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Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Dorrell: I have a third question for the Secretary of State, after which I will give way to my hon. Friend.

When the Secretary of State has finished giving the answers to my first two questions, he may then explain why the course that costs the Scottish student £3,000 and the student from England, Wales or Northern Ireland £4,000 is available to the citizens of southern Ireland and every other European Union country for £3,000. That is the piece de resistance. [Hon. Members: "Oh!"] Perhaps the Secretary of State can say the same phrase in Spanish, in Portuguese or in Greek to demonstrate how truly communautaire he is being.

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It is an odd policy that requires English students, Welsh students and Northern Irish students to pay £4,000 in fees at Scottish universities for a four-year course when students from every other country in the European Union get the same service for £3,000. I look forward to hearing the Secretary of State explain the objective of this aspect of United Kingdom Government policy.

Mr. Swayne: Is my right hon. Friend aware that, when the Secretary of State for Scotland was asked precisely that question not half an hour ago, he replied that he would not have to explain it to Germans or Greeks, because they understood the obligations of the European Union? Perhaps the Secretary of State for Education and Employment could explain to students from Ringwood, Lymington and New Milton why they will be charged an extra £1,000 that will not be charged to Greeks or Germans.

Mr. Dorrell: My hon. Friend puts his point vigorously, and he is entirely right. It is the same question. If it is good enough for the constituents of some Member of Parliament from southern Portugal, why is it not good enough for the constituents of my hon. Friend in Ringwood?

The effect of the Government's policy on Scottish universities is already clear. The Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals has warned:

That is not only the view of higher education principals but the experience of the dean of admissions of St. Andrews university, who said:

    "We have been getting a steady flow of cancellations in the last few weeks and the number is growing. Since the start of the week, we have been getting calls from English students to tell us that they aren't even going to bother coming to see us."

That is what is happening in the Scottish university system because of the Government's policy. I look forward to hearing why they think that it is the right policy.

The problem of declining admissions is not confined to Scotland. We have already seen Universities and Colleges Admissions Service figures showing early applications to universities throughout the United Kingdom down by 12 per cent. That reduction in early applications to British universities as a whole reflects the uncertainty and malaise that has settled over higher education policy since the Secretary of State came to the House in July.

The Dearing report was a major missed opportunity. It was a chance to address the issues facing the higher education system in a serious way. The Opposition agree that we need continued growth in the higher education system, and that we need a more flexible system that responds to the different demands of students; a system in which students fairly contribute an element of the cost of growth; and a system that is fair to students from low-income backgrounds. In his anxiety to rush out his response, the Secretary of State has bungled those issues, and bungled them badly. He should have offered a considered response; he has wholly failed to do so.

4.22 pm

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

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    "welcomes the decisive response of Her Majesty's Government to the report of the National Committee of Enquiry into HigherEducation and to the crisis of funding in higher education bequeathed by the previous administration; notes with approval the new arrangements for supporting students, including fair repayment arrangements and targeted help for the most disadvantaged; and welcomes the commitment to ensuring that more people will have opportunities to participate in high-quality education to their benefit and to the benefit of the country as a whole."

The shadow Secretary of State has the barefaced cheek to have served in a Government who cut, on average, 25 per cent. per student from university funding over the past eight years alone, who cut 40 per cent. from the funding available for maintenance for students over the past eight years alone, and who oversaw the collapse of direct funding into research, teaching, equipment and the infrastructure of our university system; and, six months after losing office, to criticise this Government for taking difficult but necessary decisions.

The previous Government at least set up the Dearing committee in the feeble recognition that there was a problem, even if they were not prepared to face up to it. We signed up to Dearing precisely because we were prepared to face up to reality. The problem is that the Opposition are suffering from two diseases: internal fission leading to impending political disintegration, and chronic amnesia, which means that they forget 18 years of what they were up to while they were the Government.

Mr. Bercow: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Blunkett: In a moment.

This is the new political animal that hibernates during the summer and comes out in the depths of winter, covered by darkness, blinking into the shadows, continuing in obscurity, unable to distinguish real decision taking in government from the dithering of opposition.

Mr. Bercow: I should like to test just how the Secretary of State fares on the amnesia count. Is he prepared now, on the record, to acknowledge that the expansion of higher education under the previous Conservative Government was dramatically greater than any that occurred under the Labour Administration between 1974 and 1979? Does he acknowledge that fact or does he seek to deny it?

Mr. Blunkett: The hon. Gentleman may be surprised to learn that, even before the election, I gave the previous Government credit for their one commendable action in respect of higher education--to open up access, which they subsequently sealed by introducing a cap that stopped students entering university even if they had the required standard and capacity to do so.

On the back of the hon. Gentleman's intervention, I should like to welcome the conversion of the shadow Secretary of State and his party. I was delighted to hear his announcement this afternoon that they are in favour of the continued development of the university sector. In other words, the Conservative party is now committed to expansion--first, to overturn the policy that it followed for the past four years, which put a cap on university entrance and, secondly, to overturn the evidence that the previous Government gave to the Dearing committee to the effect that expansion should be blocked, so no extra money would be required to fund universities as the answer was retrenchment.

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I am delighted to demonstrate that my amnesia is more than matched by that of the shadow Secretary of State this afternoon. Let me spell out one or two examples of what we have done. Of course we made a statement on the back of the publication of the Dearing report on 23 July, not merely because parliamentary procedure and practice demanded that we did so, but because it was necessary to ensure that students, universities and those engaged in the admissions process were aware of our policies for 1998. Had we not done so, we would have lost a whole year. Even on existing accountancy rules, we would have lost £100 million in 1999-2000, never mind the opportunities provided by the imaginative programme that I have announced for 1998-99. Let me say a word or two about that, given that I have been challenged on the so-called memorandum within my Department.

On 23 September, we announced that we would allocate £165 million to the higher education sector. We did not announce that the entire sum would simply be handed over to the universities, but we announced that £125 million--£27 million more than Dearing recommended would be required to ensure that savings of more than 1 per cent. would not be demanded--would go directly to the institutions.

The rest will be spent on carrying out the policies that I am delighted to reiterate this afternoon. They include ensuring that disabled students are no longer means-tested and will receive an additional grant for the special needs that they have in terms of equipment, reading and so on. We shall begin the process of providing equity between full-time and part-time students by ensuring that part-time students who fall out of work can apply for an additional contribution towards their fees so that they can continue their studies.

We said that we would find £10 million to provide bursaries for postgraduate teacher training and that we would double the access funds to prevent students in hardship from having to drop out of their courses. I am proud to have agreed to the doubling of access funds as that is the beginning of the process of tackling directly the inequality and injustice of the present system which, as the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) pointed out, has resulted in 77 per cent. of better-off students getting into university compared with abysmal figures in respect of those from the less well-off bracket of society.

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