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Time and again, we have heard the hon. Member for Havant pledge that he can create 10,000 fully funded student places for the coming year. We have asked
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questions of him and time and again he has failed to answer them-as we heard again today-or to furnish the House with the detail that is needed to prove that his policy is anything other than a gimmick. It is a gimmick, because he is simply attempting to give Conservative candidates a little bit of cover as they go out to fight the general election. The Opposition do not really mean their pledge, because they are hugely exposed on higher education. The hon. Gentleman keeps coming back to this one policy on student places as a politically opportunistic device, even though he knows that he cannot cost it, that it would favour the wealthy and the very rich, that it is completely regressive and that what it offers is disingenuous.

That is why the million+ group of universities, made up of the universities dedicated to widening access over a consistent period-the modern universities-will be very disappointed that the apparent future Secretary of State, whose aspiration is to be responsible for higher education, describes the million+ group, these modern universities, as millennium plus. He did that in the House today. He cannot even get the name right-that is how much he cares about the universities' commitment to this agenda. That is perhaps why they described his proposal for an early discount scheme as one that "doesn't add up".

The current president of the National Union of Students Australia, Carla Drakeford, said of the hon. Gentleman's proposal:

Mr. Willetts: May I make it clear that during the Minister's previous remarks, the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) raised his hands in what looked to me like an admission that the expression "millennium plus" perhaps began with him?

Rob Marris: Use one of your brains next time.

Mr. Lammy: Yes-it is the hon. Member for Havant who apparently has two brains, and he adopted that new phrase. Before even taking power, he began to reform modern universities to such an extent that he abolished them. That is an indication of what they can expect.

The hon. Gentleman must explain properly to the House how he would fund that proposal- [ Interruption. ] He says from a sedentary position that he has explained it, but he has not-or he has explained it badly. The universities do not understand it and students do not understand it, either in this country or in Australia. Apparently, the only person who understands it is him.

Christopher Fraser: The Minister talks about students understanding things, and perhaps he could explain something to some students. UCAS published some figures on 22 January that show that last year, 158,000 of those students who applied for a place at university failed to get one compared with 110,000 the year before. That suggests that without action that number will
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increase. What message does the Minister give from his Government to those students who will not get a place at university and who cannot get a job as a consequence of Government inaction?

Mr. Lammy: Let us turn, then, to this issue-

Christopher Fraser: No, answer it.

Mr. Lammy: I said, let us turn to this issue. The hon. Gentleman should wait a moment. It is too early to say exactly how many students will be able to start university next year. We know that there will be more students participating in higher education next year than there were this year. We also know that of course demand is up, but I remind Opposition Members that at this point last year they were saying that clearing would be over in half a day, that there would be a crisis and that the Government were failing to support students. We saw nothing of the sort: clearing went on for weeks, and thousands of places were available. We did not see the crisis that they predicted, although I see that the word has been used again today.

It is too early to say. I do not know whether the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser) has a child in the sixth form, or whether he has been into a sixth-form college recently, but I remind him that students have not even taken their mock exams yet. They have not sat their A-levels yet, or received their results. We do not know what they have got, so the funding council has made an estimation. Sir Alan Langlands has said that it is an estimation, so let us see where we get to.

Christopher Fraser: With all respect to the Minister, I asked a perfectly civil and polite question about those students who have been turned down already. I was not asking about those who are currently doing exams, but about those who failed to get into university last year. I gave the figure, saying that 158,000 students cannot get a place at university or a job. I would prefer it if the Minister could answer in respect of his responsibilities and not keep pushing the matter back across the Floor, because I believe that I am asking a perfectly civil question on behalf of 158,000 students in this country who deserve a better answer than the one that I have just been given.

Mr. Lammy: They will get the answer that I have given, which is, first of all, that there will be more students next year than ever before in our history. Secondly, it is too early in the cycle to say what will happen this year, because students have not taken their A-levels and no offers have been made. Thirdly, every year there are students who apply to university who do not get in. I remind the hon. Gentleman that university entrance is competitive by nature and that not everyone who wants to go manages to do so in their first year of trying. However, all of that is against the backdrop of the fact that the Government have increased the number of places year on year. There will also be further increases this year.

I remind the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk that every year there are students who get three A grades but who do not go to university because they are unsuccessful in getting into the particular university or on to the particular course that they prefer.

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Christopher Fraser: What does the Minister say to them?

