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Mr. Denham: The EMA is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, and I cannot commit him to policy changes in that area. I said in my statement, however, that we would need to look at the detail of how the EMA works, not least to ensure that in a new system, and one that is implicitly much more generous, it is run in a rigorous way that ensures that only those people who are entitled get it. If, in the process of that
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review, we can consider the issues that my hon. Friend raises, I am sure that my right hon. Friend and I will want to do so.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before I call the next speaker, may I say that hon. Members can see how many people are seeking to catch my eye. If we can have one brief question and, hopefully, a fairly brief response from the Secretary of State, we will get through as many hon. Members as we possibly can.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): May I ask the Secretary of State about one thing that is non-devolved as far as we are concerned? I ask him to reject the calls for the imposition of commercial rates on student loans. I urge him to look at a report from Canada published today that points out the problems with commercial rates for student loan repayments there. Further to the point made by the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), as different models of student financial support are emerging in the different territories of the United Kingdom, may I urge the right hon. Gentleman to convene a meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee so that we can consider the lessons learned across the UK as those different models develop?

Mr. Denham: You have asked me to be brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I merely say that nothing in the package makes any changes to the loan repayment regime other than the welcome flexibility that graduates who start their courses in a couple years’ time will get. I am intrigued by a nationalist raising the matter of trying to co-ordinate better the consequences of devolution because one of the issues is that devolved Administrations take different decisions about such things. However, if there are things that it makes sense to consider, we should do so.

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): May I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend to his appointment? It is a long-overdue return to the Government for a man of true conviction. I know that he worked very hard with all of us to increase the student support that was on offer during the sometimes lively debate on top-up fees. May I congratulate him further on making such an immediate impact, with a package of measures that will certainly lessen disincentives, raise aspirations and I hope increase social mobility? The EMA has made an impact in my constituency, but the real issue is not so much getting people into further education, but ensuring that they complete their courses at 17. I look forward to working with him and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families in addressing those issues in areas such as north Staffordshire.

Mr. Denham: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s comments. It is clear that the message coming from hon. Members on both sides of the House is that the measures that I have announced today, and the things that we already have in place, are underpinned by what happens in schools at an earlier age and in families when children are at an earlier age. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and
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Families will have heard the same things and I am certain that we will work closely together to ensure that we address the issues raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House today.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): May I congratulate the Secretary of State on his richly deserved appointment, which should be popular in all parts of the House?

Given the need to strengthen our higher education sector in the name both of our national and international competitiveness, and of the fulfilment of individuals' potential, may I tell the Secretary of State that the proposals that he has announced today to increase access, to make it more affordable and to introduce greater flexibility in loan repayments are all extremely welcome and should have the support of Members of all parties in the House, especially if those proposals extend to people in further education colleges who are undertaking courses at higher level?

Mr. Denham: I am grateful for the welcome. Some of the higher education courses and foundation degrees to which the regime applies are delivered in further education colleges.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): May I also congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment and on his excellent statement today? I understand why he has concentrated on young people and on getting them to aim higher, but do his welcome announcements today also apply to more mature students who wish to take full-time degrees, because many of those people lost out on higher education when they were 17 or 18? If that is the case, how does he intend to advertise that fact?

Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend is right to raise that question. I have focused on the measures that will help to bring a new generation of young students into higher education, but the new financial regime will apply, as does the current one, to older students who are going into full-time courses. My earlier answer about the role of the communications group should address that issue. I hope that it will get the message across. The Leitch report made it clear that we cannot meet all our skill needs for 2020 from the rising generation of students—we must do it from today's work force, too.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I, too, welcome the presence of the Prime Minister during part of the statement. I do not know whether that was part of a Cabinet mentoring scheme, but I do not think that the Secretary of State needs it.

I do not think that poverty or low income should ever be a barrier to entry into any form of education, at whatever level. When I went to school in a working-class area of Swansea, there were people in my primary school who were far brighter than I was, yet for all sorts of reasons— [Interruption.] I see that the Secretary of State agrees. It is wonderful to bring the entire House together on one issue. I suspect that low income was part of the problem.

Will the Secretary of State work closely with the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families
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to ensure that this initiative is taken right down to the primary level, so that youngsters from the poorest backgrounds and the poorest schools are not deprived of the opportunity to get to the top in education?

Mr. Denham: We will certainly do that. When, in due course, we publish plans to implement the rest of the Leitch proposals on raising skill levels, I hope that we will add another element to that, because if we can get those parents who are in a poor job or a dead-end job because their skills are poor to gain skills and to get a better job, those parents’ belief not just in what they can achieve but in what their children can achieve goes up.

