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Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): Does my hon. Friend share my special concern about the effects on the national health service? The British Medical Association has calculated that doctors training in London could start their careers with £64,000 of debt. Doctors take six years to train and cannot take holiday and evening jobs to subsidise their training because of its nature. At a time when we are desperately short of doctors and have not achieved the numbers that the Government admit we need, how on earth will the measure do anything other than deter people from training as doctors?

Mr. Yeo: My hon. Friend is right. The Bill will almost certainly adversely affect the supply of students to study medicine. In Canada, where higher tuition fees were introduced, evidence shows that the number of medical students from low-income families has fallen.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Yeo: I must make progress. In the document entitled "Higher Education Funding", the Government stated:


Yet a survey for the Australian Education Department pointed out only last month that students from disadvantaged backgrounds make up a smaller proportion of all Australian students now than in 1991. In the United States, a congressional advisory committee pointed out that almost half of qualified school leavers from low-income households are prevented by financial barriers from taking four-year degree courses. Almost a quarter are prevented from going to university.

Nobody knows how many British school leavers the Bill will deter from going to university, but the Secretary of State admitted that the level of fees that universities charge has a direct impact. On 3 December, he said that more students could be attracted to study physics if the relevant university charged a zero fee. If he believes that a zero fee will encourage students to study, how many students will be discouraged by fees of £9,000 over three years?

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Even the £3,000 cap is unlikely to stay for long; nobody in the university world believes that it will. Last week, Professor Michael Stirling, chairman of the Russell Group and vice-chancellor of Birmingham university told The Daily Telegraph:


Professor Nick Barr, an economist at the London School of Economics and one of the architects of the Government's policy said on 7 January:


It is no good the Secretary of State saying that the Government will enshrine the cap in primary legislation.

In 2001, voters were told that the Government had legislated to prevent top-up fees, but that did not stop them introducing them two years later. Every hon. Member who supports the Bill will open the door to top-up fees, not of £3,000 but £6,000 and £10,000. At that point, the gap between universities that can charge such fees and those that cannot will get bigger. When fees reach those levels, it cannot be disputed that cost will affect students' behaviour. The student at a London university whose parental income is £33,500 or more will face a debt of £36,000 when fees are £6,000 and £48,000 when they rise to £10,000. The Secretary of State hilariously told "Newsnight" that he would bet his mortgage that the £3,000 limit would be in place in 10 years. Does he really think that a single student will believe him, after he has broken every other promise he made on this subject?

The Secretary of State should count himself lucky to have a mortgage at all. Graduates who start their working lives with debts that take 20 years to pay off, and on which outgoings will rise to £240 a month, will find the size of any mortgage they can take out severely curtailed. At the very time when we should be encouraging a culture of saving, the Bill will saddle them with debt. It will erode the savings of those who are in or near retirement as they struggle to support the next generation.

There is a considerable stake in this evening's vote, but not much of it has anything to do with the dire warnings that the Government Whips have been issuing as they go about their arm-twisting on behalf of the Prime Minister. I urge Members of all parties, especially those on the Government Back Benches, to reflect very carefully on the consequences of their votes—the consequences for students, for their families, for universities and, indeed, for themselves. No one will remember the circumstances in which this vote took place when suffering the effects of the Bill.

Approving this Bill will force future generations of students heavily into debt just when they should be encouraged to save. Approving this Bill opens the door to the making of access to university dependent on ability to pay, not ability to learn. Approving this Bill increases the burden of regulation on all universities; and approving this Bill does not give universities a single penny of extra income.

Members of all parties fought the last general election on the basis of pledges that they would not introduce top-up fees. At the next general election, some Members will be able to look voters in the eye and say that they

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honoured that pledge. I am proud to be one of them. I gave that pledge, I meant to give it, I wish to keep it, and I urge every other Member to join me in rejecting the Bill.

2.7 pm

Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend) (Lab): It was kind of the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) to remind the House of the three happy years that we spent arguing about agriculture policy across the Dispatch Boxes. I recall that he went out of his way to be helpful to me then, and I hope that I shall be able to say something later in my speech that will be helpful to him.

I do not want to concentrate on the good things in the Bill, some of which we knew about from the beginning, because I think the Secretary of State has already made his case very well. I want to concentrate on my well-known objections to the Bill, and on how far the Government have moved to meet them. I had four objections: the increase in the level of debt for graduates; the difficulties with regard to the current proposals for meeting the universities' funding gap, as it is said to be; and the two issues of principle—the manifesto pledge and, most significant for me, the potential introduction of a marketplace in higher education.

I worry about debt. I am not talking about the debt and the financial burden that affects those from the very poorest backgrounds, for I think that the Government set out to do a lot for youngsters in that position. My fear is for the next poorest, particularly those who wish to make a career in the professions and public service and are therefore likely to incur above-average expenses while studying. I also worry about the amount of debt with which youngsters in their early twenties will be encumbered. That will apply especially to a young person who meets someone at university with whom he or she wants to set up home. Those young people will have to manage a joint debt at precisely the time when they might be thinking of taking out a mortgage.

The Government have gone a long way towards meeting that point, with the establishment of an independent commission to examine the impact on youngsters in the position I have described, the offer of an interim report, and the concession that in the spending review moneys will be set aside for the purpose of whatever recommendations are produced by the interim commission. I must tell my right hon. Friend that he is probably the only Secretary of State, now, to have that "nod and a wink" arrangement with the Treasury in regard to the spending review. If I helped him towards that, and if there is anything that I—along with my friends on the Back Benches—can do to underpin it, we stand ready. As is famously known in this place, the Secretary of State is not the only friend I have who might be influential in these matters.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): May I ask who will select the members of the independent commission?

Mr. Brown: I am happy for my hon. Friend to do that, but I suspect that the Government will appoint someone

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of national standing and independent character, so that the independent commission can consider the issues and we all have an opportunity to put our views to it—including the National Union of Students.

I think I can say something that will genuinely help the hon. Member for South Suffolk. I agree with him that inherent in the proposals as currently structured is a failure to meet what the funding gap is said to be. There is clearly an issue involving moneys for the universities. I do not think that the flawed market mechanism that the Government are introducing will deal with the gap without compromising fairness. It is essential to examine alternatives, and I agree with the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) that it is perfectly reasonable to consider mixed funding. There is no reason why that proposal should not be at least considered, for it is entirely rational. I also think it reasonable to consider alternatives proposed by the Opposition in general. [Hon. Members: "What are they?"] Even given my reduced circumstances, it is not for me to say what the Opposition's proposals are. I respectfully suggest that it is for the Opposition to say what they are. Perhaps, having identified the funding gap, they could present their proposals for dealing with it. After all, a funding gap must be filled with money, and the money must come from somewhere.


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