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Mr. Grogan: In many ways the model to consider in relation to the proposals is the elite group of universities in the United States. We need only look at Harvard to see what we would get if we introduced differentiated fees. A large number of people whose families were well-off, irrespective of whether they went to public schools or state schools, would go to those elite universities anyway, a small proportion of students on bursaries would also go, as the universities would feel bound to provide them with places—perhaps, as is the case at Harvard, they would wait on the tables of the richer students in return for their bursaries—and a lot of people in the middle would be deterred from going to those elite universities because of the extra expense involved. Their choices would be determined not by ability but by affordability.

One or two more Members want to speak, so I shall conclude in a moment. The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, for whom I have a great deal of time—we travel regularly together on the train to our constituencies, although perhaps he will talk to me less than he did previously—spoke warmly about Dearing on Monday and about what a great idea that review was. I remember that the Prime Minister made a speech on the anniversary of Jim Callaghan's lecture on education at Ruskin college in which he talked about trying to get a consensus on higher education policy. We need a consensus: our original ambition was based on Dearing; now we are to make another big change in student funding in 2005, which will have all sorts of distorting effects in terms of gap years and so on. One day, I am afraid, there will be a non-Labour Government.

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): Does my hon. Friend agree that, when there is no consensus—clearly, not even on the Labour Back Benches—the

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future of higher education is too important to be treated as a political football? We need to step back and have a Dearing II-type review.

Mr. Grogan: Absolutely. If we are serious in the House about improving access and improving our higher education system, we must get a system that lasts a very long time. For me, that would mean stepping back from the current proposals. If the White Paper had proposed a number of options, perhaps supported by different members of the Cabinet—a graduate tax, for example, and an increase in the general fees level, as has been suggested today—it would have made it much easier to forge a consensus. I urge Ministers, even at this stage, to step back and to try to get that sort of consensus on the future of higher education.

3.25 pm

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): I am proud to belong to a party which, when in office, produced an increase in the numbers in higher education from one in eight of those eligible to one in three. That was a terrific expansion, and it was right that we did that. It is worth putting on the record that when Labour was running for election in 1997 it pledged not to introduce tuition fees and then did so, and in 2001 pledged not to introduce top-up fees and again did so. We know that the Chancellor of the Exchequer does not agree with this policy, and the majority of the speeches from the Labour Back Benches this afternoon have not been in agreement with it.

As we heard on Monday, the new Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, who I also welcome to his post, was asked by his predecessor to think seriously about this policy. I want to focus on the disincentive effect that I believe that this debt—that is what we should call it—will have on those thinking about going into higher education. We already know that students are facing—purely for maintenance and what they must pay at the moment—an average debt of around £12,000. That is a significant sum of money, which students must cope with by working hard at part-time jobs while they study and by trying to pay it back afterwards. If that average level of debt is to increase from £12,000 to £27,000, as we have heard this afternoon, that alone will be enough to put off many able people from going to university in the first place.

I have just presented a petition to the House, on behalf of my constituents, under the heading, "Debt on our doorstep", which looks at the issue of debt in our society. We have rightly campaigned in this House about third world debt, about which we will be talking later this afternoon. Individual personal debt in the UK, however, is a serious problem. I am extremely concerned that the Government proposals will add to it, and will also have the effect of turning away from university many of those who could and should have taken that route.

Young people today will face significant mortgage costs and housing costs. In my constituency and many others, to get on the housing ladder young people face huge costs to meet from their monthly pay to service their mortgage. If a further deduction is to be made from their pay just because they have been to university, they will think that that is a poor choice, and it will be a strong disincentive to take that route.

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The last part of the equation in terms of finances for people to consider is the pension situation. The House is also urging young people to think about pensions and to save sensibly for them. Young people will have to pay their mortgage costs and university costs and add their pension costs to that. Such a situation is not sustainable and we, as responsible parliamentarians, cannot urge people to take on the combination of those three strands of debt at such a young age. I urge all hon. Members to think seriously about that.

I ask the Minister not to use Orwellian double-speak by saying that students do not pay but graduates do. They are one and the same person; we are merely talking about deferring an expense. It is not so long since the Government outlawed advertisements that talked about taking the waiting out of wanting, so I am worried when Ministers talk in such terms. Would we say that shoppers do not pay for goods but that consumers do? Such language does not add to the debate.

I am also worried that several Labour Back Benchers described the sum as an investment rather than a debt. We all believe in the value of education to help people to fulfil their potential, but let us not kid ourselves that an owed liability paid for by monthly deduction from a pay slip is not a debt. We should not use any other word.

Mr. Joyce: The difference between Labour Members and Conservative Members could be that we think that education is an investment unlike a car on which a person might spend a similar amount, for example. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a fundamental difference between consumption and investment, which is essentially why his argument falls down?

Andrew Selous: We all agree that education is an investment and that it is worth going through education to better oneself. However, we are discussing how education should be funded and I argue that imposing a specific tax on learning only on people who had been through university or higher education would create a disincentive. We argue that it would be better to use central funding.

Mr. Hendrick: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Andrew Selous: I shall, but I am conscious that one or two hon. Members still wish to speak.

Mr. Hendrick: Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the situation is okay for those who have money and can afford the investment, but that those who do not have the money and would like to pay back the investment afterwards should not be able to do so?

Andrew Selous: I am arguing precisely the opposite point. I argue that those with the lowest income will be most put off by the prospect of accumulating £27,000 of debt—a substantial amount—in addition to that accumulated by students at the moment.

There are many jobs for which a degree is not essential but that are taken by people who we would all say had an excellent opportunity to develop at university. I worked in the London insurance market before I came

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to the House. It is a professional market that contributes greatly to this country's economy, and many who work there have professional qualifications but not necessarily university qualifications. There is no particular advantage for them to be a university graduate, so I think that people who want to enter such a profession would be put off going to university if they realised that it would result in them being poorer each month.

I am deeply concerned about the access regulator and its potential effects. I am especially worried that people who were the first in their family to attend university would disadvantage their own children by doing so and that people from certain schools could be disadvantaged. The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education was absolutely right when he said on Monday that the way to get more people to university is to bring them up to the A-level standard in the first place because we know that nine out of 10 people from more disadvantaged backgrounds who get two A-levels go on to university. We should go down that route.

We have not touched significantly on an important issue that has been the Cinderella of our educational provision: vocational and technical training. I am proud to represent a constituency next to Luton university, which has paid me the great honour of asking me to sit on its court. Dunstable college, which is a first-rate further education college, is in my constituency, as is the Learning Warehouse, which is an innovative new learning venture in Leighton Buzzard. It is a collaboration among several FE colleges to offer education for people from the age of 16 to the grave. I am convinced that a large number of my constituents will pick the FE and vocational route—to their benefit—rather than taking the university route. The university route will be appropriate for some people, but not for sufficient people to meet the 50 per cent. target. The situation in different countries has been bandied about today and I shall mention Switzerland. Very few people there go to university but the country has outstanding technical and vocational education, which is well thought of and desirable for Swiss youngsters.

The Select Committee on Work and Pensions examined challenges facing the UK labour market this morning. I shall quote two brief facts taken from a document outlining the way in which the European Union views the UK labour market. First, it states that the UK suffers from

and, secondly, that there is

That is right, but those two problems are best dealt with by taking the vocational and technical route, not by purely taking the university route.

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