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Mr. Clarke: Let me tell my hon. Friend of a problem that neither he nor I would lose. The problem that we sharehe may experience it more than any other Member because of the large number of students in his constituencyis the need to secure the future of our universities in all respects, and to establish a student support system that is strong and effective. We can try to duck that problem for a whilenot that my hon. Friend suggested thatbut the country as a whole will still have to face up to it. One of the jobs of any Government, certainly a reforming Government, is to face up to such questions and to try to create a climate that meets the needs of the country. That is, I believe, what our policies are about.
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): The Secretary of State says that universities, not OFFA, will be responsible for admissions, but does not the funding mechanism that he has established, together with what he has said today about the focus of OFFA's work, put the strongest possible pressure on universities not to admit applicants strictly on the basis of academic merit, but to take account of other considerations about their backgrounds? That would be wrong, would it not?
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that when a student is entitled to a higher education grant and a bursary and when the sum of those is more than the balance of the fees due, the student will still receive the money and will thus be a net beneficiary of the system?
I agree that it is important to maintain the principle of variability, but is not the effect of my right hon. Friend's proposals likely to reduce the amount of variability that exists in practice, as more universities opt for the £3,000 fee?
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): I welcome some of my right hon. Friend's proposed changes, but I still think the £15,000 limit too low and the 25-year period too long. However, my fundamental problem is with variability and the bringing in of a market-driven higher education system. Does he accept that if he were prepared to make concessions on variability, he would gain a widespread consensus among Labour Members? Without that, he will find it very difficult to win the support of many of his right hon. and hon. Friends, including me, for the total package that he is asking us to accept.
Mr. Clarke: The first point is that I have discussed variability today, and I hope that people will consider carefully the meaning of what I said. Secondly, through the support that we provide in a direct series of ways, I have established a position for the third of students from the poorest families whereby variability in the fees that they have to pay, or deal with, is effectively eliminated. Thirdly, I know that some colleaguesmy hon. Friend may be among them, I am not surethink that there should be no variation on a principled, ideological basis: that variation in part-time student fees, postgraduate fees and so on is okay, but variation in full-time undergraduate fees is not. But I believe that many of those who have been worried about variability are actually worried about a high fee level for students from poor backgrounds and its disincentive effect. I have sought to address that point very directly in today's statement.
Mr. Clarke: It is not a net sum passed on to universitiesit is the money that they raise by charging fees themselves. I gave the estimated answer to that question a moment ago. According to the estimate of 75 per cent. at £3,000 and 25 per cent. at the existing level, the income to universities would be some £1 billion to £1.2 billion.
Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): I welcome the extra help for poorer students announced by the Secretary of State, although I regret the lack of any movement on thresholds. None of the concessions would have been achieved but for the campaign run by Labour Members in the past 12 months. Does he accept that, despite the concessions and the movement made,
Mr. Clarke: The request that I make to my hon. Friend and to all our colleagues is to assess the situation facing universities and student support, and to make a judgment, as I have done and as he will have to do. That is what we are about. The one thing that would not be acceptable would be to refuse to face up to these questions, which are important for the future of the economy and of our society. It is true that such active engagement in this debatecall it campaigning or whateverhas been a very important aspect of the evolution of these policies. We have tried to listen to the points made by my hon. Friend and by many others in these discussions.
Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): I recognise that my right hon. Friend has gone a long way to meet many of our fears, but I should tell him that I cannot swallow variable fees. I am also very concerned about the issue of trust. May I encourage him, at this eleventh hour, to consider taking up the idea of a commission, rather than reviewing the situation in three years? Such a commission could report before the next election, so that we could have a guided manifesto commitment.
Mr. Clarke: I will think about everything, of course, but I want to emphasise that the Dearing commission looked at this issue seriously and came up with some serious proposals, which we are seeking to implement. That is the right way forward in addressing the problems that my hon. Friend describes. As he knows in respect of his own constituency, for people in the families whom he represents the accessibility of some universities is very low. We need to set about changing that right now.
James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab): As someone who got a grant to go to university and then campaigned on the streets of Westminster against its being removed by the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), I should tell my right hon. Friend how glad I am that a Labour Government are bringing it back. But does he remember the then Conservative Government putting an artificial cap on student numbers of some 33 per cent., and will he promise that this Labour Government will never cap young people's aspirations, and that anyone who gets the right A-level results will be able to go to university?
Mr. Clarke: I will give that commitment, and I should say to all Conservative Members that it is very important that they face up to the issues, just as I am asking my colleagues to do. The list of evasions that are part and parcel of the position of Tory Front Benchers is outrageous. They have explicitly said that they want to reduce the number of students going to university. They are wrong, and that policy will be deliberately rejected by their constituents, as it should be.
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): The writing-off of student debts after 25 years is presumably intended to attract those of us who have criticised this measure, but is it not peculiar to operate
Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend is always creative in his policy approaches, and I welcome that in every respect. The point that he eloquently makes about family responsibilities has formed a very important part of our consideration of what constitutes the right thing to do. It is precisely because of those issues that the threat of a debt to be repaid over a lifetime ought to be removed by introducing the cap of that 25-year limit.
Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and for the improvements that he has made through his proposals. However, I draw his attention to the comments of Lord Butler of Brockwell, the master of university college, in his letter to Members. He says that