Higher Education Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Thomas: I am pleased to follow the speech of the hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie). I enjoyed his contribution immensely, and he made some very forceful points. His speech and that of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough exposed the central problem that many of us have with the Bill, which is not the Government's aims and objectives but the Bill's workings and long-term implications. Our central problem is not the fudge that has been arrived at now but the opening up of higher education as a marketplace in which we trade with young people's futures. That is what causes me great concern.

It was a long time ago when the hon. Member for Cambridge opened the debate on amendment No. 82, which I was pleased to support. I want to talk about three aspects: the market, social inclusion or exclusion—that depends on which side of the divide people are on—and the funding gap, but first I want to mention two things that have come out of this debate. I think that we all agree that we need more maths graduates and better maths teaching in schools, because some of the understanding of mathematics during this debate has been a little ropey. That applies to hon. Members of all parties. I am also reminded of an argument I had with my daughter when she was about six. I promised that I would give her £1; although I did not have the shiny pound coin she wanted, I had the change that added up to £1, but she would not accept that all that change added up to the same amount as a shiny pound coin.

The central thing that we have to see in this Bill is the point that the hon. Member for Leeds, East concluded on. The Bill adds the £3,000 tuition fee—which is what the sum will be most of the time, although it will be variable—to the £3,000 grant to the poorest students. Taken together, they do not add up to more than zero. There is a trade-off. [Interruption.] We know it is a trade-off because it was not in the White Paper and it was not in any earlier discussions.

Column Number: 313

It came at the very last minute—an obvious trade-off. In that respect, the trade-off gives rise to the questions: why is that sufficient to take the Bill through, at this stage; why was it able to get the minimum support that it received on Second Reading; and what is so important about this Bill? [Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. There are too many private conversations taking place in the room. There are lovely green benches outside where hon. Members can discuss anything they wish.

Mr. Thomas: Thank you, Mr. Gale.

I question the reasoning behind the Bill. If it was simply a Bill about delivering £3,000 maintenance grants, I do not think we would be discussing it today. The problem with the Bill is the element of variability. We have been bought off, for the time being, with an extra dollop of cash up front, for some students. That sweetens the pill but does not change the effect of the medicine on our universities.

Jonathan Shaw: The hon. Gentleman said that the issues of fee remission were not discussed until recently. That is not the case. We raised this with the Secretary of State a year ago. He looked at the consequences of accepting the principle, to which he has come round.

Mr. Thomas: I did not quite say that. I said that the £3,000 trade-off, balancing maintenance grants against tuition fees, did not appear until very late in the day. The specifics did not appear. They are important, because they lead to that nil sum for poorer students, which was vital to get some Labour Members to support Second Reading but does not hide the central problem of the Bill—the introduction of the market into higher education.

The question has been raised about the market in further education and in part-time higher education. The existence of a market in other sections of our post-16 and post-18 education is not, in itself, a wonderful justification for introducing the market into tuition fees. I believe the question is whether the market in further education works for the benefit of students. We must look at this more closely.

What is the nature of this so-called market? For part-time students, the existence of current fixed rate tuition fees acts as an equaliser in the market. In fact, there is no real market, because there is a stabilising element. Within further education, we have to bear it in mind that markets work only when there are price mechanisms, incentives and penalties. Speaking for my own constituency and the other areas of Wales with which I am familiar, that does not happen in further education. We are not talking about tuition fees of £3,000 or even £1,000 in further education—if I can use the term tuition fees. We are talking about hundreds of pounds. It is still an obstacle, but it is not of the same magnitude.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): I can update the hon. Gentleman's figures still further. Last week, the Under-Secretary kindly responded to a written question, informing me that the average fee paid by an 18 to 21-year-old in further education is only £135. It is not hundreds, it is hundred.

Column Number: 314

Mr. Thomas: I am grateful for that specific figure, which only adds to my argument. The situation of a student who goes into further education for two years, at £135 per year, and leaves with a debt of £270, is very different from that of one who leaves with a debt of £9,000. In my discussions with further education colleges' lecturers and principals, not one ever mentioned the issue of fees being a problem in attracting students. There are other problems. In my area, transport is a problem for students who wish to attend a further education course, not fees. The element of variability that may exist between £135 and £95 is so minimal as not to be in the same league as tuition fees for higher education.

Mr. Boswell: Supplementary to the argument that the hon. Gentleman has just put, would he not agree that the total proportion of further education revenues raised by fees is assessed at about 8 per cent. of the whole, which is less than the amount that would be generated for higher education by the Bill? Yet, at the same time, perhaps it is not without significance that in further education Ministers are anxious to increase that percentage significantly.

