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Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North) : Because of the time limit, I shall sum up my arguments against the Bill in eight points. First, I reject and oppose the Bill because it cushions the rich and discriminates against the poor. Secondly, it will discourage students from going in for courses that do not offer a high-salary profession on graduation--art and the social sciences will suffer. Great gifts in these fields could be lost to the nation. An unbalanced student body is bound to lead to an unbalanced society. Thirdly, the scheme will harm female and disabled students who, on graduation, do not generally enter high-salary jobs but who will be lumbered with a heavy debt.
Fourthly, Northern Ireland graduates will suffer even more than the GB counterparts, for graduates of Northern Ireland are underpaid compared with those in the rest of the country and, for them, the paying back will be much harder.
Fifthly, the scheme discriminates against potential students from working- class backgrounds, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic. I support what my colleague the hon. Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs) said--Sinn Fein has indeed lobbied on this matter. I
Column 228dissociate myself entirely from that lobby, but decent, ordinary, working-class Protestant and Roman Catholics will be discriminated against by the scheme and the prospect of debt will put many of them off the idea of a university education altogether.
Sixthly, money will not ultimately be saved. Taxes will eventually have to be increased to pay for the interest not charged and to make up for the many defaulters under the scheme. The scheme does not make good business sense.
Seventhly, the scheme strikes at the whole structure of further education. In the long run, we cannot afford not to invest money in the education of our families. A fully funded grant system that takes proper account of students' well-being when studying and of the ability of their parents to meet their educational requirements is what we should be planning ; we should not be discussing a system of debts.
Even if everything else in the Bill were in order I would still oppose it, because at its heart there lies a time bomb, specially sent by the Government, to remove another vestige of democracy from Northern Ireland. The explanatory memorandum says that the Bill is not to apply to Northern Ireland, yet in clause 2 the Government remove from the representatives of Northern Ireland the few rights that they have left.
Those rights are that an affirmative resolution be brought before both Houses when changes are made, but this Bill sacrifices that procedure and introduces the negative resolution, which means that the Order in Council will take effect immediately. It can be prayed against, but when does the House have time to hear those prayers? Many of us have signed such prayers but they have been neither heard nor heeded. I want to know why the Government have put that time bomb right in the heart of the Bill.
So we are not discussing the Bill ; we are discussing a decree to hand over tremendous power to the Secretary of State. But for us in Northern Ireland the Bill goes further than that. We in Northern Ireland have only one opportunity to discuss matters. We had a debate last night and how long did it last? It lasted for one and a half hours.
I was handed today a massive Order in Council on education, which was like a book. I was told that next week I should have three hours to discuss it. The order changes the whole education system in Northern Ireland lock, stock and barrel, yet our representatives are told that they will be permitted to discuss it for only three hours. We cannot, of course, amend the order or do anything about it. I warn hon. Members from Great Britain that they are starting on the same road in this Bill. The medicine that they have served to Northern Ireland and that they have voted for Northern Ireland will be put down their own throats. They will realise that this Government will take from them the vestige of their democratic right to discuss matters properly in the form of a proper Bill. All hon. Members should be concerned about that. They are voting for a decree to hand over immense power to the Secretary of State. That is a carefully laid time bomb with a kick-strap on it which would do honour to the IRA. When we kick the strap, we shall blow up any vestige of democracy.
Column 229Member, he would be the first to cry out against the Bill. It is because he has now moved from the Back Benches to the Front Bench that he feels that he should not cry out against it.
Why is such a power put into the Bill and the order? Why can we not properly discuss and amend the provisions? The Under-Secretary of State knows that I am not suggesting that he is in any way like the IRA. He need not make a big fuss about my comment, because I was using a metaphor. If he does not understand that, he had better come to Northern Ireland to find out how the Ulster people speak. I thought that he had some knowledge of how the Ulster people speak and how they do business.
When the House votes for the Bill, it will vote away its powers and its authority. The House is giving a blank cheque to the Secretary of State to carry on and it will have no say in what his final plans will be or how they will be executed.
Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham) : I fully support the sentiments of the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley). The Bill is a disgrace because it contains no details about what is to happen and the scheme will be introduced by regulation with little debate in Parliament. The Government's excuse for the introduction of top-up loans is that it will give students a grasp of economic reality. That is true, although it will be a grim reality. The value of the present grant has fallen so sharply in the past few years that the students' grasp of economic reality is unquestionable. To compensate students for their losses and to sharpen their awareness of money management, they will now have to pay for their education by borrowing the money, presumably on the pretext that the more hardship one suffers, the greater the lesson one will learn.
Durham university, which is in my constituency, has well over 4,000 students. The Government's loan plan could mean student debts of £7 million to £10 million at universities such as Durham. Many substantial companies are facing bankruptcy trying to repay investment borrowing of less than £10 million, yet the Government want to put students in the same boat. A debt of that size has serious implications for students, for the university and for the city. Some students will have difficulty with their rent and the pressure is likely to result in poor academic achievement and greater stress.
Despite the huge wave of opposition to the loans scheme, the proposals are for grants and parental contributions to be frozen at their current levels. Students will be debarred from claiming housing benefit, income support and unemployment benefit, and from next year they will have to pay a proportion of the poll tax, which will also affect many of them adversely. Some students will lose social security benefits to a greater value than the amount of the proposed loan, so they will be allowed the dubious entitlement of being able to take out an even bigger loan.
Column 230There is a misconception that all graduates are irresponsible, lazy, beer-drinking layabouts who are set to move into cosy, well-paid jobs. There may be a few like that, but others after three or four years of study will enter jobs with a salary no higher than if they had not gone to university. The motive for going to university should not be money, but the pursuit of knowledge in an area of expertise. Students should choose a subject for which they have a particular ability and in an area to which they can eventually contribute their skills.
Will students be expected in future to scan the prospectus for courses that will land them in lucrative jobs for which they have no aptitude? If a potential arts student were persuaded by lucrative rewards to choose a science degree, grave problems would result if and when he realised that the course was not for him. Will aesthetic subjects be pursued only by the rich? The result will be either fewer graduates or graduates of poor quality. Who would want to train to be a teacher with the prospect of a large loan, due to the length of the course, and then a relatively low income with which to repay it? A teacher would almost certainly be in debt anyway if he or she wished to buy a house or start a family. Yet that is the profession which is in desperate need of 18-year-olds who want to train for it. The Government have claimed that the scheme will simplify the system. I remember the same fine words being spoken last year when they claimed that the social security reforms would simplify the system. If that is the case, we can all watch out for a system that is hugely complex, impenetrable and unintelligible. If higher education is to be an attractive prospect for students, there must be full provision for student financial support. Financial status should not be a factor when deciding whether to enter higher or further education, as the pursuit of educational goals is in the interests both of the individual and of society.
The scheme is geared towards creating a student population which is wealthy, white and male. Social groups which are already under-represented in higher education will be discouraged from seeking places and students seeking to follow courses in the arts, social sciences or non-vocational subjects will think twice. The Government say that they intend to expand access to higher education. I am delighted to hear that, but I should be interested to know how that can be achieved if students do not receive adequate financial support. The widening of access would involve attracting groups not traditionally represented at university, such as working-class students and mature students. I cannot imagine that many from those groups will be tempted into higher education when it involves living with a debt burden for several years afterwards.
The Government will be in a quandary. On the one hand, they want to admit more students despite the demographic trend of a fall in the number of 18- year-olds. On the other hand, they do not want to fund those students through higher education and they want them to exist on increasingly less money. Students deserve a far better deal than that.
During the present Government's term of office, the parental contribution, which represented 30 per cent. of mandatory awards in 1979, has risen to 86 per cent. and the grant has declined by more than 21 per cent. in real terms since 1979. The spectre of loans must be removed and the grant must be restored to its 1979 level before the
Column 231Government's fine words about access can be taken seriously. As the present grant is barely adequate, freezing it and encouraging students to take out huge loans and to proceed through their academic life with that burden is hardly an attraction.
