Higher Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2005

– in the House of Lords at 3:06 pm on 22nd March 2005.

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Photo of Baroness Amos Baroness Amos President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Lords (Privy Council Office)

My Lords, the purpose of the order is to increase the funding available to higher education institutions in Northern Ireland, while safeguarding access for students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

It is the Government's aim to increase funding for higher education in Northern Ireland in a way that takes account of two key principles: first, a larger share of the cost of higher education should fall to the direct beneficiaries of a third-level education and, secondly, a first-rate higher education system should be available to everyone who has the ability to benefit from it. The order introduces provisions broadly in line with those to come into force in England under the Higher Education Act 2004.

In the quality of their teaching and research, universities and higher education institutions in Northern Ireland compare favourably with the better higher education institutions in the rest of the United Kingdom. The challenge for the Government is to ensure that, in the face of a changing higher education sector in England, the Northern Ireland institutions continue to contribute to economic growth, develop and enhance research excellence, fulfil their social and cultural role, provide access to high-quality education for local students and, in general, continue to compete favourably with their GB counterparts.

Now that the Higher Education Act 2004 is on the statute book, we must respond to it in a way that benefits Northern Ireland most and does not put Northern Ireland students or universities at a disadvantage. The Act, which has its origins in the White Paper, covers a number of important developments in higher education. Of those, the introduction of variable fees and their impact on students and the higher education institutions are key issues for Northern Ireland.

Last year, the Department for Employment and Learning held a policy consultation on proposals to increase university funding through the introduction of variable tuition fees. The consultation also covered proposals to introduce access agreements and a review of the student complaints system. Following the policy consultation, the draft legislative proposals were issued for public consultation. There was significant interest in and reaction to the proposals, particularly in relation to variable fees. Much of that reaction was critical, but no viable alternative was proposed.

I turn to the detail of the draft order. Part II sets out the provisions for student fees. They will enable higher education institutions to set their own fees up to a basic amount specified in regulations. If institutions wish to charge fees above that rate, they can do so only if they have in force a plan—also known as an access agreement under this part of the order—approved by the Department for Employment and Learning, and then only up to a higher amount also specified in regulations. The department will monitor approved plans. Should an institution breach its plan, the department may choose not to renew, or it may impose financial sanctions.

In Part III, the order includes provisions for preventing student loan debt forming part of a bankrupt's estate. That reflects the non-commercial nature of a student loan and closes an existing loophole whereby student loans are written off on bankruptcy.

The order provides for the sharing of information between student support authorities with the consent of the individual. That will streamline the process, in keeping with the Government's aim of requiring individuals to provide information once only.

The order includes provisions for facilitating the deferral of payment of tuition fees by allowing student loan payments to be made directly to institutions, so that they can receive fee payments up front and students can repay later.

Although the provisions follow the Higher Education Act, the legislation has been tailored to reflect specific needs in Northern Ireland. The draft order does not replicate all the provisions of the Act.

With regard to access agreements, the order provides that, in Northern Ireland, the Department for Employment and Learning will undertake the access regulatory function and will take advice as necessary from the Office for Fair Access. On student complaints, the Government have accepted the weight of argument from consultees in favour of change and of making the system more independent of the institutions. However, the intention is to retain the visitor system in Northern Ireland until the institutions are restored and to leave the final decision on the way forward to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

In considering the introduction of variable fees in Northern Ireland, it is important to remember that up to 30 per cent of Northern Ireland students go to universities in Great Britain: some to do courses that are not available locally; some to widen their horizons; and others because their grades are not good enough to meet the entry requirements in Northern Ireland. Whatever the reason, unless we act now to introduce a deferred fee system many of those students or their families will be forced to pay up to £3,000 up front each year from 2006. It would not be right to allow students from Northern Ireland to face such a barrier. It would be perverse that Northern Ireland students should pay more to improve standards in English universities while their counterparts studying in Northern Ireland paid less to invest in the future success of their own universities. It is even more unacceptable that the Government should provide the additional funding to support that, in effect funding institutions in England while denying the same level of fee income to Northern Ireland institutions.