Mr. Lammy: The hon. Gentleman asks what I say to them. I say to them that sixth form is available, and we are funding that. I also say that advanced apprenticeships are available, and we have brought forward 35,000 more of them- [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser) is getting the answer that he is getting, whether he is happy with it or not. However, having asked the question, he must not keep interjecting as the Minister replies.

Mr. Lammy: We have increased the number of apprenticeships available in further education to ensure that young people can also access them.

The Opposition have talked about unemployment, but let us be clear: we set up the future jobs fund to support young people at this time, and it is worth £1 billion. The Chancellor has effectively borrowed that money to ensure that employers and local authorities come forward to provide training and opportunities for young people. That leads me to what will be the central discussion in the general election. The Opposition have turned their face against that kind of borrowing, because they also say that we should cut now, and deeply. In fact, it was their intention to cut £600 million from my Department's budget 18 months ago, so desirous were they to cut funding. So, if the Opposition came to power, they could not fund the extra places even if they wanted to.

Mr. Hayes: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and I know that he is doing his best to answer this important question. He said that it is early in the cycle, and we respect that, but both he and the House know that it is inconceivable that the Department has not modelled what is likely to happen, based on the experience of previous years. It would be a very irresponsible Department, and a very irresponsible Minister, if those projections had not been made. I think that the House owes it to the students concerned-and that he owes it to the House-to share some of those findings with us.

Mr. Lammy: The hon. Gentleman knows that we have said already that demand is up by 23 per cent. We are monitoring the matter, and looking at what is a changing pattern over the course of the year. There is really nothing more to add, except to say that it far more likely that students will be at university under this Government, because we are committed to access and participation. In contrast, the Opposition would impose cuts now, and they have a scheme that cannot be properly funded or sustained. Under a Conservative Government, therefore, it is very likely that many fewer students would go on to higher education.

Frank Dobson: Does my right hon. Friend agree that there seems to be some inconsistency among those on the Opposition Benches? They appear to object to having a target or aspiration that 50 per cent. of young people should go to university, but they complain that there are not enough places at present. They had better make their minds up if they want to be treated as an alternative Government.

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Mr. Lammy: My right hon. Friend makes the point succinctly and beautifully. I have nothing more to add, except to say that I totally agree that the Opposition are not clear about whether they are committed to the aspiration or whether they are using it as an opportunistic election ploy.

Linda Gilroy: I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way, and I am sure that he is looking at future funding possibilities. Has he looked at discounts, and at how many people already pay back early? Has he made some assessment of what would happen if the sort of discount proposed by the Opposition were introduced?

Mr. Lammy: My hon. Friend is right to raise that issue, because a considerable dead-weight cost is attached to the proposal. In addition, inequality problems would arise because the proposal favours the very wealthiest students, with poorer students possibly seeking to borrow money in order to pay back early what they owe. For those reasons, we reject the Opposition proposal.

Given the current nature of the economy, let us consider where graduates find themselves at this time. We are obviously pleased that the worst fears of the Association of Graduate Recruiters about the effect of the recession on graduate vacancies have not been realised. The latest figures from the association and elsewhere suggest that things in the graduate labour market are beginning to look up. The Government's response to the particular problems that graduates have faced during the recession and the help that we and our partners have given to enhance employability skills and to boost students' CVs will now start to pay dividends. The creation of the graduate talent pool and of no fewer than 24,000 graduate internships have been an important part of that, as has the scheme that we launched recently with Raleigh International to provide overseas placements for young people from poorer backgrounds. However, we must do more to help those who have taken up the new university places that we have created to carry the benefits of that opportunity through to the world of work. That is why we also recently announced 8,500 internships with small businesses, in partnership with the Federation of Small Businesses. Those internships are in priority sectors like the digital economy, the low-carbon economy and advanced manufacturing, and we hope to see their number grow over the next period.

We hope that that approach will foster new relationships between small and medium-sized enterprises and universities. We also hope that it will introduce graduates to the jobs of the future and give them an insight into the world of the entrepreneur. We have also asked all higher education institutions to produce a statement on how they can promote employability, and on how they plan to make access to information about employability outcomes available to prospective students.

That hard effort to increase the number of internships was scoffed at by the Opposition when we first proposed it. They said that it would not and could not work, and that it was wasted money. However, I remind them that our proposals are eons away from the failed youth training scheme that was offered to young people in the previous recession, when neither graduates nor young people who were a long way from going to university were supported. We are working with the Federation of Small Businesses and with industry to ensure that young
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people are not sitting unemployed. That is why there has been the decline in unemployment figures; they are employed and they are getting the skills, particularly the soft skills, that industry needs.

