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15 Nov 2002 : Column 271—continued

Mr. Willis: Before the Secretary of State moves on, would he correct the comment that was made by the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education on the XToday" programme on Radio 4 this morning about the increased resources going into higher education? Will he confirm that from 1997 to the present, there has, in student per capita figures, been no increase? Indeed, if one takes away the income from tuition fees, there has been a decrease in real terms.

Mr. Clarke: Not only will I not correct my hon. Friend's statement, I will confirm it. The overall figure shows a significant increase—I do not have the percentage figure in front of me—in the total resource that has gone to universities. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that funding per student has gone only slightly ahead of being steady; it has gone relatively flat. That is one of the central issues that must be addressed.

The hon. Gentleman has identified the key point, and I am glad that he has. I am prepared to acknowledge directly that there are serious funding shortages in higher education. The question that we must now debate is how we go about dealing with that situation. There are many issues relating to those who could potentially contribute, ranging from individuals, by various means, to society as a whole, the state in various ways, and a range of organisations. We need, and my hon. Friend's document will offer, a proper discussion of possible approaches to the problem.

We made manifesto commitments to

and to

That cannot be done without resource, and there is no doubt that the competitive resource situation of some of our great universities, compared with other universities, is serious. A second goal of our manifesto was that 50 per cent. of young people should enter higher education, and a third was not to introduce top-up fees. Those three are commitments that stand, and that is the context in which we shall publish our proposals.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): Does my right hon. Friend accept that some of us heard with alarm this morning the claim made by the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education, to the effect that graduates earn a great deal more

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than non-graduates? The comparison should not be between graduates and non-graduates. It should be between graduates and those who could have gone to university and chose not to. That differential is far lower than the graduate/non-graduate differential. I sincerely hope that my right hon. Friend is not planning to introduce a graduate tax, which would further disincentivise people from going to university.

Mr. Clarke: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's views. It is clear beyond peradventure that graduates earn more than people who have not graduated. I accept that there is a subset of people who have not gone to university because they did not wish to do so, for whatever reason, and the differential between graduates and that subset may be different. I have not seen research on that, but I understand my hon. Friend's point. However, it is difficult to argue against the general proposition that a graduate gains financially from having gone to university. The question whether graduates should therefore make a contribution is an issue. If they were to make such a contribution, the question how it would be best made—via some kind of graduate tax, fees or whatever—is a further issue that needs to be discussed. Those are the issues that will be addressed in the paper that my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education is preparing. I do not think that my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) was trying to do this, but to suggest that there is no economic benefit to the individual from having gone to university is, in my opinion, a difficult argument to sustain. It is one of the issues that we will explore in the document. We will publish the document, and I am sure that we will have a good debate on that question when we consider it in detail.

Underlying all the reform throughout every part of education is the question of the investment and resources to which we commit ourselves, and we have made a substantial commitment to improved investment and resources. But the Conservative party has not made such a commitment. For example, about a year ago the Leader of the Opposition said:

this is of GDP spent on public services—

More recently, last July, I think addressing the journalists, the right hon. Gentleman said:

At the Conservative party conference this year, the Tory policy document stated:

That is clear.

More recently than that, on 7 October, on the BBC's XBreakfast" programme, the hon. Member for Ashford said:

Where does the truth lie? Has the hon. Gentleman caved in completely and betrayed the education interests in relation to his shadow Cabinet colleagues who do not

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want such spending, or will his writ run? If education spending is to be cut, what will be cut? We have already identified one example, sure start, but I could have picked a raft of examples.

In the spirit of sharing different policies, the country needs clarity from the Conservative party about exactly what it intends on the funding issue. I do not put that in any spirit of partisanship. That is not the kind of politician I am. To help the public debate, I simply inquire what the policies are and what the situation is.

