|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, he referred to a Statement in another place. Does he appreciate that his own party refused to take the Statement here? That is why we did not discuss it. He wanted the Statement to be on a big enough subject. Does he appreciate that the Statement says:
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am happy to deal with both of those points. I was present when my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton indicated to the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, precisely what had occurred this afternoon. If the noble Baroness was not then present, I regret it.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: The question therefore answers itself. In response to the second question, of course it ultimately meets my suggestion. What I complain of on behalf of many people in university life is that there is no coherent strategy and that one has a penny packet here and a half crown packet there. I repeat, without hyperbole or exaggeration, that there is deep resentment at the present time in university circles.
Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn: My Lords, your Lordships may remember that it is almost exactly three years since this House, on 17th February 1993 to be exact, debated a Motion set down by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, to call attention to the financial difficulties of students, and the matter of student loans was then extensively debated. I made the observation then that the matter needed to be reviewed. More than five years ago, at the Second Reading of the Further and Higher Education Bill in November 1991, when supporting the Government's plans for expansion in the higher education sector, I went so far as to invite Ministers,
Today they are suffering, and it should have been obvious to anyone that they would suffer if student numbers were increased without a commensurate increase in funding. The per capita funding has been reduced very significantly in real terms over the past four or five years by something of the order of 28 per cent.
The present crisis in the universities is in fact a double crisis which may soon become a catastrophe, perhaps even before the summer 1997. The first horn of the dilemma is the unsatisfactory nature of the student loan scheme itself, aspects of which we are debating today--that is to say, the manner in which student maintenance is funded. The second horn of the dilemma is the funding of the universities, in particular the failure of the tuition fees, which are payable at a level in effect set by the Government, to keep pace with inflation. As your Lordships may well know, that means that several universities are now reported to be on the brink of bankruptcy and the CVCP is contemplating the imposition of a £300 so-called "entry fee" on new students. That is unwelcome and undesirable, but it is difficult to see what alternative the Government have left the universities with. But from the student point of view it is potentially catastrophic. The issue of maintenance--that is to say, student loans and all that--now collides with university funding; namely, tuition, through the whole issue of top-up fees. That is why the issue of university funding is very pertinent to the discussion of student loans today.
The present Bill regrettably does nothing to address these problems. It simply seeks a means to transfer the administration of debt and debt recovery from the public to the private sector. One is reminded of the dictum of President Calvin Coolidge on war loans, "They hired the money didn't they?" We shall now be able to say of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, when she transfers these dubious assets to the private sector, "She rented the debts, didn't she?"
Some of these anxieties are felt in Cambridge as elsewhere. Perhaps I may speak for a moment about student difficulties in my own college and university. Here I should declare an interest as a professor of that university. Cambridge colleges are under just the same pressures as the universities since college fees have failed to keep up with inflation in just the same way, and once again there is talk of top-up fees.
Those of us who believe with commitment in what has hitherto been an excellent system of higher education, believe also that it must be open to all those with the relevant ability. We are trying hard in Cambridge to increase the number of applications from the maintained sector. There is an admirable scheme entitled "Target Schools" organised by the Cambridge University Students' Union, to encourage applications from those groups of school leavers under-represented at Cambridge University. Many students go out from many colleges to schools to try to persuade students in those schools that they would do well to apply to Oxford or Cambridge--in this case to Cambridge--because they will have a good chance of entry. We all feel that it is important to the future of the University of Cambridge that there should be wide access.
We are trying hard also to increase the number of applications from members of ethnic minorities. The GEEMA scheme, that is, the Group to Encourage Ethnic Minority Applicants, is trying very hard to encourage more applications because it is perfectly clear that if we do not have more applications we shall not have more admissions.
It is clear to us that the current student loan scheme is having a deterrent effect upon many potential applicants, especially from the maintained sector, and unfortunately from those of lower income backgrounds. It is not really surprising that the prospect of a loan, which for entrants in October 1996, by the time they graduate, will be of the order of £4,200; of the order of £5,600 for scientists; of the order of £7,000 for medics and of the order of £8,400 for architects and vets, without allowing for further inflationary increase, may have a deterrent effect.
For more than three years, and probably much more than that, Members of your Lordships' House have been urging that the alternative income contingent graduate tax approach should be explored. I believe that is what we have heard from every speaker this evening so far.
I am sorry that it falls to my noble friend Lord Henley to answer these observations this evening, although he has already been good enough to say that he does not intend to answer them. It is true that I have gone a little beyond the mechanisms of funding, but since he was good enough to introduce the matter of the ministerial statement in another place, I hope that he will not object to my alluding to it even if I am not certain that I shall hear more of it in his winding-up remarks.
He is relatively new to his present ministerial position and I do not wish to be in any way critical of him. But changes of government minister or indeed changes of Secretary of State, cannot mask a deep-seated and enduring failure in the Department for Education to think coherently about problems which were as obvious three years ago as they are now. Inactivity and, I have to say, failure to see the obvious, does not become any less reprehensible with a change of Minister.