The initial reaction of many people to the introduction of deferred fees is that they will add to the existing burden of student debt. However, a student loan is one of the most generous forms of credit available. In contrast to commercial loans, the only interest charged is the rate of inflation, so that we can be sure that the loan repaid is equal in real terms to the amount borrowed. Graduates will have to pay the money back only when they can afford to do so. If income falls below £15,000, repayments stop. No one will be penalised for taking time out for any reason, such as to have a family, to work part time, or if he or she becomes unemployed.

The Government want to increase the funding available to the higher education sector in Northern Ireland in a way that ensures that up-front fees are abolished and that graduates take on a greater share of the costs. However, the Government also recognise the need to ensure that financial help continues to be provided for students who need it most by maintaining a system of student support that is as favourable as present arrangements.

In addition, institutions charging variable fees will have to introduce access agreements, which will require them to tell students and prospective students what help is available. It will include a commitment to provide an access bursary to students from low-income backgrounds.

If our higher education institutions in Northern Ireland are to sustain—indeed, to build upon—the high standards of teaching and research in the increasingly competitive global higher education sector, they need the extra investment that the proposals will bring. The Government firmly believe that that is the best way to secure the future of our highly valued higher education sector in Northern Ireland and to ensure access to all those who have the potential to benefit from higher education, regardless of background or personal circumstances.

It is the intention that, subject to the approval of both Houses, the order can be made at a Privy Council meeting by the end of the Session. That will give time for preparations to be made so that it can become operative from September 2006 to coincide with the start of the academic year. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 8 February be approved.—(Baroness Amos.)

Photo of Lord Glentoran Lord Glentoran Spokespersons In the Lords, Local and Devolved Government Affairs 3:15 pm, 22nd March 2005

rose to move, as an amendment to the above Motion, at end to insert, "but this House regrets that the Government have not provided the opportunity for the people of Northern Ireland to express their opinion on the matter, either through democratically elected institutions or by means of a referendum".

Photo of Lord Glentoran Lord Glentoran Spokespersons In the Lords, Local and Devolved Government Affairs

My Lords, I thank the Lord President for presenting the order. We are drawing our relationship to a close with the coming election, and it is perhaps a sad note for me that I am more strongly opposed than I have ever been to the politics of the noble Baroness's party. However, I assure her and your Lordships that there is nothing personal in my remarks about the order.

This is probably the worst example of the Government's performance so far in managing Northern Ireland. It is wrong for a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office to force Labour Party dogma-type policy on an unwilling population. On page 20 of the Labour Party's manifesto, "Ambitions for Britain" in 2001, it states:

"We will not introduce 'top-up' fees and have legislated to prevent them".

The Government have clearly done the reverse in the Higher Education Act, which battled its way—an appropriate phrase—through both Houses.

Paragraph 7 of the Explanatory Memorandum states:

"Nine responses were received to the consultation on the Proposal for an Order in Council. The respondents raised no new issues and reinforced their position as stated during the policy consultation".

We know that that was all anti, so there was nothing else to say.

My honourable friend David Lidington in another place and I have consulted widely among Northern Ireland political parties. I cannot say where the Sinn Fein party stands on the issue, as I tend to ignore it at this stage of its career, but, basically all Northern Ireland political parties are opposed to the order.

In another place, Her Majesty's Government lost the vote on the order in the Northern Ireland Grand Committee. Two weeks ago, the Government rammed—and I mean "rammed"—the order through the other place with the support of 44 MPs who had opposed the same order for the same policy for England. I know from discussions that some of those MPs were somewhat confused and some wish to retract, regretting that they voted with the Government. Her Majesty's Government achieved the order by a majority of only five, despite their overall majority of 200. This is not a very popular order anywhere. Those who supported it included Scottish MPs, although the legislation does not apply to Scotland.

