I beg to move,
That this House
calls upon the Government to abandon its policy on replacing maintenance grants with loans for lower income students.
The Government’s proposal to scrap maintenance grant support for disadvantaged students and replace it with a loan system is not an isolated proposal. It is part of a pattern that can be seen in other areas of government. It mirrors, for example, changes that were debated eight days ago, which removed NHS bursaries for nurses and other staff, and it has been foreshadowed by changes that the Government have made in support and protection for further education over the past three or four years. The truth of the matter is that the Government have ducked and dived to avoid further debate on their direction of travel on the grants issue, and on freezing the payment threshold for five years, which is not specifically part of the regulations although it is referred to in the assessment that comes with them. That is also likely to hit disadvantaged students.
We have called this debate today to hold the Government to account over this major issue. They have refused to bring these changes to the Floor of the House themselves, and preferred instead to sneak them through in delegated legislation, which can be debated and voted on by only a handful of MPs.
My hon. Friend makes a striking point. That is only one of a series of delinquencies that I want to move on to.
The Conservatives have shied away from the light of debate, challenge and scrutiny on this issue, preferring instead to use a legislative sleight of hand to ensure that the sweeping changes were made in Committee in the hope that no one would notice. All the way through this process, they have been defensive. They have been less than candid and they have systematically resisted the path of openness. There was little detail to be had when the Chancellor first mooted this change in the summer, and not much more in the autumn statement. It was only when the National Union of Students raised the alarm about the impact of the process and threatened a judicial review over the lack of consultation and the failure to publish the interim equality assessment—which the Government have still not done—that a separate equality impact assessment was slipped out.
My hon. Friend Ms Eagle, the shadow Secretary of State of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, wrote to the Business Secretary explaining our concerns and asking for a full debate on this matter. This was reflected in early-day motion 829, which attracted a number of cross-party signatures. However, the Business Secretary’s reply largely ignored the issues. The issue of failing to bring the matter to the Floor of the Commons was raised by the shadow Leader of the House in December, and at that time the Leader of the House intimated that there should be a debate on the Floor of the House, but no such debate has taken place. A question from my hon. Friend Paul Blomfield was ducked by the Prime Minister last Wednesday. Colleagues raised the issue again in last week’s business questions, and I put a series of detailed questions to the Minister in the Delegated Legislation Committee. I and the other members of the Committee would like to see the responses to those questions in due course.
It is perhaps no surprise that The Independentled today on the way in which this Government have been using statutory instruments systematically to force through profound and controversial changes to the law without proper debate and scrutiny. Nor is it surprising that my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey told the newspaper:
“This is arbitrary rule that massively decreases the power of the Commons to effectively scrutinise the Government.”
The equality impact assessment was slipped out with a relative lack of ceremony at the end of November. As I said last week, this is the document that almost dare not speak its name, not least because the detailed evidence of the negative impact was tucked away in its central pages, to which I will refer later, and was rather belied by the bland conclusions appended to the front of the document. What is driving these panic measures from the Government—the £1.5 billion raid on grants and the threshold fees—is their belated recognition that the whole set of financial assumptions about repayment that underpinned their trebling of fees in 2012 is producing a black hole for them and for future taxpayers.
Did not a Tory Minister stand at the Dispatch Box in 2012 and assure us, on the question of tripling the fees, that increased maintenance grants and the national scholarship programme would protect students from the poorest backgrounds? Now the Government are scrapping both and trying to sneak the measures through. Is this not an absolute betrayal?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and he obviously has the power of telepathy, because I intend to refer to that later.
My hon. Friend refers to the impact statement. Does he agree that, in 2016, it is a scandal that the impact statement, which the NUS had to drag out of the Government and which confirms that the measures will disproportionately affect black and minority ethnic students, women and disabled people, does not merit a proper debate and vote in this House?
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend, who was a distinguished Schools Minister. His points are absolutely valid, and I shall deal with them in more detail in due course. These measures are not simply incidental tinkering with existing financial regulations.
Can my hon. Friend confirm that 45% of the student loan book, amounting to some £5 billion, is suspected to be delinquent in some way or other? These measures would add a further £1.6 billion to that amount. Are not the Government building up a huge unfunded liability in their national accounts?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has great experience in these matters. The Institute for Fiscal Studies and other organisations have commented on that matter.
It is wonderful to hear Labour Members talking about unfunded liabilities. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the £1.5 billion cost of this measure, which is the money that will be saved. Is it his party’s policy to reverse the measure, and if so, where would it get the money from?
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is so looking forward to the arrival of a Labour Government that he is already asking us detailed questions on this matter. I would remind him, however, that today is a day for the Government to be held to account for their failures.
I am sorry, but I must try to make some progress. I will take more interventions later.
These measures are typical of the ideology-driven but evidence-lite approach that this Government have too often employed. This is a major reversal of policy only four years after they hailed those maintenance grants for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The statistics from the House of Commons Library tell me that the measures will affect around 500,000 of England’s most disadvantaged students. This amounts to a Domesday book listing the numbers of students who will lose their grants under the new rules. Universities across England, old and new, will be affected, as well as other higher education institutions. Further education colleges will also be affected, because they make an increasingly valuable contribution—10% and rising—to higher education, and a disproportionate number of their students will be affected.
I commend my hon. Friend for bringing this debate to the House of Commons so that we can have a vote on this important issue. He has talked about the impact on universities and colleges. Perhaps he has seen the information released by UCAS in December that shows that, even today, twice as many young people from advantaged backgrounds as from disadvantaged backgrounds go to university. How does he think removing £3,500-worth of grant a year is going to assist social mobility?
The reality is that it will not. I will have more to say about social mobility later.
Several hon. Members rose—
No, I will not give way again, as I have already indicated. A large number of people wish to speak, and I need to give them a chance to do so.
Does my hon. Friend remember that, in the last Parliament, the Government abolished the education maintenance allowance for 16 to 18-year-olds going into further education? They are now abolishing the maintenance grant for poorer people going into higher education, yet they managed to find tax cuts for millionaires in the last Parliament. Does this not show that this Tory Government are really not concerned about the poor and disadvantaged people in this country, whether in relation to housing, to universal credit, to disability or to education? They just don’t care.
No, I am sorry, I will not give way. I have already said that.
The EMA is not the subject of our debate today, but that point illustrates the problems affecting further education colleges. There can be a cumulative effect for the future of such colleges because these measures can result in people no longer applying to them. That is why the Association of Colleges said in a specific response to these regulations:
“We have real concerns about the proposed change as many of the students may never earn enough to pay back the money and the policy does appear to penalise poorer students.”
Several hon. Members rose—
I have already indicated that I will not give way at the moment, but I will do so in a little while.
The expansion of higher education opportunities in further education colleges after 1997 was one of the most significant advances made under the Labour Government in this area, and it was a crucial part of beginning to address the lack of balance for higher education in the English regions outside the areas of the traditional clusters of long-established universities. It was part of a joined-up strategy to embed higher education and skills in our local economies and via the regional development agencies at that time. My local Blackpool and The Fylde College gained an excellent new higher education block in that period, where more than 2,800 students are now in higher education. We know that many further education students come from precisely the non-traditional backgrounds for participation in higher education.
The hon. Gentleman is deploying the same argument that was deployed against the introduction of tuition fees, which was carried out by the previous Labour Government and developed by the coalition, but we have actually seen an increase in the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university. His argument, therefore, just does not stack up.
Perhaps if the hon. Gentleman listens as I talk further about the way in which these things have changed, he will understand that what was introduced in 2012 and the explanations—I will not call them apologies—that his Government gave for tripling tuition fees were based on a series of quid pro quos, all of which they have now abandoned. The pattern I have talked about is also seen in the number of people doing higher education in the so-called “post-92” universities and receiving the maintenance grant. That is why million+, whose membership contains a significant number of those post-92 universities, has expressed its alarm in the briefing it prepared for today’s debate. It said that
“by virtue of nothing more than household income, some students will be saddled with debts far in excess of their fellow students.”
“the freezing of the earning repayment threshold for five years will also exacerbate this problem and will hit lower earning graduates the hardest.”
My former colleague Bill Rammell, who was a higher education Minister and is now vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, made precisely those points in an excellent piece for Politics Home today.
Erdington is one of the poorest constituencies in England, but it is rich in talent, and maintenance grants mean a great deal to students who want to get on—42% are dependent on them. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government are both breaking a promise, and dashing the hopes and dreams of a generation of strivers?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Of course, he comes from and speaks for a distinguished part of the west midlands, which is in the process of trying to gain control over areas of activity in their local economies. What the Government are doing for people in Birmingham and elsewhere is confounding their own devolution prospects.
No, I will not give way at this stage, but I might a little later.
We know now, thanks to a question I tabled to the Minister for Universities and Science to establish the extent of this issue, how many people will be directly affected by the withdrawal of the maintenance grant in further education. That statistics show that some 33,700 English applicants were awarded maintenance grants for higher education courses at further education colleges.
Within that 33,700 figure, we have a roll call of the English regions, where it is not just the individuals, but the local economies, through the growth of skills there, that have benefited from this expansion of higher education and further education.
Let me cite some of the statistics that the Student Loans Company has produced: in the north-west, Blackburn College has 1,842 students on maintenance grant; in the north-east, Newcastle College Group has 1,669; and in the south-west and Cornwall, Cornwall College has 931. The list goes on, but a crucial subset comprises the numbers in those areas where, as I just mentioned to my hon. Friend Jack Dromey, the Government are encouraging combined authorities and local enterprise partnerships to take up their devolution offers and, therefore, potentially to have control of or take a role in higher skills initiatives. Greater Manchester has 410 on maintenance grants at Stockport College and 1,060 on grants across The Manchester College network. In Merseyside, 542 in total are on grants at The City of Liverpool College and the Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts. In Leeds, 1,604 are on these grants, spread between Leeds City College, Leeds College of Music and Leeds College of Art. London has a huge further education sector, which caters to so many of the groups identified in the equalities assessment, as my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy said. At a time of pressure already, from area reviews and cuts to ESOL—English for speakers of other languages—this new proposal could be toxic. If the effect of these changes, introduced without consultation, is to blunt those skills and that empowerment, this Government will be cutting off at the knees the very strategies for English devolution, for skills and for social mobility that they claim to be promoting.
Last week, the Prime Minister said that his Government’s mission was
“to look each…child in the eye, and say, ‘Your dreams are our dreams. We’ll support you with everything we’ve got.’”
Does my hon. Friend agree that scrapping grants to half a million people, including more than 5,000 young people in Tower Hamlets in my constituency, is a cap on aspiration and that it stinks of hypocrisy?
I certainly agree with the point about the potential threat to my hon. Friend’s constituents, and it underlines what I said about London.
Several hon. Members rose—
On social mobility, will the hon. Gentleman welcome the fact that more and more people from disadvantaged backgrounds are accessing higher education? That has increased from 13.6% when the Labour Government were in power to more than 18% this year.
Of course I welcome that fact. The point I am trying to establish today, which I hope the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will accept, as I am actually trying to help them, is that these are fine words about an increase in social mobility and all the rest of it, but things will go in the opposite direction if they do not reconsider this measure.
Several hon. Members rose—
I am sorry but a great number of people wish to speak. I have taken a number of interventions already and I really must make progress.
Order. Just so that the House is aware, on present trends there will be only about an hour in total for Back-Bench speeches and 18 people are wanting to speak. I am underlining the potency of the point that the hon. Gentleman has just made from the Front Bench.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. There is a nudge factor here; it is a nudge away from progress, from that regional growth and from those opportunities for groups and individuals who traditionally have been debt averse. Asking people on higher education courses at further education colleges to take on up to £50,000-worth of debt in areas such as the north-east, where in some parts that sum could equate to the price of a small house or flat, concerns colleges such as New College Durham. Its principal, John Widdowson, has said that
“nudge can work both ways—especially for people who’ve signed up for foundation courses and are considering going for honours—the more complex you make the funding process the more it can seem a barrier.”
