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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady's time is up.

5.50 pm

Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus): The hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) accused the Tories of being more shameless in opposition than in government. Her party could be accused of exactly the opposite. In carrying out Tory policies, it seems more shameless in government than it was in opposition. The main issue in this debate is quite clear: Tory hypocrisy matched by Labour hypocrisy. The losers are the students of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The Tories have some cheek to raise the issue of student hardship. They know their own abysmal record. The previous Tory Government did more than any to increase the financial pressure on our student population. The reality is made clear by the constantly rising student debt--now more than £4,000 for the average student--and the tragic rise in the drop-out rate, which is up by 12 per cent. since grants were frozen and loans were introduced.

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Under the Tories, students faced a constant onslaught of personal cuts, lower grants and loss of housing benefit. For many students, university today is more about survival than about study. Getting to the odd job will become more crucial than missing the odd lecture. The Tories should be ashamed of their record and their backing of a large part of the Government's policy.

The Labour Government have cheated the electorate by promising education, education, education and delivering debt, debt and more student debt. The Government have acted on the Dearing report's recommendations by introducing tuition fees, but have blatantly ignored much of the rest of the report.

Dearing proposed that an additional £350 million be spent on higher education in 1998-99, but the Government refuse to spend much more than the Tories. The overall reality of the spending figures is less money for our universities, colleges and students. Dearing proposed the continuance of maintenance grants, but the Government, in their wisdom, have chosen to abolish grants, and in so doing have erected a financial barrier to the aspirations of potential students across the country.

The Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office (Mr. Brian Wilson): To clarify the matter, is the hon. Gentleman endorsing the Dearing recommendations on tuition fees?

Mr. Welsh: The Scottish National party rejects tuition fees and wants to return to student grants. In an independent Scotland we would maintain the Scottish tradition from which the hon. Gentleman benefited. We are opposed to student loans and tuition fees. I am ashamed that our generation, which benefited from that grant system as part of the traditional education system Scotland, is imposing massive debt on future generations of students. It is something about which both he and I should be ashamed.

Mr. Wilson: Merely on a point of clarification, I take it that, contrary to what the hon. Gentleman may have just led the House to believe, he is not endorsing Dearing on anything.

Mr. Welsh: Far from it, I was pointing to the parts of the Dearing report which the Government and the Opposition have chosen to introduce. I was also clearly and exactly pointing out to the Minister the SNP's view. In dividing the House last night, we were against not only the privatisation of student loans but student loans on principle. I recommend that the Minister returns to the traditional view of the Scottish education system from which we both benefited and which he is withdrawing from vast swathes of the Scottish population.

The Government claim that abolishing grants and introducing fees will not be a disincentive to students from low-income families entering universities, but the students and the universities know that that is not true. The prospect of a £15,000 debt will discourage many from considering higher education. Education should not be a privilege restricted to those who can afford to pay, but that is precisely what it will become if the Government go ahead with the proposals.

The Government have often promised to listen to the electorate. Although they seem happy to listen, they refuse to hear what is being said. Thousands of students

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in cities throughout the United Kingdom protested at the weekend against the Government's higher education policies. Are the Government willing to listen to the voice of students or will they continue to ignore them as they have ignored the Dearing report?

The gaps and failings in the Government's plans are plain. Their proposals fail to take into account the position of mature students, especially those with family responsibilities. Will the Minister give a clear and absolute guarantee that students who claim supplementary allowances will continue to receive their grants--not as loans which they will be expected to repay? The Government's response, particularly with regard to further education, could cause enormous problems to that very important sector. Further education has tended to be ignored in comments and debates, yet it is the first stepping stone for many in returning to education or moving to higher education such as university. It is very important that students are not deterred from taking advantage of that first step on the ladder.

The Government's proposals are flawed. Why do proposals for the introduction of tuition fees continue to include a means-tested contribution when the principle of the loans system is that students are responsible for the cost of their higher education? Are the Government not admitting that fees will act as a disincentive to university entry, if not for the poorest people, for those who are just above the means-tested level? The motivation for the Government's policy is not better education but their on-going mission to save money. Theirs is a short-term approach at the expense of students and against the interests of the nation. The SNP believes that higher education is an investment in the future strength and wealth of our society. It is society which will lose out in the long run through the abolition of maintenance grants and the introduction of fees.

In the face of such education cuts, we can see the Government's true priorities. Over the past few months, they have squandered £210 million on the purchase of seven Trident missiles and the test firing of two others--another broken election promise. That £210 million could have removed the threat of tuition fees from Scots students for at least the next three years, restored student grants to 1990 levels for all Scottish students over the next four years, and restored housing benefit for the next eight years. I know what my priorities are and I am sad to see what the Government's have turned out to be. Education is not the Government's priority, given that they have squandered such precious resources on the ego-boosting but ultimately empty status symbol of the Trident weapons of mass destruction.

