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Higher Education White Paper

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the House of Commons at 4:09 pm on 28th June 2011.

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Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Party Chair, Co-operative Party 4:09 pm, 28th June 2011

I am grateful to the Minister for advance sight of his statement. Is it not true that as higher education teaching has been cut by 80%, far more universities are charging £9,000 than the Government planned, causing huge political embarrassment for the Government and creating a funding crisis with the Treasury? Is not the real substance of the White Paper a desperate drive to cut fees, no matter what the effect on quality?

Is not the truth that this is another example of the Government’s failure to think things through, their disregard for the consequences, and the wrong choices being made for the country’s future? Is it not true that the Minister has slipped out on his Department’s website today a report on the impact on exports to this country of the proposal on tuition fees and of visa changes, suggesting that the total impact is some £8 billion of revenue lost to the UK?

It is

“difficult to recall a worse example of public policy making…wishful thinking has followed the apparent failure to do any serious modelling…the whole thing is a mess, and getting messier”— not my words, but those of Sir Peter Scott, one of Britain’s leading experts on higher education and the former vice-chancellor of the Secretary of State’s local university. Is not the real truth that any expansion in university places is set to come on the cheap, with the Government cutting student places at the majority of universities—so much for student choice now—in order to fund the race to the bottom; an auction of places—who can charge the lowest?

The Prime Minister promised that universities charging the maximum would be the exception, yet is not the truth that two thirds of universities will charge the full £9,000? Is not that a devastating example of the neglect and incompetence that the Prime Minister routinely shows to the hopes and dreams of the next generation? The Secretary of State threatened to cut student places even more or university funding even further. Guaranteed places have been floated for those who want to buy their way in, and last-minute cut-price degrees. Almost 24,000 student places are already axed or are going. The Minister is in secret talks with the banks to help him out.

Forests, the national health service, prison sentences, universities today—it is “Carry on up the Khyber” in Whitehall, the Minister the latest to do the Hattie Jacques role. I am all for vigorous competition, but on for-profit higher education corporations, has he not been warned by both the Higher Education Funding Council and the Higher Education Policy Institute? Too many examples of the worst quality higher education, not for every student, but shocking drop-out rates, appalling degree completion rates, and aggressive recruitment practices that make pensions selling seem a walk in the park, are too often their norm.

The market has not protected against poor quality there. We need to be able to spot and stop students and their families being taken for a ride. Should not new providers have to prove themselves more rigorously, more regularly? How will making it easier to get university title and degree-awarding powers improve quality or the reputation and value of particular degrees, or boost the employability of those studying for such degrees? Nobody could be against the principle of an increase in places at high quality universities, but does it sit with the Secretary of State’s promises on social mobility when 50% of those getting AAB grades are from selective or independent schools? Will contextual data be truly embedded in university admissions or has he caved in to the Tory right?

How will the Secretary of State prevent, as the Institute of Physics has warned, students being deterred from studying the sciences or maths? Student charters and better information will be little compensation for trebling fees. I accept that there have to be safeguards, but will students be able to move courses with their loan intact if they realise that their course is not suitable or if their complaints are not taken seriously? Who will be the consumer champion—the representative of students and their families—at the new providers? Why should not students paying vastly increased fees know if their university has financial problems that might affect the quality of their teaching?

I welcome the end to at least one area of uncertainty today—the NHS bursary increasing for 2012-13—but what about future years? Why no certainty on that now? On research quality, why no mention that the rest of the world is increasing its science spending, yet here in the UK British researchers are having to cope with cuts of 40% or more in the funding to invest in world-class research facilities at our universities? Because of the bungled visa changes, universities face even more intense challenges to recruit the brightest and best research students and their lecturers to work with our brightest and best. No mention of cuts in funding for postgraduate courses or the impact on postgraduate recruitment of graduates leaving university with £40,000 worth of debt. Will we see as a result of his complacency a new divide opening up between those who have a postgraduate qualification and those who do not?

On the day it was revealed that 80 graduates are chasing every graduate job, which is double the figure for last year, all we got on university and business collaboration is a review. Where is the financial plan to incentivise universities to do more to stimulate new jobs in the industries of the future? Regional development agency funding has gone, HEFCE funding has been reduced and Technology Strategy Board funding has been squeezed, so this is yet another example of opportunities for economic growth being spurned, and of Ministers fiddling while Rome burns.

It could have been so different. Why were university cuts not in line with other public service cuts? Tuition fees would have been far lower, with no black hole, and chaos and confusion would have been avoided. Universities would have concentrated on getting their research and skills into businesses to drive jobs and new growth and there would have been a rigorous drive to ensure that every student gained employable skills. The Government did not need to leave the next generation of engineers, police officers and nurses having to pay so much more for so much longer. The Minister did not need—