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Power to make alternative payments

Part of Higher Education and Research Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 13th October 2016.

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Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union) 3:15 pm, 13th October 2016

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.