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“(ca) in the case of alternative payments in connection with a higher education course, for the cancellation of the entitlement of an AP recipient to receive a sum as part of an alternative payment in such circumstances as may be prescribed by, or determined by the person making the regulations under, the regulations, where the payment of the sum has been suspended;”.
This amendment and amendments 244 and 245 make clear that regulations under section 22 of the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998 may make provision for payments to students and others in respect of alternative payments, grants and loans in respect of higher education courses to be cancelled, where the payments have previously been suspended under the regulations.
The amendments will allow approval to receive student funding to be linked to OFS registration within the new regulatory framework. They also allow Ministers to cancel suspended student support payments where it is necessary to do so—for example, in cases of fraud. I am pleased to say that, following a request from the Welsh Government, we have ensured that the provisions apply to Wales and have set out the procedure for the commencement of the clauses.
New clause 8—Revocation of the Education (Student Support) (Amendment) Regulations 2015—
“The Education (Student Support) (Amendment) Regulations 2015 (Statutory Instrument no. 1951/ 2015) are revoked.”
This new clause would revoke the Education (Student Support) (Amendment) Regulations 2015, which moved support for students from a system of maintenance grants to loans.
New clause 10—Impact of changes to financial support for students on access and participation—
“(1) The OfS must, within six months of the day on which this Act is passed, report to the Secretary of State an assessment of the impact of changes to student financial support arrangements made within the previous twenty-four months on access and participation, and make recommendations.
(2) The OfS may, in making the assessment of such changes as specified in section (1), make recommendations to the Secretary of State about further necessary changes to student support to enhance or mitigate the impact of that change on access and participation.
(3) The OfS must, within twelve months of any change to student financial support arrangements coming into force and after two twelve month periods thereafter, report to the Secretary of State an assessment of the impact of the change on access and participation and make recommendations.
(4) The OfS may, in making the assessment of such changes as specified in section (3), make recommendations to the Secretary of State about further necessary changes to student support to enhance or mitigate the impact of that change on access and participation.
(5) The Secretary of State must lay the reports specified in subsections (1) and (3) before both Houses of Parliament.”
This new Clause would require the OfS to report to the Secretary of State on the impact of changes to student funding on access and participation.
New clause 11—Access to support for modular study—
“The Secretary of State must, within six months of the day on which this Act is passed, set out arrangements in regulations made under sections 22 and 42 of the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998, as amended, to provide support for students studying for institutional credits, as distinct from working towards a full qualification.”
This new Clause would require the Secretary of State to provide for module-specific loans, rather than requiring people to be working towards a full qualification to qualify for access to financial support.
New clause 13—Student support: restricted modification of repayment terms—
“(1) Section 22 of the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998 (power to give financial support to students) is amended in accordance with subsections (2) to (4).
(2) In subsection (2)(g) at the beginning insert “Subject to subsections (3)(A) and (3)(B),”.
(3) In subsection (2)(g) leave out from “section” to the end of subsection (2)(g).
(4) After subsection (3) insert—
“(3A) Other than in accordance with subsection (3B), no provision may be made under subsection (2)(g) relating to the repayment of a loan that has been made available under this section once the parties to that loan (including the borrower) have agreed the terms and conditions of repayment, including during—
(a) the period of enrolment on a course specified under subsection (1)(a) or (1)(b), and
(b) the period of repayment.
(3B) Any modification to any requirement or other provision relating to the repayment of a loan made available under this section and during the periods specified in subsection (3A) shall only be made if approved by an independent panel.
(3C) The independent panel shall approve modifications under subsection (3B) if such modifications meet conditions to be determined by the panel.
(3D) The approval conditions under subsection (3C) must include that—
(a) the modification is subject to consultation with representatives of the borrowers,
(b) the majority of the representative group consider the modification to be favourable to the majority of students and graduates who have entered loans, and
(c) there is evidence that those on low incomes will be protected.
(3E) The independent panel shall consist of three people appointed by the Secretary of State, who (between them) must have experience of—
(a) consumer protection,
(b) loan modification and mediation,
(c) the higher education sector, and
(d) student finance.”
New clause 14—Student loans: regulation—
“(1) Any loan granted under section 22(1) of the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998, (“student loans”) irrespective of the date on which the loan was granted, shall be regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority.
(2) Any person responsible for arranging, administering or managing, or offering or agreeing to manage, student loans shall be regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority.”
New clause 15—Higher Education loans: restrictions on modification of repayment conditions—
“(1) A loan made by the Secretary of State to eligible students in connection with their undertaking a higher education course or further education course under the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998 shall—
(a) not be subject to changes in repayment conditions retroactively without agreement from both Houses of Parliament;
(b) not be subject to changes in repayment conditions in the event of the loan being sold to private concerns, unless these changes are made to all loans, in the manner prescribed above;
(c) be subject to beneficial changes, principally to the repayment threshold, in line with average earnings.
(2) In section 8 of the Sale of Student Loans Act 2008, for subsection (1) substitute—
“(1) Loans made in accordance with regulations under section 22 of the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998 (c. 30) are to be regulated by the Consumer Credit Act 1974 (c. 39).””
This new clause would ensure no retroactive changes could be made to student loan repayment conditions without agreement from both Houses of Parliament.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I rise to speak because I think that we have a chance to right a wrong. I hope that the whole Committee will indulge me and vote for our new clauses. I will speak to new clauses 8 and 15, and support new clauses 10, 11, 13 and 14, in the names of my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield Central and for Ilford North, who will I am sure speak with their usual expertise and eloquence in due course.
New clause 8 would revoke the regulations that made the change from maintenance grants to maintenance loans, and would ensure that students from low and middle-income backgrounds can receive the maintenance grant again. The policy was first announced in the autumn statement by the then Chancellor, and was pushed through in a statutory instrument without the proper scrutiny of the whole House. It is right that we have the chance to scrutinise it here today. The power is in the Committee’s hands.
