Previous Section Index Home Page

8.50 pm

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall be very brief. I want to put out a radically different message from those that we have heard so far. It does not represent Government policy or Opposition policy, but it certainly represents a socialist policy.

I shall describe where we have come from. When I was a student in the 1960s, we had full grants and no fees. Indeed, my wife was a student at a teacher training college, and she had a full grant on which she could live throughout the year, with no fees. I remember my late father, who was then chair of Barnet constituency Labour party, saying at that time, "It won't be long before we've abolished means testing, we'll all get full grants and it'll be paid for out of progressive general taxation." That is what we looked forward to at that time. Now, we have many more students at university but we have gone way back on that situation, and that is regrettable.

In 1998, much to my surprise, our Government introduced a Bill that abolished grants and introduced fees. It was not in our manifesto, and I was one of33 Labour MPs who voted against it. I was very disappointed, and I subsequently voted against top-up fees as well. The National Union of Students has a modest proposal, saying that

in other words, through general taxation. That just involves abolishing fees, essentially, and the union also says:

If we restored corporation tax to its 1997 rate, which would not be difficult for companies to adhere to, we would have another £6 billion or £7 billion to spend, and that could go straight into higher education. A figure of £1.2 billion to abolish student fees is a small price: it represents about one third of a pence on the standard rate of tax, or about one seventh of our subsidy on the savings of the richest 1 per cent. of people in the country. Those are small sums of money, and if we look at the tax gap, we find that the vast amount of money that is not collected due to tax evasion, tax avoidance and whatever is estimated to be well over £100 billion a year. The money is there if we choose to find or raise it, and we could pay for a fully free system of higher education, with grants for all our students.

The hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) suggested that we persuade more people to take up apprenticeships rather than to go to university, but I want to see a world where there is a continuum, in which studying at university and being an apprentice are rather similar. The difference is that if one is an apprentice, one gets paid; if one is at university, one has to pay for the privilege. That suggests
16 Mar 2010 : Column 819
that university is something for the affluent middle class, because that is where they pay, and that apprenticeships are for working-class people, who cannot afford to go to university. That is profoundly misguided and wrong.

I want to see a world in which students, whatever their social background, have a choice, do not suffer a penalty by going to university and do not feel forced to go into an apprenticeship because of financial arrangements. People should not choose to go to university when an apprenticeship is more appropriate, but mention was made of the student experience, and that varies depending on one's affluence and background. I have often imagined a scene where, at the same university, the working-class students, who do not have much money and have to borrow, work in bars and serve drinks to the wealthy students who do not have to work. Indeed, if one is a student from a less academic background, and one has to spend more of one's time and energies raising money to study, one's performance in one's studies can be damaged, so we should be concerned about the student experience.

What is going to happen? Students now leave university with average debts of £20,000, and the NUS suggests that the figure might double in time. That will be a serious disincentive to many. It has also been suggested that the lifetime financial advantage of going to university is starting to taper downwards slightly; it is becoming less financially advantageous to go to university, and the way forward should be the funding of education at every level through progressive taxation. There are countries that do that-Finland, for example, does not charge; everything is paid for by the state in its state education system. That means that everybody has a fair crack of the whip and that nobody has to suffer because of their inability to pay.

Those are some of the points that I wanted to make; many of the others have been made already. In conclusion, I should say that in our local town is the university of Bedfordshire. I was chair of governors at the college of higher education that became the university. It is a splendid university that does a wonderful job. Its students are very diverse-a large number come from ethnic minorities or from not traditionally academic backgrounds and many do degrees as adult and part-time students. That is the sort of university that really makes a difference. It does a fantastic job and gets awards for the quality of its teaching and the employability of its students. Just recently it has been expanding research in the STEM-science, technology, engineering and maths-subjects, and it is doing a tremendous job on that. The university of Bedfordshire deserves support, but it is not getting sufficient support at the moment. We should lift the cap on student numbers and encourage all our universities to take as many students as they can in future. That would benefit society, the universities and young people. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench have listened to what I have said.

8.56 pm

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): It is clear that ensuring access to higher and further education is in the best interests of most students. Whenever the desire to access such education exists, we must give people the opportunity to fulfil their potential. Action has been taken towards that end. University has gone from being a rite of passage for the few to being a right
16 Mar 2010 : Column 820
to a better future for the many. Just as the number of people going to universities has increased, so has the number of courses that are available.

