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1.53 pm

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): The motion is something of an anti-climax. We thought that the debate was supposed to be on Conservative proposals for student finance. The provisional title that was supplied to our Whips Office—"A fair deal for students and parents"—is the very title that the Conservatives use for their proposals, yet the motion makes no mention at all of Conservative policy. Indeed, it does not even call for the abolition of tuition fees. The National Union of Students is in line with only one Conservative policy. Whatever the Conservatives may claim, the NUS certainly does not agree with the rest of their policies, whereas the policies of the NUS and the Liberal Democrats are remarkably close.

This is the third occasion on which the Conservatives have ducked an opportunity to deploy their thinking. First, they cancelled an Opposition day debate, then the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) refused to appear before the Select Committee on Education and Skills, and now we have today's motion. What on earth are they trying to hide? Could it be that they are worried that as soon as we get a real chance to take their new policy to pieces, as I hope to, it will be shown up as the unprincipled opportunism that it really is?

Mrs. Anne Campbell: Will the hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to clarify an aspect of Liberal Democrat policy about which I am a little uncertain? In January, I read in The Guardian that Liberal Democrat policy was to abolish maintenance grants for the first two years of a university course, thus forcing poorer students to live and study at home. Is that still Liberal Democrat policy?

Mr. Rendel: It is not, and it was not. As we have already heard today, it is perhaps unwise to believe everything that one reads in The Guardian.

Liberal Democrat Members at least have had a consistent and principled record of opposing all fees for tuition ever since they were first proposed, including top-up fees.

Mr. Chaytor: In a speech just two weeks ago, the Liberal Democrats' leader made it clear that under Liberal Democrat proposals an increasing proportion of students would study nearer to their homes. Is not the Liberal Democrats' budgeting based on that assumption?

Mr. Rendel: We certainly believe that in future more people will choose to study closer to their homes as a result of the trend towards part-time studying. We do not intend to force that on anybody: it is happening naturally already.

Neither the Conservatives' nor the Government's proposals will work, because one cannot have a serious policy of widening participation to include more students from non-traditional backgrounds and

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charging for tuition, which places serious financial and psychological obstacles in the path of participation. Recent research by Professor Claire Callender of South Bank university could not be clearer. She says that

Of course, top-up fees, as a result of which debts will soar to £21,000 or more on graduation, will make the situation far worse.

We will support the Conservative motion—one could hardly do otherwise; there is nothing exceptionable in it—but the Government are right on two key points that the Conservatives have got badly wrong, and this is where Liberal Democrats part company fundamentally with the Conservatives. First, the Government are right that we need to increase participation. There is no doubt that that is what the British economy needs and what social justice demands. The Government are right to stress that objective and the Conservatives are wrong to oppose it. Liberal Democrats oppose fees because they are an obstacle to increasing participation. The Tories want to scrap fees at the cost of increasing participation.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): Will the hon. Gentleman accept that the missing part of the jigsaw is what is to be done with vocational and technical training? My party will shortly introduce plans on that. He cannot criticise supposed reductions in participation without considering the vocational and technical sector.

Mr. Rendel: All the Tory costings are based on there being no money for such an expansion of further education, so I do not see how his party would manage to increase participation in that way.

Research by Professor Barr shows that the Conservative proposals would not only end the proposed expansion of 182,000 additional places by 2010 but would lead to a cut of at least 79,000 existing places over five years. The research shows that if the Conservatives were to get their way, participation would fall from its current rate of 43 per cent. to, at the very best, 38 per cent. by 2010. Professor Barr concludes:

Far from increasing participation, the Conservatives would stop a quarter of a million young people—mainly from the least well-off families—going to university. Meanwhile, they are planning to cut £193 million earmarked to improve the recruitment and retention of poorer students, and they make no mention at all either of grants or—to take the point made by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous)—of funding for vocational courses, despite saying that they expect many of the students who are denied a higher education place to take up vocational alternatives. Perhaps they have forgotten that a place on a vocational course is often more expensive than a place in higher education. The Conservatives' proposals could, in this area at least, be even more expensive than the Government's.

