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15 Mar 2007 : Column 520

Stephen Williams: That was a rather convoluted economic point. All students will have had their debt increased in the current year by £3,000 when they leave university, no matter what social group they come from. The debt burden will be the same for all of them. The Minister appears to be grunting, and I recognise that the Government have introduced bursaries and maintenance grants, but students use those to live off while they are at university. The grants do not reduce their debt levels thereafter.

Bill Rammell: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, under the old system, poorer students on average ended up with higher levels of debt? Does he acknowledge that one of the virtues of the new system is that they end up on average with lower levels of debt?

Stephen Williams: The arrangements that a modern-day applicant has to face are so convoluted, compared with those that we all had to deal with, that I am not sure that we can make that judgment. One of the smart little differences that the Government have made is that a student’s eligibility to borrow from the Student Loans Company is reduced by £1,500 if they qualify for the £2,700 maintenance grant—sometimes called a fee loan, depending on which publication we read. So, yes, they are getting a grant, but the student loan that they have to live on will have been reduced. It is a complicated scene that students face at the moment. The Minister will tell me if I am wrong about that.

The Government would be foolish to rely on one year’s set of statistics for justification. One swallow does not make a summer, and one blip this year does not make for a statistical trend either. Over the past few years, as different financial arrangements have come into play, higher education statistics have been on a rollercoaster, and that will continue for the next few years as students under the old regime leave, and those who have to face the new regime join the system. It is too early for the Government or Labour Back Benchers to justify retrospectively the decision in 2004. They certainly cannot rely on one data set from one year of applications to imply that it will be okay to take the cap off fees in 2009. Such far-reaching policy conclusions cannot be made on the basis of one year’s worth of statistics.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: If university applications continue to increase in future years, will the hon. Gentleman’s party then recognise that its stance on tuition fees was wrong?

Stephen Williams: If the hon. Lady looks at my website or the federal party website, she will see that the first thing that I did when the statistics came out—during the half-term recess, I think—was to welcome them. I welcome more people going into higher education, as would most of my colleagues. That does not mean that we cannot question some of the assumptions made about those statistics.

As the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) said, the UCAS statistics do not include the large number of people who apply directly to institutions, either because that is the way that they do it or because they are studying part-time. About 40 per cent. of students currently study part-time. The statistics leave
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those people out of the equation. We do not yet understand, because the statistics have not been made available to us, the effect of the arrangements on them.

On social class differences, the Minister is clinging to a 0.3 or 0.4 per cent. increase—depending on which table one reads—in participation by lower socio-economic groups. Such a marginal increase in one data set is nothing to draw firm conclusions from. Earlier, he conceded that I had a fair point—just for once—in mentioning that the biggest sub-set of data in the UCAS statistics relates to students who do not volunteer information on their parents’ socio-economic group. We cannot draw hard conclusions from such statistics.

Debt may or may not make a difference. In some circumstances, in which a person is determined to go to university, I accept that it may not. Were I making my university choices again, despite coming from probably a similar background to the Minister’s, from what he said earlier—mine was a single-parent family from a council house in south Wales—I would like to think that financial considerations would not have stopped me. But some people in a similar group might make a different decision. Even if people do go on to university, the issue might skew their choice of institution or subject. We do not know about that yet.

Student bursaries are completely bewildering. I tried to replicate my choices of 20 years ago via the Aimhigher website and gave up after struggling to find out the different levels of financial support for the different institutions and subjects—history and economics—between which I was choosing at the time.

Mr. Sheerman: Are they crunchy enough subjects?

Stephen Williams: I think that they are. In the end, I chose history. The hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) is nodding that I did a crunchy subject, and I certainly think that it was—I have not read his latest book about Rome, however, although I did see it in the Library the other day.

The Department for Education and Skills has launched a new bursaries website in the past couple of weeks, which is a way of conceding that the information available was bewildering for students to navigate.