The weakness of the Government's proposals is best highlighted by one anomaly. Scottish-domiciled students studying in Scotland will pay for only three years of their four-year degree courses, while English, Welsh and Northern Ireland students will be forced to pay for the full four years. That will act as a clear disincentive to the thousands of non-Scottish United Kingdom students who have previously chosen Scotland for their higher education and threaten the £200 million spent by that group in the Scottish economy every year.

The Government must act to sort out the mess that they have created. The cost would be a mere £3 million to £5 million. I hope that the Minister will give a clear answer before this debate finishes. The House faces a choice: we can go down the road of ever-increasing loans

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and higher financial barriers to student entry to higher education or we can invest in the future of our youth and our country. The SNP will give a full and detailed reply to the Dearing report. We have always said that education is a Scottish priority--a system open to all of ability irrespective of wealth or any other background factor. Ability, not the cheque book, should remain the determinant. The SNP stands by that traditional Scottish philosophy; I deeply regret that the Government do not.

5.59 pm

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North): I am grateful for the chance to speak in this debate, which is of great importance to my constituency. I wish to draw in particular from the circumstances of students in Northampton. My constituency contains both a higher education and a further education college. To both, issues of access and opportunity in education are especially dear.

The Opposition have made much of the recent growth in higher education, but--as often happens--it was growth without spread. It did not bring the participation in higher education by young people from low-income families that I and my hon. Friends would have liked and that would have made education one of the main ladders to personal aspiration and success. Most of the growth in student numbers has been from young people from families with higher incomes. Those from a more disadvantaged background are still held back. The figures given by the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) illustrate that clearly.

In addition, compared with many of our competitors, participation of young British people in higher education still lags behind. It is no good for the Opposition to applaud themselves on the recent expansion of higher education when their 18 years in government left behind a system with a £2 billion funding crisis and an artificial cap on its expansion and without a breakthrough in the spread of benefits that could have transformed our society and the life chances of our young people.

It is especially wrong for the Opposition to pretend to champion the cause of low-income students. As a new Member, I have noted that whenever the Opposition come to the defence of any cause it is usually because of some vested interest that has no place in a modern society. That applies especially when we are discussing the chances of children and young people. For example, the Opposition defended the assisted places scheme, which we scrapped to provide funds to reduce class sizes for all children. They opposed the windfall tax, which will fund the new deal and give young people job chances. We now see their opposition to the Government's proposals to provide the expansion that we want to see in higher education.

The Government's proposals for the funding of higher education will ensure that young people from lower-income backgrounds are given appropriate support--and much more appropriate support than the measures behind the Opposition's weasel words. The Government's proposals for students from low-income families to be exempted from tuition fees will mean that many--probably most--of the students in my constituency will pay nothing at all. It has been calculated that 30 per cent. of students nationally will make no contribution to tuition fees.

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In Northamptonshire, calculations based on the parental income of students applying to the county council for mandatory grants in previous years suggest that some 44 per cent. of students would not have to pay any tuition fees under the new scheme. In my constituency, full-time gross average earnings are £16,670, from which mortgage costs are deducted before there is any liability for tuition fees. Only 10 per cent. of the work force earns more than £27,000, which is well below the limit at which parents have to pay full tuition fees. If there is one message that the Government have failed to get across, it is the extent of the support that they are providing to students from middle-income as well as lower-income homes. I hope that the Secretary of State's letter will address some of the misunderstandings on that point.

The Opposition's emphasis on maintenance grants is perhaps because of their concern about full-time students doing a first degree straight after school. Increasingly, however, students are not recent school leavers doing full-time degrees. At Nene college in my constituency, 5,000 students aged under 21 do full-time degrees, but 4,250 mature students aged over 21 are financed completely differently and rarely benefit from maintenance grants. Half of those students are part-timers who already pay an average £600 a year in tuition fees, with no form of means testing.

The Government's proposals cannot be taken in isolation. They form a package that aims to ensure that we get the expansion needed in higher education. As part of that, I hope to see Nene college achieve university status. The only qualification on which it currently falls short is its research status and it should satisfy that criterion next year. After that, it need maintain its position for only three years to become a university. The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), is to visit Nene college shortly and I trust that he will be impressed by the standard of the work that it does, including its work building links with local and business communities and extending opportunities to students from a wide range of backgrounds. All those issues feature strongly in the Dearing proposals. I hope that my hon. Friend will also ensure that the criteria for qualifying as a university are not changed before Nene college gets its chance to qualify and to make its contributions to extending the opportunities for young people to obtain university degrees.

In his opening remarks, the right hon. Member for Charnwood spoke about a shambles. The only shambles in higher education is the one of the previous Government's making. The proposals from the present Government will go a long way to resolve the problems and ensure that higher education becomes--as we all wish--an opportunity for young people to achieve all their hopes and aspirations.

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