Madam Speaker: Members will already be aware that a wooden moulding fell from the ceiling of our Chamber during the night. This morning, our staff checked to see whether there were similar defects in any other mouldings, and one further moulding has been removed. [Interruption.] It is not very funny, actually. I have been advised by our experts that they are as sure as they can be that it is safe for us to continue sitting here. Over the weekend, steps will be taken to ensure that all the mouldings are screwed into the ceiling joists, but I am confident that everything will be in good order again by the time that we sit on Monday. We shall now proceed with our usual business.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Dr. Kim Howells): There are no current plans to extend student loans to part-time students, most of whom are employed and are therefore able to support themselves. However, for the first time, we are making significant sums available to part timers through access funds.
Mr. Chidgey: Given that the Government have accepted the Tories' spending plans for the next two years, can the Minister explain why he is unable to give an assurance that part-time students should be able to access student loans in the life of this Parliament, given that the Government's Teaching and Higher Education Bill, currently in another place, makes exactly that provision?
Dr. Howells: The Bill makes that provision because we have a great deal of sympathy with the evidence that is emerging on behalf of part-time students, and we are ensuring that they are adequately provided for so that they may undertake and complete the courses that they desire to complete. However, the hon. Gentleman does not understand that his plan--which, of course, will once again be paid for out of the magic penny that the Liberals
Mr. Gordon Marsden: I welcome the Minister's assurance on the widening of access to loans, but may I ask that the Department continues to keep the matter sympathetically under review? I draw his attention especially to the increasing numbers of part-time students who are studying in the new universities, and to the courses that they are fulfilling. It is important--especially given the many women on such courses--that access to, and encouragement to serve on, those courses, continues.
Dr. Howells: I can assure my hon. Friend that we are fully aware of the important part that part-time study plays in lifelong learning. That is why we have doubled access funds to £36 million and extended provision to accommodate part-timers.
Mr. St. Aubyn: Is the Minister aware of efforts by the Select Committee on Education and Employment to find ways of accelerating and increasing the amount of genuinely private funding that might be used to fund student loans? Does he agree that, if such efforts were successful, more money might be provided for access funds and for higher education? Will the Department for Education and Employment undertake to support any such efforts?
Dr. Howells: We shall always examine such evidence and we are keen for private enterprise to play a much greater part in ensuring that its employees receive every opportunity for education at all levels. The best firms in the country are already doing so.
The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett): We have made substantial progress with the help of the working group chaired by David Brown of Motorola Ltd., and we shall produce further details in the forthcoming White Paper on lifelong learning and the prospectus for the university for industry, which will be published in March.
Dr. Whitehead: Does my right hon. Friend agree that, given the right degree of support, the university for industry will rank alongside that other achievement of a Labour Government, the Open university? Can he assure me that the creation of the essential starting point, the multi-media learning network, is being satisfactorily progressed by the design and implementation advisory group?
Mr. Blunkett: I can give that assurance. The university for industry will make a major contribution to equipping our nation with the skills required to sustain growth with stable inflation, and to do so in a new century, when new
Dr. Howells: The Department has spent some £534,000 on publicising the Government's proposals for the reform of higher education. That covers our response to the report of the national committee of inquiry into higher education under Sir Ron Dearing--Lord Dearing--and the new arrangements for financial support for students in higher education.
Dr. Howells: We undertook to inform everybody who needed the information about the details and the truth of the new funding arrangements that we intend to put in place. We think that that is a proper expenditure of money. The evidence of the success of our approach is seen in the rising number of applications for undergraduate places for next year.
Mr. Bradshaw: Does my hon. Friend agree that some students are labouring under the misinformation and scaremongering spread, in part, from those on the Opposition Benches? Does he agree that that small sum spent to tell the truth, so that students are not put off doing courses, is money well spent?
Dr. Howells: It is interesting that the nature of that scaremongering and misinformation that has come so often from some quarters is changing rapidly. I understand that the shadow Secretary of State for Education last night informed the audience at a debate on the future of higher education that he thought that our proposals for student loans would be much fairer than the arrangements put in place by the previous Government.
Mr. Don Foster: Is not the only reason why the Minister has had to spend so much money on advertising details of his proposals to students, the Government's hasty and ill-conceived response to the Dearing commission report? Does he agree that the proposals will do nothing to improve the funding crisis left by the previous Government because of the failure to passport the additional money from student fees to higher education, and that we shall end up with a higher education system that has two tiers--ivy league universities and bargain basement universities?
Dr. Howells: My hon. Friend is right. Applications are rising quickly. The Jeremiahs and doom-predictors have been proved wrong. Students know that a degree brings them great opportunities in life and enables them to earn more when they are working. That is what we intend higher education to do. We shall see that the money is in place so that every student with the qualifications to take up those places can do so.
Mr. Welsh: What plans does the Department have to pay the fourth-year tuition fees of students undertaking an honours course at a Scottish university, thus ending the present discrimination against English and Welsh students? Is the Minister aware of the harmful effect of his policy on university policy?
Dr. Howells: As the hon. Gentleman knows, because I have told him so on several occasions, we are urging Scottish universities to recognise the great worth of two-year A-level courses in England and Wales, and allow students with good grades into the second year of four-year degree courses at Scottish universities. That is a perfectly good arrangement, and we shall try to ensure that it works properly.
Mr. Dorrell: Is not the truth that the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) was seeking that the student from a high-income background will pay an extra £3,000 for a three-year degree course under the Government's proposals, while a student from a low-income background will pay an extra £5,265 for the same three-year degree course? Will the Minister now answer the question posed by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier): why do the Government believe that low-income students should face a steeper increase in the cost of their degrees than their contemporaries from more privileged backgrounds?
Dr. Howells: The shadow Secretary of State does not understand that students from low-income families will not be required to pay tuition fees. He adds up the sums in an incredibly idiosyncratic way. That is why he keeps jumping up and down in his seat. The money will be there for every student who wishes to take up a place at university and who requires it. The payback arrangements for such loans are good. People will take up such loans, and the proof of that is in the present application rates.