Loans will increase dependency on parental support, especially over the summer holiday, which is unfortunate for the 40 per cent. of students whose parents do not provide the full amount. A wider variety of students must come forward from more varied backgrounds with varying experiences and ages.
The banks have poured scorn on the scheme and are not falling over themselves to participate in it. They are no doubt aware of the student opposition to the scheme and understandably they will want to avoid a possible boycott.
It is a fallacy that the scheme will save taxpayers' money. The setting up of the procedures necessary to administer the scheme will be costly and complicated. The Government are playing down just how costly and complicated the scheme will be. If, as the Government intend, there is a 100 per cent. take-up, the system will not begin to pay for itself until well into the 21st century. It will take even longer if administration costs reach £150 million per year as is estimated by some. By that time it will have taken so long for the system to be remotely worth while that it will be nothing more than a liability.
Who is the system designed for? It is certainly not designed for the student. It is another Tory money-grabbing exercise. As total student awards are now costing the taxpayer £850 million, freezing them is a desirable prospect for the Treasury--not forgetting the £65 million that it will be saving in stopping eligibility for social security benefits. Increasing grants to a decent standard would encourage more students to consider going into higher education and so cost the Government more money. Although the Government are tight-lipped about the future of the loan system, a decline of the grant in real terms will lead to its gradual disappearance. If we wish the universities to be places of restricted access and a privilege for the few, this system is the right way to go about it. Fewer young people receive higher education in the United Kingdom than in South Korea. The scheme is a form of hire purchase which treats education like the latest sports car--fine for those who can afford it, but the majority will have to do without.
Mr. Steve Norris (Epping Forest) : Like many colleagues on both sides of the House, I went through university on virtually the maximum grant. I know that that experience is not uncommon. However, what distinguishes my case and, I suspect, that of most hon. Members is that my parents, who had little money available, made up the parental contribution required. It was not a large amount but they did make it up. One of the great pleasures that I have in Epping Forest is to represent the mother of the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw).
It is important to note that 41 per cent. of the parents assessed for a contribution do not make the full contribution. As my hon. Friend the Member for Boothferry (Mr. Davis) pointed out, those entitled to the full grant do not involve themselves in this arena. Ironically--I am sure that hon. Members on both sides will accept this--it is by no means the case that that 41 per cent. are the poorest. It is sad and all too common that many of the students finding themselves without the means to survive, from their parents and grant combined, are amongst the wealthiest. As hon. Members have said, that is because their parents do not believe that education is of any particular value and do not know why they should contribute to their child's education at that level. Therefore, they leave the child to fend for itself.
There was talk earlier of the new arrangements being regressive. It was said that the system of loans was regressive because it impacted most on the poor. However, all the evidence shows that the opposite is true. The evidence shows that what would be regressive--if it were practicable--would be to abolish all parental contributions. That would cost about £2,250 million in a full year. No doubt it would happen "when resources allow", or whatever mealy-mouthed phrase we now have to learn in respect of Labour education policy. More importantly, it would mean that the wealthy would be treated the same as the less well-off. That would be regressive. The advantage of the loans scheme is that it allows the student to overcome regression because, regardless of parental income, the facility will be there. Whether the student is supplementing a full parental contribution or --sadly--using the loan to make up an absent parental contribution, at least a facility would be provided. Such a facility has been denied by successive Governments, especially Labour Governments, since the grants scheme was introduced.
I am concerned about the way in which the scheme will ensure that we take students out of the social security system. I see in his place--he has been here throughout the debate--my successor, the hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) to whom, as ever, I wish well. He will know--as I do--that in Oxford the Department of Social Security office and the local authority found it difficult to provide a service to the genuinely needy--those in the community who needed instant access to the social security system because they had a pressing need for funds--because at times the office was legitimately besieged--I make no complaint about that--by students in higher education. Whatever definition we adopt for social security, it cannot be used to supplement higher education. It is bizarre to have that element in our funding of further and higher education. I welcome the new arrangements, which will mean that officials in the Department of Social Security and in housing benefit offices will be able to concentrate on those who need their help. It will be for students to take
Column 233advantage of a combination of grant and loan to fund their eduction. Surely that is one of the major advances in the Bill. I endorse the concept of the Bill, even if it will take some years to turn the balance. It seeks to redress the balance between the student, the parent and the taxpayer. Opposition Members do not seem to have an answer for the elderly, low-income taxpayer who is funding middle-class children and helping them to become even better off as they enjoy the substantial benefits of higher education.
