Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Ms Meg Munn, Mr. Andrew Mackay, Mr. Andy Reed, Jonathan Shaw, Mr. Barry Sheerman, Dr. Alan Whitehead, Brian White and Mr. Phil Willis.

Representation Of The People (Ballot Papers)

Ms Meg Munn accordingly presented a Bill to make provision about the order of names on ballot papers used in elections where more than one candidate is to be elected; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 15 October, and to be printed [Bill 152].

14 Sept 2004 : Column 1140

Opposition Day

[17th Allotted Day]

Higher Education

Mr. Speaker: I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

1.22 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): I beg to move,

That this House notes with regret the emerging consequences of the passage of the Higher Education Act 2004; believes that fees and expanding student debt create significant disincentives for those considering university entry, particularly from less well-off backgrounds; congratulates the efforts of those in the House of Lords who achieved significant concessions during the passage of the Higher Education Bill, particularly for part-time students; regrets that Her Majesty's Official Opposition has completely ignored the needs of part-time students in its new policy; notes that Conservative proposals ask students to pay for the abolition of tuition fees through higher interest payments on their loans, leaving them no better off; further notes the conclusion of the Institute of Fiscal Studies and others that Conservative proposals penalise the poor in order to subsidise the rich; notes the recent Times Higher Education Supplement/Opinion Panel Research opinion poll of students which finds that 47 per cent. support the Liberal Democrats, 20 per cent. support Labour and 23 per cent. are backing the Conservatives; and therefore calls for the immediate abolition of all tuition fees, the re-introduction of maintenance grants of up to £2,000 for students from low-income homes, and the development of a higher education system which brings together universities, further education and e-learning, opens up routes to vocational and technical as well as academic qualifications, and makes it easier for those who wish to study part-time.

It is a pleasure to speak to a packed House on the important issue of higher education. I should like to begin by welcoming the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), to the Front Bench in his new role. When I first came into the House, he was the Minister for Lifelong Learning, and was incredibly courteous to those of us who were starting our careers here at the time. We remember that, and thank him for it. If today's announcement by the Secretary of State for Education and Skills on post-result applications to higher education is a measure of the Minister's immediate influence, we welcome that, too. The Schwartz committee's recommendations, which have been so swiftly accepted by the Secretary of State, represent an important step towards encouraging university applications from the less traditional groups.

Will the Minister use his influence to dovetail the proposals of the Schwartz committee with the forthcoming proposals by Mike Tomlinson? It is crucial that those two strands of policy development sit together. Schwartz talks almost exclusively of post-A2 level entry into higher education, while Tomlinson shifts the emphasis to four-level diploma entry, with an emphasis on vocational as well as academic credits. I see that the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) is in his place, and I wonder whether this is an issue that the Education and Skills Committee could also look at. It would be sad if two separate silos, each of which placed an emphasis on trying to get under-represented groups into higher education and to further their
14 Sept 2004 : Column 1141
education, could not come together. Schools, colleges and universities need a single, integrated entry system, and there is a danger, if we adopt the Schwartz system, that we might prejudice what is proposed later by Tomlinson. I hope that the Minister will take that on board.

We wish the Minister well, however. When I looked at the Guardian Unlimited website this morning, a most unusual fact was revealed to me: the Minister was the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on industrial development between 1995 and 1997! That was a fact that I did not know, but I am sure that the Minister will reap huge rewards from having represented us on that vital brief during those two years.

Such surprises are the magic of the House of Commons, but few surprises can rival the announcement last week that the Conservatives at last have a policy on higher education. It has only been six years since the passing of the Teaching and Higher Education Act in 1998, three years since the Prime Minister launched his review, two years since the White Paper was published, one year since the current legislation was published and three months since it received Royal Assent. However, we welcome their announcement.

I have to confess that I was as nervous as a schoolboy with his first top-shelf magazine when I read the Conservatives' policy. Would it live up to expectations? That was the key question. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) has now joined his colleagues on the Front Bench, because it was he who stung me in Committee when I challenged him to tell me when the Conservatives would reveal their plans for higher education. He boldly replied:

Hon. Members: Hear, hear!

Mr. Willis: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has hon. Members' support. However, the initial verdict on his party's policy has not exactly been encouraging.

Professor Nicholas Barr of the London School of Economics, who is regarded as one of the leading international experts in student finance, has said of the Conservatives' policy that it is

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman also believe what Professor Barr says about Liberal Democrat policy, which he utterly condemns?

Mr. Willis: I am quite sure that when the hon. Gentleman has the opportunity to speak, he will comment on the Liberal Democrats' policy, but I am talking about his party's six-year plans for higher education.

The National Union of Students has described the Conservatives' policy as

14 Sept 2004 : Column 1142

and the Association of University Teachers has said that it "could prove a disaster" and that it is "highly regressive". NATFHE has commented:

Frankly, there is not much to be jealous of, so far.

To be fair to the Conservatives, however, despite the dodgy use of figures, the lack of published sources in their report and the misleading use of the Government's explanatory notes to the Bill, the proposals deserve, and are getting, detailed consideration. I wish to help them in that regard today. Perhaps the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) could explain why, when using the range of figures from the explanatory notes, he took the lowest figure for fee income and the highest for savings from loan subsidies. That is hardly the research on which to base a credible policy after seven years.

But surely the Conservatives' glaring, unforgivable omission of any mention of part-time students was not a result of sloppy research. Given that 50 per cent. of university students study part-time, that omission is more than a minor oversight. I well remember the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell saying in Committee that

Those were nothing more than crocodile tears, because there is nothing in the Conservatives' proposals for part-timers. Indeed, had it not been for the assiduous work of my noble Friend in another place, Baroness Sharp, who persuaded the Government to include some provision for part-timers and to ensure that the Office for Fair Access—OFFA—considered access arrangements for part-time students within university plans, I doubt whether the Government would have acted at all.

May I ask the Minister, who I know values part-time study greatly, whether he will extend the proposed review of funding at Birkbeck and the Open university to all mainstream universities, rather than just those two institutions?

Will he guarantee that any assistance rightly offered to Birkbeck and the Open university will be offered to mainstream universities, too? That is a relatively small commitment, but it would send out a strong signal to part-time students and to mainstream universities that that mode of study is valued and supported. The failure of the Conservatives to address that and other key issues means that they have missed a glorious opportunity to cash in on disillusionment with Government policy and to make an important contribution to the debate.

The Higher Education Act 2004 represents a significant departure for British higher education. It enshrines a system in which access depends on ability to pay, not on ability to learn, and on tolerance of £30,000-plus debts. It is extraordinary and irresponsible for Labour Ministers to admit that students will graduate with significant debts, and to boast that students will just have to live with that, at a time when the debt culture in our society is viewed as dangerous and unsustainable.

Next Section IndexHome Page