I have been looking at "Liberal Democrat Voice", the website on which we can follow the details of Liberal Democrat policy. When I printed out the relevant policy document from it, I was amazed to see that it began by saying that this was the first page of 842 pages, although I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that 837 of those 842 pages are blank. Only five pages contain any statements on Liberal Democrat policy, although, to be accurate, there are two pages describing the policy, followed by a fascinating set of comments. One of them is from someone who gives their name as "Norman Lamb 4 Leader", and it states that the latest Liberal Democrat proposal, which is somehow to abolish tuition fees within six years, is a
"Good idea but then how will the LDs fund universities in the future?"
That is a rather good question. We would all like to know how the Liberal Democrat spokesman believes universities should be funded in the future if that income were ever to be sacrificed-although we also know that he no longer believes he can do that in the lifetime of a Parliament.
There was another comment from a man called Tim Leunig, whom I know. He is an academic-at the London School of Economics, I think-and he follows the subject closely. His comment on this public forum is:
"So how will univs be funded? Or is the LD policy to slash the quantity of tuition-Mickey Mouse degrees for all? As it stands"-
"this policy is as sensible as the old Soviet trick of cutting the price of bread-how will you pay for it?"
We Conservatives did not like fees, of course, but now that they are generating revenues for universities, the Liberal Democrats have to explain what happens to the funding of universities and to the quality of the student experience if that source of funding is removed. They cannot have it both ways. They have given up on any credible claim that they can abolish fees in the lifetime of a Parliament. They now say that, for some miraculous reason we have never fully understood, it can be achieved within six years, but they have never explained where the money is coming from. I very much hope that when the hon. Member for Bristol, West comes to speak, he will give us the latest stage in that fascinating saga of the development of Liberal Democrat policy.
Rob Marris: On where the money is coming from, I would like to take the hon. Gentleman back to the issue of the 10,000 places. I salute him for trying to find a solution to our present difficulties, but I have to say that I do not think the figures add up. At present, 20 per cent. of full-time students get no state support whatever. Were there to be a discount, if only 5 per cent. of that 20 per cent. decided it was a good deal to take out a loan and get some grant support because they would get the discount, that 1 per cent. to which the hon. Gentleman is referring would already be gone. Part of the problem with his scheme is that if quite a sizeable proportion of the 20 per cent. who at the moment do not take out any loans decide to do so, that would more than cancel out the early discount.
Mr. Willetts: The hon. Gentleman is making very heavy weather of something that is very straightforward. There is £30 billion-worth of debt already out there. The Conservative party is optimistic about the future. Our motion is a set of proposals for expanding opportunities for young people in apprenticeships, in further education colleges and in universities in the tough times they are facing because of this Government's mismanagement of the economy.
This week is national science week. To mark it, we have produced an excellent report from Sir James Dyson, which clearly sets out how we can encourage high-tech investment in the future British economy. We have made it clear that we back more information for students, including not only advice and information on the web, but recreating a proper, professional, all-ages careers service. That proposal is even made in the so-called Milburn report on social mobility. The Government's response in their document, "Unleashing Aspiration", was a simple rejection, which we think is completely wrong. Above all, we Conservatives believe in raising the quality of the student experience. That is what is crucial to our universities. Of course we are confident that universities can achieve that, even in the tough times they are facing as a result of this Government's mismanagement of the public finances. We believe we offer a better prospect for our universities. All we have from this Government is more of the same: history lessons-looking backwards, not looking forwards.
"commends the Government for its record levels of investment in higher education, an increase of over 25 per cent. in real terms since 1997, which has supported more students participating in higher education than ever before; notes a 24 per cent. increase in the number of students participating in higher education since 1997, more young entrants to full-time first degrees in England who are from state schools, lower socio-economic groups, and low participation backgrounds, and recent studies which have shown that over 50 per cent. of young people aspire to go on to higher education; recognises the Government's commitment to expanding the range of pathways to higher education, including through apprenticeships, and to expanding the opportunities to participate in higher education, including through the development of foundation degrees, which have benefited 100,000 students; further notes that the Government is providing students with high levels of student support to enable them to access higher education; and welcomes the proposals in the papers Quality, Choice and Aspiration, published in October 2009, and Higher Ambitions, published in November 2009, to provide prospective students with better information, advice and guidance to enable them to fulfil their full potential.'."
