Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Adam Price: Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me, a fellow socialist, that the easiest way to enact that principle would be through a progressive system of income tax?

Mr. Chaytor: There are many ways of enacting that principle. One difficulty with progressive income tax is that those who ought to have the greatest liability for income tax find it the easiest to avoid. There are deficiencies in an income tax system, however progressive it may be on paper.

There are many ways whereby the system can become more progressive and fairer and reduce yet further the barriers to participation that many young people experience. I am sure that the Government will explore all of them. I completely support what they have done. It is important that in the review we do not abandon the central principle that those who gain the benefit contribute their fair share.

We should focus on the details of the system. It is true that the perception of tuition fees has been a problem. However, 50 per cent. of university students do not pay tuition fees, and 15 per cent. pay only a part fee. That is not widely understood, so one of the details that needs to come out of the review is better communication regarding eligibility for tuition fees.

25 Oct 2001 : Column 450

I find it incredible that people recommend abandoning the tuition fee. I cannot see how anyone who is concerned about equality and redistribution of opportunity in education can justify a system whereby every group of post-18-year-old students has to pay a tuition fee for their course, or is eligible to do so, whereas full-time undergraduates—the group that has the greatest benefit from their education—are not eligible. If young people who achieved zero GCSEs at school go to night school at 19 or 20 to improve themselves, they pay a tuition fee. If people in their 30s or 40s who work full time or look after a family do an Open university degree, they pay a tuition fee. How can it possibly be right that undergraduates, who, to have got where they are, have by definition had the greatest benefit from, and the highest investment in, their primary and secondary education, should not pay tuition fees?

That is the key principle behind the payment—or rather, the contribution to the payment. Let us remember that the £1,075—I think that that is right; I have just written the cheque for my youngest daughter, who is starting her second year at university—represents about 25 per cent. of the average cost of providing the course, so we are not asking people to pay the full fee.

Let us focus on the details in the review—information for parents, for example. The Government have taken heroic steps to mitigate some of the potential problems and perceptions among young people going to university for the first time; have introduced all kinds of new systems of support—for child care and transport, for instance—and have expanded the access funds in universities. There is now a plethora of additional forms of support. There is too much confusion and not enough information about the various special schemes that have been introduced.

The system needs reforming and streamlining, so that any additional support that may come through can be focused on the needs of those whom we loosely term non-traditional students, or students from working-class backgrounds. The key criterion, surely, is that a student has non-graduate parents, and is the first to go to university in his or her family. That is the barrier that we have to break through. The prospect of someone whose parents did not go to university going to university themselves is far less likely than for those with graduate parents. I therefore hope that, in addition to better communication about the realities of the system of support, there will be clarification and streamlining of the various forms of support that already exist.

I have praised the Liberal Democrats for including in their motion a reference to the support of post-16s in further education. The Government, and possibly the Welsh Assembly, are to be congratulated on having taken steps towards a form of education maintenance allowance for 16 to 19-year-olds. We have pilot schemes in the United Kingdom, and the evidence is variable, but by and large the schemes work and achieve participation.

We know that rolling out education maintenance allowances nationally will be hugely expensive, but I urge the Government to think carefully and not to back off from a national scheme of support for 16 to 19-year-olds. As was said earlier, one of the key factors in participation is not so much the cost of going to university, so long as the cost is reasonable and students perceive that the higher

25 Oct 2001 : Column 451

earnings in their subsequent careers will cover the initial costs. The key factor is not having the right qualifications at the age of 16 or 18.

Caroline Flint: The education maintenance allowances in Doncaster have had a profound effect in the short time that they have been operational; staying-on rates have increased by 6 per cent. I agree with my hon. Friend that despite the financial issues that they raise, EMAs are a crucial way in which to roll out the programme to encourage more young people to stay on, and give them the chance to achieve the qualifications to get into university.