Those sorts of concerns were recently echoed by the Office for Fair Access. But it is the individual life chances that may be blighted or disrupted by these changes that should weigh heavily on all of us, which is why the NUS and its student bodies have been so passionate in campaigning against this change. For me, all those individual cases in FE are summed up by the email I received only yesterday from a student in Blackpool, who said that she would like to thank me
“for defending the students who will be affected by the loss of grants. I am from Blackpool and in my second year of my degree with UCLan, and a married mature student with two children.”
She said that she had been plagued by illness as a child, which is why she was having to study in her late 30s, and stated:
“The complete U-turn by the Government who said education should not just be for the privileged and should not exclude the poor has now done exactly that.”
The changes will also affect significant numbers of students in the traditional university sector, including 14,000 at Manchester Metropolitan University, 8,000-plus at the University of Manchester, nearly 11,000 at Nottingham Trent and 3,738 at King’s College London. As I have said, it is a potential list of lost opportunities.
We can only speculate on what impact the regulations will have on future cohorts of students. The National Education Opportunities Network and the University and College Union are currently undertaking research with more than 2,000 final year A-level and level 3 students to look at how costs influence the higher education choices that those students make. The interim findings from that research show that more than half the students who are deciding not to go into HE are taking that decision because of the lack of direct financial maintenance grant support that they had envisaged for the year ahead.
The equality assessment states:
“At an aggregate level there is no evidence that the 2012 reforms, which saw a significant increase in HE fees and associated student debt levels, has had a significant impact in deterring the participation of young students from low income backgrounds.”
That is now debateable, because the safety net of maintenance grants, which was introduced in 2012 with that tripling of fees, is now being removed. That is why, in her letter praying against the regulations, the shadow Secretary of State wrote:
“Labour is concerned this change won’t improve Government finances in the long term.”
That echoes the view of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which said:
“The replacement of maintenance grants by loans from 2016–17 will raise debt for the poorest students, but do little to improve government finances in the long run.”
The IFS states that, in the short term, Government borrowing will drop by around £2 billion a year, because current spending on grants counts towards current borrowing, while current spending on loans does not. In the long run, savings could well be less than that. The amount of money lent to students will rise by about £2.3 billion for each cohort, but the IFS says that only around a quarter of those additional loans are likely to be repaid. In the long run, therefore, the net effect is a reduction in Government borrowing by around £270 million per cohort, and a 3% decline in the Government’s estimated contribution to higher education. In a fair and balanced way, the IFS said:
“Students from households with pre-tax incomes of up to £25,000 (those currently eligible for a full maintenance grant) will have a little more ‘cash in pocket’…But they will also graduate with around £12,500 more debt, on average, from a three-year course. This means that students from the poorest backgrounds are now likely to leave university owing substantially more to the government than their better-off peers.”
It also states:
“The poorest 40% of students going to university in England will now graduate with debts of up to £53,000 from a three-year course, rather than up to £40,500. This will result from the replacement of maintenance grants”.
As I have already said, when the Government tripled tuition fees in 2012, they tried to sweeten the pill, by talking up the centrality of the maintenance grant to ensure that the most disadvantaged could still access higher education. They promised three things: a national scholarship programme; the maintenance grants for the disadvantaged programme; and the earnings-related threshold that would be uprated with inflation. The then Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willetts, said:
“The increase in maintenance grant for students from households with the lowest incomes, the National Scholarship Programme, and additional fair access requirements…should ensure that the reforms do not affect individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds disproportionately.”
That is what the Minister’s predecessor in the Conservative-led Government said in 2011-12, but the regulations that the Government passed in Committee last week will disadvantage the same groups of students that the Government promised to protect two years ago. David Willetts previously lauded the measures as a quid pro quo for the trebling of tuition fees, saying:
“Our proposals are progressive, because they help to encourage people from poorer backgrounds to go to university, because of the higher education maintenance grant, and because of the higher repayment threshold.”——[Hansard, 3 November 2010; Vol. 517, c. 940.]
Now all three elements of those promises have been broken by this Government. The Minister’s colleague, now Lord Willetts, must be revolving in his ermine at the way in which his promises have been so lightly regarded by the Government.
The Government and their predecessors set great store by the principle of “nudge”—actions that persuade people to change their behaviour for the better. Let me remind the Minister that it is possible to nudge people away from desirable outcomes rather than towards them. A new Department for Business Innovation and Skills study shows that more than half the applicants said that they had been put off university by the costs. That is backed up by the Sutton Trust, which said:
“Shifting grants to loans may move them off the balance sheet, but it could also put off many low and middle income students and tip the balance against their going to university. Since grants were reintroduced, there have been significant improvements”— and we welcome that, but those will be— put at risk by today’s Budget plans.”
Research from the National Union of Students, which was published last week by Populus, shows that parents are concerned that the Government’s plans to scrap the maintenance grant will discourage their children from applying to university. Two fifths of those with a combined income of £25,000 or less believe that to be the case. The range of the groups affected by the changes is daunting. The assessment concedes that black and minority ethnic students in particular will be disproportionately worse off. On older learners, it says:
“Mature students will be disproportionately impacted by the policy proposals to remove the full maintenance grant and replace with additional loan as well as the freezing of targeted grants.”
The Government have also conceded that disabled people will be disproportionately affected by the decision not to protect the real-terms value of disabled students allowances. The assessment spells out the potential for discrimination because of religious beliefs, stating that there is evidence to suggest that there are groups of Muslim students whose religion prohibits them from taking out an interest-bearing loan. Finally, the impact assessment also states that female students will be particularly affected by the freeze to childcare grants, parents’ learning allowances and employment and support allowances, given their significant over-representation in these populations.
Further to that, the scrapping of 24+ loans in further education is particularly relevant to the case before us today, because it is indicative of what has happened in previous circumstances when the Government have gone down this road. As the Minister knows, the Government released figures in October 2015 that showed clear evidence of the deterrent impact on learners that I and others warned about when these loans were introduced as replacements for grants in January 2013. The figures showed that in 2014-15 only £149 million of the £397 million allocated for the process had been taken up. It is no wonder that people in the FE community have lamented the lost opportunity of £250 million that could have helped some of our most disadvantaged learners. The very group of people who benefited from the concessions given in 2013 by the Minister’s predecessor, Mr Hayes—that those who went on access to HE courses would have the outstanding amount written off in their access course loan—face another knock back. The damning details from the Government’s own impact assessment should surely give Ministers pause for thought, given that they threaten to affect the most debt-averse groups.
Worryingly, it appears that the Government are yet to produce an up-to-date estimate of the impact that the shift from grants to loans will have on the resource accounting and budgeting charge, which calculates the cost to the Government of the higher education funding system, based on how much students are ultimately expected to repay. Having heard the evidence that we have presented so far and the comments from around the Chamber, will the Government tell us why, if they were so confident about these policies, did they not bring them to the Floor of the House? More to the point, why did they not consult independent experts and various representative organisations? Why did they not commission research from any of the reputable independent policy bodies?
Last month, along with a number of other MPs, I sat in the corridor of this place listening to hundreds of students who had come to lobby us. Their message was consistent: scrapping maintenance grants will leave people struggling to go to university. People in the Chamber today have talked about consequences and people will talk about their own experiences. I was a tutor for the Open University for 20 years and I know that many of the students whom I taught had been put off higher education at an earlier age by the costs. Such things do not alter just because we are now in the digital world of the 21st century, and the impact of the changes, particularly on mature students, cannot be divorced from the precarious position of so many of those who study part time in HE.
Statistics published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency have shown that the number of first-year part-time students in 2014-15 is down 6% on previous years. The number of part-time higher education students since the Conservatives came into office has fallen by nearly 40%. No wonder the NUS is exasperated about that, and it relates it to the trebling of student fees since 2012 for England and English students in HE in Wales and Scotland. No wonder also that the president of Universities UK and the vice-chancellor of the University of Kent, Dame Julia Goodfellow, said that the decline in part-time numbers was a serious concern. I acknowledge, as they do, that the introduction of maintenance loans to some part-time students from 2018-19 announced by the Government is welcome, but in the meantime the nudge factors are very strong against such study. No wonder the Open University has also expressed its alarm, commenting on the Minister’s higher education Green Paper that flexible learning provision is also at the heart of Government policy development. Are not those concerns precisely why we need a proper discussion and are they not reasons why we need a commitment to bring a Bill to this House? I invite the Minister to give that in his response.
There is a lack of balance, as well as a nudging towards negative outcomes, and the issue will not go away. It is not surprising that connections have been made between the specific ways the Government have tried to dodge scrutiny in this matter. No wonder the Minister appeared relatively ill at ease in Committee, but to tell the truth perhaps the blame lies elsewhere. The article in
The Independent reminds us that it was the Chancellor who tried to use a statutory instrument to smuggle through his tax credit changes, and we all know what happened to them. The Chancellor is proud of promoting himself as the Government’s master builder—all his rhetoric is shot through with the image. He preens as he boasts of the march of the makers and of how the Government, under his watch, is fixing the roof while the sun is shining, but the truth is that the Chancellor is a man with whom we always need to read the small print. He has consistently missed many of his debt and other targets, and as far as building a secure future for Britain’s learners is concerned, he is Mr Dodgy, whose actions are unlikely to get a certificate from the Federation of Master Builders. While the sun is shining, he has dislodged slates on the way down and has disguised cuts to adult skills as efficiencies, as his Newspeak officials call them.
He is pushing those students off the ladder of social mobility. It is time for him to get real in the real world, where the elasticity of demand eventually snaps and where stretching the envelope can finally break it. The direction of travel is threatening to deliver not a northern powerhouse but a northern poorhouse, undermining his regional strategy. We want no part of the narrative of failure, nor should this House, and that is why this afternoon we are calling again for Ministers to think again, to support the motion, and to annul the misguided regulation that this Government tried to hide away.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. Before I call the Minister for Universities and Science, from whom the House will want to hear and who will need to treat of these matters in proper detail, may I gently express the hope that the combined effect of the intellectual powerhouses on the two Front Benches and their enthusiasm for communication will not succeed in crowding out Back Benchers? We have also to hear from other distinguished intellects later in summing up the debate, and I hope that the product of their grey cells will be meaty but not too big.
I welcome the opportunity to explain, I hope briefly, why it would be a mistake to vote for the Opposition motions that attempt to annul the statutory instrument agreed by the Delegated Legislation Committee last Thursday. The instrument delivers the Government’s policy of offering increased financial support for living costs for new students in the 2016-17 academic year in the form of loans rather than grants. The policy is part of the Government’s plan to ensure that our world-class higher education sector remains sustainably financed and open to more students from all backgrounds. The Government are extending the benefits of higher education to more people than ever before. We have lifted the artificial cap on student numbers, allowing record numbers to secure places last year.
A higher education sector that is not properly and sustainably funded cannot deliver the life-changing education that students expect.
I will when I finish my introductory remarks.
In the context of fiscal restraint, ensuring that we have a sustainable model for our higher education system is crucial. In this respect, the measure builds on successive reforms since 2010 which have delivered a higher education system that safeguards social mobility and delivers for students and taxpayers. Indeed, the OECD has commended the reforms in aggregate for the sensible balance they strike between the interests of taxpayers and students. Its director of higher education has said that England is
“one of the very few countries that has figured out a sustainable approach to higher education financing.”
Very recently, on a trip to London, he added that England
“has made a wise choice. It works for individuals, it works for government.”
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that point. If he reads page 35 of the Conservative party manifesto, he will see a clear commitment to continuing the funding reforms that I have just described and ensuring a fair balance between the interests of taxpayers and students. There are also many other references in the Conservative manifesto to the need to achieve budget deficit savings.
