I thank the Secretary of State for giving me advance sight of his statement.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s admission yesterday that the system is not working. She rightly talked about the choices facing a working-class teenage girl today. I faced those choices as a working-class teenage girl myself, but every part of the education system that helped me has been attacked by this Government. I want to ask the Secretary of State first to clarify one simple point. He has claimed that there are now record numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, but the House of Commons Library has confirmed today that, when we include part-time students, there are now 10,000 fewer students from under-represented areas than there were before the Government raised tuition fees to £9,000 a year. And as usual, the rest of the Secretary of State’s announcement leaves us with more questions than answers.
Let us start with the most important question. Will the review be able to recommend extra funding for education overall? The terms of reference state that it cannot make recommendations on tax and that it must follow the Government’s fiscal policies. Does that mean that the review cannot recommend anything that would increase spending? If so, can the review consider restoring maintenance grants, reducing interest rates or increasing the teaching grant? Can the Secretary of State also confirm that the terms of reference make it clear that it is not an independent review at all but one directly run by his Ministers? Given that, will he ensure that the review’s recommendations are put to this House and implemented in primary legislation that we can properly discuss and amend?
The Prime Minister admitted that the current system
“leaves students from the lowest-income households bearing the highest levels of debt”.
Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that that will always be the case with a system entirely based on loans? Does he agree with his predecessor, who has admitted that this Government were wrong to scrap maintenance grants?
Speaking to The Sunday Times, the Secretary of State said that he wants differential fees, with higher prices for subjects with the greatest earning potential. Is that policy, or was the Government’s Education Secretary not speaking for the Government? Does he understand that charging higher fees for the very courses that lead to the highest-paid jobs makes no economic sense and only widens inequality? So much for social mobility.
The Conservative party manifesto promised a review of tertiary education across the board, yet further education colleges form no part of this review, despite the hundreds of thousands of people aged 16 to 18 studying in them. Have this Government abandoned yet another manifesto commitment?
Can the Secretary of State also tell us whether student nurses are covered by the review? If not, will he give this House a debate and a vote on the regulations he is trying to sneak through to abolish their bursaries? He said that he wants funding arrangements to be transparent. The Treasury Committee, chaired by another of his predecessors, found the funding arrangements to be anything but. The Committee highlighted the “fiscal illusion” at the heart of the system, with up to £7 billion of annual debt write-offs simply missing, allowing the Government to artificially reduce the deficit by saddling young people with debt. Perhaps he can tell us whether he will take up the Committee’s recommendations. Will he finally tell us the latest estimate of the resource accounting and budgeting charge and about how it will be written off?
The truth is that a year-long review is an unnecessary waste of time and energy when action is needed now. Let me offer the Secretary of State a simple conclusion to his review: a fully costed plan to scrap tuition fees, to bring back maintenance support and to reverse the rest of the Government’s cuts to education. It is called “For the many, not the few” and that is exactly what our education system should be.