It is possible that a third barrier is presented by the structure of degrees. The financial arrangements for part-time students may present a barrier as well, but it is likely that the structure of courses does not attract some people who would like to benefit from higher education. Perhaps we should adopt a credit-based system, allowing students to dip in and out of higher education at different points in their lives, perhaps even studying at different institutions.

The hon. Member for Henley nods. That happens to be my party’s policy; I do not know whether it is his party’s policy, or indeed whether he can speak for his party when his chaperon is absent. It seems that he does not dare to say anything! But it is my party’s policy, something that may not be quite as well known as our opposition to variable fees at the last general election. We would like the degree structure to be reformed, so that students can take up a course of study and if their circumstances change—or for any other reason—can stop and continue with it later,
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perhaps at a different institution, in order to build up a degree. I understand that Wales is beginning to move in that direction; perhaps England should consider doing the same.

There has been an increase in foundation degrees over the past few years. We welcome that, and look forward to discussing it soon when we debate the Further Education and Training Bill. We may also need to consider the length of study involved in a full-time degree. Why does it have to be three years? It is not three years everywhere else, as we know from discussions we have had elsewhere about the Bologna arrangements. Perhaps the period could be condensed. Do students really need the long holidays that are required by the academics who teach them? If we condensed the programme of study into two years, the debt with which students leave university would undoubtedly decrease, and that would draw more people in.

David Howarth: Perhaps I should inform my hon. Friend that research universities no longer refer to “the long vacation”; it is now called “the research period”. Academics must do their work at some time.

Stephen Williams: I thank my hon. Friend for correcting me. I trust that the research takes place in the courts of Cambridge and not on a Mediterranean island—unless it is archaeological research, of course. Anyway, there are reforms that I think the higher education sector could introduce to increase participation rates among not just young people, but people of all ages.

Fair access is another issue. Widening participation is not merely about increasing the total volume of people who enter higher education; it is also about the institutions at which they study. Some higher education institutions have been extremely successful in attracting more students. I recently visited the university of Bedfordshire in Luton, where 60 per cent. of students come from areas with a Luton postcode, and I have already mentioned the contribution made by further education colleges to attracting members of the local community to higher education. However, this is not just a question of going to university; it is a question of where people go.

My life—like that of the Minister, as he told us earlier—was undoubtedly changed, not just because I went to university but because I left my home community, then still a mining village in south Wales, to enter a completely different environment in Bristol, where I met many students from Eton and other such schools. I had never met people of that sort before, but, unlike other Members who have spoken today, I was not put off by that, and to this day some of my best friends are people who went to those schools. Nevertheless, fair access must be an aim of widening participation. It is not just a question of increasing numbers; it is a question of ensuring that people have fair access to our top universities, a phrase that has been used a number of times today.

The latest edition of the House of Commons compendium “Social Indicators” shows the benchmarks set by the Higher Education Funding Council for all higher education institutions. Some universities, such as Greenwich and Teesside, exceed their benchmarks for students from certain socio-economic backgrounds with
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given A-Level grades, while others—including, regrettably, Bristol, of which I am an alumnus and which I now represent in Parliament, as well as Oxford, Cambridge, Durham and Nottingham— fall short of their expected intake of students from social classes 4 to 7. I will not restart the debate between the hon. Member for Huddersfield—who has left the Chamber—and the hon. Member for Henley about the state school-private school gap, but as recent reports have shown it is widening in some higher education institutions. That means that there is an important role for those institutions to play. I have mentioned the local outreach work that universities do; I know that Bristol university does that in local schools, and I am sure that all other universities also do such work.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield mentioned the programmes at top American universities. I see no reason why such programmes could not take place at our universities as well. Under the “widening participation” postcode-related grants that universities receive from the HEFC for taking students from certain backgrounds, there is, effectively, a financial incentive. As we know where those low participation postcodes are, why can we not encourage universities to reach well beyond what they consider to be almost a catchment area and pair them off with particular schools, especially those in low participation areas, so that they can enthuse and draw in students from such backgrounds? When I was doing my own university applications—before somebody brings this up, I admit that I am an Oxford reject—I noticed from reading the Oxford prospectus that certain Oxford colleges have historical links to particular schools. Why cannot some of our universities develop links with certain state schools?