Given the performance we have just witnessed, I do not really know where to start. I notice that the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) is wearing a spotted tie; this is a leopard changing his spots. We have witnessed an amazing damascene conversion. In the opening part of his speech he used words such as "access" and "opportunity", and at the end he mentioned "the student experience". As we look forward to what is to come this year, with the general election, it is important that students focus on the hon. Gentleman's past form. They should remember, as we do, university buildings falling to pieces.
The hon. Gentleman ended with a flurry by waving the document by Dyson and saying, "Believe me, we are going to take care of science in this country." We remember science facilities falling apart; there was no ring-fenced science budget at that time. We remember the unit of resource falling, not by 10, 20 or 30 per cent, but by 40 per cent between 1991 to 1997-that is according to the figures of Universities UK. What was it about students back in the days when the hon. Gentleman was sitting in a Conservative Cabinet that meant that the student experience did not matter, that the unit of resource did not matter and that science did not matter? Why should we, and why should students in this country, believe him now?
Mr. Lammy: My hon. Friend has a long memory, and the Conservatives still do want that, hence this proposal. Let us give the hon. Gentleman credit, as he is largely known for having two brains, although that of course is in the context of his own party. It is clear, as has been demonstrated in the House today, that this fatuous proposal of an extra 10,000 places is elitist, with the numbers not adding up and with students across the world, who have seen that such a proposal does not work, claiming that it is completely unfavourable to poorer students. Yet again, he has not been able to explain the policy coherently or say where he would get the money from to take care of it. I shall return to that later and I intend to repeat that point on every appropriate occasion between now and the general election. He is not going to get away with it, and he can do a damn sight better.
Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): May I thank the Minister for giving way in what would be regarded as full flow? Can he explain to the House how many physics and chemistry departments this Government have closed since 1997?
Mr. Lammy: Look, I do not want to embarrass the hon. Gentleman, but I should refer him to the fundamentals of our democracy and he would, thus, realise that the Government do not run physics and other science departments in our universities; vice-chancellors do. He should know that. I should remind hon. Members that the chancellor of Oxford university said about the Conservative party's period in office that
"in just over a decade we doubled the number of students and halved the investment in each. The Treasury calls that higher productivity-it's a euphemism for poorer pay, degraded facilities, less money to support the teaching of each student".
Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend not recall that prior to 1997 things got so bad and the Conservative party created such a mess that it had to set up the Dearing inquiry, and it then postponed decisions on the student loans until after the general election because it had lost its bottle?
Mr. Lammy: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding us about the smoke and mirrors that the Conservatives employed. They did the same in a number of areas. They promised to reform the tax system, but what did they give us? They gave us the poll tax. They promised to deal with training resources, but what did they do? They abolished apprenticeships. That was the level of their commitment.
Martin Horwood: Moving back to the current state of education, is the Minister aware of the financial crisis at the university of Gloucestershire? The vice-chancellor candidly admits that that has long-standing causes, but it involves the loss of teaching posts, the closing of the Pittville arts and media campus, and tens of millions of pounds of debt. The university has nevertheless managed to attract a record number of applicants, but it has been scuppered by the indiscriminate way in which the cap on student numbers has been applied by this Government, making a bad situation even worse.
Mr. Lammy: The very start of the hon. Gentleman's question referred to the long-standing issues that exist at that university, and I know, as does he, that the funding council is working closely with it on that. It is disingenuous, in a sense, to lay that situation at the Government's door.
Mr. Lammy: The hon. Gentleman knows that, as I just said, the Government do not run physics and chemistry departments, but let me make it clear that we are not going to take any lessons from the party whose actions led to the creation of the Save British Science campaign. Let me remind him that the number of applicants for physics has increased, as has the number of applicants for chemistry and biology, and that we have renewed facilities. It is absolutely clear that, because of our commitment to a ring-fenced science budget, science is in a much stronger position than it was previously.
Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): If science is so important to the Government-I understand that the Minister cannot comment on institutional decisions-why was the science budget specifically mentioned in the pre-Budget report as a likely target for future cuts?
