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3.35 pm

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): I shall speak specifically about the higher education Bill. Although many interesting and important Bills announced in the new legislative programme are worthy of debate, for the best part of 20 years I have given considerable attention to higher education, in particular HE funding and student support. I have thought about the subject in enormous detail and have anguished over it. I also have some experience of higher education, which I think helps me to make a useful contribution.

Throughout that period, I have been convinced that a graduate tax, or a form of graduate tax, is the only fair and reasonable way to finance the expansion of higher education. To all intents and purposes, the Government's proposals are a form a graduate tax, so I support the Bill wholeheartedly as the fairest, most efficient and most effective way of putting our universities on a sound foundation for the future and of widening access to those universities.

In one sense, the issue is simple. There are just four questions that we have to ask ourselves. First, do we want a series of world-class universities in the United Kingdom? Outside the Conservative party, the answer is universally yes, which means that we must get more

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money into those institutions. Secondly, do we want to move even more quickly to a mass higher education system in which every young person and mature student has the opportunity to go to university if he or she can benefit from it? Again, outside the Conservative party, the answer is universally yes.

The third question concerns the balance of the individual contribution to the expansion of higher education as against the contribution from general taxation. The idea that it is an either/or question has clouded and confused the debate so far, but it is not a matter of whether it all comes from general taxation or from the individual. Dearing made that point in his landmark report a few years ago. At the time, the report attracted an all-party consensus, which has now been ripped up. The vast majority of young people in my constituency who have a reasonable expectation of going to university and the vast majority of parents understand that the funding of higher education will be made up of a balance of contributions from the individuals who benefit from it and the general taxpayer, who also benefits.

The entire debate is about working out the balance. Should it be 50:50 general taxation and individual beneficiary? Should it be 25:75 one way or 75:25 the other way? The issue is comparatively simple. Once we have worked out how the balance of contributions should fall, we have to deal with the timing of contributions. The decision to abolish up-front fees is one of the boldest and most courageous decisions that a Government could make. It will be welcomed by parents across the country in 2006 as they finally understand that the burden of paying the university fee will no longer fall on them when their son or daughter reaches the age of 18 or 19, but will be transferred to their son or daughter as they enter their working life a few years later.

Every parent understands the logic of that.

Many parents—especially the 84 per cent. of the population who are not graduates—who are struggling to find the £1,125 per year per child, or even part of that fee if their annual income is below the £33,000 a year threshold, will see the fairness and reasonableness of transferring the contribution from their modest income to the income of their sons and daughters, which will be vastly enhanced as a result of their university degree.

Peter Bradley: Will my hon. Friend go further? If tuition fee repayments are to be income contingent post-graduation, will it remain logical to provide waivers for students from low-income backgrounds—based on their parents' low income? Would not that money be better spent on proper maintenance grants, which would overcome the real disincentive to university access by school leavers from such backgrounds?

Mr. Chaytor: I would agree with my hon. Friend that that would be the way forward if we lived in a sane, rational and entirely logical world, but given that we are dealing with symbols and perception, some compromises have to be made.

I would dearly like to be able to talk at enormous length about the policies of the two main Opposition parties, but the significance of their policies is that they

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are the policies of parties that have already given up any prospect of winning the next general election. We need no clearer indication of that than the policies on the future of our universities that they are advancing.

The Conservatives have reneged on the Dearing consensus, and that has aroused some controversy among their own Members. We heard earlier in the debate many authoritative Conservative voices—probably most of the voices that retain their authority with the general public—speaking out against that new policy. I welcome it, because the Conservatives' announcement of their new-found commitment to the abolition of tuition fees has helped to clarify the argument, certainly among Labour Members. What the Conservatives did some months ago was to spell out the consequences of going into reverse gear and abolishing tuition fees—an immediate cut of 100,000 university places and the loss of the additional 150,000 university places that will be needed as a result of natural demographic processes and the gradual increase in attainment in our secondary schools. It is now clear to everyone in the United Kingdom that the cost of abolishing tuition fees is a loss in the next decade of 250,000 university places.

My question for every Conservative MP who has at least one child with the prospect of going to university is simple. Are they prepared to tell one of their children that they cannot go to university in order to guarantee free tuition for another of their children? If so, which child will they tell, and will they tell that child now? I suspect that if any parent on the Conservative Benches did that, they would get a pretty fierce reaction from the son or daughter not chosen.

The Conservatives have done the nation and this debate a favour by clarifying the options before us. It seems to me that over the past few months a consensus has emerged among Labour Members that there has to be some increase in the basic tuition fee—there has to be more money going into our universities and that must come from an increase in the fee. The debate now is entirely about variability. Some of my colleagues will still resist the increase in the fee, but the debate is largely about variability.

Time is running out, so I shall make only a few points on variability. We must recognise first and foremost that the whole post-18 education and training sector in the United Kingdom is now and has always been based on the principle of variable fees, except for full-time degree courses. Why, I should like to ask my colleagues in particular, do variable fees function perfectly well in further education colleges? In part-time undergraduate courses variable fees function perfectly well, as they do for postgraduates and Open university students. We must concentrate on the fact that most of our existing post-18 education system operates in a regulated market, and there is no evidence whatsoever that students have been deterred from taking those courses because of the variability of the fee.