We remain committed to widening participation and access. We continue to monitor the situation for students this year, reflecting and remembering that now, in March, we are still very early in the cycle. I would ask the hon. Member for Havant not to be opportunistic with his prospective parliamentary candidates and others about this participation scheme, and ask him to think carefully about the messages that he is sending to young people. I also say to him that if he is serious about wanting to stand on this side of the Dispatch Box, he must come forward with a proposal that is properly costed and funded and that is actually workable. I remind him again that when we announced our policy to provide the support that we are giving young people in this more difficult economic time, he opposed those policies as well. He was wrong then and he is wrong now, and that is why I suspect he will never make it from being not a bad writer to being a Minister in a future Government.

8.21 pm

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): This time next week, we shall all be eagerly anticipating the Chancellor's Budget, which may be his last, both before and after the general election. We shall be waiting to see whether there is a bold vision for higher education and research in that Budget, but I think we would be foolish to hold our breath.

This Government decided not to have a comprehensive spending review to cover the current period and the next two years, quite in contradiction to their previous practice, both under the current Chancellor and the Prime Minister as Chancellor before him; yet higher education and research have been singled out for Budget cuts that have been announced so far, in stark contradiction to what has been announced for other Departments. Higher and further education have so far been the victims of targeted cuts that are announced by the Government, either on a piecemeal basis or alluded to in the pre-Budget report, which specifically mentioned science. I repeat my question to the Minister: what is the future for British science in this country when the pre-Budget report specifically says that science should be a target for cuts in the next period? We will have to wait for eight days to see whether the Chancellor expands on that.

We see the contrast, right at the top of the Government, between the Minister's superior, Lord Mandelson, at the other end of the Palace of Westminster, and the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families: further and higher education have been put forward for sacrifice in contrast to the message from the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

Lord Browne's review is under way. My party considers that the review could have started a lot sooner and, more importantly, could actually have concluded in advance of the impending general election. Then we could have had a genuine debate, with three choices being put forward by the three parties, informed by that review in advance of the general election. Sadly, we shall not get that chance at the coming general election, but it remains the position of the Liberal Democrats
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that the current tuition fees model for part-financing higher education is bust, and should not form part of the long-term future of funding higher education. We also specifically reject any moves for full variability in tuition fees. The theoretical ability to vary tuition fees exists at the moment, but if the cap were to come off or were to be gradually lifted, it would lead to a market in the cost of higher education, and that is a vision of the future that we simply do not share.

Although he is not listening at the moment, I congratulate the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) on using one of his brains to study the blogosphere very carefully. He obviously spends far more time on these matters than I do, whether it is blogs from my own side or from his, or from the Labour side of the Chamber. I am happy to confirm to him that scrapping tuition fees remains the position of my party. We have a six-year proposal to achieve that objective. It is fully costed and will be set out in our manifesto. In year 1, 2010-11, it will cost £595 million, and at the end of year 6 it will, on current figures, cost just under £3 billion. We will, as always, be identifying the sources of those funds.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): The hon. Gentleman has just confirmed that the Liberal Democrat policy is to abolish tuition fees over a six-year period. Can he now give a commitment- [Interruption.] That is right, isn't it?

Stephen Williams: Absolutely.

Mr. Burns: The hon. Gentleman has just reconfirmed it. Can he now give a commitment that Liberal Democrat candidates up and down the country will stop putting misleading statements in their leaflets that give the impression that all tuition fees will be abolished in year 1? That is what the Liberal Democrats are doing and it is a fantasy.

Stephen Williams: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I understand he may be feeling a bit worried about some of the leaflets going out in his constituency, because Chelmsford is of course a target for my party at the forthcoming election.

Mr. Burns: No, I am not.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I say to the House, I appreciate that the general election is not very far away, but this- [Interruption.] Order. This is an extremely important subject, and both those who run our universities and the young people who hope to go there will be either listening to our debate tonight or reading it in Hansard tomorrow, and I suggest the House remembers that.

Stephen Williams: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I certainly hope that students follow this debate closely, and perhaps many of them will be reading Hansard tomorrow-who knows?

Mr. Burns: Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, could he actually answer my question? Will he stop his candidates up and down the country misleading people and suggesting, as many leaflets by Liberal Democrats throughout the country do, that the policy would be implemented and completed in year 1?

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