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Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the recent discussions that have taken place with me and my colleagues. On variability, is it not sensible to weigh the evidence before making the decision in principle to introduce variability? Would not a sensible way forward be to hold a review to investigate the adverse effects of variability before the decision is made in principle? If my right hon. Friend were to give me that assurance, I could undertake to give him my support.
Claire Ward (Watford) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that as Members go through the Lobby tonight, they need to remember one simple fact: if we agree that universities require more money, either we raise it through general taxation and ask thosethe majoritywho do not go to university to subsidise to a greater extent those who gain the benefit of a university
Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend is entirely correct in what she says. That is the choice that is faced, and our proposals are widely recognised as fair, in that students make some contribution when they have graduated to the cost of their education.
Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage) (Con): One of my colleagues has spoken up for middle England. Will the Secretary of State not agree that the interest of middle England in universities is that they should be of good quality, and that is what this Government are taking steps to deliver?
Mr. Clarke: I am grateful for that comment. At the risk of being invidious, I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, as he has had the courage to face up to the logic of the situation which we are trying to address. He has avoided the blind opportunism that has informed the policies of the Leader of the Opposition and his Front-Bench team, who are not prepared to face the real issues, whereas he is.
Mr. Clarke: I am going to make progress on the question of variability. Much concern has been expressed by Labour Members, and, on one or two aspects, by Opposition Members, about the future of variability. People see calls for fees of £10,000, £15,000 and £20,000 a year, and say that although they can accept the £3,000 fee cap, they are concerned that in the future some new regime could be established that could undermine that approach. I want to set out clearly our approach on this matter, which is important.
The maximum level of tuition fees will be set at £3,000 in real terms. That figure will need the approval of the House in an affirmative resolution on Royal Assent to this Bill. As I said, many colleagues have expressed the fear that this is a prelude to fee levels rising much higher in later years. I assure the House that fees at that level form no part of the Government's agenda, and I can provide a threefold assurance that fee rises on that scale will not happen.
First, the £3,000 cap in real terms will apply for the whole of the next Parliament, and lest there be any doubt, we shall bring forward an amendment in Committee which ensures that no vote to raise the maximum level of tuition fees over and above inflation can take place until 2010 at the earliest. Secondly, the ability to raise the fee beyond that level will, under clause 24, require an affirmative resolution. I have given previously and repeat this afternoon the undertaking that that debate will take place on the Floor of the House, enabling every Member to participate publicly and openly in the vote. Thirdly, before any vote takes place, there will be a review by an independent commission, reporting to Parliament directly on the impact of the new fee regime three years after implementation.
Yesterday, in a written ministerial statement, I set out for discussion the draft scope of that review, and the exact terms of reference will be the subject of discussion in Committee. Clearly, if as a result of the review by the commission significant changes were to be made, legislation might be needed.
Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for the way in which he has listened to those of us who have difficulties with variability and the prospect of a cap that goes up as well as down, and for the way in which he has listened to ways of screwing down that cap for the whole of the next Parliament. Will he confirm that an amendment will be included in the Bill to make certain that that £3,000 level cannot rise without a further resort to primary legislation?
Mr. Clarke: I can confirm that that is the case. Were there to be a proposal that the fee should rise beyond £3,000 in real terms during the next Parliament, primary legislation would be required to change that. May I say that I respect the way in which my hon. Friend has pursued that discussion?
Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): Perhaps my right hon. Friend will correct me if I am wrong, but if we cannot keep our manifesto commitment, how can we commit the next Parliament to something that has happened in this Parliament? We cannot do it.
Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): Clearly, my right hon. Friend is aware that many Members are concerned that the variable element of the fee will be the thin end of wedge the thickness of which we do not yet see. Can he confirm again that if there were proposals to change that situation, primary legislation would be required?
Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East) (Lab): In front of other witnesses, the vice-chancellor of Essex university, who is writing on behalf of UK universities, said to me that he will charge £3,000 for every course, that he wants £5,000 and needs £5,000 now, and that he will be looking for further increases in the future. Is not the Secretary of State setting up a major conflict, with the universities demanding more funding which he has said he will not give them for at least two Parliaments?
Mr. Clarke: That is not the case. My expectation is that almost all universities will charge around £3,000 for at least one of their courses, and that almost all universities will have courses for which they do not
Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman is coming towards the end of his speech. Is not the most striking aspect of that speech the fact that there has been no sense of apology whatever by the Government for having clearly deceived the British public at the last election about their intentions in this matter?
Mr. Clarke: The hon. Gentleman is well known as an intellectual among Conservative Members. I am therefore slightly surprised that he has not taken the opportunity of his intellect to think more carefully about the future of our universities than Opposition Front Benchers have done.
Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the way in which he has conducted negotiations with Back Benchers over the past few weeks. Can he tell me what assessment he has made of the effect on students of the variable fee, and whether some students might be put off going to more expensive universities and taking more expensive courses because of the variability?
Mr. Clarke: My assessment is that that will not happen. The terms of reference of the commission to which I referred, and which I set out yesterday, include the impact of the new arrangements on students and prospective studentslooking in particular at overall levels of application, participation in higher education, choice of institution and course, levels of debt and so onprecisely to test the fear of my hon. Friend and colleagues like her that there might be such an effect. I do not believe that there will be such an effect, but the concern that she expresses is legitimate, and it is right for us to make a serious analysis of it, as I have set out.
There is an additional question, however, in relation to recruitment to the professions. I set out in our White Paper last year the importance that the Government attach to continuing to attract high-quality recruits to the public sector and the professions. We said that Government would have to consider carefully how best to maintain our success in recruiting able students and graduates to public service. I know that that is a particular concern of my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown), because I have discussed it with him. He is concerned that students who do not qualify for the full £3,000 support package should still be able to have, in his words, a gateway into the professions.
I am commissioning a report next year to examine gateways into the professions, which will look particularly at the position of students who do not qualify for the full £3,000 support package, taking into account the starting points for repayment and the taper. It will examine recruitment of graduates to the public services under the new student finance system.
The Government are already spending more than £700 million every year to support the recruitment and retention of teachers, doctors and dentists, nurses, midwives, social workers and other health professionals. Other employers in both the public and private sectors will no doubt want to consider schemes to ensure that they, too, can bring through the graduates they need. Obviously, the proposals of the report will be considered in the context of the next comprehensive spending review so that full account can be taken of the concerns that my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend has expressed throughout the course of this discussion.
I conclude by saying that this Bill genuinely poses a choice for every Member of this House. Members can vote for the Bill, which provides more resource for universities, an end to up-front fees, a student support package of £3,000 a year for the poorest students, an increase in the threshold at which one repays, and a 25-year cap on the loan being written off. Alternatively, they can decide to vote against it, but if they do so, they should be clear that they will be voting against more money for the universities, voting to keep up-front fees, voting for a system that discriminates against working class communities, voting against grants and voting for higher repayments afterwards. That is the choice facing the House. I commend the Bill to the House.