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Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that we should be aiming for equity between full-time and part-time students?

Mr. Marsden: I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend on that, which is why I said to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) that we ought to explore that issue in Committee. However, we must not lose sight of the needs of those adult students.

I opened an adult learning centre at Burton's in my constituency a few weeks ago. I talked to people, particularly women in their 30s and 40s, who were being given that platform of further and higher education for the first time. The Bill, for the first time, will give them grants and fees. As we have heard today, higher education is not only about what happens between the ages of 18 and 21 but about life chances later in life.

We must also consider the life chances of even younger people. That is why the Select Committee, when examining that issue, talked about the need to improve access and to improve aspiration in respect of university and school at the ages of 12, 13 and 14. It is also why the education maintenance allowance, which this Government introduced, is key—the continuation of that principle in the grants that are now on offer is so important. Up-front fees have been abolished, which will relieve the fears and concerns of many of the middle-class parents about whom we have heard. Up-front grants will, for the first time, be given to working-class students.

I do not believe that variable fees are a universal panacea, but the way that the Government have proceeded and responded—to the legitimate concerns of Labour Members in particular—will curb some laziness and the wilder fantasies of some Russell group vice-chancellors. The review gives us guarantees, which will be in the Bill, but it also gives us time to consider other mechanisms. We have heard some useful comments, not least from the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor), on how we might do that.

We must remember that the Bill is not just about variable fees. We must consider the whole package—the arts and humanities research council, an independent negotiator and the Office for Fair Access. All those will be lost if the Bill is voted down tonight.

I do not need to tell my hon. Friends that the genesis of the Bill had its flaws. Some points that have been made about consultation within our party need to be taken on board by all concerned, but there has been tireless work and engagement—I pay tribute to that—by my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education in engaging with and discussing those issues.

Many of the issues that we had concerns about have been addressed. I beg colleagues to focus laser-like on the alternatives to the Bill. Are hon. Members prepared to put higher education in a funding deep freeze until the

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end of the decade? [Hon. Members: "Come on!"] Oh yes. That would allow some of the privatising vultures on the Opposition Benches to gather. Are they prepared to collude in the outdated vision of universities that many Conservative Members have? That would be a slight on and would adversely affect some of the opportunities for those groups about whom we are most concerned. They would lose out.

Earlier, I talked about Neil Kinnock's vision—a vision of quality, access and social justice. We will not achieve that if we cut off at the knees the socially progressive programme of grants and alternatives that the Bill contains.

6.20 pm

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): As the last Back-Bench speaker, I begin on a note of minor agreement. I find aspects of the Bill acceptable, notably the provisions for the arts and humanities research council and for the independent adjudicator. However, although they are important, they are subsidiary to the main event.

Two speakers—the right hon. Member for Newport, East (Alan Howarth) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson)—have shared with me the experience of being a Minister with responsibility for higher education in a Conservative Government. At that time, none of us arranged or connived at charging a tuition fee. We paid maintenance grants and the position was different. I am at odds with my former colleagues because tonight, I shall vote against the measure whereas they, for their own and somewhat different—though doubtless sincerely held—reasons, will vote for it.

I accept that universities will need more resources per unit of student funding in future.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman says that universities are short of funding. Does he accept that 12 inner-city universities are not only short of funding but will close unless we reach an urgent and necessary financial agreement in the House tonight?

Mr. Boswell: Perhaps that poses an unnecessary ultimatum, but of course I acknowledge that there are pressures, including on many modern universities with which I have considerable personal sympathy.

Partly through a combination of our Government's reluctance to interfere with the sector's autonomy and the logic of the policy to switch to fees, there was perhaps an over-rapid expansion, beyond the expectations of Ministers, in the early 1990s. We have been coping with the consequences ever since. I do not believe that the Government's proposals will ameliorate those consequences; indeed, they may make them worse. We need a much more imaginative examination than the Government have undertaken so far of incentivisation and stimulation of other means of bringing in money from public trusts, employers and graduates, not so much new graduates but alumni in their mature careers.

We must also remember the huge cost of the rate of interest on the student loan book and the difference between that and commercial rates of interest. The

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proposal will massively inflate the disparity, which may become unsustainable for more than a few years. If we add to that the expansion to 50 per cent, to which the Government are already committed, we have a recipe for an unsustainable policy and yet another that the Government will reverse in a short time.

The essence of the Government's case was tersely summarised in last week's edition of The Economist, under the description "pay or decay". With respect to that excellent publication, there is a logical fallacy—the law of the undistributed middle—in its case. The proposals could mean that students and probably their parents pay while universities decay.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) showed that contributions that may flow from the Bill will be offset in full by the cost of the douceurs that the Government have been forced to give away to get the consent of their Back Benchers. There will be significant consequences for debt among students, as Professor Callendar and others have been cited as saying.

The Bill will bear particularly hard on mature students and those on long courses who are not receiving state-financed bursaries. I am thinking not just of doctors but of vets and architects, who will be directly hit. I do not think any attention has been paid today to the special position and needs of disabled students. In fact, I find very few students who are likely to benefit from the overall package.

The irony of all this is that universities will not benefit either. I was impressed by the comments of Dr. Peter Knight of the University of Central England, who said in evidence to the Select Committee last year:


So the money will not come through in extra funding. Interestingly, under the Government's own proposals it will not even come through in the great variability of fees, because the way in which they have set up the system means that most vice-chancellors will charge the full £3,000 for most of the courses they offer.

Even if, miraculously, the Chancellor relents and abandons his stand-off, and takes on the chin the additional cost of support for the higher-education budget in the public expenditure survey, we know from what has been said by Ministers only today that the drip-feeding of slightly—perhaps—additional funds for universities will be limited for six years. It would be a great deal longer if some Labour Back Benchers had their way. Moreover, this minor amelioration, if it actually happens, will be secured only at a heavy price in additional interference. We are familiar with the Government's habit of promising a light touch in regulation, and then bringing in a bludgeon of additional regulation. Nor has there been any mention today of the compliance costs that the universities will face in fulfilling the requirements of the access regulator.

Let me summarise my position. Let me come to the substantive issue, and the vote to which I am looking forward. The Bill is a charter for higher costs for students, no material extra income for universities and a

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ratcheting up, a step change, in the scale of interference in universities' academic autonomy and detailed running. It will not stem the alleged decline in their funding, any more than Labour's claims at the time of its 1998 introduction of tuition fees—reiterated in a very positive statement in its 2001 manifesto. It said, in effect, that there was no problem; but that will not stop any decline that is taking place, and pressure will be put on additional funding,

It may well be that clustered around the thin and austere figure of the Secretary of State as he rises, or returns, to the podium will be a few vice-chancellors who have congregated to listen—as he waves a copy of the Bill at the public—to his thin voice saying, "Cash in our time". But within two years, mark my words, this will all have to be replaced by the policies of a new Conservative Government.


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