Far too many students feel that they have been ripped off by this Government—a feeling that, sadly, this Bill seems unlikely to change in its current form. First, the coalition Government trebled tuition fees, leaving students with some of the highest levels of debt in the developed world. They then froze the threshold at which students repay those debts, meaning that those on lower incomes will lose out yet again. Then, in one of the former Chancellor’s last great failures before leaving office, he abolished maintenance grants, replacing them with yet more loans and burdening young people with even more debt.
My hon. Friend states our case strongly. Does she share my sense of regret that, despite the inadequate consideration by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and despite our request that the Government bring the matter to the Floor of the House, it took an Opposition day motion to have the change debated? The Government’s majority in that Opposition day debate—from memory, I believe it was 16—was one of the lowest they had in that Parliament.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The Minister and his hon. Friends have an opportunity to right that wrong today, so I hope they are all listening and are willing to work collaboratively with us.
New clause 15 would introduce much-needed restrictions on the Government’s ability retrospectively to change the terms of student loan agreements. It would make such a change subject to the approval of both Houses of Parliament, which is exactly how things should be conducted in this place. Although the practical steps we propose are slightly different, new clause 15 has much the same goals as new clauses 13 and 14, tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield Central and for Ilford North. Either approach would have our full support.
When we talk about students feeling ripped off by the Government, there can be no better example than the retrospective changes made to student loan agreements. The decision to freeze the repayment threshold so that graduates begin to repay their loans when they earn £21,000 a year, instead of allowing it to rise with inflation as initially promised, shows a brazen disrespect for students and destroyed any remaining trust they had in the Government. Fortunately for the Minister, he has the chance to restore that trust today by supporting new clause 15.
I am sure the Minister agrees that the Government have a great deal of work to do to ensure that all students, regardless of background, can access the education they need. After all, he was the one who said that the fall in the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds at our elite universities showed
“a worrying lack of progress” towards widening participation. We agree; that is why we tabled the new clause. He also said that our top universities must
“redouble their efforts…to boost social mobility”.
Our new clause gives him the chance to do that.
I know these Committee debates can feel a little dry, but if the Minister and his party vote with us, we can all leave this Committee Room knowing that we have done something exciting and worthwhile to boost social mobility. I, for one, would love to go back to my constituency tonight and sing it from the rooftops. It would be such a progressive step, but if the Minister cannot accept it, perhaps he can tell us what new steps the Government will take in the Bill to reverse the worrying free fall in the number of state-educated students going on to university.
More than half a million students were able to benefit from the maintenance grants policy and receive the support they needed to meet their living costs. The Government have said that the Bill
“will support the Government’s mission to boost social mobility, life chances and opportunity for all”,
but the Committee has spent a long time scrutinising it and the Government have come forward with no substantive proposals for doing any of those things; if anything, they have made them less likely to occur. Instead, they have offered us an office for students with no students in it, and access and participation plans that will take no substantive steps to improve either access or participation. Although the Government claim that their goal is to increase social mobility, there appears to be nothing in the Bill that shows that they are taking that challenge seriously.
Our new clauses give the Government an excellent chance to meet the goals that they have set themselves in the Bill. The Government have said that they want to boost social mobility. They can do just that by voting for new clause 8 and offering much-needed support to students from low and middle-income backgrounds. The Government have said that they want to improve life chances. What better way of doing that than by giving everyone the opportunity to access higher education if they want to? The Government have said that they want to improve opportunity for all. The Minister will be able to do just that by accepting the new clause. Is he willing to walk the walk of improving social mobility, or is he just talking the talk?
I understand that we are asking the Minister to carry out the dreaded U-turn. After all, he previously said that the abolition of the maintenance grant and the introduction of a new loan helps to balance the need to ensure that affordability is not a barrier to higher education with ensuring that higher education is funded in a fair and sustainable way. It is clear, however, that that will not be the case. After all, figures from his own Department show that since the trebling of tuition fees, there has been a sharp and continuous fall in the number of state-educated students going on to higher education. Perhaps he can tell us today how increasing the burden of debt on students by replacing maintenance grants with loans will improve matters.
The changes that the Government made retrospectively have made the problem even worse, but fundamentally this is not just about the principle of retrospective action; it is about trust. The Government having the power to change loans retrospectively means that every single student in further and higher education will be writing a blank cheque to the Government and, worse than that, they will be writing a blank cheque to a Government that they know they cannot trust—a Government that have already retrospectively changed the terms of their loans once, which, as the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown, will cost the average student £6,000.
The Minister said that the funding for student finance would be fair and sustainable, but this is nothing more than a trick of accounting. The change from maintenance grants to loans appears to reduce the spending on universities, but all it really does is defer the cost. As has been shown by the independent Office for Budget Responsibility—an institution set up by his party’s Government—the change from maintenance grants to maintenance loans will, over the medium term, increase public sector debt by more than 2% of GDP. That is the result of the Government making loans when they know that most students will not be able to repay them. Moving to loans may be a good accountant’s trick to reduce the deficit, but it does nothing for our public finance or for the wellbeing of those students carrying that personal burden. It simply means that it will be the next generation left picking up the tab. We all know that this generation will be the first to be worse off than their parents. Do we really, as a nation, want to make a habit of that? The tab that maintenance loans will leave them with is more than 2% of GDP. That is more than our entire defence budget, more than £34 billion. Perhaps the Minister can tell us how leaving that debt for the next generation is, in his words, “fair and sustainable”.
