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Mr. Collins: The amendments and new clauses before us are, indeed, the last chance for the House to vote to uphold the promises all of us made at the last general election. They are the last chance for all of us to vote to give this and future generations of students the same opportunity of access based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay, which many of us enjoyed when we were 18. They are the last chance for the House to vote for fairness for all classes and all students. We must say no to fees, yes to academic freedom, and yes to a better way forward for higher education than this dishonest and discredited Bill.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): I wish to speak to amendment No. 128 in my name and those of my hon. Friends, and on which I shall seek to divide the House. It was recommended by the Public Bill Office as the only way to remove the introduction of variable fees from the Bill, and that is the position that I take. We can talk about OFFA in more detail later. It would be a functional organisation and its work with the Higher Education Funding Council for England would be important. If the amendment were agreed to, that would not be eliminated as an arena for discussion where we could ensure that universities had the right access policies.

Variable fees are a really bad idea because—

Mrs. Anne Campbell: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr. Gibson: I do not wish to take too many interventions because I wish to give others the chance to speak, but I give way to my hon. Friend.

Mrs. Campbell: Is it not the case that the amendment would remove any incentive whatever for universities to

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get their access plans through OFFA, because it will remove OFFA's teeth and make it completely ineffective?

Dr. Gibson: I have much more faith in the university system than my hon. Friend appears to have. The universities try hard and they have new projects, with science ambassadors, and so on, and we are encouraging that. More and more people will be coming in and are coming in because of such projects initiated by the Government.

My concerns are not new; they have been voiced many times during the Bill's anguished course, but they have not yet been satisfactorily dispelled. Variable fees will tie students' choice of degree and career to price. The choice of those with the greatest aversion to debt and those who are likely to feel its burden most—those from lower-income backgrounds—will be affected most. It was pointed out in Committee, whose debate on this matter I have read five times—it was an excellent debate and many of these issues were well and truly discussed—that higher education will be seen as a financial investment and a route to a highly paid job, rather than something to be done for love of learning, and that a variable fee makes the student concentrate more on the marketability of the course that they are about to study. I am sure that my hon. Friend recognises those words, which I wholeheartedly endorse.

It was also pointed out in Committee and by at least 15 vice-chancellors yesterday who wrote to The Guardian—I am aware that others have contradicted this—that variable fees will further widen the difference in income between universities. Those with a higher profile and a smaller proportion of students from lower-income backgrounds, namely the Russell group, will be able to charge higher fees and generate much more income while others will be forced to charge less. There will be no redistribution of income among institutions.

Mrs. Fitzsimons: Will my hon. Friend accept from someone who as president of the National Union of Students campaigned for him in the seat that he now represents, that it has been an historical anomaly that those people from the lowest socio-economic background have never achieved more than a maximum of 15 to 20 per cent. representation during the past 40 years in higher education, and that 51 per cent. of students studying in higher education institutions—postgraduate, overseas, mature and part-time students—are subject to variability, and none of the matters that he is addressing and which amendment No. 128 will remove, will address the fact that variability has not done what he claims for the 51 per cent. of people studying in higher education, and will not address the issue of getting better representation in higher education for the people whom he and I came into politics to represent?

Dr. Gibson: I thank my hon. Friend for her creative work in Norwich during that election. She may or may not think it was valuable looking down at me now, but she is absolutely right about this issue in other areas of higher education. I do not particularly endorse that, but

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I noticed in the Committee proceedings that some Members said that in those areas that my hon. Friend mentioned, there may not be as much variability as one might think. I see much effort being made to try to eliminate that in terms of part-time students, and others, to try to make it easier for them with bursaries, and so on.

3.15 pm

Peter Bradley: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr. Gibson: I really do want to allow others time to speak, but I shall give way one last time.

Peter Bradley: My hon. Friend made a point about the differential income of universities that he believes would arise from variable fees, and that was my concern before the Government agreed to take responsibility for the cost of the disbursements in grant that the university would have to make. Because of that adjustment, it now seems likely that some of the modern universities, which are teaching-led, will gain up to a 50 per cent. increase on their current income, whereas universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, that are basically research-led, will have increases in the order of 10 per cent. or less. Therefore, the statistics show that the modern universities, which we all seek to support because they are doing most to widen access, are the ones that will benefit from the new income regime.