Let me start by beginning to address the questions about the scrutiny of the regulations that were raised by Mr Marsden. The regulations were not sneaked in, as he suggested. In fact, the policy was first announced in principle in the 2015 summer Budget, nearly six months ago. It was in fact included in the Chancellor’s summer Budget speech, one of the most closely scrutinised events in the parliamentary calendar. The decision finally to proceed was made as part of the spending review in November 2015 and the instrument was laid before the House on
The regulations were made under powers granted to the Secretary of State by the previous Labour Government, under the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998. Rather than using some obscure and arcane procedure, as hon. Members have suggested, we are following the very parliamentary processes that the previous Labour Government created for this purpose. Labour asked for a debate on the regulations on
I have been contacted by a large number of people, including students from Walbottle Campus, Gosforth Academy and Newcastle and Northumbria Universities. They would like to know from the Minister when they will have the opportunity to feed into the public consultation on this issue.
The House debated the matter in the Delegated Legislation Committee. There was a thorough 80-page equality analysis. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills maintains an ongoing and regular dialogue with all stakeholders on matters relating to higher education.
We welcome the scrutiny, because this Government are rightly proud of our record on higher education. Since 2010 we have delivered a bold reform of higher education, putting in place a funding model that has ensured that our universities are properly funded and properly able to deliver world-class, life-changing education. At a time of significant fiscal consolidation, total income for the higher education sector has risen in real terms; it has increased from £24 billion in 2012-13 to £26 billion in 2013-14 and is forecast to rise to £31 billion by 2017-18.
Let us not forget the difficult fiscal context in which this has been achieved. Against the background of a record budget deficit, providing universities with that level of financial security could only be achieved by asking students to meet a greater part of the cost of their education, paid not upfront but out of their future earnings. That recognises the principle that if someone benefits from higher education and secures higher lifetime earnings than taxpayers who do not go to university, they should contribute to the cost of their education.
The Minister is aware that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are already less likely to go to university; those from more advantaged backgrounds are two and a half times more likely to do so. This change will make that much worse. Will the Minister please face up to the facts and do something to respond to this question? If his Government are serious about social mobility, these cuts would not be made and he should be honest about that.
This Government are committed to social mobility and we are delighted that we now have more students from disadvantaged backgrounds going into higher education than ever before, at a record level of 18.5%. Those from a disadvantaged background are now 36% more likely to go to university than when we took office in 2010. The Prime Minister has committed to doubling the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds in our universities from 2009 levels by 2020, and we are going to be doing everything in our power to ensure that happens.
It is this sustainable model of funding that has allowed more people to benefit from higher education, which in turn promotes social mobility. Removing the cap on student numbers has allowed more people to benefit from higher education than ever before. We are now in a position in which almost 50% of young people are likely to undertake some form of higher education during their lifetime. This would simply not have been possible in an unsustainably funded higher education system.
Brighton and Hove City Council has set up a fairness commission to make sure that it delivers fairness and social mobility in its public policy making. With 3,700 students out of 10,000 at Sussex University and 6,700 out of 16,000 at Brighton University on maintenance grants, has not their job just got an awful lot more difficult because of the Government’s policy?
The hon. Gentleman can tell his constituents that university and going into higher education remain transformational experiences, especially for people from disadvantaged backgrounds. They are likely on average to go on to earn £100,000 more over their lifetimes as a result. Owing to the instrument that we are debating today, they will have access to more financial support while they are at university than ever before.
Let us acknowledge the success of these reforms. As a consequence, we today have a higher education system with record numbers going to university, record numbers of disadvantaged students, the highest ever rates of black and minority ethnic participation, and more women in higher education than ever before. The principles underpinning these reforms flow from a clear manifesto commitment to
“control spending, eliminate the deficit, and start to run a surplus.”
I have already referred to the other commitments in the manifesto, on page 35, relating specifically to higher education funding.
Those Opposition Members who oppose our policy and want to reintroduce more direct taxpayer support must think about whether they would also have to reintroduce the student number controls we abolished and prevent thousands of young people from attending university.
The point I want to make is that applications to the most selective universities from students from the lowest income households has fallen since 2010, from 16.2% in 2010 to 15.3% in 2014. What impact, in terms of the number dropping further, will this policy have?
We want people from disadvantaged backgrounds to go to the very best universities in this country in as high a proportion as possible. We want to see that increase, which is why we asked in our guidance letters to the director of the Office for Fair Access that he pay particular attention to institutions that are not pulling their weight in getting people in from disadvantaged backgrounds. We will continue that in our next letter to the director of the OFA.
On paying for university, does the Minister agree that it is difficult for me to explain to residents in my constituency on low or moderately low incomes who have not had the benefit of a university education that the alternative is for them to pay more in their taxes for people who will have the opportunity to earn considerably more in their lifetimes?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, and that is precisely the point: it is unfair on people who do not go to university to pay for the educations of those who in their lifetimes will go on to earn considerably more. On average, men who go to university will earn £170,000 more in their working lifetimes than someone with two A-levels who does not go to university, and women who go to university will earn £250,000 more over their working lifetimes. It is entirely fair that we ensure that they contribute towards the cost of their higher education.
Let me turn now to specific changes to student finance for the coming academic year. We should first note that the instrument delivers more money for students from some of the most disadvantaged backgrounds. Evidence suggests students are primarily concerned about the level of maintenance support they receive while studying. They understand that student loans are not like commercial debt, in that they are progressive and only repaid in line with future incomes.
As a result of these regulations, an eligible student whose family income is £25,000 or less and who is living away from home and studying outside London will qualify for up to 10.3% more living-costs support in 2016-17 than they would under current arrangements, which is an additional £766 of support. Those who vote for the motion to annul this instrument will be denying poorer students this extra cash.
Studies show that graduates will, on average, earn £100,000 more than non-graduates over their lifetime. BIS research suggests that this premium could be as high as £250,000 for female graduates compared with those who hold two A-levels or fewer. This is our progressive A-level system and our progressive repayment system in action, and those who do not benefit from increased earnings as a result of undertaking higher education will not pay any more as a result of this policy.
The system we have put in place ensures that higher education is open to everyone with the potential to benefit from it, irrespective of background. Opposition scaremongering only risks deterring students from attending university. While the data available so far on this application cycle are provisional, early data from UCAS indicate applications in 2016-17 are broadly in line with last year. The BIS-funded student finance tour sends out recent graduates to schools to bust the myths about student finance. Let us not undo the good work they do in undertaking this tour; they are passionate advocates of the benefits of university, and speculating and scaremongering about the effects of this instrument will undermine their good work.
We are making a record amount of financial support available to those students—more than has been provided by any previous Government. That will enable them to travel further away from home than they have in the past.
Let me turn to the significant savings achieved by these changes. The switch from maintenance grants to loans will, in a steady state, save around £2.5 billion per year from the fiscal deficit—not the £1.5 billion mentioned. We acknowledge that a proportion of the loans will not be repaid. This is a conscious decision to invest in the skills base of our country, and protect those who go on to lower-paying graduate jobs. We forecast that the long-term annual economic savings will be around £800 million per year.
The Minister said earlier that this is a deficit-reducing policy and we take that, and of course I entirely agree with all the points that have been made on the grounds of social mobility and denial of educational opportunity that this policy implies, but is not the point the Minister really has to answer that 45% of his loan books at the moment have been declared delinquent for one reason or another? How much of this so-called saving does he think he is going to get back? Is he not really just pretending he is making this saving, while in fact building up unfunded liabilities?
There is an immediate grant saving of £2.5 billion, which comes directly off the budget deficit. As I just mentioned, there is of course the prospect down the line of some loans not being repaid, as a result of a conscious decision by the Government to invest in the skills base of the country and to allow people to pursue incomes that do not enable them to pay off the full value of the loan. The economic value of the savings, as I just said, is £800 million a year in a steady state.
I challenge the Opposition to explain how they would fund their alternatives. I note that the Labour party has in the past year put forward competing higher education funding policies, although they share one significant feature: their huge cost to the taxpayer. Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn said in July that fees should be removed completely, with grants retained in full. The policy was costed by Labour itself at £10 billion. Such policies move us backward. They are unsustainable and, at a conservative estimate, would add more than £40 billion to the deficit over a five-year Parliament. We should be clear about what the results would be: more reckless borrowing, more taxes on hard-working people, and the reintroduction, inevitably, of student number controls. We have lifted student number controls and we will not allow the Labour party to reimpose a cap on young people’s aspirations.
I will deal with the risks associated with this policy as set out in the equality analysis, but let me first quickly respond to the false accusation that we refused to publish the assessment until prompted to do so by the National Union of Students. That is simply not true. Every year, when the Education (Student Support) Regulations 2011 are amended, an equality analysis covering the changes is published on gov.uk. This is standard practice. On
“The Government expects to lay amendments to the Education (Student Support) Regulations 2011 later this year and publish an Equality Analysis when the Regulations are laid. The Equality Analysis will include an assessment of potential impacts of the changes.”
I will deal now with some of the issues identified in the equality analysis and how they will be mitigated. Let it be remembered that similar issues were identified as a result of the 2012 reforms, but did not crystallise. Indeed, we now have a world-class higher education system, with record numbers of disadvantaged students in higher education, the highest rates of BME participation in higher education and more women in higher education than ever before. Our impact assessment explains that the risks will be mitigated by at least three factors, including the 10.3% increase in the maximum loan for living costs, the repayment protection for low-earning students and the high average returns on higher education.
More funding is also being provided through access agreements: in 2016-17, £745 million is expected to be spent by universities through access agreements, up from £404 million in 2009-10. That is money that makes a real difference to disadvantaged students, and we will of course monitor the progress of the policy through the data available from the Higher Education Statistics Authority and the Student Loans Company.
At the University of York, 40% of students get a maintenance grant. What assessment has been made of the impact on universities of not attracting students because they simply cannot afford to attend?
As I have already said, we are making a record amount of financial support available to students, and students from the poorest backgrounds will benefit from a 10.3% increase in financial support. They will have more cash in their pockets than ever before.
I hope that I have been able to clarify some of the misconceptions about our policy, the steps we are taking to increase living costs support and the process surrounding it. I will finish by directing Labour Members’ attention to the interview with Ed Balls in Times Higher Education this week, which should be of interest to them. He said that the
“blot on Labour’s copybook” was that
“we clearly didn’t find a sustainable way forward for the financing of higher education”.
He went on to say:
“If they”— the electorate—
“think you’ve got the answers for the future, they’ll support you”.
We have a plan for the future. In a time of fiscal restraint, we are taking action to ensure that university finances are sustainable, so that more people than ever before can benefit from higher education.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. Before I call the Scottish National party Front-Bench spokesperson, I remind Members that there are 18 people who want to catch my eye and the winding-up speeches will start in just over an hour, so we will have a time limit of three or four minutes by the time we reach the Back-Bench speeches. If everyone is as concise as possible, we will hopefully be able to get everyone in.
Education has been a priority in Scotland for more than 300 years. The established Church in Scotland decided in the mid-16th century to set up a school in every parish to enable children to read the Bible and access its teachings. By the early 18th century, Scottish children led the world in literacy and fuelled the Scottish enlightenment.
That is important because it highlights the differences in how education is viewed across these isles. The focus in Scotland remains the student; there is not only a commitment to the young person’s education but an acknowledgement that that same young person will develop skills through their university career that make them an asset to the country.
No, because I have been urged to be brief.
In contrast, we see from this Tory Government an ideological attack on the most disadvantaged students. While still at school, talented pupils in England have had their education maintenance allowance scrapped, forcing some youngsters to leave before they have reached their potential. In England and Wales, fees of £9,000 a year are being imposed on students, and now grants for the poorest are to be scrapped, with the Chancellor describing them as “unaffordable”. In using such language, does the Chancellor consider those young people to be an asset?
In my previous profession as a secondary school teacher, I often came across extremely able pupils from difficult backgrounds. It was important early in their school career to plant a seed of possible career aspirations, because even with academic success getting them to university was not a certainty. A lot of work had to be done both with the young people and with their parents to encourage that progression.
