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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 1 December 2009

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Higher Education

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Steve McCabe.)

9.30 am

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): I want to begin, Mr. Benton, by saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship and how delighted I am to have secured this extremely important debate on the future of higher education. Along with the rest of the sector, I was extremely relieved when Lord Mandelson finally announced the long-awaited review. After all, I had spent much of 2007, 2008 and 2009 calling for the Government to get on with that review.

As many people have said before, there is much to be proud of within our higher education sector. Its wider influence is important to the ongoing success of the British economy, its output is worth about £59 billion, it sustains 700,000 jobs and in the financial year 2007-08 the sector earned £23.4 billion. For every £1 million of university output, a further £1.38 million is generated in other sectors via a multiplier effect, according to a Universities UK report, so it is crucial that we do nothing to damage the sector's ability to continue its strong economic performance and world-class reputation.

However, I wanted to secure the debate this morning because I felt it important that Members of Parliament should have an early opportunity to discuss and possibly influence the review process while it is still at its beginning. I have always felt that this matter is far too important to play politics with. Therefore, I hope that all parties will get involved with the review to endeavour to make it work for the entire higher education sector.

Since the review was announced, I have heard far too many people-both students and vice-chancellors-say that a rise in student fees will be the inevitable outcome. Some students and parents are concluding that this independent review process is nothing more than a public relations exercise to justify a rise in student fees. I acknowledge that the actions taken by this Government when they have conducted such consultations and reviews have led one to the conclusion that they perhaps arrived at the answer before they had even asked the question. I sincerely hope that that is not the case with this review, and I do not believe that it is.

Indeed, it is absolutely critical for the reputation of Parliament and the Government of whichever persuasion who will be in power by mid-2010 that this review and its recommendations are absolutely beyond reproach. There must be no hint of any conspiracy to raise student fees. I know that we in the Conservative party will treat the review and its conclusions completely on their merits.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): I warmly congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this very important subject to the House at this time. Has he seen early-day
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motion 32, which talks about the negative effects of student fees, particularly on poorer families and students, in that they discourage students from going to university, which is a great loss to the country? It goes on to state

Does he agree with that aim?

Mr. Rob Wilson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Yes, I saw early-day motion 32 and I think that the important thing is that the review, because it is independent, takes a detailed look at the current system and all the alternative systems, and then makes its recommendations. We should not try to prejudge that review at this stage.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman not only on securing the debate, but on the tone with which he has started it. I say that because he is quite right that higher education is a crucial sector.

Furthermore, does the hon. Gentleman agree that, for us to have a proper debate in the lead-up to the general election and so that we are not deluding people, we should put our cards on the table as to our own policies and make some proposals? If he agrees with that, will he, during this debate, make his own proposals, which he would like others to consider alongside the proposals of the Government, the Liberal Democrats and perhaps even the Scottish nationalists?

Mr. Wilson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The key is that we have this debate before and during the general election, and that everybody has their chance to have their say. Indeed, the Liberal Democrat position is very confused, as he will know. The Liberal Democrat shadow Chancellor, the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), is saying that he wishes to cut student numbers and does not wish to abolish student fees, and of course the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) is saying something completely different, so it would be good if the Liberal Democrats arrived at a firm position and debated from it during the general election.

From my own time shadowing the-

Mr. Willis: What is the hon. Gentleman's position?

Mr. Wilson: I will come to that, if the hon. Gentleman will allow me to do so.

From my own time shadowing the higher education brief, I know that vice-chancellors and universities have a powerful voice in the corridors of power, which has been supplied by years of lobbying by their campaign groups. Although those voices sometimes compete with each other, they are none the less very influential; one has only to look at the number of briefings that we all received for this debate to realise the truth of that. However, I do not think that students will mind my saying that the student voice is not so clearly articulated. That is quite understandable, given that students have less resources to commit and experience more difficulty in establishing continuity within their leadership and organisation.

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Several hon. Members rose-

Mr. Wilson: I will give way shortly, if hon. and right hon. Members will be patient.

Having said that, my former university, which I now represent as its constituency MP, fortunately has a first-class student union president and executive team in what is a very important year for students, and I know that they are doing their best to engage in this debate and provide a thoughtful and positive voice for Reading university students. Of course, the National Union of Students does its utmost to articulate the entire student voice and it rightly has a big role to play during the review.

Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I congratulate him on securing this very important debate. Will he join me in congratulating the NUS on the effectiveness of its lobby a couple of weeks ago? I have certainly valued the contacts that I have had with student representatives from both Oxford university and Oxford Brookes university. That lobby was extremely well organised and I think that it has influenced the course of this very important discussion that we are having.

Mr. Wilson: That is an important point. I have noticed that, over the past few years, the NUS has greatly improved its communications with Members of Parliament and its lobbying efforts, so I join the right hon. Gentleman in congratulating the NUS on its efforts in that regard.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I congratulate him, both on securing the debate and his measured opening remarks. However, are not students extremely concerned that the higher education system, rather than being an engine of social mobility, is starting to entrench social inequality? For example, the social profile of those students who go into Russell group universities shows that fewer than one in six of them comes from a family with a less-well-off background, although such families represent 50 per cent. of the population. That cannot be allowed to continue and Lord Mandelson is right to look at the assessment procedures for those universities, is he not?

Mr. Wilson: The hon. Gentleman makes a good and valid point. I will address it later in my contribution, if he will be just a little patient.

I do not think it sensible for the Government to exclude the democratic student voice from the independent panel involved in the review. Having a former chairman of the British Youth Council on that panel is welcome, but it appears to some people to be window dressing and is simply not sufficiently persuasive for those who doubt the Government's intentions in announcing the review.

The Minister will be aware of early-day motion 1085, which calls for proper student representation during the review. As fee-paying customers, it is only right that students have their say, and as I said to the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), I applaud the NUS for its efforts to make itself heard. Reading university students union has also taken the lead on this issue, hosting a debate in conjunction with the NUS the other
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week. It is only right in a democratic society that we have such debates, as the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) mentioned.

However, it is also important that any organisation that wishes to be part of an independent review process must not prejudge the outcome. It is critical that the review relies on the evidence and bases its recommendations purely on it. I know that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, makes a big thing of evidence-based policy, and tuition fees is one area where that is exactly what we should be using.

Today's debate provides the Minister with a good opportunity to explain in his own words why the democratic student voice is not currently welcome on the panel and how he intends without it to ensure that the student voice is effectively heard. That will be important to the review's universal acceptance and overall success.

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): The review on tuition fees will report after the general election. It is commonly understood that its terms of reference and chairmanship were decided jointly, or that at least the Conservative party was consulted on that remit, so does the hon. Gentleman think that the Conservative party pressed for the NUS to be included in the review?

Mr. Wilson: As the hon. Gentleman knows, I no longer have party responsibilities on higher education, but I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) will be happy to provide an answer to that question later in the debate. The Minister will be aware of the importance I place on that issue as I have raised it several times on the Floor of the House and written to him about it. While not wishing to pre-empt his reply in any way, I hope that he treats the views of the student population of Reading and the NUS with the seriousness and respect they deserve.

I would like to make a couple of further points on the review of tuition fees. I have already said that any recommendations on that matter must be evidence-based. Frankly, however, I am not completely satisfied that the current fees have been fully justified by universities. As I travelled across the country while shadowing the HE brief, I felt that some students were being slightly short-changed by the quality of teaching and the support services at a number of our universities. Fees raised an additional £1.3 billion for universities, but I am not sure that I have seen a £1.3 billion improvement and investment in the student experience. Perhaps the Minister will say that that was never the intention of the fees, but we need that on the record.

Although comprehensive figures for student debt are still unavailable for the most recent student intake, several figures have been published that make sobering reading. A 2007 survey by Push.co.uk estimated that students commencing studies in 2006-07 could expect to owe an average of £17,500 on graduation, while those starting in 2007-08 could see their average debt increase to £21,500, and medical students, who have lobbied me for the debate, of course have much higher debts. Before any Government consider burdening our young people with even more debt, it is imperative that the review justifies how the previous fee money has been spent.

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If the review recommends a further rise, based on the evidence, I would like two further conditions to be satisfied: disadvantaged students must be better off and ordinary hard-working families no worse off, and all students should receive a markedly enhanced student experience.