It is all very well for Opposition Members to point out that in the first, second and third years the scheme will be more expensive. We accept that-- it is obvious. The Secretary of State is in an odd position if he is now to be criticised for spending more on the new system. I am the first to accept that the system means that in due course we will turn the corner to a point at which students will be accepting not a hugely greater but at least to some degree a greater reponsibility for the financing of their own education.
I welcome that, if only because what distinguishes my earning capacity and that of my brother from that of my father and mother who grew up in Liverpool after the war is that I had the advantage of attending university and, as a result, moved on to a different plain of earnings. They did not begrudge what it cost them to provide me with that finance. By any standards, any student who is given the great advantage of a university education should be prepared to take more responsibility for financing it than the present arrangements allow. I commend that element of the new scheme.
My last point is about the terms of repayment. I welcome the fact that the Bill is short. I commend one or two important observations on repayment terms to my hon. Friends on the Front Bench. There is an argument for being careful about the relationship between repayments and starting salary. It is important that we do not discriminate against, for example, jobs in research and in less high-profile areas of adult life where salaries are perhaps not high. We want to ensure a steady stream of competent graduates into what are acknowledged to be the less well-remunerated professions. It will be perfectly within the powers of the Secretary of State to ensure that the reasonable attitude that he has said he is prepared to adopt on repayment is extended to ensure that repayments are not burdensome in jobs with low starting salaries.
Another important element which the Secretary of State should consider is inflation. I enter this caveat on the definition of nil interest rates in real terms. That is fine as long as there is a Conservative Government who believe in combating inflation even at the expense of raising interest rates. In that case, interest rates are likely to be higher than inflation. However, the Labour party's attitude would allow inflation frequently to run ahead of the rate of interest. In those circumstances, everyone would lose and the provision would operate to the disadvantage of the students. The Bill has such merits that I welcome it and commend it to the House.
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Mr. Mike Watson (Glasgow, Central) : I am grateful for this opportunity to contribute to the debate, as I represent a constituency where some 15,000 students live. Universal opposition to the top-up loans has been expressed to me by those students in several different forms. The last time that the matter was debated in the House, I presented a petition on behalf of some of the students. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) said that he had received a response to those petitions to the effect that no action was to be taken. I have received similar information, which will not be acceptable to my constituents who are students or the parents of students.
Universal opposition has been expressed to the Bill. As we have already heard, of the 120 or so organisations which responded to the White Paper, 95 per cent. registered opposition. One might ask why the Government bother to consult when, even if such levels of opposition are expressed, they still introduce the legislation in the form originally intended. Opposition is coming from many sources, some of which one would not normally expect to encounter. The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and the Royal College of Nursing are among them.
We are already aware that the British Medical Association has been politicised by the Government to an extent that no one would have expected ; now the Royal College of Nursing is apparently going the same way. I have received a communication from it asking me to oppose the Bill on Second Reading. It said :
"the average nurse graduate usually starts on a salary of £8,025 pa Yet nurses will have to repay the same loan as any other graduate, albeit with repayments strung out over a longer period".
That is cold comfort. It went on :
"Applied to nursing, the RCN believes student loans threaten to undermine the future development of the profession, which will ultimately be to the detriment of both the NHS and patient care." I also received communications from the principal of the Robert Gordons Institute of Technology and a director of Glasgow college, two of the Scottish polytechnics. Again, they outlined their opposition to the loans plan. They are not individuals or organisations who are normally sympathetic to the policies of the Labour party. Nor are the banks, but to say that they are luke warm would be too kind in describing their reactions to the proposals. After arm-twisting and several concessions, some of the banks are now willing to go along with the plan but, to their credit, two of the three major Scottish banks have said that they will have nothing to do with it.
