Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Chaytor: If my hon. Friend's argument is that top-up and differential fees should not be allowed, is he saying that the value of a degree from each university is exactly equal in terms of the life chances that it brings?

Paul Farrelly: I shall answer my hon. Friend's point as I progress with my remarks.

As the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education limbers up for his new role, I fear that I should not allow my optimism to get the better of me. However, the omission that I mentioned means that the Government hardly demonstrate a resounding feeling of confidence in the central plank of their university policy. By winning the vote on the amendment tonight—I am sure that they will—the Government cannot conclude that they have the House's support for top-up or variable tuition fees. Several Labour Members who oppose that policy have told me that they will vote with the Government tonight for the very reason that the amendment does not refer to top-up fees.

The drafting is so motherhood and apple pie that I cannot bring myself to vote against it. I could almost support it, save for one important part of the wording. The text asks us to endorse

The proposal to reintroduce student grants is welcome. Attempting to support part-time students better is also welcome. We are also offered an Office for Fair Access—a toothless tiger, perhaps, but at least an indicator that we are still concerned about access. However, a Government who put access and equality in education at the top of their agenda should do all those things in any case, without introducing a market-based policy of top-up fees, which will work in exactly the opposite direction.

Mr. Chaytor: My hon. Friend mentioned part-time students. Is he also arguing that there should be no differential fees for part-time students? What does he estimate would be the cost of that?

Paul Farrelly: I am addressing my remarks to the broad mass of undergraduates, and I hope that my hon. Friend will understand that.

23 Jun 2003 : Column 760

Mr. Chaytor: Will my hon. Friend give way again?

Paul Farrelly: No, I have already given way to my hon. Friend twice.

The Government are investing in primary education, and ensuring that kids get A-levels in secondary education, so that they can go to university, but I cannot support the Government on top-up fees because they will make it harder for kids to get to the university of their choice—based on merit, not means—in the future. We just have to look at the evidence. For example, the US has an entrenched multi-tier system, with community colleges, public universities and private universities, including the Ivy League. The cost of going to Ivy League universities is some $40,000 a year. Funnily enough, their much trumpeted bursaries notwithstanding, Ivy League colleges have by far the lowest proportion of students from modest backgrounds. Even so, those private universities are the very institutions that supporters of top-up fees seek to emulate. In the US, the reality is that many poorer students with the necessary qualifications are simply priced out of the market. And many who do go into higher education can afford only two-year, cut-price courses at their local community colleges.

Another example comes from Canada. When medical schools in Ontario, for instance, increased fees drastically from 1997, the number of students from poorer backgrounds—and there were not that many to start with—fell by a third.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) had the brief, she told the Education and Employment Committee in February that

Well, if the concern is to widen participation, that is hardly the best basis on which to base root and branch reform of universities. In fact, it is not difficult to predict how the market will respond. The evidence is there, plain as daylight, from overseas.

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston): Is not my hon. Friend giving extreme examples from the US and Canada? When he and I were at university, probably only 10 per cent. of people went into higher education. Now it is 50 per cent. and it is clear that that cannot be financed purely through income tax. Is not my hon. Friend making a distorted argument?

Paul Farrelly: There are alternatives, and I wish that we could debate them. I am not giving extreme examples. They are mainstream examples, and I encourage my hon. Friend to read the research. Indeed, I will provide him with it after the debate.

What will happen here is that leading universities—Oxbridge and the Russell Group—which already take the lowest proportion of children from poorer backgrounds, will become ever more the bastions of the better off. With access in mind, how do the Government justify their policy? First, they point to the proposed Office for Fair Access. But OFFA will not set targets and will not interfere with admissions. So in the face of market forces, OFFA will be more like King Canute. Unlike its historical namesake, it will not have to build a dyke to keep the Welsh out, because top-up fees will

23 Jun 2003 : Column 761

do that for it. Remarkably, the debate about OFFA has achieved at least one thing so far. Following the assault from the Daily Mail, Bristol last week scrapped its internal state school targets.Participation has already narrowed, not widened.

Secondly, the Government point to the £3,000 price cap. What price that the cap goes pretty quickly, once the principle is conceded? The cries are already out there. Cambridge was one of the elite to oppose top-up fees, but then last week, its outgoing vice-chancellor called on the Government to double them to £6,000. The views of Sir Richard Sykes of Imperial college, the man who gutted the Wellcome drugs company, are well known. He has said:

He has called for annual fees of more than £10,000, so he is right: it would be a privilege, and just for the privileged.

To try and recover some of the ground, the Government have also switched their ground. They say that students should be prepared to pay more to go to elite universities, because they will earn more afterwards. That sounds fair and logical, but it is dangerously logical. If we had a system that deterred students from poorer backgrounds because of price and debt, we would have a different bunch of kids going to university, earning more and paying it back afterwards.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Barking still held the higher education brief, she said, only last month:

That is more dangerous logic. Students should act rationally? When I was at school, I was fighting pressure to go out and get a job, working nights and weekends to prove a point and stay on at school so I could go to university. That was not thinking rationally. When my head teacher mumbled something about me being Oxbridge material, I did not understand a word. I had never heard of the place. So, rationally, I looked at a map, but I could not find it there either.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West): With respect, my hon. Friend did make a rational choice. He went to Oxford and ended up with a fairly successful career.

Paul Farrelly: All I can say is that it happened somehow.

In summary, I cannot support an amendment that sidesteps the heart of the controversy and seeks to endorse steps towards widening participation at the same time as introducing a system that will narrow it. However, until my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State responds to the consultation on the White Paper and we see whether he is prepared to make concessions to our concerns, I intend to abstain. I congratulate him on the way he has carried on the debate. He has been relentless in doing the rounds, and I dare say that he has had more wine and no cheese evenings this year than he can remember. But the proof will be in the listening. There are alternatives. We should debate them, and be

23 Jun 2003 : Column 762

given the information to do so. I hope that the Government will listen and change their policy on top-up fees.

6.36 pm

Dr. John Pugh (Southport): We began this debate with a harrowing tale of poverty in Burnley, and I cannot rival that story from my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). However, I have put four children through university recently, so I speak with some experience.

I hope to appeal to the good sense of Labour Members. That may be regarded as a futile endeavour, either because I lack good arguments or—less plausibly—because they lack good sense. Opposition days tend to follow a ritual in which Opposition parties seek to cause embarrassment by moving a motion more attractive than Government policy. Generally, party loyalists, assisted by avuncular and friendly advice from the Whips, tend to grit their teeth, ignore what is said and vote as they are told. However, this is not quite one of those occasions. Today, we are assessing and testing how stubborn the Government will be. A small revolt this evening and the Government will barely pause for breath and press on. A larger than usual revolt and the Government will begin to hesitate, prevaricate and develop a collective amnesia about the policy and its date of implementation. A large revolt on top-up fees will be embarrassing, with bad headlines tomorrow. However, headlines are temporary, and effects of bad policy are more permanent.

Next Section

IndexHome Page