Yet too often that kaleidoscope of options breaks down into a black-and-white outcome. On the one hand, for those who go to university because they have the motivation and application, it is the perfect continuation of their intellectual education. On the other hand, a wasted minority go to university because of the paucity of alternatives. Too often, those who would be better served by apprenticeships, foundation courses or being in work are funnelled into full-time courses with no benefit to their lives. Three or four years later they emerge, saddled with at least £9,000 of debt and with no clear idea of what they want to do. They are no better off than when they started. That is a long time to be going in the wrong direction at such a high cost.

The issue of access to higher education has become confused with getting as many people into university as possible. University is right for some, but not for all. A blanket approach of 50 per cent. participation may be one way to unlock potential, but it will not produce the best results for 100 per cent. of the people who go. The Government are trying to offer more inclusive universities. Instead, they should be creating more inclusive routes to future jobs.

The Government must take a step back. Employers, voluntary associations and colleges could then work together to create a more flexible and worthwhile system for those who choose not to go to university. A greater range of alternative courses-part-time or work placement courses-would then exist, as well as the option of a local college or university. These could be based around jobs that genuinely cater for people's talents.

Some proposals have been made on a more flexible approach. Increasingly, access to higher education courses and foundation degrees is being offered through partnerships with further education institutions. This brings opportunities closer to local people. Students unable to afford the cost of higher education away from home can still access some level of higher education nearby. I believe that the current figure for such courses is 10 per cent. of the higher education total. The Government's policy paper, "Higher Ambitions", noted:

Yet I find it difficult to square such a statement with the impending cuts in higher education. Forcing universities to save £449 million will probably lead them to focus on core, rather than supplementary, services. That will lower the number of partnerships between universities and colleges, and in doing so limit people's access to higher education, which so many have taken advantage of.

We must foster a culture in which people are not burdened with the expectation that they must go to university when they would better placed pursuing a more realistic alternative. Worthwhile jobs should have the same standing as degrees. Access to higher education should be seen as a lifelong opportunity, and not simply be focused on those turning 18. We must encourage people's interests and abilities through the choices made available to them. "Give me a place to stand", Archimedes said, "and I will move the world." We must recognise that university is but one place to stand-there are other places-and we must ensure that we offer every 18 or 19-year-old a practical and achievable opportunity.

16 Mar 2010 : Column 821
9.2 pm

Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab): As you rightly said, Mr. Deputy Speaker, this is a very important debate. I know that young people will be following our proceedings, and I am pleased to make a contribution, not only because of that, and not only because I am a recovering academic. I taught in the university system in the mid-1980s, and I recall what it was like at that time-the inadequate facilities that we were trying to cope with, the limited experience that students had, the pressure on courses, the large seminar groups, and the difficulty that many had in getting into the system. The system of the 1980s short-changed students who were at university and denied life-changing opportunities to others who should have been at university but could not get there because of the lack of funding.

One of the reasons I left academia to come here was to try to address some of those problems and to seek a transformation in the university experience of students, which is what has been happening for the past 10 years. I wanted more people to go to university and those who did go to enjoy high-quality courses. About 300,000 more students are now going to university, and the chances of getting there have improved. I did some research that shows that 10 years ago about 64 per cent. of those applying to university got in; the figure now stands at about 68 per cent., so there is a distinct improvement. In my own constituency, which started from quite a high base, the figure has risen by a further 27 per cent. in the past 10 years.

I wanted extra investment to go in to support each student who was at university, and that, too, is exactly what has been happening-it is up by a third in real terms and now stands very favourably against the OECD average. I wanted more students from lower income backgrounds to get into universities, and because of the policies that we have been pursuing, we are seeing the fastest rise in access to university for students from lower decile backgrounds and some of the poorest and most deprived areas in the country.

One thing that is making a big difference is the education maintenance allowance. EMA support makes the difference for people who might otherwise have left the education system at 16. Because of EMA, they see their potential and realise that they can get to university. Any proposal to scale back EMA or to abolish it completely, which we are hearing from Opposition parties, would be detrimental to their declared objectives for universities.

I wanted more investment in further education colleges as well as in universities. In my constituency, we have seen a transformation in Warwickshire further education college in the past 10 years-a record level of investment and a sharp increase in the number of students who go through. That is partly attributable to the inspirational leadership of Ioan Morgan, who is due to retire this summer, and whose great work and contribution should be acknowledged.