Furthermore, I have had correspondence with the Northern Ireland Student Movement, the Convenor of which is in your Lordships' House. He is not sitting below Bar because he is a single parent and is in the Lords' Families Room watching this debate—that is how strongly the students feel. I quote from his letter to me:

"I am concerned by the way the current Government is attempting to force through legislation in Northern Ireland against the wishes of the entire Community, against the wishes of Elected Representatives and against the wishes and efforts of the Student Movement".

Later in the letter he says:

"The Student Movement believes that top-up fees will be a disaster for higher education and will lead to further entrenchment of educational inequality".

A paragraph later, he states:

"In addition, introducing higher fees will saddle students with thousands of pounds more debt—Charles Clarke MP, during his tenure as Education Secretary himself admitted students will graduate £21,000 in the red".

That is as stated by Damien Kavanagh, the Convenor of the Northern Ireland Student Movement.

I think that I have produced some considerable evidence that this is a bad order for Northern Ireland. It is not wanted, and it is being forced by an arrogant, over-bearing Government on a community which is democratically powerless and helpless. In my opinion—I hope that your Lordships will agree—it is disgraceful, unpopular and unwanted. Furthermore, I think it is a disgrace that it should be forced on our population by a Minister, Mr Gardiner, who clearly cares not a jot for the student population of Northern Ireland. I beg to move.

Moved, as an amendment to the above Motion, at end to insert, "but this House regrets that the Government have not provided the opportunity for the people of Northern Ireland to express their opinion on the matter, either through democratically elected institutions or by means of a referendum".—(Lord Glentoran.)

Photo of Lord Smith of Clifton Lord Smith of Clifton Spokesperson in the Lords, Northern Ireland Affairs

My Lords, I speak in support of the reasoned amendment put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. As he said, when the Assembly was in operation it rejected the idea of top-up fees, and yet the Government are seeking to impose an English policy on Northern Ireland. Of course, both Wales and Scotland have chosen not to go down the top-up fees route.

It is quite inappropriate for the Government to dictate to Northern Ireland in this way. The measure is also inappropriate for Northern Ireland because, as a region, it has larger-than-average family size and lower-than-average family income compared with the UK as a whole.

At a Limavady College of Further and Higher Education graduation, the acting vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster, of which I was once vice-chancellor, Professor Richard Barnett, said:

"The Government must recognise that debt aversion is a greater roadblock to participation in higher education in Northern Ireland than in any other part of the UK. It must also accept the evidence that the proposed fees, without a proper student maintenance package, will significantly affect participation from average middle class families as well as those from social disadvantaged groups".

He went on to say:

"Academic ability and not affordability must govern access to higher education in Northern Ireland".

We have heard all about the palaver of the access requirements that will be applied to the Northern Ireland universities. If that is the case, fairly those universities will want an increase in the number of students from the private sector because almost all the students in Northern Ireland come from state schools.

Northern Ireland has the highest participation rate in tertiary education in the UK and it has a most highly trained labour force. Both those will be put at risk if top-up fees are introduced. I beg the Government to think again.

Photo of Lord Molyneaux of Killead Lord Molyneaux of Killead Crossbench

My Lords, perhaps I may comment briefly by way of a question. Why on earth are we who represent Northern Ireland both in this House and in the other place lectured continually along the lines of, "For goodness sake, all you parties in Northern Ireland should agree and then Her Majesty's Government can take notice and act thereon"? Here, we have a situation in which all the parties in Northern Ireland agree right across the board that this is an unwanted and unworkable piece of legislation, which has already been condemned without a single recommending voice. I hope that even at this very late stage—I concede that it is a late stage—second thoughts will be devoted to the matter and that a suitable amendment will be produced.