Helen Southworth (Warrington, South) (Lab): I welcome the statement. It is excellent news for my constituents and for people throughout the country. It is fantastic. Will the Secretary of State work with the universities to get them to enhance their career and personal development opportunities for young people at university, so that those students who perhaps have not had access to the kind of knowledge that some people have about how to get a good job do not just get a degree but throughout their lives get the benefit of that education and get top-quality jobs?

Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend raises an important point that I will discuss with the universities when I meet with their representatives. I know that, in part, that requirement reflects the demand from business, as employers, to ensure that students study the degrees that will be most useful to them and their own future. Often, those degrees that do not involve research or specialisms will be those that employers need. We need to ensure that the interface is right.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I hope that the Secretary of State recognises that the fact that only 28 per cent. of people from poorer backgrounds are in higher education is a policy failure, rather than something that one can be satisfied with. Will the modest increases in the maintenance grant make any difference to the overall level of top-up debt, which is deterring graduates from entering public sector jobs such as teaching, including the teaching of science in schools?

Mr. Denham: As I said earlier, we cannot be satisfied that only 28 per cent. of students come from low-income backgrounds, so we must improve things. I believe that, when the hon. Gentleman looks at the package, he will judge it significant, particularly for those students and families who currently think that higher education is not for them because they worry either about the cost of studying when at university or college, or about how they will meet repayments when they finish. Put together, the elements in the package will be seen as significant by many students who at the moment are not certain whether they want to go into higher education.

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his welcome return to Government. He will be aware that the novel practice of not leaking statements to the media in advance presents new challenges for us Back Benchers—and
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clearly for Opposition Front Benchers, too—in formulating our responses. I genuinely welcome his announcement, in particular the increased threshold for the maximum salary cut-off point for eligibility for maintenance grants. The previous figure of some £33,000 caused problems in constituencies such as Reading, West and indeed in Southampton, where wages may be higher, but housing costs are higher, too.

Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend is quite right on both points. I think that everyone, including the media, will be adjusting to the new regime. That certainly applies to the official Opposition, who can no longer turn on the “Today” programme in order to find out what will happen later in the day. I think that is genuinely to the benefit of all sides.

It is important to send a message to those on higher incomes to the effect that we support those hard-working families who are doing the right thing in encouraging their children to go into higher education. The biggest gainers are in the low to middle-income groups, but there are other people who need to know that the Government are on their side and their children's side when they go into higher education. That is the powerful message that comes out of the package I have announced.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I am a near neighbour of the right hon. Gentleman and have worked with him on local campaigns of common concern, so it is a great pleasure to congratulate him on reaching the Cabinet. Well done.

I went to the same state school as my father, the difference being that, whereas he had to leave at the age of 14 in the 1920s, I was able, on a full grant, to go to Oxford university. Am I right in thinking that some of the top universities are allowed to charge differential fees these days? If that is right, does not some attention still need to be paid to ensure that, even if people going to universities are better off in terms of grant, people from poorer backgrounds should not be inhibited from going to the top universities? In my day, if someone got the grant, they could go to any university, no matter how good, that would take them.

Mr. Denham: The universities all work within the same regime laid down by Parliament, which enables them to ask for variable fees, but there is a cap on that, which has been set by Parliament. That will be subject to review, which is open and not determined, in 2009. The truth is that the majority of universities charge the full permissible fee, but not all do.

Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab): My right hon. Friend’s appointment was clearly inspirational, and his statement today is inspiring to many constituents of mine on low incomes. He says that the regime will start in 2008. I understand that, but will there be some transitional arrangement, because there could be a tendency to buck out on 2007 if we cannot offer an interim measure to those who go to university this year?

Mr. Denham: I understand my hon. Friend’s point. One of the reasons for starting in 2008 is simply that it takes time to get a properly administered system in
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place. If we were unable to put the full system in place in 2008, we would not be able to put in place a shorter term transitional system that was not chaotic. I have looked back over experience because I asked a similar question to my hon. Friend’s when we were discussing previous proposals, and that experience shows that changes in grant, fee or loan arrangements usually cause a small alteration in behaviour that is rapidly compensated for within the next two or three years and the situation then gets back on to trend. Therefore, although there might be a minor variation in behaviour, if there is, we will still be back on trend soon after the system is set up.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): The Secretary of State has confirmed that the package will not be financed with new money. What is being cut to pay for it?