It was noticeable that, of the eight Conservative Members who took part in the Adjournment debate on 20 October, only one was in favour of the proposal. It is also noticeable that of those Members, only one has spoken this evening. I take it that the others had other diplomatic engagements.
I have three main areas of anxiety. First, the proposals will reduce still further access to higher education. Secondly, everyone will be worse off as a result of the introduction of a loans scheme. Thirdly, Scottish students and colleges and universities will be hit disproportionately hard.
One of the problems of speaking late in the debate is that other speakers have already used up one's arguments. My right hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes)
Column 235and my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) have said that take-up of higher education is 15 per cent., some 6 per cent. lower than that in South Korea. That is a damning statistic.
Particularly damaging for those thinking of going into higher education is the decision to deny students unemployment and housing benefit and income support. That will compound the problem. Conservative Members have said today that the loans scheme is about students being responsible and made to bear a burden. However, many students bear a considerable burden as a result of their studies. For students who cannot rely on their parents to subsidise them, there is already a student loans scheme. They have been bearing the burden through bank loans, bank overdrafts, parental loans or charity from other members of the family.
No one, from the Minister to Conservative Back Benchers, has explained how top-up loans will increase access to education. They have denied that there will be a detrimental effect, but they have said nothing positive. I and my hon. Friends remain to be convinced, because we have been given no evidence.
It is a truism to say that everyone will end up worse off. Students will experience greater hardships in two ways. First, as a result of having undertaken studies, they will be required to go cap in hand to their parents for a subsidy or to the banks for loans to make sure that they have enough to get by.
I have been given some figures by the National Union of Students. I was dismayed that, while the president of that union was in the Gallery, Conservative Members rubbished the organisation. It may not have the resources or facilities of the Ministers' back-up team, but it is a well- resourced and well-respected organisation. It has produced figures which show the extent to which students will be worse off as a result of loans. I refute the figures quoted by the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart). He said that the average loan will be £600. The figures from the NUS research show how the repayments will depend on the rate of interest that the students are asked to pay. The loan will be at least £400 a year and up to £1,400, outwith London depending on the rate that must be paid. The question of who will be worse off refers to parents. It is not true that, because the burden of parental contribution will be raised from parents, they will not have to make a contribution.
The vacation period is a crucial aspect of loans. If a student cannot find a job, how is he or she to pay his way during the vacation? Housing for students is at a premium, so if they cannot afford to pay for houses or flats over the summer, they cannot be guaranteed housing of a reasonable standard when they return. The only people to whom they can turn are parents. The vacation aspect has been completely disregarded by the Government.
Then there is the question of the Exchequer and its losses. It has been estimated that the scheme will cost the Exchequer £1.6 billion more than the cost of grants. That was the figure quoted to my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) in a parliamentary answer on 21 March this year.
The Government admit that, as repayments start to be made, we shall reach a point where the scheme will cost less than the present system. The date is estimated to be as late as 2026--in other words 35 years after student loans are first introduced.
Column 236Students who take out student loans in the first year will be grandparents, if not great-grandparents, by the time the scheme begins to break even. No Government have ever introduced a policy proposal based on financial and economic assumptions over a 35-year period. I ask hon. Members to imagine what they might have thought of 1989 back in 1954. Who could possibly have imagined the position that we face now? To make proposals based on what will happen so far in the future is economic, not to mention educational, lunacy. At a time when higher education is seriously under-resourced, it is a disgrace that public money is to be wasted in this way. For the same sum, grants could have been increased, parental contributions reduced and more places funded in higher education over the next decade. The Government should seriously consider that, even at this late stage.
All too little has been said or thought about Scotland in preparing the legislation. Scottish students will face additional financial burdens. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Eastwood has returned, because I shall address some of my remarks to his earlier comments. He was not in the Chamber when I quoted the figure of £600, which he said would be the total cost of the scheme to students. That is not true. Simply to add a fourth year for Scottish students has a compounding effect which is likely to mean additional costs of 60 per cent.
