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Mr. Clarke: Because I am making my speech and I shall continue to do so. We are going to get into an interesting logical philosophical debate about the nature of never and the meaning of meaning, which I look forward to. I shall discuss the meaning of hair and where it is.

There is no doubt that under the Conservative party's proposals there would be a significant reduction in the number of students in this country. Professor Barr, whose statements the hon. Member for Ashford does not like, estimated a figure between 79,000 and 150,000 less students. [Hon. Members: "Fewer."] My estimate is

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that the effect of his proposals would be a reduction of about 90,000 places in higher education in Britain. That means about 50 places for every sixth form or sixth form college in the country. Every sixth form or sixth form college will have young people coming through unable to go to university if the hon. Gentleman's proposals were to be carried through. I would like to know whether the hon. Gentleman has the courage to go to the four sixth forms in his constituency in Ashford and say that in each there will be an average of 50 less people going on to university as a result of his proposals.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest): Yes.

Mr. Clarke: The hon. Lady says that she is happy to make such proposals, but she will not be in Ashford. She should go to her constituents and say that in each of her sixth forms less students will go to university. That is a key aspect of the debate that needs to be understood. It is the Labour party that wants to extend opportunity and give people the ability to move forward. It is the Conservatives—back to the old Conservatives—who say, "We are not going forward."

Mr. Stephen Dorrell (Charnwood): The Secretary of State is building a huge amount of his case on the importance of widened access to the university sector. Could he quote the evidence that leads him to the conclusion that the right number in terms of school leavers going on to university is 50 per cent.? What leads him to the conclusion that that is the right number, rather than some of the people in sixth forms in Ashford to whom he has just referred going into further education or other forms of tertiary education that may be more valuable to them and to the economy?

Mr. Clarke: There has been a wide range of studies on the matter, as the right hon. Gentleman with his great experience very well knows. The one on which I draw most of all is the view that eight or nine jobs out of every 10 in the future will go to people with this level of skill, ability and talent in the knowledge economy. That has been carried through by a series of serious analyses. The 50 per cent. figure first arose some decades ago while the right hon. Gentleman was in Government, I think from the CBI first, saying that if we wanted to compete in business with other countries, we needed that level of university education—its assessment, not mine. We came to the view that that was where we should go, and I think that it is right. Its effect is right for the economy, for people in the economy and for young people coming through, and the effect of the Conservative Front-Bench proposals will be to cut out that opportunity for literally thousands and thousands of people in the country.

Mr. Dorrell: Is it not closer to the truth to say that it is politically convenient, particularly in view of some of the international comparisons that the right hon. Gentleman quoted, to dub a particular form of tertiary education as a degree and university education rather than addressing more accurately the needs of individuals and society at large?

Mr. Clarke: No, that is not right. The fact is that there is substantial academic research about what is a degree and what is quality assured to obtain international

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comparability, and so on. Of course, arguments can be made, as he says, about whether those academic assertions are right, but the core point, which I need to come back to again and again because it needs to be understood in every household in this country with children, is that the Conservatives want to take away the chances of young people going to university, and that is their explicit policy.

Michael Fabricant: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Clarke: No, I will not.

Michael Fabricant: Why not?

Mr. Clarke: Shall we do that one-two again? I will make a pledge that later in the debate I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but at my convenience, not his, if he does not mind.

The key point that needs to be understood is that it is not simply a question of the Conservative policies reducing opportunities in the way that they do, but of them explicitly reducing opportunities for people from the poorest and most disadvantaged backgrounds. The Conservatives have said that they will take away the access proposals for support for poorer students, adding up to over £100 million, dealing with child care grant, travel, books and equipment, school meals, disabled students. They will just strip it all out. They will not simply take away opportunity for all students, but take them away specifically for students who most need the help in order to get into university and have the chance of such an education. That is why, as the hon. Member for Daventry announced in the House last Monday, they will also abolish the Office for Fair Access. They do not want fair access. They do not want people to have the right to go to university.

Mr. Boswell: Could the Secretary of State please explain, as he has already told me in answer to questions, that as the Office for Fair Access is about the procedures in determining fair admission, why anything whatever to do with the access of disabled students, for example, or other disadvantaged groups, should have any concern or remit in that office? Is that not an entirely different matter, and has he any evidence whatever that we are making a proposal, for example, as he suggested, to wind up the disabled students allowance?

Mr. Clarke: All I can say is that the hon. Gentleman is quite right. They are two different things. The various funding channels that he wants to cut, and which were explicitly referred to by the hon. Member for Ashford, are those funding streams that encourage people to go to universities. The specific parallel approach for getting applications from all backgrounds is the Office for Fair Access, which is the right way forward. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to confirm absolutely that there will be no criticism or modification of the schemes for access by people with disabilities, I shall be delighted to hear it. Perhaps he can give that confirmation in his speech.

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In the same way, the Opposition attack foundation degrees. The release given today in the interview in The Guardian made that clear. The hon. Member for Ashford said that the Tories' proposals on vocational training were due to be unveiled in the next few weeks—I am glad about that, as our skills White Paper is about to be issued and we will have another debate about that—setting out their belief that apprentices and practical courses will attract more private money than degrees. He can express that view, but the truth is that wide sections of those in industry, whether they are engineers, chemists or automotive specialists, want a foundation degree approach. They want universities to work with them to get the sort of skills that are necessary, but the Conservatives' approach is to take those away.

Michael Fabricant: Is the Secretary of State aware that, by socially engineering university intake and setting quotas for the numbers of people who go to university, he is creating serious difficulties for employers? For example, the Engineering and Technology Board—I must declare an interest as an unpaid director—as well as Rolls Royce and many other employers have raised a problem in identifying which universities and courses are good and bad. A bachelor's degree no longer has the status that it once enjoyed, as a direct consequence of his Department's actions.

Mr. Clarke: The whole presumption on which that intervention was based is wrong. We are not trying to socially engineer—I use his phrase—access to universities. What we are doing is completely the other way around. We are saying that people from all backgrounds in this country should have the opportunity to have a university education, and we seek to promote that.

The Conservatives do not, however, simply propose that there should be less students; they also propose that there should be less resources.

Michael Fabricant: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for a Secretary of State for Education and Skills not to realise that the word "fewer" goes with the plural and that "less" goes with the singular?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): That is not a point of order for the Chair.

Mr. Clarke: The hon. Gentleman should keep his hair on—[Interruption.] I have no hair to share with anyone; perhaps shared hair is something for the future.

We also have to remember the state of affairs in respect of the universities themselves. Under the Conservatives, student-staff ratios went from 10:1 to 13:1 to 17:1; funding per student fell by 36 per cent. between 1989 and 1997; and an infrastructure backlog of almost £8 billion built up in universities. The Conservative proposals are equivalent to sacking 13,000 lecturers and taking out a further £740 million or more—money that the universities need to fund future growth and excellence.

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