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16 Mar 2010 : Column 812

Stephen Williams: I reiterate that the position of my party is that tuition fees do not form part of the long-term future funding of higher education. We have a six-year costed plan to phase out tuition fees, but starting in year 1, 2010-11, we would remove the fees for anyone studying for their first undergraduate course in their final year of study. That means that every student currently at university entering their final year in 2010-11 would indeed be better off, and that applies in Chelmsford as much as it applies in Bristol, West and other parts of the country.

Christopher Fraser: Will the hon. Gentleman answer this question? The politics page on the website claims that the overall costs of the Liberal Democrat policy over six years is £7.5 billion. Who is right-the Liberal Democrats or the BBC? Who should these great students in this great nation of ours believe-the BBC or the Liberal Democrats?

Stephen Williams: I think the simple answer, if I do the mental arithmetic, is that that is probably the cumulative cost over the six-year period. It is not the cost for each year. I have already said that the cost in the first year is £595 million. The cost in the final year-year 6-of the full removal of tuition fees for both full-time students and part-time students, who are very important in this equation, is on current figures £2.7 billion. Although I have not seen the article to which the hon. Gentleman refers, I would guess that the figure that he quotes is the cumulative cost of years 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. That was a nice try, but I do not think he has disproved the figures that I am giving.

Mr. Plaskitt: The hon. Gentleman clearly hopes that students will be interested in his proposition that the Liberal Democrats will abolish tuition fees, but they will also be interested in a question that flows from that. If the fees were abolished under his scheme and those students were at university, how would he replace the revenue that universities would have lost? Would he shrink the numbers of universities and students, reduce the experience, or do something else?

Stephen Williams: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman was not listening too carefully to what I said earlier about that proposal being a costed proposal. Indeed, all of the quite limited number of extra-expenditure provisions that the Liberal Democrats will put forward in our manifesto for the forthcoming election are costed proposals. Each of those proposals, whether for the pupil premium, tax cuts for the low-paid or the phasing out of tuition fees, is fully costed. We have identified where all the money is going to come from, whether it is from refocusing tax credits, removing higher-rate tax relief for pension contributions or one of many other examples that I could cite. Those examples will be quoted in full, as they always have been in every general election that I have fought as a candidate going right back to 1992.

Mr. Lammy: The hon. Gentleman accepts that his scheme would cost a considerable amount of money. He has previously described the 50 per cent. aspiration as fatuous, so will he confirm that under a Liberal Democrat Government there would be fewer students attending university?

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Stephen Williams: No, I am not prepared to confirm that there would be fewer students, or, indeed, more. The Minister is probably quoting me out of context. [ Interruption. ] Surely not, indeed, but I think that he probably is when it comes to the 50 per cent. target. I think that I referred to the number as fatuous, because it could well be 49 or 51 per cent. The fact is that, as the hon. Member for Havant eventually said, the proportion of 18 to 30-year-olds attending higher education has been about 41 per cent. on average over the past decade. In some years, it has been 39 per cent. and in some years it has been 43 per cent., but there has been relatively little progress in the past decade, and unless we get a sharp increase in educational attainment in our schools over the next decade, it is hard to see how we are going to get anywhere near 50 per cent. overall. We are close to that figure for young women, but we are nowhere near it for young men, whether they are white, working-class boys or boys of Afro-Caribbean origin, as the Minister surely knows.

Martin Horwood: Does my hon. Friend agree that the consternation and multiple interventions that we have heard from Members of the other parties reflect their worry that only one political party is going into this election under the watchful eye of my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) with a fully costed proposal to remove the burden of tuition fees and the debt that accompanies them from future generations of students? Is he not immensely proud of that as a Liberal Democrat?

Stephen Williams: I am sure that my hon. Friend is absolutely right about the sage of Twickenham. I am looking forward to many debates in the general election, but particularly to the debate among the Treasury spokesmen of the three parties.

I shall now turn to the text of the motion, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I have been attempting to do for the past 10 minutes or so. It focuses on the number of applicants for higher education in the forthcoming academic year. The Minister eventually conceded that there has been an increase in demand, as he put it, for places this year, just as there was last year, but the people who apply this year will be competing with the people who lost out last year. In our debates at this time last year, Liberal Democrat and Conservative Members pointed out that a crisis was unfolding before our eyes, and the Minister said that the process was competitive-he has repeated that today-and that the people who lost out could always come back in the following year. So the Government must have known that this year's position would potentially be even worse than last year's, but they do not seem to have a clear response to that yet. Their response last year was completely inadequate: they eventually allowed universities to expand the number of places, but did not provide them with the normal teaching grant from the funding council to make sure that places were funded, so universities took on the cost of the Government's lack of foresight and planning.

As this is a Conservative Opposition day, I shall address the Conservatives' proposals.

Mr. Lammy: Does the hon. Gentleman have a proposal to put to the House?