Dr. Gibson: That is a fair point, but if one looks at the whole picture, some universities are enriched, with all the extra money for research from their colleges, and so on, while others do not have such a privileged financial background.

Mr. Sheerman: My hon. Friend chairs the Education and Skills Committee as I do, and we usually work well together, but what does he say to the general criticism that his amendment has been construed as a wrecking amendment, because he is a bad loser, having lost on Second Reading. [Interruption.] Is that a fair criticism?

Dr. Gibson: Those are really kind words. [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. Will hon. Members try to contain themselves when others are on their feet so that we can all hear what is being said? I am afraid that I could not hear most of that intervention.

Dr. Gibson: I shall treat that intervention with the disdain that I and many other hon. Members believe that it merits.

Part of the argument for variability has been that there are real differences between courses, which should be reflected in their fees. I do not know how we will quantify those differences. Do we match some arbitrary notion of quality to a figure, or do we measure courses against their potential financial pay-offs for the student? Do we judge it by reputation of the institution? How do we think that it will work? The market is unpredictable,

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and once we further extend the market principle into higher education, we do not know how things will turn out.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): Is it not already well documented by Universities UK research that young people from the lowest socio-economic groups invariably attend the modern universities and stay at home because that is the cheapest way that they can study? Is it therefore not clear that such students will always attempt to achieve the lowest cost to themselves and the lowest debt on leaving university? That is the iniquity of variable fees. The Russell group universities will charge much higher fees.

Dr. Gibson: I do not particularly subscribe to my hon. Friend's conclusions, but I admit that there is a problem there that needs addressing. I am sure that other Labour Members will be glad to take up that issue. I want to bash on to give others a real chance to speak.

The need to attract students to under-subscribed courses, say in the sciences—others may deal with that—may lead to such courses being offered at a lower price that neither reflects the cost of running the course or what a graduate might earn in the future. If lower fees are to be used as an incentive, can we reasonably argue that higher fees will not act as a disincentive? I welcome the aid packages that have been put in place to reduce the deterrence factor, but I am not convinced that they will be enough.

Mr. Robert Jackson: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I quite understand why the hon. Gentleman is addressing his own Benches, but some Opposition Members would like to hear what he has to say.

Dr. Gibson: I explained on Second Reading that I had to watch where I turned my back, and nothing has changed much since then.

I welcome those aid packages, but many students who do not qualify will be basing their decisions primarily on price. Even those who do qualify will still be looking for the so-called best deal—a phrase that has been used often.

One of the more seductive arguments for variability has been that while it allows universities to charge higher fees, it also allows them to charge less. I have already spoken about why universities might charge less. The argument concerns me because I can see it being used in the not-too-distant future in favour of raising the cap. Universities are already arguing that £3,000 is not enough to close the funding gap. I know that it is some way down the line and that there have been attempts to restrict that, but it is not ruled out for ever. Once that door is opened, it will happen. Those words are not mine, but those of esteemed vice-chancellors who have supported the Bill.

The same arguments will no doubt be rehearsed again, although the intensity of the debate will depend on which Government are in power. The cap will rise and divisions between rich and poor institutions and students will widen further. The money from the new legislation will only just have begun to reach the universities when the promised review of the system

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takes place. By then, it will be both too late and too soon to turn back, and we will, most likely, have no option but to continue down the same path, which we still have a choice about embarking on today. Can we honestly expect that the other funding models that we have not been able to debate openly will be considered if top-up fees do not appear to be working?

Amendment No. 128, which I and colleagues have tabled, has aroused lots of confusion and controversy. I firmly resent the allegation that I have been colluding with the Opposition in an attempt to derail my own Government. I regret that this issue has been turned into a matter of loyalty; it is a matter of principle that strikes at the very core of what Labour Members stand for. The amendment was tabled in good faith by those who wish to keep intact the positive aspects of the Bill, but prevent the introduction of variability as a matter of principle and for the reasons that I have outlined.

The effects of the amendment were checked with the Public Bill Office. If the amendment is passed, section 26 of the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998 will remain and prevent universities from raising fees. That will be the case unless the Government themselves repeal section 26. It will be open to the Government to introduce amendments in the Lords to change the level of the current fee should they so desire.

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