two or more, for up to five years. That will help graduates make flexible choices about their finances at key points in their lives and careers.

In the next three years, the reforms will help us meet growing aspirations for higher education within the comprehensive spending review settlement and allow us to fulfil commitments that we have already made. The proportion of 18 to 30-year-olds who go on to higher education will continue to increase and universities will receive the same funding for teaching each student in real terms, so that excellence in teaching and learning can be maintained.

The reforms promote aspiration, offer opportunity and provide support to students from hard-working families. They promote the world-class standards of our colleges and universities and help deliver the skills and knowledge that business and society need in a global economy. I commend them to the House.

Photo of David Willetts David Willetts Shadow Minister (Education)

Let me begin, alongside all the other welcomes that you have already heard, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by welcoming the new Secretary of State to his post. I look forward to debating and questioning the Government on the important issues that he raised today.

We agree with the Government about wanting the greatest possible access to higher education of good quality. We also recognise that, contrary to some of the fears that were expressed, it looks as if top-up fees have not so far made the problem of access to university worse. However, it must also be acknowledged that we do not appear to be making significant progress in improving access, as the figure for students from modest backgrounds has been stable at about 28 per cent. over the past few years. We therefore welcome any measures that the Government can take to improve access to higher education in future. However, I should like to ask the Secretary of State for more information about some of his proposals and their scope.

First, what about part-time students? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that many students from modest backgrounds who go to university are looking for part-time study? Progress has been made in more modular courses. Will any of the provisions that he announced today make it easier for part-time students at university?

Secondly, will the Secretary of State tell us a bit more about who will be responsible for delivering some of the measures that he announced? Aimhigher is an excellent programme, which involves links between universities and schools. Is not it a pity that we now have two education Departments when, in the past, the programme was clearly in the Department for Education and Skills? Which Department will be responsible for Aimhigher?

We welcome the extension of the mentoring scheme that the Secretary of State announced. It appears to involve people at university visiting schools and arranging programmes in schools through the school system. Surely it will be far more complicated now that two Departments are involved instead of one.

The Secretary of State referred to extra spending of £400 million. Will he confirm that the sum is within the education spending totals that the then Chancellor announced earlier this year, and thus in the totals that were already set? If so, will he make it clear where exactly the resources are coming from in the overall Budget that the now Prime Minister announced when Chancellor of the Exchequer? [Interruption.]

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. We must not have mutterings from the second Bench. The House listened courteously to the first statement; that should also apply to this statement.

Photo of David Willetts David Willetts Shadow Minister (Education)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I hope that the Secretary of State can respond to the questions, which will concern many people in higher education, including students.

Will the Secretary of State tell us more about the prospects for the future of the bursaries scheme? There has been media comment in the past few weeks about what might happen to bursaries, and the Minister with responsibility for higher education, Bill Rammell, made carefully drafted comments, in which he appeared to cast doubt on their long-term future. Will changes to bursaries form any part of the package and funding changes that he announced?

On a wider point, does the Secretary of State accept that approximately 90 per cent. of people who leave school with two good A-levels already get to university? The deep challenge that we must all confront is that, if we want more people to have access to university with the right qualifications to benefit from higher education, we need to examine what is happening in schools. Is not the fundamental challenge, which everyone raises with us, increasing access to the GCSEs and A-levels that students need if they are to have a prospect of getting to university? Is not that the problem that the Government need to tackle?

Let me tell the Secretary of State about a visit that I recently paid to one of the excellent summer schools, which are aimed at broadening access to university. There, teenagers who had not previously thought of going to university suddenly realised that they could benefit from it, and then one saw their shock when they realised that the GCSEs that they had been studying, and perhaps the A-level for which they had been entered, were not those that they needed to do the course about which they had become excited. The Government's targets and points system mean that many teenagers are encouraged to do the GCSEs and A-levels that do not offer them the best prospect of getting to university.

