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15 May 2007 : Column 221WH—continued

12.7 pm

The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): It is a pleasure to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), whom I congratulate on securing the debate. It is not often that a Minister has the opportunity publicly to thank his former Parliamentary Private Secretary for his work. My hon. Friend worked very well on my and the Government’s behalf, and he knows that I was disappointed when he left that position. I thank him for his excellent work.

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I have some personal understanding of this important and interesting issue, as I went to university in Cardiff, and I well understand that there will inevitably be a flow of students across borders. I recognise my hon. Friend’s concerns about the different higher education funding systems in each of the devolved Administrations, particularly the different systems of financial support for students. There is no point in denying that the nature of those differences can cause complexity, but while I recognise the strength of his views on the merits of giving responsibility for higher education to the devolved Administrations, I must tell him that there is no prospect of turning the clock back in terms of the devolved settlement.

Fundamentally we must recognise that the differences arise from different, but legitimate, democratic decisions: those of people in Scotland and Wales to support devolution, and those on student finance and universities taken by elected Ministers. Sometimes the exercise of that democratic choice gives rise to complications and rough edges. The task for all of us, whether in Westminster, Cardiff, Edinburgh or, indeed, Belfast is to do what we can to make sense of the complexities. We neither can nor should wish away the democratic process that has led to them. This is not something dramatically new, because there have always been differences in the education systems in the different parts of the United Kingdom. Devolution naturally empowers each country to do things differently for its people when compared with the prevailing systems elsewhere in the UK.

It is important to make it clear that each Administration carried out a thorough review of their own higher education systems before implementing the current systems of student financial support. Each system has helped, importantly, to maintain the upward trend in higher education application figures. The systems, in effect, provide different ways of achieving important and common objectives: they encourage all students to participate, and they support those from lower-income backgrounds, who would not be able to access higher education without additional support.

The other feature that the systems all share, which I want to emphasise, is that nobody affected by the new arrangements should, or does, pay up-front tuition fees anywhere in the United Kingdom. We have rightly recognised that it was a mistake in 1998 to introduce the concept of the up-front payment of tuition fees, and the new system across the UK rectifies it.

I can also reassure my hon. Friend that we are actively monitoring what is happening in each part of the UK. My officials from the Department for Education and Skills talk regularly to their colleagues at the Scottish Executive, the Department for Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills in Wales and the Department for Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland, to encourage the effective and efficient delivery of student finance across the UK and to sort out any cross-border issues. That is overseen by regular contact at ministerial level.

We are not going back to a one-size-fits-all model, but we all accept that students need proper information and advice on the choices that they face. Such information is put out for students and parents, and on the web, setting out clearly the full details of the student financial package in England as well as information on what students can expect should they
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choose to study at a university in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. We make it clear what applies to England, and a section directs people from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to the appropriate information sources in the devolved Administrations.

In all this debate, we should not forget that the benefit of this apparent complexity is that much more money is now available in higher education than was the case under the previous Government and that the systems are better and fairer. They are helping more students to participate in higher education, which is good both for them personally and for the country.

It is worth underlining the scale of the change that has taken place. Let us consider the situation just 10 years ago. Between 1989 and 1997, funding per student fell by 36 per cent., and that at a time of great expansion in higher education, as our economy changed from mass production to high skills. The result of that funding squeeze was that universities were seriously underfunded in comparison with their international competitors.

In contrast, since 1997, this Government have invested heavily in higher education. Our spending has increased by 23 per cent. in real terms since we took office, and we now spend more than £10 billion a year on higher education, with more to come in real terms in each of the next three years.

It is important to point out—this is an issue to which I shall return—that increasingly the responsibility for the future funding of higher education needs to be shared between the Government, the individual and employers. The changes that we have made, certainly those in England to the student finance system and the fees system, are proving beneficial. Not only are they bringing in additional money, but the most recent set of university application figures—those for courses next year—are a strong pointer in the right direction. Applications have increased by about 6 per cent. and the proportion from lower socio-economic backgrounds has increased too.

We have made progressive changes to the system of student financial support: we introduced the return of non-repayable grants; we provided for additional bursaries from universities; and we raised the threshold for loan repayments from £10,000 to £15,000. All of that has been positive. We have also had to focus on communicating those messages effectively to students and potential students. I pay tribute to the work that the Government have done with Universities UK, the National Union of Students, the Student Loans Company and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service—UCAS—to name but four, to ensure that students can access the information that they need.

I should like to respond directly to a number of the points that have been made.

Ian Lucas: Before the Minister does so, will he say whether he is in any way disappointed that the present system contains so few variable fees and that the market in courses that was envisaged at the time that the legislation was implemented has not developed?

Bill Rammell: That is an interesting question. Although there has not generally been a market in fees, there has—this is where I agree with the hon. Member
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for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams)—been a market in bursaries. In that sense, a competitive situation exists in which universities rightly have to examine not only their student financial support package, but the quality of delivery. Let us consider the new mechanisms to ensure positive performance, for example the national student survey. Universities rightly will increasingly have to justify the work that they do and the service that they provide to students.

