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Peter Bradley rose—

Mr. Maude: I give way to my old school companion.

Peter Bradley: Ever the gentleman. I just want to help the hon. Gentleman out with some statistics. Some 86 per cent. of students in higher education are from state schools, whereas the figure for Oxford and Cambridge is closer to 52 per cent. More revealing is the fact that the proportion of students at Oxford and Cambridge from lower income backgrounds is 10 and 9 per cent. respectively.

Mr. Maude: It is a pleasure to give way to a fellow product of a direct grant school, and I hear what he says. Universities have a vested interest in attracting bright and qualified students, from whatever background and whatever their schooling, if they have the potential and the ability to benefit from the courses that are on offer. They do not need all this regulated, costly and complex apparatus of social engineering to make that happen.

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On the third issue I mentioned, the proposal clearly shifts the burden away from the taxpayer to the user, but does it do it fairly? I doubt it. I particularly refer to the position of someone from a family of relatively modest background but whose income is above the cut-off level for remission of fees. The son or daughter of a teacher who also wants to become a teacher will go into a profession in which they will never be high earners, but they will be above the level for remission of fees and will have to repay what could amount to a considerable loan. They will have that debt hanging round their necks possibly for decades. That is a concern.

Do the proposals introduce a price mechanism? The issue of variability exercises many Labour Members. I hope that I can allay their fears. There will be little variability. The Select Committee took evidence that showed that there will be minimal variability. The extent to which choice is informed by cost will be extended barely at all. The principal factors of size and location of courses will continue to be decided by top-down diktat. That suggests that the fifth issue about independence is not met either, because universities will not have significantly greater independence.

I hope that the Bill will be defeated on Second Reading, and that there will then be discussions between Front Benchers and others such as have been referred to, with as few preconditions as possible. I was encouraged by what my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) said when he set out the preconditions. I agreed with all he said, and was pleased that he made no stipulation that top-up fees should be excluded—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The right hon. Gentleman's time is up.

4.12 pm

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): This has been an interesting debate, particularly on higher education. I was especially impressed by the contribution of the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs), who is not in his place at the moment. He spoke about special needs education for children and young adults. I am sure that the Government will respond to his perceptive observations.

I draw the House's attention to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests. I warmly welcome a Bill on higher education so that we can urgently address the twin questions of chronic under-investment in our universities and the social justice challenge of widening and deepening as well as increasing participation. Universities should mirror the diversity in society, rather than accentuate the divisions. I hope that the Bill will address that vital principle.

I want to focus on the Government's vision of widening participation through lifelong learning and part-time study, and how the proposals for variable fees might have an impact on that vision. Five years ago this month, as a member of the new Labour Government's

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lifelong learning advisory group, I was co-author of its first report "Learning for the 21st Century". At the beginning of that report, we said:

Tellingly, it went on to say:

I believe that the Government and the Secretary of State are still inspired by that early vision.

Since those early days, some impressive progress has been made by the Government, from Sure Start to work-based learning and the union learning fund, paid education leave, the launch of learndirect and the National Health Service university; and last summer came the first ever commitment to support for part-time learners. In my Adjournment debate on part-time students, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), made a commitment to ensure that

I hope that that will be the case in the Bill. The Government's current emphasis, however, on what has been called the 18 to 30 club, a sector of full-time, implicitly residential 18 to 31-year-olds incurring graduate debt, does not make for an enabling culture of lifelong learning. One vice-chancellor said to me today that he feared that we were legitimising a new culture of permanent graduate debt.

The typical student today does not go from school straight to full-time residential higher education. The typical student is already part-time. Forty-two per cent. are officially part-time, and of the remainder, large numbers work part-time regularly.

Some people may say that what is proposed is not a radical reform but a reaction—a return to an age that has long disappeared. There is a danger that this narrow and inaccurate characterisation of higher education, influenced as it is by the Russell group and Oxbridge, will not only destroy the present diversity of participation but prevent a future widening of that diversity. Why do we not embrace and strengthen that diversity of part-time and full-time participation? We need a new and different funding model that takes account of and mainstreams the innovative strategies of, say, the Open university, Magee college in Ulster, the Summer university in Dundee, London Guildhall's work with ethnic communities, the Community university of the south Wales valleys and the tens of thousands of continuing education students in virtually every university throughout the United Kingdom. We should build on those widening participation strategies.

If the Bill is to be seen as truly radical, it will need to deal with three questions that the adult learners body, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, has posed to me and which I will share with the House. I hope that the Secretary of State will deal with those questions. First, will the Bill better meet the needs of part-time students, given that they are to be found in

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almost all universities, already paying unregulated fees and having less access to loans and other student support? Secondly, will the Bill make the higher education system easier to access for mature students, given that the 18 to 30 club deprioritises them and given that over-54-year-olds studying full time cannot even take out a loan? Finally, will the Bill ensure that higher education students in further education colleges are not disadvantaged? Those are fair questions for the Government, who wish, I believe, to build fair and equitable opportunities for all.

Labour Members are rightly proud of the many social and educational achievements in post-war Britain, but two stand out: the NHS and the Open university. We have the opportunity in the Bill to achieve a third major radical development, taking the principles of equality and lifelong learning enshrined in the Open university and many other higher education institutions and spreading them comprehensively throughout the higher education sector, underpinned by a graduate tax, rather than variable fees. My fear is that thousands of part-time and mature students will not even enter the second tier but will inhabit a bottom third tier of higher education, receiving an under-resourced, low-quality service. Disadvantaged students—full time or part time—inevitably will end up in a disadvantaged sector.

I urge the Government not to seek a solution in an Americanised-style market. Our Chancellor urged us recently to take pride in our homegrown national health service and not to look elsewhere at other inadequate and inequitable models. I believe that we should do the same in higher education and look to Magee, Dundee, the Open university and London South Bank as our models; and that we should incentivise wider access through mainstream funding rather than marginal bursaries.

If variable fees were introduced, the additional moneys would accrue mostly to those universities with large numbers of full-time students, giving such students a major advantage over those from universities with large numbers of part-timers, most of whom do not or will not have access to fee remissions or bursaries. It will be one of the great ironies of the Bill that those higher education institutions that have done most to widen participation in the past and at present will be those disadvantaged by the variable fees of the Russell group.

The Open university, Birkbeck and many other UK universities are world-class leaders in teaching, e-learning and widening access. Those should be our models. We need new Government proposals that take a holistic view of higher education so as to create a structure in which potential learners can mix full-time and part-time studying in a landscape of lifelong learning, taking account of work and family life without the fear of lifelong debt.

The leading authority on student debt, Professor Claire Callender of London South Bank university, predicts that the proposed variable fees will increase debt further as students will have to take out larger loans to cover fees. Her research reveals that fear of debt is greatest among low-income groups and that such debt-averse students are four times more likely not to go to university because of the £3,000 fees.

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I conclude on a personal note. Some 22 years ago, the brightest student that I ever taught—the late Charlie White of Kenfig Hill—said in a speech on a miners course at Swansea university that

The message from this House today is this: universities must be accessible to all.

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