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Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)

Milburn, Alan

Miller, Andrew

Morris, Estelle (B'ham Yardley)

Mowlam, Marjorie

Mullin, Chris

O'Hara, Edward

Parry, Robert

Patchett, Terry

Powell, Ray (Ogmore)

Redmond, Martin

Robertson, George (Hamilton)

Roche, Mrs. Barbara

Rooney, Terry

Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)

Sedgemore, Brian

Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert

Short, Clare

Simpson, Alan

Skinner, Dennis

Spellar, John

Tipping, Paddy

Watson, Mike

Wigley, Dafydd

Wray, Jimmy

Young, David (Bolton SE)

Tellers for the Noes : Mr. Bob Cryer and

Mr. Terry Lewis.

Question accordingly agreed to .

Resolved ,

That the Promoters of the British Waterways Bill [Lords] may, notwithstanding anything in the Standing Orders or practice of this House, proceed with the Bill in the present Session and the Petition for the Bill shall be deemed to have been deposited and all Standing Orders applicable thereto shall be deemed to have been complied with ;

That, if the Bill is brought from the Lords in the present Session, the Agent for the Bill shall deposit in the Private Bill Office a declaration signed by him, stating that the Bill is the same, in every respect, as the Bill which was brought from the Lords in the last Session ;

That as soon as a certificate by one of the Clerks in the Private Bill Office, that such a declaration has been so deposited, has been laid upon the Table of the House, the Bill shall be deemed to have been read for the first and second time and committed (and shall be recorded in the Journal of this House as having been so read and committed) ;

That all Petitions relating to the Bill presented in the last Session which stand referred to the Committee on the Bill, together with any minutes of evidence taken before the Committee on the Bill, shall stand referred to the Committee on the Bill in the present session ;

That no Petitioners shall be heard before the Committee on the Bill, unless their Petition has been presented within the time limited within the last Session or deposited pursuant to paragraph (b) of Standing Order 126 relating to Private Business ;

That, in relation to the Bill, Standing Order 127 relating to Private Business shall have effect as if the words "under Standing Order 126 (Reference to committee of petitions against Bill)" were omitted ;

That no further Fees shall be charged in respect of any proceedings on the Bill in respect of which Fees have already been incurred during the last Session.

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10.24 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) : I beg to move,

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Education (Mandatory Awards) (No. 2) Regulations 1993 (S.I., 1993, No. 2914), dated 26th November 1993, a copy of which was laid before this House on 30th November, be annulled.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse) : With this it will be convenient to consider the following motion :

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Education (Student Loans) (No. 2) Regulations 1993 (S.I., 1993, No. 2915), dated 29th November 1993, a copy of which was laid before this House on 30th November, be annulled.

Mr. Foster : I am sure that the House welcomes the hon. Member for Oldham Central and Royton (Mr. Davies) on his first outing on Labour's Front Bench in an education debate. However, this debate was initiated by Liberal Democrats, demonstrating once again the high degree of importance that my party attaches to education. This debate concerns a broken Government promise. It will highlight the way-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am seated only a few feet from my hon. Friend, but because of the noise beyond the Bar of the House I cannot hear him. Will you have that noise stopped so that the House can hear my hon. Friend?

Mr. Deputy Speaker : The hon. Gentleman is right. I am also having difficulty hearing the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). I hope that the House will settle down.

Mr. Foster : This debate will highlight Government attempts to transfer part of the debt created by their economic mismanagement to students in higher education.

To understand the impact of the regulations on students, it is important to consider a number of related higher education issues. This debate is taking place at a time of increasing uncertainty, created in part by the Government's stop-go policies on the expansion of student numbers and frequent changes to the relationship between tuition fees and funding council grant--described only today by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals as policy on the hoof. Universities do not know whether they are coming or going, and they find it almost impossible to make long-term funding planning decisions. The regulations will have the same effect on students.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South) : The hon. Gentleman is attacking Government policy on higher education support, but does he not agree that the United Kingdom's system of student support is the most generous anywhere in the free world?