The hon. Lady speaks with eloquence and knowledge from her great experience in secondary education and I very much welcome her contribution, but I challenge her description of the differences between Scottish and English education. In England, we have seen a greater ability of children from all backgrounds to achieve access to tertiary education. In Scotland, that is increasingly not the case. Does she not agree that one of the Scottish National party’s achievements of the past five years has been a fall, not a rise, in social mobility in tertiary education?
Once again, we hear that myth here in this House. There is work to be done on the numbers of young people going directly from school to university; none of us would deny that. However, in Scotland young people have many more pathways to access university. If we look at children coming through further education colleges, we see that the number of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds is significantly higher in Scotland than in the rest of the UK.
May I return to those young people and their parents? Eventually the chat turns to logistics and how they will be able to afford higher education. We have to go into the detail. Parents are usually full of pride—often the child is the first in the family even to think about going to university. Explaining that in Scotland tuition is free makes a huge difference, but the parents still have to weigh things up. They have been expecting a new breadwinner, contributing to the household. They have been expecting their daughter or son’s Saturday job to become their full-time career. Instead, the financial burden on the family stretches on.
My constituent Nathan Haley is an English student studying in Wales. He already faces debts of £36,000 in tuition fees and expects that to rise to £65,000 if the proposal goes through. Does the hon. Lady think that will encourage him to pursue a career path into teaching?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. The barrier becomes insurmountable for such young people. I was one of five who all managed to go to university and got grants throughout that time. For my family it would have been impossible for us to access a university education.
Being able to say to worried parents, “Yes, there is some support available. Yes, you will be able to apply for financial help” makes a massive difference to the decisions the family will make. When there is less family support, the financial support offered by a grant becomes a lifeline. Students can of course apply for loans to support them through their course, and many do, but we have to understand that loans are not viewed the same by children from different backgrounds. For families living under the constant threat of debt, for whom life is a continual battle to survive between meagre wage packets, the decision to take out a loan, incurring further debt, is extremely difficult, and often it is one that they just cannot take.
I could not agree more with the hon. Lady on that point. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that the debt of the poorest 40% of students will increase by £12,500 to £53,500. I do not know where Government Members are coming from, but from my point of view, as someone who came from a working-class background, that would have put me off going to university and it will put off many thousands of other students. The policy is not about social mobility. There is no social justice in it. It is about social cleansing and keeping such students out of university, and it is wrong.
I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman.
There has been some success in widening access, which must be applauded, but there is a danger that the excellent work that has been done will be brutally undone if these grants are scrapped. Last week in a different context I heard a Member on the Government Benches refer to grants as “free money”. Let me be clear: grants are not free money. Grants are paid back.
The grant that I received when I was a student was paid back by more than 20 years as a physics teacher. The bursaries provided to student nurses are paid back when they provide vital care in our NHS. The grants paid to students across these isles will be paid back when they take their place as educated contributors to our workforce and to our nations.
In Scotland education has been a key national priority for over 300 years and the Scottish Government’s commitment to our young people is clear. The UK Government have to ask themselves whether they value education and the benefits to society that it brings. Do they value the skills gained by our young people, or is this simply another attack on the most vulnerable?
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I am putting a time limit of four minutes on Back-Bench contributions. If we keep to four minutes, we might get through everybody who wishes to speak.
The problem with today’s debate is simple: no alternative is offered to the measure that has been laid before the House. For all the huffing and puffing from the Opposition, their idea of social mobility is, “We’ll just give lots of money and let lots of people go. We’ll worry about paying it back later, even though the economy will crash like it did before.” Social mobility went down 13% over 13 years of Labour government.
The game was given away last week at Prime Minister’s questions when the Leader of the Opposition made it clear that he thought it was a bad policy for this Government to try to improve social housing and get rid of some of the sink estates. The policy of the Labour party now seems to be, “Where you’re born is where you should stay because we will look after you by printing money.” It is nonsense.
I worked in the higher education sector for many years. I once asked what would happen if we did not increase tuition fees. The answer was that we would limit the numbers of people who could go to university. That is abysmal. Clive Lewis says he was from a working-class background. Guess what? So were lots of Members on the Government Benches. The Opposition are trying to bring class warfare into the argument, which is nonsense.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not just about the number of students? If we had not increased the funding, the quality of the degree that each student receives would have suffered.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. That is why such efforts have been made to address the A-level and exam system. As someone who was outward-facing in my career at the University of Leeds, I was shocked to go to countries in Europe such as Germany and be told of worries about the standard of UK degrees because of the A-levels that were done to get on those courses. As a prime example, we had to lay on two extra modules of basic maths in year 1 of our engineering degree because we had students who could not cope with the mathematics used in engineering, although they had good grades at A-level.
That is part of a bigger picture, and the point of today’s debate—opportunity for everybody to go to university. It is all very well to say that grants should not be cut without proposing an alternative way of raising the money, but the system would become unaffordable as a consequence, limiting the numbers of people going to university. I went to a comprehensive school. My parents were teachers. I became a professional engineer and then a Conservative MP. My sister qualified two months ago as a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. No money was spent sending us to private school. We went out and got our own part-time jobs to fund our way to university. I took on a private job at WH Smith when I was still at school.
My hon. Friend is telling the House in clear terms an explicit Conservative story of hard work, opportunity and meritocracy, in sharp contradistinction to the narrative from the Opposition, who were too busy thinking about their reshuffle to pray against the order and are far too busy plotting and planning to keep people in their places, rather than busting the glass ceilings.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. This is what today’s Opposition debate is about. It is not about how we best move this country forward. That is why, under 13 years of Labour government, social mobility decreased. The statistics and the facts cannot be argued with. The fact that there has been a 36% increase in those from the poorest backgrounds going to university, the fact that we raised the income at which a student loan had to be paid back to £21,000, the fact that we reduced the amount to be paid back each day, the fact that people do not start paying interest on it until they leave university, the fact that it is time limited so that it is written off after a specified time—all these are key aspects of making sure that we get people to university and reap the best of their potential.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the way to encourage more social mobility and get more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into university is, first, to improve their chances in education, and then to show them what they can achieve and raise their expectations and their confidence, not to frighten them with fears of debt for the future?
My hon. Friend is right. We have heard time and again from Labour, “You cannot afford to go to university. You are going to have huge debts. You are from a poor background—don’t go because you’ll be worried about debt. Don’t increase your life chances.” It is a disgrace of modern politics that the Opposition peddle such rubbish.
We have a generation who believe they can go on to “The X Factor”, win it and become rich. Why did we not see that in relation to the possibilities in academic education and professional careers? It was because we had a Labour Government who wanted to keep people where they were, and who said, “You may be lucky enough to pull yourself up out of that situation, but, if not, don’t worry—we’ll keep borrowing money. We’ll still rack up huge debts that hard-working people will have to pay for so that you can stay where you are.” That is not what we on the Government Benches believe.
We believe in an “X Factor” generation of people who go out, pull themselves up, get the education they are capable of getting, and become the people who drive this country. The idea we have heard in this debate—“Here is the working class on the Labour Benches and there is the upper class on the Conservative Benches”—is so outdated and misguided that it is laughable.
That has been the problem with the Opposition since the start of this Parliament: they have been laughable. It is laughable that they bring forward a motion saying, “We don’t agree with the legislative process that we laid down back in 1998.” We say, “You didn’t do anything about this when the time was right”—when it was laid before the House.
This is Labour Members trying to start the old class wars once again, because that is all they have to fall back on now. They have no coherent economic policy and no coherent plan for higher education. They have heard the words of the former shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, yet they give no response.
Conservative Members specifically questioned the shadow Minister about Labour’s alternative. The response was, “It’s an Opposition day debate and we don’t have to answer that.” It is not a debate: it is a bunch of people stamping on the floor and not suggesting anything sensible. A debate is an exchange of policies whereby we come up with something that might take us in a better direction. Simply standing there and saying, “We don’t like it,” is pathetic. It is the politics of the sixth form, but frankly that is what we have come to expect from this ridiculous Opposition.
I begin by thanking my hon. Friends the Members for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) and for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) for the fact that this debate is taking place. The Government would have been more than happy for these sweeping changes to higher education to pass through Parliament unnoticed, hidden away in delegated legislation—worst of all, a negative SI—with no public scrutiny. I am therefore pleased that at least we are able to call the Minister to account. However, it is extremely disappointing that he showed no contrition whatever for introducing policies that are likely to limit the aspirations of many young people in this country, or at the very least make it more difficult for them to achieve them.
I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman because we are very short of time.
We know that these changes will affect many students. The House of Commons Library states that in 2014-15, 395,000 students received a full grant, with 135,000 getting a partial grant. That amounts to over half a million students. Currently, students who go into higher education from families with an annual income of £25,000 or less are eligible for the full grant of £3,387, and students from households with an annual income of between £25,000 and £42,620 are eligible for a partial grant. However, in the summer Budget of July, plans were announced to remove the student maintenance grant, arguing that the grants had become “unaffordable”.
This, in itself, is an assertion that needs to be deconstructed. Politics is about priorities, and this Government have chosen not to prioritise the needs of students from low-income families and, astoundingly, to make them a target for cuts.
The Government have talked endlessly about the importance of hard work and rewarding those who want to achieve, yet now they are undoubtedly making it more difficult for a number of our young people to have the opportunity to access higher education. The move to £9,000 fees in 2012 has meant that students and graduates now contribute 75% towards the overall costs of their higher education. The replacement of grants with loans will further increase the contribution of individuals compared with that of Government. Yet no conversation has taken place with students, their parents or across the country as to what the balance should be.
These changes will lead to a substantial increase in debt for poor students. Assuming that students take out the maximum loans to which they are entitled, the IFS estimates that average debt from a three-year course will rise from about £40,500 under the old system to £53,000 under the new system. This is not just a fear of debt—it is an actual increase in debt. We also know from the impact statement that these changes will particularly affect women, older students and students from ethnic minorities—reason enough to stop these policies in their tracks.
I stand here as someone who is passionate about supporting students from all backgrounds who can to get to university in accessing higher education. These changes are likely to make that more difficult for them. As a country, we need to ensure that our young people have the skills to enable them to compete in a global labour market, and I am concerned that these changes will prevent them from doing so.
I am going to follow in the footsteps of the Leader of the Opposition and his new style of reading out emails from constituents. I am well aware that students are concerned about this measure. I have had an email from Jack Lay, who lives in Glemsford in my constituency and is vice-president of the Kent student union. He is worried about
“making sure young people from South Suffolk are able to access higher education” and fears that
“if grants are removed young people from poorer backgrounds will accrue more debt from no fault of their own.”
My answer to Jack and to all hon. Members concerned about this is that it will not hinder access to higher education for those from poorer backgrounds, and for five key reasons. First, we are increasing the cash that they will have in their hand to sustain university life and deal with the day-to-day costs they will face. Secondly, we have increased the level at which they will repay their student debt from £15,000 under the previous Government to £21,000—if they do not earn that, they do not repay. Thirdly, the statistics show that this is not having the impact that Opposition Members are warning about.
As we have heard, there has been a 35% increase in the access rate of people from disadvantaged backgrounds to university. The figure has risen from 13.6% in 2009-10 to 18.5% last year—an incredible increase. If the Opposition’s alarmism were based on fact, that would not be happening.
The fourth key reason is that, under this policy, the beneficiary pays. That is a key principle.
Is this debate not taking place basically because it sticks in the gullet of Labour Members that we have increased social mobility? Does not that echo the words of the Prime Minister, who said, “If you want a lecture on poverty, talk to the Labour party; if you want action on poverty, speak to the Conservative party”?
That is absolutely right.
The principle that the beneficiary pays is about not getting the poorer working-class people who have chosen not to go to university to pay for the education of others who will go on to earn significantly more than them. That is a fair principle, and that is why this is about fairness.