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Stephen Williams: Indeed, I do. When I have dispensed with the Conservative proposal, I shall turn to ours. The Conservatives have put forward a completely ludicrous scheme to offer a discount to students to pay their fees off early in order to gain a cash-flow advantage for the Student Loans Company and, indirectly, for the Treasury.

The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) hit the bullseye with his question. This is Conservative funny money, I am afraid, and offers no guarantee to young people that they will reap any advantage from this poorly costed, ill thought out proposal. It is the higher education equivalent of the Conservatives' flagship policy on taxes and the Treasury, where all they have to offer is a cut in inheritance tax for the very wealthy. The only people who are certain to benefit from the proposal from the hon. Member for Havant are those students who are going to university and were always going to do so, and who come from the wealthiest families. There is no certainty that those from a poorer background are going to- [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind the Whips that they are not supposed to intervene, and certainly not shout persistently from a sedentary position. It is not in order.

Stephen Williams: To reiterate, in case it was lost in that heckling, there is no certainty that poorer students or those who may lose out on a place this year will benefit, although it is certain that richer students will do so.

Rob Marris: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Conservative proposal for 10,000 extra places covers one cohort, which would go through university for three years? It is sometimes spun by Conservative politicians as 10,000 extra university places, without their saying that those extra places are available in one year only, to see the cohort through, which is sleight of hand.

Stephen Williams: The hon. Gentleman is quite right: there are lots of questions that the Conservatives have yet to answer about their proposal, but I am sure that the election debate, whether it is between the three spokesmen in the Chamber or between candidates up and down the country will draw that out.

Turning to the Liberal Democrat response to the crisis in university places and to the way in which young people have become victims of the recession, we, too, think that higher education is a good place for young people to shelter from the recession. We therefore propose 15,000 extra places, specifically in foundation degrees delivered in further education colleges in subjects such as engineering, IT and logistics-skills that we need-thus directly tackling the issues of social mobility and fair access to higher education. According to current statistics, roughly a quarter of the people who study for foundation degrees come from low-participation neighbourhoods. Before the Minister or someone else springs up and asks me where the money for that will come from, it also entails a refocusing of the Train to Gain budget, and has been costed at £120 million in 2010-11 to fund those 15,000 extra places. It is a precise amount; we say exactly what sort of provision there will be, where it will be delivered, what sort of subjects are involved, the amount of money it will cost and where that will come from. That Liberal Democrat proposal contrasts with the Conservatives' funny money proposal.

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Rob Marris: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Stephen Williams: For one last time.

Rob Marris: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He will forgive me if I missed it earlier, but he has talked about 15,000 extra places and has clearly set out where he thinks the £120 million will come from-presumably every year, and not just for one cohort. His proposal to abolish tuition fees in university, on the current number of students, is equivalent to a commitment of approximately £1.2 billion a year, when it is worked through at the end of the six-year abolition period. He has told us where the funding will come from for the 15,000 extra places. Can he tell us where that £1.2 billion a year, every year, will come from?

Stephen Williams: We are going back in time to try to cost the overall proposal to phase out tuition fees. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it is not just my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham who makes sure that the sums add up. I make sure that they add up in my portfolio as well. Our proposed extra foundation degree places for year 1 and year 2-foundation degrees are a two-year programme-are fully costed in the second year as well, and our aspiration in the second year to start phasing out the final year tuition fee cost is taken into account. That was dealt with in my previous answers.

Widening participation is mentioned in the Conservatives' motion, but they had remarkably little to say about it. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of people attending university over the past 40 years, if not in the past 10 years, but that increase in participation in higher education has not been a socially balanced increase. That is the problem on which we should now focus. We know that in some social groups there is saturation point among those who go into higher education, whereas in other social groups things have barely changed since the 1960s. The child of a manual worker who did not go to university is just as unlikely to go to university now as in the 1960s, when I was born.

Mr. Willetts: If the hon. Gentleman concedes that in some groups we have reached saturation point, in his words, does he not understand that that is precisely why our proposal for extra places in summer 2010 is socially progressive? It is the people from the backgrounds that are less likely to go to university, which is where the extra applications are concentrated, who will be helped by our proposal.

Stephen Williams: The hon. Gentleman is desperately trying to claim some sort of socially progressive message from the Conservatives' proposals. Only one side of the equation is certain: who will benefit from the discount. The other side of the equation-who will benefit financially from the provision of extra places-is remarkably uncertain because we cannot be sure how many extra places there will be, where they are or whether they are guaranteed for the full period of a three or four-year degree programme.

