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Mr. Plaskitt: The new clause would remove the funding stream from universities. In Committee, the hon. Gentleman was unable to tell us how his party would replace that funding stream. Can he tell us now?

Mr. Collins: The hon. Gentleman is right in his characterisation of the new clause: it would prevent fees. There is no doubt about that; that is its intention and that is what it would achieve. He is also correct that it is the duty of Opposition parties to produce alternative proposals on how that vital funding for universities would be provided. We will do that, and we will do that earlier in this Parliament than the Government produced their final proposals on the subject in the last

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Parliament. The difference is that, whereas three months before the last general election the Labour party produced the final proposals that it now plans to breach, we will produce proposals earlier in the life-cycle of this Parliament, which we will implement on coming into office.

James Purnell rose—

Mr. Collins: I give way to the hon. Gentleman, who, in a former capacity, may well have had a role in writing the manifesto, which he is cheerfully about to breach.

James Purnell: On the hon. Gentleman's policies, will he confirm that the envelope has been set for funding those policies by the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), and that that is a cash freeze and therefore a real-terms cut in higher education funding? If the extra money that will come from tuition fees is to be removed, how will the hon. Gentleman do anything other than cut quality and student numbers?

Mr. Collins: I suspect that the hon. Gentleman was one of those who was disappointed when he found that the Opposition's proposals on the pupil passport did not turn out to be what he had hoped and expected it to be. He will be extremely disappointed when he learns of our proposals on higher education; I urge him to wait for them. We are debating the Government's proposals, which are in clear breach of the manifesto on which he stood at the general election.

The Conservative party made exactly the same pledge at the last election. We are keeping our promises and the hon. Gentleman is breaking his. Playing party political games will not help him explain to his constituents why they should believe anything that he says at the next general election, given that he has so cheerfully broken his word from the last one.

Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): Does the grand total of nine Conservative Members on the Opposition Benches accurately reflect the commitment of the hon. Gentleman's party on this issue?

Mr. Collins: Our attendance accurately reflects the eagerness of Opposition Members to allow Labour Members the maximum time for debate. We fully expect them to express more than one view, shall we say, on their happiness to break their manifesto pledge.

Peter Bradley: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman reached the end of his list of expert witnesses. What does he have to say to the Campaign for Mainstream Universities? Its statement today reads:

That message is borne out by Universities UK. What does he have to say about that?

Mr. Collins: It is true—it has been throughout the debate—that the majority of vice-chancellors support

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the Government's proposals. They are the one and only category of people who do so. The hon. Gentleman should understand that there has been a shift of opinion in the vice-chancellor community in the past few months—from unanimous support of the Government's position to a significant number expressing profound opposition to their proposals.

Peter Bradley rose—

Mr. Collins: No, I will not give way; I am responding to the hon. Gentleman's point. He wanted to talk about the attitude of vice-chancellors, so we will talk about that. Let us consider the attitude of Professor Gillian Slater, the vice-chancellor of Bournemouth university, who said:

That is what she believes, and it is what many other vice-chancellors believe. She was one of 15 vice-chancellors, alongside 12 university lecturers, who wrote to The Guardian yesterday to express their opposition to the centrepiece of the Government's legislation. I make no pretence of the fact that the majority of vice-chancellors support the Government's proposals. However, they are the only category of people who have taken that position, and even they are not unanimous. All other organisations, including the Association of University Teachers, the National Association of Teachers, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education and the National Union of Students, are opposed to the Government's proposals. If all the hon. Gentleman can do is say that about 90 vice-chancellors like the proposal, when 55 million people are opposed to it, bring on the election.

I was going through the important comments that had been brought to the attention of the House by the NUS as a result of its consulting its opposite numbers in other countries, on which the Government have modelled their proposals.

2.45 pm

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): From the point of view of a vice-chancellor, is there any more plausibility in the Government's assertion about the firmness of their cap of £3,000 on tuition fees than there was about the Labour party's assertion before the last election that it would not introduce top-up fees? If those assertions are equally valid, does my hon. Friend think that the majority of vice-chancellors welcome the breach of the Government's undertaking or are appalled at it?

Mr. Collins: My hon. Friend makes an important point. No doubt we shall consider the Government's minor concessions on the extent to which their word on the £3,000 cap should be taken. The entirety of the Government's concessions amount to this: "It would require primary legislation, taken through both Houses of Parliament, for us to breach our solemn pledge not to raise top-up fees above £3,000." What is this Bill if not primary legislation designed to breach a clear manifesto pledge? I am at a loss to understand why the Government should think that that should impress Labour Back Benchers or anybody else.

Mr. Clappison: In the spirit of the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell),

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does my hon. Friend recollect that, in its manifesto, Labour not only promised not to introduce top-up fees but said that the Labour Government had legislated to prevent them?

Mr. Collins: My hon. Friend is entirely right. The second sentiment of that part of the Labour party manifesto is particularly interesting given the Government's attitude to amendment No. 128. The Government's line is that the amendment would remove the cap and allow universities to charge any top-up fees that they liked. Unfortunately, there is such a thing as the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998, which was so important that it was mentioned in the 2001 Labour party manifesto. It enabled the Government to say in the manifesto that they had legislated to prevent top-up fees. That legislation, by which they set such store at the last general election, remains on the statute book, and it is therefore an entirely spurious argument that amendment No. 128 would remove the cap and that universities could charge whatever they liked.

I see that the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mrs. Fitzsimons) is in her place. Given her present and former capacities, I am sure that she will be delighted to know that the co-president of the New Zealand University Students Association is named Fleur Fitzsimmons.

Mrs. Fitzsimons: That is a good name.

Mr. Collins: Perhaps it is. Fleur Fitzsimmons points out that the introduction of the scheme in New Zealand, which the Secretary of State says is in part the model for the proposals, has been

We hear similar stories in Canada.

Mrs. Fitzsimons: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Collins: I mentioned the hon. Lady, and I promise that I will give way to her in a moment, once I have finished this point.

We hear that, after 10 years of tuition fees in Canada, fees have jumped by an average of 99 per cent. That reflects precisely the fears expressed by students, the British Medical Association and even some vice-chancellors: once we start on the route of top-up fees, there will be strong, steady and substantial increases. That is justified by the very overseas experience to which Ministers try to turn our attention.

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