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Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): I share the hon. Gentleman's views about the value of national vocational qualifications, but how does he

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think students pay for them? Does he think that the money comes out of thin air? Is he aware that they pay for it themselves per unit?

Andrew Selous: I am aware that students pay, but the hon. Gentleman will probably agree that most students at FE colleges tend to be more locally based and do not have the extra costs of those students who go away to university.

3.35 pm

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): I know that time is short and that I have had more than my fair share of interventions, but I want to refer to something that the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) said. He accused me of attempting to mislead the House in a question that I put to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I note that he is not in the Chamber, so I am reluctant to comment on that, but I must set it on the record that it is my clear understanding that a further invitation was issued to the hon. Gentleman to appear before the Education and Skills Committee to explain his party's policy, which he chose to decline. If I am incorrect, I am sure he will take the opportunity to correct me later.

Given that my right hon. Friend comprehensively demolished the Conservative party's policy on higher education, which has emerged so interestingly in recent weeks, I do not intend to go over it, although there is much that I should like to say. Instead, I shall focus on a small number of points.

We adopted the 50 per cent. target—in my view, quite rightly. The Conservatives have said that that is far too high and that they would cut it, but they have not told us exactly what the consequences of that would be. We know that they would be severe because they would reduce opportunity, and the reduced number of places would largely be borne by working-class young people. That is indisputable.

The Liberal Democrats are also worried about the 50 per cent. target. They do not want an arbitrary target, but accept that it could be higher than 50 per cent. It is inevitable that the participation rate will increase beyond 50 per cent. as we move towards 2010. The rate in 2003 of 18 to 30-year-olds attending university or going into higher education is 43 per cent. For each of the past seven years, the rate of participation has increased by 1 per cent. a year. So it is reasonable to assume that for each of the next seven years it will also increase by 1 per cent. a year, based on previous projections. That does not take into account the significant—almost dramatic—improvements that are occurring in key stage 2 scores at the end of primary school, in GCSE scores at 16 and in A-level results at 18.

It is almost inevitable that the natural progression, and the result of the Government's investment in primary and secondary schools over the past few years, will lead to far greater demand for higher education as we move to 2010 and beyond. That is important because it demonstrates the pressure on higher education budgets and the urgent need for Governments to find a different way of funding it.

On debt, the point is that there is no such thing as a free university education. The question is not whether there should, or should not, be debt, but how the debt should be distributed. The Liberal Democrats say that

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the debt should be paid for entirely by those earning more than £100,000 a year. The principle that they apply is that graduates should pay more through the tax system. The great flaw in their argument is that the majority of graduates will not pay more through the tax system because they do not earn more than £100,000 a year. The Tories are honest about their policy. As my right hon. Friend made clear, we are back to class politics with a vengeance. They want the burden of payment for higher education to be switched entirely on to non-graduates. That is unfair. It is turning the clock back.

The key to the problem is to strike a balance.

The Dearing report establishes the key principle that responsibility for payment should be shared by all those who benefit from higher education, including the state, the community as a whole, the individual and employers. We have not heard very much about employers' contribution to the cost of higher education, and such a discussion may be for another time. However, although we can argue about the details, rates and thresholds, what the Government are doing is absolutely right if we are to get a better balance for all the beneficiaries of higher education.

Paul Farrelly rose—

Mr. Chaytor: I am afraid that I cannot give way because time is pressing—[Interruption.] What the Government are doing is right, and I am delighted to ensure that 50 per cent. of this afternoon's contributions from Labour Members come with reservations about their policy and 50 per cent. are in favour.

DEFERRED DIVISION

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I must announce the result of the deferred Division on the Question on sexual orientation discrimination. The Ayes were 267, the Noes were 54, so the Ayes have it.

[The Division List is published at the end of today's debates].

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Tuition Fees

Question again proposed.

3.40 pm

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): This has been an interesting debate, which has largely spoken for itself. It was introduced with panache by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green), who deployed our arguments and thinking in painstaking detail. The Secretary of State then responded, but he may have been more rattled by The Guardian poll on education than we thought. Instead of going back into his shell, although he is not known for that, he delivered a speech that can only be described as doing handstands on the edge of the precipice.

The Conservative motion was then supported, I think, by the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), who is going to vote with us. Most of his arguments, however, were a rather dry exposition of his reservations and to some extent a caricature of what we want to do. An interesting aspect of our debate, which needs to be seen in the context of our previous debate on Monday, is the argument that was not made. It was referred to, but it was not made explicit by the Government in their amendments on either occasion. There is no reference at all in the Government amendments to top-up fees, as the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) perceptively pointed out, which are the policy which may not be spoken of. It would upset Labour Back Benchers, so it is better to keep it private for as long as possible.