Meanwhile, study of the subjects that are often crucial to getting to our most academically valuable universities are declining. There is a decline in the number of people who study modern languages and individual real sciences at GSCE and A-level in state schools, and an increase in the proportion of students who study the crunchy and more academic subjects—further maths and modern languages—at private schools. How can the Government achieve their objectives of widening participation if the only lever that they pull changes the maintenance grant when fundamental improvement in the quality of education at school is the key? Is not that another reason why splitting the Department for Education and Skills in two will make it harder to achieve those important objectives?

Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks and congratulate him on his appointment—I welcome him to his new job. I have known him for a long time and always admired his wide interest in social policy. In his previous job in particular I admired his intellectual honesty, and I hope that he gets more support from those behind him in his current job than he did in his previous post.

My impression is that the hon. Gentleman does not have a great deal to say about the package. It is a shame that he has not grasped its importance to delivering two things: the skills that we need as a society to prosper and the opportunity for many of our fellow citizens, especially young people, who currently do not fulfil their full potential. I hope that, perhaps in later debates, we will get a more generous welcome for the Government's reforms today.

Let me deal with the hon. Gentleman's specific points. The package is not about part-time students. However, last year, the Government introduced a system of support for fees. Many higher education institutions offer support for part-time students through access to learning funds. In 1997, when the hon. Gentleman was last in government, there was no support for part-time students, and most of today's part-time students would not have had the chance to be in higher education. Part-time study is important and we are building, especially with industry, co-funded courses in higher education. We expect many, if not all, to be on a part-time basis, and to deliver the higher quality vocational skills that are needed. We therefore recognise the importance of part-time education in the overall picture.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the splitting or creation of the two Departments. Some years ago, I was the Minister with responsibility for children and young people, and personally I feel that there is a compelling logic to having a Department—which the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my right hon. Friend Ed Balls now leads—that is able to look at family and children's issues in such a coherent way. There will be certain issues at the interface between my right hon. Friend's Department and mine, which we will sort out—they are easy to identify, and they will be easy to tackle—but the gains for our children from having the focus that the new structure offers will be enormous. I do not believe that it will make the slightest difference to the already successful scheme involving university students going back into school to work with students, particularly in science, maths, technology and engineering—the subjects that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about—to ensure that they have the right qualifications. We have already recognised the importance of that work.

The bursary scheme is enormously important. I have been in this post for only a few days—

Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

Eight days. I have been in post for only eight days, but the Minister of State, Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, my hon. Friend Bill Rammell encourages me to say that we have no plans to change the bursary scheme. It is an important part of all this. Indeed, my statement slightly understated the extent to which some students will be better off, because many bursary schemes offer an amount that is much more generous than the minimum that I mentioned.

Of course higher school standards are important throughout the system. We already have the best ever school standards. The standards in our poorest performing schools have improved faster than across the education system as a whole, and that will continue to provide students who will come into higher education. We all know, however, that at the moment some of those students will get to the age of 16 and lose their way and go out of the system because they do not think that university is for them. These measures will address the needs of those students and get them into higher education.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Education & Skills Committee

I genuinely warmly welcome my right hon. Friend to his new job. What a way to start. His statement is good news for working people and their families, and for students who will be encouraged to enter higher education for the first time. Those of us who have looked at this area know that what is needed is the full package, and that the earlier we start, the better. My right hon. Friend will know about my passion for the mentoring role, which is at the heart of the recommendations. I welcome them very sincerely.

Of course, all of us who are interested in education will add one proviso. The full package must go right the way through, keeping these young, talented people in the system so that they go into higher education and then into postgraduate education, so that they can become PhDs, researchers and leaders in technology and innovation. But we will give my right hon. Friend a little time before he needs to come back to us on that.

Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. However the Select Committee structures are determined by the House, I am sure that we will be drawing on his considerable expertise in this area and in this new role. Mentoring is enormously important, and some young people do not get the necessary support at home to achieve their full potential. If we can provide it in other ways, that is enormously important.

