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Mr. Lammy: Is the hon. Gentleman confirming that the Liberal Democrat position is that 43 per cent., the current percentage, is about right?

Stephen Williams: No, I am not saying that. I made it clear in my earlier remarks that we believe that there is a problem with the number of people going into higher education. There are vast pools of untapped opportunity in the country. I have made such points on umpteen occasions in the past four and a half years, when I have been speaking for my party on the subject. We have never subscribed to the arbitrary 50 per cent. target.

The hon. Member for Reading, East and several other hon. Members mentioned part-time learners. It is crucial that the review looks at how a level playing field can be constructed for people who choose to study part time. We know that the number of young people is going to fall over the next decade and that we need to upskill our work force, who are largely going to come from people who are studying part time. The financial and course regimes make that hard for people to do. Whatever the funding future is, we must make sure that it is level between those who study full time and those who study part time, and that credit accumulation and transfer is part of that future.

Mr. Wilson: Before the hon. Gentleman leaves the previous topic of student numbers, can he explain why the hon. Member for Twickenham included in his calculations the money savings from the cut in student numbers?

I particularly refer the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) to an article in The Independent on 17 June. If the hon. Member for Twickenham is making those financial savings by making such cuts, how can he not be cutting student numbers at the same time?

Stephen Williams: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman-probably with assistance from his colleagues in the Conservative Whips Office-studies so carefully what Liberal Democrat spokespersons say in the run-up to the general election. We have a good record at every general election of putting forward not only what policies we would like to achieve in our manifesto but how we shall fund them. We shall certainly be doing so on this occasion. The exact mix of funding priorities and how we meet them have not yet been determined. Obviously, given the turbulent economic circumstances, different ideas have been mentioned at different times, but the final decision has not been made.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) also mentioned part-time students, as well as cross-border issues. He and I are a pretty good example of the complexity of cross-border issues. He went to school in England, went to university in Wales and now represents his adopted-home seat, while I made the opposite journey. That was quite easy for us to do in the 1980s; it would now be a much more complicated educational-hopefully not political-journey for us to make. It is vital for the review to look at the complicated cross-border issues between Wales and England and with Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Coming to funding, the White Paper, published by the Government a month ago, makes it clear that the

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will be the way forward. In other words, it says that a large part of the future funding growth of higher education will probably come from students or graduates. Everyone expects that the review will recommend an increase in contributions from the graduate body. As I said at the outset, it is a shame-to put it mildly-that that review will conclude well after the general election. The announcement of the framework said that the review would conclude in the summer, while the written statement announcing the review said that it would conclude in the autumn of 2010. Whatever the exact date, it will be beyond the time when people vote to choose their next Government. That is simply not acceptable, either to students or to their parents, and we deserve a clearer choice.

The Liberal Democrats reaffirm our commitment to abolish the tuition fees model of funding higher education. That model is broken. If we got into the fully variable model of the future, which is the logical conclusion of the fees model as begun by former Prime Minister Tony Blair, all sorts of social consequences will follow, including fair access to the professions, which was mentioned by several contributors to the debate.

It is crucial that the review should look at the various alternative positions, and the National Union of Students has done us a service by putting forward its idea of a graduate tax. However, whatever happens, it is not good enough for the Labour and Conservative parties to hide behind the review at the next general election and say, "We will have to wait and see."

Mr. Lammy: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Stephen Williams: I am drawing my remarks to a close.

Discerning voters in Bristol, West, in Reading, East or in Tottenham deserve far better.

10.40 am

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): It is a great pleasure to speak in the debate and to follow the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams), whose speech was a powerful reminder of why the Liberal Democrats have not been in government since the days of Lloyd George.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) did us a great service by bringing this matter to the attention of the House, and once again he has shown what a champion he is of the cause of the student voice. He speaks eloquently and with insight on higher education matters, and-I say this to reassure the hon. Member for Bristol, West-there is rarely inconsistency between us. We speak regularly about such matters, and we share a vision for higher education that is informed and inspired by a determination to widen access to people of all abilities and from all backgrounds to the opportunities that they deserve.

That is because we care about social mobility and crave social justice-a Britain without barriers to self-improvement and without limits on opportunity. Participation in higher education has a vital role in feeding social mobility and thus achieving social justice, and so in building a cohesive and just Britain. That is why our great challenge is to broaden access to advanced learning. I have no doubt that that ambition is widely shared; certainly it is by the Minister. However, as
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the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) said, the uncomfortable truth is that rather than widening access in that way, the expansion in university education in the past 30 years has in some senses cemented social division. Opportunity for some has not meant opportunity for all.

