As well as this 13-year failure, there is also the scandal of the past year and the student loans fiasco. Many students still have yet to receive the financial support that they are entitled to and so desperately need. It is
causing huge problems-some students have dropped out already and others are on the verge of doing so. While the current drop-out rate stands at about 7 per cent. for universities, I have little doubt that this figure will rise in light of the student loans crisis of the past year. I recently raised the current situation with Reading university, based in my constituency. As things stand, about 200 students at Reading university are still awaiting loans from Student Finance England, although I find it remarkable that the organisation is unable to produce an accurate list, so it is impossible to determine the exact number of students affected by the ongoing crisis. Reading university is doing its best to help those who have contacted it for help, but many students have probably not contacted the university, as I found out when I visited one of the halls of residence and discussed the matter with students. It is highly likely that Reading university is far from unique, and other universities throughout the country have students who are still affected.
As things stand, many students are hanging on to their degree courses by their fingertips. I am sure that the whole House would agree that this is an unacceptable state of affairs. In the context of today's debate, I fail to see how such ongoing failure and incompetence can be seen as a commitment to widening participation or widening access. In fact, it is disastrous for widening participation. Let me be absolutely clear: it is the most hard-to-reach groups that are being made to suffer the most in this debacle. That should be to this Labour Government's eternal shame. Having overcome all sorts of personal obstacles and barriers to secure a university place, many disabled students are still not getting the financial support that they need and deserve.
Astonishingly, recent figures from Student Finance England have shown that only 6,000 of the 19,000 applications for disabled students allowance have been processed. Last month my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) asked the Minister about the disabled students allowance. The Minister confirmed that 27 per cent. of applicants were still awaiting the result of an assessment, and that payments had been made to only 29 per cent. of applicants. Although recipients of the grant constitute a small number of the overall student population, figures show that in 2007-08 they totalled 40,700. Indeed, in a parliamentary answer given in November in the other place, the figure given for total expenditure on such students was £90 million, which equates to an average of £2,210 a student.
Assuming that the numbers have grown slightly since 2007-08, by my calculations around 30,000 disabled students have not received their proper entitlement. If that had happened under a Conservative Government, there would quite rightly have been howls of outrage, not least from newspapers such as The Guardian, yet we have heard little or nothing about it. It is with great sadness that I say that it is our most vulnerable students who are being let down by this useless, inept Government. I find the situation shocking and, quite frankly, unacceptable. How could any Government manage to be so incompetent?
However, it is not just disabled students who have been let down. Many families on low incomes have also been affected. That is because anything over and above the basic level of a maintenance loan is means-tested, and the processing element of such requests is done
after the standard loan has been decided. That means that mature students with considerable family responsibilities are suffering. Such students from non-traditional backgrounds are the very people whom this Government have preached about helping into higher education, and the very people who are on the verge of dropping out, owing to the disgraceful lack of financial help and support.
Such people are often the recipients of child care grants and adult dependent grants. The figures for 2008-09 show that 9,800 students in England received child care grants worth a total of £36.1 million, which is an average of just under £3,700 for each student in receipt of the grant, while 7,800 students received a total of £18 million in adult dependent grants, an average of just over £2,300 for each student. Those people are in real trouble, and yet Student Finance England is apparently completely unable to provide any data on the backlog, because payments are being processed manually. Can you believe it, Mr. Deputy Speaker? Tens of billions of pounds have been spent by this Government on computers, and yet the funds to reach some of our poorest students are being processed manually. You just could not make it up if you tried.
I do not criticise the support package itself; indeed, it is commendable. In a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller), the Minister confirmed that a child care grant of up to £13,260 a year is available for eligible, full-time undergraduate students with children in child care, although as I have just mentioned, the average works out at about £3,500.
Let us put the exact figures aside, however. How can people look after their children if the money has not arrived for the past six months? Where is the money now, and when will it be paid? How can a family survive in such circumstances? Although only 0.5 per cent. of students are eligible for support, they are in many ways the most affected. Such students are crucial to the widening of participation, and they should be nurtured.
Another group has been let down by incompetence on account of another failure to deliver the financial assistance that was promised. This Government can never again preach about widening participation, given that they cannot even deliver on their basic duty of care to disabled students and mature students who want to look after their families.
There are two main reasons why it has happened. First, under the Conservative Government teaching was made a very unattractive proposition owing to the huge cuts that were forced on secondary schools. Secondly, the number of specialist teachers available to teach physics, chemistry and mathematics in those secondary schools fell under successive years of Conservative
Government, and eventually-until the present Administration took control-non-specialists were trying to teach very technical subjects. Given that factor alone, is it any wonder that there was little demand for university places for the study of science and engineering?
