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2.17 pm

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): I should like to begin by welcoming my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education to his Front-Bench position, which, I have to say, some of my hon. Friends regard as a poisoned chalice. I know that he will treat it with his customary skill and charm, and I hope that he will make a real impact on higher education policy.

Conservative policy, which appears to propose paying for middle-class students to attend university by restricting opportunities for students from poorer backgrounds, is something that I find totally abhorrent and morally bankrupt. Many students have welcomed what the Conservatives have proposed, but when they start to understand the implications of that policy, things will start to unravel fairly quickly. Students will realise that the proposals are not about better access or better opportunities, but about restricting access and opportunities, and about cutting numbers, university funds and lecturers' jobs. We are back to the old Tory policies—and the reason that they were so resoundingly defeated in the 1997 general election.

I welcome a great deal of what this Government are trying to do in higher education. I welcome the extra Government money that is going into higher education—which has not been mentioned so far—which is being funded from general taxation and represents a 30 per cent. increase in cash terms over three years. That is an amazingly large increase that we have not seen the likes of since the 1970s, and it is very welcome. I do hope, however, that some of that money will be used to fund better academic salaries. I say that not because my husband is a Cambridge university professor, but because the sector generally is suffering from low salaries and low morale. I should like to see better salaries in the university sector.

I also welcome the measures designed to boost university endowments, in so far as they increase student support. But I am concerned that they may contribute to applicants making a choice based on the financial support that they can receive, rather than on the course that would best suit their needs and abilities. We need to look rather carefully at that issue, to which I shall return later in my speech.

I very much welcome the ending of up-front fees and the raising of the earnings threshold after which fees start to be repaid. It is true that families just above the threshold who still have to pay fees find paying up-front fees difficult. Some potential students may be deterred from entering higher education by the prospect of inflicting such a burden on their families. I should tell my hon. Friend the Minister that, many years ago when I was a student, that certainly would have deterred me from going to university. Raising the repayment threshold will ease considerably the financial burden on new graduates. The prospect of new graduates retaining a greater proportion of their earnings will reduce the deterrent to their entering higher education.

I also welcome the continuation of the Government's contribution of £1,100 in respect of fees for students from low-income backgrounds, and the reintroduction of a maintenance grant of up to £1,000 for some students. The use of the more inclusive definition of household income in determining whether Government

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fee contributions—and presumably grants—will be made is also a very positive move. And—need I say it—measures to improve support for part-time students are also to be warmly welcomed.

However, despite those paeans of praise for the Government's position, I should point out that differential fees will have an adverse effect on access. I note that differential fees are not mentioned in the Government amendment, which I hope means that they are beginning to think again as to whether they will remain part of their policy. When students decide which course to apply for, they should choose on the basis of their own abilities and the suitability of the course to their needs—and on those factors alone. Choices should not be influenced by the student's pocket or by their parents' finances. Brighter students, particularly from lower income backgrounds, should not be deterred from the best courses because the fees are more expensive. A clever student from a poor background who has the qualifications to attend a Russell group university—perhaps even Cambridge university, which I represent—will have to decide whether to go to such a university or to a university that, in essence, will prove £5,700 cheaper because it does not charge the top-up fee. That is too difficult a burden to put on a person of that age. That is not fair—

Mr. Chaytor: Is it not the case, however, that approximately 50 per cent. of the students at Cambridge university, for example, have been educated privately during either their secondary school career or their primary school career? Their parents have more or less cheerfully paid between £6,000 and £20,000 a year in school fees for either the previous seven or 11 years. Is my hon. Friend seriously suggesting that a fee to go to Cambridge university is unaffordable for that group of parents and students?

Mrs. Campbell: My hon. Friend and I disagree on this subject. Unlike the Conservatives, I am not proposing that tuition fees be abolished altogether, because they do have a role to play. But I also believe that, if we are going to encourage more people from poorer backgrounds to attend universities such as Cambridge and receive a first-class education—I am sure that that is his objective as well—they must not be put off by the prospect of the top-up fee for which they will be liable. It is that objective that is uppermost in my mind. At the moment, slightly under 50 per cent. of the students who attend Cambridge university are from public school backgrounds, but the university is working very hard to ensure that more state school students and students from poorer backgrounds attend. I want to support it in its endeavours.

Much has been said today about debt aversion. I have little to add to that, except perhaps to refer to a survey conducted by Universities UK in 2002, which confirmed that, to an extent, poorer students' course and institution choices are already determined by financial considerations. It is not unreasonable to suppose, therefore, that if top-up fees are imposed, Oxbridge's access problems will be exacerbated.

When we debated this issue on Monday, my hon. Friend the Minister mentioned science, engineering and medicine courses, which are of course more expensive to

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provide. However, if universities charge more for these courses, such differential fees could have a serious impact on the training of scientists, engineers and doctors. Many such courses last for four or more years, and the additional fee burden of the extra year would be a deterrent to studying these subjects, which are vital to our economic prosperity and quality of life. In addition, universities that are under pressure to improve their finances would be tempted to cut expensive subjects such as science, especially where student numbers are static or falling.

I should also like to mention the potential impact on women. On average, women have shorter working lives than men because they take time out to have children. Despite equal pay legislation, women graduates still, on average, earn less than men. So women have shorter working lives and lower overall earnings from which to pay off these significant debts. It follows that women are more likely than men to be deterred by higher fees, and that women's access to the best courses would be reduced by differential fees.

I accept that universities need extra money, but providing some leeway by cutting numbers is not the right answer. If extra money is needed through higher fees, I would prefer—although it would not be popular—that it be raised by increasing fees across the board, rather than by increasing them for certain courses or institutions only, simply to ensure that different fee levels do not affect students' choice of course or institution. The Government's contribution towards paying poorer students' fees could rise in proportion to any increase in fees, to ensure that higher fees across the board do not have a greater impact on the choice to enter higher education in the first place.

There are also other steps that we could take. Will my hon. Friend the Minister consider reintroducing state scholarships, for example, which were so effective when I was a student in helping people from lower income backgrounds to attend university? One problem with the endowment system to which I referred earlier is that students get such endowments only if they attend certain universities. State scholarships, which are based on both merit and need, could be assessed by means test, exam performance and recommendation by the school. That need not mean more exams for students at school, because our testing regime is comprehensive enough to provide a good idea of students' potential over their school years.

Organisations already set up, such as the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, which supports bright young people through their earlier years when earning potentials are low, could act as a part-public, part-private state scholarship foundation. That is worth considering because students who gained those scholarships would know that they could go to university without fear of getting into debt or suffering hardship while they are studying.

There are currently many misperceptions about university. One particular misperception, which I have mentioned before in the House and would like to clear up, is about the cost of going to a top university such as Cambridge. My constituency has two universities and, in fact, it is a good deal cheaper to attend Cambridge university than it is to attend the Anglia Polytechnic

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university. Cambridge university students have the advantage of subsidised accommodation, making their rents cheaper, and they do not have to pay rents all year round as the Anglia polytechnic university students do. Furthermore, Cambridge university has the benefit of a huge number of college bursaries, which means that students from poorer backgrounds, particularly those not paying the tuition fees, are eligible for several bursaries to help them with maintenance throughout their degree study. When people are considering what university to attend, I hope that they will bear in mind that some of our best universities are among our cheapest. I hope that that will help them make their choices accordingly.

I know that other hon. Members want to speak and I do not want to prolong my contribution. I thoroughly support the Government amendment to the motion and I shall vote for it this evening.

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