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Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson), who is forthright and clear on a subject about which he knows a great deal. It is a matter of regret all round that he does not appear to have been centrally involved in the construction of his party's new higher education policy. Perhaps it would have been different if he had been.
We have concentrated this afternoon on the details of higher education policy. I suspect that as we move into a general election campaign the significance of such detail will be forgotten, but it is extremely important, as hon. Members have said, that we get it right, because it will allow students to know whether they can afford university fees, and pay them in reasonable instalments over a period of time. As my hon. Friend the Minister said, payment should allow for career breaks and other personal choices. The detail of our policy will allow universities to plan their funding, tuition and research requirements in the medium and long term. That is the essence of recent debates in the often difficult passage of the Higher Education Act 2004, which made considerable progress in closing the gap, acknowledged by everyone, between the funding requirements of higher education tuition and research and student contributions. Under the new system, students will be able to pay those contributions from their future income and universities will have an income stream to meet their requirements. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) that that does not lead automatically to a closure of the gap, and I suspect that in future there will be a substantial debate about universities' research requirements. Nevertheless, as a result of the passage of the amended Act and the changes that it will introduce, the detail of the long-term situation is much clearer.
Another hidden issue is access for students who have never considered going to university before. The proposals from both Opposition parties that we are considering this afternoon resile from the notion that about 50 per cent. of young people should go to university. It has been suggested that that figure was plucked out of thin air, but that is not true. According to projections, in future, about 50 per cent. of 18-year-olds leaving school or college will have the qualifications to go to university. The Opposition parties, however, would tell those students that, even though they have the qualifications to do so, they cannot go to university, which undermines a fundamental principle of higher education that the House should espouse. We must enable school leavers to go to university so that on
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graduation they can contribute to our economy and society. If we start to pick and choose students to reduce their overall number we will let those people down.
In contrast to the Government's detailed policy on higher education, the proposals of the Opposition parties are bottles of snake oil, albeit two very different ones. The Conservative bottle is an enormous jeroboam. The ingredients of that concoction, however, do not add up, as has been said. Asking students to repay loans at commercial interest rates would make an unacceptable connection with a mortgage. Students will not have the choice of taking a career break and there will be no allowance for people who do not earn enough money to pay off the loan. As a result, the clock will be ticking on the interest that they have to pay and, as analysis shows, the money to be repaid will pile up. The idea of throwing out the loan book to match funding for endowments is absurd. The loan book, however, is a means of providing loans for students in the long-term. If we sell that long-term future to achieve a short-term fix for university funding we will simply find that the sums do not add up. The only conclusion to be drawn is that the books can only be made to balance by a radical contraction of student numbers, and that is the problem at the heart of the Conservative proposals.
The Liberal Democrat proposals, as I said, are a different kind of snake oil, although it may be unfair to characterise them as such. They are a medicine that works in its own right, but the problem is that the same bottle of medicine has been promised to every single person in the GP's practice. My hon. Friend the Minister outlined a number of Liberal Democrat proposals that flow from the 50 per cent. tax increase that they would introduce. A little while ago, I attended a debate in the Chamber on Liberal Democrat proposals for local income tax in which they said that they could achieve the transition from council tax to local income tax by means of their 50 per cent. tax increase. They would introduce a cut in council tax, free long-term care for the elderly and various other things, including higher education reforms, some costed, others not, that go far beyond their central pledge to abolish tuition fees.
The Liberal Democrats propose loans to cover maintenance, the reintroduction of maintenance grants of £2,000 a year for poor students, and free eye tests and prescriptions for students. They would like to restore housing benefit to students during the summer holidays. They want to pay fees for part-time students who, they say, will also be eligible on a pro rata basis for means-tested loans and grants. In addition, they would like to put more funds at the disposal of individual universities to help meet cases of unexpected hardship.
Perhaps as a result of those additional internal uncosted commitments, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), whom I greatly respect for the tenacity and thoughtfulness of his contributions
I am paying a straightforward compliment to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, not a barbed one. I imagine that it was
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precisely because of that thoughtfulness and commitment that he circulated a memo to members of his party last year, pointing out that there was a hole of between £1.5 billion and £2 billion in the Liberal Democrats' commitments that would need to be filled.
The Liberal Democrats also seem to suggest not just that a number of students would study near their homes, but that, in the words of their leader, normally students would study at universities near their homes. That runs contrary to the idea that access means students have access to all courses on the basis of their qualifications, wherever those courses are. In an economy where the elite universities attracted the movement of students, most universities did not. A state college system would cut directly across the idea of access, which we consider important.
Mr. Rendel: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman has forgotten that there are now as many part-time students as full-time students. As almost all those part-time students are studying from home, it is true even now that the majority of students are studying from home.
Dr. Whitehead: Yes, I take the hon. Gentleman's point. It is true that a number of students are studying from home, and that a number of students who are doing full-time courses go to local universities. I take issue not with that fact, but with the apparent notion enshrined in the Liberal Democrat proposals that it would be normal to study at homethat pretty much everybody would study at home or at their local university. That is a considerable bridge over which Liberal Democrat policy leaps.
Mr. Sheerman: I have heard it said several times today that the majority of students study at home. I have not seen that statistic and I should be interested to know whether it is legitimate. If a party believes that most students should stay at home and study rather than go away, it may suit that party to present that as the current situation. I should like to know the legitimacy of the statement that most students in higher education study at home. I have not seen it for myself.
Dr. Whitehead: Neither have I. As I granted the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), it is accepted that a substantial number of students, particularly part-time students, study at home. I have looked at the figures for students studying locally in my own city, at Southampton institute and Southampton university. There is an increasing trend, but it is by no means normal for students to study at home. It is by no means the case that most students study at home. As my hon. Friend says, to make that claim in order to bolster a policy that would greatly enhance that number is a bridge too far.
The hon. Member for Newbury may not have stated that students would normally attend a college or university near to where they lived or worked, but his leader, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy), stated that in a speech to Liberal Future on 5 June 2003. The idea seems to be a fundamental part of the assumptions behind Liberal Democrat policy.
Whether or not one agrees with everything in the package proposed by the Labour Government, the policy is clear for students and universities. It is clear
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about access and the long-term future of universities, students and access. My concern this afternoon is to contrast that with two policies that, in varying ways, mortgage the future for the present. We need look no further than the extraordinary quote in the motionI have not seen many such quotes in motionswhich states that the
"Times Higher Education Supplement/Opinion Panel Research opinion poll of students . . . finds that 47 per cent. support the Liberal Democrats, 20 per cent. support Labour and 23 per cent. are backing the Conservatives".
That would largely explain the wildly over-extensive and substantially uncosted prospectus that the Liberal Democrats are presenting to students. Those who do not look at the detail may be taken in by it. It may be a clear election ploy to try and enhance the support of those people, but because the debate is all about details, it is essential to stick with the details. Those who look at them will realise that we should not mortgage the future of higher education for quick fixes. We should make sure that higher education is funded not just for current students who are voting in polls organised by The Times Higher Education Supplement, but for students in the next 30, 40 or 50 years who may benefit from their university and benefit the country, and for universities of which we can be proud.
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