Mr. Thomas: Yes, that is an important point, though I am aware that we are not discussing further education at this stage. However, we are discussing the principle of variability. In that context, the principle of public funding—whether for higher or further education—needs to be teased out from the Minister. I am sure that he will have the opportunity to go into that in more detail.

Mr. Rendel: Did the hon. Gentleman also pick up the point, made powerfully by the hon. Member for Leeds, East, that one may have a £3,000 grant to match a £3,000 fee now, but once the cap is lifted, there is no guarantee that the two sums will match. At that point, variability means that the least well-off students may have to start paying major fees.

Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman is correct in that regard, and the hon. Member for Leeds, East made a—

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

Mr. Thomas: Let me just finish that point. Obviously the hon. Gentleman does not agree, but I think that the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) is correct. The hon. Member for Leeds, East made a reasonable point, that there is no link between variable tuition fees and the maintenance grant. The maintenance grant may be £5,000 in 10 years' time—I do not know, but it may go up. It would be wonderful if it did, but there is no guarantee.

Mr. Chaytor: My point was that the hon. Member for Newbury was not correct when he said that the students would be liable to pay additional fees. The whole point of the Bill is that students do not pay fees: graduates pay fees. The continuous attempt to elide the two is dishonest. Is there a single student who will be paying a fee as a result of the Bill? Yes or no?

Mr. Thomas: I know the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, but I did not say that—it was the hon. Member for Newbury who said that.

Column Number: 315

Mr. Chaytor: The hon. Gentleman said that the hon. Member for Newbury was correct.

The Chairman: Order.

Mr. Thomas: I said, Mr. Gale, that the hon. Member for Newbury was correct in his analysis of the link between tuition fees and maintenance grants. I do not care whether one calls students ''students'' after they have graduated or whether one calls them by another name. What one calls them is not important. As soon as they finish university and put the last full stop on their last final paper, they will know that they have a debt of £9,000. That is not even when they graduate, because they may fail their exams but they will still have that debt. Therefore, they may not be graduates. I do not think that pushing the matter away three years down the line necessarily changes the effect. However, I want to address that point a little later.

I want to make a final point about the market. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale made an acceptable speech in his terms. I am trying not to give him too much praise, because I did not agree with the principles of it, but I am not in any way denigrating the way in which he gave it. It was useful to tease out some of the Conservatives' ideas on the matter. Variability was not a problem for him.

That also came out on Second Reading, when the right hon. Member for Newport, East (Alan Howarth), who of course was once on one side of the House and is now on the other, said something similar. If there is going to be a market, variability is important—it is a core need. The Conservatives recognise that there will be a market. I do not want to go into why they currently oppose it. However, they did, to be fair to them, say in their manifesto that they would not introduce top-up fees, and they are sticking to that, which is fair enough. Incidentally, in Wales they also said that they would support the devolution of tuition fees powers, but now they are opposing it in this Committee. That is something to be taken up with the hon. Gentleman's Welsh colleagues.

4.15 pm

What I really want to ask Labour Members is, in the concern that they genuinely have, and that I share, for increasing access and participation and dealing with the poorer students, and for ensuring that working-class kids can go to university, are they convinced that markets work to that end? In what other area of social policy can we say, with hand heart, as socialists, that markets work? [Interruption.] Markets certainly do not work in housing in my constituency. I would be delighted to have a debate with the hon. Member for Cambridge about that. The housing market is excluding the poorest people in my constituency, where we have not had a new council house built in 10 years. It is not working for the poorest people in my constituency.

The essential feature that I thought the Labour party stood for and that certainly we, and in this regard the Liberal Democrats stand for, is that we need to intervene in markets to make them work for our best social aims. We need to drive those markets to meet our social objectives. There is not much

Column Number: 316

disagreement, certainly among three factions in this Committee, on what those social objectives should be in this Bill. There is a real disagreement about whether the chosen mechanism, using a market in higher education, will achieve those aims. That is the heart of the debate and at the heart of the amendment.

In a sense, this is a question of faith, conviction and belief. As the hon. Member for Leeds, East said, we do not have an absolute explanation of the funding gap or of the amount of money that would be available. We have a general idea. We have organisations such as Universities UK and Scope telling us about the funding gap, and we have proposals from the Government about variable tuition fees meeting part of that funding gap. However, for those of us who want people to get to university, it is very difficult to see how that will work to their benefit.

Having said that this is definitely a market and we are talking about how to regulate that market, we now want to see how it would affect the poorer students in our areas. The first question is what puts working-class kids off going to university. I was fortunate enough to go to university in 1982.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2004
Prepared 26 February 2004