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3.55 pm

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire): I shall be relatively brief. I never had the opportunity to go to university, so I have not yet mastered the art of taking 10 minutes to do what can be done in five.

I congratulate the National Union of Students on its effective campaigning to promote the best interests of its members. That is a perfect example of good, pragmatic trade unionism, and I would welcome further campaigning by it and by other organisations in order to raise other issues. For example, many people have benefited from quality education paid for by taxpayers who, in years gone by, could not afford to send their own children to university, and are rightly angry when those who have gained expensive qualifications choose to use their skills elsewhere by working abroad, often in tax havens. That means that they not only fail to pay back any taxes that they have received, but deny many vulnerable people who have paid their taxes to send them to university and are expecting their hard-earned tax contributions to bear fruit in our public services. I should like to hear what the NUS has to say about that practice and whether it has any proposals to discourage it. I am just as interested to hear the Government's view. After all, it is common practice in private industry to claw back any money that was invested in employees' education should they decide to leave for pastures new.

My major concern in relation to education and skills is the lack of attention that this House gives to the established apprenticeship system that used to provide quality training for our indigenous industries, but is sadly lacking today. Perhaps that says more about the imbalanced makeup of the House than it does about the demand for such skills that is required if we are to remain a manufacturing country that produces something—although that is not to say that the Government are not addressing the skills gap, especially in the indigenous industries that were abandoned by the Conservative party during its term in government. I am extremely concerned about the under-representation of and lack of importance attributed to manufacturing

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requirements and the tools that are needed to deliver the quality goods for which this country was once renowned.

Many of my constituents do not possess the academic qualifications that are required for entry into university, but are more than capable of producing with their hands and minds the goods that many of us use in our everyday lives and often take for granted. That is why I call on the Government to work with the universities and organisations such as the NUS, while listening to the genuine concerns of Back Benchers, to ensure that whatever conclusion they reach on education and skills—on top-up fees, or whatever—they take a balanced approach that does not exclude the non-academics in our communities, many of whom do not have the campaigning skills of the NUS but are equally important to the long-term prosperity of our country.

In conclusion, I am proud to be a member of the Labour party and the Labour Government. In Scotland, especially the west of Scotland, there is great deprivation in many of our communities. In the pubs, clubs and communities, I relish the fact that the discussion now centres on education and people attending university. People of my era never thought about going to university and I am deeply proud of the Government's achievements in education. That applies not only to Westminster; I am also proud of the Scottish Parliament's record in promoting education, lifting people out of poverty and giving them aspirations.

In the west of Scotland, we are talking about people going to university rather than redundancies and factory closures. I want to get involved in the debate. The people of Scotland want to get involved in it, too. I am deeply proud that the Government are enabling us to engage in it.

4 pm

Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan). I commend him especially for doing what he said he would do and speaking for five minutes. That is remarkable; I am not sure that I shall manage it.

I want to concentrate on higher education and tuition fees, which several speakers have mentioned, especially the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), who made a powerful and thoughtful speech. I am sorry that he has disappeared. Given that he supports the Government and is therefore in a minority, and that his speech was powerful and articulate, it is a miracle that he speaks from the Back Benches and not the Treasury Bench, where he clearly deserves to be.

I declare a personal interest in that I have five children of school age. I calculated that my eldest daughter would be going to university when the Government's proposals for top-up fees came into effect. However, I hasten to add that that is not my reason for objecting to the Bill. As I shall make clear, I do not oppose in principle shifting the burden of paying for that public service from the general taxpayer to its beneficiaries.

I accept that there is a problem with Britain's university sector. We have some of the best universities in the world, and that is important and good for Britain. They are a priceless asset, based on what has been invested in them, both financially and, more important, in human commitment over the centuries. We must

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ensure that we do not squander that. I want to make some suggestions about how we deal with the problem because I do not believe that the Government have got it right.

It is in Britain's interest to have world-class universities that can attract and retain the most outstanding academics and students, and the economy prospers best when everybody is educated to the top of their potential. I also believe in personal responsibility—there is merit in those who seek to benefit from higher education accepting some personal, direct financial responsibility for it. I do not find it objectionable if the burden of paying for public services switches to some extent from the general taxpayer to the user. The hon. Member for Bury, North made similar comments.

I do not have a problem with a price mechanism in the higher education sector that helps to inform students' choices when they consider courses and where to study them. As a matter of principle, I strongly support the idea that universities should be as independent as possible from the state. That is highly desirable for a range of philosophical and practical reasons that we shall not have time to explore fully today.

The question is, do the Government's proposals meet those principles? The Labour rebels seem to think that they do, which is why they object to the Government's Bill, although I think that they are largely, but not absolutely, wrong in that assessment. However, I too propose to oppose the Bill, because the proposals do not meet these principles.

Let us take those principles in turn. Will the Government's proposals make the universities fully funded and therefore able to compete with the best in the world? I do not think so. Why? Because the extra money raised through top-up fees will be spread across the extra students who will be recruited to the higher education sector, so spending per student is likely to remain static.

On top of that, we have the extraction of a third of the proceeds from top-up fees, which will be taken within each university or higher education institution and spread across in bursaries. Again, that money will not be available for the purposes of teaching in those universities. The proposals do not meet the first desirable objective, which is to increase the resources available to universities to enable them to remain among the best in the world.

The second desirable principle is that everyone should be educated to the top of their potential—whether that is academic or vocational I leave on one side for the time being—but I do not believe that these proposals will achieve that. That is largely to do with the set of issues involving numbers and access. I reject the idea that there should be a top-down imposition by the Government of a specific target for the number of young people who go into higher education. That seems to me to be simply wrong. Frankly, I say to those on my own Front Bench that that applies to saying that the number should be either less or more than it is. The record of politicians in and out of government in making those judgments correctly is appallingly bad. The one thing that people can say we unfailingly do is get it wrong, so that whole approach is wrong.

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Universities should be independent institutions running their own admission policies and, if they think it appropriate, they should expand to meet the demand from qualified applicants for the courses that they offer. They should not be meeting rigid quotas and targets set from above, which happens now and is likely to happen even more under the Government's proposals.

The numbers set out in the White Paper in terms of the 50 per cent. target are pretty bogus anyway. Conservative Members and others express concern about whether we need to have 50 per cent. of our young people going through university, but this issue is not just about universities. The White Paper sets out the fact that, in any event, 10 per cent. of higher education is delivered not by universities, but by further education colleges.

The Government say in their White Paper that the higher education expansion that they propose should largely be in non-conventional degrees—foundation degrees as well as other courses and qualifications—delivered largely through FE colleges. I do not think that there should be a rigid division or apartheid between academic and vocational education, but it is clear that those numbers are pretty bogus.

On access, it seems to me entirely appropriate that universities should take into account educational potential in applicants as well as their attainments. There are clearly issues with some schools being better at preparing kids for university than others. On the numbers and the history here, it was said that 50 per cent. of Oxbridge entrants for 40 years have been from public schools. That is not quite the case as I understand it.

When I was lucky enough to be at Cambridge 30 years ago, at the same time as the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, two thirds of Oxbridge entrants came not from public schools, but from the state sector in one form or another. That has changed to a 50:50 balance because the direct grant schools have been abolished and grammar schools have been whittled away. That has caused the current proportions to come into effect. It is not correct that there has been a static situation for so long; it has, in those terms, got worse.

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