Mr. Boswell: Does my hon. Friend agree that the total debt that must eventually be repaid will be inflation-linked? Labour Members may argue that that represents a discount against the commercial rate of interest and is therefore attractive on those grounds, but the real resource cost to the Exchequer of supporting students in the future will rise even morethey cannot have it both ways.
Mr. Clappison: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Although it has been said that the weekly repayments will be modest, the sum itself is substantial. If the repayments are modest, the debt will extend over years and years, which is a point that students will take into account.
Labour Members must face up to the point made by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough that students who go into important lower-paid public service jobs will spend much longer repaying their debts
The amount of help given by universities is an important point that has been referred to and must be taken into account, and I tabled a written question about it to which the Minister responded. Bursaries will be available to students, and some universities will award bursaries to students from families with an income level greater than that required by the Government, which is £15,970. Universities are not required to pay bursaries to students from families with incomes above that levelthe Minister will correct me if I am wrongbut some universities say that they will do so, which is all well and good.
Relative to other UK institutionsI say that for the benefit of my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson)Cambridge university has put forward the most generous scheme, which accords with the fact that it is an extremely wealthy institution. Looking across the list of other institutionsagain, the Minister will correct me if I am wrongno university other than Cambridge has made a clear commitment to give bursary help to students from families with incomes above the £22,000 threshold. I have not seen any specific commitments in the literature that I have received from the Minister, but even if there were a specific commitment to provide some help, it would have to be substantial help indeed to make up for the huge extra debts.
Alan Johnson: The hon. Gentleman is wrong on the threshold limit. All universities must give at least a £300 bursary to students from families with incomes up to the threshold limit at which we set the £2,700 grant, which is £33,000 a year. Cambridge, Imperial, Exeter and Surrey universities say that they will give bursaries up to that level, and not the £22,000 level that he quoted. I believe, although I am not certain, that Exeter and Imperial universities have gone beyond that, and Surrey is the latest university to announce that it will go down the same route.
Mr. Clappison: I am sure that the Minister is right, but his written answer in February stated that Government proposals do not require a bursary to be given to students from families with incomes of more than £15,970. It is not clear from my correspondence with the Minister or from what has been set out by Universities UK that there will be automatic help for students up to those levels. I will not read out the letters, but no university other than Cambridge has spoken about the threshold going above £22,000. The Minister is nodding. I accept that he has made it clear that help will be available up to the amount of £15,970in some cases £4,000, or at least the £300 that is required by the Bill.
However, that is not my complaint. My complaint is on behalf of families on lower and middle incomes of between £22,000 and £33,000. In my constituency, or anywhere in the country, £22,000 is a modest joint family income on which people may struggle. Students from those families will be daunted by the prospect of a debt of this order of magnitudethousands of pounds stretching into the future. In response to the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mrs. Fitzsimons), if we gave studentscertainly, students in my constituencya choice between the new system and the old system, they would not queue up to take the new one. It will cost students an awful lot of money, and it will be a particularly hard blow for middle-income families.
The Government have got it wrong. The introduction of variable fees is oppressive to such families and I am afraid that it will act as disincentive. I do not like discrimination, but I do not like disincentives either. I hope that Labour Members will exercise their consciences over that question. I hope that they will also consider the loss to the country that will result if those students respond to the blandishments that they are receiving from German and American universities to go abroad, where they may receive more generous help or not have to pay any fees at all. The House should seriously consider the fact that this measure will be a substantial blow to a huge wedge of families on middle incomes.
Peter Bradley: Like many other, but not all, Members of this House, I had a privileged education, and I have been privileged ever since in the salaries that I have earned and the jobs that I have done. Having been one of the 6 per cent. of young people who had the opportunityalthough many more had the abilityto go to university in the early 1970s, I want my privileges to be other people's rights. That is why I joined my party and why I welcome the Bill, or rather what it has become.
I make no pretence about variability. A free market in higher education would indeed entrench privilegethat is why I originally opposed the concept. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) is right. Under a free market model, the elite universities would get richer at the expense of the poorer universities. If that were still the position, I might be attracted to amendment No. 128, but what is now on offer is a firmly regulated market, if it is a market at all. We are no longer talking about top-up fees, but about top-down fees. We are no longer talking about variability, but about a fixed fee with a discount. In my view, which I believe is shared by others, most, if not all universities, across most, if not all their courses, will charge £3,000. There will be no meaningful market in higher education. The variability, such as it is, is likely to be in hundreds of pounds, not thousands of pounds. It will be an issue for school leavers when they consider which university to attend, but in no way a decisive issue.
The manifesto commitment must be taken seriously, but it was written before we went out on the doorstep at the last general election. Perhaps my hon. Friends will contradict me, but I cannot think of an issue that was raised more frequently, especially in middle-class areas
The language of the debate in the past year or so has been misleading, and we are all responsible for that. We should talk not about student debt but investment in the future. A mortgage is a debt; for many people, it is a lifetime debt. The rights and privileges that the previous Government extended to people under the right-to-buy policy gave them an opportunity to contract a debt, which many regretted when boom turned to bust. That problem will not confront graduates, who, if they lose their jobs in future or take a dip in salary, will no longer have to repay their tuition fee contribution. That is in stark contrast to the debt that the Conservative party invited hundreds of thousands of people to enter into. Those people came to regret it when they found themselves in mortgage arrears and their homes were repossessed.
Peter Bradley: My hon. Friend is right. Society as a whole should make the investment, and that is what we are doing. The taxpayer bears 75 per cent. of the cost of sending a student to university. However, we must choose whether we are content for 6, 10, 20 or 30 per cent. of the young people in our communities who are academically qualified to take up university places to do that. Are we content to cap ambition at 10 per cent. or at 20 per cent.? Should we have a quota, as the Conservatives suggest? Or should we want the best for most of our young people? We should not cap their ambition, because they have a right to university education if they are qualified for it, and our economy needs their skills.