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3.42 pm

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): In my contribution to this year's Christmas Adjournment debate, I will take the opportunity to

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comment briefly on the Government's proposals for funding higher education, and in particular their intention to allow English universities to levy variable tuition charges on graduates from those institutions.

I would like to make it clear at the outset that I share and support the Government's objectives of raising standards and widening access to higher education. I also welcome the significant funding increase that the Government are committed to over the next three years. The proposals to scrap up-front tuition fees and require graduates to make a contribution towards the cost of their courses are also a step in the right direction. However, I do not believe that that contribution should depend on which university a graduate has attended, or on the subjects they have studied. Such a crude attempt to introduce market forces to our universities is totally unacceptable, and I will oppose any Bill that contains such a measure.

The fact that our universities are desperately in need of additional funding is undeniable. After decades of underfunding, much of their infrastructure is overcrowded, outdated and crumbling. We must provide students with safe laboratories, modern classrooms and well-stocked libraries, as well as up-to-date IT facilities. It is equally important that we address the problem of university staff pay. Pay increases for both academic and support staff in universities have significantly lagged behind those in the rest of the economy during the past 20 years. There is ample evidence to suggest that staff are leaving the higher education sector in ever increasing numbers. Many have taken up better-paid posts abroad. There is an urgent need for a modernised pay structure for university staff that provides rewards in terms of pay levels and opportunities for advancement that will enable universities to recruit and retain the best possible staff.

It is clear that even the huge investment that the Government are making in higher education will not be sufficient to plug the hole in our universities' finances caused by the many years of underfunding. It is also obvious that if the damage caused by underfunding is to be repaired and universities are to be expanded and improved, additional resources must be found.

It is wholly appropriate that students who benefit most from higher education and become graduates make an increased contribution towards bridging that funding gap. However, I fundamentally disagree with the measures that the Government intend to adopt to raise the additional charge. First and foremost, the proposed system of variable tuition fees is flawed and unfair. It is heavily biased in favour of high-profile universities, and the £3,000 ceiling is far too high.

There is no doubt in my mind that universities such as Oxford and Cambridge will be able to charge the maximum fees with impunity, and thus gain the greatest financial benefit. It is to those very institutions that many of the brightest and best students aspire to gain admission. To my mind, there is something perverse about a system that rewards those who have achieved a standard of excellence in their studies by imposing the highest charge on their higher education.

Although graduates from the poorest families may not be adversely affected financially by the maximum charge, all those further up the income scale will be.

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Those from families with incomes in excess of £31,231 per annum—who can hardly be described as rich—will have their fees almost trebled. It is true that the Government will relieve them of the need to pay up-front tuition fees, but I am sure that even the slowest student will be able to work out that swapping an up-front charge of £3,375 for an inflation-linked £9,000 debt is not that much of a bargain. I firmly believe that increases of that magnitude in tuition fees are unfair and cannot be justified. Indeed, it is only the Government's insistence on introducing variable tuition fees that makes the contemplation of such huge increases necessary.

As for the proposed system of bursaries and remission of fees for those graduates who meet the financial criteria, I am opposed to both those measures in their current form. Students who have the appropriate qualifications to gain a place at a university and who would currently qualify for full fee remission should not have to shop around for a bursary. We must not introduce a bursary system that could act as a cap on the number of students from poor backgrounds taking up places at the universities of their choice. I believe that it is the responsibility of the state, not the universities, to ensure that such students are adequately supported.

I can see no case for continuing the system of remission of fees, which should be abolished and replaced by maintenance grants. The Government are proposing that tuition fees be recovered from graduates once they are earning a minimum of £15,000 per year, at a rate affordable to each individual. It surely follows that the recovery process should apply equally to all graduates regardless of background. The Government have argued that a flat-rate increase in tuition fees would be wrong and unfair to some students who would have to pay more than they would pay under a variable fees increase. I have no recollection of any such concern being expressed by Ministers when up-front tuition fees were introduced a few years ago. Nor do they have much to say about the extortionate fees that many graduates will have to pay for the more popular courses at all universities under a variable fees system.

In one respect, however, the Government have a case in arguing for flexibility in university funding. I refer to the need to attract suitably qualified people to study unpopular yet vital subjects such as physics. I believe that the difficulty could be overcome if universities were allowed to offer grants or other incentives.

Let me summarise my view. I think that tuition fees should be levied on all graduates on a flat-rate basis, irrespective of which university they attend or which subject they study. I also think that any increase in fees should not take the total amount above £2,250 a year, double the current rate. I believe that the proposed bursaries for students and remission of fees should be scrapped and replaced by maintenance grants of equivalent value, payable at the start of each year.

I think that my suggestions offer graduates a fairer deal: universities would have the additional funds that they so desperately need, and would have the flexibility to respond to their individual difficulties. I sincerely hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will convey my views to his colleagues.

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It only remains for me to wish a happy Christmas and a peaceful new year to you and your family, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to all Members and staff of the House.

3.51 pm

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith), who is known for speaking her mind in a principled way. She is right: the Government should have another look at their misguided plans on university fees.

