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Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge) (Lab): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that when the Conservative Government left office in 1997, the Government spending plans for the following two years involved a 6 per cent. decrease in university funding, and the Labour Government had to find the money to make up that deficit, having adopted the Conservatives' spending plans?

Mr. Collins: The hon. Lady knows that a large number of vice-chancellors are on record as saying that they felt they were duped—their exact word—by the Government when tuition fees were introduced, because the money was subsequently clawed back by the Treasury through lower than expected levels of public finance. That is why many vice-chancellors are not satisfied that, having done that once before when introducing fees, the Government will not do it again when introducing top-up fees.

Let us consider what the pledge means. The 2004 spending review period expires in 2007, which is just one year after the Government propose that top-up fees should come in. At that point the income from top-up fees will be well below the maximum levels that are usually quoted, because there will be only one year's cohort within the system paying top-up fees, yet at that point the Government's commitment even to maintain the present very low levels of student spending in real terms expires. So there is a very real reason for universities to fear that what the Government are giving with one hand, they may take away with the other—indeed, they may take away more than they give.

Kali Mountford: Given his criticism of the alleged claw-back, how can the hon. Gentleman be sure that there will be finances into the future out of general taxation? Can he be sure that his own Government, should there ever be one, would be able to match spending as the present Government can?

Mr. Collins: As I said earlier, the hon. Lady will have to wait for our proposals. If she has the genuine interests

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of universities, taxpayers and students at heart, she will have a pleasant surprise when she sees those proposals unveiled. If she merely has her party's interests at heart, I am afraid it will be a very unpleasant surprise indeed. I look forward to seeing her expression when she sees our plans.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Collins: I give way to the Chairman of the Select Committee.

Mr. Sheerman: The hon. Gentleman is reluctant to tell us the plans of a future Conservative Government for funding for higher education, but having forensically examined some of the comments of vice-chancellors on our proposals, he has said nothing about what vice-chancellors with any memory at all say about the funding of British universities under Conservative Administrations of the '80s and '90s. Will he enlarge on that?

Mr. Collins: The hon. Gentleman is entitled to say, as I indicated earlier, that the majority of vice-chancellors support the Government's proposals. That is hardly surprising. What is surprising is that there is a significant body of vice-chancellors who do not, so the Government do not have unanimous support for their ideas from any section of the education community. Most other organisations and most other groups in education are unanimously opposed to the Government's proposals. With reference to funding under previous Governments, I am sure vice-chancellors would have liked to have more funding, but the record shows that funding per student under every year of the last Conservative Government was greater than it has been under any year of this Labour Government.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Collins: I shall give way one last time, as I am keen to make progress so that others can speak in this important debate.

Jonathan Shaw: The hon. Gentleman makes some interesting comparisons. He said that there was no unanimity in the education field about the proposals from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Can he recall a time when there was unanimity on any proposal to do with education put forward by a Conservative Government?

Mr. Collins: It is rare indeed that the Association of University Teachers, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, the National Union of Students and a large bloc of vice-chancellors all strongly in agreement and, as it happens, strongly in agreement that the Government should not proceed with the Bill.

The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Alan Johnson) rose—

Mr. Collins: I said I would not give way again, but of course I make an exception for the Minister.

Alan Johnson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He has a former higher education Minister sitting

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behind him. Will he confirm that all those forces—the NUS, NATFHE, the AUT and everyone he mentioned—came together in absolute coalition when a previous Tory Government moved from student grants to student loans?

Mr. Collins: The interesting point is that the Secretary of State is not proposing to reverse that, is he? So that argument goes both ways.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Collins: I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson), who I know will make a constructive contribution.

Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage) (Con): Part of the coalition that opposed us was the Labour party. I remember the speeches in the Standing Committee by the right hon. Gentleman who is now the Foreign Secretary, anticipating many of the speeches that have now been made from the Conservative side in the course of the current debate. With regard to Conservative alternatives, my hon. Friend is a great admirer of Baroness Thatcher, as am I. Does he remember TINA—there is no alternative? There is no alternative to fees.

Mr. Collins: As is well known, my hon. Friend does not agree with our position on that. He is perfectly honourable about that and has set out his reasons cogently. We must beg to disagree on that point. Those on the Conservative Front Bench intend to invite my hon. Friends to stand by the manifesto commitments we made at the last election. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage feels, for honourable reasons, that he cannot join us in that, but that will not deter the rest of us from continuing to advance what we believe to be the right course for the future of higher education.

Peter Bradley rose—

Mr. Collins: I will not give way again. I have given way an almost unprecedented number of times, and Labour Members who have been intervening at such great length will no doubt start complaining that they do not have a chance to make their own speeches, so I am keen to bring my remarks to a close.

However, there are a couple of important aspects that need to be touched on. The first is debt. Why did the Government decide after the 2001 election that they needed to look again at student financing? One of the major factors was the reports reaching them about worries among students about how they would cope with the level of debt that they had. The Government thought carefully about how they could best address the issue of student or graduate debt, and came up with the proposal that the best way of doing that was to triple the tuition fees that students should pay. That seems an extraordinary way of dealing with debt.

However they slice it, the Government's proposals will result in future graduates leaving with unprecedented levels of debt, which will undoubtedly—academic evidence is unequivocal about this—have the effect of deterring some students from going to some universities to study some subjects. We on the

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Conservative Benches believe that we should have a system of access to university that proceeds on the basis of ability to learn, not ability to pay. That is why we will vote as we will on these matters.

I shall say a word or two about amendment No. 128. Our view is that new clause 5, which strikes out both top-up fees and tuition fees, is a powerful and important change to the Bill. Amendment No. 128 would strike out the five clauses that collectively not only provide for top-up fees, but provide the teeth for OFFA, the university access regulator, which rightly is strongly disliked in the university sector.

The Secretary of State may have a document from Universities UK in which it indicates—reluctantly, I suspect—that it is prepared to live with OFFA, but that briefing note from Universities UK makes it explicitly clear that it believes that admissions policies should be the responsibility of individual institutions of higher education. That is not what the Government have been saying. The higher education Minister has consistently said in Committee and elsewhere that he believes that admissions should be a matter for individual institutions, and admissions policies should be a matter for OFFA. That is not what Universities UK seeks. That is why we invite Members to support amendment No. 128, not least on the grounds that it would defang a very unpleasant piece of social engineering and interventionism.

Peter Bradley: The hon. Gentleman has one last chance to give way.

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