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3.10 pm

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I follow an entertaining speech, but the former leader of the Conservative party is trying to reinvent the British constitution. I always understood that the parliamentary constitution of this country meant that a manifesto commitment lasted for one Parliament and did not bind the next Parliament. We can agree to disagree on that.

I want to speak briefly on what the challenges of this Bill mean for higher education and for the future of our country. The House should bear two things in mind, one of which is that this country will not survive as a competitive nation unless it uses all the skills of all its people and releases the potential of every child and adult in this country to the fullest extent.

Simon Hughes: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Sheerman: No.

As Chairman of the Education and Skills Committee, which has conducted four inquiries into higher education in the very recent past, I can speak with some authority, as some of the leading experts in the country have given evidence to us. There is no doubt that if we examine our education system, we will all recognise one clear underperformance: the underachievement of many people who come from poorer backgrounds, and the inability of our education system, over 150 years of public education, to deliver the full potential, in terms of educational opportunity, of all our children, however clever they may be. If we examine the graph showing bright working-class children and average middle-class children at two and a half years of age, we find that by the age of six they have crossed over in terms of academic performance. Such a failure is a disgrace to all of us.

I do not agree with everything in this Bill, but I believe that we should support it. I do agree, however, that in 1997, for the first time in the history of this country, a Prime Minister ran—this is a manifesto commitment—on "Education, education, education," as our Government's priority. That was what they were going to deliver, and they renewed that commitment in the following election. That is what mattered. I do not remember a stirring commitment from any Conservative Member.

I remind the House that since 1997 the Government have poured money into those areas in which policy evidence suggests that it is most effective: early years, sure start and the preparation of young children; free

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nursery education for four-year-olds and now three-year-olds; an 80 per cent. increase for school buildings; a 60 per cent. increase for junior schools; and a 35 per cent. increase throughout secondary education. We never had such spending previously in the history of this country. That is something of which I, as a Labour Member of Parliament, am proud to put before an electorate. In addition, the provision of education maintenance allowance at 16 is keeping young people from working-class backgrounds in education from 16 to 18—the time at which they can drop out.

That is what we have achieved, and I put this Bill in that context of great achievement. I remember that cheap jibe from the Leader of the Opposition recently—that he was a grammar school boy talking to a public school boy. No one is responsible for the school to which he or she is sent, but we have every responsibility for the school to which we send our children. That is our responsibility as individuals. I have always used and supported, as have most of my Labour colleagues, state schools—we have not preached about the public sector and sent our children to the private sector.

In terms of the context of the Bill, I want to comment on why it is important to invest in higher education and find diverse resources to invest. The Government are wrong if they do not believe that there will be a greater call on the taxpayer over the coming years to invest in a higher education system that really competes with the best in the world. However much money we get from this new form of variable fee, which I support, it will not be enough to make our university sector the most competitive in the world, so more taxpayers' money will be required.

Some of my hon. Friends talk complacently about a two-tier system. Do they realise how many opportunities a child who is sent to the private sector, or to a selective school or grammar school, has in terms of getting to the best universities compared with the ordinary child who goes through the comprehensive system? The system is still rigged in favour of the privileged. The Bill will make a remarkable step towards opening up our universities to all the talents. I am an unashamed elitist, but I want the kind of elitism that is based on a person's potential and grades, not on whom they know, how well connected they are, and whether they are given the best opportunity to get the best A-levels and to peak at 18. I want every child of talent to be able to walk through the doors of every first-class institution in this country.

Mr. Allen: Does my hon. Friend agree that restoring a grant, particularly at the level of £3,000, will be seen as one of this Government's greatest achievements in education? He said that no more money is available for this package, but has he considered the zero rate of interest that will be charged on the loan to pay the fees? That is a Government-preferred rate that could save several hundred million pounds, which could go into making the grant even higher—it might end up going from a standing start to more than £3,000 for people on the lowest incomes.

Mr. Sheerman: My hon. Friend tempts me on to interesting territory. As he knows, the Select Committee

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on Education and Skills recommended that the zero interest subsidy for middle class families—amounting to £1.2 billion—could have been taken away and used for other purposes, but the Government did not accept that, for reasons that I understand.

Overall, my hon. Friend is right. The package before the House will build on our other reforms to open up educational opportunities in the educational system. As politicians, we should always admit it when we are wrong. I was wrong—and my Select Committee agreed with me—when I came out against the Office for Fair Access. On reflection over the months, I decided that I, personally, was wrong about that. OFA will be part of the process of prising open the system and providing the necessary leverage to ensure that the most talented people can get into any institution into which their talent drives them. In other words, it will do something that universities are loth to do. That is not a criticism. Universities started to talk about top-up fees because they had had 18 years of the Conservatives screwing them into the ground, with more students, fewer resources, appalling pay for lecturers, and no opportunity to do anything about it. In frustration, many said, "We've got to have top-up fees—we need £10,000 or £15,000 to make this a world-class competitive higher education sector."

That is the background. Now, the Bill is introducing the fees policy. It is a good Bill which opens up educational opportunity and delivers in a way that was never possible in the past. Our future economic prosperity depends on investment in higher education. The good life for all our constituents depends on how much we pile into that, and on retaining in our country people with higher education. I recommend the Bill; I am unashamedly in favour of it.

3.20 pm

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk) (Con): I draw the attention of the House to the fact that for the past three years I have been a member of the governing council of the university of Oxford, which is an unpaid position.

A year ago, the Government published their White Paper on higher education, which identified a number of problems in the higher education sector. They were primarily that the sector needs to expand—up to a participation rate of 50 per cent.—that it needs more funds, and that participation should widen across socio-economic groups. The House is entitled to ask whether the Bill will solve those problems and, if it will not, to reject it. In the brief time that I have for my speech, I hope to address those questions and to raise one or two others.

The Government's White Paper presents some interesting contrasts with its predecessor: the Dearing inquiry that was proposed to the House in February 1996. In 1996, the number of young people in higher education, after a very rapid expansion, was approaching one in three; at present, about 43 per cent. of people aged between 18 and 30 are involved. In 1996, the UK was spending more on higher education than any country in the western industrialised world. A third of all first degrees were in science, mathematics and engineering. Last year, a third of all first-time graduates had studied business and administration, creative arts and design or social studies.

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Like its successor, the Dearing inquiry was concerned with the growth of knowledge, technological advance, international competition, the need for professional flexibility and for updating and upskilling. It, too, had to consider the implications of increasing student numbers; the number of first-time graduates had more than doubled between 1979 and 1996. Unlike its successor, however, the Dearing committee was not asked to assume that a growth in numbers was desirable for its own sake; rather, the inquiry was asked to make recommendations on

By contrast, the Government's White Paper sets a 50 per cent. target for participation in higher education. The basis for that target is, in essence, a political aspiration—that is okay—based on what the Government believe is economically and sociologically desirable. Their justification for that figure is vague; it does not seem to be linked to the requirements of the jobs market. Indeed, the Association of Graduate Recruiters has reported that the majority of its member companies, which include KPMG, Unilever, JP Morgan and, notably, the national health service, finds that the UK already produces too many graduates.

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