Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Power of secretary of state to impose condition as to student fees, etc.

Amendment made: No. 129, in page 8, line 38, leave out from beginning to 'a' in line 40 and insert

'The Secretary of State must, when making any grant to a funding body under section 68 of the 1992 Act or section 7 of the 1994 Act, impose under subsection (1) of the section concerned'.—[Alan Johnson.]

Clause 24

Regulations under section 23(6) relating to basic or higher amount

Amendment made: No. 130, in page 11, leave out lines 19 to 21 and insert—

'(ii) each House of Parliament has at any time after 1st January 2010 passed a resolution that, with effect from a date specified in the resolution, the higher amount should be increased to an amount specified in the resolution, and the increase is an increase to the specified amount with effect from the specified date.'.'[Alan Johnson.]
Order for Third Reading Read.—[Queen's Consent, on behalf of the Crown, signified.]

7.9 pm

Mr. Charles Clarke: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

This is an important moment for the future of higher education in this country. I believe that the decisions that the House has taken in considering this important Bill secure the future of our universities and enable them to make the economic and social contributions that our society needs. They prepare the country for the future in a way that, to be fair, I believe hon. Members on both sides of the House want to see. As the Bill goes to the other place, we are producing a measure for its consideration that guarantees more resources for universities, that will open and strengthen access to

31 Mar 2004 : Column 1716

universities and that will ensure that people from the poorest communities in the country get a fair crack in our society.

Many people deserve thanks, and I should like to take a moment to thank colleagues for what they have done. First, I thank the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education and our colleagues in the ministerial team, the Parliamentary Private Secretaries and in the Whips Office for what has been an outstanding performance. I know that no one will mind if I particularly thank my right hon. Friend for the tremendous leadership that he has shown throughout the consideration of the Bill.

Secondly, I thank my official team, the Bill team led by Lesley Longstone, and her colleagues who have given outstanding support, as I hope that colleagues on both sides of the House would agree, to all those hon. Members who have wanted to make points. Thirdly, I want to thank political colleagues on both sides of the House. There have been substantial and difficult debates, with real tension, as everyone has been aware, but throughout people of different opinions have been ready to engage in serious dialogue in a way that I appreciate and that shows the strength of the House as a place where political consideration can properly take place. It would be invidious to name individuals, but I repeat that a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House have been ready to engage in serious dialogue about the important issues that we have discussed. I emphasise that the way in which they have done so is important for the reputation of the House and Parliament and for the future of our universities.

Finally, I thank you, Mr. Speaker, the Clerks and, indeed, those in the wider university sector for their engagement in the debate on the Bill, which I have the honour to present on Third Reading this evening.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend accept that a good number of hon. Members will vote for the Bill with less than full enthusiasm, but they do so because he has responded to some of the deep concerns that people had by introducing a much larger student grant, by putting variability in a cage for a long time and by being willing to review the arrangements? As he will know, I am particularly interested in next year's review—the Langlands review. Will he briefly tell the House how he will deal with the Langlands review when it reports?

Mr. Clarke: I appreciate that intervention, as it provides a good opportunity to say that we have tried throughout to have a serious debate about the kind of concerns that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members have raised with seriousness. I asked Alan Langlands, the former chief executive of the NHS and vice-chancellor of Dundee university, to conduct a report that we have coded, "Gateway to the professions", as a means of ensuring that people from all backgrounds can get the professional education and training that they need, particularly those who are not from the very poorest families, but over a wider range. When the Bill receives Royal Assent, we will immediately ask him to commence his work, take evidence from people and report as rapidly as he can. That is an example of the kind of work that is very important.

Mr. Allen: In the context of Royal Assent, will the Secretary of State also ensure that the Department is

31 Mar 2004 : Column 1717

ready and willing to move very quickly to inform all secondary head teachers and the youngsters at those schools about the advantages that a £3,000 a year grant will give to those who qualify for it—those on incomes of less than £16,000?