Just last month, Lord Mandelson published his framework document on the future of higher education. Its proposals expose the terrible lack of progress. Even though the figures have been recalibrated and recalculated, the Government have achieved only about 43 per cent. participation in higher education. Furthermore, as the Minister knows, successful women mask failure for men. Perhaps he will comment on that.

By a consistent measure, the proportion of entrants overall has been static for most of the past decade. Even though the Government have spent an immense amount of money on widening participation programmes, under the banner of Aimhigher, the participation rate of working-class students has hardly improved since 1995. If that were not bad enough, the rate of improvement has declined. In the previous decade, participation by working-class students actually grew at a faster pace, as Lord Dearing revealed in his report.

Labour is failing because it misinterprets what widening participation really means. We heard from the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), and others, that a myopic obsession with improving access for a small number of students to a small number of universities has meant a preoccupation with policies focused on admissions and aspiration. The difficulty with both those views is that there is little evidence to suggest that the best universities are prejudiced against working-class students.

Indeed, Higher Education Funding Council evidence suggests rather the opposite-that they favour applications from those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Furthermore, there is no evidence to suggest that working-class students do not aspire to the same things as their middle-class contemporaries. Indeed, all the survey evidence shows that aspiration is growing most among those in the lowest socio-economic groups, and that working-class parents and grandparents want the same for their children as middle-class parents; it is a bourgeois, liberal myth that the working classes have a rather different view of such things. In fact, they know that education at university or college is likely to bring better prospects, and they want that for their children, just as their middle-class contemporaries do. What they lack is the wherewithal, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East so powerfully argued.

Wherewithal is a matter of the right kind of advice and guidance. Survey evidence suggests that many teachers do not point their students in the direction of university applications. The reason why fewer working-class children than middle-class children get to university is that fewer people from working-class backgrounds apply-partly because they do not get the right advice, and partly because they do not have the baseline qualifications to do so. Until we solve those two problems, programmes to encourage applications will at best be icing on the cake and, at worst, may displace the resources for dealing with those more fundamental issues.

The Government have focused on what I describe as push-me-pull-you policies. They have tried to pull more students in, by regulating-some would say interfering
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with-the admissions system; and they have tried to push students in through programmes focused on aspirations. However, push-me-pull-you policies do little to address the fundamental problems. Media analysis of the Aimhigher campaign suggests that its message is best received not by socio-economic groups D and E, but by group A. Those conclusions were supported by a Government study, which found

Surveys show that three quarters of young people from all social groups aspire to go to university, and another survey, as I suggested a moment ago, showed that 91 per cent. of parents and grandparents want their young people to go to university, regardless of social background.

What we need, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East began to articulate, is a system that empowers learners. That argument has been powerfully made by the NUS and student unions. I entirely endorse the support that my hon. Friend has offered the NUS and student unions. At university I was union treasurer and my hon. Friend was president of his student union, so there is no prejudice among Conservative Members against the student voice-far from it.

Empowering learners means that we need to use the proceeds from the early repayment of student loans to fund extra places-10,000 of them-and that is what we have said we will do. Rather than just talking about helping people from poorer backgrounds, we need policies that do so by taking firm and distinctive action. That, I would point out to the hon. Member for Bristol, West, is a quite different approach from the Government's. I do not blame the Government for having a different approach from ours. It is good democratic politics to have such debates and exchanges.

What would we do that would be so different? The first thing would be to establish an all-age professional careers advice service with a presence in every school and college. The Minister knows that just 6 per cent. of pupils in state schools at age 15 go on to study at Russell group universities, and just one in 10 of those state school entrants comes from the bottom two socio-economic groups. However, that is not surprising given that Sutton Trust research shows that many state school teachers would not advise even their brightest pupils to apply to Oxbridge. Many of those teachers with responsibility for offering that advice have not received the training that they would need to offer the best guidance. I do not blame teachers for that; we simply ask too much of them in that respect. What needs to be fixed is not the university admissions system, but the advice and guidance that young people get.

We also need to offer comprehensive advice about the employment and wage returns of courses. We need a good website to do that. Those things exist in other parts of the world. Indeed, several studies are going on in this country, and we have been looking at them closely, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East is aware. We are determined to put such information in the hands of potential learners. It must be about where, how and when to study.