To echo a point made earlier, we need to start this process when people are younger. If we start speaking to people when they are 14 or 15, it is probably too late. We need to do more work in our primary schools. I made that point earlier this week when I met some young scientists from the Royal Society of Chemistry representing a group called “Voice of the Future”.

Let me turn to my final point. [Interruption.] I know that other Members are keen to speak, but I think that my speech has been briefer than the contributions from both of the other Front-Bench spokesmen—although perhaps I have not had as many interventions. Fees might skew the choice of subject that people make. We know that there is already a social imbalance in certain subjects: 45 per cent. of the medicine and dentistry intake come from the highest socio-economic group—higher managerial and professional people—compared with 8 per cent. from class 6, which covers semi-routine occupations. The figure for class 7 is so low that it is not even reported. The balance is better in law and business. [Interruption.] Yes, so it is better in the professions of my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) and myself, but, curiously, the trend is the opposite in education and teaching. Only 14 per cent. of the intake for degrees that lead to teaching careers is from the highest socio-economic group. We are also worried that the intake for science subjects is skewed. Part of the reason for that problem lies further back in the school system,
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and is to do with the qualifications of the teachers who teach the subjects—in particular physics and chemistry.

There is a huge risk that the market system that the Government might introduce beyond 2009 will make such trends even worse. If we have genuine variability in the tuition fees, that might not deter people from participating in higher education, but I think that it will deter people from going to certain institutions and skew their subject choices.

I began by mentioning the challenge of the Leitch report. Higher rates of participation in higher education will bring about economic prosperity and social justice. Widening participation is all about achieving social justice; it will make sure that we all share in prosperity, and it will also give us a chance of increasing social mobility in our country which, depending on which measurement we use, is either the lowest among the industrial countries or just above the level achieved in the United States. Many Members have cited statistics this afternoon. What is clear is that it is far too early to know with certainty whether fees are having a detrimental effect, but we certainly know that there is a lot more work to be done in widening participation.

4.39 pm

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams). I do not necessarily agree with all of his analysis, but I share his objectives for social justice.

I should declare an interest in terms of my personal background and as a parliamentary patron of the adult learners body NIACE—the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education—and a vice-president of Carers UK. I also participated in adult education as a tutor for most of my working life and I continue that interest as a professor emeritus at Swansea university, my former university.

I welcome this debate as an opportunity to recognise and applaud the work of the Labour Government since 1997 in widening participation. The debate is important for two other reasons. The first is the long and honourable record of higher education in attempting to address the questions of social and economic injustice. The second is the current challenge of the skills agenda, as we have already heard from the hon. Gentleman, and—following the Leitch report—the interface between the skills agenda and part-time higher education. That will be the main subject of my contribution.

Before I come to that issue, I will indulge myself in discussion of another crunchy subject—history, which is my discipline—and provide a brief historical perspective. Arguably the most influential thinker on education of the 20th century was Michael Young, the founder of the National Extension college, the inspiration behind the Open university and—the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) may not know this—largely the author of the 1945 Labour manifesto. In his seminal work, “Labour’s Plan for Plenty” from 1947, which was largely the Labour manifesto, he paid tribute to Britain’s greatest social thinker of the 19th century, Robert Owen. We commemorate the 150th anniversary of Robert Owen’s death next year. Michael Young said:

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We would all endorse that.