The Government have made it clear that they want us to use the Bill to improve opportunity for all. We know that the maintenance grant is the way to do that. We saw under the last Labour Government how it was central to helping record numbers of children from disadvantaged backgrounds into universities—a proud record, I might add. The Government plan to scrap the maintenance grant. To simply impose an additional debt on students is a regressive step. Having already burdened students with additional debt, taking the power retrospectively to increase their debt burden again and again will create a dangerous disincentive, as students will not enter further and higher education for fear of what the Government will do to their loans. The Minister may feel that new clause 15 is unnecessary because his Government would never renege on their promises to students and never retrospectively change the terms of a loan agreement, but his Government have already done that once. We know that the Government have not only the power but the inclination, so it is no wonder that students are worried they will do it again.
If a private company did something like that, we would call that mis-selling loans and, if no private company could get away with that, no Government should be allowed to do so, either. That is why we have tabled new clause 15 to protect students and the investment they make in their education. I am sure the Minister would agree that there are few things more important to protect than that.
We have seen the damaging impact that spiralling student debt has had on state pupils’ ability to access university, and as living costs are a growing concern for many students, the end of the maintenance grant will make it far more difficult for many students to get by. Luckily, in this room today the Committee has the power to reverse this change. I sincerely hope that Members on both sides of the Committee will join us in doing that when it comes to the vote.
I think this is the first opportunity I have had in this sitting to say what a delight it is to contribute with you in the Chair, Sir Edward. I will speak on new clauses 10 and 11 and say a few words on some of the other new clauses in the group.
We are in agreement on the objective of widening participation and new clause 10 seeks to strengthen the Government’s intention in driving forward widening participation by ensuring that changes that may be made in funding arrangements do not have consequences that cut against the drive of that policy. It requires the OFS to review the impact of any changes that have been made recently or that will be made in the future subsequent to the Bill. For example, on maintenance grants for poorer students, on which my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne spoke powerfully, the Government will no doubt come up with a defence but there is a need to do some serious work looking at the impact of those changes.
I remember, as will other Members here, when the 2012 funding changes were introduced. In previous sittings the Minister has spoken about how they did not have the anticipated impact on widening participation, but he will also remember how his predecessor David Willetts and other Ministers said on occasion after occasion that one of the principles they could be proud of in the proposals was having maintenance grants for poorer students. Indeed, the Minister is willing to parade the numbers of students from disadvantaged homes participating in higher education, but if I were to accept the argument his predecessor made at face value, maintenance grants for poorer students must have played a significant part in achieving those numbers.
It is important that we carry out some serious research and put a responsibility on the office for students to carry out research on that change and on other changes to see how far they might pull the rug from under the feet of the Government’s intentions on widening participation. Another example is on disabled students allowance and the changes due in that area.
The Minister has spoken previously of the introduction of maintenance loans for part-time students. I think that is a measure people would uniformly welcome, but we need to be sure those changes are sufficient to achieve the objectives of reversing the cliff-edge fall in part-time student numbers that followed the Government’s changes in 2012. It is absolutely clear from the way those numbers can be tracked that it was those funding changes that had that impact. I hope the proposals the Government are now bringing will reverse those changes, but we need to look at them, assess them and then put that responsibility on the office for students.
The introduction of sharia-compliant loans is a welcome move. We should also evaluate and make sure we got that right, and if we did not, we should change that policy. The amendment embeds looking at all of those sort of issues as they arise, evaluating them properly and making proper recommendations to Government into the responsibilities of the office for students, to ensure we achieve the objectives we all want to achieve on widening participation.
New clause 11 is really an extension of the arguments I made in an earlier debate about credit accumulation and transfer, which I know the Minister is supportive of in principle and which the Government are encouraging. Again, it tries to address the concerns over the fall-off in part-time student numbers. As I said a moment ago, we know that fall-off was heavily influenced by the changes in the funding arrangements. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, as it was then, commissioned YouGov last September to do some work entitled, “Perceptions of Part-Time Higher Education”. As the Minister knows, that work concluded that one of the leading barriers to engaging in part-time education for 33% of the people YouGov spoke to was financial issues relating to funding and fees. That affected those from socioeconomic groups C2, D and E much more so than those from the A, B and C1 groups, so it absolutely cuts across the Government’s objectives on widening participation.
I am delighted my hon. Friend is pursuing the broad principle he outlined when speaking to previous amendments and on which we had a significant debate under clause 36. Does he agree with me, and pursuant to YouGov’s findings, that one of the things people need, particularly older people in their 30s, 40s and 50s who have never had any exposure to higher education before, is to be able to go one step at a time and so be able to juggle their financial and personal and family needs? With the right safeguards and guarantees, that is exactly what a greater focus on modular funding would achieve.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to make that point. The Open University is clearly a hugely valuable reference point in this given its world-leading success in part-time education. Its assessment of the collapse in part-time student numbers and evaluation of the 2012 reforms was:
“Since the reforms, prospective part-time students in England are giving greater consideration to the whole learning pathway they are going to take. They must now consider the end qualification they are aiming for at the very outset of their HE learning journey if they want a loan (given loans are only an option for those with a stated intention to study for a degree or other HE qualification). Prior to the reforms, part-time students were more likely to try out higher education and perhaps study on a module-by-module basis, and at a lower intensity, without committing to a degree or other HE qualification.”
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Both he and my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne make a powerful case on how disgracefully students have been treated by the Government. The Open University had to change the way in which it deals with part-time students by making them register for a course in order to be able to get student loans. That seems to be the height of inflexibility and not the flexibility that the Minister says he wants to usher in. Perhaps one of the things he could do this afternoon, in addition to reversing all the changes to maintenance loans and so on, is to put much more flexibility into the loans system.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Minister could give serious consideration to such a proposal; I very much hope that he will.