Mr. Chaytor: I am delighted to hear that. I only wish that we had EMAs in my constituency. They have them in Rochdale, Bolton, Manchester and Salford. Indeed, one of the problems with the pilot schemes is that we now find that students taking the same course at the same college are funded in different ways.

If we are to roll out EMAs nationally, we must consider the relationship with child benefit. The Government deserve enormous credit for grasping the nettle of reforming student finance in the last Parliament, and there is perhaps an even pricklier nettle to be grasped in this Parliament: the relationship between EMAs and child benefit. There are so many anomalies in the way in which our existing welfare state funds 16 to 19-year-olds, in and out of education. I make a plea for the extension of the definition of student financial support away from HE to include FE.

I also ask for some special consideration for students attending London universities and colleges. Normally, I am wholly opposed to any enhancement of educational investment in London as, by and large, it is at the expense of poorer, northern, metropolitan districts such as mine—[Interruption.]—and those in other parts of the country. I draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning to early-day motion 308, which I tabled this morning and which refers to London weighting. There is no doubt in my mind that living costs for students in London are far in excess of the current weighting provided in student support. Given that students from all over the country attend London universities, the issue must be tackled.

I hope that the Government will stick firmly to the principles. I hope that they will listen to the comments made by the Conservatives. I welcome the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt)—my former adversary—to the Opposition Front Bench. I congratulate him on his appointment and hope that he will bring a new approach to the Conservative party and wish him well on his tour of United Kingdom universities to find out what people have to say. He did not say that he was making a European tour to learn from European capitals what should be done to improve public services in Britain. When those Members of the shadow Cabinet who are going to Europe have their interviews with Mr. Jospin and Chancellor Schroder and ask why British public services are often poorer than those in western Europe, the answer will be simple: "We did not have 20 years of Tory Government." That is the obvious message that the shadow Cabinet will receive on their European tour. However, I am sure that the hon. Member for North-East

25 Oct 2001 : Column 452

Bedfordshire will bring a constructive and reasonable approach to the formulation of Conservative post-16 policy.

The key point is that we must focus on the detail. We must consider London weighting. We must give better information to parents to get rid of the fear factor—that is urgent. We must streamline the existing additional support schemes so that extra effort is directed towards the needs of poor students, especially those who are going to university for the first time.

2.52 pm

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak in the debate. The subject is of great importance and the House should address it. This is the second Opposition day that has been devoted to a discussion of education. That marks the importance attached to education by Members on both sides of the House.

During the past four years, we have seen the flawed introduction of a new approach to financial support for our students. Even the Secretary of State, in her decision to review the steps taken four years ago and to reconsider the whole system of student finance, has admitted that what was done was not right; that it caused genuine hardship for far too many students; and that, increasingly, it provides a disincentive for students from less well-off backgrounds to enter further education—as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) pointed out. The Government made a wrong decision and I hope that the current review will result in a more workable and acceptable system that is more attractive to would-be students.

None the less, in choosing this subject for debate, the Liberal Democrats are chasing headlines, while failing to address the real issues relating to student finance. The problem for students, and the one that causes so many financial difficulties, is not tuition fees. To call for the scrapping of tuition fees just makes a cheap headline. It is not tuition fees alone, or even in large measure, that build up debts of between £10,000 and £15,000, but the huge repayment burdens—the burden of cost-of-living expenses built up over a three-year course, or four years in Scotland. That debt burden remains with students through the early years of, and often well into, their professional life. It is that debt burden, far more than tuition fees, that causes the fears that have been discussed.

Twenty years ago, in the days when we had full grants and when I was a student, it was generally estimated that a student needed a little over £2,000 a year for living expenses in London—about £1,500 elsewhere. Obviously, given the changes in the cost of living, those amounts are hugely greater today, yet it is worth noting that the maximum amount available under the student loan system is only £4,000 a year. Today, students are left with huge debts. We need to address that issue for today's students, not tomorrow's.

Next Section

IndexHome Page