Mr. Andrew Smith: Does the Minister agree that as we approach the review of the fee cap, it is crucial that a good, thorough, comprehensive and trusted evidence base exists about the impact of the fees, the bursary arrangements and so on, both in overall terms and in terms of the performance of each individual institution? We need to have an informed debate at that stage, and the empirical evidence that underpins the debate will be crucial.

Bill Rammell: My right hon. Friend is right, and I shall return to the point. To all the people who say that we should pre-empt the decisions of the independent commission in 2009, I must say that it is right that we see the proper, full evidence from the first three years’ full operation of the new system and that we, the Office for Fair Access, UCAS and others work together to ensure that as much information as possible is available to inform whatever judgment is made after 2009.

To return to some of the points that my right hon. Friend raised, I agree that one of the strengths of our university system is the diversity of funding streams. He is right to focus on our recent announcement of the £200 million to incentivise the giving of endowments to universities. The way in which we have structured the initiative means that it moves significantly beyond the top five or 10 universities in terms of research income; we envisage that about 75 institutions will be able to benefit from that matched funding scheme. We also need a greater contribution from employers, and I shall return to that.

This week, we are hosting a major international conference in London—the Bologna conference—on comparability and the mobility of students across the broader European higher education area. As I talk to my counterparts, I find, privately at least, that a number of them are envious of the broader funding streams that we have in our higher education system.

The hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) talked about raiding the research budget. This Government and I will take many criticisms, but if he were to look in detail at this Government’s commitment to, and record of, financial support for research over the past 10 years, he would see that it is one of the most positive in generations. There has been a 70 per cent. increase since 1997. We are talking about more than £2 billion a year, combining the DFES and Department of Trade and Industry contributions.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of employer contributions. As I have said many times in the past couple of years, the big future expansion in higher education will be in the field of employment-based higher education. Part of the way that that needs to go forward involves developing a co-financing model, whereby employers contribute to the costs of driving up the skills base and the qualifications of their employees.

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The hon. Gentleman also raised some questions about the financial return to students. I want to make it clear to him that the figure that I am quoting, which is based on detailed research, is an average net £100,000 graduate earnings premium of a student over the course of their working life, compared with someone who has just two A-levels. That is on top of tax and on top of forgone income during students’ three years of study. Indeed, the financial returns for graduates in the UK are among the highest in the world.

I must say gently and charitably that I take some the Liberal Democrats’ concerns with a pinch of salt. People ultimately judge politicians not on what they say at the hustings or in opposition, but on what they do when they have their hands on the lever of power. The Liberal Democrats, in coalition in Scotland, have supported a system of postgraduate repayment, which is no different in principle from the variable fee system that we have in England. It is important to register that point.

David Howarth: The basis of this debate, called by the hon. Member for Wrexham, is that the systems are different. The system in Scotland is plainly different from that in England, because the first principle of the Scottish system is that the Scottish Executive pay Scottish students’ fees.

Bill Rammell: Yes, and the hon. Gentleman will be aware that although there is less to pay in fees, the student must find more for living costs. In England, low-income students have much more support per year for living costs. Better-off Scottish students also have the fees advantage, but receive significantly less maintenance support because income thresholds are lower and the non-means-tested part of the loan is much smaller than the 75 per cent. in England.

Let us have a proper debate on the facts, and let us stop sloganising about higher education. When people look long and hard at what the Liberal Democrats have done when in power, it is very different from what they say in speeches on university campuses throughout the country.

The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams), who leads for the Liberal Democrats on this issue, chided my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham to encourage the Welsh Assembly to invest more in higher education. Again, the Liberal Democrats have not been part of the Assembly’s government. If he is handing out advice, he can give it to my colleagues in the Welsh Assembly, but he must also give it to his own colleagues.

The hon. Gentleman said that we are not doing enough to encourage employers to contribute to the cost of higher education. That is not true. For example, the Government have developed foundation degrees, co-designed with employers. At the moment, there are around 61,000 foundation degrees throughout the country, and we are moving towards 100,000. The hon. Gentleman referred to the Secretary of State’s letter to the Higher Education Funding Council. We have told the Higher Education Funding Council in England to provide at
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least 5,000 co-funded places a year, working with universities that are keen to expand this area. We have initiated three regional pilot schemes under the training-to-gain banner, to add a higher education dimension to that programme of encouraging and helping employers to move their employees up to the highest level.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the cap. Let me make it clear that the Government have said all along that we need an independent commission in 2009. I believe it would be premature to pre-empt its deliberations and decisions, and I say that to some vice-chancellors who urge me to lift the cap now, and to the National Union of Students which urges me to scrap tuition fees. I also said it recently to the Liberal Democrats’ think tank, which urged me to lift the cap now to £5,000 a year. Across the board, it is important to await the full three years’ figures, and then make the judgments.

The hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), who leads for the Conservatives on these issues, raised some important points. He started by questioning what was happening to the number of science applications in our universities. I dispute his accusation, which he and I have discussed on a number of occasions. There has been a three-year trend of a turnaround in applications for STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The application figures for the coming autumn show significant advances of 10 per cent. plus for physics, chemistry, maths and engineering. One reason is that we are now more successful in convincing students of the additional graduate earnings premium for STEM subjects, which is about a third more than for students of non-STEM subjects. Indeed, I shall make a major speech and an announcement tomorrow on what more we must do to get the facts across to young people about the benefits of studying science at university in this country.

The hon. Gentleman then went on to decry the fact that the unit of resource had fallen considerably in our universities. That was certainly the case under the Conservative Government, and between 1989 and 1997 it fell by around 36 per cent. However, during the current three-year comprehensive spending review we have, for the first time in a generation, maintained the unit of resource. In the Budget announcement this year, we made it clear that for the next three-year period we will again maintain the unit of resource, so for six years in a row, after a generation of moves in the opposite direction, we are maintaining that unit of resource in higher education.

On top of that, we have additional fee income, the endowment initiative, and the extra research funding commitment to universities. As I go round the country talking to academics, university staff and vice-chancellors, although there are, rightly, questions and challenges, they acknowledge, virtually universally, the real step change in support and funding that we have delivered to our higher education institutions during the past 10 years.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about part-time students. It is to the credit of this Government—I would say so, wouldn’t I?—that we are the first ever to have introduced a part-time student grant. Not only that, last year we increased it by some 27 per cent. We have also increased the access to learning fund from £3 million to £12 million across the country.

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I make no apology for saying—I think the hon. Gentleman and I agree on this—that it would be wrong to replicate the full-time student support package for part-timers because the evidence shows that around 41 per cent. of part-timers have their costs met by their employers. Given that we must collectively incentivise more employers to make a greater contribution, I would not want to do something that simply substitutes state funding for employer contributions. Our changes have been beneficial. We must monitor the impact on part-time students, but we should not do things that might have an unwelcome consequence.

The hon. Member for Bristol, West intervened on the hon. Member for Henley and made an accusation that it was difficult to claim that the proportion of students from lower socio-economic groups was being maintained and increased, given that an increasing number of students do not designate their social class identification in the UCAS application process. It is certainly true that there has been a reduction in the number who do that, but the hon. Member for Bristol, West has no basis in fact for suggesting that that would disproportionately impact on students from lower socio-economic groups.

I say this charitably, but there is a need for real care in this debate. I respect the fact that the Liberal Democrats claim to have a different position on student finance, but there is a slippery slope from that position of integrity and moving to misrepresentation and scaremongering, which will put off the very students from the poorest backgrounds for whom the system of student financial support is immensely better than in the past.

Mr. Boris Johnson: In the final minute of his speech, will the Minister address my central question: does he think it right, with the current university financial crisis in Scotland, that Scottish MPs should be able to vote on further reform of university finance in England?

Bill Rammell: People have voted for a devolved settlement, and it is right and proper that that is taken forward. It enables people throughout the United Kingdom to exercise their choice and judgment.

In conclusion, we have had an extensive debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham on raising the issues, and pointing to some of the important work that local institutions near his constituency are undertaking, which he and I have talked about. They are doing absolutely the right thing, particularly in respect of foundation degrees.

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St. Helier Hospital

12.30 pm

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I am very grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of patient care in this debate. I also put on the record my thanks to the Minister for the generosity that he showed to a constituent of mine, Mrs. Donoghue, who visited him with a representative from Headway. I hope that, during the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) will also be able to catch your eye, Mr. Taylor, as he would like to make a few important points, and I am happy to facilitate that.

The St. Helier hospital and the Epsom and St. Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust have not escaped media attention in the past few months, following the trust’s decision to remove one out of every three light bulbs from its communal areas. However, in today’s debate, I shall raise a much more serious matter: the quality of patient care generally in the trust, and specifically at St. Helier hospital. I shall ask whether it is affected by the trust’s need to balance its books and to hit its efficiency savings targets, which amount to at least £24 million over the next two years.

It is always dangerous to draw conclusions from anecdotal evidence, so I acknowledge that the two patient cases to which I shall draw the Minister’s attention—the cases of a man whom I shall call Douglas, and a Mr. Kent—do not amount to a pattern of neglect. The many constituents who have contacted me recently to express their gratitude for the care that they have received at St. Helier hospital would, I am sure, want me to make that point.

However, the two cases require the trust and the Minister to set out what the trust and the Government are doing to ensure that the quality of patient care is acceptable and is not affected by the trust’s cutbacks. In my view, the trust has in those two cases failed to achieve that standard of acceptability. The debate is not about high-tech equipment or the availability of expensive drugs; it is about the washing and feeding of patients, communication with relatives, respecting patients’ dignity and keeping their loved ones as well informed as possible at a time of great stress.

In those two cases, and others, which had time allowed, I could have raised, the source of patients’ and relatives’ complaints has been problems concerning poor communications with relatives, medication not being administered, soiled bedding not being changed, inadequate levels of hydration, strict diets not being implemented in a timely manner, and relatives having to clean up their loved ones. The issue is not about a postcode lottery for the latest wonder-drug.

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