As the Open University illustrates, all the evidence shows that shifting towards the requirement for loans to be given for a whole-course commitment was one that tipped too many people over the edge. The change in the arrangements that my hon. Friend has just outlined tipped too many people over the edge and contributed enormously to the dramatic decline in part-time student numbers. This issue is about widening participation. It is about the discussions we had earlier on credit accumulation and transfer. It is about giving people different entry routes into higher education. As the Minister keeps making the point validly, it is about having a more creative, more innovative, more wide-ranging view of our higher education system, but that requires exactly the sort of flexibility that my hon. Friend talks about, which the Open University was driven away from. I do hope the Minister will give serious consideration to the proposal in new clause 11 for module by module loans.
I will speak briefly to new clauses 13 and 14. I have the privilege of representing more students than any other Member of Parliament—I regularly make that point; I can see the weary faces—and it is a great privilege. I was hit with a wall of outrage when the Government introduced the retrospective changes. They were met with outrage and incredulity from many of the 36,000 students that I represent. Rachel Mercer wrote to me:
“I have been at University since 2014 and think it is completely outrageous—if true—” because she did not believe the Government could do something like this—
“that my loan may be rewritten....I have not seen anything which confirms these rumours...but the students I am friends with are all very worried and very angry!”
Emily Reed wrote:
“During my time”—
I think we can apply every approach. [Interruption.] I have got three more. Where were we? Emily Reed wrote:
“During my time as an undergraduate at Sheffield University, I volunteered with local young people who were considering university as an option. As many were from less privileged backgrounds, money was obviously a huge concern for them. These young people will be the worst affected by the proposed plans.”
And she makes the point that this is on top of the scrapping of maintenance grants. It makes me feel immense guilt for having potentially encouraged young people who trusted in university advice and Government dependability to aim beyond their means. James Dawkins made the point echoed this afternoon by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne, that
“Neither banks nor lending companies would be allowed to get away with such a modification to their terms and conditions after a contract had already been signed, so how can the Government expect to do the same?”
This is the nub of the issue. In any other walk of life, this would be considered to be what it is: fraudulent behaviour that undermines confidence in a funding system, in Government and in our democracy at a time when we need to encourage that confidence among young people. I wholly endorse new clauses 13, 14 and 15 and hope that the Government will give them serious consideration.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne and my Back-Bench colleagues on the strong, forceful and continuous way we are pressing the Government on these issues. I do not want to repeat the arguments that have been made, but I want to offer a couple of observations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne talked about the effect this will have on thousands of students’ loan agreements. She and I both represent north-west constituencies, and one thing comes across powerfully when we look at the impact of these changes. I am not suggesting that they are simply restricted to affecting adversely a particular part or region of the country. Nevertheless, if we look at average earnings for graduates in the north-west, the east midlands or other parts of the country outside the south-east and London—graduates who have sweated hard and laboured to get their degrees and taken out loans—those are the people who thus far have been shielded from the effects of this change because they have had only modest salaries in the first two or three years of their employment. This change has a disproportionate impact on graduates on modest incomes. It is not only a socially regressive move but a geographically regressive one.
On freezing the threshold as a principle, there is little more one can say to shame the Government over this process, except to remind them of one thing. I have sat on many Bill Committees over the years, but I have never seen a witness speak truth to power with quite so much force as when Martin Lewis came before us and comprehensively condemned the Government on this. It is not often we hear such strong comments from witnesses, so it is worth repeating what he said:
“Looking at students as consumers, if they had borrowed money from a commercial lender, the Financial Conduct Authority would have struck out in a second the idea that, five years after announcing that the repayment threshold would go up from £21,000 in April 2017 with average earnings, that would be frozen.”––[Official Report, Higher Education and Research Public Bill Committee,
That is the point. I do not want to get outwith the narrow clause, but Martin Lewis also said that this is not only a question of trust of a particular group of people; it is a question for our democracy. The students we are talking about are people we want particularly—I am not saying exclusively—to play a strong part in our democracy and electoral process in the future. If they come away feeling they are being treated by the Government of today with less consideration than that of a fabled second-hand car salesman, we cannot be surprised that the turnout in certain elections is not exactly what all of us would wish. Those are fundamental and central points that should be considered.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne, with great passion and eloquence, dealt with virtually all of the reasons why we believe it is so important to bring forward the reversal of the Government’s decision to replace maintenance grants with loans. I have only one further point: as the Government’s own impact assessment showed, it is precisely those disadvantaged groups of young people who will suffer the most from this policy. If the Government are concerned not only about the social justice and social mobility that would be improved by restoring maintenance grants, but about our economic performance, particularly in those parts of the country they are still waxing so lyrical about devolving powers to, they really must take this argument sensibly. It does not make sense economically or socially to replace maintenance grants with loans.
I rise to support new clauses 13 and 14, tabled in my name, as well as the amendments tabled by my hon. Friends. I begin with a broad point. I support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Education on the Government’s decision to abolish student grants. Whatever we think about how the Government went about making that decision, it is appalling, as I said on Second Reading, that they are proceeding with a policy that will leave the poorest students graduating with the highest levels of debt. That will be the consequence of replacing student grants with increased student loans.
In itself, that is deeply regressive, but it is also the latest step in dismantling the compromise that was reached over successive Parliaments and under Governments of different political colours. It was agreed that we would mitigate the risks posed to fair access and widening participation by higher university tuition fees and ensure, as successive Ministers have argued, that the new system would be progressive in terms of the distributional impact of Government decisions on student finance and funding. By abolishing student grants, the Government have not only undone the promise and commitment that was made to students and their representatives back then, but they have left the poorest students graduating with the highest levels of debt. That completely undermines any case the Government want to make about the inherent fairness of the system.