Photo of Lord Maginnis of Drumglass Lord Maginnis of Drumglass Crossbench

My Lords, while what I have to say in my opening remarks my not be directly related to this order, one cannot touch on the topic of third-level education in Northern Ireland without taking the opportunity to condemn, without equivocation, those thuggish students whose behaviour in the area of Belfast known as "the Holy Lands" brings misery to ordinary residents in the area.

I hope that government, through the Department for Employment and Learning and with the co-operation of the universities, will move positively to bring this dangerous misbehaviour to an end and to penalise the minority of students who make it more difficult to argue the case that I espouse here today.

However, the majority of our university students are hard-working and responsible.

As noble Lords will be aware, this order, when put to a vote, was defeated in another place on 20 January by 11 votes to 10. The Government either expected the absence of the DUP, whose Members routinely do not turn up for committee debates, or perhaps some Labour Members were as keen to see the Government deliver the message they really believe in via the back door of Northern Ireland. Either way, defeated the Government were, and I sincerely hope that they have heeded that message. That would be a practical demonstration of what I have heard argued by the Government in your Lordships' House on several occasions in the recent past about the primacy of the other place.

Again, I must register my total frustration and dissatisfaction with the way in which this legislation has been dealt with in the absence of devolved government in Northern Ireland. Had the Assembly been in place, our regional representatives would have debated this issue at Stormont, as it was debated in Wales and Scotland, and they would have passed legislation that was appropriate for Northern Ireland. Hence, I am surely justified in repeating the call by my colleagues in another place to set aside this order and to leave this issue to be considered at some future date by Northern Ireland's elected representatives.

There is no doubt that over the past 10 years university education has expanded rapidly and more students are undertaking university education than ever before. That does not, however, mean that more students and parents than ever before can afford the spiralling costs. It is fundamentally important, not just in Northern Ireland but across the United Kingdom, that those from financially less well off backgrounds do not fall by the wayside and lose their right to higher education due to the market forces that now dominate the higher education sector.

We all understand the arguments for extending student loans for those who can afford them, but extending such measures across the board will certainly out-price many students from university education altogether. Noble Lords should remember that, although we have full employment in Northern Ireland, we do not have parity with Great Britain in the level of earnings.

As my noble friend Lord Molyneaux has already pointed out, all Northern Ireland political parties are united in opposition to this order, as may be wished in other spheres. What is the sense of a bright young student winning a place to go to Queen's or the University of Ulster, and then having to drop out or defer because he cannot afford the college fees?

There is a duty of care on the Government. They will be held to account by the electorate on their promises to create opportunity for all in the higher education sector and to ensure that, on the one hand, talented students from less privileged schools are encouraged to apply to the best universities and that, on the other, the state affords them the financial help to do so. That means the Government setting aside substantial financial aid to ensure that students from less financially privileged backgrounds have the potential in real terms, not just in theory, to achieve their full potential in our education system.

Our university system is the envy of Europe. If one looks at the world ranking of universities, in overall terms only UK institutions are serious competitors in a US-dominated world of education. It is great that, due to their global reputation for excellence, our universities—Queen's and the University of Ulster—attract students from the four corners of the globe. That is good for our economy, prestige and education system. But I implore this Government to ensure that our own students are not priced out of this market due to that excellence and the demand for places at these universities by the world's brightest youngsters.

The Ulster Unionist Party remains fully committed to maintaining free and fair access to university for all. Can the Government detail the bursaries that they intend to establish to ensure that such access is maintained if they continue in their effort to railroad through top-up fees?

I know many young people who do not have the benefit of family wealth as they set off on their university careers. Many students work 20 or more hours a week to make ends meet while they are taking their degrees. Of course, students should pay their way. I had to do so 50 years ago, and I would be the first to encourage young people to get a part-time job while studying. But it borders on pointless when keeping a job in a local pub becomes more of a priority then attending lectures and writing essays. At the same time, those who can afford it will be spending their free time undertaking unpaid internships and work that benefits them academically.

