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5.8 pm

Helen Jones (Warrington, North): I am pleased that the Opposition have given us the opportunity to debate such a vital issue. It is sad that more Opposition Members could not be with us.

The funding of higher education is important not just to individuals, but to our community. It determines our economic health and our cultural wealth. We ask higher education institutions to do two things: to provide us with intelligent and adaptable men and women, who can solve the country's problems and modernise our industries, and to ensure that they have a broad educational experience which promotes personal development.

If our universities are to do that effectively, they must draw from the widest possible pool of talent. Sadly, that is not always the case. Too many of our students leave education far too early. The result is not only a tragedy for those involved, whose opportunities and life chances are restricted as a result; it represents an economic disaster for the country. Any proposals for student finance must be judged in that context, and those making those proposals must answer two vital questions: do they improve access to higher education and do they safeguard standards? Neither the system that the Opposition put in place nor the Dearing proposals alone satisfy those tests.

It is longer than I care to remember since I first went to university. When I did, none of my neighbours knew or understood where I was going or what I could expect there. It is shameful that the same would be true today. Despite the increase in student numbers which the Opposition have rightly mentioned, it is true that throughout the 1990s the increase among socio-economic classes A to C was more than double that among classes D and E, whose members are in any event less likely to participate.

Anyone who doubts the result of that statistic should speak, as I did recently, to a headmaster in my constituency who was trying to persuade one of his talented pupils, who was destined to get good examination results, to go to university. Her aim in life was to get a job in an office. Research tells us that that pattern is repeated throughout the country. The major disincentive to students staying on in higher education is the desire to go out and earn money.

The system that the Conservative party promoted when it was in government makes the position worse because it forces many students to be reliant on their parents not just while in education but afterwards. Students must pay back their loans over five years at a time when graduate incomes are at their lowest. Implementation of the Dearing report would not improve that situation because it would require repayments to be made when an income reached £5,000. It would also require all students, including the very poorest, to pay tuition fees. Students from lower-income families would thus be faced with a major disincentive.

Parents cannot subsidise students from such families when they graduate. There is no money in the bank from which they can draw. Graduates from these families must earn their own keep, and under that system many people are concerned about how they would keep, feed and clothe themselves. No wonder that many such students choose to leave when they are 18.

We not only fail to attract many students from low-income families into higher education. As the Dearing report makes clear, there are major concerns

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about standards throughout the country. The report refers to evidence of inconsistencies among external examiners. As a result, there is a reference to quality assurance agencies to maintain standards in our higher education institutions.

Anyone who has been in higher education recently cannot be surprised by what I have said. I returned as a mature student and I saw students who missed meals because they could not afford to eat properly. I saw students who could not keep up with their courses because they were working in the evenings. I saw libraries that were not properly equipped, with not enough books and, in one case, not even enough chairs. I saw overcrowded classrooms and out-of-date equipment. These are direct results of the Conservative party's cutting student funding by up to 25 per cent. per student. If we continue on the course that the Conservative party is proposing, in 20 years' time we shall face a shortfall of £2 billion.

How would the Conservatives square the circle? There are only two options open to them. Either they would have to increase taxes by as much as 3p in the pound or they would have to restrict student access. We do not need a crystal ball but merely to reflect on their past record to know which option they would prefer. That is why the motion represents crocodile tears from those who in the past have displayed crocodile teeth.

We shall put in place a system that protects the poorest students so that they do not have to pay tuition fees. We shall ensure that repayments are contingent on incomes. We shall ensure also that no parent has to pay more than he or she is paying now. The Opposition's proposals would not tackle student poverty, would not ensure security of funding and would not ensure a quality of education. Their proposals are a recipe for catastrophe. They would do nothing to improve access and nothing to help poor students. If we accept the motion we shall be failing the present generation of students and future generations. The motion offers a dead-end route, and I urge the House to reject it.

5.14 pm

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): The Secretary of State referred to my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson), who described the right hon. Gentleman's decision as "courageous". That called to mind the excellent comedy programme "Yes, Minister". My recollection is that when Sir Humphrey used "courageous" in relation to his Minister's decision, he meant something quite different. Perhaps the Secretary of State should take that as a warning rather than a sign of encouragement.

I have nothing against the principle that students, when graduates, should pay something towards the costs of their education. The hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) talked about hypocrisy, but I would not want to use such a word. I remember clearly the strong opposition from the Labour party when the then Conservative Government introduced a modest system of top-up loans for students. Against that background, and given their record in office in the National Union of Students, when some were key figures in the opposition to the introduction of modest student loans by the Conservative Government, I find it remarkable that some Labour Members, who are not now in their places, are able to support the Government.

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As I have said, I have nothing against the principle of students contributing something towards the costs of their education and, therefore, the introduction of some form of tuition fees. There is, however, an important distinction to be made, and that is that a tuition fee must relate to the education of the student. It must relate directly to what the undergraduate is receiving in terms of his or her higher education.

It is particularly disturbing--I know that this is the view of the university sector--that the Government have flatly refused to guarantee that the funding that is derived from the introduction of tuition fees will go to the institutions that are involved, to the universities at which individual students are studying. That raises serious questions about the Government's intentions. The higher education sector is rightly worried about that.

If the fee relates to the course and to the institution that the student is attending, what is the position of the Scottish universities? I believe that their circumstances and those of English students studying at them make clear the truth of the Government's policy, which is to introduce not tuition fees but a form of taxation that will be used merely to expand Government revenue. It will not be used necessarily to improve or fund the higher education sector.

That is wrong in equity and indefensible when put before those of our constituents contemplating going up to university, who may find themselves contributing £1,000 a year or, in the case of an English constituent going to a Scottish university, £4,000 over a four-year period. That is proposed on the pretext that they will be making a contribution to their education when in fact it will be a contribution to general Government revenue. I deprecate any such decision.

We have heard about resource accounting. There are accounting changes that can be effective, but it is clear that a political decision must be taken. Is there a political will to finance higher education or is there not? I understand that Government accounting is being debated between the Departments for Education and Employment and the Treasury. That does not remove the fact that public expenditure is public expenditure. If there is an increase in Government outgoings through the introduction of the proposed scheme, it must be accepted that that will count in terms of the public sector borrowing requirement.

The principle of fees is acceptable as long as they go towards the institutions where people are studying. What is not acceptable is where they are a feeble guise for the introduction of a tax that will impact on undergraduates and graduates. It is not acceptable if they are part of a massive, sweeping change in the overall package of student financial support. An important contrast can be drawn between the way in which the previous Administration introduced small top-up loans for students and what the current Administration are trying to do. The introduction of small top-up loans was a gradual approach.

My main concern at the effect that the Government's proposal will have on access is not necessarily the principle of what will be done, but the enormous shock effect of introducing an expensive new charge to students, through tuition fees, at the same time as abolishing the maintenance grant. There will be a massive increase in the debt that an individual contemplating going into higher

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education will have to accept. The Government have to accept that, under those circumstances, many people will be deterred from entering higher education, particularly those from the lower socio-economic groups.

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