I wrote these remarks this morning before today's announcement. Nonetheless I shall read them because I fear that they have a bearing underlined by the Statement made in another place. To announce an inquiry after years of neglect is simply to compound the
I have to say to your Lordships and in particular to my noble friend on the Front Bench--I prepared these remarks this morning--that to announce an inquiry that will defer any solution to the problems until after the next election will be an abdication of responsibilities. It is clear to us that the student loan scheme is having serious deterrent effects. Although we welcome the thorough-going review which will be conducted by Sir Ron Dearing, we are told that the report will not be published until the summer of 1997. So what happens meanwhile? Eighteen more months of what one might describe as "planning blight"? In my view, that is not good enough. Damage is being done now to the higher education system and the Bill does nothing to rectify it.
Lord Sewel: My Lords, I start by declaring an interest as Vice-Principal of the University of Aberdeen. The debate this evening must be coloured by the Statement made today in another place. That Statement allows me to be somewhat kinder in my remarks than would otherwise have been the case. It is right that the Government, if somewhat late in the day, have recognised the case for a thorough review of higher education. However, I am inclined to observe that the only consistent theme of government education policy that I can detect is first to create a mess and then to send for Sir Ron Dearing to clear it up.
The question that remains is: why do we need the Bill at this stage? If it goes through and the Government implement it, it will set up arrangements, contracts will be put in place, and very likely they will be put aside virtually as soon as they have been entered into. What a mess. What penalties will fall on the public purse if those contracts are put to one side? Why tinker with a loans system when the Government acknowledge that something far more comprehensive and far more systematic is needed? The Bill has been overtaken by events, and the Government should recognise that.
It is difficult sometimes to realise how radically higher education has changed in recent years. Since I was an undergraduate 30 years ago, higher education has been transformed from basically an elite system (where about 7 per cent. of the age group attended university) to a mass system, with about 30 per cent. now benefiting from higher education. But it has been done on the cheap. Many noble Lords have already referred to the way in which the unit of resource for teaching has been cut by 27 per cent. since 1988. That is the fundamental problem. It stems from the fact that a system of funding which could support an elite system is incapable of supporting a mass system of higher education. We have to confront that problem, and I hope that the Government will confront it via the review.
We have reached a stage where British higher education, which for so long has enjoyed a reputation for academic excellence, is in danger of falling apart--not of fraying at the edges, but of actually falling apart. Perhaps I may illustrate that point by reference to my
However, it is more than that. I am perhaps old-fashioned enough to think that many of the advantages of a university education are gained through participation in activities beyond the formal teaching experience. We are now getting to a position where many students find it impossible to become members of clubs and student societies. It is often difficult to get an audience of undergraduates for distinguished visiting speakers because they are packing shelves in supermarkets late at night. I do not think that that is the way forward.
At my university one of my responsibilities is in the area of staff recruitment. It is becoming more evident by the day that we are simply not paying our staff enough to recruit the best. Since 1988 academic staff salaries have fallen in real terms. I think that that is the only professional group for which that is the case. Given that, it is becoming increasingly difficult to attract and retain high quality staff, especially in areas such as accountancy, the law and economics where we are in direct competition with the professional salaries in the private sector.
Like other universities, Aberdeen responded to the Government's call to expand student numbers. Since 1988 we have expanded from 5,966 to 9,300 (full-time-equivalent) students. In 1988 we received £5,887 per student for teaching. If that had kept pace in real terms, it would now be £8,595; but it is in fact £5,127--an actual cash reduction. For my university the total funding gap that has opened up as a result of those policies since 1988 is that we now receive £11.5 million less per year.
Of course, with the expansion of student numbers, economies of scale are available. Nobody would deny that. It is also reasonable to look for efficiency savings. However, the scale of the reduction in funding has gone way beyond anything that could be considered reasonable. It is directly impinging on the way we teach our students--and impinging adversely. At Aberdeen, the staff:student ratio, excluding medicine, has moved from 13:1 in 1988 to 17:1 today. In my own faculty many of the departments for which I am responsible are facing staff:student ratios of 20:1. That is taking place at a time when teaching quality assessments are urging upon us the advantages of, the need for, and the benefits of small group teaching. How can we do that? How can we square that circle?
Lord Flowers: My Lords, I should first declare that I am Chancellor of the University of Manchester, that I am still closely connected with higher education in London, and that I am President of the Association for (Further Education) Colleges. Although I do not speak for any of them this evening, no doubt that experience will colour what I have to say. I was deeply moved by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, but I shall not follow him.
The Bill is intended to provide alternative sources of funds for hard-pressed students in higher education. To that extent I support it. Like the noble Lord, Lord Dainton, I do not object to loans in principle. Whether the Bill can succeed where the Government's previous attempt failed remains to be seen. More to the point, however, it provides a partial privatisation of a scheme of student loans which has already been seen to be seriously flawed, and it does so in the context of financial arrangements for higher education as a whole that have become dangerously inadequate.