Every provider of education wants, for its own survival, to recruit both the best students that it can get and the most students that it can get. There is an inbuilt incentive for every college and university to recruit the best students that it can get, so no institution will deliberately prejudice the recruitment of its students or, these days, deliberately narrow the social basis of its student body. The Government are bold, courageous

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and radical in introducing a plan that represents a major redistribution of educational opportunity in this country, and I welcome that.

3.46 pm

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim) (UUP): I welcome the inclusion in the Gracious Speech of the Government's main priority of delivering

I also welcome the fact that a draft Bill will be published

I should like to draw the attention of the House to the problems facing children with learning disabilities, mental health problems and self-development problems. I should like hon. Members to reflect on the needs of children who make the least progress in school during their formative years. Too often, inadequacies in the education system, such as late identification of individual differences and difficulties and limited individual support in early years, prevents many of those children from making progress after primary school and going on to further and higher education. The suffering experienced by children with a learning disability has a lifelong impact on the families and individuals concerned. If learning difficulties are addressed in childhood the negative impact that they can have on adult life is reduced. Only by providing targeted and strategic support can we enhance the quality of life of people suffering from learning disabilities and mental health problems, and that must be the Government's aim.

I encourage the Government to fulfil their commitment to promote better understanding in the education sector and provide better facilities for children with special needs and learning disabilities. The Government's agenda should aim to remove the stigma of having a learning disability at school and promote positive mental health awareness throughout the education system. Far too many children suffering from such conditions fail to fulfil their academic potential and drop out at 16 because they are not given the targeted support that they require to progress. Sadly, many never realise the productive contributions that they could make to society.

In Northern Ireland, a disturbingly high number of children and teenagers in schools and higher education suffer from mental health problems and learning disabilities. All too often, children suffering from a wide range of disabilities, from dyslexia to depression, go unnoticed or become victims of stigmatisation and bullying. That leads to children covering up their problems and failing to deal with them and, in the most extreme cases, to suicide. Of course, the problem that affects the British Isles as a whole. I remind the House that the Office for National Statistics reported in 1999 that, in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, two people between the ages of 15 and 24 took their lives every day. I hope that the Government and hon. Members across the House will agree that the place to address that problem is the classroom, not the accident and emergency wards of hospitals around the country.

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Bullying at school can often be a contributory factor in suicidal behaviour among young people. Cases of depression leading to suicide are increasing among students in higher education, especially young men. The figures on school bullying are disturbingly high. According to ChildLine Northern Ireland, one in every five of the calls that it received last year was from a child suffering such abuse. It is clear that mental health problems and bullying in the education sector are closely associated with suicidal behaviour. The Government must improve awareness among teachers and parents of that escalating problem, while providing the facilities and infrastructure to ensure that the human rights of all children are respected in schools.

Children who need special help and guidance to come to terms with their learning difficulties often suffer further for their difference and have their potential suffocated in the very environment that should provide the solution. Bullying and stigmatisation restrict the rights of all children, and the Government must address the problem with renewed conviction in this legislative Session in order to stamp it out.

We must develop a social culture in which children suffering from learning disabilities and mental health problems feel free to talk about the issues and deal with them in their schools. We need to establish a culture in which teachers, nurses and student counsellors are proactive in destigmatising those problems and in normalising their existence in the education system.

The Government must also continue to aid the principal carers of those who suffer learning disabilities. I want to bring to Members' attention the fact that hundreds of people with such disabilities remain in Victorian asylums. The Government have promised to close those institutions and have accepted that all people with learning disabilities have the right to a home in their community. It is the Government's responsibility to ensure that there is sufficient funding to address that problem and to provide suitable care for children suffering long-term problems.

According to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, disabled children are at least three times more likely than other children to become victims of physical or sexual abuse and are less likely to get support from child protection services. The shift from an institutional approach must be continued, and communities, schools and families must have adequate facilities to give children suffering from learning disabilities or mental illness an equal chance successfully to benefit from their education and to progress into higher education.

A pilot scheme in Harpers Hill primary school in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, has helped almost every pupil to feel safe and secure in the school environment. A pilot scheme run by the North Eastern education and library board, in which pupils from a consortium of controlled and maintained post-primary schools work closely with their further education college, has reduced secondary school absenteeism and developed self-esteem for each individual. Each individual has achieved success through attending vocational courses one day a week at a further education college. Many of the same pupils have moved through work placement into permanent employment.

Schools and colleges must be given the right to develop more appropriate and relevant courses to meet children's needs. I hope that the Secretary of State will

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agree that when examples of good educational practice and successful pilot schemes have been identified in any part of the United Kingdom, funding should be made available to ensure widespread dissemination of the results and to make possible wider application of good practice throughout the country.

Finally, I appeal to the Secretary of State to extend educational opportunities at special schools or in sheltered units for children between the ages of 16 and 19 with special needs and learning difficulties, many of whom have a mental age that is far below that of young people of average ability, and whose immaturity is such that further education at the age of 16 is quite inappropriate. All children with learning disabilities are unique individuals with unique needs who therefore require unique support. The Government must ensure that that support is forthcoming and that the outcome of the current schemes is that increasing numbers of children with learning disabilities progress towards leading full and normal lives, to their benefit and that of society as a whole.

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