Employability is not just about what people study, but about how they study, a point that my hon. Friend also made. I have long argued, as he has, that we should revisit traditional assumptions about the pattern of higher education and study. We must recognise the
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value of different learning experiences such as part-time courses and community based, modular and distance learning. I welcome my hon. Friend's advocacy of a credit-based approach; we are enthusiastic about considering taking that further. The fees review must give serious attention to the ways in which we support flexible means of study.

As the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough and others have argued-my hon. Friend has also championed the idea-further education colleges are at the heart of that approach. They are characterised by being local, and by accessibility and flexibility. Their cohort is typically drawn from a social range wider than that of most higher education institutions. Perhaps the Minister will explain why the amount of HE taught in FE colleges continues to decline, for it is a damning indictment that it has happened on his watch.

We also want more students to enter higher education through the vocational route. I see apprenticeships as being at the heart of that practical method, which is why we intend to introduce new vocational skill scholarships; that will allow people to go on that vocational pathway into higher education study.

The Government have based their policies on a double prejudice, and I hope that the Minister will either explain why or refute the fact. He may want to step back from that prejudice or he may wish to justify it. It is a prejudice against the university admissions system and a liberal establishment prejudice that the academic path is the only way to travel on the road to the good life.

We do not take that view. We believe that looking again at access points to learning, at modes of study, at the character of university life and at the advice and guidance that young people receive is the best way of allowing more people to achieve the glittering prizes that the Minister has achieved and to which so many others aspire.

10.50 am

The Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property (Mr. David Lammy): I congratulate the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) on securing this debate and on the manner in which he put his case-and on his continued support for higher education. Time will not permit me to answer every question asked this morning, but we have had a good debate.

I note the comments made by the hon. Members for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) and for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) and the manner in which they spoke. The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) was his usual consistent self. We have been meeting across the House for a considerable period over such matters, and I was not surprised this morning. The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) demonstrated his most opportunistic style, but it was not worthy of the general standard of debate, and I shall return to the inconsistencies that he continues to display in relation to higher education. I believe that students, parents and the country deserve the best, and I hope that the Liberal Democrat leader is studying the hon. Gentleman's inconsistencies closely.

Few issues divide the House as clearly as higher education. The Government's record is clear. There have been year-on-year increases in public investment.
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In fact, we have seen a 25 per cent. real-terms rise in the public funding of universities since 1997. Large-scale increases in the public funding of research help to drive innovation and economic growth. Since 1997, the science budget has risen from £1.3 billion to £4 billion. When we talk about the success of our universities, particularly those that engage in world-class research, we should remember that it is largely the result of that funding.

We must also consider the students: more maintenance support is available to students than at any time in our history, including non-repayable bursaries for a large majority. There are more students at our universities than at any time in our history. More students from state schools are at university, and there are more students from low-participation neighbourhoods. Less well-off families are sending young people to universities, and I am pleased to say that more black and ethnic minority students are at university. I genuinely believe that that is a record of which the country can be proud. It turns the page on a past in which there was under-investment in research and in which continued growth, particularly for those from less well-off backgrounds, was not happening.

As has been said, last month, my noble Friend Lord Mandelson, the Secretary of State who has responsibility for the universities, published "Higher Ambitions"-a framework document that sets out the challenges that we believe face universities over the next 10 to 15 years. The framework was not delivered to the sector from on high; it was widely championed and supported by the sector itself. It was a product of many months of consultation; indeed, it began with a debate, with many professors from the higher education sector making a contribution. It is a good document, and it has been welcomed not only by the sector but by the CBI and the National Union of Students. It is good a platform on which to build, and I am pleased to see the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings nodding.

An essential aspect of the debate is widening access. We made clear in "Higher Ambitions" that that was an important challenge. Indeed, we ensured that the question of access-not only for young people, but for mature and part-time students-was central to the fees review. We have consistently said that we need greater parity of funding, particularly for part-time students, and we asked the fees review to consider the matter closely.

The document also seeks to build on foundation degrees, and it acknowledges the important role that FE can play in the transition to higher education, so long as certain quality thresholds are passed; and it wishes to build on the work of the Aimhigher programme. I am concerned that the hon. Gentleman seems to have his aim particularly on Aimhigher, but that would not be supported by all universities and certainly not by schools, which have seen an increase in applications to university as a consequence of the important range of activities that is taking place across the country. We say that there should be no artificial cap on talent.

Mr. Hayes: Will the Minister confirm that, when the investigation into the debacle of student finance this summer is completed, we will have the chance to debate the matter on the Floor of the House?

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