The present loans scheme is deficient because it does not provide an adequate basis for funding realistic living costs. It is deficient because it is limited to students under the age of 50 who meet the standard residence rules, so that, for example, part-time students (almost 30 per cent. of those nowadays attending higher education courses) are excluded. The lack of attention to part-time students, in further as well as higher education, is increasingly difficult to understand, and I would like to invite the Minister to ask his department specifically to re-examine the funding of part-time students.
The present scheme is deficient because it requires repayment from students over a short five-year period at the beginning of their careers (if they are lucky enough to find jobs), which means they have to bear a disproportionate burden early in their working lives. Indeed, the prospect of a persistent debt of many thousands of pounds, we have heard more exact figures than that, is already beginning to deter students from entering courses of higher education. And the scheme is costly for universities to administer, because they are not fully reimbursed for processing loan certificates.
The universities have pointed out many times that those deficiencies could be overcome if the Government would only adopt an income-contingent loan scheme which would link repayments directly to an individual's ability to pay. The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, referred to that, and I am happy to be able to leave the details to him. As the Australians have shown, it could be done through income tax or national insurance. That would avoid a predetermined repayment period, it would provide the borrower with a good measure of protection, and unlike the present scheme it would not act as a barrier to wider participation in higher education, something we all want to see happen.
Moreover, such a scheme would in itself be a fair and inconspicuous way of handling student hardship, something which cannot be said of the present access funds which help only the small proportion of students who are in the most acute difficulty, and leave unassisted the majority of those who nowadays suffer genuine hardship, who can be helped only to the extent that universities can afford to help them out of increasingly meagre central resources.
The chief importance of the Bill is that it has brought to a head the dissatisfaction of universities with the manner of their funding. As the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, has said clearly, it has become impossible to discuss the funding of students separately from the funding of the institutions they attend. It is high time that the matter is looked at independently. I am of course delighted by this afternoon's belated announcement in another place that that is to be done by Sir Ron Dearing, a man whom we can all trust. It need not be another Robbins Report. The extent of higher education is no longer the burning issue; it is the manner of its funding. However I hope that Sir Ron will be able to examine the consequences for further education of his proposals for higher education.
I hope noble Lords will forgive me if I say just a few relevant words about the present funding system. Most people in universities nowadays accept that it is impossible for the taxpayer to shoulder the whole cost of higher education; but they also say that it is impossible for universities to cater for the present load of students, and provide education of the standard quite rightly expected of them under the present system of funding. It is true that relatively large additional sums are raised by a small number of universities for outstanding research, most of it involving postgraduate students, but that does not pay for undergraduate education.
The private finance initiative can and is being used for new buildings wherever possible, but the Government have made a gross mistake in thinking that the capital grants provided to universities are only for new buildings. On the contrary, they have to be used for equipment such as computers, and for minor adaptations to buildings, none of which could possibly attract private finance. Cutting those grants so savagely this year has merely increased the strain on the recurrent budgets intolerably, and by implication on undergraduate education.
The only other source of funding is the student himself, or herself or the student's hapless parents. There will have to be a system of student fees in addition to student maintenance grants. Despite today's announcement, I believe that if there were not an election pending the Government in power, of whatever party, would be trying to introduce them. That is why it is impossible to separate student support from support of the university itself. To a student, money is simply money, whether it is grant or fees.
Of course, nobody would wish to discriminate against those students or their parents unable to pay. The admission system would have to be blind to such considerations. If the normal annual fee were £1,000, say--I take a figure out of the air--probably half would have to go towards bursaries for those who could not pay. Some universities would charge higher fees, some perhaps lower. Some would charge higher fees because the research-intensive universities are simply more expensive to run, not least in terms of the cost of their teaching staff, who are the backbone of their research.
All that would be greatly facilitated, and cheaper to run, if there were already in place an income-contingent loan scheme, because loans could be made available for fees as well as for maintenance. Money is just money. The pressure on university budgets is now so great that universities are considering introducing some form of fee as a matter of urgency. It is in the interests of the taxpayers that they should. It is, of course, possible that the Government will claw back any earnings from such an independent move by the universities by way of retribution in order to show the electorate that this was not their wish so close to an election. Even if they did, I would still advise the universities to go ahead; at any rate, the research-intensive universities. The point must be forcefully made that the present system of funding has broken down.
Lord Borrie: My Lords, having listened to the debate for the past hour-and-a-half I am beginning to feel sorry for Members on the Government Benches, at least on the Front Bench. After all, this appears to be a useful Bill. As the Minister said, it opens up competition, diversity and choice. Those are concepts which I spent many years promoting in one way or another. Who would object to them? But, as my noble friend Lord Morris indicated, the choice and the competition does not amount to anything very real, except the choice of a logo on an application form for a grant.