I am glad to see the amendments tabled by the Labour Front-Bench team, which would undo the damage, and also to see the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central, who quite rightly calls for a Government review of the impact on fair access and participation in higher education of the changes to the student finance terms and conditions. In the debate about student finance we should not overlook the fact that it is about ensuring not only that people get through the door at the point of application, but that students from the poorest backgrounds are able to participate in higher education in the fullest sense because they have the financial means to do so.
Whether the lack of money in students’ pockets means that they cannot access the right resources or participate fully in student activities, or that they are turning to pulling pints and stacking shelves for hours that no one could reasonably consider to be part time, there is an opportunity cost as well. If we are serious about social mobility, we need to ensure that those from the most disadvantaged and poorest backgrounds are able to play the fullest part in the higher education student experience. As the Committee will know, when employers make decisions about graduates, they are looking at not only the degree classification but the rounded student experience.
I particularly welcome the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central on access to student finance for refugees. In a previous life, I was chief executive of the Helena Kennedy Foundation, a small national educational charity focused on widening access to higher education for the most disadvantaged students from further education. The foundation had, and still has, a project aimed particularly at supporting refugees to access higher education.
Many of us will know from our casework that there are bureaucratic problems—forget policy for a moment—with the Home Office and the Border Agency. I think I have just understated the situation by describing them as bureaucratic problems. For many of those people stuck in the system, it is an absolute nightmare. Among those people are refugees who have fled some of the most indescribable and unspeakable situations and want to build a new life in the United Kingdom. Because they are left in limbo, they cannot play a full and active part in employment. They can go through school, but then they reach the barrier of access to higher education because they cannot afford international student fees. The Government ought to look at that issue very seriously, and should commend the universities that have already taken the initiative by offering generous scholarships and bursaries to refugees who find themselves in that position.
New clauses 13 and 14 are what I have dubbed the “Martin Lewis amendments”. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South—Martin Lewis’s testimony was some of the most powerful that the Committee heard and one of the most powerful pieces of testimony that I have heard in any Committee in my short time in Parliament. He absolutely nailed the injustice and inequity of what the Government have done by making retrospective changes to student finance, which, as the Minister knows, is something that he and I both feel very strongly about.
In 2011, Martin agreed to head up an independent taskforce on student finance information at the instigation of the then higher education Minister, now Lord Willetts. He asked me to be his deputy head as I had recently finished at the National Union of Students. Our commitment was that—whatever our concerns about the system—it was absolutely critical that students should be well informed to make the right decisions about higher education and whether it was right for them, based on the facts, not fear. We worked with schools, colleges, universities, the private sector, the voluntary sector and the Government, trying to convey the facts of the system in an impartial way, not least because Martin Lewis was and still is one of the most trusted voices and a consumer champion respected by members of the public. We were conveying what we believed in good faith to be facts about the system, and find now that those promises are being undone. I agree with the adviser who wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central—I feel a sense of betrayal, not just of the commitment that Martin Lewis and I had faithfully signed up to, but of those students who were inadvertently ill-advised because we could not have imagined that a Government would retrospectively change the terms of repayment for existing students and graduates.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful and excellent case for the new clauses, which illustrates the strong convictions that he has held throughout this process. On the subject of why any Government would make this change to student loans, there is a saying that desperate times require desperate measures. Does he share my concern that this is a fundamental unravelling of the settlement that the Government thought would lead them to the promised land, but has left them with potential deficits and black holes for years to come?
I wholeheartedly agree. The only justification for the move is financial. It is a Treasury-driven decision to save some change in the Treasury coffers at the expense of existing students and graduates and, as I shall argue, at a greater cost, which is to the trust and faith in promises made by Government.
Turning to the reasons why the Minister should agree to the new clauses, I do not think that anyone in this room could, hand on heart, disagree with the principle that when a contract is signed, both sides should keep to it. If a lender advertises a loan, they should be held to the terms and conditions that it was sold under. In fact, not only is that a principle that we would all sign up to, it is a principle enshrined in law. Thankfully in this country we have laws and regulations that apply to financial products, but with, it seems, one exception: student loans.
As a result of the decision taken by this Government, albeit under the last Administration, from next April the Government will breach a promise they made to millions of students who started university since 2012. In doing so, they will hike up the costs of those students’ loans by thousands of pounds. The Minister knows how the repayment system was sold: people were told that they repay 9% of everything earned above £21,000 per year. Government repeatedly promised that the £21,000 figure would be uprated each year from April 2017 in line with average earnings. I know that the Minister will stand up shortly and make a very important point about sticking to terms and conditions, and he will say that I am mistaken because the terms and conditions allow for this sort of flexibility.
My amendment would tighten up the issue of the terms and conditions. It would also go to the heart of the matter, because this is about not simply terms and conditions, but promises that are made by Ministers. We were told that the £21,000 figure would be uprated in line with average earnings, and that was confirmed in black and white in a letter to parents by the former universities Minister, Lord Willetts. It was there unambiguously—not with caveats or with, “We might change our mind, but it’s okay because the terms and conditions allow us to do that, even though no other financial lender would be allowed to do that.” It was there, very simply stated, in black and white. If the Government go ahead, those parents will have been misled. I am sure if we invited Lord Willetts to give evidence, he would say, “Well, that was the intention. That was the promise that I made, but of course I am no longer the Minister.” Although faces and names change, it is not fair that people can take out a loan in good faith with certain terms and conditions only for it to be changed retrospectively.
This is a retrospective hike in costs. Rather than rising to £25,000, the threshold has stuck at £21,000, so everyone over that level will repay an extra £360 per year. It is regressive. Lower and middle-earning graduates will not clear what they owe within the 30 years before the repayments wipe, so they will repay thousands more over the life of their loans.
