Previous SectionIndexHome Page

5.15 pm

Peter Bradley: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the Liberal Democrats' fitness for government. In an ideal world, Wolverhampton would not have to bear the cost of the £300. What the hon. Gentleman does not seem to appreciate is that it now has a very high ratio of income that it can keep, certainly compared with what was originally proposed, which will boost its funding—I gave him the figure of 20 per cent. That is why, despite its reservations about variability, Wolverhampton supports the Bill. It will be good for the university, good for its current intake of students, and good for students who are yet to go there. OFFA's task will be to ensure that universities that are not meeting the objectives perform better and achieve more, which is why I support amendment No. 129.

31 Mar 2004 : Column 1687

We have argued for a three-year review. As the Government have conceded, that is incredibly important. Three years after the new arrangements are introduced, we shall be far better placed to judge whether they have delivered the benefits that we expect them to deliver. If we decide that they have not, it will be up to us to do something about it. I cannot understand why some Members do not have enough confidence in themselves and their colleagues to change, or to endorse, policy if that is the right thing to do. This measure is no different from any other in that regard. Both sides of the House will be whipped, just as they are in the case of other Bills. It is an insult to say that—it would also be unlawful—we will fetter the discretion of a future Parliament because we do not have enough self-confidence to believe that we can either sustain or, if need be, change our own thinking. That is a specious and dangerous argument.

We will have a debate in both Houses, and for that reason I strongly support amendment No. 130. We must be able to take account of the three-year review and all the other information that comes our way. We need a motion that we can debate, amend and vote on.

The amendments that the Government have suggested they will accept, along with the huge gains made on Second Reading, have significantly strengthened the Bill. They have strengthened Parliament's control over the future of tuition fees, they have strengthened the Government's obligation to police those provisions in the "duty and power"amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), and they have strengthened the regulator's powers to enforce the widening of access not just to universities already subscribing and contributing to that principle, but to all universities, no matter how grand they think they are.

The Bill is not perfect. No one wants to pay the additional taxes proposed by the Liberal Democrats; no one wants to pay the additional charges that we propose. This, however, is not just the best package on the table, or the only package. It is a good package—a radical, progressive set of measures that will help to boost standards in our universities, underpin their competitiveness, and create opportunities for working-class school leavers who never had such opportunities before and, without this package, would not have them in the future. I am not just prepared to vote for the Bill; I shall be proud to do so.

Annabelle Ewing : On behalf of the Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cymru, I rise to support amendment No. 128, which would delete what I believe to be iniquitous proposals to introduce variable top-up fees. In my view, they are wrong in principle. They will create a two-tier system, and will treat university education as if it were just another commodity in the marketplace. I think that my opinions reflect widespread concern among parents, students and university principals throughout Scotland. Those people have a great fear of the negative impact of the proposals on the university sector in Scotland. That issue was highlighted in the report of the Scottish Parliament's cross-party Enterprise and Culture Committee, which was produced in December 2003.

31 Mar 2004 : Column 1688

The committee had spent three months taking evidence from all relevant parties and sectors, and the report's conclusion was that the top-up fee proposals in the Bill would have an adverse impact on Scottish higher education.

That conclusion has been echoed by the majority of university principals in Scotland, and has even been admitted, although very late in the day, by Scotland's Labour First Minister. The key issue is that because of the Barnett formula, if more private money is levered into the university sector south of the border, that will create in the longer term a chronic funding gap in Scotland because there will be no Barnett consequentials for the Scottish university sector. That is widely accepted in Scotland and is the view of the majority of university principals there, so I do not know quite why the Minister is shaking his head. Perhaps he has not been in communication with the university principals in Scotland.

The report's conclusion is that there will be a significant and detrimental impact on research in Scotland's universities, which at the moment have an excellent reputation, and deservedly so. There will also, of course, be a significant impact on recruitment. Those facts are incontrovertible. Notwithstanding that, on Second Reading, we saw 46 Scottish Labour MPs troop into the Lobby to support the Government and vote against Scotland's interests. We also saw the solo Scottish Tory MP sit on his hands, although he has managed to vote on some measures that have no impact whatever on Scotland, such as the Mersey Tunnels Bill. The key issue is what the Scottish MPs will do today.