The modesty of the Bill has subjected the Government to criticism during the course of the debate because it does not deal with the real problem. It does not change the student loan scheme which has been so widely condemned and criticised not only in this House but elsewhere. The Bill proposes no substantial change and many statements have been made in the House as to why that is so unsatisfactory. Recently the Director of the London School of Economics said that the present loan scheme is:
I feel sorry for the Government on another count. The Bill appears to be unlucky and unfortunate for them because it has provided the occasion and the opportunity to students and to vice-chancellors to level real and substantial criticisms against the Government as a result of the Bill's irrelevance to their problems. I should have thought that that was most foreseeable to the
Moreover, the vice-chancellors have naturally seized the opportunity of the Bill to make the point that they are concerned about cuts, in particular the 30 per cent. capital cuts next year. Those cuts are being made despite the fact that the vice-chancellors have done everything that the Government could have wanted as regards delivering a mass higher education system. Having done everything that the Government have asked them to do, that is what they get in return.
Since I took an interest in these matters in the 1950s as a member of the executive of the National Union of Students and through my days as a professor at the University of Birmingham, I have believed that higher education should be available to all who are capable of benefiting from it. Like many others on these Benches and elsewhere, I believe in equality of opportunity, fairness and social justice. It also makes economic good sense for this country and its competitiveness in the world if all the talents of all our people are developed to the very best.
However, whereas I used to believe that the way to achieve that was only through a generous system of non-returnable grants, I now believe for a number of reasons that I will mention that we need to be more sophisticated. If in order to obtain a more sophisticated system of supporting students and financing the universities we need a committee of inquiry such as has been announced by the Government today, that is certainly welcome. I would have preferred it some years ago, but it is better now than not at all.
The factors that I mention are well known. First, 30 per cent. of our young people go to universities compared with only 5 per cent. 35 years ago. If we are to have a proportion of our young people in higher education as compared with such countries as France and Japan, where the number is in excess of ours, we shall need a considerable expansion involving a great deal of money in terms of extra places and vast improvements in facilities.
Of course, there are many other demands on the public purse, including demands in the world of education. Others have their own choices but I would pick out nursery education. In view of that, one needs to take into account other factors. My second consideration is that graduates can--I suppose that they always have but it is more appreciated now--expect to earn a good deal more than a non-graduate during the years that they work in the general community. The whole nation benefits from that but the whole nation--that is, all taxpayers--should not pay such a high proportion when only a particular group of taxpayers especially benefits from the education.
Thirdly, the public attitude towards having the benefits of goods and services today--and I stress this point as compared with 30 or 40 years ago--and paying for them over a period has vastly changed. If people are prepared, as most of us are, to borrow against a depreciating asset, such as a motor car, surely there is
I suggest that we need a more sensitive loan scheme and I hope that Sir Ron Dearing will look into that. We need a scheme that will involve both maintenance and a proportion of fees, that will give an adequate income to the student during his years at university, and no repayment until the contingency of income is adequate, sufficient, and earnings are above average.
I also agree with noble Lords who suggested that any new scheme that is to last for a period of time should be available to young students, mature students, full-time students and part-time students. There are various schemes in operation at present. Australia has been mentioned. I merely make the point that I believe that over the years that the scheme in Australia has been operating--an income contingent repayment scheme--the socio-economic mix of students has improved; that is, there has been a 30 per cent. rise in the number of students from poor backgrounds in the past five years.
I am not the only one who has, in effect, said that this Bill is not really worthy of a full debate. I am glad that there has been a full debate and, with the information that Sir Ron Dearing's committee of inquiry is being formed, it may well be a worthwhile debate. As this is my second speech in this House, I suppose that I am entitled to be controversial. I do not wish to be rude but I do not believe that the Bill as it stands justifies the full attention of the House or a Second Reading.
Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, my particular interest in the Bill arises from involvement in two higher education institutions. I am a member of the Court of St. Andrews University and I am vice-chairman of the Council of the Open University.
I could follow other noble Lords and make a heart-felt speech about the current problems of those two institutions. At St. Andrews, which, although not a very large university, is extremely popular with students, there are undoubtedly pressures which could in time damage its unique tradition. At the Open University, despite the Government's request that part-time places should be supported, the funding council for England has done precisely the opposite and planning is being made extremely difficult at present. I am sure that both institutions will welcome the committee of inquiry announced in another place this afternoon and will have plenty of ideas for Sir Ron Dearing when the time comes.
At present, with some 30 per cent. of young people studying, the cost is £4.7 billion per year with a further £1.5 billion available for student support. Those are the figures I have. However, this afternoon in another place, I heard the Secretary of State say that the cost of higher education is now £7 billion, 21 per cent. of the total education budget. I am not sure how those two figures fit together.
As they struggle to contain their costs, the universities, we know, are deeply worried about maintaining quality. In the future, as social security and health service provision eats further into our national budget because more of us are living longer, and as international competitiveness demands more, new ways for funding higher education simply have to be found. Others have said that, and it is patently true. That being the case, what is wrong with making it possible for a private sector firm, bank or building society to offer subsidised loans to students to pay for some of their costs alongside the existing agency? What is wrong with beginning where we are, with the sort of pay-back system that we have now, and seeing what the private sector makes of it? That is all that the Bill makes possible. It seems to me not only a realistic and sensible move but one which is five years overdue.
