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6.5 pm

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. The Dearing report made a number of recommendations that cover various issues. Two key issues were the need to widen participation in and access to higher education, and funding in higher education. The Dearing report was not some fly-by-night, hastily put together report. It was the result of many months of careful research and analysis of the issues.

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A carefully thought-through package of proposals was put before the Government. Sir Ron Dearing made it clear in his report, and when he came to give evidence to the Education and Employment Committee, that the proposals were a package, and that the Government should not cherry-pick from it by choosing some proposals and discarding others.

Given the careful analysis behind the Dearing report, the Government had a duty to consider carefully their response to it, especially as their response will affect the future lives of our young people.

Mr. Öpik: The hon. Lady is right to suggest that the Government should not cherry-pick from the Dearing report. Is she saying that, if she were in government, she would not cherry-pick, but would commit £350 million next year and £565 million the year after to higher education? If so, can she explain where she would find that money?

Mrs. May: The issue we are debating this evening is whether the people who are in government today are cherry-picking from the Dearing report.

We might also consider whether the Prime Minister understands his Government's response to the Dearing proposals. At Prime Minister's questions last week, in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the Prime Minister stated categorically that the Government were implementing the proposals from the Dearing report. When he was challenged on that point, he said that my right hon. Friend was wrong.

My right hon. Friend was not wrong, because the Government are not implementing the Dearing proposals. They have discarded Dearing and are doing exactly what Sir Ron Dearing suggested they should not. He said they should not take the package of proposals in the Dearing report, tear it apart and put the proposals back together in their own package.

The fact that the Government came up with an instant response to the report suggests one of two things. Either the Government make policy on the hoof--and given the importance of the issue to the future of young people, that would be reprehensible--or the Government had decided beforehand that they would introduce tuition fees and abolish maintenance grants. In that case, the Prime Minister's statement during the election campaign--

is another example of the Government's betrayal of the people of this country.

The Government have chosen to move away from Dearing in two particular respects. There is real concern that the Government's decision not to follow Dearing's proposal to introduce tuition fees while maintaining the maintenance grant, but rather to abolish the maintenance grant and replace it with loans will, far from widening access, narrow it.

Particular concerns have been expressed also by those who represent rural constituencies about the impact on students who traditionally have to go away from home to get higher education. It can be argued that students living in an area with a variety of higher education establishments close by could ease their financial burden by choosing to stay at home. That would be a mistake,

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because the process of going away from home is part of the value of higher education. That opportunity is not open to many young people from rural parts of the country.

Another issue of concern about the Dearing recommendations is funding: here again we see the Government moving away from the proposals. The Dearing report was clear that resources produced from the introduction of tuition fees should go directly into the universities and higher education, but the Government have failed to confirm that. They give the impression that some money will be taken away from higher education and will go to other forms of education or--who knows?--into the Treasury pot.

The hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) referred to a briefing produced by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, but did not refer to this comment:

If nothing else, the Minister should make it clear whether the Government agree with that statement. Sir Ron made the point that, if students were paying tuition fees, the money would go into the universities which would be more careful in assessing courses. This would help to raise standards, as has been said tonight. People need to know the Government's intentions, and I trust that the Minister will provide the answer.

In opening the debate, my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) referred to the absolute fiasco with regard to English students who go to Scottish universities. The Secretary of State said earlier that the reason why he chose to make a statement in response to the Dearing report was the need for clarity. We saw over the summer months an absolute fiasco concerning gap year students, and many families suffered uncertainty and worry. Students did not know what lay ahead, because the Government, frankly, failed to get their act together. Obviously, they had not realised that gap year students would be affected by the measure, which shows their incompetence.

We now have a second fiasco. English students will pay more to attend Scottish universities than Scottish, German, French or Italian students. A National Union of Students spokesman has said that this will "devastate" universities in Scotland which rely heavily on students from outside the country. St. Andrews university has said that it could have a marked effect on cross-border flow, and it may have a significant impact on the entire higher education sector, and not just on the successful importers of non-Scots university students.

The Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office, the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson), is here to respond to the debate. I trust that he will tell us that the Government have changed their mind and that English, Welsh and Northern Irish students will benefit from the same treatment to be given to Scottish, German and Greek students.

6.12 pm

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): Thanks to the previous Government, we now have mass higher education in this country--well, that is the case for some groups. Sadly, and worryingly, that does not apply to

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social groups IV and V, from which only 8 per cent. of young people go on to higher education. This is quite disgraceful, when one considers that that proportion is scarcely higher than the participation rate in my day, when only one in 10 went to university.

It is pleasing that the debate has concentrated on that issue, and that hon. Members realise what a waste of our national talent that represents and how we all suffer from the failure to ensure that all young people who are capable of benefiting from higher education get the opportunity to do so. That is the subject upon which I wish to concentrate, although I come to it from a slightly different perspective.

I do not want the present Government to finish with no improvement having been made to the present situation. I benefited from higher education and a full maintenance grant, and I did not have to pay any fees. I urge my colleagues to look again at what Dearing has said about access to higher education for the lower socio-economic groups.

I would like to draw the House's attention to another document, published around the same time as Dearing, by the Council for Industry and Higher Education. The report, by Hilary Metcalf, is entitled "Social Class and Higher Education: The Participation of Young People from Lower Social Classes". As one might expect, the report found that a major factor in the lower participation of people from lower-income groups arises because of their poorer educational achievements before higher education. That is an issue on which my Government are strong, and the White Paper "Excellence in Schools" has attempted to address that issue.

There are other factors which prevent young people from poorer backgrounds from going to university, and the report deals with them. Why do young people with the necessary qualifications to go to university not take up that opportunity? That is something that we should be addressing today. Sadly, the Government's proposals do not address the major recommendation in the report--that we should address the income differential between a young person going into work direct from school and a young person becoming a student.

If the Government's proposals are accepted, a young student will end up with greater debts than he or she would have done previously. It is true that the student will not have to pay a fee, but he or she will be poorer by the £2,000 that he or she will lose in maintenance grant--something that Dearing was strongly against. He saw the abolition of maintenance grants, and their replacement with loans, as a means of reducing subsidies to the poorer sectors of society and redistributing them to the better-off. In that regard, I urge my hon. Friends to look again at this report.

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