In the 1960s and 1970s, there were four examples of what I would term colleges of advanced technology, churning out thousands of scientists and engineers. They were Brunel, Aston, Salford and Bradford. What happened in 1981, just after the Conservative Government had taken control? Those four colleges almost closed. It is true that the Conservatives made them into universities, but then they almost closed them. John Ashworth, the new vice-chancellor of Salford university, arrived in 1981 to face-and this is the truth-a 44 per cent. cut in funding for a single university, and that was not uncommon. All the other colleges of advanced technology churning out all those scientists and engineers suffered similar cuts, which completely destabilised their chemistry, physics and engineering departments.
Salford used to have the largest chemistry department in the country; it also taught physics very adequately, and had a very good mathematics department. Even more important, it had large and productive engineering departments teaching civil, mechanical and electrical engineering, and the graduates experienced no trouble in obtaining jobs in British industry. Following the cuts made by the Tory Administration, however, those departments closed one by one, and there were similar developments throughout the British university system.
The cuts continued. Between 1989 and 1997, there was a 36 per cent. fall in funding for students in our higher education system. The truth is that the Conservatives caused those departments to close, and caused the shortage of scientists and engineers in this country. They have asked the same question three times, and now I have given them a truthful answer.
When the present Administration took control in 1997, the buildings in our universities and schools were in a shocking state. I am proud of my Government for investing so much money-not just revenue expenditure to support students in our universities, but tens of billions of pounds of taxpayers' money to bring not only schools but, in particular, universities up to a decent standard. I am now proud to enter the chemistry department of Manchester university, and to compare the state of its laboratories today with the state the laboratories that I knew under the Conservative Administration. Students now want to study and research in those laboratories, but if they had gone to a university such as Manchester for an interview during the Conservative Administration, they would have seen some very shoddy laboratories.
I want to be parochial for a few moments. When I was first elected to represent my constituency in 1997, not one of my secondary schools had a sixth form attached to it. The only sixth-form college was geographically remote from many of my constituents, so they either did not bother to get a qualification that would give them access to university or they had to travel out of the borough to Bury or Salford-or they had to go to the other two parliamentary constituencies where the schools did have sixth forms attached to them. Today the position has completely turned around. Thanks to this Government, a brand new community college is now under construction in my constituency,
and I also have a new sixth form under construction. Both of them are going to open this September on an educational campus adjacent to the university of Bolton. Also, in one of the poorest areas of my constituency I have a second brand new sixth-form college, and it is oversubscribed. The students who formerly went out of the borough now want to study in these brand new colleges, but if it had not been for this Labour Government, we would not have had three brand new colleges, provided by the Learning and Skills Council. These colleges are now attracting students back to study mainstream subjects.
I have to hand some figures showing the effect of a Labour Government for my students. In the academic year 1997-98, in the most affluent of our parliamentary Bolton constituencies, Bolton, West, 2,220 students enrolled in UK higher education institutes. By 2008-09, that figure had gone up to 2,685. In the Bolton, North-East constituency, the figures are 1,945, up to 2,260. In my constituency, which is the least affluent of the three Bolton constituencies, the figure in 1997-98 was only 1,560, but by 2008-09 it had increased significantly, to 2,155, thanks to the policies of this Government. However, now that these three new colleges are in place-two sixth-form colleges and one community college-I am expecting more of my students, including some from among the poorest estates in my constituency, to begin to access higher and further education.
I warn my constituents tonight that if we see another Conservative Government, we will see another deterioration not only in secondary education, but in further and higher education. That is the choice my constituents will face on 6 May-or whenever the general election is held.
Chloe Smith (Norwich, North) (Con): I think that I may have the pleasure of being the last Back-Bench speaker in this debate. More than anything, I want to look forward, rather than backwards. I may be one of the newer and younger Members of this House, but that means that I have a rather different perspective from some other Members.
I do not know how old previous speakers were under the last Conservative Government, but new students now-whom we should be thinking about, and who might be listening to this debate or might read the record of it tomorrow-were five years old under the previous Conservative Government. It does no honour to them at all to say that they have not the brains to look at the choices facing them now, and in the next three years, and the next 10 and 20 years, and throughout their economic lives. It is essential that we look forward, not back. If we do that, we will all realise what choices we have to consider, and students will do that as well.
Let me start by saying that anybody who has the academic ability and ambition to go to university should have the opportunity to do so, regardless of how wealthy their parents are. In my view, a person's time at university is the beginning of their independence, and it is all the more important that that independence occurs financially, as well as socially and emotionally. Students at the point of moving away to university-I note that many students in my constituency are being encouraged to stay at home, but we might get on to that separate topic later-begin to plan their lives independently of their family background. That is an incredibly important
milestone in social mobility. We are talking about the lives of individuals. We are talking about someone moving away from their background and saying, "I am going to create my life. I am going to do what I want to do with my life." That occurring on a small scale and eventually being writ large across society is how social mobility works. It is about individuals choosing what they wish to do with their lives. I fully support the role of this debate in drawing attention to what choices individual students wish to make. Higher education is, therefore, an investment in one's own future. I accept that, as I suspect hon. Members from all parts of the House would. I hope that they understand the economic ramifications of it.