We must consider not simply Scottish students or English and Welsh students at Scottish colleges and universities, but courses throughout the United Kingdom for doctors, architects, various art students and vets which are longer than three years. Additional years impose additional burdens. It is particularly galling that the Secretary of State for Scotlnd can say that he has considered the matter but does not believe that any special provision for Scotland is necessary. People who apply for courses at Scottish colleges and universities will weigh that up and see that they are punished for applying to them. That is an insult to Scotland and its unique system of education, which is done a grave disservice by this proposal. People in Scotland are not bought off by the proposal that the loans headquarters should be based in Glasgow. Some 250 jobs, most of them debt collecting, are not welcome. We give as firm a no to that as to the remainder of this discredited, costly, unwarranted and unwanted Bill.
Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South) : The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) said that a future Labour Government would increase the real value of grants as resources allow. What happy memory has that conjured up? In 1974 a Labour spokesman would have said that he would increase the real value of the hospital building programme as resources allow or that he would increase the real value of nurses' pay as resources allow. British students are far too intelligent to be fooled by a conditional promise. They can look at the record and see how badly the Labour Government behaved and how badly a future Labour Government would behave.
The White Paper has been warmly welcomed by parents who find the present system of parental contributions a major burden, the thousands of students who do not receive discretionary awards, many of my constituents in Hendon, South, the 40 per cent. of students who do not
Column 237receive their full parental contribution, and the 40 per cent. of students who have overdrafts at commercial interest rates and who in future will have to pay only a nil real interest rate.
The White Paper incorporates a simple element of social justice. Both society and students benefit from higher education. We are assured that, generally speaking, those who enjoy higher education subsequently enjoy incomes 30 per cent. above the average for society as a whole. Surely those who enjoy such massively higher incomes should contribute to the benefits of higher education.
The irony is that we have the most generous system of university support and the lowest percentage of people in higher education. It is no use Labour Members talking about South Korea and asking why it does better. Why do other countries do better? They have a different system of university support. Does that not suggest that our system is failing? It is surely madness for Labour Members to say that the system must not change but that its results are useless. Surely that underlines our case and undermines theirs.
It must be obvious that our proposals will eventually produce savings which can be used to provide more places in higher education. We must ask ourselves whether it is better for the privileged to go to university with the present grant system or for more places to be provided in higher education. I am sure that everyone will agree that there should be more places in higher education and will recognise that only the Government can provide them.
We have heard the most cant and hypocrisy from Labour Members talking about access from the lower socio-economic groups. No one has done more to harm the educational opportunities of those groups than the Labour party and Labour local education authorities. It is no accident that the children of inner London have little chance of going to university. The Inner London education authority has the worst education results of any education authority. It is no accident that it was the Labour party which led the campaign to abolish grammar schools. How many children from lower socio- economic groups left grammar schools able to go on to universities?
How many children leave our state comprehensive schools qualified for university? To increase access to universities for the lower socio-economic groups we need to encourage more children to stay on at school longer and to improve their results. The two great reforms to encourage children to stay on at school have been Conservative reforms. It was my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister who raised the school leaving age to 16 and the Conservative Government who introduced GCSE, which is encouraging more children to stay on at school.
Column 238The Conservative party, through the Education Reform Act 1988, has done more than any other political party to improve the results in our schools. It is that combined policy of encouraging pupils to stay on at school and to improve their results which will ensure that more children from the lower socio-economic groups go on to university. I listened with interest to what the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Watson) said about the Scottish higher education system, and I yield to no one in my admiration of it. My late father spent 30 years serving Scottish universities and I was connected with them for 12 years. The reason why Scottish education has always been deservedly popular is that it has an intrinsic worth and uniqueness not shared by the English system. It may be significant that a large number of students from south of the border have always been willing to go to St. Andrews university where they know that the politics are sound and the education even better. I do not believe that the introduction of our proposed loan system will discourage one student from attending St. Andrews or any other Scottish university. Indeed, it will encourage many more to do so.
