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Power to make alternative payments

Part of Higher Education and Research Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 13th October 2016.

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Photo of Wes Streeting Wes Streeting Labour, Ilford North 3:30 pm, 13th October 2016

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.