The key reason why I support the measure is that it is about the quality of the education. What really matters to the student from a disadvantaged background is that they achieve an excellent degree that enables them to earn a good salary and get on in life. That is the single most important thing. If universities are well funded, students will have more chance of a good-quality degree. I also believe profoundly that when people pay for something—when they contribute—they take it more seriously and therefore get more out of it. [Interruption.] SNP Members are laughing. I am delighted to see so many of them, because only two or three of them were here yesterday when we were discussing the crisis about North sea oil. I was quite surprised about that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell talked about his experience. Before I came to this House, I ran a small business as a mortgage broker. For many years, we were very fortunate to have an exclusive arrangement with Britannia building society for a range of graduate mortgages called Graduate Network. Having seen thousands upon thousands of applications from graduates—many of whom, I am pleased to say, went on to buy a home—I never failed to be astonished that the more debt they had, the higher their earnings were. That was often because they had undertaken professional studies. Those who had had professional studies loans from the banks and gone on, for example, to do law and study at the Bar had the highest earnings.
Of course we do not want people to have ridiculously high debts. That is why, as my hon. Friend said, the debts would be cancelled after 30 years if not repaid. However, we have to get our heads around the key point that what really matters is the quality of the education that our students have.
Does my hon. Friend agree that extending the system of finance so that more part-time and postgraduate students can receive funding is helping social mobility and providing greater opportunities for people who would otherwise not be able to have access to higher or postgraduate education?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The Minister is introducing for the first time masters loans, and that is incredibly important. In my experience, those who had borrowed eye-watering sums to do professional studies and courses that led to the biggest salaries, such as a masters of business administration, often had very high earnings indeed. That is a reality of life. It is about the quality of degree someone gets.
I am pleased to see that the time remaining to me has frozen at three minutes and 13 seconds, but I will wrap up because lots of hon. Members want to get in. On the broader economic issue, the number of graduate jobs has increased by 7.5%. The most important contribution the Government can make to higher education is to have a strong economy offering lots of opportunities for our graduates to ensure that they can earn salaries and therefore repay the cost of the education that they have benefited from.
The Minister prays in aid and relies on the increase in university participation and the record number of students going to university; I did his job once and I remember standing at the Dispatch Box and saying the very same thing. However, today’s debate is not about widening participation or student numbers. It is about the cohort of students whose parents are from poor or working-class backgrounds, including dinner ladies, people who run minicabs, security guards, receptionists, people on zero-hour contracts and others who are unemployed. This debate is about their children, who aspire to go to university, and the state of our nation in relation to that cohort. That is why it is outrageous that, as a former Minister with responsibility for universities, I am allowed just four minutes to make a contribution to this debate.
When we made changes to maintenance grants back in 2009, we increased the amount we gave to students whose parents earned less than £25,000, and we increased partial grants for students whose parents were on incomes of between just over £18,500 and £57,000. It is that settlement, on the back of increased tuition fees, that we are debating today. Frankly, it is an outrage that this scrutiny has had to be dragged out of the Minister because of the work of the National Union of Students and Labour Front Benchers. It should have been a point of debate.
The issue is not about widening participation, but about fair access. There has been a 50% increase in the number of students choosing to stay at home rather than go to universities to which they would love to go. What does that mean? It is likely that the university attended by students who stay at home in a deprived constituency is a modern university, even though those students may have got the three As they needed to do medicine at a more teaching and research-intensive university. That is what this debate is about and that is how it will affect students. The Minister’s own impact assessment says that there will be a disproportionate effect on students from a black and minority ethnic background. Does he think that matters?
The Minister cannot in one breath rightly make statements about unconscious bias and the need for name-blind admissions, but then change the context for those students from poorer backgrounds in a way that disproportionately affects them. The situation is the same for disabled students, and there will also be a great impact on mature students. That is why this debate was required and why I am surprised that the Government are making the changes in this way.
A few years ago there was consensus in the House that the state, the universities and the student would make a contribution to their education, but this settlement withdraws the state even further from where it was after the 2010 Parliament and lands the debt entirely on the student. The Minister says there is no alternative, but the alternative was to go to the universities themselves, whose funding per student has gone up from £22,000 to £28,000. There were alternatives available to the Government, who have made this decision despite the fact that the Minister’s own figures show that 45% of students will not be able to repay their loans.
This does not hang together. It will have a disproportionate effect on poorer students. I have to say that, despite the fact that the Minister is not a bad guy, this is a mistake he will regret.
I speak as a member of the Delegated Legislation Committee that discussed this issue last week. I draw Members’ attention to the remarks I made at the time and I welcome the fact that this debate is being held in this Chamber.
I want to refer to my own situation. I feel strongly that it is right for Conservative Members to dispel the myth coming from the Opposition that students from a background similar to mine will not be able to go to university as a result of the changes. I say that as someone who took out loans to get through my professional training.
To further illustrate my argument, I went to a secondary modern school and failed my 12-plus. I was advised by my teachers not to waste my time doing A-levels, but I am glad that I ignored that advice. I went to a sixth-form college and was then fortunate enough to study at university. Although my parents’ background was by no means one where money was readily available to us, I just missed out on a maintenance grant, so I understood straightaway how important it was to work during my time at university in order to fund myself and, therefore, to study hard. As a result, I worked through Christmas, Easter and the summer, and during term time at Durham.
When studying for the Bar in London, I had to take out loans and work outside my course to cover not just my maintenance but my fees. I therefore took out tens of thousands of pounds in debt, with no earnings threshold for repayment. That was incredibly daunting, but it made me determined to succeed in order to be able to pay those loans back.
Working around my studies was hard, but it gave me invaluable experience of the world of work. Most students do that as a matter of course now, so it is incredible to be told that working outside a degree makes it impossible to do a degree. That certainly was not the case for me.
Twenty years on, I regard the loans I took out to have been the best investment I have ever made in myself. I visit schools in my constituency and tell students to chase their dreams and not be put off going to university because they may not be able to afford it. It is the most incredible investment an individual can make for themselves, including in the form of a loan, which can, of course, be paid back.
Although Labour Members’ comments are well meaning, I find it patronising in the extreme to be told that the loans system will put off students in a similar situation to mine and stop young people chasing their dreams, and that it is not possible to work and study at the same time. Those who have aspiration and self-belief will make it a target to repay loans, and then they will use their degree to enjoy the successful careers afforded to them by university.
In an ideal situation, this country could afford to fund university students for their maintenance, but successive Governments have moved towards a model whereby we allow everyone who wants to go to university to go to university. Record numbers of students are studying at university, including record numbers from disadvantaged backgrounds. Students from backgrounds similar to mine are now going to university.
I will not give way, because of the time. Most students understand that we are moving towards a loans system. They are comfortable with that concept and do not want bleeding hearts. What they want is a job at the end of their university degree. By balancing the books, we are making it more likely that they will have a job, security and success, and that they will be able to pay their loans back and to enjoy the fruits of their labour.
It is important that this House sends a message that university is available to all, no matter their background, and that is something that has carried me through so far.
I have the privilege to represent more students than any other Member of the House. I am pleased to have the chance to raise their concerns, and more importantly, the concerns of those who hope to take their place in the future but will, I fear, be deterred from doing so by the Government’s proposals. Such a decision is one of huge significance for 500,000 students.
This is a major reversal of Government policy, and the maintenance grant has been taken without any mandate. The Minister for Universities and Science tried to bluster his way out of that by referring to page 35 of the Conservative manifesto. I challenge his colleague, the Minister for Skills, to read out the precise section of the manifesto that gives the Government the mandate to remove maintenance grants from the poorest students. I will happily give way now if the Minister for Universities and Science wishes to read it out.
I urge Conservative Members to think carefully about the policy. [Interruption.] Their party—it is a shame none of them is listening—has consistently supported maintenance grants. In November 2009, the then Conservative shadow Minister told the House that it
“is students from the poorest backgrounds who are most desperate when they cannot get their maintenance grant”.—[Hansard, 3 November 2009; Vol. 498, c. 737.]
When we debated the Government’s changes to student funding in November 2010, a Conservative Minister said:
“Our proposals…help to encourage people from poorer backgrounds…because of the higher education maintenance grant… That crucial commitment…is one of the reasons we commend these proposals to the House.”—[Hansard, 3 November 2010; Vol. 517, c. 940.]
Reflecting on their approach, in September 2012 a Conservative Minister said:
“The maintenance grant and support for bursaries are going up. That is why we…have record rates of application to university”.—[Hansard, 11 September 2012; Vol. 550, c. 216.]
In opposition and in government, Conservative shadow Ministers and Ministers have rightly made the case for maintenance grants year after year.
That was, however, suddenly thrown into reverse by the Chancellor in the July Budget, without any proper consideration of its impact. Such a consideration is important because we are talking about the poorest students. We still have not seen the original assessment behind the July decision, but even the massaged assessment that the Government were prepared to publish in November, four months after the decision was made, is extremely worrying.
Conservative Members should pay heed to it, because it is the Government’s own assessment. On participation by low-income households, it warns of the evidence from past reforms on which the Government are relying that
“there are limits to its direct applicability”.
On gender, it expects a “decrease in female participation”. On age, it says that there is a
“risk for the participation of older students”.
On ethnicity, it says that there is a
“risk to the participation of students from ethnic minority backgrounds”.
On religion, it talks about
“a decline in the participation of some Muslim students”.
That is the real impact on real people.
That impact has been confirmed by those affected. A survey of students in receipt of maintenance grants found that 35% said that, because of their circumstances, they would not have gone to university without a grant. A new survey by Populus says that 40% of parents from low-income households believe their children will be discouraged from going to university without a grant. Evidence from Institute of Education shows that for every £l,000 increase in the grant, there is a 4% increase in participation from lower-income families. No doubt the reverse is true, so with the level of cuts being made, there will be a significant decrease on the basis of that assessment.
The irony is that the Government have set ambitious objectives for widening participation. The problem is that this policy will prevent that. I urge Conservative Members to vote with us to annul it.
Several hon. Members rose—
There can be absolutely no doubt about the Government’s commitment to building a highly educated, highly skilled society. That is part of our challenge—the challenge of the 21st century—to improve productivity. It was set out in the report, “Fixing the foundations”, by my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Business Secretary, and it is essential to our competitiveness in the world.
I remember the discussions 20 years ago, when I was an undergraduate, about how, with the introduction of tuition fees, admissions from all sections of society would tumble. That did not happen, and the change we are discussing will not happen either, as is borne out by the figures. Record numbers of students were admitted to university last year, and record numbers of disadvantaged students secured places last year: up from 13.6% in 2010 to a record high of 18.5% in 2015. The arguments made by Labour Members are simply not borne out by the statistics.
My hon. Friend Rebecca Harris set this out, but I repeat that the system needs changing. The needs of people from my constituency who leave the excellent Runshaw College—I invite the Minister to visit it—with A-levels and who start to pay tax straightaway need to be balanced with the needs of those who go to university. We must face the fact that university graduates benefit from such an investment—to the tune of £170,000 for men over a lifetime and of £250,000 for women over a lifetime.
We should consider very carefully the fact that we need more and more people to have a tertiary education. We must absolutely face the fact that as many people leave university in China with doctorates as leave university in the UK with degrees. It is therefore absolutely essential to increase the number of people going to university. We should bear in mind the words of the Robbins report, which stated that university education
“should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment”.
If the next motion is passed, I fear that there will be a cap on university numbers, which is not what we want. By limiting student numbers, it would be a cap on aspiration, and it would be bad for social mobility and bad for our economy. I ask Labour Members what they are offering—are they offering cuts or taxes elsewhere, or are they offering caps? I listened very carefully to them, but once again, answers came there none.
This is a very timely debate. I am pleased that the Opposition will divide the House on an important issue.
I was struck by two remarkable statements by Conservative Members. The first was made by the Minister, who said that the policy was an important deficit-reduction exercise or measure. The other was made by Huw Merriman, who said that all the students he knows are very comfortable with the present level of borrowing with which they will leave university. I do not know where he meets such students, but I have not met anybody who feels anything other than that they are, at the moment, at the utter limit of what is bearable.
