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Mr. Clarke: The reason we have variable fees—I know that my hon. Friend understands that we already

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have them for part-time students, postgraduate students and so on—is to reflect the reality of university courses as they are. As I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown), this policy comes not from some ideological dogma but from a recognition of the reality of promoting the kind of courses that we want. I recognise, however—and it is an important recognition, if I may say so—that my hon. Friend and his colleagues reflect accurately a widespread concern, certainly on the Labour Benches and possibly on the Opposition Benches, that the impact of variable fees could be different from the one that I have just described. It would be foolish not to acknowledge that such concern exists.

My answer has two parts: first, that we have a review of the kind that my hon. Friend and his colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), have promoted, to analyse the effect of the variable fees after three years, so as to determine whether my hon. Friends' fears have been realised, involving an independent report making recommendations directly to the House so that it can make its judgment on those questions and every hon. Member can make their call—that is a principled way of going about this in a proper way. Secondly, we put in the safeguards that I announced earlier relating to the ability of every Member of the House to vote on any increase in fees.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): On precisely that point, will the right hon. Gentleman remind us of whether such motions would be amendable and tell us how much time would be available for their debate?

Mr. Clarke: As I said in my statement, the precise process is for the usual channels to discuss, but the submission that we are making quite explicitly is that this particular issue should be dealt with not on the Committee Corridor in the normal 90-minute exchange, but on the Floor of the House so that every hon. Member can make a decision on it.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Is the Secretary of State aware that way back in 2001 I was elected to represent the parliamentary Labour party on the committee that endorsed the manifesto? There were a lot of things in it, but I felt pretty certain that we would not introduce top-up fees. It is clear that variable fees is just another way of describing top-up fees. I suggest to my right hon. Friend and colleagues that if there is not some way found to eliminate the variability of those fees, it is conceivable that the Government have bitten off more than they can chew.

Mr. Clarke: I am genuinely grateful for that contribution—[Laughter.] I mean that seriously. I answered the manifesto point a moment ago. I want to put in the mind of colleagues and my hon. Friend this fact: universities close courses; it happens quite frequently. They close courses because they cannot find students to go on to them. The main funding for those courses—say a physics course—comes through the HEFCE. If the universities say, " We want to run that course with the money from the HEFCE", they may

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decide that the best way to achieve that is to charge a low fee. If they want to establish a foundation degree in some area that we are talking about, which is a key aspect of our proposals, they may decide that it is not intelligent to charge a fee of £2,500 from the outset for such a degree. The question for us is, in those circumstances do we effectively forbid universities from deciding to lower a fee to attract students? My answer is no.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): How can the Secretary of State have the gall to talk about academic freedom when the Government control fees and funding, and a bureaucracy is to be set up to control admission?

Mr. Clarke: The OFFA process is about applications, not admissions, as I indicated earlier, and the right hon. Gentleman and Conservative Front Benchers are fundamentally wrong in respect of a charge made earlier by the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) and now by the right hon. Gentleman. It is wrong to say—it will not happen—that OFFA, which we are to establish, will control university admissions. Universities will control university admissions, and that is as it should be. Power would truly be taken away from the universities by following the policy of the hon. Member for South Suffolk, in saying that the money would come only from the state and not through fees. The inconsistency in his position—which many Conservative Members understand, but he does not—is the risk of universities being entirely dependent on the state.

Mrs. Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale) (Lab): I represent Rochdale, where a majority of my constituents still do not go on to higher education, partly because we have not been lucky enough to have one of the education maintenance allowance pilots, although we are going to have them rolled out. Will my right hon. Friend accept it from me, as the representative of such a constituency, that the debate about choice and variability is erroneous? The biggest choice for my students—for those who are going to choose—is whether to go into higher education in the first place; the choice is not between institutions. The biggest determinant in that choice is aspiration at the ages of six and 11. As the Bill progresses, will he also ensure that we do everything we can for those aged six and 11? Although I give a huge welcome to the maintenance increase, which is long overdue, the thresholds represented by the ages of six and 11 will make the distinction for constituents such as mine.

Mr. Clarke: I agree with my hon. Friend completely. One of our hon. Friends told me this week that 9.1 per cent. of the students in his constituency went to university—that is a disgraceful figure. As I said to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), our task must be to build a staircase of opportunity and, as my hon. Friend says, it starts at the very bottom. In fact, I would say that it starts not even at six and 11, but at pre-five through the Sure Start initiatives, which have been so important. The only way that we will crack this appalling waste of talent and the

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disincentive to ambition and aspiration is by investing in the education system from birth and right through. That is why we must decide how and where we are going to do that. I believe that our policies will positively assist that to happen.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): I was a higher education Minister when student numbers were expanding but no tuition fees were charged. Does the Secretary of State recognise the fact that from time to time I have had the chance to consider non-starter policies, which evolve by concession into non-earner policies without stopping being non-starters?

In the light of that analysis, I understand that the cost of the concessions that the Secretary of State has announced today exceed £1 billion a year. Can he confirm to the House—an answer he did not give earlier—that the Chancellor has guaranteed those commitments to concessions as new money for the higher education budget, or is there a danger that it will simply be knocked off that budget and lost to the university sector?

Mr. Clarke: If I had been a higher education Minister under the previous Government, I think that I would draw a veil over my record on university funding. The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is that the policy is completely agreed with the Chancellor and with the Treasury. It will be carried through with the guarantee that I gave earlier—it is fundable and it will be funded.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge) (Lab): I welcome the concessions that my right hon. Friend has made, but, for those of us who are still extremely concerned about the principle of variability, how can he reconcile his statement that this is a coherent package with some incentive for us to vote for the Bill on Second Reading?

Mr. Clarke: I think that this is a coherent package. I also think two other things. The first relates to variability for fees for students from the poorest third of families. The proposals that I have made today effectively take away that variability, because they mean that any student from one of those poorest families will get their fees effectively covered by the combination involved in the £3,000 package. So, there is no variability from that point of view.

More than that, as my hon. Friend knows better than anyone else in the House, the decision of the university of Cambridge to respond to this approach by saying that it will go for bursaries—on top of the grant of £1,500 and on top of the fee remission of £1,200—of £4,000 for students from those families, which makes a total package of about £6,500, is a dramatic illustration of the fact that it will be genuinely possible for students from the poorest backgrounds to go to the most prestigious universities in this country. I can say to her that other elite universities, although I am not at liberty to reveal which, are prepared to do similar things. That is a direct consequence of the policies that we have carried through.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): As the Secretary of State has been kind enough to share

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some of his aspirations with the House and to acknowledge concerns, he must have thought about what he will do if things do not work out as he hopes. What answer will he give to the vice-chancellors, and what will he do if they say to him, "This policy is not working. We are still underfunded."?

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