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The Royal Society examined the crisis in science education. Sir Alistair MacFarlane, chair of its education committee, warned that the introduction of variable top-up fees could especially put off students enrolling on some undergraduate courses in science, engineering and technology. There is therefore deep anxiety about the use of top-up fees.
The chair of the Russell group wants to charge maximum rates to attract better staff from other universities by paying higher salaries. It sounds as if national pay bargaining will go through the window. The transfer market is based solely on research: people are recruited to get higher research assessment ratings in different universities. The best researchers do not necessarily make the best teachers, and the best teachers are not always the best researchers. It is lucky if both qualities coincide. I believe that the money will go to research but not teachingthat is a problem when we are considering providing support for undergraduates. One has to know the structures of universities and how they operate. I therefore do not believe that students will get much extra value.
An eminent vice-chancellor said that variability was good because it happens in the United States of Americabut so do the death penalty and equal curriculum time for creationist teaching. My goodness, let us adopt it all! There are genuine problems. It has been said that difficulties have been experienced in Australia with variability and delivering for people from lower socio-economic groups. I do not know how one compares courses in different departments and universities. Every one appears valuable to me.
Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): We recognise that the proposals will not apply immediately in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, the Bill will have a significant effect on higher education in our region. The Democratic Unionists do not disagree with the basic argument that because individual graduates obviously benefit from a university education, they should contribute to the cost of their courses. However, society and the national economy derive a discernible benefit from producing quality graduates and the country must therefore invest in university education.
There is a problem in Northern Ireland. Our two universitiesQueen's university in Belfast and the university of Ulsterrecognise that there is a significant funding gap for higher education, and Northern Ireland falls well behind the rest of the United Kingdom in university funding. We feel that that should be addressed.
No matter what the Government say about the reintroduction of the maintenance grant for students from lower-income families and the end of up-front fees, the fact is that the spectre of higher university charges will deter a sizeable number of prospective students, regardless of when and how the fees must be paid. The imposition of additional fees amounting to up to £3,000 a year represents an increase of nearly £2,000 on current levels for Northern Ireland students. I cannot imagine that a 200 per cent. price hike would increase uptake of any product.
Fees are not, of course, the whole problem. Living costs are just as much of a deterrent, whatever the level at which they are set. It is a source of shame that according to a university of Ulster study, only 1.8 per cent. of the male student population in Northern Ireland come from a Protestant working-class background. The Government need to address that as well.
Those students emanate from precisely the sort of area that is poisoned by paramilitary influence, and they are exactly the kind of people whom we want to encourage to go to university. I fear that top-up tuition fees may only serve to alienate further people from deprived communities in many parts of Northern Ireland, and will deter them from seeking a university education.
Northern Ireland's two universities are over-achievers when it comes to expanding access. Queen's university Belfast is the best university in the United Kingdom in terms of attracting students from working-class backgrounds, with the university of Ulster close behind in fourth place. I do not want a system that could cause both those universities to lose their hard-earned status as universities open to all.
The DUP has a number of proposals that it believes can deal with some of the issues I have raised. We think that the Government are wrong to set arbitrary targets such as the one involving 50 per cent. of school leavers entering higher education. We agree with the rationale of the policyindeed, more people from working-class and lower-middle-class backgrounds should be given access to university and to advantages long denied to thembut the Government are driven by artificial targets that distract them from the crux of the issue, which is the need to deal with the university funding crisis in a meaningful way.
We think that business, for example, should be encouraged to contribute to university funding more meaningfully. Business benefits from the creation of excellent graduates. Digby Jones of the CBI has said:
Children from lower-middle-class homes clearly suffer the most debt when studying, because their families cannot afford to pay any extra money and they are forced to take loans to fund their education.
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): What is the general attitude in Northern Ireland? In 1989, when the original Education (Student Loans) Bill was introduced, a speech from the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) suggested that there was opposition across the board, from Sinn Fein to the DUP and other groups. Everyone was singing from the same hymn sheet. Is that still the case?
Mr. Donaldson: I can confirm to the hon. Gentleman that all the main political parties in Northern Ireland oppose the Government proposals, as do students and their families. There is deep opposition right across civil society in Northern Ireland. We want our education system to be supported properly, but the Government proposals are not the best way forward.
One of our proposals would introduce a tax break for middle-income families who find it difficult to fund their children's education. The Government should consider introducing a tax credit directly to benefit lower and middle-income households at the most important timewhen the student is actually at university.
The Government proposals are deeply flawed. They will have a significant impact on our universities in Northern Ireland and will increase the funding gap between universities in Northern Ireland and those in the rest of the United Kingdom. They will make it more difficult for students from Northern Ireland, especially those from lower and middle-income family backgrounds, to gain places at universities on the mainland, which will mean fewer students from lower-income backgrounds gaining access to university education, which we must prevent from happening. In Northern Ireland, we want to encourage, not discourage, those people to gain access to university education. We must provide incentives, not disincentives, to encourage people to access further and higher education.
In conclusion, the proposals are flawed. They will certainly have a negative impact upon students in Northern Ireland, especially those from lower and middle-income family backgrounds. For those reasons, we will vote against the Government proposals.
James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab): I am sorry that the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) is not present, because I owe him an apology. About 15 years ago, I participated in a demonstration when I was a scruffy student at Oxford university at which someone threw an egg at him.