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Lynne Jones : We already have a de facto two-tier system. Universities UK's own research shows that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are disproportionately represented at the modern universities and not represented at the prestigious universities. Is not the problem that the measures proposed today will exacerbate that already bad situation?

Mr. Willis: The hon. Lady is absolutely right, but there are two sides to that coin. Our recent research looking at major cities—Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Nottingham—has shown that, on average, roughly 45 per cent. of students studying in higher education go locally for their education, and that that percentage is increasing very quickly indeed. In Newcastle, nearly 70 per cent. of students leaving the Bluecoat school, which is a very high quality, high achieving school, study locally.

Mr. Allen rose—

Peter Bradley (The Wrekin) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Willis : Please let me finish my answer to the previous intervention.

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The other side of that coin—it is a very serious issue—is that we must drive up the quality of what is offered locally, to match whatever there is across the country. We must be able to tell young people, "You have a genuine choice between going local and going away", and it should not be a choice made on the basis of price. That is the point—if the new universities are in the 25 per cent. that do not charge top-up fees and all the rest do, we will create a two-tier system by default, purely on the basis of price. That is something that I do not want.

Mr. Allen: I had almost forgotten what I was going to say—but it was not "I will see the hon. Gentleman in the Lobby tonight". Would the hon. Gentleman consider the question of the market? He seems to be implying that there is not a market already and that there is no variability already. That strikes at the heart of many of the concerns that colleagues on this side of the House have too. There is a market, but it is rigged. It works against the interests of working-class kids who actually get the right A-levels. Will the hon. Gentleman address the question of how, by using social policy, we make a deeply imperfect market a better one for all those who are qualified to go to university?

Mr. Willis: I have a lot of respect for the hon. Gentleman and the way he fights for his constituency, but I do not think that it is possible to tackle inequality simply by creating other inequalities. We must tackle inequality, and I agree wholeheartedly with the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary with responsibility for skills and vocational education that we must tackle it much lower down. We have to ensure that from 14 onwards there is an aspiration for all our young people to go into higher education through a vocational or academic route or a mixture of those, and that is the big issue that we must tackle. However, I do not want young people to find suddenly, when they go up those routes and get their level 3 qualifications, that there is a financial barrier that prevents them from taking the next route. That is the issue that I am interested in, and that is why I shall vote against the Bill tonight.

As I was saying before those useful interventions, the Prime Minister, I think rather disingenuously, has said that there is no evidence from abroad—from Australia, Canada and the United States—that countries that have introduced contribution costs limit access. That is absolute nonsense. It is impossible to find any research—other than research written in Australia by the man who introduced the fees in the first place, whom the Secretary of State quotes in his evidence—to show that that has not happened. In Australia fee levels have risen by 25 per cent. since 1996, when variable fees were introduced. In America, with its Ivy league, which is reputed to have the Cambridge-style bursary system, only 4.7 per cent. of students from the lowest socio-economic groups go to Harvard and the figure is roughly the same for the other Ivy league universities. In the United States, money counts and money buys you into the best universities. That may be the Secretary of State's vision, but it is not my mine, and it is certainly not the vision I spent my life in education defending and promoting.

I realise that the Secretary of State has tried to mitigate the worst effects of the system, but the Office for Fair Access is a classic fudge. If any Back Benchers have

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bought that, naivety is not the word to describe them. What will OFFA actually do? The hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) was right to say that it is a bureaucratic irrelevance and a sop to its critics, and that it will burden universities with meaningless plans. At the end of the day, it has absolutely no powers. It has no powers over admissions, which is surely the key if we are to tackle issues of inequality. It has no powers over what goes into the plans—the Secretary of State has all the powers there—and it has no powers to impose penalties. So what is this guy getting £100,000 for? I would like that job—[Interruption.] He must have two children with fees to pay.

One measure that we welcome is the move away from up-front fees, though it was the present Government who imposed them. Few Members present in the House at the time will have forgotten the promise given by the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), now the Home Secretary. He said in 1997 that

That is why tuition fees were introduced in the first place. My hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) and I said at the time that that was the thin end of the wedge, which is exactly what it has been. The policy is going ahead by stealth, whether we like it or not. It was designed somewhere in the bowels of the No. 10 policy unit.

Has anyone objectively analysed the new arrangement from the position of a student from a poor background, or even one from a modest income background? For poorer students, there will be a new grant of up to £3,000, but the benefit will come only if the student attends the cheapest course at the cheapest university. That would make the student £1,500 better off. If students go to a good university on a £3,000 course, they will receive £3,000 up front and be left with a fee of £3,000 to pay. Will hon. Members explain how a student is better off on that account, because I simply do not understand it? If, by contrast, students go to a university that charges the £1,200 fee, they will have £1,500 of disposable income to spend. They will not get the bursary, but they will not have to pay the full fee.

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the introduction of a time limit on repayment means that low-paid graduates—someone on £17,000, for example—would, over 25 years, have to pay £4,500, which is 9 per cent. of the money earned over £15,000? Graduates would have to pay that £4,500 irrespective of the level of fees—whether they were £9,000, £18,000 or £20,000—so payment is linked to earnings rather than fee levels. Furthermore, in the British Medical Association example, where a student faces paying £63,000, he would, if earning £30,000, only have to pay half the fees. It is misleading the House to imply that they have to pay all the fees, because what they have to pay is linked to what they earn, which is progressive.

Mr. Willis: I was hoping that the hon. Gentleman was going to explain something. All he has done is confuse the House even more, so I leave hon. Members to reach their own conclusions.

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It is no use the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister talking about debt as an investment for families for whom debt is a daily nightmare. The Secretary of State should look no further than the research for the Department for Education and Skills that was conducted by Professor Callendar of South Bank university. She said:

higher education. She concluded by saying:

That is the Government's own research.

Debt, and the fear of debt, will affect not only applications to universities, but the courses that students will choose and their future life plans. A recent MORI-Unite poll shows that two out of five students who are currently in higher education would have chosen a different university or course if fees of £3,000 were charged. That is the view of real students in real universities.

The principle that students access the universities and courses of their choice on merit must be the only criterion for access to higher education—it is the Robbins principle of access to higher education. The Bill will break that principle, which has been the hallmark of Britain's higher education system for the past 40 years, and Labour Back Benchers will troop into the Aye Lobby tonight to support that.

The Government say that there is no plan B, but they are wrong.

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