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Lynne Jones: Is the hon. Gentleman not concerned about the future of science departments after the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education told the Education and Skills Committee that it is

Is not the viability of those departments at risk?

Mr. Taylor: I am not sure that the hon. Lady is right. I have a letter from the University of Surrey, which says that it will make sure that scholarships on academic merit will be given in particular to students studying subjects such as science, engineering and technology. The freedom gained by the small move towards connecting students with the university costs will help to ensure that there is an attempt to draw students into subjects that the universities regard as extremely important.

Government Members have not fully articulated the fact that it is not the universities' fault that in many cases academic standards are not satisfactory. Only a quarter of our school pupils get two decent A-levels. Our debate needs to focus on the whole school spectrum, from primary schools to sixth forms. A qualification equivalent to an A-level, such as a baccalaureate, may need to be introduced, as something has to be done to raise standards. The previous rector of Imperial college said that such was the problem that even its best applicants were not achieving a satisfactory standard in mathematics, and increasingly the first year of its mathematics course taught things that student should have done at A-level. We therefore need to widen the debate, and should not try to pretend that everything will be wonderful if an access regulator is introduced. We need to work much harder if we are to understand what has to be done to broaden access to university.

We need to make sure that the universities themselves work harder. Some of them are excellent, and provide a benchmark for others. Many, however, are not good enough. An interesting letter in The Times from Stephen Day, a constituent of mine, points out that it is often difficult to get universities to raise funds privately to boost their resources. However, there is no question but that there is a role for endowments. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage pointed out, it is almost unimaginable that, from a standing start, a university endowment will make a difference. Yale's endowment can sustain an income of £330 million or £30,000 per student, while Imperial college London's sustainable income from endowment is £2.4 million or £240 per student. The idea sometimes voiced by Conservative Members that everything will be all right if we endow a few universities is moonshine.

Endowments are part of the solution, but they are not the whole solution. Industry sponsorship, other ways of working together and proposals in the Lambert report are important means of getting money into universities. Alumni may start to contribute if they think that they can connect with and influence their university, and if they believe that there are benefits from putting money from a successful career back into the university. It cannot be argued that students themselves should not contribute. Disturbingly, in that belief I find that I am closer to the Government Front Bench than my own. It

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is inconceivable that at the next election, far from what my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) said, students will not have any costs at all. It is important that we connect the student with the university. If the proposal is that students should pay one sixth of the running costs of their tuition, that seems reasonable. One could argue that it should be slightly more or slightly less, but the principle of connection and co-payment is important.

There should be no up-front fees. That is something that I have always worried about. Views change. The Bill establishes that there will not be up-front fees and there will be payment subsequently only by those earning over £15,000 a year. In effect, there is no interest on those loans: interest will be only at the rate of inflation. Those are signal achievements.

Given that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) knows that those are achievements and that if the Bill were to fail, there would be nothing in its place, however intellectually interesting that might be, I am astonished that she is recommending that her colleagues vote against the concessions that she and her colleagues have pressured the Government into giving. I do not understand that principle.

Clare Short: It is possible to put together a different long-term funding package for higher education that includes some of the desirable elements. The Government are saying, "You have to take this thing you don't want, and we'll give you a couple of things you do want." That is no way to make policy. It is incoherent and breaches promises made to the electorate.

Mr. Taylor: The right hon. Lady was in government long enough to know that government is largely incoherent. It is not just the Labour Government. I was a member of a Government myself. The point is that there has been dramatic change. I do not like some of the changes, but that is irrelevant. The package should not be lost, because there is nothing else to put in its place.

Let me tell the right hon. Lady that if the Bill fell, the universities would be in a vacuum. Some of them would go independent and others would concentrate on attracting overseas students where there are variable fees. That would diminish the number of places at our best universities for domestic students. By voting against the Bill, the right hon. Lady will be acting against the interests of the very people she is attempting to protect.

