Higher Education Bill

[back to previous text]

Alan Johnson: I am not sure whether I should welcome you back or you should welcome me back, Mr. Gale. This has been a long and wide-ranging debate. I shall try to be as concise and focused as possible, but at the same time respond to many of the important points that have been made. In fact, I hope I can respond to all the central points. I might be able to deal with some more detailed issues, although I may have to write to hon. Members on them. I have the information, but whether I deal with those other issues depends on how long I speak for.

Incidentally, I am conscious of the fact that the Opposition parties are batting on our wicket when they discuss these amendments. The argument that they have made on amendments Nos. 110, 3 and 120 and even, in a sense, on variable fees is that they are opposed to fees per se—they do not want them—but that if there were fees, they should operate in a certain way. We shall move on to a group of amendments that are very much on our wicket and I do not intend to use up all the arguments on fees during this debate.

It is fair to say that this has been a feast of a debate, but there is broccoli and carrots and there is meat and gravy. Without being too unkind to the hon. Members who tabled amendments Nos. 3, 120 and 110 and my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North, I shall deal with the broccoli and carrots first—it is nutritious, tasty and important—before coming on to the meat, which is the central question of variable versus fixed fees.

Amendment No. 110 is designed to exclude medics, vets and teachers from fees from year four onwards. I should say first that it raises an important concern for Members from all parties, but the problem is that it is flawed. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale may realise that, and it may be probing, although I understand that there might be a vote on it, but, as it is linked to the conditions of the grant set by the Secretary of State, it would mean universities being able to charge whatever they liked for medics, vets and teachers from their fourth year onwards.

I know how frustrating it can be to deal with such issues on technical grounds, so I will try to deal with the substance as if there was not a technical flaw, although it would be wrong not to mention it.

Chris Grayling: Is it not true that under section 26(4) and (5) of the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998, the Secretary of State would retain powers to prevent that from happening?

Alan Johnson: The hon. Gentleman may be right, so let us deal with this as a general issue and as if there is no technical flaw. I have been advised that there is a flaw and I am sure that inspiration on the point may hit me before the end of the debate. [Interruption.] Inspiration arrives quickly these days and I can say on reflection that the answer is no, because schedule 26 will be repealed by the Bill. The amendment is flawed.

Column Number: 321

Mr. Boswell: Unless I have misread the provisions of schedule 7, with which I am sure the Minister is thoroughly familiar, the Bill repeals section 26, not schedule 26, as he inadvertently said.

Alan Johnson: As always, the hon. Gentleman is extremely helpful. He is right—I should have said section 26. That is the trouble with getting a piece of paper that says ''S26'' on it, not that I want to reveal any secrets of government.

This is an important point. The amendment is unfair and unnecessary. The hon. Member for Newbury is not present, but in his contribution a few days ago he said that it would cover all students from their fourth year onwards. However, it covers only medics, vets and teachers, which is unfair. Also, modern language and architecture courses take longer than three years, so it does not cover everyone. However, my main point is that it would be wrong to say in primary legislation that certain groups are excluded. One reason for that is that even if we added to the list we would probably not cover everyone, but the main reason is that employers, and the Government in particular, are already dealing with the issues.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) mentioned the NHS, which has a direct contract with universities rather than working through HEFCE. The NHS has made it clear that that contract will not be affected by a change in fees, and it means that midwives and nurses are not to be charged any fees. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) made an important contribution yesterday on the basis of the rigorously researched fact that radiography students would have their fees increased from £12,000 to £26,000. The slight flaw in his argument is that they do not pay any fees now and will not pay any in future, because they come under the NHS contract. In London, they even get a bursary of about £2,700, so dealing with those groups is very important for the Government, for both the public sector and employers.

The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) raised an important point about vets. I said that the figures were wrong, although to be fair he had referred to applications and the figures I gave were for acceptances. What we do know is that veterinary science is oversubscribed, so there is certainly no problem in terms of getting vets. That must be the issue that employers consider in relation to whether they need to provide assistance in this way.

Chris Grayling: Before the Minister moves on from the issue of radiographers, may I clarify whether he is saying that radiographers are exempt from fees in the first three years of a degree course?

Alan Johnson: My information is that radiographers do not pay any fees as they are exempt per se.

We believe the framework in primary legislation should be the same for all students, but there is a serious problem here. The wording of this amendment, even if it was not flawed and was perfectly reasonable in all other respects, would interfere with a university's charging policy. More importantly, it would transfer

Column Number: 322

the financial obligation to meet the cost of those students from the employers to the universities. At the moment, the university charges a fee, but that is paid on behalf of the student by the NHS or the DFES. This amendment says that students would not be charged the fee in the first place, meaning that the universities would have to pay for them, which would be entirely wrong.

Mr. Boswell: Having made a micro-intervention recently, I would like to make a more substantive one now in relation to those future professionals who spend more than three years on their course. The Minister has mentioned architects as well as vets, and there will be one or two other subjects whose students study for an extended period. Not all of them will be employed by the public sector, and some will not have employers of any kind—for example, vets who go into private practice and are not salaried, or who soon become partners.

I do not ask for a definitive assurance, but will the Minister accept that it is important, particularly in respect of the Langlands review he is setting up, that he should continue to look at the problem of access to the professions that are not necessarily in the public sector? Some of these professionals—vets and architects in particular—clearly carry an important public interest.

Alan Johnson: That is a point I was going to come on to. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers) raised on Second Reading the very concerns that he has raised. That is why we have set up the committee under Sir Alan Langlands, the vice-chancellor of Dundee university, to look at the effect of these measures on professions such as architecture, particularly for those people outside the threshold for grants and bursaries. Sir Alan will commence his work next year and it will be ready for 2006. The committee will look at best practice among employers and consider all these problems to see whether there is anything further the Government need do. Amendment No. 110 is not the way to resolve this important issue.

4.45 pm

Amendments Nos. 3 and 120 deal with writing the £3,000 cap into the Bill, and the retail prices index plus, which is the mechanism to increase that cap. The Opposition voiced concerns about what will happen after 2010. A Government amendment to clause 24 will ensure that the pledge given by the Secretary of State in the White Paper in January that we would not increase the cap for the period of the next Government will be written into the Bill. That has not happened yet, Mr. Gale, but I hope that you do not mind my referring to it as it is important to the debate.

I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Newbury back in his place as I mentioned him earlier. He said that, at his fascinating dinner in the Oxford McDonald's, a college principal spoke of the fee cap going after 2010. The fee cap does not go in 2010.

The fee cap is where it should be in the legislation. It is the practice of Governments of all persuasions to balance what goes into primary legislation and what

Column Number: 323

goes into secondary legislation. The level of the fee cap ought to be set in secondary, not primary, legislation. When my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East was a Minister in the late 1990s, the fee cap went into regulations—into secondary, not primary, legislation. That is the proper place for it.

I shall return to the other points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East, but he asked about tracking student grants and bursaries and the student support package with the fee. Of course, the amendment would keep all the important issues such as the maintenance loan and the grant in secondary legislation, but it would put the fee into primary legislation.

Mr. Collins: I know that the Minister was about to move on, but I wonder whether he will, with your indulgence, Mr. Gale, jog back half a step. He said that he would prefer a Government amendment—which we may or may not have a chance to debate later—to amendment No. 3, which we are debating now. Amendment No. 3 specifies the retail prices index, with no room for interpretation, but the Government's amendment merely says that the Secretary of State must be satisfied that the RPI has been followed. When so much turns on the question of trust, it would be desirable for the RPI to be written into the Bill, with no question of interpretation.

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