Do not let this be another classic example of how direct rule fails Northern Ireland. I urge the House to reject this order and to vote for the amendment.

Photo of Lord Morgan Lord Morgan Labour 3:30 pm, 22nd March 2005

My Lords, I know nothing of Northern Ireland and we have had an authoritative statement from the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, about the circumstances there. My only reason for intervening is that we are veering into the general issue of whether top-up fees are helpful or disastrous for universities. In the rest of the United Kingdom, Scotland is still considering them, but Wales is switching to the system.

The view of those in charge of our universities and of the organisation that represents them is that there is a desperate problem of underfunding. We cannot keep up the standard of universities—I am sure that this applies in Northern Ireland—without a complete change of policy. The alternatives are a major increase in direct taxation, which the Liberal Democrat Party proposes—but its arithmetic has been questioned—or some kind of share that gives a substantial increase in funding and makes provision for the means of students. The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, did not show a full awareness of the schemes for bursaries and remissions that mean that the increase in fees for poorer students will be negligible.

Universities in England have already accepted and welcomed this proposal. University institutions in Wales have also accepted it. I think, to coin a phrase, that there is no alternative. I accept the view of the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, that there are special social and economic circumstances in Northern Ireland that change the context of the argument. But it seems to me to be beyond dispute that the general principle of top-up fees is essential for maintaining the international quality and competitiveness of British universities—and I speak as a former vice-chancellor.

Photo of Lord Dearing Lord Dearing Crossbench

My Lords, I cannot speak with any knowledge of Northern Ireland but, as one who has had some part in proposing income-contingent contributions by graduates to the funding of higher education, I would like to offer a word or two.

I agree that there is a great need to increase the level of funding for universities for the benefit of the students who attend them and for the quality of the educational experience from which they benefit. I have always thought that to seek a contribution from graduates on an income-contingent basis is equitable because, unlike the health service, which is available to us as of right, higher education is only available to those who can qualify for entry.

It is not available to all, but it conveys real advantages to those who go. First, it increases their ability to engage fully in life and to contribute to life. Secondly, it gives them the opportunity of more interesting jobs. Thirdly, it makes them less vulnerable to unemployment. Fourthly, for the majority, it gives them the expectation of a higher income. When I chaired an independent committee of inquiry into this some years ago, we found that there was a positive return. I am not specifically arguing on the Northern Ireland issue, but on the general issue of whether this policy is fair. There is a case in equity for asking for graduates to contribute on an income-contingent basis.

While it is right to ask graduates to contribute, the student has no money, especially those who come from poor homes. It is right that those who come from poor homes should receive a grant towards their living costs. For those from the poorest homes in England, that grant, as a result of debates in both Houses of Parliament, is to be £2,700 per year. In addition, there are to be loans at highly subsidised rates of interest. Indeed, the loans for tuition fees are, as has been said, at a zero real rate of interest. I was in Germany last week, debating these issues with members of the German university sector, students and government. Professor Nicholas Barr of the LSE was arguing strongly that the terms of these loans were very generous.

I am not arguing about Northern Ireland, but about whether these arrangements are equitable. I say that they are equitable. I hope that the House will be aware of that dimension of the issue in relation to other members of our community who do not have the opportunity to go to university.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative

My Lords, I apologise for being a few minutes late for the consideration of this order. I have a specific question to ask the Leader of the House which relates to Northern Ireland.

I have no wish to rehearse the arguments we heard when we considered the Higher Education Bill and the provisions as they affected England. However, at that time a number of contributions were made on all sides of the House on behalf of part-time students and those who were studying through the Open University. The Government gave a commitment that they would look at the issue. They have not.

I have had correspondence from the Open University and others. I remember the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, making an impassioned plea in her role as Chancellor of the Open University. There were many speeches about the position of institutions which had part-time students. Therefore, those students in Northern Ireland who wish to study with the Open University, or at institutions which are providing part-time courses, will be interested to hear what the Government will do about the problem which they have created by introducing this scheme. The universities will benefit from the additional income from the top-up fees. There is no such provision for the Open University.

