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6 pm

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): We all acknowledge that historically universities have been underfunded by successive Governments and we recognise that the tuition fees paid by British students do not cover a university's costs. Indeed, I would suggest that the true discrepancy between what a student pays and the cost of that student to the university is disguised by the fact that so many academic salaries are so extraordinarily poor as to be a disgrace to successive Governments. Nor is there any dissent from the view that a better educated society is a richer society; we all want more people from all backgrounds to be in higher and further education provided that they can benefit from it.

Indeed, so widespread is the acceptance both of the problem that faces us and the agreement that action needs to be taken that I find it extraordinary that this Government, who have a majority of 164, have failed to bring forward a Bill that has widespread support throughout the House. There are several reasons why it has lacked support. It lacks logic, and I shall go on to explain why. It will fail adequately to fund universities even after—or particularly after—all the concessions that have been made in the past 24 hours. It will continue to exclude many who would otherwise benefit

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from continued education. It is inflexible, centralist, and will act as a disincentive to many to go to university. It owes more to the Prime Minister's own brand of fuzzy logic and the Chancellor's inclination for control by diktat.

I mentioned flawed logic, and I shall give some evidence for that. Student A and student B go to the same school, leave school with the same A-levels, and go to the same university, where they take the same course, get the same degree, and go into the same job and earn the same salary. But because student—now graduate—A's mother and father had a combined income of £34,000, while graduate B's parents had an income of £20,000, graduate A's debt will be far greater than that of graduate B.

Alan Johnson: That has now been repeated three times. Let me make it absolutely clear—we are rolling up fee remission with grant and paying it all up front as grant. That means that there is no longer any fee remission, so student A and student B would pay exactly the same.

Mr. Sayeed: I am sorry, but either both I and a vast number of the Minister's colleagues have read the Bill wrong, or he does not understand his own Bill. The fact is simple: a student at university whose parents earn more than £34,000 will not receive the same grants or benefits as a student whose parents earn less than £20,000 and will, consequently, incur a greater debt. When graduate A and graduate B are in employment, earning the same salary, graduate A will have a larger debt than graduate B. The debt will not be based on his ability to pay, which is exactly the same as graduate B's. The debt will be greater because he has inherited not wealth but an obligation, simply because his parents had a bigger income than the parents of graduate B. That seems to be a recipe for legal challenge some time in the future.

Dr. Palmer: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Sayeed: No, I shall not be giving way as a number of my colleagues want to speak and time is limited.

There are two ways in which many of those who could benefit will be excluded from university. First, the Bill institutionalises, legitimises and promotes debt. I make no bones about the fact that I belong to the Micawber school of financial management—I believe that saddling students with debt, or the potential for debt, will act as a considerable disincentive. Secondly, because the Bill perpetuates the straitjacket of academically based courses lasting for two or three years, it fails to recognise that many students would be better served by a different basis for learning.

The Bill could have offered high quality, vocationally based education, as well as academically based education, but it has not done so. The Bill should have offered students greater flexibility—possibly through modular courses—so that they could move between work, education and other pursuits. That might mean that it takes them longer to gain their degree or other qualification, but at least they could ensure that they fund it properly. What the Bill could have done, but fails to do, would be to encourage some students, especially

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those following modular courses, to take a place at a university or further education college closer to their home. In that case, not only would it be easier for them to find part-time work, they could also control their living costs more effectively.

We all know that historically universities have been underfunded. We recognise that the situation has worsened due to the rapid expansion of student numbers. The problem is demonstrated by the increasing class sizes in universities and the decline, in real terms, in academic pay. Furthermore, as anyone who visits a university can see, it is shown by the declining infrastructure of universities. There is no doubt that universities, colleges of further education and other places of education require more money, but it is extraordinary that a Government who are not even funding higher education at the OECD average are looking to change the whole basis of that funding so that it will put off the very people who are least likely to go into higher education at present.

Governments should start with schools—to give the Government their due, they have done that—but they should ensure that the aspirations of school children push them to go to university if they can benefit from it. Governments should not be ensuring that those who are most frightened by debt will be put off university. The Government have failed to bring a good Bill to the House and they deserve to be defeated.

6.9 pm

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): People inevitably bring their own life experiences to a debate such as this, and mine are varied. I spent 20 years working as an Open university tutor, during which time I was involved in adult education and observed the particular needs of adult students. I also spent 12 years working as the editor of a history magazine, where, on a week-by-week basis, I saw a snapshot of the problems faced by contributors from a range of universities. I was also a member of the Select Committee that produced two reports on student access and retention, which brought many of the issues being discussed here to the fore for the first time. And, yes, like many people here today, I was the first person in my family to go to university.

I suppose that is why I was so moved by Neil Kinnock's famous speech, in which he asked why he was the first person in his family to go to university. He talked about standing on a platform, saying that those people who had not been to university had no platform to stand on. But what does not having a platform to stand on mean, as far as university education is concerned? It means not having a decent functioning higher educational system or social equity in relation to access if universities do not have decent facilities, decent ratios in regard to tuition, a proper career path to ensure the quality of the younger lecturers and tutors coming through, the ability to compete in the international marketplace or the ability to regenerate in the regions in which they are so important. Those are the issues affecting the present situation.

The grinding decline in units of resource under the Conservatives has produced the situation that exists in university education today. The Select Committee

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reports told us about that in 2001 and subsequently. We have to grasp the nettle and make hard decisions now. Those decisions cannot be left until the end of the decade, and they certainly cannot be left until the Conservatives have made up their mind about what they believe in.

There would be no guarantee of the success of a graduate tax, because it would not be ring-fenced. Furthermore, the top-rate income tax that the Liberal Democrats talk about has already rightly been dismissed as loaves and fishes politics. There are no guarantees on secure funding. Nothing is for ever. No Labour Government are for ever. [Hon. Members: " Shame!"] Sadly. In the light of all that, we need to find a system that will ring-fence and structure the funding of higher education.

Mr. Barnes: My hon. Friend mentioned that he had been involved in adult education. How would he feel about an adult student who had been earning between £20,000 and £30,000 a year before deciding to study full time at university in order to change their aspirations and approach, if that student ended up getting a job worth £20,000 to £30,000 afterwards but also had a student debt, having sacrificed three years to complete their studies?

Mr. Marsden: I know that my hon. Friend has campaigned valiantly on these issues on behalf of adult students. I would say to him that, for the first time, we have a Bill that contains support for adult students—the majority of whom still study part-time—in the form of fees and grants. These are issues of detail in relation to adult students—particularly students of the Open university and Birkbeck college—which can and should be addressed in Committee.

I understand the concerns about how variability might operate, and about how higher education might be viewed as a commodity, but we must look at the whole package of the Bill. We also need to consider the reality of 21st century education. There was never a golden age of grants. When I went to university in the 1970s, my parents still had to pay one third of my grant, although my father was an ordinary working-class engineer. There is no golden age—past, present or future—of flat-rate fees or grants. When I was an Open university tutor, part-time students paid variable fees, and that is the reality now. As Universities UK has reminded us, universities already charge variable fees for the majority of their courses for part-time, international and postgraduate students.

There are other issues that have not been properly addressed in this debate. One is that of adult and further education. Listen to the reality of 21st century higher education, not from me, but from the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, which rightly says that

we will move

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For my constituents in Blackpool and for many others up and down the country, more and more higher education is being delivered via further education. The narrow focus of most Opposition speakers, and I regret to say of one or two Labour Members, diminishes and threatens them.

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