The Government want to promote a shareholding democracy, to increase social mobility and all the other things they praise, but they do not realise that no one—ordinary people graduating in the normal course of events from the bulk of our universities—will ever be able to afford a mortgage in the foreseeable future when carrying £53,000 of debt. The Minister has done nothing to contradict the figures produced by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which has the unhappy knack of being right about such things.
We would like to hear the Government’s argument, because it seems to me to be a very strange sort of accounting. A student loan book of £5 billion is currently sitting on the balance sheet. We know that 45% of it should be written off, although it will not of course be written off. We know that loans are defective for one reason or another—the interest is not paid, or there is no likelihood of the interest being repaid, let alone the capital—but no action is taken to write them off. Similarly, the loan book will now be increased by £2 billion a year. I think the Minister said £2.5 billion, but the figure I have is nearer £2 billion. We will increase the loan book by that amount and we will effectively write off 45%, because we know that that will not be repaid, but this is somehow still a great deficit-reduction exercise. It is nothing more than a great exercise in voodoo accounting, probably promoted by the Treasury for some reason or other. The Department just seems to accept it, and the Minister for Universities and Science accepts it when he knows full well that there is no real case for it.
I endorse everything that has been said by my hon. Friends. This measure is bad for social mobility, bad for access and bad for fairness. It will leave students with an enormous burden of debt—£53,000. How can anybody think that that is a sensible proposition to put to youngsters today? We need not do it and the Government will not get the money back anyway. It beggars belief. I urge the Government to think again and am very pleased that we will divide the House on this matter.
I recently visited Ormiston Forge Academy, which is an improving school in my constituency, and took part in an aspiration day. What struck me when I talked to the year 8 pupils was that the barriers to their thinking about going on to higher education were only partly to do with money. Primarily, they were to do with their background, whether their parents had been to university and whether their friends aspired to go to university. That was an important part of the conversation that I had with them.
The arguments that we hear from the Opposition about loans are like a recycled debate from a few years ago. Young people and students are becoming much more attuned to and understand the progressive nature of the loans system that we have introduced. Low-income graduates will not have to pay back the loans until they get over a certain income threshold.
As the Minister rightly pointed out, putting our higher education system on a sustainable footing was a choice that the Government made. They chose to design a progressive loans system to enable students of whatever background to aspire to go to university. As hon. Members have pointed out, the system that has been designed by the Government introduces maintenance loans for part-time students for the first time, which will have a considerable positive impact on social mobility. It also introduces maintenance loans for MAs and other post-graduate courses, which will provide different ways of accessing higher education.
Hearing the arguments from the Opposition feels a bit like groundhog day. As my hon. Friends have pointed out, no alternatives have been posited.
I think that the answer to this will be yes, but I wonder whether my hon. Friend shares my irritation with this debate because all of us in this House should be committed to improving social inclusion. He is stating very clearly the narrative that we deploy to explain these policies. The narrative from the Opposition, in my judgment, is tailored specifically to preclude people from applying to go on to further education. Is it not time that we all explained to students precisely what my hon. Friend is saying?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. When I spoke to the students, it struck me that we needed to educate them about the realities of going into higher education, whether by providing better information about courses that they might be able to take or explaining what it means to take out a student loan. As he says, there is a lot of propaganda about being saddled with debt. There needs to be more education about what it means in practice.
Does my hon. Friend agree that young people these days are getting much more savvy about the types of courses they want to take, whether courses will lead to a productive career and whether universities have good engagement, employability guidance and that kind of thing?
Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. Among the core benefits of the reforms that were introduced in the last Parliament and that are being developed now is that they encourage universities to raise the quality of higher education courses, make students much more discriminating about what they want to get out of higher education, and provide a greater understanding, as the Minister pointed out, of what economists rather dryly call the returns of higher education, which are tangible. We are seeing huge new opportunities in the graduate employment market. More graduates are getting high-quality jobs and more people are taking the opportunities that are out there.
The system that has been devised is progressive. The evidence is that the loans system has not had the detrimental impact on access that Opposition Members warned about three or four years ago. This is another one of those groundhog day, recycled scare stories. It simply is not happening. More people from disadvantaged backgrounds are going to university.
It would be very much a backwards step to accept the Opposition motion because it provides no credible alternative to the Government’s plan and runs away from the difficult choices that the Government have made to put our higher education system on a sustainable footing. I urge the House to reject it.
I am privileged to represent a university constituency. Cardiff Central has one of the highest proportions, although not quite the highest proportion, of students of any constituency in the UK. Tens of thousands of students live and study in Cardiff Central. Many of them are from Wales, but many are from England. They, unlike their Welsh peers, will be badly affected by the proposal to scrap student maintenance grants.
The Labour Government in Wales believe in aspiration and in protecting students from crippling levels of debt, and they put their money where their mouth is. Today in my constituency, Welsh students are sitting next to English students in the same lecture on the same course at the same university and living in the same accommodation, but thanks to Conservative Members, and to the Liberal Democrats—oh, sorry, they are not there anymore—a Welsh student is paying a third of the annual tuition fees paid by an English student.
It is not just with tuition fees that the Labour Government in Wales have supported students. The coalition Government abolished the education maintenance allowance, and the Welsh Labour Government kept it. The Labour Government in Wales are not abolishing student maintenance grants either, or NHS bursaries for nurses and midwives studying in Wales. Unlike the Conservative party, we believe in investing in future generations.
The Government claim that scrapping grants will not prevent access to university for the most disadvantaged students, but how do they know? They have not even asked them. There has been no consultation with students, parents or higher education. What have Conservative Members got against young people? They have trebled tuition fees and abolished the EMA. They will not allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote, and they are happy lecturing everyone on balancing the books and reducing debt, while at the same time their policies inflict crippling levels of debt on students. Add to that the Chancellor’s plans to end housing benefit for anyone under 21.
Last week I heard speeches in Committee, and again today, about how various Conservative MPs have worked their way through university, and if they managed it, why should today’s students not do that? However, they already do, and now the Government will not even let them earn the increased national minimum wage, because they have excluded anyone under 25 from that. The impact of this policy will prevent young people from going to university, from learning, from gaining independence, and from equipping themselves with the knowledge and skills needed to be successful in the job market.
No, I will not. Those young people will be prevented from fulling their true potential. I will conclude by mentioning Kate Delaney, vice-president of Welfare at Cardiff University. She had her EMA abolished. It paid for her bus fare to get to sixth-form college. She qualified for a maintenance grant, and she would not have been able to go to university without it. She told me that that maintenance grant gave her a voice, and also the ability to represent 30,000 students at Cardiff University, and Conservative Members are taking that away.
I received a full maintenance grant when I was at university, and its impact was not just money in my bank account, but the feeling of confidence and freedom that I could choose the degree that I wanted at my first choice of university—that important point has not really been covered by the debate. When I graduated, I did not have £53,000 of debt, which is what the poorest 40% of students will graduate with. I remind Conservative Members that we are talking about the poorest students from the poorest backgrounds in our country. As my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy said, these are the sons and daughters of dinner ladies, bus drivers, and care workers on zero-hours contracts, and we should not forget the reality and background of those students. Let me say to the Minister, and to other hon. Members—particularly those who are chuntering from a sedentary position—that this is not scaremongering. This is a serious debate—
There he goes again. This is a serious debate about the impact of the proposals on our poorest constituents. That debate should be taken seriously by the Minister and by Conservative Members. This is not just about participation; this is about fair access and about which university someone chooses to go to, if they have that first choice. Some of my constituents in Wolverhampton might not choose to apply to Oxford, Cambridge or even perhaps the University of Sussex, because it is too far away and will be too expensive. This is about the choices that the poorest children must now make, given the level of indebtedness that they will face.
The hon. Lady talks about the sons and daughters of those in poorer professions, such as dinner ladies and so on. Why can those people not take out loans, make a great success of themselves and pay them back? Why are they different? They should not be different because they are special people.
The people we represent have the same ambitions and aspirations, and Government Members should not cast aspersions on what Labour Members think about that. They will be graduating with £53,000 of student debt. I hope they still will go to university. I hope that will not affect participation. However, I fear it will and I fear it will affect the choices they make. We will all be poorer for it, because the talent will not come through.
I say to the hon. Gentleman that this is part of a wider pattern under this Government: the problem of intergenerational inequality is worsening. I came into politics precisely because I want to live in a country where the background and income of someone’s parents should not determine how well they do in life and whether they fulfil their potential, but inequality is increasing. The Intergenerational Foundation calls this younger generation the packhorse generation, because the Government are burdening them with more and more debt. Yet they face more insecurity in the workplace and higher housing costs. Some have given up hope of ever owning their own home, because we are not building enough homes. To be fair, that is true of preceding Governments, too. The packhorse generation is taking on huge levels of debt and faces a much more insecure future. That is why I hope the Government will think again. Intergenerational unfairness and intergenerational inequality are growing problems.
I understand there is an increasing burden on the current generation largely because of the enormous, overweening burden of debt the Government inherited. Does the hon. Lady agree that the young people of this generation who are not going to university would otherwise be expected to pay for those who have the benefit of doing so?
We had that debate in the previous Parliament and in Parliaments before that. We are talking about the very, very poorest students. Their parents do not have a penny to give to them in support and they will graduate with a huge level of debt.
I say this again to the Government: since the election of the Tory majority Government and the previous coalition Government, the younger generation have been hit with the removal of the education maintenance allowance, the trebling of tuition fees and now, for the poorest students, the removal of grants. The Government need to think really carefully about intergenerational inequality and the social contract between young people and the state. If the state no longer supports the aspirations and opportunities of the poorest students, the social contract will break down and we will all be poorer for it.
Much of what I want to say has already been covered by Labour Members, but taking an overview it strikes me that we are going back to the 1980s. This Government, like all Conservative Governments, have picked up where they left off. There is an agenda here. They are using the deficit as an excuse, not a reason, to take the country backwards.
Much has been made of the 3 million apprenticeships the Government talk about creating, but not much has been said about cuts to further education. Some further education colleges may close, so those 3 million apprenticeships will be under threat because students will not be able to get the facilities they want.
I want to pick the Minister up on the point about his manifesto. He said this was part of the manifesto. We will give him the benefit of the doubt, but it did not say there would be cuts to university grants and it did not say there would be cuts to bursaries. That was the point the Minister seemed to skate over in his speech.
Casting our minds back to over 10 years ago, the Labour Government capped fees at £3,000 and reintroduced maintenance grants. The third element was bursaries from universities. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should look very carefully at this direction of travel and ask the Minister to make clear that bursaries are not the next target?
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. On the subject of bursaries, we had a debate last week about nurses. We have a shortage of nurses in the NHS, yet we are not doing much to encourage young people to enter the nursing profession. We are in danger of creating what was called the Thatcher generation—the lost generation—of the ’80s, because young people always seem to be at the butt end of the Government’s policies.
The regulations will affect the west midlands economy, whether the Government accept it or not. They have talked about the west midlands powerhouse, but that relies on highly skilled labour. They have boasted about Jaguar Land Rover being one of their successes, but it was the Labour Government who encouraged Tata to invest in Jaguar Land Rover. The latter is now short of highly skilled labour. The impact of the Government’s measures will result in a lost generation and, in the longer term, affect the British economy. We are going back to the rationing of education, which we put right when we entered office in 1997.
I have the privilege, along with my hon. Friend Mr Robinson, to represent two of finest universities in this country, if not the world; they are world-renowned. That can have an impact locally and around the country in encouraging students to study different disciplines. However, the measure before us will have a major impact on higher education and affect Coventry’s economy, the west midland’s economy and the national economy.
