Tuition Fees

Part of Opposition Day — [7th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 9:49 pm on 30th November 2010.

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Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Party Chair, Co-operative Party 9:49 pm, 30th November 2010

This has been an interesting debate, but what is clear at its end is that the Government are set to railroad through this House and the other place their plan to treble fees for students and their families. As my hon. Friends the Members for York Central (Hugh Bayley), for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly), for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar) and for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) have underlined, it is now clear that Ministers lack the political courage to spell out the full implications of the Chancellor's unprecedented 80% cut in university teaching grant.

Each time there has been a major change in the way in which universities are funded and students supported, there has been a full and proper debate in this House, with Government having set out their proposals in full before a vote. Parents are surely entitled to expect Parliament to have considered in detail the arrangements for student maintenance, yet we have merely a pencil sketch before us, as opposed to the painted canvas that a White Paper could have offered. The Deputy Prime Minister worries that potential students are being confused and put off. Well, let him publish the Government's White Paper and clarify once and for all what is intended.

Such a White Paper might be able to answer some of the many questions that students, their parents, universities, and now even MPs on the Government's own side, such as Iain Stewart, are asking. As my hon. Friends and, in his own sweet way, Mr Wilson, who is not in his place, pointed out, how student numbers are controlled matters, because it sets the boundaries of the market. Draft those measures wrongly, and the pressures pushing fees higher will be even more considerable. On what basis will universities be allowed to set the so-called exceptional fees of £9,000? We have been told by the Deputy Prime Minister that these plans are a great leap forward because of the national scholarship fund, the more equal treatment for part-time students and the increase in the threshold for starting repayment being lifted from £15,000 to £21,000. Yet we do not know what is being cut to fund the national scholarship fund. Aimhigher has gone already, and other "widening participation" money is set to go too, perhaps. The fund is not looking quite so generous now. While equal treatment for part-time students might be a good thing, many vice-chancellors are now predicting that fees for part-time courses are set to increase dramatically, so I hardly think that part-time students will be jumping for joy either.

Is not the truth, as the Higher Education Policy Institute and the 2010 global higher education rankings confirm, that if these proposals go through, English students will be taking on levels of student debt not seen in any other country in the world, and England will have the most expensive public higher education system in the world? Is not the truth also, as Sir Peter Lampl of the excellent Sutton Trust, which has done so much to try to widen participation in higher education, put it, that

"we are about to embark on a university funding regime in England that is totally out of line with that of any other higher education system in the Western world"?

The Chancellor tells us that debts are a very bad thing. He says that we should not borrow too much and that we should see the national finances as being like the family budget. Then Mr Willetts comes along and says that any family with ambition who wants a university place, or any 16 or 17-year-old or mature student who wants to better themselves, will have to burden their future family finances with years of higher debts. You really do not need two brains, Mr Speaker, to see that these proposals seem set to discourage extraordinary students from families on ordinary incomes from going to university. We know the penchant of Conservative Members to join exclusive university clubs, and now we know that they want to do to universities what the Bullingdon club used to do to restaurants.

Then there are the Liberal Democrats. We knew before today that their leader, the Deputy Prime Minister, had knowingly hawked his tuition fee pledge from one constituency to another, while all the time he and the other Orange Book Liberals wanted to ditch it. We now know, as of today, that the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills is willing to abstain-in an unprecedented scenario, to put the interests of his MPs before those of students and their families and our universities. In short, he is willing to put his party's interest before the national interest.

In families and across universities up and down the country, these unanswered questions mean the difference between whether the brightest and the best will be able to go to the university of their choice to do the course that they want and is most suited to them. The Government should publish a White Paper to end this confusion. I commend our motion to the House.