There is one further consideration. The student loans method of financing higher education is far from cost-free to the taxpayer. Any raising of the cap under the current system will require additional subsidy from the Treasury, which is already subsidising student loans to the tune of about £700 million a year. The Minister's departmental projections confirm that, at the current rate, that subsidy is likely to rise to £782 million in 2010.

With the national debt and the country's finances in such a terrible mess, is lifting the cap financially sustainable? I am not yet convinced that it is. Figures I have obtained from the House of Commons Library show that increasing fees to an average of £5,000 would increase annual Government subsidy to around £1.25 billion in 2015, and just over £1.3 billion in 2020. However, if the cap rose to £7,000, the figure could rise to an astonishing £1.85 billion by 2020. The cost to the Treasury of student support in 2010, including grants, is projected to be around £2.6 billion.

Of course, I use those figures with caution as examples to illustrate my point, but in the light of the need for transparency in the review it is important that the Minister is open and honest about all the potential implications. In these times of economic struggle, can the Treasury afford to keep raising the subsidy it provides to student loans? At the least, the review will have to justify that huge taxpayer subsidy to the Treasury if it recommends a rise in fees.

I do not want the debate to concentrate only on fees. The review's official remit is to

taking into account

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and being so generous with his time. Does he agree that one of the problems is that the university sector is not homogenous? There are now very different universities, some of which, particularly the new ones, have never managed to get on top of their funding gap. If we are to look at the sector properly, we must examine the differential roles of those differentiated universities.

Mr. Wilson: The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. There is wide variation in the types of university in the sector, but I think that that is a cause for celebration, rather than concern. If we can get the review right, there will, as he said, be room for all types of university and that diversity will be celebrated, perhaps even more than it is today.

David Taylor: I would like to cite the example of the university of Leicester, whose motto is "Elite without being elitist". It goes for the highest possible standards, but the broadest possible intake of students, and it achieves that to a significant extent. That could be a
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model for the Government in how to avoid fees pricing out ordinary working-class students from the best universities.

Mr. Wilson: The hon. Gentleman shows enormous pride in his local university, which is as it should be, but the answer to his question about which model the Government should use should really come from the Minister, rather than from me.

Although fees constitute a major part of the review, other important factors must be addressed over the coming months. One such factor is access to higher education, or widening participation, as it has become known. In July, a panel led by the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) reported that the Government have failed to help people from disadvantaged backgrounds to get to university and pursue elite careers. It found that

with 75 per cent. of judges and 45 per cent. of top civil servants having been privately educated.

The issue of social mobility gathered pace over the past week, following Lord Mandelson's comments about admission to top universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. He said that instead of relying on A-levels and exam results, universities should also take account of "contextual data", such as an applicant's school or home neighbourhood.

However, in talking about access to Oxbridge, Lord Mandelson was wading into dangerous waters by reigniting the argument about social engineering. For example, his comments were translated by one newspaper into the following headline: "Middle class students face university place struggle as Mandelson backs giving poorer students two-grade 'head start'". Yet both Oxford and Cambridge have set tough targets for the proportion of pupils they will take from state schools by 2011-Oxford's is currently 62 per cent. and Cambridge's is between 60 and 63 per cent. Although that is an important and admirable attempt to widen participation, we must be careful when setting top-down targets for admissions.

I believe absolutely that more of our brightest students from state schools need to attend our best universities, but instead of simply imposing top-down targets, we must ensure that young people are not put off from applying to those universities in the first place. That is arguably a bigger barrier for many young people, and it often comes down to lack of aspiration in those around them rather than in the young people themselves.

In one of its excellent reports on widening participation, the Sutton Trust analysed entrance to Oxbridge by individual school over the period 2002 to 2006. Interestingly, although probably as expected, it found that only 30 schools, or less than 1 per cent. of the total, accounted for 15 per cent. of all Oxbridge entrants. Why do certain schools and not others succeed in securing their pupils Oxbridge places? Careers advice has a crucial role to play. It is desperately lacking from the vast majority of state schools, where our brightest young people are simply not pushed to apply to our top universities.

Writing in The Guardian earlier this year, my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), the shadow Minister for universities, said:

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