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5.28 pm

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I am sure the House will be relieved to know that I do not propose, unless severely provoked, to speak at length. There are two reasons for that. The first is that my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) and I will deploy our thinking at greater length on Wednesday. The second, and very good, reason is that in no sense do I wish to deny Back Benchers the opportunity of expressing their thoughts. I should like to hear from a number of them, especially those on the Labour Benches, if not today, then on Wednesday.

I confirm that the official Opposition have no problem with the Liberal Democrat motion.

We shall support it in the Lobby, although keen students of the Order Paper will note that our amendment, which was not selected, indicates that in crucial respects it does not go far enough. I am reminded of Sherlock Holmes's remark about the Bradshaw railway timetable, whose language, he said, was

It would be remiss of me not to begin by mentioning the appointment of the hon. Member for Hull, West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) as the new Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education. We have had fruitful dealings in the past on matters of employment law, which I always enjoyed, and I have watched his progress with interest. He has some associations with Ruskin and, I believe, is an alumnus of that college.

Alan Johnson: No, I am not.

Mr. Boswell: The hon. Gentleman is denying it, but I would have no problem with such a claim because nearly all of us, as well as the great bulk of the university sector, are seriously interested in promoting access for able people. It would be daft if the universities disabled themselves by not drawing on all the talent that they can. Because of our concern about the substantial deterrent posed by some of the Government proposals we are supporting the Liberal Democrat motion. However, I am sure that the Minister will enjoy his challenging post, and the attributes that he needs for it are a readiness to listen and a basic sympathy with all those involved in the sector. To put it a little less delicately, as there are over 1.5 million students in higher education alone who, together with their parents, partners and families, make up a constituency of over 5 million people, he had better listen to what they say.

Mrs. Anne Campbell: I am a little puzzled by the hon. Gentleman's remarks, particularly about access. If the Conservative party intends to increase access, which is the Government's policy, I welcome that. However, can the hon. Gentleman tell me whether its current policy means increasing access or, in fact, reducing numbers and limiting access?

Mr. Boswell: With great respect—and I shall seek to develop this point later—the hon. Lady is confusing numerical participation with access, which is at the heart of the difficulties in the Government's policy.

May I offer a firm prediction as someone who has done the Minister's task in the past? If he is at all disposed to dig in—and I fear for the higher education

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sector if he is—he will be deluged with classical analogies, which will be used for different reasons. I intend to abuse one to illustrate what he will probably be asked to do by his colleagues in government. Like Odysseus, he will be lashed to the mast so that he cannot hear the sirens who, in this case, are entirely right. The Labour vessel will go straight down the whirlpool, will founder and be lost without trace. However, I shall pursue those analogies no longer, if only in the interests of time.

To pick up some of the points that have been made, I very much echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) said about the gap year. I hope that the Minister will apply himself to that concern. He sought to reply to a written question of mine the other day, but he did not quite do justice to the serious issue of the bunching of student numbers. Picking up a remark of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who opened the debate, I remind the Minister that the settlement of the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), who was Secretary of State for Education and Employment in 1997, was meant to last for at least 20 years, but wore out and rusted up in five. The Minister needs to be aware of that, and should be sceptical as to whether his proposals will provide a firmer, long-term basis for proceeding, as he has claimed. I am concerned about one point that he exposed and did not answer adequately—whether or not the decision to charge top-up fees would be in the hands of universities.

He seemed to think that that was all right, but almost in the same breath he said that Ministers would be extremely concerned about it. He cannot have it both ways. Either it is up to the universities to make that decision, or it is not.

My final point in commenting on what has passed so far is that if a graduate went through, as people might have done a few years ago in the days of City bonuses, to a top rate of income tax at 41 per cent., including the 1 per cent. national insurance surcharge, and they were then faced with the repayment of their student loan at 9 per cent., the sum marginal rate by my book would be 50 per cent. That figure may have a certain resonance, in view of recent events. That is by way of initial welcome and warning to the Minister.