On the regressive nature of the change, putting the retrospective issue to one side for a moment, if the Government want in the future to make changes to student loan repayment terms and conditions to save money, there are more progressive ways of doing so than freezing the repayment threshold. The Minister could change the taper, for example, and the rate at which higher earners pay. That would be more equitable. Instead, he has taken the simple approach of freezing the repayment threshold, but that has made the system even more regressive.
This is not just a financial issue; it has resulted in a serious loss of trust. The Government made a clear promise in all the communications, and they have moved back on it. The fact is that if this loan were regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority, there is no way it would allow any commercial lender to make a change to the terms and conditions in this way, given the way that the loan was sold. If it is not right for the banks, it is not right for the Government. Retrospective changes are bad governance, and they should not be allowed to continue.
Given that we have a new Prime Minister who said she wants a Britain where every person has the opportunity to be all that they want to be, and given that we have a new Chancellor—this is not his fault; he did not make the decision—I urge the Government to rethink this situation. The freeze has not actually started yet. There is time to reverse the damage before it is done. It was announced by the previous Chancellor, Mr Osborne, in last year’s autumn statement, and it could be reversed by the new Chancellor of the Exchequer in the autumn statement on
I have set out clearly why this is a matter not simply of terms and conditions but of promises and trust. I hope that the Minister will hear what we have said and agree that we have made a compelling case for the Government to clean up the mess left by the previous Chancellor in the autumn statement. I hope he will stand up today and confirm to the hundreds and thousands of students, graduates and parents who are concerned about these issues that he has listened and learned, and that he will correct this mistake before it is too late.
We have had a lengthy debate about issues that hon. Members and I have already debated on many occasions over the past year. I am sure they are familiar with many of the points I will make in response.
I will start with the overarching position, which is that Britain has some of the very best universities in the world and this Government are committed to putting them on a strong and sustainable financial footing to ensure that that continues. Our student funding regime achieves exactly the right balance between students, taxpayers and universities. Our decisions have allowed us to remove the cap on student numbers; we have increased up-front financial support to students and made above-inflation increases for some of the poorest; and I am proud to say that as a result of our decisions, more people, not fewer, are going to university, including record numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. As I have told the Committee before, the entry rate for the most disadvantaged 18-year-olds has risen under the current system to 18.5%, a record high. Disadvantaged young people in England are now a third more likely to enter university than they were when the coalition Government came into office. The system is progressive; it ensures that those who benefit the most from their education contribute more.
I was struck and a little disappointed that the shadow Secretary of State claimed that the Bill was silent on social mobility and widening participation. I do not think that that is the view of the Committee as a whole. I am surprised that she has not taken into account the various ways in which the Bill moves forward Government policy on widening participation. For her benefit, I will remind her of some of the key ways in which it does so. It makes equality of opportunity a core duty of the OFS. As we were discussing an hour or so ago, it places a transparency duty on providers, shining a spotlight on those that need to go further on social mobility. It introduces an alternative finance product so those who cannot access interest-bearing loans for religious reasons can access student finance. It mainstreams the director for access and participation’s role in the office for students, giving that important function the full suite of OFS levers and sanctions. It ensures that information collected by the admissions body can be used for research on social mobility. It enables new providers to enter the sector, providing greater diversity of provision for a wider range of students. Those are just some of the many ways in which the Bill takes us forward on social mobility, and I was disappointed that she did not acknowledge any of those.
I suppose the issue is gusto—whether the Bill has teeth and the ability really to drive social mobility. I was hoping that the Minister, instead of just reeling off what he has told us before, would come with me today and do something actually to help social mobility. That is why I am disappointed with his response.
As I was going to say, our funding system for higher education has enabled us to put it on a sustainable financial footing and, in turn, lift the student number cap. If we moved back to the old way of funding universities through direct Government grants and the payment of tuition fees and maintenance grants, we would have to reimpose the student number cap, which would inevitably have an impact on widening participation. We have seen in Scotland how the alternative funding model that the Labour party wants to move us back to crimps social mobility. We see that in all the data from Scotland on widening participation and access. The hon. Lady needs only to look at the Scottish example to see how her policies would take us backwards on social mobility. She needs to look carefully at how the record participation of people from disadvantaged backgrounds under our funding system is driving social mobility and will continue to do so in the years ahead.
I thank the Minister for giving way once more; he is being generous with his time. Does he agree that Labour’s announcement about how we would plan the corporation tax rate to pay for things such as education maintenance allowance to be reintroduced was a really progressive step and would be the best way to help all our students?
There is always the option of raising taxation and imposing on the general taxpayer the burden of paying for—
The general taxpayer or businesses. If the Opposition want to hammer business taxpayers, they can hammer business taxpayers too. Our funding system allocates a share of the cost of providing higher education to those who are going to benefit from it. It is not all of the cost, because as hon. Members well know, the Government make a deliberate and conscious investment in the skills base of this country by having an income-contingent student loan system that results in significant Government subsidy of student borrowing. The Government and the taxpayer are making a contribution but we feel that, to have a sustainable system, it is appropriate that the primary beneficiaries of higher education make a significant contribution to its cost. That is what our funding system does, and it has enabled us to lift student number controls, driving social mobility and access in a way that no previous funding system has ever managed.
New clause 8 would revoke the 2015 student support regulations. Those regulations replaced maintenance grants with loans for new full-time students starting their courses in the current 2016-17 academic year. The shadow Secretary of State made some comments about process and how we had avoided proper scrutiny of the change we made. I remind her that, in making that change, we correctly followed the parliamentary process as determined by the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1988, introduced by the last Labour Government. [Hon. Members: “No it wasn’t—1988?”] Sorry, did I say ’88? I beg your pardon; 1998, introduced by the last Labour Government.