It is to the credit of this Labour Government since 1997 and of our first Secretary of State for Education and Employment, as the post was then, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), that one of his first acts was to establish the National Advisory Group for Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning. I was privileged to be appointed as a member of that group. Its two reports, “Learning for the 21st Century” and “Creating Learning Cultures: Next Steps in the Learning Age”, provided the intellectual groundwork for the progress in the last decade in such major issues as the interface of lifelong learning with community development, access to learning, stimulating demand among under-represented groups in further and higher education, and building networks and partnerships in localities and regions.

Democratic devolution was developing at the same time in the late 1990s in Scotland and Wales and they pioneered their own educational programmes, which were more radical in some respects. In Wales, the whole vision of the Welsh Assembly Government was of a learning country, and that encouraged much wider participation, especially in building interesting relationships with the voluntary sectors and women’s groups, and in developing the notion of community universities in different parts of Wales that had begun to develop in the period after the miners’ strike in 1984-85.

I turn now to the contemporary challenge for the skills agenda and part-time higher education. I believe that all higher education institutions should address the question of widening participation and the need for greater opportunities for part-time students from the perspective of not only social equity but economic progress. The challenge is both global and local; the two are complementary.

A national campaign would be welcome to highlight the valuable contribution that part-time higher education could make if there were greater opportunities and proper financial support for such study. The National Union of Students debate in Central Hall on 21 March will no doubt provide the opportunity to begin such a campaign. I have been impressed by NUS representations, which reminded us recently that 42 per cent. of HE students are part-time, yet the equalities review of March 2007 shows that the great expansion in higher education has apparently led to an increase of only three percentage points in the number of graduates from the poorest families. That is a debatable figure—indeed, it was discussed earlier—although it is too soon to assess the recent changes. However, it is a major challenge to all of us, especially my Labour Government and other parties.

For that reason, and from the perspective of social equity and the global economic challenge, the recent written evidence of Professor David Latchman, Master of Birkbeck college, to the Education and Skills Committee is important. I visited the college recently, as did the hon. Member for Henley who gave a lecture there—he would not allow me to intervene earlier when
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I wanted to refer to my visit. Professor Latchman is a dynamic leader of that institution, whose president is the distinguished historian, Professor Eric Hobsbawm. Birkbeck is a higher education institution serving one of the great cities of the world, and a range of students who largely study part-time. I was impressed by the fact that it is ahead of Government and other thinking about how we address the skills deficit and widening participation, especially in its innovative project to develop a new campus in the east of London and the Thames Gateway.

Professor Latchman raised important issues, with which I am sure many Members are familiar, about ensuring that part-time study is better supported. Before I go through them, I should point out that many other higher education institutions that are supportive of part-time students, such as London South Bank university, my own university—Swansea—and the North East Wales institute of higher education, would also benefit if we addressed the economic barrier faced by part-time students.

Professor Latchman made the following points: first, it is necessary to make use of full economic costing in determining the allocation of teaching funds, to recognise the higher cost of part-time provision; secondly, the funding allocation must be responsive to the flexible and modular patterns of study followed by part-time students; and, finally, there must be recognition that the present funding method has limited scope for increasing part-time fee rates as a means of closing the funding gap faced by many institutions, such as Birkbeck, which have a large number of part-time students. I look forward to the Minister’s response to the points raised by Birkbeck and similar institutions.

Carers are an under-represented group in higher education, yet bearing in mind their caring responsibilities they could benefit enormously from part-time study. The Government have done outstanding work in supporting carers—from the Prime Minister’s national carers strategy in 1999, which established the carers special grant, to my Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act 2004, which the Government supported and which highlighted the importance of education and training opportunities for carers, and the Work and Families Act 2006, which gives carers the right to request flexible working. To build on that progress, I believe that the current review of the national carers strategy should recognise the pioneering work of the National Extension college in helping carers to access further and higher education. There should be a section in the new review on carers’ ability to access such opportunities. That would contribute enormously to addressing the question of social exclusion and the need to widen the participation of this very important group. The whole question of the 21-hour rule is a serious barrier to carers studying part-time.

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