I realise that we are entering a sensitive political period but when I listened to the news on the radio this morning I heard the Government saying how committed they are to vocational training, education, and creating a country which is able to compete with China. It was a major theme of the Chancellor's Budget so I am sure the Leader of the House will not have come to the House to discuss the matter without being able to tell us exactly what will be done for those students who are at the Open University and in part-time courses.

When the assurance was given from the Front Bench, I took it in good faith that something would be done about the problem. The days of this Government are numbered and, therefore, they should get on with it.

Photo of Lord Pilkington of Oxenford Lord Pilkington of Oxenford Conservative

My Lords, like many of my colleagues, I know little about education in Northern Ireland. However, the Government are committed to devolved government and to take such an autocratic act—as they are taking over grammar schools in Northern Ireland—is wrong. Therefore, I support the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis. It is an autocratic act. Considering that they are negotiating, they should listen to the parties in Northern Ireland. Since a devolved assembly is proposed, it is—dare I say this in a quite emotional way?—quite disgraceful to impose the abolition of grammar schools and this measure. Therefore my vote is decided.

Photo of Lord Shutt of Greetland Lord Shutt of Greetland Deputy Chief Whip, Spokesperson in the Lords, Northern Ireland Affairs

My Lords, those of us who spent some time last week in the Northern Ireland Grand Committee are well aware of the size of the public sector in Northern Ireland. The other side of that coin relates to the size of the private sector. From where does the Minister believe that bursary funds are likely to come in Northern Ireland? The noble Baroness, Lady Blood, is in her place. I appreciate her work and concern for the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland. That body has now been in existence for 25 years. It has been trying to build up a crock of gold in order to use the income for the support of community causes across Northern Ireland. An interesting factor is that much of that crock of gold has come from the public sector because of the difficulties of raising money from the private sector.

The question I stress is this. From where will bursary funds come for two universities in a place where it is very difficult to raise money?

Photo of Baroness Amos Baroness Amos President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Lords (Privy Council Office) 3:45 pm, 22nd March 2005

My Lords, I know that this a highly emotive issue, as was made clear when we discussed the Higher Education Act in this House. Perhaps I may also say to the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, that I welcome his opening remarks. Despite the differences that there have been across the House on Northern Ireland business, our debates have always been conducted in a constructive way. I entirely appreciate that the noble Lord's disagreements with the policy are not disagreements with me personally although, of course, I speak on behalf of the Government.

I recognise that it would have been preferable for this legislation to be taken forward by the Northern Ireland Assembly. The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, was also concerned about that issue. However, I emphasise that the policy proposals and the draft legislation have been fully consulted on in Northern Ireland although, again, I recognise that the outcome of the consultation was negative and the reaction critical. But I also have to say that no viable alternatives were proposed.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, raised a concern about a possible rise in the level of student debt. I recognise that student debt is a matter of concern to those who believe that the proposal will be a deterrent to higher education, particularly for those from lower income backgrounds. The proposals will make higher education free at the point of access and fair at the point of repayment. No student or parent will have to pay any fees before or while studying at university. Graduates will have to repay only once they start earning over £15,000 and then at a very reasonable rate linked to their income.

Perhaps I may also say this to the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Molyneaux. The key point is that there is no "do nothing" option for Northern Ireland. The Higher Education Act will fundamentally change the way in which higher education is funded in England. In the absence of this order no fee deferral arrangements exist which would enable the Department for Employment and Learning to provide funding to the institutions in the first instance to the extent that students choose to defer their fees. That means that almost 7,000 Northern Ireland students who go to English universities would have to pay the new fees, up to £3,000 up front, each year, from 2006.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, was concerned about applying English solutions to a Northern Ireland issue. We have taken the opportunity to tailor this legislation to reflect the specific needs of Northern Ireland. For example, we have not replicated the provisions in relation to the Office for Fair Access and the establishment of an office of the independent adjudicator to hear student complaints. The noble Lord was also concerned about comparisons with Scotland and Wales. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Morgan picked up on these points and sought to clarify them.