Medical students know that the return that they will get at the end of the course from their salary will be so large that they can certainly afford to repay the relatively modest loan.
I hope that universities in Britain will become more flexible and more market-oriented as a result of the Bill.
Why do universities not introduce a four-term year? Is anyone seriously suggesting that the great universities of the United States suffer from lower esteem because they have four terms a year? Of course they do not, and there is no reason why British universities could not do the same. Is anyone seriously suggesting that graduates of Buckingham university suffer because they graduate more quickly than those of other universities?
Mr. Marshall : Because a man is right 99 per cent. of the time does not mean that he is right 100 per cent. of the time. Labour infallibility may be a good religion, but it is not good politics. The students at Buckingham university do not suffer because they have a shortened academic year. I do not believe that some of our universities have considered the potential of shorter university courses, and a longer university year. If they did that, it would be to the benefit of universities and of their students.
Dr. Dafydd Elis Thomas (Meirionydd Nant Conwy) : The hon. Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) referred to the fact that politics at St. Andrews university were sound. We can vouch for that because the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) is a graduate of St. Andrews, and I see that he is sporting the St. Andrews university tie. However, I shall not enter the arguments about Scotland, although I agree with the hon. Gentleman about four terms a year. I have taught in adult education and at the University of Wales--sometimes I still do--and I support the principle of four terms for mature students and first entry students.
The debate is not about education policy, but it is a debate that we have been having for many years about
Column 239reductions in state support from the taxpayer for a portion of the cost of supporting students--that is, the cost of their homes and lodgings rather than tuition.
The Government plan to introduce a loans scheme which will provide a 50 : 50 grant and loan scheme, although that is not provided for in the Bill, as my hon. Friend the Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) said on another occasion. What is not clear is how that scheme will interrelate with the changes taking place in income support, unemployment benefit and housing benefit schemes.
I should like the Minister to respond to a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Caernarvon--the way in which the special access funds will be used and applied to disabled people, particularly those with communication difficulties who need communication support. I refer particularly to deaf people. Hon. Members have been lobbied by a number of groups who are concerned that the loan scheme, particularly in the future, will have to bear half the burden of the day-to-day cost of student support as opposed to tuition. It is important that we consider the additional support costs required by disabled students. The Minister has not responded clearly enough to that, either during the debate on 20 October or today. We have heard the familiar arguments today about how the scheme will affect educational take-up, but the debate is not about that. It is about the Government's attempt to reduce their public expenditure commitment to student support.
Many of the arguments that are being rehashed about access are unproven. The Government seem to be saying that the scheme is likely to increase access, because at present it is appallingly bad. That seems to be a baseless argument. The fact that we have an age participation rate, a women's participation rate, an ethnic minority participation rate and a class participation rate that are inadequate compared with--
Mr. Jackson : I have had many friendly discussions with the hon. Gentleman in the past. The argument about access is simply that the main determinant appears to be the scale of education. If one extends the scale, access will get better. The argument behind the student loans scheme is that it will provide more money to expand the system.
Dr. Thomas : The Minister has clarified the position, and I agree with him that the determinant of participation is the scale of the system. We are returning to the old arguments about universal benefits of the 1960s, when we talk about the need for general provision of social service and of education--of which the Robbins report was the higher education component--in order to ensure greater participation. However, it is not proven to me when I consider the system in other countries and hear the advice of leading academics and people who are concerned about how their schemes operate. There was a good study of the American system in the Financial Times of 24 November 1989, just after the Bill was published, which quoted Mr. Roger Koester, the associate director of financial aid at Northwestern university, as saying :
"Students are no longer making education decisions based solely on their academic talent, but on starting salaries. We are breeding a far more mercenary group of students."
No doubt that is what the Conservative party would like. It is significant that some experts in the United States say
Column 240that that country and its great academic system have only a few years grace before they are forced to overhaul the way that students pay for higher education. We may find that United Kingdom students are having a new loans and grants scheme inflicted upon them, whereas the United States is having to move--