It is still early days but having got over the agency's initial problems the current loan and pay-back scheme, contrary to what a number of noble Lords have indicated, seems to be working reasonably well. The value of the main grant and loan together is worth 50 per cent. more in cash terms than was the loan in 1989. That means that students may be less dependent on their families. Since the system was introduced, overall numbers of students entering higher education have not fallen but have increased. What is more, results of the department's survey have shown a rise in the proportion of younger students from social grades C1, C2, D and E. Indeed, by 1992-93, I understand that they formed the majority.
The Government's figures show also that the number of students taking out an agency loan has grown extremely quickly. In 1994-95 it had reached 55 per cent. of all eligible students. The forecast is that it will have reached 80 per cent. by 1997-98. The average pay-back--my noble friend Lord Renfrew quoted much higher figures but I am referring to an average--is currently running at £18 per month; that is, £216 per year. That is not an unreasonable figure when one remembers that payment may be deferred if one is earning less than £15,204 per year. I understand that
The vice-chancellors and principals have told us that they do not mind who owns the debt but they consider the pay-back system to be fundamentally flawed. In their view, and in the view, I think, of some noble Lords, who have put it somewhat differently, pay-back should be spread over as long as it takes. I am not sure whether the vice-chancellors are referring to the Australian scheme but from Australian friends I understand that the scheme has many problems. I do not believe that it is ideal although it looks very good on paper. I suspect that any government in power would find it difficult to have repayment lasting as long as it takes. That has considerable implications whether it is public money or private money.
Whatever the outcome of the committee of inquiry, the enabling of the private sector to play a part in the present system of subsidised student loans seems merely a small step but very much a step in the right direction. I had hoped that this House, unlike the other place, would see that and would give the Bill unanimously a fair wind. I hope perhaps that that may still be the case.
Baroness David: My Lords, I think the noble Baroness is going to be very disappointed. It is very interesting that at long last, after some 10 speakers, we have heard the first attempt to justify the Bill at all. Of course, knowing the noble Baroness's stance, I am not altogether surprised; I rather expected it from her. But I would like to say that, although I have not consulted Tony Blair, I would be fairly certain that he would not, in fact, go along with this Bill.
It is really a very pointless Bill causing a ridiculous waste of parliamentary time, even more so now, I think, that we have had the Statement which was made in another place this afternoon. It will do nothing to help students who, sadly, nearly all leave their universities in debt. It will not make repayment of their debt any easier. Many of them--9,000 at the end of July last year--were in arrears and 35,000, 8 per cent., were in default; that is, over two months late in repaying. Why did the Government not take the opportunity, as they were legislating, to make repayment less difficult and off-putting to the student?
Students face a heavier burden in the earlier years of their careers, as the scheme now is, because they have to make fixed payments over a relatively short period of five years. As loan amounts increase under present government plans, the level of repayments will rise significantly. These are likely to rise to an unsustainable level and may well act as a disincentive to potential students. We do not want to discourage young people from entering higher education. At least, I do not think that the Government do, though one sometimes wonders.
Would it not be easier to encourage repayment if the graduate is earning at least the average full-time wage before he starts to pay, and that the level of repayment should not exceed a certain proportion of the excess of
It would be encouraging to think that the repayments would go into a special fund for the support of higher education, but it is difficult to imagine the Treasury agreeing to such a proposition. But that is what happens in Australia. I am sure that we can all agree that the funding of higher education and of students needs a complete overhaul. I wrote that yesterday; today, apparently, we are going to have it. We all know that this is a very difficult problem, but it has to be faced by everyone. Now at last we are apparently going to have the matter inquired into. But, of course, we shall not have the results until after the next election. Therefore, the whole problem, which, as has been said by a number of speakers, is urgent, is really being postponed. That simply is not good enough.
I think it is inevitable that the students will have to pay more towards the cost of their higher education than they did in the happy and very different days of 15 or 20 years ago. The choice would seem to be between a pay-up-front scheme and a pay-back-once-you-are-earning scheme. The CVCP scheme, with its proposal to get each student to pay £300 towards the fees at the beginning of their course, was a pay-up-front scheme, because that is the only kind it could implement. But the committee would certainly prefer a pay-back-once-one-is-earning scheme. The example of Australia which is quoted so often shows that a scheme of that kind, a graduate tax, can be put into practice and that it does not discourage potential students. The CVCP was forced to take its vigorous action because of the massive cut that was made to its capital grant.
Whatever the terms of reference of the new committee, I trust that the plight of part-time students will be carefully considered. That is something that I have often said before; and, indeed, what a number of other speakers have already said this afternoon. In 1994-95, 28 per cent. of higher education students were part-time. It is grossly unfair that they should have no help. I also think that the position of postgraduates should be looked at, as should the cut-off point of 50 years of age for mature students. I understand that overall applications of mature students show a decrease of 1.6 per cent over the numbers received in 1994 for entry in 1995. The fall is due to a drop in the number of applications from mature students. Of course, last year the Government abolished the older students' allowance. No doubt that accounts for a good many mature students deciding that they cannot afford to proceed. The quite recent CVCP survey of January 1996 also showed that the number of mature students leaving their courses prematurely for non-academic reasons is rising.