Mr. Foster : On that matter, I will take the advice of the Secretary of State for Education, who told the House only a month ago that we should be wary of making international comparisons of that sort. My next point is relevant to the hon. Gentleman's intervention, so I hope that he will listen.

This debate is also taking place at a time when it is becoming apparent that the Government's much-vaunted expansion of higher education has been done on the cheap.

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Mr. Marshall : That is not so.

Mr. Foster : I hope that the hon. Gentleman will listen to the examples I shall give of the way in which students suffer as a result.

Last month, the Secretary of State boasted to the House that the recent increase in student numbers was the equivalent of 12 new universities--

Mr. Marshall rose --

Mr. Foster : I shall not give way again to the hon. Gentleman. The Secretary of State failed to tell the House that he had not made available the capital required for those new universities.

Mr. Marshall : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for an hon. Member who is laying a prayer to refuse to answer yes or no to a basic question?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris) : The hon. Gentleman's speech is entirely in order so far.

Mr. Foster : Figures provided by the Library demonstrate that expenditure per higher education student has declined 22 per cent. over the last four years. An analysis of the November Budget by the CVCP shows that it will reduce a further 4.5 per cent. next year. It is no wonder that students are having to face worsening staff-student ratios, overcrowded lecture theatres, inadequate library and other facilities--

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster) : Will the hon. Gentleman give way ?

Mr. Foster : No, I want to make some progress--then I will give way to the hon. Lady.

Students are having to cope with inadequately maintained buildings-- [Interruption.] I hope that the hon. Lady will recognise that we have time for only a short debate and many hon. Members wish to contribute.

I undertand that the current repair and maintenance backlog in higher education stands at £1 billion and stories of the problems are legion. For example--I hope that the Minister will respond to this--students at Mid -Kent college were told just before Christmas that some of the courses on which they had embarked could no longer be continued at their college.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North) rose --

Mr. Foster : I will happily give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Hon. Members : Sexist.

Mr. Harry Greenway : In deference to my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman), may I say that I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that I visited the new Thames Valley university for half a day this week ? It has problems, but buildings are on the way to accommodate all students properly. I met thousands of students, not one of whom said that he or she was not happy. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that they all said that they were happy to be there, and thousands more would like to be there, despite what he says ?

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Mr. Foster : I was not aware that the hon. Gentleman had made that visit, but he may wish to know that I have visited a large number of higher education institutions in the past 18 months, and his experience has not been replicated by mine.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman rose--

Mr. Foster : I shall give way to the hon. Lady, but that must be the last time I do so.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : It would have been easier and more courteous for the hon. Gentleman to do so in the first place. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the superb St. Martin's college and Lancaster university have both completed exceptionally good building programmes which I was happy to take the Minister round a couple of months ago? Those programmes are magnificent. The hon. Gentleman referred to capital spending ; the total capital grant overall will be £322 million, £382 million and £424 million between 1994-96. That is a 20 per cent. increase, and I do not know how it can be said that those institutions are being starved of funds.

Mr. Foster : I apologise to the hon. Lady for not giving way earlier, as she has now enabled me to make a point that I might otherwise have been unable to make. The hon. Lady is right to say that there is to be an increase in capital expenditure in higher education--I acknowledge that. Next year there will be an increase of 1 per cent. in real terms. That increase and the increase over three years mentioned by the hon. Lady will go no way towards compensating for the increased dereliction in our university buildings. Will the Minister be good enough to respond to my claim that there is a backlog of repair and maintenance of £1 billion in higher education?

Mr. Hugh Bayley (York) : Will the hon. Gentleman give way? Mr. Foster : No, I cannot give way any more.

The regulations are part of a double whammy on students. First, they have to suffer the vandalism of the appalling attack on student unions ; secondly, they have to suffer the Government's broken promise as contained in the regulations. I will explain how the Government have broken their promise.