The Government amendment to the Liberal Democrat motion is disappointing. I am not at all encouraged by their ability to pat themselves on the back quite so bluntly. There is in the amendment, for example, a reference to abolishing upfront tuition fees. If the Government introduce a measure and then say, "This is outrageous. We are going to take it away", they should not expect the thanks of the electorate for doing so.

Then there is the self-praise for raising the threshold for loan repayments from £10,000 to £15,000. The Minister should reflect on the fact that that figure is still lower than the repayment threshold was under the Conservative scheme—much derided by Labour—that preceded it, when it was 85 per cent. of average earnings, let alone the figure that it would now have reached. Again, Ministers should not pat themselves on the back.

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The amendment goes on to refer to the Office for Fair Access. In responding to the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), I mentioned the radical Government confusion between participation and stimulating access.

Mr. McCabe : I confess that I, too, am suffering from that confusion. The hon. Gentleman says that we should not confuse participation with access, but does it not follow logically that if we cut the numbers, some children from somebody's family will be denied a place? That is an access issue, whoever one is.

Mr. Boswell: Ah—so it could be anybody. That is interesting. If I were to give the hon. Gentleman a lecture, I would point out to him, with respect, that possibly sometimes against the better judgment of the Conservative Government, for whom I was not doing the job in the very early 1990s, the expansion went from about 10 or 12.5 per cent. of the cohort of young people to 33 per cent., almost in the twinkling of an eye—within two or three years. That was the biggest expansion there has ever been.

David Wright (Telford): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Boswell: No. If there is to be a curtailment of the expansion plan, and if we are to be able to take out the Mickey Mouse degrees, as they were so elegantly described by the Minister for Children, I should have thought that there was ample scope for everyone who was qualified, deserved it and would benefit from a higher education to be able to attend, and that is before one even starts on drop-out.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Boswell: I have given way a number of times. I shall give way once to a Liberal Democrat.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport): Curbing the Mickey Mouse degrees sounds a fine idea, but are the Conservatives proposing quotas for university departments or telling universities what courses they may or may not run?

Mr. Boswell: I am sure we shall be able to achieve our objectives in a way that will not damage the interests of higher education, and it will reflect quality in a way that is not always evident at present.

The introduction of a £1,000 grant, for which Labour praises itself, is a lower grant than the Government were bequeathed in 1997. Interestingly, the Liberal Democrat figure of £2,000, when reduced to real terms, is also not much higher than the figure left in 1997. Labour goes on to congratulate itself on an annual funding increase of 6 per cent. in real terms. We have all seen what a real-terms increase in school funding means. We know what it means in further education, and I forecast that the same will happen in higher education.

David Wright: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Boswell: No. I have given way a number of times, and I respectfully said that I wanted to get on with my speech.

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We are told that Labour wants the university sector to be at the forefront of research. I agree with that. It wants a reference to high-level skills, but it will be clear from recent comment, including by the Learning and Skills Council, that crucial national shortages are at levels 2 and 3—the craft and technician level. I should like briefly to quote this week's edition of The Economist, which refers to two main parts of the Government's higher education policy:

It is interesting that the Liberal Democrats have confined their remarks to top-up fees. They had every choice; they could have raised tuition fees, but they decided not to do so. Perhaps that position is one advance on the Governments amendment, which does not mention top-up fees at all. I am not sure whether the Government are proud of that or sorry about it. Of course, the Liberal Democrats' principles—I shall have occasion to return to this issue—would enable them to propose different policies in different parts of the United Kingdom, although they now seem to be trying to coalesce them. There is nothing magical about Liberal Democrats proposing different policies for different parts of the United Kingdom. In my experience, they are happy to propose different policies in each constituency if they feel that that is to their electoral advantage.

Without embarrassing the Liberal Democrats too much by reverting to the past, and although this is not the immediate subject of the debate, I should like to remind them about the famous 1p on income tax. I happen to live next to the River Cherwell, a tributary of the River Thames. We all know that water that comes out of the tap in London will have been recycled three times since it started out in the tributary below my house. I have a horrible feeling that that may be exactly the way in which the money is to be raised to finance their notional schemes.

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