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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order.

4.1 pm

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) (PC): I want to explain why I and my colleagues will vote against the Bill tonight, and why we will do so on the basis of the Bill as we see it and read it, not on the basis of hidden promises—letters being sent to Back Benchers on all sorts of deals that are being stitched up here, there and everywhere. We need to debate the Bill and the effect that it will have on the current higher education sector. I hope that the Bill does not pass into Committee, but if it does, we shall be able to see how it may be improved.

The problem of funding higher education is shared across England and Wales. The leadership of Welsh universities, however, holds a different view of the Bill from that of Universities UK. Two thirds of Welsh vice-chancellors have said that they oppose the Bill—so some vice-chancellors do oppose it. In the past couple of weeks, I have had the benefit of being part of a Royal Society exchange programme with a scientist at the university of Wales in Aberystwyth, and I have learned through discussions with him and his colleagues just how deep is the crisis in our research institutions—in funding and so on.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside) (SNP): My hon. Friend is probably aware, too, that almost all the academic community in Scotland opposes the Government's plans for tuition fees. Is it not therefore extraordinary that Scottish Members are prepared to go through the Lobby as voting fodder for the Government tonight, instead of backing the Scottish interest and ensuring that it is protected?

Mr. Thomas: I agree with my hon. Friend. It is clear that the Bill affects Scotland as much as it does Wales, England and Northern Ireland. Given that students move from all parts of the United Kingdom to other parts of the United Kingdom to pursue their higher education, we must address how best to tackle the issues for all students, whichever funding mechanism arrives in those countries.

Lembit Öpik : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Thomas: In a minute.

Yesterday, I met Aberystwyth students on their protest against the Bill, and today I met Lampeter students who were here to lobby me. I have also met members of the Association of University Teachers in the universities in my constituency, so I have come to realise the extent of the salary difficulties currently confronting so many higher education staff.

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However, the debate is not just about the funding gap that exists in higher education; it is also about the aspiration gap that holds many young, bright people back and prevents them from entering higher education. We already know that poorer students are 45 per cent. deeper in debt than their richer counterparts. Let me put it like this: if someone whose parents earn £20,000 a year goes into higher education, under the present arrangement they will come out with debts of about £10,000, but if someone whose parents earn £30,000 a year goes into higher education, they will come out with debts of about £7,000. An incredible gap already exists, which puts off poorer students.

I do not accept the idea that it is somehow patronising to think that students from poorer backgrounds are put off by debt aversion. That problem is there in all the facts, all the statistics, and all the work commissioned by the Department itself. It is clear in Claire Callendar's work and in the Rees report commissioned for Wales. Debt, or the fear of debt, is the single most influential factor in putting off students from poorer backgrounds from entering higher education. Indeed, it is cited as the No. 1 factor by three quarters of the respondents to any survey that has been undertaken, in England and in Wales. The Rees report made that point very strongly in the Welsh context.

We must assess whether the Bill deals with the two main obstacles: the funding gap for higher education, and the aspiration gap for many of our brightest and best. For a start, the Bill barely supplies 10, 11 or 12 per cent. of the funding gap—£1 billion out of £8 billion, £9 billion or £10 billion, depending on how we look at it. The Bill is flawed even in respect of what it is trying to achieve, irrespective of whether we agree with the principles. It means that we must still turn to general taxation to meet the rest of the funding gap, which poses the question why, if general taxation is good for £7 billion, it cannot be used for £1 billion. But there we are; the Government have set their hearts against that.

The Bill also poses the question of a return to polytechnics or to two-tier universities in which some are only teaching institutions and the cream do the research. The Bill can only exacerbate the debts already suffered by many students.

Lembit Öpik: I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the crisis that the Bill will cause in Wales if it is passed. On the return to the binary divide, does he agree that it is wholly contradictory for former NUS presidents who fought hard to abolish the binary divide now to support a Bill that will reintroduce it? If there is any lack of honesty, surely it is pretending that somehow the Bill is equitable, when all the evidence suggests that it is not—certainly not for Welsh students.