Mr. Clarke: I am happy to give that assurance. One of the sadnesses about the debate in the country is that many people have been worried about the Bill's implications, but not all of them understand in detail the precise meaning for them in their individual circumstances. When we are free to do so—that is, after Royal Assent—there will be a significant programme to explain in the most effective way, certainly to families and particularly to young people, precisely how the system will operate.

I am glad to give that assurance.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Clarke: I will not, I regret. Under the agreement that we have made with the Opposition about timing, I must finish in a moment.

Today's vote was not only for the future of higher education, but for the public sector reform agenda that is so critical for the country. To conclude on a partisan point, the official Opposition, as was brilliantly exposed by the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson), were shown to have failed utterly to live up to the challenges of the time. We accept the challenge. I commend the Bill to the House for its Third Reading.

7.15 pm

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk) (Con): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for allowing me this brief opportunity to take part in the Third Reading debate, although I utterly deplore the fact that the Government did not protect the time for the debate. It is ludicrous to allow only 12 minutes for the Third Reading of such a controversial measure. It is not hard to guess why they have done that. The Government lost the argument about the policy comprehensively on Second Reading. They lost it again comprehensively in Committee, and they lost it yet again comprehensively during the debate on the last group of amendments, when my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) demolished their case in a particularly effective analysis of the consequences of the Bill.

The Bill is bad for students, bad for universities, bad for the taxpayer and bad for democracy. It is bad for students because it imposes on them such a heavy burden of debt that some will find it hard to get a mortgage, others may have to delay starting a family, and all of them will find it costly to repay the loans that the Government have forced on them. The repayment process for those who do not achieve above-average salaries quickly may continue right through their 30s and until the age of 40.

Equally important—a point that was made in the previous debate—the prospect of the high loans that students will have to take out, which will be up to £30,000 for a student studying at a university in London, will deter many potential students from applying to university in the first place. Sadly, the evidence shows

31 Mar 2004 : Column 1718

that it is students from the poorest backgrounds who are most likely to be debt-averse, so the effect of the Government's policy of introducing top-up fees will be to discourage the very group of students about whom they claim to be most concerned.

Mr. Allen: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Yeo: No, I am sorry. I have only five minutes.

The Bill is bad for universities because it attacks their independence in a way that no Government in the whole of our history have ever attempted to do. The access regulator will dictate to universities whom they can admit and whom they should exclude. The regulator will do so not on the basis of academic achievement or the potential of applicants to benefit from university study, but in pursuit of goals that have nothing whatever to do with enhancing the status of any university, and which will actively harm universities that aspire to world class.

The Bill is bad for universities for a further reason. It does nothing to guarantee that their long-term funding needs will be met. Under the Labour Government, funding per student has been lower at all times than it was throughout the 18 years of Conservative government. Funding from the Department per student has fallen dramatically since 1997. Although Labour introduced tuition fees over five years ago, the Treasury clawed back all the extra income that universities might have hoped those fees would give them. Nothing that the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Secretary of State has said in the past three months indicates that the same process of clawback will not be repeated.

The Bill is bad for taxpayers as well, because although initially it may give the universities some extra money—there is no certainty about that—the amount it gives them will be far outweighed by the extra bill that taxpayers have to pay.

Worst of all, the Bill is bad for democracy, because less than three years ago, Labour candidates campaigned for election on the basis of one of clearest and most unequivocal election promises that I can ever remember—that a Labour Government would not introduce top-up fees and had legislated to prevent them. The cynical and unprincipled way in which that promise is now being broken will further damage the faith of voters in politicians and in the whole political process, a faith that has already been sorely tested under the present Government. If Labour Ministers really wanted to undergo a change of heart about top-up fees, they should have included a pledge in their next election manifesto and campaigned honestly on that.

The Government might just have got their Bill through the House today, but they have a long way to go before they win the argument in the country. I and my Conservative colleagues are delighted to have this chance to show that when we give a pledge to a voters, our word can be relied on, and I urge hon. Members on both sides of the House to join us in opposing Third Reading tonight.

Next Section

IndexHome Page