The Government should sort out their arguments and argue with their own Back Benchers. I shall abstain tonight because I refuse to go through the Lobby with those like the right hon. Lady, with whose attitude I totally disagree. Her approach is negative, wrong and unconstructive. I am sad that too many of my colleagues will follow Members like the right hon. Lady through the Division Lobby. There must be change, and the Bill represents a bit of progress. We need to build on it and get a sensible system for our higher education. If we do not, the whole country will suffer, not just the students to whom we are trying to give greater access to our university system.

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5.52 pm

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North) (Lab): It is always a pleasure, though a rare experience, to follow the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor). His comments are always measured and clearly analytical. I do not agree with everything he said, but his speech was informative and provocative, and I thank him through you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Eight minutes is not long to cover the range of aspects that we need to consider tonight. Perhaps I ought to start by saying that I have maintained a position of opposition right from the outset, and I am rather happy that I did. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) for leading the group that so effectively opposed the measures over such a long period. It is only through that determination that we have managed to wring from the Government a number of concessions, which have been more than welcome. We have been assisted in that by the somewhat cynical and unprincipled opportunism of the main Opposition party and perhaps some of the others. Nevertheless, they have done us a favour in that regard. We must be careful not to allow them to exploit it too far tonight.

I shall not rehearse the whole range of my concerns about the Bill. A principal worry is the fact that I have two universities associated with my constituency to consider. One is the Queen's campus of Durham university at Stockton, and the other is the university of Teesside. The vice-chancellor of Durham university is very much in favour of the Bill, as a member of the Russell group—the Ivy league. His students, however, are very much opposed to it, save for two. I received dozens of faxes, e-mails and letters, but two from Durham stand out. One says:

I wonder how prevalent that specific attitude might be. The other one from Durham says:

actually, I never said that I was going to do so—

We are in a difficult situation, are we not?

That was Durham. As for the university of Teesside, the vice-chancellor, Graham Henderson, and his predecessor, Derek Fraser, were adamantly opposed to the Bill. Indeed, when I had an argument with the Under-Secretary, he said that he would persuade Graham Henderson to change his attitude. I told the Under-Secretary that he did not have to go that far—all he had to do to guarantee my vote this evening was to promise me an aircraft carrier to build on the River Tees—[Laughter.] I am expecting to receive it shortly.

The university of Teesside did alter its stance, however, and it gave a full catalogue of the concessions that it needed, which we have rehearsed tonight. That has borne heavily on me. Bearing in mind that this is a

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Second Reading, which would only commit the Bill to a Committee in which we can study it line by line, as we ought to do with every piece of legislation, I am more disposed to vote for the legislation, on condition that we get further concessions, which may be in the offing—we have had them as late as today. At least that gives us a chance.

For anyone to use this exercise as a means of venting some spleen or seeking retribution against the Prime Minister would be totally wrong. If one wants to do that—I suppose that it can be a legitimate tactic in some people's minds—the time to do it is on Third Reading or on Report. It is not proper to abuse the parliamentary system by doing it tonight.

We have heard suggestions today that this is a matter of the Prime Minister's survival. We should consider these matters in a more mature and rational atmosphere, but that is the tactic that has been used. I can go along with that, but I must say this to those on the Treasury Bench: they have played that card today, but they can only play it once. On Third Reading, they will not be able to play it again.

Debt aversion was a major consideration, as I thought that it must be terrifying for students to be so threatened by debt. En passant, I discussed the matter with a professional gentleman, an immigrant from Burma, who said, "This would be a very good idea, because it is almost guaranteed if the students are good enough to get into university. They only have to pay for it afterwards." I thought about that, then I realised that here I am, a bit longer in the tooth than I was when I first came into this House, having lived in debt for 50 years, with the probability that I shall go to my death in debt. When I worked at the brewery, an old man asked me why I was terrified of the bank manager. I said, "Because I've got an overdraft." He said, "So you owe him money?" I said yes. He said, "Don't you worry about that—let him worry about it."

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