If we are serious about socially balanced access to higher education, we know that the solution does not lie in our differences over higher education policy. It lies in driving up attainment in our schools. That is why the most costly proposal that the Liberal Democrats will
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put forward at the election is the introduction of a pupil premium, so that schools whose pupils who come from a disadvantaged background-for example, those on free school meals, as I was when I was in school-will get extra money for the pupils in their care to invest in smaller class sizes, smaller teaching groups or one-to-one intervention in order to make sure that young people do not fall behind. [ Interruption. ]

The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West says from a sedentary position, "We already do." It is true that deprivation funding is granted to certain schools, but that is done on a postcode basis. He will know that poverty can be found in more affluent areas and the schools funding formula does not necessarily reflect the fact that in a school where the children overall come from better-off backgrounds, the funding formula does not provide extra funds for some children. We have proposed a pupil premium which is proven to work elsewhere, most notably in Holland, in order to give schools extra money. Free school meals is just one of the proxy measures that we will use to ensure early intervention, so that children do not get left behind.

Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): Is my hon. Friend aware that in some schools in my constituency-the constituency that is considered the most affluent of the Manchester constituencies-some schools will get hundreds of thousands of pounds extra under our pupil premium proposals?

Stephen Williams: I am fully aware of that. Schools in my hon. Friend's constituency, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), in my constituency, Bristol, West, and more importantly, in constituencies all round the country where there are disadvantaged children, will be direct beneficiaries of our pupil premium policy. It is by investment in education in schools or FE colleges that we will drive up attainment at 16 and increase progression to 18, so enabling more people to participate in higher education.

That is the point that I have always made-to return to the Minister's intervention about the 50 per cent. target. The logical result of our pupil premium policy is that more people from a socially disadvantaged background will have the opportunity to participate in higher education, and then the numbers will naturally rise. It is more credible to have a policy that drives up attainment and participation, rather than to set a futuristic target and expect everything to flow through in order to meet it. Our policy will be fully funded and it will be set out clearly in our manifesto alongside our other proposals.

Mr. Lammy: The hon. Gentleman says that it will be fully funded. When questioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), he put his hand up, in an Arnold Schwarzenegger "Hasta la vista, baby" moment, but he did not actually answer the question. He has to explain where the Liberal Democrats would get the money from to fund their proposal and get the increase, and he has not done so. Where would the money come from?

Stephen Williams: We are widening the debate into the costing of manifestos. I am happy, for the Minister's benefit, to reiterate what I said in answer to previous interventions. The package of Liberal Democrat proposals at this election, whether they be for fair taxes for the
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low-paid, the pupil premium for schools, the phase-out of tuition fees, or extra police officers and youth workers on the streets, will be met by cutting back tax credits for some families, taking away higher rate pension tax relief for higher rate taxpayers, and closing some loopholes in the tax system so that we equalise up the tax rates that people pay on their capital gains to those taxes that people pay on their income or savings-a loophole that the Prime Minister opened up during his business-friendly days as Chancellor. We will not have identity cards as part of the future furniture of British life, and we will not have a bells and whistles replacement for Trident either. That is quite a long list of how our spending proposals will be funded. I look forward to similar candour from the Minister and from the Chancellor in a week's time and at the forthcoming election about how the Labour Government will deal with their aspirations for the future and how they will tackle the current deficit in public funding.

The other way that we deal with widening participation in higher education, apart from the pupil premium, is by having some higher education outreach programmes in our schools and developing long-term relationships with schools in low-participation neighbourhoods, so that more young people will progress to university in the future. Flexible provision must also be part of that future, both for part-time students and for a key role for further education.

It is also important that we pay some attention to the subjects that young people study when they achieve access to higher education. We have said many times in this debate that we need a revolution in information, advice and guidance provided to young people. A related specific proposal that the Liberal Democrats will put forward at the election is of a national bursary scheme to incentivise people to take certain shortage subjects or strategically important subjects at university. If we do not get more people taking science, technology, engineering and maths, we will not have the people with the answers to climate change, we will not be able to build 21st-century transport infrastructure and we will not have the people who can develop our digital economy in the future.

We need to enthuse the young about science. This afternoon, I had a very enjoyable visit to the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, which reawakened my own enthusiasm for science, where I heard, among its many schemes for science outreach, about the "protons for breakfast" programme. We also need to ensure that science is taught well in schools, by having teachers who are qualified in the subjects and schools that can teach the full three sciences rather than just general science.

Investment in higher education and research is key both to this country's future prosperity and to ensuring that we have some of the answers for the future, whether they be in health, climate change, or delivering social mobility, which we have also discussed this afternoon. The response of the rest of the developed world to the current recession has been to announce investment in higher education and research over the next decade. We will have to wait eight days to see whether the Government share that vision. The Liberal Democrats certainly believe that there must be investment in higher education and research so that we can have both an economically prosperous future and genuine social mobility.

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Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Six speakers are seeking to catch my eye, and we have about 50 minutes left. If hon. Members can exert a little self-discipline and take something under 10 minutes each, we will try to get everybody in if we possibly can.

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