Mr. Thomas: I tend to agree with the hon. Gentleman, but the real disgrace is stating clearly in the manifesto that something will not be done—indeed, that it will be outlawed—and then doing it. That is even more disgraceful than the changing position of NUS presidents. We all know what sort of positions NUS presidents have adopted over the years to get where they are.

In those two respects, the Bill is bad enough, but there is a final principle that I strongly oppose. It would be enough to drive me through the No Lobby tonight even

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if it were not for the rest of the Bill and the dog's breakfast that it will introduce into higher education. I mean the introduction of market forces and variability into our higher education system. I cannot believe that Labour Members, having watched 18 years of what market forces did to the communities that they represented when they were in opposition, are so slow witted that they cannot deduce what market forces will do to higher education. The cap will not keep tuition fees down; it will not work.

Have market forces ever been capped in respect of anything that has been privatised in this country? Have market forces ever addressed the real needs of poorer people? It has never happened. We heard from the right hon. Member for Newport, East (Alan Howarth) where the idea came from—straight from the Conservatives into No. 10 think-tanks. I will oppose that in principle.

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Thomas: I regret that I shall not give way again, because I do not have much time left and I have already given way twice.

Capping variable fees is rather like trying to be a little bit pregnant: it will grow out of all proportion and all sizes. The Secretary of State, will not be able to stake his mortgage by controlling variable fees. The principle has been yielded and the principle will out.

It is wholly honourable to say that one wants fully to embrace variable tuition fees in higher education. I disagree with it fundamentally, but it is honourable for people to say that that is what they want. What is a disgrace, however, is trying to hide behind reviews, commissions and all sorts of sticking plasters—they are not yet in the Bill, but we are told that they will be introduced in Committee—and pretend that the principle of variability and market forces running through our higher education institutions is somehow not there. It is as if the Cheshire cat was there and now only the grin is left—but the grin is a nasty snarl and grimace in what it means for higher education.

I now want to discuss the fact that the Bill devolves power to Wales. One might expect any Plaid Cymru Member to vote for any form of devolution, but the principle that market forces will exist throughout our higher education system is more important to me than devolution. I do not accept that the Bill is the only opportunity that we will have to devolve powers on higher education to Wales. The Richards commission will report at the end of March, so that is the appropriate time to consider the panoply of powers for the Welsh Assembly and, hopefully, to make it a proper Parliament for Wales. Let us consider what the Bill means in the Welsh context.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central) (Lab/Co-op): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Thomas: I regret not, although I hope that the hon. Gentleman gets an opportunity to speak. He will know that 45 per cent. of Welsh students study in England and that more than half the students studying in Wales are from England. In that context, the Bill makes no sense whatever. The devolution of power to

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the National Assembly is a bit of a nonsense and a sop, because if the Assembly does not have powers on taxation or full legislative powers, it will not be able to address the matter. I would not oppose the measure if it were all that was in the Bill, but given that the Bill will introduce variability and market forces, my hon. Friends and I will oppose it. Moreover, the Secretary of State for Wales, Jane Davidson, the Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning in Wales and, now, the right hon. Member for Newport, East have accepted that top-up tuition fees will inevitably come to Wales at some stage.

I shall tell the House what Plaid Cymru as a party believes in. We strongly believe that the taxation system is the best way of addressing national needs, and higher education is a crucial national need. What is more, it is even more acceptable to fund higher education through taxation when the Government want 50 per cent. of young people to go to university than it was when 25 per cent., 33 per cent. or even 8 per cent. of young people went. The taxation system can, and should, be used to pay for the tuition of students in Wales, England, Northern Ireland and, indeed, Scotland, because that is the best and fairest system.

I conclude with a story from ancient history about the Greek colony of Locri. According to Gibbon, a

I am not saying for a moment that the Secretary of State for Education and Skills should be strangled, but the Bill should be killed off at birth. It is the wrong Bill for the wrong time, and it will not help the education sector of this country.

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