The only thing that the Government can salvage from this week's events is the hope that perhaps 100 Labour Back Benchers will have taken an exceptionally early bath and will not be available to oppose them this afternoon. However, we all know about the strength of feeling on the issue, which was encapsulated the other day in the vitriolic intervention of the hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) and today in the contribution of the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly). I would only point out—and I am sure that Government Whips are well aware of this—that there are at least 86 Labour Members who sit in silent dissent. Legislation is forthcoming, if the Government get round to it, but it will be difficult to get it through the House. As an aside, two education Ministers are former presidents of the National Union of Students. One is the Secretary of State, the other the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg). They supported NUS policy, but I wonder when they saw the light and realised that it was all very sensible after all. It must have been after the coming and, indeed, going of the Conservative Government. Matters are therefore interestingly poised, albeit at an intermediate stage.

To pick up on other contributions, it was interesting that Labour Back Benchers, as I anticipated, expressed a number of reservations about Government policy. The hon. Member for Cambridge believed that differential fees would have an adverse effect on access and, in a charming speech, the president of the beer club—the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), who deserves further preferment—expressed passionate concern about the misdirection of Government policy.

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In particular, his contribution was valuable for mentioning the situation for people who are not affluent by any conceivable test and whose family income is just above the threshold. They are caught by the full weight of debt. The hon. Gentleman also spoke about poverty of ambition, and the danger of demoralising people who might want to make a wise choice and might well be fitted for higher education.

We heard a contribution in support of Government policy from the hon. Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick). It was difficult to find out where he thought we should go, except possibly towards an indeterminate target, regardless of cost. I am not sure his Secretary of State would agree. We have just had a contribution from the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), who interests himself in these matters and sought to justify the target.

On our Benches, we had particularly interesting contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), who was rightly concerned about intervention in the independent sector, my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), who produced a trenchant criticism of utilitarianism and an account of the stresses that higher education Ministers inevitably endure, which I can say from my own experience was entirely authentic, and my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who made a positive and thoughtful comment and brought the lifetime implications of debt—for example, for pensions funding—into the discussion.

One or two other interesting points emerged. When there was a discussion about the student drop-out rate, it occurred to me that if we could cut that, the whole of the mythical Labour case for the alleged withdrawal of student places would fall, because the increase in drop-out covers the wasted places and any possible run-back in the size of the sector.

There was the usual confusion between participation and access. If the Secretary of State spent a moment looking at the figures for Northern Ireland, where there is a primarily selective secondary education system, he would see that participation is more effective in that country. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman tries to tempt me to go wider than perhaps I should have done. We will discuss that in another context. He needs to reflect carefully, and we shall reflect on what he said about the amount of support that will be available to parents or students who have to pay top-up fees. In the short time available, we wanted to hear from Government Back Benchers.

Again, I assert the principles underlying our approach. First, of course we accept that there is a continuing role for public finance in higher education, because there is a national interest in higher education. There are benefits to students. We do not believe that they are automatically of the order of £400,000, as Ministers said rather glibly. If there are such benefits, which will not be available for every student, the right way to capture them is through income tax, which is a progressive system. It follows that if we are guardians of public money, it must be used to best effect and not wasted on fruitless courses or excess drop-out.

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Secondly, we should respect the autonomy of institutions. Too little has been said about that. The Secretary of State says that we are taking it away, but any vice-chancellor who derived further resources from what was on offer under the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor, now the Home Secretary, as a new deal for higher education has much to think about. Any such additional funds have been bought at a high cost in intervention. That will be much worse when OFFA comes along as a political sop to the Provisional wing of the Labour Government to lend plausibility in respect of access. For the avoidance of doubt, I can say that there will be no diminution of access under our plans in relation to disabled student allowance, and we will be able to offer a measure of support for individual students. More details will be available on that matter in due course.

Finally, we need to provide a fair deal for students. We need to remember that there are opportunity costs for students, particularly for those from less advantaged backgrounds who choose to go to university. They are not earning for three years and they have to maintain themselves, often at additional cost, in a strange town or city. The level of debt is significant and oppressive and it does represent a tax on learning. That is a tax that has been introduced by the Government. They may well recruit one or two more vice-chancellors to support them in their present course, although I think that those vice-chancellors are ill advised, but I can assure the House that they run the risk of losing the support of 1.5 million students and their parents and associates—a constituency of 5 million persons who know about the £9,000 a head price tag and will draw the appropriate electoral conclusion.


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