I also note the Government’s success in expanding access to higher education. To maintain that success we need to ensure that higher education funding remains sustainable, which is why we have replaced the previous system of maintenance grants, saving £2.5 billion a year. We have replaced maintenance grants with increased maintenance loans for new full-time students starting their courses in 2016-17. The poorest students are receiving the most financial support through those subsidised loans, with an increase of up to 10.3% on the previous amount of support for eligible students.
I observe in passing that the Minister keeps saying there has been a great improvement in disadvantaged student access. I would not say it is a great improvement; I would say it is an important improvement. That is true if we look at 18 to 21-year-olds, but as he has heard me say ad nauseam, it is not true of adult, mature or part-time students. On loans, it is late in the day and I do not wish to be controversial, but if I were being controversial, I could say that those are rather weasel words. A loan is not a guarantee of that money being spent. A loan is going to be used and spent only if the people who are offered it feel it is of sufficiently good value to take it up. The truth of the matter is, and we have seen this with the advanced learner loans, that when adult students in particular do not think they can afford those loans, they do not get taken up. Some 50% of the advanced learner loans did not get taken up and that money went straight back to the Treasury, so that is not money that is automatically invested, but money that is offered, and if the terms of trade are not right, people will not take them.
The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed part-time and mature students as part of the bigger picture. We also went through the mature numbers in some detail on Tuesday, and from recollection, mature numbers are actually now at a record level. I am probably going to get this wrong, but I believe they are at around 83,000 in the last full year, exceeding the previous high of around 82,000 a few years ago, so we are now back on track. Mature numbers certainly took a dip but they are now back at record levels.
We acknowledge and agree that we want to address the decline in part-time numbers. The origins of that fall are complex but they certainly predate the start of the increased tuition fee era, as we discussed on Tuesday. Some of the origins of the decline can be traced back to the Labour Government’s imposition of the equivalent and lower qualification restriction, which we are now in the process of lifting.
Yes, partially—as public finances permit. We are also in the process of putting in place a reformed funding scheme for part-time students so they can access maintenance loans on the same basis as full-time students. We are conscious that there has been a decline in the number of part-time students and we are determined to address it. We are putting in place significant measures to enable us to do so.
Last year, the Leader of the Opposition announced that he was keen to scrap tuition fees, a key architectural feature of our sustainable funding system, which prompted Lord Mandelson recently to describe the move as “not credible” and not “an honest promise”. It is important that we are honest when making commitments to the general public. That key point by Lord Mandelson in his interview with the Times Higher Education mirrored similar remarks by former shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, who went even further when he described the Labour party’s failure to identify a sustainable funding mechanism for higher education as a blot on Labour’s copy book.
I encourage the Opposition to face reality on how to put in place a sustainable funding system and to explain exactly how they would provide a serious, real-world alternative to what we are doing. The Labour party has said that scrapping tuition fees and restoring maintenance grants would cost £10 billion a year. A conservative estimate is that it would cost £40 billion over a normal five-year Parliament. In contrast, the OECD has praised the student loan system that this Government have introduced in England and said that we are one of the few countries to figure out a sustainable approach to higher education finance.
I understand that there were concerns that the changes might have deterred students from entering higher education, but we have seen that that was a dog that did not bark. The evidence has shown that participation continues to rise following our reforms in 2012. The latest data from UCAS suggest that it will continue to do so.
The hon. Lady may want to tell us more about her sustainable model. We have a sustainable funding model and it is delivering record participation for people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Surely she should welcome the level of investment that the Government are consciously and deliberately making in our higher education system. I thought that the Labour party would welcome Government investment in our higher education system but, on the contrary, it seems to be lamenting it. That is extraordinary.
The Minister fails to understand that I said in my contribution that the Government are increasing debt for future generations and not providing a sustainable model. He is trying to hoodwink the public into believing that that is what he is trying to do. He should be honest with the public.
The hon. Lady should look carefully at the benefits that students get from higher education. She will have seen the frequently rehearsed statistics showing that a woman who goes through higher education can expect lifetime earnings that are £250,000 higher, net of tax and the cost of university, than she would have had, with the same qualifications, if she had not gone through university, and the figure for a man is £170,000. The model is sustainable.
The hon. Gentleman says “nonsense”, suggesting he does not believe in—
I do not believe that at this hour of the afternoon, even allowing for the Chair’s indulgence, we should get involved in trading statistics, but the Minister might like to reflect on the fact that, because there has been an expansion in the number of students—I referred to this when I talked about graduates in the north-west earning only £16,000 or £17,000—many of the figures that he and his colleagues merrily chirp about are based on past experience. None of us can say what the situation will be in 10 years, but we know, and a variety of reports show, that the graduate premium is rapidly decreasing.
If the hon. Gentleman looks at the evidence from bodies such as the IFS, I think he will find that the graduate premium is holding up. Certainly there is variability across institutions and between courses, but there is still robust evidence for a graduate premium.
I will crack on, Sir Edward.
New clause 11 is intended to support learner flexibility, as helpfully discussed at length in Tuesday’s debate. The Government are committed to student choice and share the ambitions of Members of all parties to support flexibility to meet students’ circumstances. Supporting students who wish to switch higher education institution or degree is an important part of our reforms.
The hon. Gentleman is aware that the Government recently ran a call for evidence on credit transfer and accelerated degrees. We were pleased to receive more than 4,500 responses, which we are currently looking at carefully. We need to consider a number of issues before moving forward, and we recognise the central importance of student funding arrangements alongside wider issues such as student demand and awareness, and external regulatory requirements. We expect to come forward, as I said previously, by the end of the year with our response to the call for evidence.