Mr. Denham: When the comprehensive spending review is published, the hon. Gentleman will be delighted to learn that we have been able to maintain the commitments that we have made, including those in higher education, such as its expansion and on per-student financing.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): As I am not a nationalist, my right hon. Friend will not be surprised to learn that I want the reciprocal arrangements for student support between the different parts of the UK to be strengthened, especially as recent Scottish National party decisions have threatened those arrangements. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is right that talented students in Scotland, particularly from low income families, continue to be able to attend universities in England, and that students from other parts of the UK are able to attend Scottish universities? Will he talk to the Scottish Executive and the other devolved Administrations about strengthening those reciprocal arrangements and ensuring that no divisions develop? Students should be able to enjoy an educational experience in other parts of the country.

Mr. Denham: I agree that it is right that talented students should be able to attend the right university for them; that is an important statement of principle. That there are different financial regimes reflects the fact that we have devolved Administrations, but it would be sensible for the higher education Ministers of the various Administrations to be in reasonably regular contact to address how their systems are evolving and developing.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): I welcome the package. It will enable almost all my constituents’ children who attend university to do so on full or partial grant, which is important for them. Northampton university has important teaching and nursing faculties. Will my right hon. Friend say a little more about his proposals to support teaching and nursing students?

Mr. Denham: All I can say today is that nothing is changing in the student finance arrangements other than that there will be considerably more generous provision and greater flexibility and choice in what I
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have announced. Future graduates—those starting their courses in 2008 and beyond—will be able to enjoy that. We are making no changes at all for particular groups of students. However, I am pleased that my hon. Friend thinks that the vast majority of her constituents who have an interest in higher education will benefit. That will be the case in many constituencies throughout the country.

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): In a cracking first statement, my right hon. Friend identified many of the measures that will help us to attract more young people from low income homes in Swindon into higher education. However, as a good local university can also attract such young people into higher education, does he share my disappointment that the university of Bath has pulled out of developing five campuses in Swindon? Will his Department help us to identify an excellent replacement for the university of Bath, so that we do not have to rely on the developers finding us one?

Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend has raised a constituency issue that is clearly of enormous importance to her. I encourage her talk to me or the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell). about the details of it to discover whether anything can usefully be done. It is not my job to run individual institutions—universities and higher education colleges will be pleased to hear me say that. If we can assist, however, we will try to do so.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op): I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend to his new role. He represents a Southampton constituency, but I am sure that my Portsmouth constituents will not hold that against him as they will greatly benefit from the proposals that he has announced. He mentioned mentors and role models. Will he ensure that they operate not only at secondary school level but also in primary schools? Research conducted at Portsmouth university shows that if the aspiration to go into higher education does not exist at age 10 or 11, it certainly will not exist at 16.

Mr. Denham: I welcome what my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour has said. There is a mood in the House today to stretch measures down to cover students at a younger age. The details of the scheme are not set in stone, and I will be happy to talk to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families about how to design the
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expansion of student mentoring so that we can address the issues that have been raised by Members from all parts of the House.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): The measures will give a boost to universities that want to recruit more young people from more diverse backgrounds. Is my right hon. Friend aware of the strong emphasis on inclusivity in the recruitment and admission policies of Staffordshire university? I invite him to visit Stafford soon to meet vice-chancellor Christine King, her senior management team and National Union of Students officers to discuss whether such practices could be applied more generally around the country.

Mr. Denham: While I am wary of promising to visit the many places that I could be invited to visit, let me make it clear that I and the entire ministerial team will want to spend as much time as possible outside Whitehall and this House visiting those involved in the provision of education, training and research. If we can visit Staffordshire, we will certainly do so.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Lynne Jones.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): It is me, not Lynne, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I add to the chorus of congratulations offered to my right hon. Friend on his statement, which will be of great benefit to families in my constituency. However, I ask him not to be diverted by the siren voices that call for us to stop looking at providing fair access. When he has his feet firmly under the table, will he look into why some universities are much more successful at recruiting students from lower income backgrounds than others, and also at the bursary system because those universities that currently recruit many students from poorer backgrounds often lose out because of the costs of the bursaries they pay?

Mr. Denham: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments. Although I strongly share the view that has been expressed that the aspiration to go to university starts at an early age and that we must address that all the way through the system, there are clear differences in the way in which different higher education institutions approach that issue at the point when students apply. We cannot place all the responsibility for diversity and inclusion at that point of application to higher education, although there is a responsibility then. As I get on top of my job I will be happy to look at how different higher education institutions approach the issue and the lessons we can learn from that.

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