A second matter on which I agree with my hon. Friend involves another part of the story that we can tell. The higher education institutions are doing increasingly effective work on ensuring that, once students have entered higher education, they stay there and complete their first degree or other qualification as successfully as possible. That is essential. Internationally, we have a very good completion rate in higher education. I am convinced that the measures that we have put in place today will relieve some of the pressures that can divert students who feel that they cannot complete their courses, or who are diverted from their studies by having too much paid work. The provisions will help people to do as well as they possibly can at university.

Photo of Sarah Teather Sarah Teather Shadow Secretary of State

I welcome the Secretary of State to his new job. May I say how much I look forward to working with him? I also welcome the fact that the Prime Minister was here earlier. I am afraid that he is not in his place now, as usual for the Liberal Democrat response. Nevertheless, I welcome the fact that he was here at the start of the statement; I hope that that means he will be making student support a priority. I certainly welcome the recognition that the previous system was woefully inadequate, and that a family on an annual income of £17,500 is hardly wealthy. My concern, however, is whether the extension of maintenance grants to more people might be a prelude to lifting the cap. Is that the Secretary of State's intention? I would be grateful if he could make that clear.

The Secretary of State spoke earlier about part-time students. Does he recognise the challenges for students who are studying at less than 50 per cent. of a full-time course and who therefore have no access whatever to maintenance grants? Part-time students are often older or poorer. They are more likely to be from an ethnic minority background, and very likely to have caring responsibilities. Yet they are just the kind of people whom Leitch recommends must be attracted into education. Does the Secretary of State recognise that the income of such students is severely affected by having to pay fees up front? Does he propose to change that? I must remind him that we were vehemently opposed to the introduction of those fees in the first place. Similarly, does he have any plans to extend maintenance loans to students studying courses in further education colleges?

Is the Secretary of State considering introducing a national bursary system? I should like to add my comments to those that others have made about the increase in funding for mentors. That is welcome, as long as it happens at a very early age, because young people make choices about their future as they enter secondary school. He failed to answer a question from Mr. Willetts on how the proposals are to be funded. Does he intend to fund them by cutting other aspects of the higher education package, or should we expect to hear of changes to the interest rates on maintenance loans over the next few years? I hope that he will make that clear in his response.

Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. I, too, was pleased that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was on the Treasury Bench for the statement. I confess that I might have had more difficulty getting this package through in my first eight days in office had it not been for the considerable support that I have received from him.

Nothing that we have announced today prejudges the review of the fee system which is in the pipeline for 2009. This will not affect it in any way. It will happen as has been promised, and nothing should be read into today's announcement in regard to that review. Part-time students have already been discussed. A decision had to be made about the intensity of study that would attract assistance with fees, and the decision was made a few months or a year ago to limit that assistance to those who were studying at 50 per cent. intensity or more. There are some people who fall outside that category, but many of them are in work, and that is the reason for the low intensity of their study. Also, there are special provisions for those whose ability to study is limited by a disability. We put together a good package; it was certainly much better than anything that had existed previously for part-time students.

We have no plans to have a national bursary system. There is a minimum requirement, but we believe that there are advantages in individual institutions shaping the bursary scheme to their intake and to the type of students that they attract.

On the CSR settlement and allocation, the House will have to wait until later in the year for the details to be published. However, what I have announced today comes within our CSR settlement limits. Nothing that I have done today puts in jeopardy any commitments that we have already made in higher education, including the funding of student places or the desire to increase the number of participants in higher education.

Photo of Andrew Smith Andrew Smith Labour, Oxford East

May I very warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment as Secretary of State for this exciting and important new Department? He has made an excellent start with today's statement, which will be strongly welcomed by students at both the universities in Oxford and by everyone in the country who wants to extend access to university to people from poorer backgrounds. I particularly welcome the guarantee, which is a radical and progressive innovation. Will it not be crucial for that to be effectively communicated to prospective students and their families? Will my right hon. Friend tell us a little more about how he will get the message across about just what a big improvement this is?

Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that. He raises a very important issue. We already have a communications group, which my Department inherited from the previous Department, and its members include Universities UK, the National Union of Students, the Association of Colleges and other key stakeholders. We will want to bring that group together at a very early stage to look at how we can effectively communicate that message right down through the system. Taking into account the comments made by hon. Members on both sides of the House, we will need to ensure that that message goes to young people who are well below the age of 16, so that expectations build up among much younger school children and their parents about the system that lies ahead of them.

Several hon. Members:

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Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. Before I call the next hon. Member, may I tell the Secretary of State that although it is natural to want to address the Member who asked the question, other hon. Members might not be able to hear him unless he speaks into the microphone?

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Chair, Treasury Sub-Committee

Will the Secretary of State clarify that the effect of his announcement is that the staff-student ratio will remain the same and not continue to worsen? Is not the real issue with access that the millions spent on school buildings have not been matched by the changes in curriculum, testing and teachers' working practices that are necessary to challenge ability and to improve standards in our secondary schools?

Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

What I have said, and I repeat, is that the settlement enables us to say to universities that we will maintain the real level of funding per student as student numbers increase. Of course, individual institutions have to take decisions about how they want to staff themselves up. It is not for me to start dictating that. However, that is the funding commitment, which I am able to repeat.

As for schools, I simply say that I know that the standards that we are achieving in our schools are at the highest ever level. We have had particularly rapid improvements in some of the most poorly performing schools and most poorly performing areas. There is a way to go, and we want to build on that success, but I do not think it is the case that we have failed to raise school standards across this country; quite the opposite.

Photo of Andy Reed Andy Reed Labour, Loughborough

I welcome the package, not just for the 14,000 students at Loughborough university, but for many of the parents for whom it will make a difference. While the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families is in the Chamber, may I ask the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills to use the Sure Start programme to drive down even deeper and earlier in a child's life to encourage those parents who probably would not have considered higher education as an option for their child even at that early stage? Staying on in education beyond 16 was never considered in our family, so I know from experience that encouraging that expectation is an important consideration.

Will my right hon. Friend at some stage explain to me, perhaps in writing, what additional support can be given to the type of students at Loughborough university, with its connection with the 2012 Olympics and the additional support that is required for our future athletes who are based there?

Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

I hope that it will be acceptable if I write to my hon. Friend on the particular point about students at Loughborough. It is important, and probably needs a better reply than I would give this afternoon.

As for taking the message right down through society, I have a hope for the Department—a rather bigger one almost than I have set out—that we create and embed a culture of going to higher education across our society in a way that we have not yet achieved. We have got more people going to university and have improved access from the poorer groups, although not to the extent that we want, but we need to achieve a culture in this country whereby most parents—indeed, all parents—think that going into higher education is an option for their child if they have the ability to do it. Sure Start is one of the ways in which parents' aspirations are changed. The most remarkable thing that I found out about Sure Start in my area is that we thought that it was for the children, but it was the parents who suddenly realised how much more they could do. It is because of that that children benefit so much more. We will work to get that message across.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Innovation, Universities and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

First, may I congratulate the Minister on his appointment and welcome his first statement? It is essential to raise aspirations among youngsters from low-income families and to remove the financial impediments that there may be for them to access higher education.

The Secretary of State is probably aware—this may be uncomfortable for the Labour party and some members of the Conservative party—that because of Northern Ireland's excellent grammar school system and the retention of academic selection, 25 per cent. more youngsters from low-income families gain admission to higher education. In light of that, and the fact that many of them will go to universities in Scotland, England and Wales, will he tell us which measures will apply to youngsters from Northern Ireland, so that there is uniformity of financial provision for them? What discussions does he intend to have with the Ministers for Employment and Learning and for Education to ensure that the parts of the package that might not apply to students from Northern Ireland will be replicated in Northern Ireland through the Department there?

Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

I made it clear, but I repeat the point, that this is a package for English domiciled students. It applies to them, and them alone, wherever they study within the United Kingdom. On grammar schools, I refer the hon. Gentleman to Mr. Willetts, whose views are rather distinct from his.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

I warmly welcome the statement. It is true that the number of young people from working-class and lower-income families who are at university is still too low, and in terms of the Oxbridge and Russell group universities, the level is a disgrace. Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether he intends to promote a review of the education maintenance allowance? Eligibility for that is crucial for the commitment that he made to support 16-year-olds through higher education. Some young people are still just beyond the fringes of eligibility for EMA and would benefit from higher education, but they are leaving the system at that point. We need to do more for that group of young people.

Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

The EMA is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, and I cannot commit him to policy changes in that area. I said in my statement, however, that we would need to look at the detail of how the EMA works, not least to ensure that in a new system, and one that is implicitly much more generous, it is run in a rigorous way that ensures that only those people who are entitled get it. If, in the process of that review, we can consider the issues that my hon. Friend raises, I am sure that my right hon. Friend and I will want to do so.

Several hon. Members:

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Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. Before I call the next speaker, may I say that hon. Members can see how many people are seeking to catch my eye. If we can have one brief question and, hopefully, a fairly brief response from the Secretary of State, we will get through as many hon. Members as we possibly can.

Photo of Adam Price Adam Price Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government; Constitutional Affairs; Culture, Media and Sport; Defence)

May I ask the Secretary of State about one thing that is non-devolved as far as we are concerned? I ask him to reject the calls for the imposition of commercial rates on student loans. I urge him to look at a report from Canada published today that points out the problems with commercial rates for student loan repayments there. Further to the point made by Sammy Wilson, as different models of student financial support are emerging in the different territories of the United Kingdom, may I urge the right hon. Gentleman to convene a meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee so that we can consider the lessons learned across the UK as those different models develop?

Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

You have asked me to be brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I merely say that nothing in the package makes any changes to the loan repayment regime other than the welcome flexibility that graduates who start their courses in a couple years' time will get. I am intrigued by a nationalist raising the matter of trying to co-ordinate better the consequences of devolution because one of the issues is that devolved Administrations take different decisions about such things. However, if there are things that it makes sense to consider, we should do so.

Photo of Paul Farrelly Paul Farrelly Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme

May I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend to his appointment? It is a long-overdue return to the Government for a man of true conviction. I know that he worked very hard with all of us to increase the student support that was on offer during the sometimes lively debate on top-up fees. May I congratulate him further on making such an immediate impact, with a package of measures that will certainly lessen disincentives, raise aspirations and I hope increase social mobility? The EMA has made an impact in my constituency, but the real issue is not so much getting people into further education, but ensuring that they complete their courses at 17. I look forward to working with him and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families in addressing those issues in areas such as north Staffordshire.

Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments. It is clear that the message coming from hon. Members on both sides of the House is that the measures that I have announced today, and the things that we already have in place, are underpinned by what happens in schools at an earlier age and in families when children are at an earlier age. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families will have heard the same things and I am certain that we will work closely together to ensure that we address the issues raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House today.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

May I congratulate the Secretary of State on his richly deserved appointment, which should be popular in all parts of the House?

Given the need to strengthen our higher education sector in the name both of our national and international competitiveness, and of the fulfilment of individuals' potential, may I tell the Secretary of State that the proposals that he has announced today to increase access, to make it more affordable and to introduce greater flexibility in loan repayments are all extremely welcome and should have the support of Members of all parties in the House, especially if those proposals extend to people in further education colleges who are undertaking courses at higher level?

Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

I am grateful for the welcome. Some of the higher education courses and foundation degrees to which the regime applies are delivered in further education colleges.

Photo of Joan Humble Joan Humble Labour, Blackpool North and Fleetwood

May I also congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment and on his excellent statement today? I understand why he has concentrated on young people and on getting them to aim higher, but do his welcome announcements today also apply to more mature students who wish to take full-time degrees, because many of those people lost out on higher education when they were 17 or 18? If that is the case, how does he intend to advertise that fact?

Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

My hon. Friend is right to raise that question. I have focused on the measures that will help to bring a new generation of young students into higher education, but the new financial regime will apply, as does the current one, to older students who are going into full-time courses. My earlier answer about the role of the communications group should address that issue. I hope that it will get the message across. The Leitch report made it clear that we cannot meet all our skill needs for 2020 from the rising generation of students—we must do it from today's work force, too.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I, too, welcome the presence of the Prime Minister during part of the statement. I do not know whether that was part of a Cabinet mentoring scheme, but I do not think that the Secretary of State needs it.

I do not think that poverty or low income should ever be a barrier to entry into any form of education, at whatever level. When I went to school in a working-class area of Swansea, there were people in my primary school who were far brighter than I was, yet for all sorts of reasons— [Interruption.] I see that the Secretary of State agrees. It is wonderful to bring the entire House together on one issue. I suspect that low income was part of the problem.

Will the Secretary of State work closely with the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families to ensure that this initiative is taken right down to the primary level, so that youngsters from the poorest backgrounds and the poorest schools are not deprived of the opportunity to get to the top in education?

Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

We will certainly do that. When, in due course, we publish plans to implement the rest of the Leitch proposals on raising skill levels, I hope that we will add another element to that, because if we can get those parents who are in a poor job or a dead-end job because their skills are poor to gain skills and to get a better job, those parents' belief not just in what they can achieve but in what their children can achieve goes up.

Photo of Helen Southworth Helen Southworth Labour, Warrington South

I welcome the statement. It is excellent news for my constituents and for people throughout the country. It is fantastic. Will the Secretary of State work with the universities to get them to enhance their career and personal development opportunities for young people at university, so that those students who perhaps have not had access to the kind of knowledge that some people have about how to get a good job do not just get a degree but throughout their lives get the benefit of that education and get top-quality jobs?

Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

My hon. Friend raises an important point that I will discuss with the universities when I meet with their representatives. I know that, in part, that requirement reflects the demand from business, as employers, to ensure that students study the degrees that will be most useful to them and their own future. Often, those degrees that do not involve research or specialisms will be those that employers need. We need to ensure that the interface is right.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Science, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities, Shadow Minister, Innovation, Universities and Skills

I hope that the Secretary of State recognises that the fact that only 28 per cent. of people from poorer backgrounds are in higher education is a policy failure, rather than something that one can be satisfied with. Will the modest increases in the maintenance grant make any difference to the overall level of top-up debt, which is deterring graduates from entering public sector jobs such as teaching, including the teaching of science in schools?

Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

As I said earlier, we cannot be satisfied that only 28 per cent. of students come from low-income backgrounds, so we must improve things. I believe that, when the hon. Gentleman looks at the package, he will judge it significant, particularly for those students and families who currently think that higher education is not for them because they worry either about the cost of studying when at university or college, or about how they will meet repayments when they finish. Put together, the elements in the package will be seen as significant by many students who at the moment are not certain whether they want to go into higher education.

R

Probably not significant, really, but Denham's reply was not consistent with Harris' question.

He asked about 28% of poor kids being in HE, and the minister replied about 28% of HE being poor kids. I'd be interested to know the specific numbers. I'd think the HE population is smaller than that of economically deprived kids.

Submitted by Russell Jones

Photo of Martin Salter Martin Salter Labour, Reading West

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his welcome return to Government. He will be aware that the novel practice of not leaking statements to the media in advance presents new challenges for us Back Benchers—and clearly for Opposition Front Benchers, too—in formulating our responses. I genuinely welcome his announcement, in particular the increased threshold for the maximum salary cut-off point for eligibility for maintenance grants. The previous figure of some £33,000 caused problems in constituencies such as Reading, West and indeed in Southampton, where wages may be higher, but housing costs are higher, too.

Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

My hon. Friend is quite right on both points. I think that everyone, including the media, will be adjusting to the new regime. That certainly applies to the official Opposition, who can no longer turn on the "Today" programme in order to find out what will happen later in the day. I think that is genuinely to the benefit of all sides.

It is important to send a message to those on higher incomes to the effect that we support those hard-working families who are doing the right thing in encouraging their children to go into higher education. The biggest gainers are in the low to middle-income groups, but there are other people who need to know that the Government are on their side and their children's side when they go into higher education. That is the powerful message that comes out of the package I have announced.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Defence)

I am a near neighbour of the right hon. Gentleman and have worked with him on local campaigns of common concern, so it is a great pleasure to congratulate him on reaching the Cabinet. Well done.

I went to the same state school as my father, the difference being that, whereas he had to leave at the age of 14 in the 1920s, I was able, on a full grant, to go to Oxford university. Am I right in thinking that some of the top universities are allowed to charge differential fees these days? If that is right, does not some attention still need to be paid to ensure that, even if people going to universities are better off in terms of grant, people from poorer backgrounds should not be inhibited from going to the top universities? In my day, if someone got the grant, they could go to any university, no matter how good, that would take them.

Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

The universities all work within the same regime laid down by Parliament, which enables them to ask for variable fees, but there is a cap on that, which has been set by Parliament. That will be subject to review, which is open and not determined, in 2009. The truth is that the majority of universities charge the full permissible fee, but not all do.

Photo of Michael Jabez Foster Michael Jabez Foster Labour, Hastings and Rye

My right hon. Friend's appointment was clearly inspirational, and his statement today is inspiring to many constituents of mine on low incomes. He says that the regime will start in 2008. I understand that, but will there be some transitional arrangement, because there could be a tendency to buck out on 2007 if we cannot offer an interim measure to those who go to university this year?

Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

I understand my hon. Friend's point. One of the reasons for starting in 2008 is simply that it takes time to get a properly administered system in place. If we were unable to put the full system in place in 2008, we would not be able to put in place a shorter term transitional system that was not chaotic. I have looked back over experience because I asked a similar question to my hon. Friend's when we were discussing previous proposals, and that experience shows that changes in grant, fee or loan arrangements usually cause a small alteration in behaviour that is rapidly compensated for within the next two or three years and the situation then gets back on to trend. Therefore, although there might be a minor variation in behaviour, if there is, we will still be back on trend soon after the system is set up.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

The Secretary of State has confirmed that the package will not be financed with new money. What is being cut to pay for it?

Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

When the comprehensive spending review is published, the hon. Gentleman will be delighted to learn that we have been able to maintain the commitments that we have made, including those in higher education, such as its expansion and on per-student financing.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz PPS (David Cairns, Minister of State), Scotland Office

As I am not a nationalist, my right hon. Friend will not be surprised to learn that I want the reciprocal arrangements for student support between the different parts of the UK to be strengthened, especially as recent Scottish National party decisions have threatened those arrangements. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is right that talented students in Scotland, particularly from low income families, continue to be able to attend universities in England, and that students from other parts of the UK are able to attend Scottish universities? Will he talk to the Scottish Executive and the other devolved Administrations about strengthening those reciprocal arrangements and ensuring that no divisions develop? Students should be able to enjoy an educational experience in other parts of the country.

Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

I agree that it is right that talented students should be able to attend the right university for them; that is an important statement of principle. That there are different financial regimes reflects the fact that we have devolved Administrations, but it would be sensible for the higher education Ministers of the various Administrations to be in reasonably regular contact to address how their systems are evolving and developing.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

I welcome the package. It will enable almost all my constituents' children who attend university to do so on full or partial grant, which is important for them. Northampton university has important teaching and nursing faculties. Will my right hon. Friend say a little more about his proposals to support teaching and nursing students?

Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

All I can say today is that nothing is changing in the student finance arrangements other than that there will be considerably more generous provision and greater flexibility and choice in what I have announced. Future graduates—those starting their courses in 2008 and beyond—will be able to enjoy that. We are making no changes at all for particular groups of students. However, I am pleased that my hon. Friend thinks that the vast majority of her constituents who have an interest in higher education will benefit. That will be the case in many constituencies throughout the country.

Photo of Anne Snelgrove Anne Snelgrove PPS (Rt Hon Ruth Kelly, Secretary of State), Department for Transport

In a cracking first statement, my right hon. Friend identified many of the measures that will help us to attract more young people from low income homes in Swindon into higher education. However, as a good local university can also attract such young people into higher education, does he share my disappointment that the university of Bath has pulled out of developing five campuses in Swindon? Will his Department help us to identify an excellent replacement for the university of Bath, so that we do not have to rely on the developers finding us one?

J

Anne 32,000 people, who signed the Save Coate petition, are absolutely delighted that the University of Bath pulled out of building a campus directly next to three Local Nature reserves, Coate Water Site of Special Scientific Interest, Swindon's favourite place to relax and enjoy rural views to the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding...

Submitted by Jean Saunders Continue reading (and 1 more annotation)

Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

My hon. Friend has raised a constituency issue that is clearly of enormous importance to her. I encourage her talk to me or the Minister of State, my hon. Friend Bill Rammell. about the details of it to discover whether anything can usefully be done. It is not my job to run individual institutions—universities and higher education colleges will be pleased to hear me say that. If we can assist, however, we will try to do so.

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry PPS (Rt Hon Geoff Hoon, Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury and Chief Whip), HM Treasury

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend to his new role. He represents a Southampton constituency, but I am sure that my Portsmouth constituents will not hold that against him as they will greatly benefit from the proposals that he has announced. He mentioned mentors and role models. Will he ensure that they operate not only at secondary school level but also in primary schools? Research conducted at Portsmouth university shows that if the aspiration to go into higher education does not exist at age 10 or 11, it certainly will not exist at 16.

Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

I welcome what my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour has said. There is a mood in the House today to stretch measures down to cover students at a younger age. The details of the scheme are not set in stone, and I will be happy to talk to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families about how to design the expansion of student mentoring so that we can address the issues that have been raised by Members from all parts of the House.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney PPS (Rt Hon Rosie Winterton, Minister of State), Department for Transport

The measures will give a boost to universities that want to recruit more young people from more diverse backgrounds. Is my right hon. Friend aware of the strong emphasis on inclusivity in the recruitment and admission policies of Staffordshire university? I invite him to visit Stafford soon to meet vice-chancellor Christine King, her senior management team and National Union of Students officers to discuss whether such practices could be applied more generally around the country.

Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

While I am wary of promising to visit the many places that I could be invited to visit, let me make it clear that I and the entire ministerial team will want to spend as much time as possible outside Whitehall and this House visiting those involved in the provision of education, training and research. If we can visit Staffordshire, we will certainly do so.

Photo of Helen Jones Helen Jones PPS (Rt Hon Dawn Primarolo, Minister of State), Department of Health

It is me, not Lynne, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I add to the chorus of congratulations offered to my right hon. Friend on his statement, which will be of great benefit to families in my constituency. However, I ask him not to be diverted by the siren voices that call for us to stop looking at providing fair access. When he has his feet firmly under the table, will he look into why some universities are much more successful at recruiting students from lower income backgrounds than others, and also at the bursary system because those universities that currently recruit many students from poorer backgrounds often lose out because of the costs of the bursaries they pay?

Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments. Although I strongly share the view that has been expressed that the aspiration to go to university starts at an early age and that we must address that all the way through the system, there are clear differences in the way in which different higher education institutions approach that issue at the point when students apply. We cannot place all the responsibility for diversity and inclusion at that point of application to higher education, although there is a responsibility then. As I get on top of my job I will be happy to look at how different higher education institutions approach the issue and the lessons we can learn from that.