Higher Education (Student Fees)

Oral Answers to Questions — Business, Innovation and Skills – in the House of Commons at 9:30 am on 7th February 2013.

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Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office), Party Chair, Co-operative Party 9:30 am, 7th February 2013

What recent assessment he has made of the effects of his reforms to higher education and student fees; and if he will make a statement.

Photo of David Willetts David Willetts Minister of State (Universities and Science)

Our higher education reforms are increasing cash for teaching at our universities and delivering more choice for students. Higher applications this year are up by 3% and the proportion of 18-year-old applicants from the most disadvantaged backgrounds has increased to the highest level ever. Every English region has seen applications increase.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office), Party Chair, Co-operative Party

With £9,000 tuition fees, universities are seeing considerable variations in their student numbers—potentially up to 40% in some cases. What research has the Minister done into the reasons behind the 13% drop in student numbers last year?

Photo of David Willetts David Willetts Minister of State (Universities and Science)

The variation in applications between universities is what happens when there is competition and when the money goes with the student. That is a key feature of our reforms. This year we are seeing applications up. Given the hon. Gentleman’s genuine concern about this issue, I should have thought that he would welcome the fact that the application rate for disadvantaged young people from England is at its highest ever level—19.5%.

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

May I congratulate the Minister on his excellent reforms and urge him to push forward with all the efforts that he is making to attract foreign students to the UK?

Photo of David Willetts David Willetts Minister of State (Universities and Science)

My hon. Friend is right. There is no cap on the number of overseas students who come to Britain. All legitimate overseas students are warmly welcome in our country.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

Will the Minister acknowledge that both universities in my constituency, along with many others across the sector, have been negatively impacted by the ill-considered and hastily introduced student control measures last year? Will he recognise that he made a mistake by rushing into that and explain what he is going to do to mitigate the damage?

Photo of David Willetts David Willetts Minister of State (Universities and Science)

Let us be clear. The student control system that we inherited involved allocating a fixed number of student places to every university in England. We do not believe that that is the right way of ensuring competition and choice in our education. That is why we are introducing new flexibilities, so that universities that succeed in attracting more students can take on more students.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Deputy Leader, Liberal Democrats

The Government are right to be encouraged by the fact that we have seen the highest ever number of applicants this year from Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the EU and outside the EU, and the third highest ever from England, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds. Will Ministers continue to focus on those from disadvantaged backgrounds and on young men, of whom there appear to be relatively smaller numbers of applicants, compared with young women? I am sure we need both to feel encouraged to go to universities in equal measure.

Photo of David Willetts David Willetts Minister of State (Universities and Science)

My right hon. Friend is right and I pay tribute to his efforts in this area. Clearly, we must not be complacent. There is always more to do, and I hope that in all parts of the House we can agree that we must communicate the crucial message that no student has to pay up front to go to university; they pay back only if they are graduates in well paid employment.