We have heard much in the debate about international examples, and I asked the Prime Minister at about the time of Second Reading why on earth, if a country such as Ireland could use its powers to abolish all tuition fees, as it did in the 1990s, and secure a participation rate of more than 50 per cent., he could not secure such a result in England. In his answer, interestingly, he pointed to the example of New Zealand, but as we have heard today, that was perhaps not a good example to use in seeking to strengthen the Prime Minister's case.

I shall keep my intervention brief, because I appreciate that other Members want to contribute, but the key issue for Scotland today is whether the Scottish Labour MPs will put Scotland's interests and their constituents' interests ahead of the political interests of the UK Prime Minister. Is the solo Scottish Tory MP once again going to sit on his hands and abstain? Vital Scottish interests are at stake, and it is noteworthy that not one Scottish MP has even sought to listen to any part of today's debate, with the notable exception of the Father of the House. The House might not know that he is the only Scottish MP to be a university rector—he is the rector of Edinburgh university, and chairs its court. The Father of the House, well knowing the views of the university sector in Scotland, took the principled position on Second Reading of voting against the Bill.

Given that vital Scottish interests are at stake tonight, I hope that the Scottish MPs who voted with the Government last time will reflect a little further, and will

31 Mar 2004 : Column 1689

put Scottish interests ahead of those of the Prime Minister. If they fail to do so, their betrayal will not be forgotten or forgiven in Scotland.

Jonathan Shaw: My hon. Friends have discussed matters of principle relating to manifesto commitments, and we need to reflect on that. We must reflect on the argument about top-up fees put forward at the time of the manifesto, which referred to fees on top of up-front fees. We are in a very different situation now, so I have no problem at all on that. My conscience is clear.

I am sorry to speak against my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), whom I like enormously. He is a fine fellow. He has had a glittering career both politically and academically and, perhaps more importantly, is a football star as well. We have spoken about the principles of widening access, of increasing numbers—that is, Labour and Liberal Democrat Members have, rather than the Conservatives, who do not believe in increasing numbers—and of providing more student support. It is vital that we bear those principles in mind and make choices for individuals, for the institutions and, very importantly, for our country.

We must make those choices for our country. Recent figures from the Institute of Employment Research show that of the 13.5 million jobs that are expected to be filled by 2012, 50 per cent.—6.8 million—will be in occupations likely to demand graduates. If we look across the world, India is churning out 1 million graduates, who at the moment are doing a lot of back-office work, but in future they will be doing development work as well, so yes they will have—

Mr. Patrick Hall: My hon. Friend is making an important point about the future estimated need for people with higher education skills. Does he not agree that those who deny the need for 50 per cent. of people to go to university are actually doing down the economy of this country, never mind those individuals who should go to university who have the ability?

Jonathan Shaw: My hon. Friend is right. So we are talking about the individual, the institution and the country. From the individual's perspective, it is not just a 50 per cent. target; as we have heard, it is a 50 per cent. projection. We are seeing more young people achieve and we know that if a young person gets two or more A-levels they go to university. Show me the queue of parents who will line up and say, "I do not want my young son or daughter to go to university." There will not be one. We all aspire for our sons, for our daughters, and for all the young people. We have continuously increased access in recent years, and that is what we need to continue to do for the individual and for our country. Jobs that require few qualifications will not exist in future. Foundation degrees will be a very important component of the increase to 50 per cent., providing the vital technical skills for our economy.

The issue about debt has naturally been central to our discussions in the Chamber, but we may not have discussed the fact that if a person takes on a debt to purchase a product, they want the product to be of quality. There has been a decrease in investment in our universities, and class sizes have risen. There have also

31 Mar 2004 : Column 1690

been difficulties in the recruitment and retention of lecturers, whose pay is appalling. By increasing the revenue stream to universities, this measure will allow them to increase lecturers' pay to assist with recruitment and retention. That is vital because if you are graduating from university and want that qualification, you want the course to be a good quality product. We talk about the fear of debt. We know what we are talking about—

Next Section

IndexHome Page