I should like to say a few words about disabled students. I know that a number of people would like some reassurance from the Minister that disabled students will be treated in a generous way. I hope that the Minister will, perhaps, respond to that in his reply.
When he replies to the debate, I hope that the Minister will tell us rather more than he did in his opening speech about the present financial expectations. In 1988, the Government estimated that the scheme would break even by the year 2000, provided that savings in maintenance grant and social security benefits were included in the cost calculations. But there are no published figures showing the effect of the accelerated switch from grants to loans that happened as a result of the 1993 Budget. Is the student debt, which has been mounting annually--in 1994-95 it was £31.279 million--and which now has administrative costs of £19.7 million, expected to go on rising steadily? Are the universities to go on bearing the administrative costs as they now do?
I hope that the Minister will have something to say as a result of the very strong feelings which have been expressed here today on all sides of the House. The Bill is a very poor thing and, as many other speakers have said, I hope the Government will have the sense to withdraw it and not waste more parliamentary time.
Lord Kirkwood: My Lords, the Government claim--and the Minister reiterated it--that the need for the Bill is to provide choice, diversity and competition for student loans by introducing the private sector into the situation and, simultaneously, to allow for reduction in public borrowing. As that was the original intention of the previous student loan scheme which had to be abandoned because the banks withdrew at the last moment, I, like the noble Lord, Lord Morris, am not clear as to what has now changed for the Government to believe that the private sector should be any keener this time round.
That having been said, there is almost unanimous agreement between different political parties and the educational institutions involved that student maintenance funding must be put on a more secure and permanent basis, in order that students should know in advance exactly what financial commitments they have entered into before they start their university course.
It is accepted by most people that, with the growth of the student population which is a desirable state of affairs that we all wish to see continued, the old grant system funded by the public purse is proving inadequate and unfair--unfair in the sense that the immediate tax burden falls on the present taxpayers, and the benefits in part accrue to the graduate whose future earning power has been increased by a subsidised education. I
The main problem with the present loan system as I understand it, is with the collection of debt. That will not be lessened by being shared with the private sector; it may, in fact, be a further factor in discouraging them from joining such a scheme. In spite of the claims of the Student Loan Company, the facts are that in 1994-95 only 48 per cent. of borrowers were up to date with their payments or had fully repaid their debt. Most had been granted deferment and some 10 per cent. were in default. This situation is almost certain to be exacerbated with increasing numbers of students, and as more funds come from loans rather than from grants. Are we to expect, then, that graduates who are finding it more and more difficult to pay off the debt at the beginning of their careers will find themselves in court? Surely not even the present Home Secretary would relish the prospect of establishing debtors' prisons, filled to overflowing with unfortunate university graduates!
The simple, straightforward way of avoiding that scenario--this has been mentioned by a number of noble Lords and I make no apology for mentioning it once again, but it is something upon which I know the Government do not look favourably--is through the introduction of a graduate tax, or to provide repayment through national insurance contributions. Almost every Member of your Lordships' House has supported such a scheme in principle. The administrative system is already set up. As we have heard, the arrangement has been proved to work well in Australia. It is an efficient means of collecting, and it is difficult to avoid. Most importantly, it permits the debt to be repaid at a rate that the graduate can afford--for instance, over a period of 10 years or perhaps longer. That means that repayment would not impinge unfairly on those entering the less well paid public services, such as the teaching professions; otherwise, I fear that a loan system as envisaged in this Bill will further encourage graduates away from the relatively poorly paid professions such as in manufacturing industry into the City and service industries.
Why is it that the Government are so unwilling to consider such an obviously sensible scheme? I am aware that the Treasury dislikes hypothecated taxes: they remove from the Exchequer its power to negotiate spending as between different departments. However, the national insurance contribution is in fact an hypothecated tax to provide future pensions in exactly the same way as this proposal seeks to provide for future higher education. The provision of funding for universities on a long-term, stable basis is an urgent problem requiring bold solutions, not tinkering with loan schemes as envisaged in this Bill.
I make a further proposal to the Minister. A possible extension to such a scheme might be to establish a private loans company which would be jointly owned by the banks and the universities, and perhaps also by the building societies, but where the collection of debt
Baroness White: My Lords, during the past couple of decades my two noble friends who are not able to be here tonight, the noble Lords, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos and Lord Callaghan of Cardiff, together with myself and the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, who is not in the Chamber at the moment, have been closely concerned with the affairs of the Federal University of Wales. We are delighted that my noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn has joined us and--as far as I am concerned, at any rate--he will take a much more up-to-date interest in that university.
I would not have ventured to intervene in this debate at all had I not received a personal letter from the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wales urging me in the strongest terms to oppose the line on student loans being taken by the present Government. He emphasised the general agreement reached by himself and his fellow academic colleagues in England and Wales that they would emphatically wish to accept change on the basis of something similar to the scheme which has been adopted in Australia and which has been discussed in a detailed manner by the previous speaker. It seems that Australia can provide us with good advice in matters other than the Olympic Games!