I do not know whether, during his visits to his local school, my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) has heard the story of the Member of Parliament who, looking at pictures of a seasonal nature, noticed one of an aeroplane. When he asked what it had to do with Christmas, he was told that it depicted the flight to Egypt. He asked, "And who is that?", and was told, "It's Pontius the pilot." I make no apology for returning to the subject of the aviation White Paper.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) has already made a very good speech about why we think the Heathrow third runway option is wrong, and the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) has spoken about Stansted. I share his views, and his disappointment. The decision was indeed disappointing for those of us who are in the shadow of Heathrow. We thought that the environmental problems were insurmountable, and we still think that. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the advent of a fifth and possibly a sixth terminal, with a runway, and the introduction of mixed mode—which is also a possibility—would lead to many more flights and many more associated traffic movements. Levels of nitrogen dioxide would be likely to rise rather than fall.

People have been in a downbeat mood because of that, but yesterday, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), I attended a meeting at Heathrow school in Sipson. Given that I have already caught your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I have no ulterior motive in saying this. Those at the meeting began by saying that their thoughts and prayers were with those living in the Stansted and Gatwick areas as well. We know what they are going through, and what it means when hundreds of people have their homes and communities threatened in this way.

Morale at the meeting was initially rather low, but after a while we realised that, although this might be regarded as a stay of execution and that we were still on death row, the alternative—execution—was probably worse, generally speaking, and that we could now work for the reprieve that my constituents and I feel we deserve. Although it may yet take a few years of hard-fought battle, we will eventually walk free from the threat of losing homes, and of our health being affected by the toxic fumes of traffic and aviation in our area.

By the end of the meeting, morale had risen so significantly that we finished with a rousing chorus of "Jerusalem". That is unusual for a meeting held in the constituency of my hon. Friend—on this occasion, he is my hon. Friend—the Member for Hayes and Harlington. I know that "Jerusalem" was written by a

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good socialist, but these days it is not normally regarded as something with which to finish a meeting of, say, the Campaign group.

As the chairman of the meeting pointed out, if it had been a rugby match, the scores at full time would have been level, with the environmentalists and residents having exactly the same number of points on the board as the aviation industry. As he also pointed out, however, both the 1966 football World cup and the recent rugby World cup were won by England in extra time. Singing "Jerusalem" has spurred us on, and we know that we will achieve the same result.

I should like to add my name to the list of those who are calling on the Government to establish a rugby foundation similar to the Football Foundation, which has done so much good work for that sport. Such a foundation would be able to upgrade stadiums, thereby providing decent facilities for rugby throughout the country. As recently as today, I received an e-mail from a young lady who runs a summer university in Tower Hamlets; in fact, it has proved so successful that it runs virtually throughout the year. She wants to organise some rugby, but it is proving very difficult to find pitches in that part of the world. That is exactly the sort of initiative that is needed. Given the huge tidal wave of interest and good will following our success in the World cup, we ought to be able to get a grip on this problem.

In case I am accused of jumping on the bandwagon, I should point out that I have been a member of Uxbridge rugby club for many years, that I am a Saracens season ticket holder, and that my son plays for Ruislip rugby club. I wish those teams extremely well over the Christmas period. I should tell anybody who is going to watch Watford over Christmas that they have a couple of difficult matches coming up. I should also like to pay tribute to Richard Hill, the Saracens player who will be captaining England in their match against the New Zealand Barbarians at Twickenham on Saturday. Richard Hill is very much an unsung hero of England, and I wish him and the rest of the team well. I should further point out that Taine Randell, the captain of the Barbarians, also plays for Saracens. Although his spelling of his name is a little mistaken, he is a very fine player.

Before I upset even more of my constituents than I normally do, I should also wish Uxbridge football club well in their match against Yeading. At that point, my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington will revert to being the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington, as Yeading is in his constituency.

On a more serious note, while many of us look forward to a pleasant, comfortable and warm Christmas, many people cannot do that, and I shall take the time I have left to talk about a forgotten area of Europe. In the wake of what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have often been told what a great success the campaign in Kosovo has been. However, I have a feeling that the truth about Kosovo is somewhat different, and that the plight of many people in that area has been rather forgotten, despite the fact that Kosovo is part of our own continent.

Nominally, Kosovo is still part of a country called Serbia and Montenegro. Hundreds of thousands of people who used to live there cannot return to homes that are sometimes only a few tens of kilometres away,

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so they are in refugee camps, although because they are still in the same country, they are called internally displaced people. They live in awful conditions, and have done for some time. That applies not only to people from Kosovo but to people from Krajina, which is part of Croatia.

The NATO and European Union regime in Kosovo is in some ways no better than the one that it replaced. According to all the reports, and the many people who have been there, Kosovo is still a lawless place. Only yesterday, in the debate on asylum, the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) talked about one of her constituents, a Kosovan asylum seeker who does not want to return to Kosovo, as even now he is in fear of his life because of reprisals by the Kosovo Liberation Army, and he is still in hiding. To think that the place is all sorted out now is, I am afraid, erroneous.

The Minister for Europe admitted earlier this year that fewer than 3,500 of the 260,000 people who fled Kosovo have returned, and that many of the few who remained are still leaving because of the continued abuse and terror. Some particularly gruesome and appalling crimes have taken place there during the year. On 13 August, 60 to 80 children were bathing in the river Bistrica near Gorazdevac, when they were suddenly machine-gunned by two criminals. It took an hour and a half for KFOR to arrive, to find two of them dead and two seriously hurt. No one has been caught for that crime.

I hope that in the coming year the Government will take the situation seriously and grasp the nettle of Kosovo. I, and the other members of the all-party group on Serbia and Montenegro, will do what we can in the House, and we will not let the subject be buried. At this time of year, we should remember that the spirit of good will and peace on earth is not just for Christmas; it should be for life.

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