I have also seen the difference in the two local universities, Coventry and Warwick. The latter is now among the top universities internationally. It is highly successful at securing private investment, but it is still dependent on significant public investment to sustain it. It plays a key
16 Mar 2010 : Column 822
role in the west midlands economy. The Warwick manufacturing group has become world renowned for its contribution, and Warwick's medical school, which is new under this Government, now trains around 1,000 doctors and levers in important private research money. It is now involved in some leading aspects of medical research. Warwick medical school is supported by £6 million from Advantage West Midlands, the regional development agency. I am concerned at the suggestions we hear from the Opposition parties that RDAs might disappear, which again does not sit very neatly with their alleged aspirations to improve universities and the university experience.

Many of those developments have been supported by the controversial reform of funding, about which we have had intense debates. However, I believe that we have settled on a fair policy. It recognises that there will continue to be a major public contribution to support people going through university, but also that there will be a contribution from the students themselves, reflecting the long-term advantage that they will gain. I wanted a review after the original cohort had left university, and I am pleased that that is now happening. I am delighted that the review will involve student representation-indeed, students will be represented by a Warwick university student. We should await the outcome of the review, but if it concludes that we are keeping the fees system, I hope that we will not depart from the core principles of widening access, improving quality and matching any change in fees with changes in grant.

May I make one long-term proposal to my hon. Friend the Minister? Can we think again about child trust funds? I raised that in 2003 when we debated revising the cap on fees, but I want to talk about it again. The first child trust funds will be fully maturing in about eight years' time. Will the Government consider allowing some people to convert their child trust fund as it matures into an education trust fund if they choose to use it to fund themselves through university? If they come from a family background that meant that they benefited from additional top-ups during the growth of the child trust fund, could we not provide a further top-up if it is converted into an education trust fund? That, too, would go a long way towards long-term investment for education, and is part of what we must do to widen opportunities and diminish inequalities. We should be thinking not about abolishing the child trust fund, as we hear from Opposition parties, or about limiting its scope, but about widening it in imaginative ways to serve those longer-term educational objectives.

When I have discussions with year 10 students in schools in my constituency, I do not find a great love for fees, but nor do I find great love for the alternatives. That is certainly true when we discuss the graduate tax or having a slimmed-down university system as a way of getting rid of fees. Those students accept that we must share the costs fairly. They will carefully scrutinise what we propose after the review, just as they scrutinise ideas and suggestions now. They have spotted the quack remedy that we have heard from the Opposition this evening, funded as it is by the bizarre belief that tens of thousands of new graduates will rush to make early repayments of their loans-an unreal suggestion.

The Government have higher ambitions, and the young people we are talking about have higher ambitions for themselves. I am certain that the only way that those
16 Mar 2010 : Column 823
ambitions will be realised is if we maintain the approach to universities and funding that we have seen from this Government over the last 10 years.

9.10 pm

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this important debate on access to higher education. I wish to focus my comments this evening on the challenges facing those who are already studying at university, because we should not have a debate about improving access to higher education without considering the alarming level of drop-outs-a situation that has been made much worse by the student loans fiasco that the Government oversaw last autumn. Remarkably, they are still making a giant cock-up of that as we speak.

It is fair to say that no hon. Member would disagree that widening access to higher education is very important. Indeed, I would go as far as to say there is something of a cross-party consensus with regard to intention. There is general agreement that all young people, whatever their background, should have the opportunity of a place at university if they have the ability. Young people have no lack of aspiration, but there are clearly barriers to that aspiration. That is why we must all do what we can to ensure equality of opportunity for all.

Last year, according to UCAS, 158,000 people who applied for a place at university failed to get one-40,000 more than in the previous year. That suggests to me that the number of disappointed applicants will increase again this year, possibly by an even greater number. The situation is being exacerbated by the fact that many applicants, who would have otherwise secured employment, have been encouraged to apply to university by the sharply contracting job market. Let us not forget that some 1 million young people are now not in education, employment or training. This recession has hit the young particularly savagely.

The harsh reality is that despite a sharp rise in applications, many bright and able young people will be denied a university place, especially as we expect a reduction of 6,000 undergraduate places in 2010-11. If that is not a signal that the Labour Government have failed young people, what is? Even Pam Tatlow, who represents million+, and who apparently wants to be a Labour MP, believes that what Labour has done in cutting university places is wrong. In its report entitled "Scarred for Life", million+ said that

Pam Tatlow and her report are right. The Government are not doing enough to help while our young people struggle. They are allowing the talents of a swathe of young people to be wasted.

In fact, the Government have failed young people since they came to power in 1997 by largely failing in their efforts to widen participation in higher education. Rarely has so much money been spent to such little effect. It is scandalous when we consider the reality of what has happened.

Next Section Index Home Page