I am much indebted to the CVCP--old friends of mine--and to the Dean of Students in Cardiff and his staff for spelling out for me the official proposals and the disadvantages that they foresaw if they were adopted. As the matter has been dealt with in another place, I embarked on an exercise which I trust has been followed by at least some of the previous speakers in this debate. I have read every word of the debates held in the House of Commons, both in full House and in Standing Committee B. It was not quite a Scott Report, but it was not far from it! At the fourth sitting of Standing Committee B, Members in another place seemed to me to become rather long-winded in their speeches and I skipped a little of the debate. The result of that study is that I can see no merit whatever in our spending any more time in discussing this Bill which, as we have all said, is not due to come into force until, I believe, the autumn of 1997. Normally I do not have a suspicious mind but one cannot resist asking oneself what other legislation is being prepared which is not to come into effect until after the next general election, whenever that may be.
I must emphasise that I do not nowadays often indulge in reading the full proceedings of another place on a Bill which comes to this House. It is also quite a while since I was a Minister myself. However, I was startled to find that any Minister could present a Bill which is so inadequately prepared and expect it to be accepted by this House. I have been watching the clock. I believe there are still eight speakers in this debate. I
Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior: My Lords, it is clearly considered by many, both in this House and in the universities, and by administrators, faculty and students that the problems of student loans and the student loans Bill are merely symptomatic of a wider and deeper malaise regarding the funding of higher education in this country and what should be done about it. Being an emeritus academic administrator in the University of Cambridge, I can assure your Lordships that I am familiar with that malaise.
We should therefore welcome the committee of inquiry that has been announced by the Minister. That committee will have to take many matters into consideration, and I am sure there will be much input from those representing all aspects of the university system. The inexorable decline in central funding to universities brings into focus the questions of who pays and who benefits from university education. Of course both society and the individual benefit. It is logical and equitable that the costs should also be shared, but the manner of this should also be logical and equitable.
However, unlike the situation of a decade ago, the majority of students now graduate in a state of indebtedness. Sometimes those who follow professional courses are indebted to the order of teens of thousands of pounds. My noble friend Lord Renfrew mentioned a scale of indebtedness. He mentioned graduates entering my profession--the veterinary profession--who had on average an indebtedness of £8,500.
More individuals now go on to higher education: the present figure is 30 per cent. of school leavers. There is now much more demand for loans, the repayment of which to the Exchequer in the present scheme is slow. It will be well into the 21st century before repayments make any significant financial impact on the present scheme. That must be a major worry to the general public and the payer of income tax.
Nevertheless, there are some major problems with the present student loan scheme. One hopes that, when we have the answers to some of the points that have been raised in this debate by other noble Lords, they will be alleviated.
One of the problems is that the present scheme does not provide an adequate maximum for some students. That is particularly so for professional students, as the noble Lord, Lord Dainton, mentioned; examples are medical students, veterinary students, dentists and those in other professions where the length of the course is five years, or even six years in some cases.
In the case of both veterinary and medical students, the final year is one of 46 weeks, so there is little time left. It is necessary for those students to undertake studies during their vacations to gain extra-mural experience. In my own profession that is 26 weeks, plus another 12 weeks of farm experience. In other words, 38 weeks have to be spent in a mandated manner as part of the course. That greatly reduces the ability of students
The fixed payback scheme of five years also causes great hardship to young graduates, who frequently must capitalise to set up in their professions in terms of equipment, premises and so on. These matters cause great concern to students at present.
In the present Bill Her Majesty's Government propose to promote private sector loans as an alternative to, but alongside, the student loan scheme. The Minister said that that will give a better-tailored product and will allow greater choice. However, a number of questions need to be raised on this issue.
For example, will the same conditions of repayment apply to the loans from the private sector? Will the same ceiling on loans apply? Will it be possible to take loans from more than one company, or will it be restricted to one lending organisation? If the answer to those questions is that matters will remain the same except that a student can go to a private sector lender rather than the present scheme, all the Bill will do is decant the failings of the present scheme into the private sector.
Considerable attention has been paid to the possibility of income-contingent repayment. It has been said that we could glean much from the schemes that operate in Australia and New Zealand. I suggest that we could also glean a great deal from the scheme that has been operating for 25 years in the United States, where, it is well known, student loans have been used very effectively to increase the population of students in the higher education system. That is now running at 65 per cent. of high-school leavers.
I am grateful to Dr. Finney of New York University and Dr. Hart, who is director of scholarships and finances for the universities in Indiana, for details of some of the schemes they run at present. It is probably well known to some Members of this House that the present federal loans are provided by the banks but secured by the federal government in terms of interest during the time of study. The federal government may also cover the default of loans in certain circumstances. It is a standard loan, but for professional courses it is possible greatly to increase the loan to cover the extra costs of professional education. Repayment is on an income-contingent basis, usually at one point below the standard interest rate. Supplementary loans to the parents of students who find themselves in financial difficulties are also under consideration. Those will be secured against the capital of the parent. A parent will pay interest at the normal rate. The third area of interest is a direct loan to universities, administered by the colleges or universities, with payback being on an income-contingent basis up to a period of almost 20 years.