It says it all about the Government policy that we are debating that so few of their Back Benchers have turned up to read the poor script they have been given by the Whips, and it says everything about how they conduct themselves that instead of having a proper debate on the Floor of the House, with a full vote involving all Members, they sought to have a debate down the corridor and up the stairs, hoping that nobody would notice, in a Committee that nobody has ever heard of.
The hon. Gentleman made a similar point during his Adjournment debate a few weeks ago on student nurses and bursaries. Is he as concerned as me, first, that the Government are increasingly using this device to sneak through their most controversial legislative proposals without debate and, secondly, that it is in contrast to the comments by the Leader of the House on
I agree wholeheartedly. In their cowardice the Government are treating with disdain the House and the students we are all sent here to represent. In spite of what the Minister says, there is absolutely no mention in the manifesto of cutting student grants. In fact, we would find Lord Lucan before we found any reference to cutting student grants. So they cannot hide behind a democratic mandate. As a student union president and president of the National Union of Students, I used to have arguments with previous Labour Governments—
That included arguments with my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy. But even with landslide majorities there was always a full debate and a vote in the House, whether they were abolishing student grants or, more wisely, reintroducing grants following the introduction of top-up fees.
This afternoon, these proposals will impact on 500,000 students from the poorest backgrounds. In my local university, the University of East London, that equates to about £30 million of financial support for students—gone. At my alma mater, the University of Cambridge, the figure is more like £9 million. If there is one thing we know about the higher education sector, it is that not only opportunity but financial support is unevenly distributed. It is completely unfair that students from the poorest backgrounds will now face a postcode lottery when it comes to determining how much non-repayable support they receive.
The very existence of student grants was won as a result of hard-fought negotiations. Student leaders argued that, if we were going to ask people to make a greater contribution, it was only fair that the poorest students received a non-repayable contribution. How must Conservative Members and the few remaining Liberal Democrats feel about the fact that when, under the coalition Government, the then higher education Minister justified the trebling of fees, they were told, “Don’t worry. We’ve got the national scholarship programme, student grants and the £21,000 threshold going up by inflation.” What has happened since? The national scholarship programme has been abandoned; the threshold frozen at £21,000; and now we see the abolition of student grants. We cannot trust a word that these people say, particularly when it comes to fair access to higher education and support for the most disadvantaged. It is an absolute disgrace.
I am proud of what the last Labour Government did to widen access and opportunity to people from working-class backgrounds. I was one of the beneficiaries, from the excellence in cities work that was done in schools right through to the opportunities provided through expanded places.
The hon. Gentleman is doubtless equally proud of the fact that the Labour Government said that they would not introduce tuition fees, and then did; and said that they would not introduce top-up fees, and then did. Does he accept that he and others who said five years ago that the introduction of increased fees would lead to a reduction in those from poorer backgrounds going to university were wrong? They were wrong then, and we believe that they are wrong today.
I remember the debate here in 2003, and I think it was to the credit of the Government of the day that the introduction of higher fees did not come in until after a general election, when at least the voters could make their judgment on whether they wanted to re-elect a Labour Government, which they duly did.
So much has been said about participation numbers this afternoon. I am certainly not going to make prophecies of doom about participation, but we should bear in mind a few facts. First, there is the issue of equity. How can it possibly be justified that students from poorest background graduate with the largest amount of debt? How can it possibly be fair that under these repayment mechanisms, the wealthiest graduates who go on to the most successful jobs will end up paying less over the course of their working career than people from middle and lower incomes? That cannot possibly be justified as fair. We should take seriously the evidence from the Institute for Fiscal Studies published in 2014 showing that a £1,000 increase in the maintenance grant led to a 3.95% increase in participation. Removing the grant does not necessarily mean that participation will plummet, but I think there is a risk that it could suffer.
There is a huge amount of complacency from this Government about the impact of higher tuition fees on applications to part-time routes and for students with mature backgrounds. It does not have to be that way; other choices are possible. We should look at what the Labour Government in Wales have done. They have not chosen to abolish student grants; they have kept those grants in place.
If the Tories want to talk about hard choices, how are they going to look the poorest students from the poorest backgrounds in the eye and explain why this Government continue to alleviate the tax burden on the wealthiest, while making the poorest pay the cost of their higher education? A 75% contribution to the cost of higher education is, by anyone’s estimation, too far, and there is not a single item in the Conservative manifesto that Government Members can point to in order to justify this outrageous attack on the poorest students.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. Five Members are seeking to catch my eye. If no interventions are taken, we should be able to get everybody in, but if interventions are taken, I am afraid that people will have to be dropped off the list.
I thank Labour Members for securing this debate. We in the SNP believe in the principle of free education, and we stand in solidarity with students in England against the principle of scrapping grants. I did have a lot to more to say in the debate, but I shall be as brief as I can.
Other Members have referred to their own circumstances, and I shall do so, too. I moved from home in 2000 to go the University of Aberdeen. I graduated in 2004, having taken out a student loan. I started paying it back to a significant extent only on coming to this place in May. I pay back £400 a month. That is my obligation, so I pay it. If, however, I had left university with a debt of £53,000, and assuming I could start to pay it back right away at £400 a month, it would take me 11 years to do so—11 years in a very well paid job. The expectation that some people may not pay their loan debt back at all makes a mockery of the whole process. If a loan is not expected to be paid back, what is the point of giving people loans in the first place? It seems ludicrous. We are bringing up a generation that expects to be in debt, and society should guard against that.
In Scotland, we will try our hardest to make sure that education remains free and that grants are available, but this Government are putting our budget under increasing pressure by their actions. We do not know—they have not told us—what the impact of these decisions taken today will be on the Scottish budget. This has been designated as EVEL, but it clearly has an impact on students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland who are studying at Scottish universities. What will the impact on those institutions be? What consultation has the Minister had with universities in my constituency, such as the University of Strathclyde, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, the Glasgow School of Art and Glasgow Caledonian University? He is not even paying attention; he is chewing his pen.
What conversations has the Minister had with my colleagues in Scotland about this measure? What impact will it have on members of larger families, and what impact will it have on Muslim students? Dr Huq has raised that issue before. Some Muslim students cannot take out loans, and other students may not wish to do so either, for different reasons. My hon. Friend Dr Whiteford mentioned cuts in the disabled students allowance. What impact will the added loan burden have on them?
Conservative Members have asked, “What about people who do not go to university? How do they benefit?” They benefit from the common good. Glasgow Caledonian University is a university for the common good. People in Scotland know that university graduates will become the doctors who treat them in hospitals, and the lawyers who represent them. They will become the well-qualified people who pay us back through taxation to help the common good of our country.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate, because I have been urged to do so by many students in my constituency. This is a matter of great interest to the general public, and the Government’s behaviour has been noticed by them, even if the Government themselves are still in denial.
The fact remains that the Chancellor’s replacement of maintenance grants with loans may dissuade many students from modest backgrounds from going to university, while none the less resulting in large sums never being paid back to the Treasury because graduates will go into what the Prime Minister described last week as “menial labour jobs”. That point has not been addressed, although a number of Members have raised it.
Even with maintenance grants, which support students from the poorest backgrounds through university, the system remains stacked against working-class students. According to the education charity The Sutton Trust, students from wealthy backgrounds are 10 times more likely to secure a place at university than those from poorer backgrounds.
The Government have consulted about freezing the current student loan repayment threshold at £21,000 for five years. Martin Lewis, of moneysavingexpert.com, has pointed out that only 5% of the responses to the consultation were in favour of the proposal, while 84% were against it. He has written to the Prime Minister to ask why the Government have pressed ahead regardless with increasing the amount that our students must pay for their current student loans. In 2011, Martin Lewis was appointed head of the Independent Taskforce on Student Finance Information. Ministers told him unambiguously that, from April 2017, the £21,000 repayment threshold would start to rise annually with average earnings. The decision to backtrack on that is hugely damaging. It means that many lower and middle-earning graduates will repay thousands more over the life of their loans.
Martin Lewis says that this issue is just as much moral as legal. The retrospective change destroys trust in the student finance system, and perhaps even more widely in the political system as a whole. The Government seem remarkably relaxed about the fact that our poorest students will graduate with £53,000 worth of debt before they have even started work. What guarantee will the Government give that they will not move the goalposts for repayment of this loan as well?
There is a huge body of evidence to support student maintenance grants. I do not have time to go into all of them, but they are opposed by the University and College Union, which says:
“Maintenance grants are crucial for engaging students from disadvantaged backgrounds who are already daunted by cripplingly high tuition fee debt. Increasing the debt burden…will act as a disincentive to participation”.
I, too, represent one of the constituencies containing the largest number of students in the country. In 2011 there were just over 19,000 in the three fantastic universities, Leeds University, Leeds Beckett University and Leeds Trinity University. However, I have just three minutes in which to speak, which I believe equates to 0.0095 of a second per student in what is a hugely important debate. Given the importance of these measures, the fact that the Government have proceeded with them through secondary legislation without a full and proper debate is an absolute disgrace.
Why has there been no public consultation on these major changes? They were announced last summer, but there has been no consultation with the higher education sector in the six months since. There has been no consultation with the universities or with the student unions. It is also a matter of huge concern that the Government conducted an equality impact assessment only after the National Union of Students instigated legal proceedings. If that does not suggest that the Government know they are doing something unacceptable and have something to hide, I do not know what does.
The equality impact assessment explicitly states that the changes present a risk to the participation of students from poorer backgrounds, mature students, BME students, disabled students and Muslim students. So, having being forced to accept that all those groups will be affected, has the Minister done anything to deal with it or to suggest ways of mitigating the impacts? I am afraid that the answer is no.
I do not have time to go through all the facts, some of which have been put forward today, but these changes will clearly have a detrimental and unfair impact on students from poorer backgrounds—the students we clearly want to encourage to go to university. At the same time, the Government are also freezing the repayment threshold at £21,000. The House of Commons Library states that this will have
“a proportionately larger impact on repayments by graduates with lower lifetime earnings”.
Martin Lewis has already been mentioned. He was tasked with selling the new system to the public, but he is now looking into a judicial review of the freezing of the repayment threshold. You could scarcely make this up. Whether the Government wish to accept it or not, the evidence shows that these measures will hit students on lower incomes and discourage people from going to university. The Government must today announce a proper debate with a proper vote on this matter in the House. We will settle for nothing less.
I went to Aberdeen University in 1977. I was the first member of my extended family to go to university, and I was able to do so because the tuition was free and I got a full maintenance grant. If it had not been for the Wilson Governments of the 1960s, I would not have had the opportunities I have had in my life. I can understand people from privileged backgrounds protecting privilege, but what really sticks in my throat is that those who have climbed that ladder of opportunity themselves are now determined to kick it away from other students. That is a disgrace.
We should be in no doubt that these decisions will have layers of consequences. On an individual level, they will result in lives less fulfilled and opportunities forgone. On a community level, people will see this pathway out of poverty being barricaded before their eyes. Most of all, the effects will be felt on a national level. How many surgeons, architects, doctors and writers will not emerge because of the denial of this opportunity?
Let us make no mistake: this is an attack on the poor. Huw Merriman, who is no longer in his place, asked whether poor people could not simply take out loans. Well of course they can, and, by the way, they are more used to doing so than many Conservative Members are. But the real question is this: is it fair that people from the poorest backgrounds should have to take on more debt to get the same opportunities as their counterparts in well-off families? That is iniquitous, and we should not tolerate it.
The Government seem to be labouring under the misapprehension that students are all rich, and that they benefit from their education so much that it is okay to charge them whatever they want to. That is not the case. A small minority do extremely well and become rich—
I have been told not to take an intervention.
