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Higher Education and Research Bill - Committee (6th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 25th January 2017.

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Photo of Lord Sharkey Lord Sharkey Liberal Democrat 6:15 pm, 25th January 2017

My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 442 in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Willis. The Committee will know that sharia law forbids interest-bearing loans. That prohibition is a barrier to Muslim students attending our universities. This has been a problem for the Muslim community in this country since at least 2012. Prior to then, many Muslim students were able to attend university because they were financed by family and friends. This was possible when tuition fees were low, but it is much more difficult with fees at their current levels. Successive Governments have known about this problem. They have recognised that the current system effectively discriminates against devout Muslims for whom interest-bearing loans are not acceptable.

The system works to the direct disadvantage of our Muslim communities. Many Muslim students, although qualified, cannot progress to tertiary education. The system also works to the disadvantage of our society as a whole. An important part of the community is effectively deprived of access to higher and further education, of the opportunity to mix with others and to learn from and contribute to our culture. These are damaging and dangerous exclusions. They are also completely unnecessary.

In April 2014, BIS launched a consultation on possible Sharia-compliant ways of financing students. This consultation generated an astonishing 20,000 responses. The consultation outlined the proposed solution, based on the widely used Islamic finance instrument, called a takaful. In their response to the consultation, the Government said:

“It is clear from the large number of responses … that the lack of an Alternative Finance product as an alternative to conventional student loans is a matter of major concern to many Muslims”.

The response went on to say:

“There is demand for the proposed Alternative Finance product and responses to the consultation indicate that this would enable many of those who have been or will be prevented from undertaking both FE and HE, to attend by removing the conflict between faith and funding”.

The Government’s conclusion was equally clear; they said that,

“the Government supports the introduction of a Sharia-compliant Takaful Alternative Finance product available to everyone”.

But there was a cautionary addendum:

“Given the complexity of these issues and the time needed to resolve them, it is unlikely that any Alternative Finance product could be available before academic year 2016/17”.

That was written in September 2014—two and a half years ago—and only now is enabling legislation before us. If that sounds like criticism I should say immediately that I warmly congratulate the Government and Jo Johnson on finally producing the legal framework to solving the problem. It is a vital step forward, but it has one major defect. The Bill is silent as to when the takaful scheme will be in place. We are already in academic year 2016-17. We are too far into the year for any scheme to affect the 2017-18 intake and, worse, I have been told privately that it is likely that the scheme will not be ready until the academic year 2019-20. That is seven years after the problem was recognised, five years after the solution was agreed, and two academic years away from now. If that is correct, it means that Muslim students will continue to be discriminated against and disadvantaged for another two years; another two cohorts of young people who are unable to attend university.

My Amendment 442 addresses the problem directly. It simply requires the takaful scheme to be in place to benefit students going into further education or higher education in the autumn of 2018. I have tried to get to the bottom of why there might be this extended delay of five years between agreeing a solution and putting it into practice. I have consulted with Islamic finance experts and people familiar with the operational requirements involved in introducing a takaful scheme. I am told that, with the necessary political will, a working takaful system can be put in place within eight to 12 months, and that assumes that no significant work has already been done. That is why I have chosen the deadline of academic year 2018-19.

I am also told that the reason for the very likely prolonged delay that would otherwise occur is not lack of good intentions but the inability of the Student Loans Company and HMRC to organise themselves to deliver the product in a reasonable time. People I have talked to speak of a lack of resource in both agencies and an inability to process additional work in a reasonable time. A timetable that leads up to autumn 2019-20 is not reasonable and not necessary, especially when there is precedent for moving a lot faster. For example, the Sharia-compliant version of the Help to Buy guarantee scheme took five or six months, from the beginning, to develop and launch. These things can be done in good time, if there is the will and the allocation of the required resource. When the Minister responds he—or she—may say that the takaful scheme will in fact be in operation for the academic year 2018-19. If the Minister does say that, it will be heard, noted and welcomed as a commitment by the Muslim community and Muslim students, who will at last be able to go on to university. If he does that make that commitment to the Muslim community and to Muslim students I will not press my amendment.