Previous SectionIndexHome Page

4.47 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I wish to make a few remarks about choice, local decision making, markets and minimal state interference. I hope to carry both sides of the House with me on at least some of those issues. I appeal to those on both Front Benches to set those issues in the context of post-18 education and hope to persuade them to think a little more radically about the direction for post-18 and lifelong education.

I start with choice, because it always puzzles me that the debate is so patronising to those who are, by our definition, adults who have—we assume—the ability to make responsible, adult choices. After all, not only are they fully capable under the law of taking out loans and mortgages, but we give them the vote. It is patronising to say to people over 18 that we do not think that they are capable of making mature decisions about their education. We should adopt a system that gives maximum choice and responsibility to individuals for their own education, once they have completed their schooling. However, no one seems to want to do that. We remain hide-bound in an environment in which people are given the least possible choice and control over their educational destiny. I hope that we can make some progress towards allowing people to make their own choices and take responsibility for their own education.

We in the Conservative party sign up to local decision making, and the Government talk constantly about it. How about giving educational institutions local decision-making capabilities, not just on their courses and their admissions but, crucially, about what they charge people for those courses? We should give all post-18 educational institutions complete freedom to decide what to charge for the different courses that they offer, so that students can make an informed and responsible choice about what to study, and make a judgment about the value to them—the student—of that course of study.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): I am listening with great interest. The right hon. Gentleman was talking eloquently about choice but then he started to go into the issue of the market. If we have the market, is it not evident that some people will be unable to exercise the choice that he talks about?

26 Nov 2003 : Column 43

Mr. Forth: I will come to that in a moment. It is a concern that many people have. I want to set the background, if I may, to try to make the case for educational institutional freedom, individual mature responsible choice and individuals taking responsibility for what they choose to study. At the moment, we pay lip service to some of those things but deliver none of them, because we kid ourselves that we have educational freedom in higher education in this country. We do not. Sadly, higher education is completely at the mercy of the Government of the day, because the Government dispense taxpayers' money to institutions, and the Government employ institutionalised interference through quality control and admissions policies. We have the reverse of educational and academic freedom in our higher and further education. I am making a plea for us to have that genuine freedom.

Rev. Martin Smyth: Would it not be to the advantage even of the universities if students were allowed the freedom of choice to go to courses in other establishments, just as happens in Germany and other places, so that students could pick the courses that would help them advance in their own careers?

Mr. Forth: Yes, I would hope that would be so. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning that, because in an ideal world I would like institutions to structure their offerings in a way that they choose and think best, and I would like students to make those choices, backed possibly by employers or, crucially—here is one of the answers to the question that the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) asked about affordability—by scholarships and bursaries.

I make no apology for the fact that I look to the United States as the model for much of what I am arguing. There, a wide range of courses are offered by a wide range of higher and further education institutions, paid for by students who work while they go through their education, which is a very good thing in my view, and who take out loans, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Also, crucially, the institutions offer scholarships to bright young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to allow them to take advantage of the courses on offer. So the market approach can be tempered by institutional support, but it can also be supported by a discretionary financial support mechanism offered by the Government of the day.

I believe that it is, in itself, a good thing that young people should be expected to take out loans to pay for their education. I have never believed that getting something "for free" is necessarily a good thing, because usually we do not greatly value things that we do not pay for. One only has to ask oneself why so many people do not turn up for a surgery appointment with their doctor to realise that if they think it is free, they do not value it enough to take it very seriously. I suspect, sadly, that if educational courses are offered free, many students do not fully appreciate what they are getting. Therefore, I do not shy away from the idea that students should be expected to pay a proper price for the valuable education that they are offered. That price will vary depending on the course and the institution, and students will make their own judgment about it.

I want to make another crucial point. I believe that the students should be the ones who make the distinction between what we now rather loosely call

26 Nov 2003 : Column 44

higher education and all the other sub-degree vocational and specialist courses that are and should be on offer. We should not have in our minds some arbitrary figure about how many or what proportion of people should go into higher education. A degree is what the institutions say that it is at any given time. This country is not crying out for more social workers and people with psychology degrees or whatever. It is crying out for people with valuable, relevant vocational qualifications, which we may not call degrees, but which will be very much more useful to society in the foreseeable future. That is where we risk falling down.

We have an obsession with something that we choose to call higher education. We are in great danger of missing out on and discouraging people from looking for valuable vocational sub-degree qualifications of the kind that our excellent polytechnics used to deliver before we, mistakenly in my view, abolished the distinction between polytechnics and universities. Frankly, that was one of the most ill-judged things that we did when I was in Government, and I look back on it with regret. If I thought that we could turn back that clock, I would argue for doing so, but that is probably now unlikely.

The institutions should distinguish between themselves, and those distinctions should not be deemed by Government or controlled by some sort of quality control mechanism; they should be judged by students, employers and institutions, thus producing much greater freedom of choice. That is my plea for education, so that it can break out of its straitjacket and so that we can break away from a sterile debate in which both the Opposition and the Government have become bogged down in top-up fees, arbitrary limits and whether this or that educational institution may be justified in charging this or that fee. We should allow the institutions to make the difficult choices about what they offer and what they charge, and let them justify those choices by attracting students who are prepared to make the sacrifice to pay.

Mr. Redwood: I have declared my interests in the higher education sector in the Register of Members' Interests.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we have a very strange system in Britain? We have nationalised, price-controlled, managed and regulated system for British students, but a rather more open, market-oriented approach for overseas students. The danger is that universities would much rather offer places to overseas students than domestic students because of the imbalance in their freedom to attract overseas students and to charge differently and finance their courses differently.

Mr. Forth: My right hon. Friend makes a typically incisive point, and we should bear it very much in mind. There is now a global market for quality education, and we should be in a prime position to compete in that marketplace. If we do not allow our foremost educational institutions the freedom to charge fees domestically and in relation to the global market, the great risk is that we will lose our attractiveness and our competitive edge in that global market, and we will all

26 Nov 2003 : Column 45

suffer in the long term. So, there is my prescription for education. I suppose that I will almost certainly vote against the Government's Bill because, in a sense, they are not going far enough. They still seek to take us in the wrong direction, and I like to think that the Conservative party will take another look at this and think again.

Mr. Miller: I am intrigued by the right hon. Gentleman's approach to a market-driven education mechanism. What sort of mechanism would drive people away from, for example, an MA in politics and economics, which he took, towards something that he regards as perhaps more socially useful? Why was the degree that he chose so useless, according to his own analytical view?

Next Section

IndexHome Page