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Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): On the close examination of Opposition policies on higher
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education and the question of student fees, will the hon. Gentleman reflect on whether a such a policy can be described as providing free higher education when proposals exist to impose commercial repayment rates for student loans at 2 per cent. above base rate, I believe? Does he consider that to be a free higher education system?

Mr. Willis: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point, because that is the crux of the Conservative party's policy. The short answer to his question is absolutely not. What is more pernicious is that to get those funds into universities, that commercial rate of interest is charged on the poorer students, who must pay the greatest amount, because they must borrow the most. That is a classic sheriff of Nottingham policy, imposed by the Conservatives.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey) (LD): Before my hon. Friend moves off student debt and the prospect of debt, has he seen the figures that came to me in a parliamentary answer just before the summer, which showed that for the first time in the past 10 years, there was a drop in the percentage of people across Greater London going on to university? That fall was evident in two thirds of education authorities. Does he have any explanation as to why, suddenly, in London, not only are we not moving towards the Government's target but away from it?

Mr. Willis: I thank my hon. Friend for his question. It is interesting that in some of the poorest communities in places such as Barking, Islington and particularly Lambeth—which I know because I live there—in which fewer than 20 per cent. of students now go on to higher education in a city that offers the widest range of higher education institutions, we are seeing such an alarming drop. For Ministers to say that that is nothing to do with tuition fees and top-up fees is fatuous.

The Liberal Democrats consistently argued that tuition fees and top-up fees would be a significant disincentive to potential students, particularly those from less affluent backgrounds, and not simply a disincentive to go to university, but, crucially, a disincentive to attend the top universities. That was the clear and categorical conclusion of the Government's research, commissioned from Professor Claire Callender of South Bank university. The findings were given additional impact by the report, "The Missing 3,000" published by the Sutton Trust in August, which concludes:

Are Ministers saying that that is not partly due to debt and the fear of debt? If so, they are burying their heads in the sand.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman will recall that, during the Committee stage of the Higher Education Bill, he and I had quite a few debates about the factors that were influential in determining whether students go to university. Does he
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agree that there is a perception that it is more expensive to go to Oxford and Cambridge than to many other universities? That is blatantly untrue; in fact, the reverse is true. The level of subsidy and number of bursaries available at Cambridge university make it a much cheaper university for those who have the right qualifications.

Mr. Willis: The hon. Lady is right that we have debated these issues regularly. Does she think that adding a £3,000 a year top-up fee creates a fair access policy? I do not care how much is given at the other end. If £3,000 is charged up front, my goodness, let us not pretend that students are getting a different, better provision.

Mrs. Campbell rose—

Mr. Willis: Our research shows that the proportion of English school leavers applying to go to university has fallen—

Mrs. Campbell: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman did not intend to mislead the House, but the £3,000 is not paid up front, and it would be helpful if he were to withdraw that last statement.

Mr. Willis: I will gladly withdraw it. The fact is that, although the student who is charged £3,000 does not have to pay it on that day, it is still added to their account. Whether it is paid on the first day, or at the end of three years, when the debt is £9,000, is irrelevant. Let us remember that a Labour Government in 1998 introduced tuition fees, having said that they would not do so in their 1997 manifesto, and a Labour Government introduced top-up fees, having said that they would not do so, and having legislated against it in 2001. Let us not have crocodile tears from Labour Back Benchers about those fees.

Our research shows that the proportion of English school leavers applying to go to university has fallen in each of the past two years. According to Universities and Colleges Admissions Service figures, if the number of 18 to 20-year-old applicants in England had kept pace with demographic trends, an additional 12,250 would have opted to go to university over the past two years, but they have not done so. The Government can hardly claim that six years of tuition fees, and the prospect of top-up fees, have been a triumph for social inclusion.

But what are the alternatives? Will either the Liberal Democrat or Conservative proposals expand educational opportunities for less affluent and under-represented groups? As opposition parties, we have a duty not just to criticise but to propose credible alternatives. The Liberal Democrats not only proposed but published our higher education proposals in "Quality, Diversity and Choice". Copies of our documents were sent to Ministers for perusal in advance of debate on the Higher Education Bill, and the costings were analysed and verified not only by the Government but by the Higher Education Policy Institute as correct.
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Hon. Members might disagree with our proposals on where we would raise our money, and where we would spend it, but the Liberal Democrats are the only party that guarantees students that they will not pay tuition fees or top-up fees and that poorer students will get grants, which will be paid for out of progressive taxation—a philosophy and a concept that the Labour party has abandoned totally as it faces the 21st century.

The Conservatives, however, have totally failed to meet the test of credibility. The analysis of their proposals by the Institute for Fiscal Studies is devastating. As was pointed out earlier in relation to the intervention of the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), the poorest 30 per cent. of students, who are entitled to a full grant and bursaries under the Government scheme, will pay 25 per cent. more in loan repayments under the Tories' proposals. The Higher Education Policy Institute confirms the IFS view that women, those taking career breaks, for whatever reason, and those in low-income employment, particularly in the public sector, would be particularly disadvantaged. Significant numbers of students will never pay off their debts, because the interest on them will rack up to a point at which it will be impossible to pay them off.

The proposals include no calculation of how that debt will be written off. Students taking longer courses in medicine, for instance—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell is trying to intervene from a sedentary position. A tiny figure is included in the Conservative proposals, but they include no calculation of the number of students who might not repay their debts. They are, in fact, based on the Labour party's proposals—and for all their faults, those involve a simple tax on the outstanding amount which will depend on a person's income. No real interest is added.

My fear, and that of my party, is that those taking longer courses such as medicine, dentistry and architecture—who are already grossly disadvantaged by the Government's proposals—would find their debts soaring as commercial interest rates were added to loans taken out in the first years of their studies. Or is the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell saying that loans taken out by medical students during the first three years will be exempt from interest until those people start earning more than £15,000? Perhaps that could be clarified later.

In short, the Conservatives are asking the poorest to pay extra so that the rich will not have to pay any fees. That is a classic Conservative policy: tax the poor to give to the rich.

What about investment? Will the Conservative proposals mean extra investment for our universities?

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): More than yours do.

Mr. Willis: I shall have to have a little drink of water, because I am getting excited.

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