The Scottish Executive has announced that new students studying at a Scottish university will have to pay higher tuition fees from 2006–07. The level of tuition fee has not yet been set but is expected to be between £1,700 and £1,900 each year. This would mean that a four-year degree course in Scotland would cost approximately the same as a three-year course in England. Of course, there may also be a separate, higher tuition fee level set for medical students.

As regards Wales, a review is currently being undertaken under Professor Rees of fees and student support. That review will report in due course. Decisions will then be taken with respect to the ongoing fee level in Wales.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith, raised the importance of looking at socio-economic differences. The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, spoke of spiralling costs for students. I am of course aware of the socio-economic differences between Northern Ireland and England and that there is a higher participation rate in Northern Ireland. The proposals will help across the range, but will seek to ensure that access to higher education is protected for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. There will be no financial barrier to students choosing a particular course or university as they do not have to pay before they study or while studying.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative

My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the Minister. Perhaps my mental arithmetic is not very good, but when she said that for someone doing a four-year course at a Scottish university the cost would be approximately the same as for someone at an English university on the basis of fees of £1,400 to £1,700—

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative

My Lords, even at £1,700 that would be £6,800. Contrary to what the Government expected, the vast majority—more than 95 per cent—of English universities are going to charge fees of £3,000. That is £9,000. And £6,800 is not equal to £9,000.

Photo of Baroness Amos Baroness Amos President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Lords (Privy Council Office)

My Lords, we are talking about variable fees, as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, knows. Fee levels will be set by individual universities. I accept that if universities set fees at the top of the variable fee range, that will be the case; if not, the comparison is a valid one.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative

My Lords, but a survey released the other day shows that 95 per cent of English universities are choosing to charge the maximum fee of £3,000. I know that is not what the Government expected—indeed, when we discussed the matter they said that it would not be the position—but it is what has happened. The noble Baroness's briefing probably reflects what the department thought might happen, as opposed to what is happening outside in the real world.

Photo of Baroness Amos Baroness Amos President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Lords (Privy Council Office)

My Lords, I do not accept that. Universities have made it clear that they may charge different variable fees for different courses and may not charge the same fee across the board. We could debate the issue endlessly across the Dispatch Box, but I think that my point is right: it depends on where universities choose to set the variable fee. Of course if they set the fee at the higher rate, the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, is quite right: the comparison is not accurate. It depends on the point at which that variable fee is made. That is the point I was making.

The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, in particular asked what the access agreements would cover and what would be included in bursaries. An access agreement should cover, as a minimum, university plans for bursaries and other financial support for students; any outreach work planned by the university to encourage more potential students to consider higher education; financial information on funding available for prospective students; and university objectives to measure how its plans to safeguard and improve access are being achieved.

On the level of student support, it is proposed to apply similar arrangements to those proposed for England. For example, there will no longer be a requirement to pay tuition fees in advance. Instead, students could defer payment until they leave higher education. Since there will be fee deferral arrangements, the fee remission grant will be discontinued. A single larger non-repayable departmental higher education bursary of up to £3,200 will be available instead. Students can, if they wish, choose to use that to pay part or all their tuition fees. The current maintenance loan will be retained.

My noble friend Lord Morgan and the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, made reference to the importance of quality and competitiveness in universities. I agree with my noble friend Lord Morgan about the importance of changing policy and about consistency across the board in relation to that. Of course the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, has extensive experience of these matters—far more than I have. I listened to the noble Lord's remarks with interest. I was struck not only by the advantages set out by the noble Lord of this kind of system, but also by his remarks about the importance of there being an equitable system.