Turning to new clauses 13, 14 and 15, I share hon. Members’ desire to ensure that students’ interests are protected when they take out a student loan, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to set out how we will ensure that. The key point is that student loans are not like commercial loans. Monthly repayments and interest are based on the borrower’s income, not on the amount borrowed. Borrowers repay nothing if they earn below the £21,000 threshold. Repayments are affordable and the loan is written off after 30 years with no detriment to the borrower.
Hon. Members have suggested that an independent panel should consider terms and conditions, and that changes to repayment terms and conditions should be subject to the approval of both Houses of Parliament. However, the key terms and conditions governing the repayment of the loan—the repayment threshold and rate, and the interest charged on the loan—are all set out in regulations. The current procedure already allows Parliament to debate or vote on any changes to the repayment regulations. That is the appropriate level of accountability for the decisions.
The Minister has outlined his views on terms and conditions. Does he agree that the Financial Conduct Authority should regulate student loans on the basis that it looks not only at terms and conditions, but at the premise on which a financial product is sold? That is where the Government have come a cropper.
It has long been a feature of our system that we have a highly subsidised student loan, offered on a universal basis by the Student Loans Company, to all borrowers who can benefit from a higher education. It is massively different from a commercial product, which can cherry-pick who to lend to and charge market rates of interest.
Our student loan product is heavily subsidised, as hon. Members described earlier. It is income contingent, so borrowers only repay when they earn £21,000. It is written off altogether after 30 years. The interest rate charged would certainly be lower than that charged by commercial organisations when faced with a similar scenario.
I have to make more progress.
You won’t goad me into giving way. The Chair has indicated that he wants us to make progress, and that is only fair to him after a long day.
The current procedure already allows Parliament to debate and vote on all this. New clauses 14 and 15 address the issue of the FCA. We do not believe that we need to change the arrangements, which, since the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998, have enabled the loans to be exempt from consumer credit legislation. Parliament confirmed the exemption from regulation under consumer credit legislation in 2008, when the then Labour Government passed the Sale of Student Loans Act 2008. The factors that led Parliament to that decision remain valid today, and the current system of parliamentary oversight is the most appropriate for this statutory loan scheme.
New clause 15 relates to equal treatment for borrowers whose loans have been sold. I am glad to be able to reassure the Committee that borrowers whose loans have been sold are protected by the Sale of Student Loans Act 2008. I can also confirm that for the planned sale of pre-2012 income-contingent loans, purchasers will have no powers to change the loan terms in any way and will have no direct contact with borrowers.
New clause 15 would also require the repayment threshold for all income-contingent student loans to increase in line with average earnings. The precise value of the repayment threshold is a key factor in determining the long-term sustainability of the loan system, and in particular the extent to which taxpayers—many of whom are not graduates—subsidise loans. Any Government have to be able to balance the interests of taxpayers and graduates in the light of the prevailing economic circumstances. The decision last year to freeze the threshold was taken precisely because economic circumstances had changed, with the result that the taxpayer would have had to pay substantially more to subsidise the loans than was originally intended.
The Minister says the terms were changed because of changed economic circumstances. Is it not the case that the reason was flawed planning by the Government? He will recall that when the changes were introduced in 2012, the Minister at the time, now Lord Willetts, was arguing that the resource accounting and budgeting charge—the non-repayable debt facing the Government—would be around 28%. Many of us, including independent experts, argued that that was not credible and that it would be much higher.
Gradually, over a period of years, the Government’s projections shifted from 32% to 36% to 38%, moving up to the mid 40%s and at one stage modelling—not confirming—a RAB charge of more than 50%. At that point, the new system became more expensive to the public purse than the one it replaced, as well as imposing additional debt on students. Was the Government’s incompetence on this not the reason?
I do not think that is right.
No, it is not right. The historical record will show that the original RAB charge projections ended up being more or less in the ballpark. The RAB charge is estimated by the Department now to be between 20% and 25%. The real thing that changed was that earnings did not rise as rapidly as we expected, which meant that fewer people were repaying and the cost of providing the loan system to the taxpayer would therefore be higher than anticipated. When the policy was introduced, the threshold of £21,000 was about 75% of expected average earnings in 2016. Updated calculations based on earnings figures from the Office for National Statistics show that figure is now 83%, reflecting weaker than expected earnings growth over the intervening period. The proportion of borrowers liable to repay when the £21,000 took effect in April is therefore significantly lower than could have been anticipated when the policy was introduced. That is the issue. I will now carry on.
The current funding system is fair to students, graduates and taxpayers. We must also ensure it supports all eligible students, irrespective of their religion. Ever since student loans were introduced there have been concerns about their impact on Muslim prospective students, who might consider they are not consistent with the principles of Islamic finance. Those concerns were backed up by our research, which shows that Muslim students make less use of student loans than their peers. Clause 78 sets out our intention to provide the Secretary of State with the power for the first time to offer alternative payments alongside existing powers to offer grants and loans. We believe clause 78 will help advance equality of opportunity by allowing the Government to provide a new form of financial support for students who feel unable to access interest-bearing student loans due to their religious beliefs.
The Minister will be pleased to know I really welcome this important step to widen access. Does he have a sense of the timetable for when this will kick in, so I can inform Muslim students in my constituency or other students who would also have access to this mechanism when they might be able to take advantage of it?
I am glad the hon. Gentleman welcomes the measure. There is a happy consensus on it in all parts of the House. We are pleased that as a Government we took the initiative to consult on this back in 2014, and we now have a legislative vehicle that will give the Secretary of State for the first time the ability to offer a non-interest-bearing product. We are currently constrained from putting that kind of alternative finance package in place. We are dependent on the passage of the Bill, but our intent is to get cracking on it as soon as parliamentary business allows.
This Government are committed to a sustainable and fair funding system. We are seeing more people going to university and record numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. I hope the Opposition can see that their amendments can now be withdrawn safely and that the student funding regime is sustainable and already works in the best interests of students and this country.