My Lords, eligible students receive means-tested student loans which in 2003–04 range from £3,165 for students living at home to £4,000 for those living elsewhere and £4,930 for those living away from home in London. From September 2004 around 30 per cent of students will be entitled to a grant of £1,000 per year. In addition, grants and bursaries are available for part-time students, student parents and those with disabilities.
My Lords, I appreciate the Government's attempts in this difficult matter, but does my noble friend agree that having to borrow money from the state to undertake a degree course, which is the present situation, is a considerable deterrent to poorer families? That is one of the most important aspects. Have the Government given any thought to changing the system? Are they giving full consideration to the objections that have been made, and are being made, by the National Union of Students in this matter?
My Lords, we do not consider this a difficult matter. There has been a wide-ranging debate, over many months, involving many Members of your Lordships' House who have a real interest in higher education, as well as those outside, to enable the Government to bring forward firm proposals and conclusions on what we might do. The present situation does not deter people from coming to university; numbers are increasing. We are committed to ensuring that there is an increase in student numbers of those who are able to go to university and benefit from it. We have made clear the system we plan to put in place. We have dialogue and discussions with the National Union of Students. It has its views and we have ours.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that the increase in those going into higher education has fundamentally, over the past 15 years, consisted of middle-class girls catching up with the proportion of middle-class men and that there is still a major deficit from the working classes? Now that the Government are taking over so many aspects of the education policy of the previous Conservative government, could they not consider an assisted places scheme targeted on the more disadvantaged to help them go to university?
My Lords, I am delighted that girls are catching up with and—dare I say it?—overtaking some of the boys in many situations in our society. The system we are proposing is a very good one. It is about ensuring that our higher education institutions play their part—which many are willing to do—in ensuring that the communications they give to our young people about the benefits of university life, graduation and entering the labour market as a graduate are well known. That is the way we should go within an education system that we are striving to make excellent for all children in all schools at all times.
My Lords, is it not the case that according to the department's own figures, average student debt levels increased two and a half times between 1998–99 and 2002–03 to nearly £9,000? Is it not also the case that the poorest undergraduates are saddled with the greatest debt? Indeed, the figures suggest that they carry 44 per cent more debt than those better placed.
My Lords, the noble Earl will be aware of the income and expenditure survey which we published yesterday. I think it says very clearly that we are right to abolish upfront fees because of their impact. Too many students are having to find £700 in upfront fees each year because their parents are not paying the assessed contribution themselves. That is very important.
We believe that students' standard of living has risen over the past four years. Noble Lords will know from the survey that that is an important aspect. We believe the student loan generally does what it should, although we will of course look very carefully at the survey's findings. We need to make sure that we get away from the idea that it is okay to borrow for the purposes of consumption but not for investment.
My Lords, does not the report published yesterday from Professor Callender of South Bank University, showing that it is the poorest students who leave universities with the highest debts, underline very strongly the point that if we are moving to higher tuition fees there has to be a system of bursaries which enables the better-off parents effectively to subsidise the education of the less well off? Only in that way will it be possible to achieve proper access to our great universities.
My Lords, I believe that my noble friend would accept that the combination of the abolition of upfront fees—which will have an impact on all students—the addition of a grant available to students from low-income backgrounds and a bursary scheme which we are currently discussing, through Universities UK and other means, will provide very generous support to those students whom we are trying to attract, as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, quite rightly indicated. This combination is a fundamental part of ensuring a university system that is well funded and able to provide good, high-quality higher education for all students, and that those who are able to go to university are encouraged to do so.
My Lords, I do not have the detailed information on that. The noble Baroness, as always, raises an important point. I will, if I may, write to her with information on drop-out rates. We have been looking at this. It is my understanding that we do not see a correlation, but I will write to her and put a copy of my letter in the Library.
My Lords, I declare an interest as vice-dean of the University of Wales College of Medicine. Across all the healthcare courses in our university, 50 per cent of students are graduating with debts of more than £17,000. The students are concerned that recruitment to some courses such as radiography will become increasingly difficult again with the size of debt. Is this of concern to the Government, and how are they planning to monitor the supply of healthcare professionals?
My Lords, the Department of Health is of course very concerned to ensure that it has the right quality and number of healthcare professionals coming through courses. I know that it will take a great interest in that. Part of the issue for variable fees is to allow institutions to be able to lower fees as well as increase them, thereby looking at where shortages occur in our economic life and with regard to students entering courses. This may well be an area which the department would consider. I remind noble Lords that that is different from traditional debt. This is about investment in one's future as a student and a graduate. Students will not pay back anything until they are earning a minimum of £15,000, and then they will pay back only what they have borrowed.
My Lords, are the Government concerned that a lower proportion of students are going away from home to university and are instead going to the university next to their home to save money? Of course, while many will always do that, many have also had the increased benefit of going to a different university somewhere else. Are the Government concerned that that proportion is dropping?
My Lords, it is important that families, particularly students, have the right kind of choice about where they move. I accept the noble Baroness's point that a proportion of students have always gone to university close to home.
We will be looking very carefully at what impact all our proposals are having, as will the higher education institutions. However, we have to be wary of making an assumption that one factor leads on to another and that what we are seeing is a direct result of the strategy we have in place.
My Lords, I pay tribute to what the University of Cambridge has done, as, indeed, have many other universities. But we still have to look very carefully at the percentage of students who are applying to universities and the barriers to their application, and remove those barriers. I think noble Lords would accept that that is a key concern. Higher education institutions have a very important role in ensuring that the numbers of students from varying backgrounds who are able to go to university because they have the qualifications and ability are doing so in the right proportions, and then the universities can accept them.