When student loans were introduced, the 1988 White Paper said : "The maximum grant and the average contribution will be maintained at the 1990- 91 cash level."

That commitment was underscored by the Baroness Blatch in another place, when she said in 1990 :

"The grant will be maintained in cash terms at its 1990-91 level."-- [Official Report, House of Lords, 19 March 1990 ; Vol. 517, c. 57.] At the same time, it was made clear that the value of grants and loans would broadly equalise in the year 2007-2008. But despite those undertakings, the regulations will bring forward the expected date of equalisation by 10 years and would cut the cash value of grants by 27 per cent. over the next three years. That will require an increase over the same period of more than 120 per cent. in the loans necessary to compensate.

What will be the effect on students of these broken promises? They will accelerate the growing problem of student debt and poverty. Students already face significant problems in that respect. Even with grants and loans,

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almost all students would be better off if they registered as unemployed. The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals has estimated that this year the average shortfall in students' incomes will be £1,100.

Not surprisingly, students face ever-mounting debts. The Barclays bank survey published in August last year was based on a sample nearly twice the size of that used for the Department's recent survey of students' incomes and expenditure. The Barclays survey revealed that 81 per cent. of students ended the last academic year owing an average of £1,672.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education (Mr. Tim Boswell) : Does the hon. Gentleman regard that survey as more authoritative and comprehensive than ours, one of a continuing series, which was supported by a committee including representatives of the National Union of Students?

Mr. Foster : I am happy to tell the Minister that I have seen that study ; there have been a number of other studies, too. Credence must be given to the Barclays survey because its sample size was nearly twice that of the Department's survey.

The survey showed an increase in student debt of 22 per cent. in one year, and the figures ignored many other kinds of debt, such as debts owed to parents.

Mrs. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough) : Is the hon. Gentleman aware of a widely based survey about which I learned today from a group of students at Sheffield university? Oddly enough, they were more interested in meeting Labour Members here than Liberal Democrats--I cannot think why. This intensive professional survey showed that Sheffield students, after paying housing costs, are left with £100 to live on for a month. That has to pay for heat, light, books, travel, food and everything else.

Mr. Foster : I am aware of that study. The hon. Lady will be interested to know that those same students faxed me some information yesterday.

These regulations, if agreed to, will make student debt worse--the more so in view of the additional pressures created by rising accommodation costs and VAT on fuel. The pressures will bear down heavily on the 5,400 full- time home students aged over 50 who cannot even obtain student loans. They will also affect the thousands of part-time students who--wrongly, in the view of my party--rarely obtain grants, let alone loans.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman rose --

Mr. Foster : I will not give way.

The one thing that students in higher education are guaranteed from their courses nowadays is practical experience in the management of rising debt.

Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre) rose --

Mr. Foster : All this is particularly unfair to students already on courses, who find that they will have to borrow more money than they had planned to. The effects of the debt problem are well known to all hon. Members. An increasing number of students have to take jobs, not just during vacations, but during term time too. The effect on their studies is becoming increasingly apparent.

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I remind Conservative Members who see no problems arising from term-time working of the view expressed less than four years ago by the noble Baroness Blatch :

"the Government provide an adequate level of support for a student to be maintained without work during the course of study."--[ Official Report, House of Lords, 28 June, 1990 ; Vol. 520, c. 1790.] Those words will certainly bring hollow laughter from present-day students.

At least two other problems will be exacerbated by the regulations.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Foster : No, I will not.

First, there is likely to be a further increase in drop-out rates. Already there is an alarming all-time high of 8 per cent. of higher education students failing to complete their courses. Secondly, it will inhibit the further widening of access to higher education. While numerically more students from social classes four and five have entered higher education, as a percentage of the student population the increase has been extremely modest. If the regulations are accepted, no increase in that percentage is likely to occur. University education will remain predominantly for the children of the better off.

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