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Mr. Willis: Stick to the day job.

Mr. Marsden: I will stick to the day job and return the hon. Gentleman from heaven to earth and to the cruel realities of the Select Committee, where my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) questioned Baroness Sharp of Guildford and the hon. Gentleman on what was going to happen to that funding. It is instructive to repeat the exchange. My hon. Friend said:

Baroness Sharp of Guildford replied, "No." My hon. Friend asked:

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The reply came:

My hon. Friend said

The reply was:

There we have it—no ring-fencing, no hypothecation, no guarantees whatever. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough and Baroness Sharp of Guildford are back in the holy city being ambushed by the 10-headed and seven-horned beast of the apocalypse in the shape of the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor), who will dash the cup from their lips, take the golden bowl away and use it to fund some of the other utopian schemes that the Liberal Democrats are putting forward. The reality is that a lack of ring-fencing and a lack of hypothecation will always jeopardise any substantial initiatives that are brought before the House to improve funding through the general taxation purse. That is also an argument against a graduate tax. A graduate tax, even assuming that it were to generate substantial sums in a short period, would always be hostage to the slings and arrows of electoral fortune. It would always be hostage to whatever position the Treasury, whatever party were in government, were to take.

Mr. Bercow: It is extremely generous of the hon. Gentleman even to envisage the scenario of a Liberal Democrat Government, given that he has explained how tortuously unco-ordinated their position on tuition fees is. May I put it to him in a cross-party spirit that probably the best and most succinct summary of the Liberal Democrats came from Harold Macmillan? He said that the Liberals had some good ideas and some original ideas, but unfortunately their good ideas were not original and their original ideas were not any good.

Mr. Marsden: I find it difficult to better what the hon. Gentleman has said on that point.

To return to the graduate tax, the estimates of what we would receive in income from it do not take into account what would happen to people who move abroad, self-assessment and people in self-employment. I personally have always entertained grave concerns that we would have the same problems in extracting money via a graduate tax as we had in extracting contributions from the self-employed under the Child Support Agency. That point needs to be taken on board.

I do not want to be entirely unkind about the Liberal Democrats and their proposals, because they have some good thoughts and good points. When he came before the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said that in the 21st century the Liberal Democrats would like to see a far more flexible higher education product

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All that is true and reasonable, but the Government recognise that, too. You, Madam Deputy Speaker, will be aware that there is an old proverb:

The trouble is that the horses that the Liberal Democrats would send students and university staff on would be skin-and-bone nags. They have not produced a single argument today that justifies the funding process that they are attempting to foist on the House. There have to be mechanisms that guarantee both equity and increasing university funding.

How do the Government's proposals stack up in that respect? It is not appreciated sometimes that they have already seen off some of the wilder ambitions of the Russell group, if one remembers the figures that were quoted by the head of Imperial college of £10,000 and £12,000. That is important. We cannot risk replicating the educational apartheid that existed between grammar schools and secondary moderns in our universities with educational apartheid between the Russell group universities and the new universities.

On abolishing upfront fees, that is an excellent thing to do.

Raising the fees threshold to £15,000 is a start, but it is not enough. Before the last general election, the Select Committee recommended a figure of £20,000, which the Government would do well to revisit. Nor, for that matter, are grants of £1,000 enough; we should look seriously at a linkage with at least the education maintenance allowance rate. Dr. Anna Vignoles, research fellow at the London School of Economics centre for the economics of education, made an interesting suggestion earlier this year:

That suggestion is worth taking up. Indeed, NATFHE has also argued strongly for a linkage with the education maintenance allowance.

Progress has been made in the White Paper in respect of part-time students. The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education rightly pointed out—indeed, the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) did so as well—that part-time students in this country have never previously received financial support. That point needs to be taken on board in terms of what the Government are doing through the White Paper. More needs to be done for postgraduates and part-timers. I caution the Government against assuming that foundation degrees will solve everything. I doubt whether they will, and one needs to bear it in mind that they are a means to an end. They are a start; they are not a way of getting the 50 per cent. involvement rate on the cheap.

The suggestion that there should be a definitive split between research and teaching needs to be looked at with great concern—one cannot predicate and ring-fence achievement in that way at this time. It is perfectly possible for one university to do far better than another in terms of a particular department. The point is underlined by statistics released in just the past two or three weeks, which reveal that Oxford Brookes university's research assessment exercise grading for history was higher than Oxford university's.

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If we are to have top-up fees, they must offer additional revenue, and extra money for higher education must be ring-fenced. We need to go further on funding, and the challenge is one for the Treasury. I have made suggestions about extra funding via a leisure technology levy, a higher education challenge fund, greater tax-exempt donations, and a pound-for-pound tax relief. The Government need to take all such suggestions on board if they are to persuade Members of this House, who are rightly concerned about what the impact of the introduction of top-up fees on their cohort will be.

In 20 years as a part-time teacher for the Open university and in 12 years as a magazine editor, I dealt with all sorts of students and their various conditions, and also with academics. I, too, was a first-generation university student, and I participated in the Select Committee that produced two reports before the last general election that looked carefully at the entire issue of student access and retention. That process has taught me that this is a complex situation that is not amenable to simple headline solutions. The Tories would definitively shut down the life chances and opportunities of thousands of students as a result of their new proposals. The Liberal Democrats, by not having a coherent higher education policy, would risk doing so as well, through the law of unintended consequences.

I am not pretending that the Government's White Paper is perfect—it is not—but it offers a reasonable first stab at a coherent narrative for 21st century higher education. It needs to be refined and revised, so that top-up fees in particular are not seen as a permanently escalating institution. Once universities are in a position to access additional funding, the scope for top-up fees should tapered down, rather than up. However, for the time being the White Paper is the only coherent show in town. Anyone who wants to challenge its premises will have to come up with a much more coherent and carefully costed alternative than the elastic finances and windy rhetoric that the Liberal Democrats and the Opposition Front Benchers have offered us today.

6.14 pm

Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): I am very grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I am not a regular participant in education debates in this Chamber for the obvious reason that Scottish education is largely devolved to the Scottish Parliament. This issue does affect me, however, as I have children in education in Scotland who may well attend a higher education institution in England; indeed, I myself attended the University of Birmingham.

My main aim this evening is to identify the hypocrisy behind the Liberal Democrats' education policy. We in Scotland have a long track record in education; indeed, we have an education system of which we are rightly proud. However, recent changes to student finance and support tell us much about the way in which politics is moving today, particularly in Liberal Democrat circles. In attending a Liberal Democrat Opposition day debate in which they seem to have implied that, if the Government were mistaken enough to introduce top-up fees, a subsequent Liberal Democrat manifesto would offer a commitment to removing them, how could I not comment on their commitment, given in 1999, to abolish

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tuition fees in Scotland? In their manifesto "Raising the Standard"—an inappropriate title, if ever there was one—the Scottish Liberal Democrats said that

Not only do Scottish students at Scottish universities pay de facto tuition fees after graduation; Scottish students at non-Scottish UK universities still have to pay Labour's £1,000 a year tuition fees.

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