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Mr. Clarke: That might be defensible if someone, at the same time, was looking at the cost of the existing regulation and trying to get rid of other things already done in the name of fire prevention, which cause a great deal of cost.

This is an area where it is impossible to resist pressure for more statutory requirements—to protect against fire, of course. However, that impossibility to resist also leads to ever mounting requirements, none of which is ever removed, and ever greater cost for people undergoing all kinds of activity.

The home information packs illustrate to me the fact that the Government are also a bit of a sucker for any lobby that walks through the door. One thing they will always give in to is pressure from any well-organised group. That leads me on to at least one of the measures that I particularly object to in the Queen's Speech—the proposals on higher education.

The two measures that I have already identified as most objectionable to my mind are those on top-up fees and on House of Lords reform. Both have something in common, although they relate to different areas of political activity.

The first thing is that neither would be in the Queen's Speech were it not for the personal insistence of the Prime Minister. I do not believe that many Government Members have great enthusiasm for what is proposed on student finance. I do not believe that many Labour Front Benchers have great enthusiasm for an all-appointed House of Lords. It is the personal determination of the Prime Minister to make those proposals a test of his leadership that has resulted in them being put into the Queen's Speech. I hope that the test proves a particularly examining one.

The other thing that the measures have in common is that both are things that the Labour party committed itself against at the last general election when it consulted the public. Both are in defiance of clear manifesto pledges; earlier, we saw the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), getting a Minister to go through hoops in trying to explain how the measures complied with the manifesto. The measures deserve the most serious opposition because, in both cases, the damaging effects on the opportunity to go into higher education and on the constitution of this country and the ability to hold the Government to account will last far longer than all the other dull and worthy measures presented to us last week.

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Top-up fees are an old idea that has been debated for the last 10 years. They have always been an enthusiasm of some of the vice-chancellors of some of the universities with the highest reputation, who have urged the proposal upon successive Governments because they have not received the public money that they require to finance their expansion. Failing anything else, the vice-chancellors have decided that top-up fees are the only way of getting an income to meet their needs. If the proposal comes into effect in 2006, most of the money raised will go on increasing academic salaries. When pressed on what is required to maintain high academic standards, most dons reply in terms of their salaries, making the comparison with senior teaching staff and the surge in public sector pay that has gone on in every sector save theirs. They have a case—one that is better than most—and I agree that they are in something of an international market.

The Government defend the proposal as the only means of financing their target of 50 per cent. of the population under 30 going into higher education. They stick to that target doggedly, but they should not do so if they cannot come up with a better way of financing or affording it. However, the idea is being put forward on the basis of increased take-up. We have always accepted in this House that there is a case for students and their parents making some contribution towards a student's time at university. I well remember frequently debating student loans, against the bitter opposition of the entire Labour movement, when we introduced them. The argument was, "Why should the dustman's taxes subsidise the living standards of the trainee doctor?" It was one that I used frequently—as did most of my hon. Friends—to defend the introduction of student maintenance grants for living costs.

Up to a modest level, the living costs of a student at university should be borrowed, on favourable terms, and paid back; the terms of that measure have become reasonably settled. However, having introduced the principle of loans—this is what Labour used to say to us—the danger is that the Treasury will want students and their parents to pay for a lot more. We crossed the rubicon when the Government accepted the idea of paying tuition fees. Now we have a proposal that people should borrow to pay not only for their living costs, but for their tuition fees. The fees are set arbitrarily; the universities bid for £5,000 and are now to be given £3,000. The cost of going to university is now a tax, and the total burden imposed on students from ordinary families will be much greater.

My argument has always concerned the ordinary student from an ordinary, average-income family who will get an ordinary degree and go into an ordinary job. I wholly approve of such people, who will improve the quality of their own lives and of society. But they will not have enormous sums of money, or be able easily to handle huge burdens of debt. The very poor will find that all their problems are solved, because the universities will give them bursaries and the Government will tweak the scheme to make sure that such people are helped. However, the very poor will not go to university in great numbers because the school system is not good enough to prepare many such people for higher education. The very rich will not mind because they already take the student loan and put it

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into investment clubs. Their parents buy a flat for them when they go to university as an investment, which is realised when they leave.

