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4.12 pm

Mrs. Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale) (Lab): It is interesting to be a member of a rare species in the House of Commons—an ex-president of the National Union of Students. It is even more interesting that Opposition Members claim to know what I used to stand for. It is amusing sport because all six ex-presidents stand firmly in the Government's camp on the proposals—[Interruption.] I used to spar with the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) during student politics, and I shall take joy in reminiscing in order to show how absolute overt political opportunism is driving the Opposition parties. I remember negotiating with them when I was president of the NUS, and I have been lobbying people—primarily those on the Conservative Benches—on higher education since 1986.

I was the first person in my family to go on to higher education. I am from a constituency with, historically, appalling representation in higher education. I am dyslexic and I have only two O-levels. When I went on to higher education at a college of art, the Conservative party tried to shut it. When I became president of the NUS, it tried to shut that, too. It failed on both counts, which suggests to me that it will fail again tonight. It will fail due to simple reasons of principle on which all six ex-presidents stand together and are clear.

We all support the idea that more students should access higher education. When I was accepted by Loughborough college of art and design, four equally

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qualified young people were not. They had exactly the same qualifications as me, so our admission was decided by the luck of the draw. That system squandered the nation's talents. It will not surprise many people outside the House to find that naked snobbery is at play in this place because the only people who would benefit from Conservative Members' blatant opportunism would be those who have always been in this country's elite and have always held the majority of power through knowing the benefits of higher education.

Lembit Öpik: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Fitzsimons: No, the hon. Gentleman sought to tell us about the policy of getting rid of the binary divide. Most people outside will not have a clue that the binary divide was the notional divide between the old universities and red brick universities and polytechnics. I was the president of the NUS who happened to think that I was the luckiest girl alive when the binary divide went and we naively thought that there would be a level playing field in higher education. What a silly girl I was! The reality was that there were research universities, universities of research and teaching and teaching universities, and that the quality was stratified because the funding system was stratified and because of the disproportionate benefit of getting research funding into universities. That has given years and decades of privilege in British higher education, so somehow to claim all of a sudden that we are creating a two-tier system is totally and utterly to negate the evidence. I am one at least who is honest enough, having fought and won a campaign, to admit that we were deluded in what the outcome would be. That brings me to the manifesto.

Lembit Öpik: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Fitzsimons: I will not; I will continue.

One of the things that I certainly wanted, and still want, from a Government—sadly, we did not get it in the 18 years of the Conservative party being in power—is a Government who are big enough to say, "Sorry, we made a mistake." The most dangerous thing in politics is someone who knows that they made a mistake, regardless of the rights and wrongs, and is not courageous and big enough to admit to it. I, for one, think that the future of our country's higher education system and constituents' opportunities are big enough for us and the Prime Minister to say, "We made a mistake", because that makes for a healthy democracy.

Lembit Öpik: Let me stress that I enjoy sparring with hon. Lady—I may hate the sin, but I still love the sinner. My concern is that she now admits that the manifesto was erroneous. Is she also saying that she and every Labour NUS president that I knew who opposed this kind of funding proposal for students also made a mistake? Is she saying that she made a mistake when she was president of the NUS, and, if so, why should anyone trust the student Labour movement again?

Mrs. Fitzsimons: Because our top priority was the reintroduction of maintenance grants, which is what the Bill will do. The Conservative Government presided over a massacre of the student grant. They introduced the Student Loans Company, which was so costly in its

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administration that it was cheaper to give students the money. I do not support any offering from the Conservative party that says that it has any of the interests at heart of any NUS president. I have spoken to 12 of my predecessors, who all support what the Government are doing because they are bringing back for the first time in living memory a decent grant that will help people who are disproportionately disbenefited by the fact that they are not now represented in higher education. Even when we had a full grant, no more than 20 per cent. of the participants in higher education came from the lower socio-economic backgrounds. So this is not all about money.

Mr. Boswell: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. I detect a certain degree of rewriting history, given our exchanges when I was a Minister and she came to see me. Will she tell the House whether the real value of the maintenance grant that is now on offer will be greater than the real value of the maintenance grant that was on offer under Conservative Governments some 10 or 12 years ago?

Mrs. Fitzsimons: Absolutely and utterly, and I had the debts when I left university to prove it—£4,500. The bottom line in those days was that we had to have three jobs to make ends meet. I come from a background where both of my parents were unemployed for long periods in their lives, and to claim that there was any panacea or great thing in the past is to rewrite history, as the hon. Gentleman suggests. The reality is that I am proud of this package because it recognises the historic disbenefits to the working classes in terms of representation in higher education.

Lynne Jones: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. Fitzsimons: No, I will not; I have given way enough.

The proposals will also get rid of the historic discrepancy between part-time students, FE students, mature students and overseas students, whereby they have always experienced variable fees. We will now ensure that there is a level playing field. For once and for all, we realise that those in the protected group of three-year undergraduates are not the only people in higher education and that those courses are not the only vehicle for studying in higher education. Ensuring a progression from the early years right the way through is the only way that we can capitalise on people's true potential.

Half a person's brain capacity is developed by the age of six, yet more money is spent on educating undergraduates. That is absolutely and utterly untenable. Having lobbied Parliament on higher education since 1986, I cannot remember such a heated debate about the historical lack of funding for the under-sixes. We need to examine our consciences because vested interests are at play much of the time. I admit that we used the fact that many university towns were marginal seats to win campaigns, but that does not make good policy. I would defend the Bill anywhere because it benefits the vast majority of the constituencies that we represent and it is about honest politics.

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As to the binary divide and two-tier system, when I was on the national executive of the National Union of Students polytechnics had to compete for 10 per cent. of the funding council's formula. We thought that meant doom—that the poorest in terms of quality and money would go through the floor and the rich would get better and better. That did not happen. There has been variability in the funding formula—such as the top-up given to Oxbridge and the 10 per cent. for the old polytechnics—from time immemorial, but it has not distorted the market.

The UK has one of the most highly scrutinised higher education systems in the world, although it can go still further in terms of quality. At the time of the debates on Robbins, only 6 per cent. of the population entered higher education. Opponents of the proposed expansion to 8 per cent. said that degrees would not be worth the paper they were written on. I urge caution by those of my hon. Friends who seek to argue that because more people are achieving degrees, they are not worth as much. Media studies have become a euphemism for something that is not a genuine degree course, but the correlation between such courses and employment is sometimes greater than with courses that some people would eulogise as being purely academic. That was the case when I was lucky enough to be an undergraduate. In those days, the Conservative party was trying to close our colleges on the pretext that fine art or textile graduates could not obtain employment. We proved that they did.

This Bill marks a huge, historic move in the advancement and representation of people who have not had the benefit of higher education.

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