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5.41 pm

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): I welcome the opportunity to say a few words on the financing of higher education. It is a particular pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt). He made a very thoughtful speech, and I share many of the concerns that he expressed. Indeed, they were also expressed by each of the four preceding

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contributors from the Labour Benches. Like me, those Members are concerned that the Government's proposal runs against the principle of access according to ability.

The contribution of the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) struck a particular chord with me, not least because I know his part of the world quite well. His constituency is perhaps much less affluent than mine, but even so, there are many families in leafy Hertfordshire who will be worried about the effect that the additional demands being placed on their children will have on their access to higher education.

There is another group of parents in Hertfordshire who probably could afford to pay the fees demanded of them. They will be worried for a different reason: that their children will not be treated according to their ability because of the type of school that they chose to attend. Some of the remarks made by certain Members will have done nothing to lessen those parents' concern about the implications of the proposed office for fair access.

However, I want to discuss the first group of families to which I referred, who are worried about whether their children will be able to attend the university of their choice.

Paul Farrelly: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clappison: I promise that I will give way later on, if I have time.

The Government have not assisted their case by doing precisely the opposite of what they promised to do in their manifesto. I do not want to discuss the issue of trust and credibility, which has been explored already, but a related issue springs to mind. So far as I can judge, it is the concerns expressed by many Labour Members this afternoon that gave rise to the clear pledge made by the Government in their manifesto of just two years ago. If I am wrong, perhaps the Secretary of State for Health—I realise that this is not his subject, but he has no shortage of views—will enlighten me as to the factors that led the Government to make that pledge. Were they not the same concerns about access and attending top universities that have been expressed by his colleagues this afternoon? I look forward to his answer.

Can the Secretary of State tell us, for example, whether anything happened in the past two years to justify this change of course? I listened to the speech of his colleague, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, this afternoon and to the pillars that he advanced in support of his argument, but surely the Secretary of State for Education and Skills who made the promise in 2001 would have been equally aware of those factors. None have arisen only over the past two years, so why has there been such a change from the concerns that the Government were aware of back in 2001?

My concerns in respect of lower and middle-income families and their children's access to university are threefold. First, there is a wealth of evidence, including some from the Government's own researchers, to suggest that top-up fees will have an impact on access. That is strongly felt by the present generation of

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students, even though they will not, in the main, be directly affected themselves. The Government argue that that is misplaced because fees will be paid not on entry to university, but on graduation, and will be contingent on the amount of income that the graduate earns.

As Government Members have pointed out, however, the Government are not wholly confident about that, because they concede that the fees might be remitted according to the student's family's present income. Government Members have debated whether that is inconsistent; it certainly seems to cut across the Government's own thinking that any amount of fees can be requested because they will be paid by high-earning graduates in the future. To follow up the Secretary of State's comparison, I was not aware that barristers earned any less in their professional careers because their father happened to be a bus driver.

The Government seem to accept that there is a connection between present family income and the question of access. That problem cannot be fully addressed by the modifications that the Government have mentioned. Even if assistance is given to families at the lower end of the scale, there will never be enough to help the families who are just a little higher up on the scale, and who, in my submission, will be equally affected. That includes many families in constituencies such as my own who will very likely lose out, as they often do under such schemes, because incomes in the south-east tend to be higher to meet the higher cost of housing and the higher cost of living. They often find themselves falling below the relevant threshold and I fear that they will also do so in the present case.

Secondly, variable fees will have an obvious effect on student choice, student aspiration and, ultimately, on the character of universities themselves. It will take a lot to persuade me that permitting Russell group universities to charge high fees while other universities charge lower fees will not result in some students choosing the cheaper option—not the option that meets their aspirations, but the one that is less of a burden on them and their families.

Leading universities such as Oxford and Cambridge—and, to give them credit, the Government themselves—are at pains to say that our children and students should aim high, but the message that they receive from the current proposals is that if they aim high, they will have to pay for it. It may well be that the universities charge an even level of fees, as some hon. Members have suggested, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington may be on to something when he suggests that the current proposals will be just a staging post for the Russell group universities. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that earlier this week the rector of Imperial College, London—perhaps our premier scientific institution—quoted the figure of £20,000 a year in tuition fees. Does the Secretary of State really believe that if students are faced with the prospect of paying back £60,000 or more of debt, it will not have an effect on the choices that they make in trying to meet their aspirations? If the Minister pooh-poohs that and says that the Government will not allow the universities to do it because there will be a cap on the level of variable fees,

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I have to say that such a claim will not have much credibility, given that the Government promised not to introduce top-up fees at all.

Paul Farrelly: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clappison: I have one more point to make, if the hon. Gentleman will contain himself, and then I shall give way to him.

Another aspect of the distorting effect of top-up fees is their impact on students' choice of career. If graduates are leaving university with debts of £20,000 to £30,000—it will probably be much more in the fullness of time—they will surely think about how to pay them off as quickly as possible. Is that not likely to result in high-quality graduates in shortage subjects such as maths and science deciding not to take jobs in the public sector, especially teaching, and opting instead for higher-paid jobs that will at least enable them to pay off their debts?

The Library has helpfully given me an estimate of how long it will take a teacher to pay off the student debt that will accumulate under the Government's current proposals. If the Government stick with their £15,000 threshold for repayment, it will take a teacher 14 years to pay off his debt. If the Government move, as has been suggested, to a threshold of £20,000, it will take nearly 17 years of that teacher's career to pay off his debt—the years when he is likely to be trying to buy a house, start a family and set up some pension provision. That is a long, long commitment for that teacher, taking him almost to the age of 40 faced with a pile of debts.

Paul Farrelly: Like my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt), I, too, signed early-day motion 7 and I am not entirely in agreement with my Government over variable fees. However, I am perplexed as to how the Conservative policy of scrapping the expansion of university places will help to give the constituents of the hon. Gentleman a better opportunity to go to university.

Mr. Clappison: There is obviously a debate going on between Labour Members about different ways of financing university expansion. I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that since the Robbins report there has been a massive expansion in student numbers, because if this debate had been held at the beginning of that period, today's students would have been encumbered with much higher debts. However, I share the concerns of the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues: the proposals cut across the principle of access based on ability and that has worrying implications for the future. The Government will have to think again about their proposals if they are to keep faith with those of us on both sides of the House who want the children of bus drivers and barristers to leave university alongside each other, if they have the ability to go there in the first place.

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