Those whom we must consider are, for example, the two children who live in a household in which the parents have a combined income of about £25,000 a year, and who emerge from three years of university—with perhaps a rather poor second-class degree—get a job and, by their early 30s, are earning some £25,000 a year. In fact, they are the solid citizens of most of our constituencies. What is proposed is that they will leave university with some £20,000 to £30,000 worth of debt, depending on the circumstances and the course that they take. I regard that as an unreasonable social burden; and if it is the best that we can come up with by way of subsidising higher education, it is also an admission of defeat.

I want to offer one or two more warnings. We should not believe that the figure will stick at £3,000. I concede that the Labour party was right to attack us by describing student loans as the tip of the iceberg. The vice-chancellors nearly persuaded the Government to sign up this time to the figure of £5,000. They have settled for £3,000, but they will go further. I do not agree with those Labour Members who think that it does not matter, so long as all universities charge the same. I am afraid that the status of the university of Cambridge is slightly higher than that of the university of Derby, and with the greatest of respect to my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin)—he is listening to me—I doubt whether that comes as a great revelation to the outside world. Once the limits are pushed up, the university of Cambridge, the London School of Economics, the university of Bristol and various others will undoubtedly push their fees very high indeed. The university of Derby will eventually get caught and will have to keep its fees down. It will have more and more working-class students, fewer and fewer of whom will go to the LSE, because of the adverse effect on the ability of people of ordinary income to contemplate such debt.

The Government's response is to create another regulator to control access. As I have said before, the Government are obsessed with regulation. The Labour movement may have changed in every other way, but social democracy still spawns regulation on a grand scale. There are more than 100 regulators of various types, and we will have another one—"Oftoff", or whatever it is to be called—to regulate access to university. But in fact, the mechanics of debt will make sure that the better off will tend to dominate in the better universities, and that the poorer will not.

I say to those vice-chancellors who disagree with me—who think it dreadful that I resist the increase in tuition fees that would give them more income—that I hope they do not think that the Treasury will let them get away with this. It is nonsense to imagine that in every future spending round, the Treasury will allow the Department for Education and Skills to increase public sector, taxpayers' support for universities, regardless of the fact that universities will be receiving loan income. The Treasury will be very keen on this issue, because in terms of higher education the pressure on it will be taken off. Every time that the Education Secretary wants more money for higher education, he will be told to go away and see how far he can tweak the tuition fees upwards,

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and to get people to borrow more money. I am strongly against the proposal and I see no reason why the Conservative party should support it. We Conservatives have always believed in equality of opportunity; this proposal goes in quite the wrong direction.

What should we do? It is obvious that, first, we should drop the 50 per cent. target, which was arbitrarily chosen. I am all in favour of opening up access to the university system, but in terms of this country's population we do not have a particularly low graduation level. Not only do I doubt whether the school system is yet capable of preparing for real higher education 50 per cent. of the population; I seriously doubt whether universities can cope with such a continuing rapid rate of expansion, without damaging the quality of some of the courses offered.

I rely on the statement of the previous Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education, the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), who said that there were already too many Mickey Mouse courses in the universities, so there was no point in hitting targets by creating more.

The proposal may not pay for the good quality higher education that is required for existing students, and I admit that that lack is a weakness. The Government may well have to contemplate including higher education establishments in the list of institutions that have to be taken into account in the public spending rounds. That is where we have gone wrong over the last 10 years and it means that we Conservatives have to say what we would not spend equivalent moneys on.

It is appropriate for me, having heard all the talk today about regional government, regional development agencies and the regional aspirations of the Labour party, to say that I am quite unreformed on those matters. I would not regret the abolition of the regional development agencies. I believe that the Department of Trade and Industry dispenses money on countless schemes as if it has gone out of fashion, a practice that the Secretary of State is trying to rationalise. I share all the enthusiasm of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East for urban regeneration and reviving the economy of the north-east, an effort which has been spectacularly successful in some places. However, I do not believe that the expenditure of vast sums of public money on such projects should be protected when higher education has been so neglected by successive Governments over recent years.


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