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We should never forget that the Conservatives substantially cut the value of grants when they were in office. Interestingly, the hon. Member for Ashford pressed the Government to

Perhaps he would like to use this opportunity either to commit his party to reintroduce grants or to explain why it no longer supports them.

The second point is about funding. There is no question but that the universities need more money. The Government are right about that and the Conservatives are wrong. After all, the Conservatives presided over a 40 per cent. real-terms drop in funding per student.

Neither fees nor top-up fees can solve this funding problem. When the then Secretary of State introduced tuition fees, he said that the entire objective in taking the difficult decisions had been to put higher education on a firm footing for the next two decades. He also said that the new arrangements were introduced precisely to avoid the universities levying additional charges.

In reality, tuition fees have merely plugged the gap left by a cut in public funding, as was confirmed by the chairman of Universities UK at a meeting this morning. Why should the outcome of top-up fees be any different? Good government implies working out first what slice of the national cake should be spent on each public service, and only then working out how much of that slice can be financed from charges and how much must be met from taxation. Top-up fees will not expand the higher education cake; they will merely change the balance between the public and private ingredients.

In his reply to the debate on Monday, the Minister claimed that that would not be the case. He said that income from top-up fees

First, he must explain what provisions will be included in legislation to ensure that that happens. I cannot see how any provision could ensure that, but I should be interested to hear whether he has any of idea of the provisions he intends to include.

Secondly, the Minister must tell us why the Government are prepared to allow the universities, which have a very obvious interest in the matter, to determine how much of the national wealth should be spent on them, instead of retaining that decision in the hands of the Government, to be taken on behalf of all the citizens of the country. What an abrogation of good government that would be if we allowed that situation to be maintained!

At least the Government accept that there is a funding problem. The Conservatives are promising not more money for our universities, but less. Professor Barr's research identifies a cumulative deficit in the Conservative proposals, amounting to £1.6 billion over the first five years. Even taking the Conservatives' claims at face value, they are talking about merely a standstill position for our universities. In the face of all the evidence, they claim that funding at the status quo level is just fine, and that the universities can simply go into hibernation, unchanged in any way for the foreseeable future.

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The reality is that the Conservative plans do not add up and their costings have been rubbished by Universities UK. In fact, the Conservatives had to withdraw the first version of their press release to announce their new proposals because they discovered, shortly after its launch, that they had completely misunderstood one of the figures that they had taken from a UUK report and used to support their costings.

Once they had been denied the cloak of credibility that they had hoped the vice-chancellors could provide, the Tories dreamt up an entirely different justification for the size of the saving that they claimed their policy would achieve. Sadly for them, their new calculation has been rubbished by the House of Commons Library, which has "difficulty understanding the logic". I do not know about you, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I have seldom heard the Library be quite so damning about anything as to say that it has difficulty in understanding the logic of the proposal.

Written parliamentary answers and the Library confirm that the Conservatives cannot possibly cost the Government's expansion plans with accuracy, for the simple reason that the figures are not yet available. We have asked the Government to cost their expansion plans, and we have been told that assessments of the costs for increasing and widening participation beyond 2005-06 will be made as part of the 2004 spending review, work on which "will commence shortly."

Even the £700 million price tag that the Conservatives place on abolishing all fees is open to question. They have hardly based the figure on a rigorous source—an online interview with the Secretary of State, in which he gave a range of figures, £700 million being the lowest. It is interesting that the Tories should pick up on the lowest figure. As the Library points out:

The Tory proposal to scrap the Office of Fair Access is not a bad idea; it is one of the few with which we agree. How much does the Tory press release claim this will save? Oh dear, Madam Deputy Speaker; all I can see is a question mark. The Tories have no idea whether the saving will be significant or not; their figures simply do not add up.

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