The debate on the Queen's Speech is an opportunity to compare and look at the different programmes and policies of the parties so that the country can understand them. I have put six questions today to the Conservatives. First, how will the hon. Gentleman deal with the statutory basis of home-school contracts? Secondly, would he close 80 sure start programmes? Thirdly, does he agree with his leader when he says that A-levels are not worth the paper they are written on? [Interruption.] I am sure that if he did not say it, the hon. Gentleman will tell us in a second. Fourthly, is he in favour of light-touch inspections and different inspection regimes for different schools according to how effective they are? Fifthly, is it true that he wants to bring back the assisted places scheme as a way of dealing with inner-city educational deprivation? Sixthly, will the Opposition invest in education or not? Those are six quite serious questions and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will do us the courtesy of responding.

I throw down the same challenge to the Liberal Democrats. First, will the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough oppose the truancy legislation when it comes around? Secondly, will he abandon targets and standards for schools set by a national regime such as Ofsted? What is his position on that? Does he believe that every school should just get on with it, with no national regime? Thirdly, will he end the specialist schools programme? We had a short exchange on that, which threw some light on the matter, but a little more light would be helpful. Fourthly, to return to the resources point, does what he says about devolving all responsibility for schools to local authorities mean that he will end the focus that we have tried to establish on the most deprived areas of Britain, because the big issue with his policy is that it takes away the equity element in what any Government naturally try to do?

Those are my six questions to the Conservatives and my four questions to the Liberal Democrats. For our part, the Government have a coherent and constructive programme that is rigorously focused on raising educational standards at every level. That means focusing on what our education service can do for every individual in our society. The way to go about that is by investing in our service and reforming it, by building partnerships within our education service, and between the education service and our colleagues in other areas, such as those that are the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

We are always single minded in our focus on standards. We think that the lack of confidence that arises from a lack of such focus is damaging and dangerous, so whatever happens, we shall focus on standards throughout. It is an approach that I am proud

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to inherit from my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley, and I commend it to the House.

10.14 am

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): The House should take this opportunity formally to welcome the new Secretary of State to his position, as this is the first time that we have heard his views on education in his new role. He was appointed just before the last Education questions and I said then that his silence was uncharacteristic. I am glad to see that I was right. I start by expressing my genuine sympathy that the first response of some of the crueller newspapers to his appointment was to dig up pictures of the right hon. Gentleman from when he was president of the National Union of Students in the 1970s, the decade that style forgot. Given the sheer volume of hair on display in some of those pictures, he will be relieved to know that I do not propose to follow the example of his hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) and flourish to the House a picture of a rather impressive silver-backed gorilla. Comparisons in this case would be not just odious but alarming. I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman. Along with age, wisdom, maturity and seniority, he has clearly developed much greater control over his facial hair in the intervening decades.

Like the Secretary of State I shall leave the legislation of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), who will be replying to the debate. As someone who for a time ran a think tank devoted to media matters, I think that involves some heroic restraint on my part, as I have strong views on such issues. However, I do not wish to tread on my hon. Friend's toes.

I was interested that in his opening speech the Secretary of State clearly preferred talking about the plans and policies of the Opposition, and even the Liberal Democrats. Those were certainly the parts of his speech where he showed the greatest enthusiasm. He is understandably embarrassed about the policies that he has inherited and has had to take over. Even in a debate on the Queen's Speech where the Government are setting out their programme for the year, he preferred to talk about anything but those things.

The embarrassment that the right hon. Gentleman feels has been revealed in the large number of interviews that he has been giving, which show with commendable honesty that the new Secretary of State is prepared to confront, at least in words, the legacy of failure that he has been left by his predecessors. As he told The Daily Telegraph—I am glad that we read the same newspapers—

It is rather refreshing if he is to continue in that vein. If those words mean anything in practice, we on the Opposition Benches will welcome that long overdue conversion. I can assure the Secretary of State that he will receive support from me if and when he genuinely takes powers away from himself and gives them to parents, heads, teachers and governors.

The central proposition that informs the policies that the Opposition have laid out so far and which will be the bedrock of the many other policies that will develop in

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the years ahead is trust—trust in schools to manage their own budgets, trust in heads and governors to set high standards of discipline, and trust in parents to choose the best education for their children. That is in stark contrast to the Government's approach so far, which has been characterised by central control, micro-management, daily, sometimes hourly, interference in the working lives of teachers, and a desire to dictate to parents what type of education their children should receive.

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