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10.4 am

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): I thank the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) for raising this topic. I apologise to the House for the state of my voice, but a great deal of cheering and shouting went on last night. Having then to go into the radio studios at 11.15 pm to do a late-night phone-in was not the best of experiences, but no doubt the Minister is familiar with that, having had to respond to the drubbing that Wales took in the southern hemisphere recently, on which the whole world commiserates with him.

The gap year experience is a very important subject. The one thing we learned from last summer's fiasco involving Government policy, or the lack of Government policy, on gap year students--the hon. Member for Guildford was generous in not spending too much time on it--is that there is a need to tighten the regulations, and to put the gap year on a much more secure footing.

I shall be brief, as I do not want to relive the nightmares of 1997; nor do I want to re-run in any detail the arguments about the introduction of tuition fees. At about midnight tonight, we shall have yet another vote, after a long debate on Scottish fees, and hon. Members will be

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able to make their feelings known. However, the Minister must still expect to respond to last summer's fiasco concerning the gap year, particularly the way in which it was handled.

It is now a matter of record that the Secretary of State's statement on 25 July gave the clear impression that there would be no leeway for gap year students going off in 1997, and deferring their higher education places until 1998. The Government then performed a number of U-turns, which we welcome, as did the hon. Member for Guildford. However, it was clear from what the Government did that they did not understand the nature of the gap year, and were not familiar with the reasons why students took a gap year, or what an integral part it is of the higher education system.

On 14 August, Baroness Blackstone issued the famous press release which made the Government's position clear. However, it was not until about 24 September that universities were given hard information on what the Government's policy was. By that time, students who had not got offers of a place and had not taken up gap placements by 1 August were left out in the cold.

The Government failed to recognise that many students do not make their gap year arrangements as early or precisely as some would like, but wait until their A-level results come out. Only then do they make their decisions. It is important that they have that leeway, and can make their decisions as late as possible. The higher education system should be flexible enough to enable them to do so.

When they made their decision last year, the Government gave no hint to potential gap year students that there would be any change in the regulations. Students who expected to wait until their A-level results came out before making a decision had no indication that there was to be a change. The Government made a retrospective decision, which was applied arbitrarily to the 1997 student cohort. That was wrong. The way in which it was communicated to students was absolutely deplorable. At every stage, it was revealed in the press--through a leak to The Times on 11 August and a press release by Baroness Blackstone on 14 August. Individuals or institutions were obliged to monitor the press in order to find out what was happening in respect of Government policy. In his response to the debate, will the Minister assure us that future policy changes will not be announced only in press releases, but that the data will be sent to the relevant organisations and institutions involved, so that the information is available to everyone at the same time?

My purpose in making that point is to draw attention to the fact that many students who had not decided to take a gap year by 1 August have been disadvantaged. That is an inequity that could be redressed, even at this late stage, if the Government extended to students who took a gap year but had not applied by 1 August the same facilities as were available to those who had applied earlier.

Many hon. Members will have received correspondence from parents, and from individuals who decided to take a gap year, who feel disadvantaged by the fact that they will go to university this year on different terms and conditions from those affecting students who had applied by 1 August. I know that the Minister, who is an honourable and decent man, will accept that the deadline of 1 August was an arbitrary decision. I should like to think that, even at this late stage, the Government will acknowledge that it was an arbitrary decision, and change their mind.

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We are concerned about the future of the gap year, and the hon. Member for Guildford made some extremely interesting and detailed points about its extent and nature. However, he did not refer to the statement by Baroness Blackstone on 14 August:

I may have missed something, but yesterday I searched the web pages of the Department for Education and Employment, and found absolutely no reference to any Government plans regarding gap years. The Minister may be able to give us a detailed resume of the Government's plans. We would certainly like to see the noble Baroness's words put into action.

No doubt others will extol the virtues of students working as volunteers or travelling. Many are obliged to take a gap year in order to earn the money to enable them to go to university, either to pay their tuition fees or to help defray the costs. I am sure that the Minister and hon. Members accept that most students who take a gap year will not be going off to East Timor or Borneo, but working on building sites or doing manual work to earn enough money to pay their way through university; and that is honourable, too. I do not believe that there are two categories of gap year--one that is good for a certain type of student and one that should be regarded as less worthy.

The Government should recognise all students who take a gap year, irrespective of whether they work as volunteers or to raise the money to pay their way through university. One small concession that they could make is to allow students who take a gap year to have their fees paid at the level at which they would have entered higher education in the first place. It would not cost a great deal, but it would represent the Government's recognition that a gap year is important for students.

Mr. St. Aubyn: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be helpful if the Minister would mention the Government's plans for post-qualification entry, which will also affect the organisations involved, and explain how he proposes to involve the best of those organisations in his discussions on the introduction of post-qualification entry to universities?

Mr. Willis: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, which relates to the answer that I am trying to get from the Government in respect of the noble Baroness's statement. She made a powerful statement, and the Secretary of State has made similar ones. It is only right that the Minister is given an opportunity this morning to explain to the House what plans the Government have, so we look forward to his reply to the debate.

Finally, I strongly support the point that the hon. Member for Guildford made about guidelines and registration of organisations offering facilities to gap year students or any students who are taking time out. There is no doubt that the Louise Woodward case has highlighted some of the problems faced by young people who go abroad without being properly prepared, and the fact that there is no proper regulation or the necessary support mechanisms to help them. A register and clear

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Government guidelines would be welcomed by the organisations involved, but regulations certainly would not.

Mrs. Gorman : The hon. Gentleman has twice mentioned the Louise Woodward case. Surely that is a different issue, as she obtained employment through an employment agency, which is a different animal from the voluntary organisations to which my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) referred.

Mr. Willis: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention, but I think that the two issues overlap. Many gap year students find work abroad or at home through employment agencies. More and more young people, particularly those travelling to the United States, Australia or the Pacific rim countries, are being encouraged to find work through employment agencies. Although I accept the hon. Lady's point that there is a difference between the two, it is important that the Government do not turn a blind eye, but seek the same guidelines for all relevant organisations, irrespective of whether they deal with undergraduates or others seeking work experience abroad.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Guildford for initiating this morning's debate, and look forward to the Minister's response.

10.17 am

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay): I have listened with great interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn), and congratulate him on raising an important subject that obviously has ramifications outside the orthodox type of gap year. In my constituency, students have expressed the hope that they will be able to take a gap year, and employers have told me how much they value that experience for students.

We have been told that, whereas in the past increasing numbers of students have taken a gap year, this year there has been a fall in the numbers. I put it to the Minister that that is not unconnected with the fact that the Government have now decided to raise the cost of higher education for better-off students, who will have to pay their tuition fees, and for less well-off ones, who will face higher accommodation and maintenance costs. As a result, as the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) pointed out, many more students will have to work in order to pay the expenses that the Government have increased for people in pursuit of higher education.

The Minister must accept that the Government's policies are having a detrimental effect on what we all agree has given a valuable dimension to many people's higher education experience. The majority of universities support the idea and go to great lengths to praise it, because the students who go to university after a gap year have more mature and focused views on why they are in higher education.

Many of us have had vast experience around the world as students and adults. We can all agree that there is no substitute for that contact with a variety of cultures and other people's way of life, as part of what would once have been called the university of life. That facility is undervalued. The Government's policies of increasing the cost of higher education are likely to deter many of our young people from gaining such experiences.

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