A small minority do become rich, and if the Government want them to pay, they should introduce a progressive taxation system whereby people pay more when they start to earn those high wages. Instead, of course, they are cutting taxes for the highest earners in our communities. Nowhere is this thrown into sharper relief than in the situation of nurses and midwives. The abolition of grants for nurses and midwives will not only penalise the people who want to contribute to our national health service but undermine our NHS itself. Not for the first time, I am so pleased that in Scotland we have a Scottish Government who stand between the young people in that country and the mal intent of this
Government here. We will not abolish grants for nurses or midwives. We will maintain maintenance grants. Most of all, we will keep tuition free and we will make sure that people are not saddled with the debts they are saddled with in this country. If ever there was a case for a measure not applying and not being certified, it is this, because I have more than 2,000 constituents directly affected and it is unfair that my vote will be disregarded.
Until my election in May, I had spent all my adult life in universities, from being the recipient of a full grant, with my fees entirely paid, in 1990 at Cambridge University to teaching at Kingston University until my election. I have also taught at a red-brick university. I contend that at all these categories of university—all seats of learning in this country—the student bodies will be poorer as a result of the abolition of grants, both socio-culturally and financially. The kind of students we are talking about in respect of this measure are not the “Brideshead Revisited” ones, they are not Neil from “The Young Ones” and they are not even Student Grant from Viz; they are people such as my constituents at the University of West London. They are people such as Josh Goddard, its student union president, who has been here since 1 o’clock today and who has told me that he is the first person in his family to go to university and he would not have done it without a maintenance grant. He said that he represents the students of the present but he also wants the students of the future all to have the chance to go to university. As well as the NUS, the Sutton Trust has condemned these changes, as they narrow the talent pool of who will be able to participate in higher education in the future.
I think of the students I taught at Kingston University—this was before the changes—who seemed often to be coming in between the burger-flipping shifts. The Conservative party puts great store in being the party of fiscal responsibility, but how does it reconcile that with saddling young people with £53,000 of debt? We have heard about the words of Martin Lewis, who was tasked with leading the taskforce in 2011. He is normally a financial man, and he is not a politician. He says:
“The regulator would not allow any commercial lender to make a change to its terms this way.”
It is surely bad governance. We are dealing with a case of double standards here. These people signed up to one experience and even after they have signed their loan agreements they are seeing the goalposts moved.
The Minister has a lot of explaining to do. Where was this on page 35 of the Conservative manifesto? None of us has seen it in the small print. What will the transitional arrangements be? What happened to the review promised in 2014 for Muslim students who want sharia-compliant student finance, given that this measure is coming in now? As we know, this has been done with no proper debate. It is only because Labour Members have forced this debate today that we are discussing it at all. The Government want to shunt it through using their new favourite toy, the statutory instrument. If their sums are wrong, the books should not be balanced on the backs of students. We have seen that the NHS bursary for nurses has gone and the education maintenance allowance has been removed. If the Government are making a shortfall, it should not be students who are taking on that burden.
We have had a lively and extremely interesting debate, with contributions from 17 Back-Bench speakers, by my calculation. I will not mention them, because time is short as a result of the interest in the debate.
I have some sympathy for the Minister for Universities and Science, Joseph Johnson, because we all know that the decision to scrap maintenance grants for the less well-off students in favour of loans was really made by the Chancellor and not by him. I know that he and the Chancellor are old friends—this goes back to the days when they were penniless students together, having to scrape by on their student grants and meagre Bullingdon club dinners—but I find it hard to believe that he went to his old friend the Chancellor and said, “Having been appointed as Universities Minister, I have suddenly decided that we were wrong to have maintenance grants for the less well-off students and it would be a great idea for the worse-off students to have the most debt after they have been to university.”
I might be wrong about the Minister, but he does not strike me—he has not until today—as the kind of person who would think it right to change the system so that, as the British Medical Association points out in its briefing for this debate, medical students from the poorest backgrounds could graduate with £100,000 of debt. Nor does he strike me as the kind of person who thinks that it is all right to go back on promises made by Tory Ministers when the new system was introduced. It was David Willetts after all who said that the tuition fees increase was progressive precisely because of the higher education maintenance grant. That was the argument made. The Minister does not strike me as the kind of politician who would cynically pursue policies that penalise younger people who are less likely to vote Tory, or even to vote at all, than others.
Despite what was said today about page 35 of the Tory party manifesto, I do not think that the Minister for Universities and Science would think it was really okay to carry out this kind of major change of policy direction without explicitly putting it into the party’s manifesto, so that the public, including young people, could see what they were voting for or against. Is he really the kind of politician who, having done all this, would then slink away from debating such a major change openly and properly on the Floor of the House in Government time? I may be wrong, but I never thought that he was that kind of politician, or that he was that cynical.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was referring to me. Will he flick back through his archives and find where, in the 1997 manifesto, the Labour party had the introduction of student loans in the first place, because I cannot remember seeing it?
The hon. Gentleman told us in his speech how hard he has worked. Given that he is from Cardiff and that he has such an accent, I can absolutely acknowledge that he is a very hard-working individual. He will know that a general election was fought following that decision being taken and before they were introduced.
We all know that the Chancellor prefers governing from the shadows, and this shameless betrayal of previous promises and the shabby manner in which this has been handled in Parliament bear all the hallmarks of the current Chancellor of the Exchequer. Being young in Britain should be a time of opportunity—a time when opportunity knocks. Instead, we have the Chancellor introducing an opportunity tax. His proposals are an assault on aspiration, on opportunity and on those who want to get on in life. That is why we oppose them and also why the Welsh Government, under Labour First Minister, Carwyn Jones, is keeping maintenance grants. By the way, those who say that these proposals affect only England should think again—I say this to Welsh Conservative MPs as well: of the 30,000 students studying at Cardiff University, nearly 9,000 are from England.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sure that the shadow Minister would not wish to mislead the House, but he has just said that tuition fees were introduced not after the 1997 election, but after the following general election. That is not true. They were introduced in 1998. Having said that they would not introduce them, the Government started the process 12 weeks later.
The hon. Gentleman is making a point of debate, not a point of order for the Chair. We have very little time.
I would have been happy for the hon. Gentleman to intervene. Actually, I was asked about student loans, not tuition fees.
Students in constituencies such as Cardiff North are registered to vote in Wales, but, subject to the decisions that will be taken after this debate, local Welsh MPs can have their votes nullified under the constitutional monstrosity that is the English votes for English laws procedure, which the Government have foisted on this House.
Who will be affected by these measures today? This is what the IFS says:
“The poorest 40% of students going to university in England will now graduate with debts of up to £53,000 from a three-year course, rather than up to £40,500. This will result from the replacement of maintenance grants”.
Of course, as I just pointed out, it is about not just students going to university in England but students who are attending university and who are registered to vote in Wales, a thought that will not be lost on students in Cardiff North during next May’s Assembly elections.
I would be very encouraged if the hon. Gentleman would also note that as universities in Northern Ireland have had the number of students they can take capped, hundreds and hundreds of very able students from Northern Ireland take up places in English universities, and are happy to do so. It is an absolute disgrace that this measure should be deemed exclusively English because it affects my constituents and many parents and students from Northern Ireland.
I am happy to acknowledge that.
It is not as if this policy will save that much for the public finances in the long run, despite the claims made by the Government. The IFS says that the replacement of maintenance grants by loans from 2016-17 will raise debt for the poorer students but do little to improve the Government’s finances in the long run. The truth is that the Chancellor is fixing the figures, not the roof.
I am pretty sure that I would never have gone to university had no maintenance grant been available, let alone have been the first from my family and from my comprehensive school to go to university and to go to Oxford. There are many others in this place for whom something similar is also true. The Government must accept that that is still the case for many thousands of young people. Indeed, that is why, as David Willetts said, maintenance grants were part of the structure when fees were tripled to £9,000 per annum under the previous Tory-led Government.
The decision is mean in spirit and underhand in execution. It will be tragic in its consequences for many young people, and I urge the House to reject it by supporting our motion.
A middle-aged man like me needs to approach the subject of student finance with a degree of humility, for I was one of the lucky few who did not have to pay tuition fees and although I did not qualify for anything more than the minimum grant, many of my contemporaries did. The key fact about university when I was growing up was that it was just that: the exclusive preserve of the lucky few. Universities were bastions of privilege and the nation was poorer for it, as were millions of people whose lives would have been enriched in every sense by a university course.
It was Tony Blair, of course—remember him?—who first recognised that many more people could benefit from university education and started us down the road of reforming student finance so that we could widen participation. It was Gordon Brown—remember him?—who asked the noble Lord Browne to suggest further reforms of student finance. And it was Vince Cable and Mr Clegg who bravely impaled themselves and their party on an irresponsible campaign pledge and introduced the system of tuition fees we have today.
At every stage in this journey towards a student finance system that allows anyone with the necessary grades to be offered a university place, we have heard the same howls of outrage and the same predictions of disaster from the same sources. “Participation will plummet,” they intone, “The poorest will be put off,” and just as predictably at each and every stage these shroud wavers and doom mongers have been proven wrong, as my hon. Friend Seema Kennedy reminded us. Why have they been proven wrong? Because, as my hon. Friend James Cartlidge pointed out, individual students observe the benefits that flow to university graduates, look at the repayment terms for student loans and calculate, quite correctly, that they will have to repay their student loans only if they themselves are benefiting from higher wages.
My hon. Friend Huw Merriman said that the loans he took out were the best investment he has ever made, and my hon. Friend James Morris talked about the returns on higher education, which in terms of lifetime earnings, interestingly, are even higher for women than for men. The truth is that student loans are not like ordinary commercial loans and it is frankly a disgrace that Opposition Members are willing to mislead would-be students by pretending that they are.
A commercial loan is often secured against specific assets, which can be seized if the individual cannot make the repayments. With a student loan, no bailiff is going to knock on a door and take a television if a low income means people cannot afford to repay it. A commercial loan will charge a rate of interest from the very first day and the poorer the person is, the higher the interest rate is likely to be. With a student loan, the interest rate is held at a lower rate until the student starts earning over £25,000 a year, and the amount they have to repay in any year is limited to 9% of their income over £21,000. A commercial loan and all the accumulated interest will still be hanging around someone’s neck in 40 years’ time if they have not managed to pay it off. The balance of a student loan is written off after 30 years.
There are two ways to fund university students. We can limit access, undermine the quality of university teaching and get the general population, most of whom have not benefited from a university education, to foot the bill; we could call that the SNP approach. The alternative is to offer anyone who has the capacity to benefit from a university course the opportunity to do so, and to put in place a system of subsidised student finance which asks those who do go on to benefit to contribute while protecting those who do not from the need to repay the loans. That is the Conservative approach; it was also the approach of the Liberal Democrats when they were a party of government and of the Labour Government under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
One thing is clear at the end of this debate: a party’s attitude towards student finance is a leading indicator of its fitness to govern. In opposition, a party will take the irresponsible route in an attempt to curry favour with the National Union of Shroud-wavers—sorry, I mean Students. In government, it will suddenly discover the merits of a sustainable system of student finance that is fair to students and taxpayers alike.
If we are ever to see another Labour Government—and on the basis of the party’s current performance, that may be a very long time in coming—I confidently predict that they will quietly drop their opposition to the system of student finance put in place by Governments of all parties over 20 years, and that is why—
The Minister’s language was perhaps not exactly what I would have chosen myself as a matter of taste, but it is not for me to tell the Minister exactly which words to use. He was not strictly outwith the rules of the House, but I am sure he will now very positively return to more tasteful and moderate language.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I feel that that reproof was perhaps a little more stinging than I deserved, but I will, of course, do exactly as you require.
If I may briefly reprise, a party’s attitude towards student finance is a leading indicator of its fitness to govern. If we are ever to see another Labour Government, I confidently predict that they will drop their opposition to the system of student finance put in place by Labour Governments, coalition Governments and this Conservative Government, and that is why I urge the House to reject the motion.
Division number 165
We come now to the motion praying against the Education (Student Support) (Amendment) Regulations (S.I. 2015, No. 1951), which will be taken without debate. I remind the House that because, as Mr Speaker has certified, this instrument relates exclusively to England and is within devolved legislative competence, it is subject to double majority. If a Division is called, all Members of the House are able to vote in the Division. Under