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Mr. McLoughlin: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way because I want to go back to the point about the number of students at university. Will he take time

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to remind the House of, or pass comment on, the fact that in 1979 when the Labour Government left office, the position in this country was that one person in eight went to university? During the 18 years of Conservative government, that came down to one in three. We have a record to be proud of on university access.

Mr. Yeo: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has quoted statistics correctly, but I further point out to him that the fastest expansion in the number of students from social class groups III M, IV and V going to university occurred in that period.

Mr. Robert Jackson: My hon. Friend is arguing that if private funding is introduced alongside public funding, the public funding will always be clawed back, so that there will be no point in the exercise. That is an argument against any form of mixed funding. Mixed funding regimes operate successfully in many countries around the world. Why cannot they be made to work properly in this country? After all, most of us know that is the direction in which we will eventually have to go to fund our public services.

Mr. Yeo: The answer to my hon. Friend is simple: such regimes could be made to work if they were introduced by a Government who knew what they were doing and were honest with students, universities and taxpayers. This is not a question of argument with him, as I have quoted the facts. In the last five years—since the introduction of tuition fees—the Government have clawed back every penny of the extra income that universities thought they were going to receive. That is exactly what will happen again.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Yeo: I will give way presently, but I must make some progress.

The principles of university independence and academic freedom are fundamental to Conservative Members, but they are threatened by the establishment of a regulator whose role is to manipulate university admissions policy. The Government claim that the regulator's job is to widen the mix of backgrounds from which students come. No one, least of all Conservative Members, will argue with that goal; as I have just explained, no party has done more than the Conservative party to widen access to universities.

We believe passionately in equality of opportunity, but we have a different vision from the Government of how to achieve it. The answer lies in raising the achievements and aspirations of pupils while they are still at school. It lies in firing the ambitions of teachers at schools that historically have not sent many pupils to university. That is where Government energy should be directed, but, as always, Ministers prefer to regulate.

Mr. Allen: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Yeo: Presently. The establishment of the new university regulator, referred to in the Bill as the Director of Fair Access to higher education, is central to Government policy. No university will be able to charge a penny in top-up fees without the regulator's say so. As

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the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education told the House on 15 January, in a comment that revealed which universities the Government are particularly gunning for:

Instead of selecting students on the basis of academic merit and potential, university admissions policies will have to reflect the prejudices of Ministers—another example of how this Government constantly interfere with and overrule the judgment of qualified professional people on how to do their jobs.

Mr. Allen: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Yeo: Presently.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Yeo: Yes.

Mr. Fallon: For the benefit of the House, will my hon. Friend confirm that under clause 30 the director of fair access is not to be an independent person, but must follow the guidance issued by the Secretary of State? He will be a creature of Ministers.

Mr. Yeo: My hon. Friend anticipates the passage of my speech that I am just coming to. That is a very important point, because part 3 sets out how the burden of regulations from which universities already suffer will be increased. As the explanatory notes explain, universities cannot charge top-up fees until

In other words, that means the regulator. Governing bodies will have to show how they are attracting applications from prospective students who are members of groups that are under-represented in higher education, regardless of whether such applicants are qualified to study at their universities.

Unfortunately, getting the plan approved by the regulator is not the end of the story. Clause 35 gives the regulator the power to fine any university that he considers is not doing what he wants by ordering the Higher Education Funding Council to cut its grants. Universities will have no right of appeal. Given that the Secretary of State appoints the regulator and fixes his salary, that the regulator reports directly to the Secretary of State, not Parliament, and that the Secretary of State outlines the matters on which the regulator must report, it is clear that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) said, the regulator is a creature of the Secretary of State. The regulations that tell the regulator how to do his job will also be made by the Secretary of State, although he has refused to let Parliament see them in time for the debate.

The Bill gives Ministers the power to decide who goes to which university and to take money away from a university that does not do what it is told. Let nobody fantasise that the Bill opens a door to more

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independence for universities; it does precisely the opposite. It brings all universities under tighter political control than ever before. It will inflict damage on our universities, including those that aspire to be world class.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given the importance of the United Kingdom research base, will my hon. Friend hazard a guess about why the first 10 clauses focus exclusively on arts and humanities, duties on public bodies and the powers of the Secretary of State but are silent about the wider pursuit of necessary commercial sponsorship?

Mr. Yeo: My hon. Friend makes an important point about support for science, especially scientific research. I hope that the Government will pay more attention to that; indeed, Committee proceedings may provide an opportunity to explore the answer to my hon. Friend's extremely penetrating question.

Mr. Allen: Does the hon. Gentleman realise that 65 per cent. of families in my constituency have disposable incomes of less than £15,000? That is one reason why we have the fewest people going to university of any constituency. The figures mean that people who get the necessary A-levels will receive a full grant of £2,700 plus a university bursary of £3,000. How can the hon. Gentleman talk at the Dispatch Box about access when he will lead his colleagues—but hopefully, none of mine—through the Lobby tonight to do away with a £3,000 grant that would allow those kids to go to university?

Mr. Yeo: It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman makes that point—I believe that he was a member of the Government when tuition fees were introduced. I presume that, at that time, the concerns of his poorer constituents were not at the forefront of his mind.

Let us consider the effect of the measure on students. In every walk of life from industry to science and from medicine to the media, graduates contribute to our national life. Britain's long-term competitiveness, our standing in the world and the quality of our public services depend on our educational system and our universities' ability to produced well-qualified and motivated graduates. Those men and women are already starting their working lives with average debts of £8,000 to £10,000 and the Bill trebles that burden of debt. It will inevitably affect the choices that students and their families make.

Only a Government who neither understand nor care about the anxieties of many young people and their families about debt could introduce such a Bill. Or perhaps Ministers have simply stopped listening. In May last year, a Joseph Rowntree Foundation report concluded:

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) is not listening because it relates directly to his point. The report stated:

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Last year, a survey for the Higher Education Funding Council and Universities UK found that respondents from lower social groups were more likely than those from higher social groups to hold debt-averse views. However, the Bill will force the majority of students to borrow unprecedentedly large amounts of money.

Let us consider the case of a student whose parents' total income is only £33,500. Perhaps the father is a firefighter and the mother, a classroom assistant. If the student wants to go to a university in London that charges the full £3,000 fee, he or she will rack up debts of £27,000. If he or she achieves a starting salary of £20,000 and enjoys annual pay increases of 5 per cent., the loan will not be repaid for more than 20 years. The Government claim that such debts will not deter prospective students.

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