Let us return to the subject of this motion, which is our 50 per cent. aspiration. It is not clear but a transformation has apparently been undertaken by the hon. Member for Havant. My concern is that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) is, as is the case on many things, much less clear about the 50 per cent. aspiration. He once went on record saying that his party opposed the aim and, most recently, he was asked about it on Mumsnet and he did not answer the question. So it is not really clear whether the Conservatives are
genuine about this aspiration and commitment. I know that a former shadow spokesman, the present Mayor of London, said:
"In the words of every saloon-bar analysis of higher education of the last 10 years, what we need is fewer graduates and more plumbers".
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): The Minister stood on a platform at the 2005 election of the 50 per cent. target. Will he tell us what progress has been made? What percentage of young men, for example, go to university?
Mr. Lammy: The hon. Gentleman knows that we have made progress, that we have reached 43 per cent. and that he opposed us at every single turn. Let me just spell out why this aspiration is so important. First, we should aim to meet it because it is right. If we believe in the principle that anyone can benefit from higher education and people deserve a chance to go to university to reap the benefits that a degree brings, we should not just pay lip service to the target; we should aspire to reach it. Secondly, it is right for economic reasons-for the reasons that the Leitch review and the Sainsbury review pointed out.
Mr. Lammy: Not at this moment. We all know that the unskilled jobs that Britain relied on previously are no longer in our economy and we must, therefore, make a reality of the knowledge economy, which means higher level skills and higher level education. We remain committed to the aspiration and we are heading in the direction of meeting it.
I remind the hon. Member for Havant that, notwithstanding the Opposition's fine words, year on year under this Labour Government we have seen an increase in the number of young people in higher education. There are more young people in higher education than ever before in our history and there will be this year, too. There are more young people from poorer socio-economic backgrounds at university than ever before in our history and there are more black and ethnic minorities at university than ever before in our history. That is the record on which we stand and even in tougher times we will still see increases in the numbers of young people going to university.
The 50 per cent. target-or aspiration-is important because we are reminded that we still have a lot to do to get to the level that we see in other EU member states and major competitors such as Japan and Australia. I do not believe that, as the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) has been quoted as saying, it is "fatuous"-he does not need to look nervous, as that is what he said. I also do not believe in the duplicity that we have seen on this issue from the Opposition.
Mr. Lammy: You are quite right, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Duplicity is not a nice word and I should not have used it. However, the hon. Member for Havant will recognise that there is a tremendous amount of inaccuracy in the way that he has used his words in the past.
Mr. Willetts: As the Minister is concerned about accuracy and inaccuracy, will he confirm that when we look at the participation rates in higher education-the Government have typically redefined this on several occasions, making it very hard to track consistently-it looks as if in 2003-04, 43 per cent. of young people went to university and in 2007-08, 43 per cent. of young people went to university? Will the Minister explain why the fact that the figure remained at 43 per cent. over a five-year period constitutes progress?
Mr. Lammy: We have had this ding-dong several times across the Dispatch Box. It is clear that we started with far fewer students in the system than we have now. I have said before that I would have liked to have seen a faster rate of growth in the number of students from poorer backgrounds. However, the commitment made by the hon. Gentleman's colleague, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), to abolish Aimhigher-I think that he has stated that in the House-will do very little. He is not departing from that commitment to abolish Aimhigher-the programme up and down the country in our schools that supports young people from poorer backgrounds to get into university and that gets graduates back into schools so that participation rates rise. How will abolishing that fund help with the issues that the Opposition are raising?
Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): In the constituency of Plymouth, Sutton there has been a 67 per cent. increase in participation since 1997, taking the number of young people going to university to more than 400. There also seems to be a particular surge at universities that are part of the University Alliance group, such as Plymouth, and in the number of students interested in the STEM subjects, such as maths and engineering. Does my right hon. Friend have anything to say to such universities about how that can be taken forward, given that a very precious thing has been established?
Mr. Lammy: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is very precious. I would say "Snap" to her-in Tottenham, we have also seen an increase of 67 per cent. in participation since 1997. Her emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics is the right one. I hope that she welcomes the plans that we set out in "Higher Ambitions" in November to ensure that we support the growth in participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and that we continue to see such a rise and support universities, such as Plymouth, that want to see a transition of students to those courses.
Mr. Lammy: I am not going to give way-I think that I will make progress at this stage. I look forward to hearing what the hon. Gentleman has to say when he makes his speech, because he is always very entertaining.