I shall draw further attention to myself by saying that I suspect that I am one of the few Members of this House who is paying off their student loan and putting the Department of Resources to the trouble of calculating the payment to come out of my monthly pay cheque-
Chloe Smith: Irrespective of whatever I may or may not be contributing myself, I welcome Lord Browne's review of higher education funding and student finance. I particularly welcome its balance and the way in which its terms of reference allow an exploration of the balance of contribution among taxpayers, students, graduates and employers. Some important points of intergenerational fairness are contained in that review, and I wish to discuss that briefly before posing three questions.
This generation is the one that will pick up the bill for this Government's debt crisis, the one that will have to work harder to obtain higher qualifications in order to have the privilege of doing so and, sadly, for reasons that are outside the remit of this debate, the one that is, in many cases, leaving school with worse qualifications in the sense of being able to read, write and get out into the workplace. Many students I meet during the course of my constituency duties testify to that, as do many businesses, which are seeking to employ them positively but are looking for the things that will help them to do that.
This generation is also the one that will have to work longer and harder to pay off that debt crisis. I understand that we will all now individually be paying £23,500 to get rid of that debt, and that collectively the amount of interest we are paying on our debt is more than the dedicated schools grant. In addition, inequality has widened over the past decade, as I believe the National Equality Panel report confirms. This year's 18-year-olds are the first to have experienced their entire education under only a Labour Government, starting from that point of five years old, to which I have referred. Given all that, perhaps the Ministers would like to join me in an exercise of arithmetic, although they failed to do that earlier. We know what the choice is facing those young people-incidentally, I should mention that they are also first-time voters-as do they. This Government have failed that generation and its parents.
I wish to focus on just three ways in which this Government are confused. I shall focus on this year's sharp increase in the number of applications, on the reduction in the number of undergraduate places and on my concerns about a couple of other matters dealt with in the funding letter that went to institutions last
December. First, there will be 6,000 fewer university places in September, so why are the Government not considering ways to allow more students to go to university? My second question relates to the teaching allocation. I understand that the letter says that the allocation decreases by 1.6 per cent. in real terms. Why do the Government not agree that teaching quality and the student experience must not suffer in this round? My third question is rather more of a specialist one, and it relates to historic buildings. I would be grateful for some information from the Government Front-Bench team on why the Government are not sticking by a pledge across the Departments to promote access to the built and historic environment. I shall come on to that shortly.
Institutions such as Norwich university college of the arts, which despite sitting in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), who is sadly not in his place, serves my constituents and a wider regional and national area too, are suffering a reduction in resources at a time when demand is extremely high. I can quantify that for hon. Members by saying that there has been an increase of 140 per cent. in the number of applications to it this year. However, it has been limited to an intake of 500 first-year students although it has more than 1,000 applications from students of good ability, attainment and ambition seeking to take its courses. I am not talking just about courses that could be said not to matter-although I challenge anybody in the House to define what such courses might be-but about courses that are strongly linked to areas of emerging economic strength, regionally and nationally.
As any Member will know, we are talking about not just units of growth but individual people-18-year-olds-whose hopes are being dashed. What is dashing them? It is not the economic situation alone but the lack of freedom given to higher education institutions to innovate and do what they do best in teaching students. There are ways to create extra places, as demonstrated by my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts). I simply do not think the Government have considered the economic and human impact of allowing this reduction to pass. Anyone who has the academic ability and ambition, as I have said, should have the opportunity to go to university, and I cannot think how the Minister can reconcile his agreement with that statement with such a policy this year.
The teaching allocation within the higher education settlement decreases by 1.6 per cent. in real terms this year, as per the letter written by the noble Lord Mandelson in December. Teaching quality and the student experience must not suffer. We need more tutor attention for students, not less, so we are able to compete internationally in higher education. I think that the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property agrees with that. He has said:
"Teaching is protected because this government recognises that a higher quality student experience with excellent teaching and research is vital".
If we are to achieve any consensus on the fees review in a way that is progressive, fair, sustainable and supportive of social mobility, the bargain must be that people pay for higher education but only for good-quality higher
education. The payment should be for teaching by qualified, experienced, researching academics who work together with their undergraduates and their postgraduates to make our higher education institutions internationally proud places to study in. I want to see whether the Minister can continue to assert in his summing up that Government plans will have no impact on those laudable aims.
The final, rather more specialist, aspect of my speech relates, as I mentioned before, to historic buildings. My understanding is that some universities and colleges will be experiencing a particular impact from the noble Lord's cuts because of their historical estates. I understand that some higher education institutions will have suffered the withdrawal of the premium for historic buildings because of that letter. Not only will that undermine the ability to provide an environment for learning, but it will damage our national heritage more broadly. We all value the aims and ideals of education, and we can all understand that point, if it is true. I look forward to some clarification, as I can see looks of puzzlement on the Ministers' faces.