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Mr. Sheerman: I do not want to make my right hon. Friend's life difficult, but it is important to clear up some factual points. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) is wrong to describe medicine as a white, middle-class male profession—he is certainly wrong on gender when it comes to current recruitment. How big is the difference between long courses in dentistry and in medicine, where the fifth and sixth years are paid for by the NHS, and veterinary medicine?

Alan Johnson: The student pays. I am pretty sure that we provide no assistance in those circumstances.

Mr. Rendel: I declare an interest as someone who is married to a GP. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) is right that many of our medics, especially those who enter medical schools nowadays, are female. Does not that counter the Minister's point that all medics may pay much more in fees but will ultimately earn good salaries? Many will not get good salaries because they will take part-time work, at least while they have families. Their salaries will not necessarily be that good. If they marry people who do not earn much, they may have to get a mortgage to buy a surgery as well as a home. They may be in difficult circumstances.

Alan Johnson: That is a valid criticism of some of the loan repayment schemes but not of the measure. The new system is income-contingent. If, for any reason, salaries drop below £15,000, graduates will pay nothing back. There is no real rate of interest and no money is clocking up. Debt is always called in at some stage; under the proposed system, it is never called in. Indeed, after 25 years, it is forgiven. I do not therefore accept the hon. Gentleman's points but the difference of opinion at least reinforced the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) that the gender balance is much better in the medical profession, although there are other aspects to consider.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): The Minister is presenting some reasonable views. The fact that I can understand them is good if a little worrying. I took a four-year language course, starting a language from scratch. What is the incentive under the new system for someone to study a language at university, which is not one of those taught in school, if the course lasts four years? Are we not in danger of providing a disincentive to people to learn other languages?

Alan Johnson: No. There are problems with specific modern languages but the Langlands review has been set up to consider such issues, among others.
 
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I do not claim that hon. Members' have not made relevant points about some professions but that the amendment is a blunderbuss that tries to resolve all problems by simply providing for no fees, removing £60 million from the universities immediately and between £130 million and £180 million by 2006. That is not the solution.

We should have a system whereby courses are accessible and attractive, whatever their length. That needs to be achieved by a proper method of targeted recruitment incentives not by a centralised, blanket, inflexible approach such as that in the amendment. We already have a flexible system that allows us to target support at the subjects and students that most need it, without inflicting financial damage on universities.

Significant measures already exist to support students on longer courses. That reflects the importance that the Government attach to such courses and the need to encourage entry into the professions to which they lead. For example, fees are paid for medical students in their fifth and sixth years of study. They also receive means-tested national health service bursaries for those years. We have been over that ground previously in Committee and on Report and I shall not repeat the details of other incentives that we have put in place.

Evidence shows that the incentives work. We have more teachers with qualified teacher status in our schools now than at any time since 1984. Applications to medical schools in the United Kingdom have increased dramatically since 1998, as has the total number of students who study medical courses. Places on veterinary science courses are heavily over-subscribed.

The amendment would create curious anomalies. I shall give two examples. Students who repeat a year, perhaps because they failed parts of their course, would effectively be excused from paying a fee for the extra year. That would be unfair. Let us consider students on sandwich courses, whereby they spend a year out, often in paid employment in industry. They are charged only a half-rate fee in the year out because they get less from their institution but the amendment would give them a free year as well as the reduced-rate sandwich year.

Mr. Boswell: As time presses, and without prejudice to the general arguments that we had in Committee on policy, but in the real world where the Government can sometimes get their way even if we do not believe that they should, will the Minister at least undertake to consider, in any brokering with another place, a compromise, which would freeze the commitment beyond year three at the existing fee? That would remove the difficulty of the argument that he has deployed but provide at least a limited income to the university without getting people into racking up additional commitments. That is the genuine concern of everyone who supports the amendment.

4 pm

Alan Johnson: I never like to be difficult with the hon. Gentleman, but the answer is no. I see no point in considering that proposal at all, but it was a nice try. Neither do I think, incidentally, that the noble Lords would expect me to consider it, particularly after the debate that they had last night about trying to find the funding for this gap.
 
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I have outlined the key arguments against the amendment, but before I finish, it would be remiss of me not to point out that it is also technically flawed, in that it sets a condition but provides no means of enforcing it. On a more minor note, the term "eligible student" is defined in the student support regulations, not the Bill, so the effect in this context would be ambiguous.

Lords amendment No. 4 would have a significant effect on future decisions about public spending, and should therefore be rejected on the ground of privilege. It would tie the hands of future Governments and prevent them from determining their spending priorities in the light of the circumstances at the time. We are all concerned with the important issue of funding for higher education, but the amendment goes further than ensuring that the new fee income would be additional, and guarantees that public funding for higher education could never decrease, regardless of the needs of other public services.

If we were to accept the amendment, we would be setting a strange and dangerous precedent. We could hardly offer such a guarantee for higher education without recognising the needs of schools, hospitals, and other vital public services. This illustrates the traditional argument against hypothecation; the provision would lead us quickly to a position in which every part of the public sector had its own special case for protection.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): I agree with the arguments that my right hon. Friend has just articulated, but should not the Government have tabled their own amendments to ensure that higher education spending kept up with other increases in public spending, or with the generality of education spending, to ensure the additionality of the fee income over general Government spending?

Alan Johnson: I do not think that we can do that in legislation. We have given an assurance that we would stand by the sector, and the Chancellor gave that assurance again in his Budget speech in March. It would be dangerous to write such restrictions into the Bill. Incidentally, we are starting a very interesting debate with Universities UK about how better to define the unit of funding to provide greater clarity and a better understanding of how this all works. I do not think that there is a legislative solution here, and it is certainly not the one that my hon. Friend suggests.

Under the terms of the amendment, there would ultimately be no flexibility at all for the Government to determine their spending priorities, and a dangerous precedent would be set. Even if there were major and significant financial pressures on this Government or a future Government, the effect of this amendment would be that higher education would have to be protected above all other priorities. That cannot be right.

Earlier debates in the other place also touched on some of the practical difficulties inherent in the amendment, including potential unintended consequences. For example, the amendment refers to the average funding over the previous three years. That would mean that no sensible Government would ever seek to provide a one-off injection of funding to meet some perceived need, because that would increase the average and could therefore be unsustainable in the
 
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future. The result would be that the funding would be kept at the lowest level permissible under the legislation, irrespective of whether additional funding might have been available in any one year. So the amendment would serve only to work against higher education's interests.

To summarise, the first of the amendments should be rejected on the ground that it would deprive universities of funding, and the second should be rejected on the ground of privilege, in that it would tie the hands of any future Government in making decisions on expenditure. I hope, therefore, that the House will join me in rejecting both of the Lords amendments.


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