Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Jonathan Shaw: Why not?

Mr. Willis: I will tell the hon. Gentleman why not. The housing costs for a teacher of religious education or music in London are exactly the same as those for somebody teaching mathematics. The idea of giving one of them a £6,000 golden hello—

Jonathan Shaw rose—

Mr. Willis: I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman; I am answering his question, for goodness' sake. [Laughter]. I am sorry—I sometimes forget that I am not a head teacher any more. [Hon. Members: "You will be."] No, they would not have me.

The new clause would ensure that once someone has become a key public sector professional such as a teacher or a nurse, where a degree is an entry requirement, the 9 per cent. of disposable income payable and the interest on any remaining debt is paid for by the state, and if that person leaves the profession after two years, as they are entitled to, they pick up the costs. I hope that hon. Members will see that as a simple and positive mechanism for supporting public sector workers. I intend to press new clause 12 to a vote.

I turn to new clause 8 and amendment No. 128. We support Conservative Front Benchers' basic principle on the removal of fees, as stated in new clause 5, as well as the removal of top-up fees. We certainly support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Norwich, North, and we will vote with him on that.

In his speech, the hon. Member for Norwich, North mentioned the notion of generous grants. That was picked up by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North

31 Mar 2004 : Column 1662

(Mr. Allen), who accused the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives of scaremongering. Let us at least understand the basis on which we are having this debate. At the moment, poorer students pay no fees at all. It was a Labour Government who in 1998 introduced up-front fees. Labour Members are now railing against them and saying what a wonderful job they are doing in removing them.

Kali Mountford: The hon. Gentleman has made many points about fees and debt. Does he accept that the fees and costs combined will be repaid at a gentler rate, which equalises the situation between students and makes the whole situation much easier for them all?

Mr. Willis: With the greatest respect to the hon. Lady, I have never denied that. The reality is that the debt will be no smaller as a result of the new proposals; graduates will simply repay it for a lot longer. The hon. Lady fails to understand that. In fact, a person's debt gets bigger if over a number of years their income does not qualify them to pay the 9 per cent. of disposable income, because the interest is added every year after that.

I was responding to the hon. Member for Nottingham, North. At the moment, the poorest students pay no fees and get a maintenance loan of £4,000. They pay nothing up front, and when they have graduated they start to pay it back. I can see that the new system is more generous in terms of paying the money back over a longer period.

In future, poorer students who go to a top university will pay a fee of £3,000, which will be deferred because they get a loan to cover it. They will therefore not have to pay it up front and they will get another £3,500 in grant. At the end of their time at university, they will have not £4,000 of debt but £6,500 for every year. That is £19,500 of debt for the poorest students. I accept that they have had the money as disposable income during their time at university, but they will be worse off and have a bigger debt than current students. If Professor Callender is right and every study that the Government have carried out is right—

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Willis: My goodness—I should like to make some progress.

If every single item of research is right, the Government will know that debt deters poorer students—the very students whom the hon. Member for Nottingham, North and I want to encourage to go to university.

Mrs. Fitzsimons: Given that the hon. Gentleman is making a great effort to be sincere, will he deal with a genuine point about Liberal Democrat representation on the streets of Rochdale about current provision? It bears no resemblance to his comments. Liberal Democrats in Rochdale claim that all students have to pay up-front fees. Will he disassociate himself from

31 Mar 2004 : Column 1663

rank-and-file Liberal Democrats who misrepresent policy? Does he accept that students do not have to pay back the grant? His calculations are simply wrong.

Mr. Willis: The hon. Lady's first comment was unacceptable and I hope that she will withdraw it.

Mrs. Fitzsimons: What about Rochdale?

Mr. Willis: What happens on the streets of Rochdale, God only knows. I have never claimed that the £2,700 plus the £300 bursary has to be repaid. I do not believe that any hon. Member has ever heard me say that. However, students will have to repay the loan of £3,500 plus the tuition fee of £3,000. That makes £6,500 every year. So much for generous grants.

Amendment No. 122 tabled by the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) hits the nail on the head. When we began the debate, the £3,000 in grant and bursary was roughly equal to the top-up fee of £3,000. However, that sort of balancing equation will not occur in the future. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but by 2010, top-up fees may increase to £5,000 or £10,000 but there is no commitment in the Bill to increase grants and bursaries commensurately. The hon. Member for Hemsworth said that he wants a 90 per cent. link. I would be happy with any sort of link to ensure that students get that support in future.

Alan Johnson: The hon. Gentleman is making a case for no fees, whereas my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) presents a rational argument in his amendment. As my hon. Friend knows, because I have spoken to him, the only problem that we have with it is inscribing in legislation a percentage that we might want to change more beneficially. If we were to accept the amendment, we would always be stuck with 90 per cent. That is why we prefer to leave percentages out of primary legislation and put them in regulations.

Mr. Willis: I accept that there are difficulties, but will the Minister accept later an amendment to include in the measure an affirmative resolution to cover the £3,000 and any cap on the fee above inflation after 2010? It is right to establish mechanisms to ensure that students at the top universities, which charge the highest fees, get commensurate grants.

3.45 pm

Jon Trickett (Hemsworth) (Lab): I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman's speech, and I hope to speak later if I can catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. The point of my amendment is to probe the Government. By 2010, a higher rate of fees might well have let rip: the upper limit could be £10,000 or even £15,000. What would then happen to the £3,000 grant and bursary? There is no linkage in the Bill, or in anything that Ministers have said so far, to provide for working-class kids and kids from poorer homes to get the £10,000 to £15,000 that might be being charged by

31 Mar 2004 : Column 1664

then. That is the point of my amendment, but, so far, the Government have given no indication that any such linkage would exist.

Mr. Willis: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. If he does not get the opportunity to speak, at least he has put that point on record. I hope that my description of his amendment was accurate.

Those Labour Members who intend enthusiastically to support the Bill and oppose the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) and others must understand that the only way that poorer students will gain any advantage in 2006 will be if they take their £2,700 grant and go to the cheapest university offering the cheapest course. That is the only way in which they will be better off under the Government's proposals, unless they invest the whole £3,000 on the stock market and hope that they make some money.

Jonathan Shaw: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willis: No, I want to make some progress because I appreciate that a lot of people want to speak.

The hon. Member for Norwich, North rightly said that the Government's proposals would create a market in higher education. We have had many debates on this issue, and I conceded in Committee that there is currently a social market in higher education. Given that students from the lower socio-economic groups make up only 9 per cent. of those who go to Oxford and Cambridge, we should ask whether that is because the lower socio-economic groups are intellectually inferior, as has been suggested.

Jonathan Shaw: Will the hon. Gentleman welcome the £3,000 bursaries—[Hon. Members: "£4,000."] They have gone up already. Will he welcome the £4,000 bursaries that Cambridge will make available to poorer students? That move has come in on the back of this Bill. The Bill is changing the whole atmosphere, and more and more universities are proposing similar schemes.

Mr. Willis: May I suggest that the hon. Gentleman spends a little time in the Library and consider the wealth that many of the Oxford colleges have at their disposal? He should consider the £4,000 bursaries in relation to that wealth. He might then like to consider the wealth of Wolverhampton university, 47 per cent. of whose intake is from the three lowest socio-economic groups, or of the universities in Hull. He would see a totally different picture there. If he is saying that every university in the land, even the least endowed ones, will give all students a £4,000 top-up to their grant, then heaven has arrived here in the House of Commons. The reality, however, as he knows, is that that is arrant nonsense.

Next Section

IndexHome Page