The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, raised the issue of the Open University and the commitments that were made during discussion of the Higher Education Bill. My understanding is that the arrangements for part-time students in Northern Ireland are not being changed, but that within the order there is a reserved power to provide part-time students with fee loans which would enable them to defer paying their fees if such a policy direction were decided at a later date.

On the possibility of extending fee deferral to part-time students, the Open University has been commissioned to carry out a survey into the incomes of part-time students and the costs they incur while studying. I was struck by the noble Lord saying that he had recently received a communication on this from the Open University. I should be concerned if there were some cross-communication here, but my understanding is that the Open University is conducting this research on behalf of the Government.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister. What the Open University needs is not to conduct a survey; it needs resources to be able to provide the teaching for the students. The problem for the Open University is that it will not benefit from the income which comes from the students through top-up fees. It therefore has no additional source of income.

During the consideration of the Bill, my understanding was that Ministers gave an assurance, particularly to the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, but also to other noble Lords, that this matter would be urgently addressed. That needs to happen before the coming academic year. Conducting a survey will not do anything for the Open University in giving it more money, which is what it requires.

Photo of Baroness Amos Baroness Amos President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Lords (Privy Council Office)

My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth. I think that there are two elements to the issue. One is on the commitments which were given during discussion of the Higher Education Bill. Consideration continues within the Department for Education and Skills on these matters with respect to the Open University. On the other side, the Open University has been commissioned to conduct some research which will assist the Government in making further decisions on the matter. So there are two different elements to this.

Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, whose comments were scathing about the Government's commitment to education, that we have demonstrated that commitment, not only in the additional resources that we have made available for education, but also on the up-scaling for vocational training. That was present not only in the DfES five-year plan that was launched, but also in the commitments made this morning by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills.

The noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, has very strong views on these matters, which he has expressed in this House on a number of occasions. I note the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, about the source of bursary funds. As a result of the proposed access agreements, universities will provide bursaries from income raised through higher fees. That is not therefore dependent on support from the private sector. The proposal is that it would come from the income raised through higher fees.

I think that I have addressed all the points which have been raised.

Photo of Lord Dearing Lord Dearing Crossbench

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, on the issue of the Scottish figure versus the English figure—the 6.8 versus nine—the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, was right in saying that all but seven of the English universities have opted for the full £3,000. That would be offset to a substantial extent, however, by the bursaries they intend to give.

I have heard—my memory may not be correct—that the total income they expect from the £3,000 is £1.2 billion, but there will be something over £200 million in the form of bursaries, which helps to bridge the gap. It may be that, in Scotland, the final decision on what English students will be charged will not be taken until the sums are done.

Sorry, am I going on too long?

Noble Lords:

Yes.

Photo of Lord Pilkington of Oxenford Lord Pilkington of Oxenford Conservative

My Lords, before the Minister sits down—

Noble Lords:

Oh!

Photo of Lord Glentoran Lord Glentoran Spokespersons In the Lords, Local and Devolved Government Affairs

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, I did not expect to rerun the debate on top-up fees, as has happened. The purpose of my amendment was, and still is, to make the point that Northern Ireland should have its own right and time to make its own decisions on top-up fees. The debate has just demonstrated what little certainty and strong feelings there are all around the House on this matter. It has proven, as I said in my opening remarks, that a Government with a majority of 200 in the other place can get its legislation with a majority of only five, supported by Scottish MPs to whom that legislation did not apply.

It would be wrong, overbearing and arrogant of this Government—and for Mr Gardiner, MP—to say "We are going to enforce this on Northern Ireland now, come what may". I wish to test the opinion of the House.

On Question, Whether the said amendment shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 168; Not-Contents, 150.

Division number 1 Private Parking: Ports and Trading Estates — Higher Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2005

Aye: 166 Members of the House of Lords

No: 148 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Resolved in the affirmative, and amendment agreed to accordingly.

Motion, as amended, agreed to.