Students do not fear loans. There is every indication that they would wish to have greater access to them. There is every evidence that an equitable loan system will encourage a wider social span of students to undertake higher education in this country, as it does in Australia and New Zealand and most certainly in the United States.
In the formula of who benefits from and who pays for higher education, students do indeed wish to play a role. However, they see that role being played within an equitable system. I hope that that will be forthcoming by means of this Bill or as a result of the committee of inquiry.
Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede: My Lords, one of the advantages of speaking towards the end of the list of speakers is that many of the points that I wished to raised have been made far more ably than I could have made them. I am most pleased by the fact that my old Alma Mater, the University of Wales, has been better represented than any other university.
The Bill itself is very narrowly drawn. It is solely concerned with the administration and ownership of debt. We have heard that it does nothing for the students; it does nothing for the universities; and, if one believes what one reads in the newspapers, the banks do not believe that it will do anything for them either.
The Bill meets the CPC's concern about that so-called burden on the public sector. It simply privatises the debt. That is straightforward. But it goes nowhere near addressing the issue of linking repayments to the ability to pay. That is the issue that we have heard raised time and again by speakers tonight.
Many employment sectors are traditionally poor payers. I think in particular of the voluntary and charitable sectors where graduates are offered good and flexible careers. Such careers are popular and in my experience attract the highest quality graduates. However, such graduates have to think long and hard about embarking on such careers when they have the additional burden of student loan repayments, particularly when those repayments are not linked to their level of earnings. All of us, in particular the Government, rely on these low paid sectors attracting high quality graduates. I suggest that one practical method of helping those sectors is to link loan repayments to earnings.
In addressing the provisions of the Bill, I am somewhat at a loss. Surely it should be possible to quantify in cash terms the benefit of this measure to the public purse. I am not talking just about the transfer of figures from one column in the PSBR into the private sector. The Government constantly talk about efficiency savings through privatisation. Surely it would be possible to quantify those savings in such a limited area as debt administration.
I may be told that such figures are commercially sensitive, particularly when the Government are embarking on negotiations with the banks. If that be the case, it should be possible to produce indicative figures. To be asked to decide on the principle without knowing the cash benefit is a strange way to proceed. Deciding on the principle in advance of the Government's negotiations can hardly help the Government's negotiating position. Just imagine a young executive going to the main board of a high street bank and saying that it should accept student loans without any quantification of the likely benefit to the bank. The idea is laughable; and that young executive would soon find new career paths opening up to him such as a secondment to the DFEE.
Clearly the Bill has been overtaken by events. It seems to me that the criteria set out by the CVCP, and already quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, are as good as any in judging a system of student support. I briefly restate them. The system should be simple, adequate, certain and just. Those criteria would, I believe, be a good guide to the committee of inquiry. They should provide the final nail in the coffin of this Bill.
Lord Prys-Davies: My Lords, I find it quite remarkable that the CVCP was not consulted upon this short, narrow Bill. Does that omission reveal the disregard of this Government for the CVCP? I hope that the department will reflect upon what has been said by my noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn, the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, and the noble Lord, Lord Flowers.
Given the widespread opposition to the Bill, I am surprised that it has got as far as this--a Second Reading debate in your Lordships' House. The Bill--if we are to have this Bill--makes no effort to fill in some of the areas of need which urgently need filling and cannot wait for two or three years. At this late hour I shall
It seems to me that concern over those omissions has run through almost all the speeches this evening, and, if I may say so, many of the speeches in another place. I am not sure that the Minister acknowledged that those concerns are wider in a sense and are narrower in a sense than those addressed in the 1990 Act. Can the Minister explain why the Bill does not bring part-time students of higher education within the scope of the existing loan scheme? That question has been repeatedly asked. I believe that we are entitled to an answer. It strikes many of us that to exclude part-time students from the scheme cannot be the proper basis for a modern approach to higher education.
I recall that last year I was involved in trying to find financial help to enable a part-time Welsh student of high merit to pay the university fee. Although the case seemed extremely strong, I found it difficult, and embarrassing, to shop around for help from charity to charity. Eventually we obtained help but there seems something wrong with a system of part-time education which compels the student to rely on charity for part of her fees. When the Minister replies, will he please give the department's estimate of the cost of extending the scheme to cover part-time students?
I turn briefly to another important issue which is not addressed by the Bill--the repayment formula. The existing scheme has the merit of simplicity. It may work quite well for some students. But plainly it does not achieve fairness to expect every student to repay the loan within the same period of time irrespective of his or her circumstances. Indeed, many students would be exposed to considerable difficulties if they had to repay the loan by fixed instalments over a period of five years as soon as their salary equated to 85 per cent. of the average salary. After all, students would be faced with other substantial expenditure: rent, mortgage instalments, car and furniture, and hire purchase instalments. There could be such items as house and car insurance, car and TV licences. Those are not exceptional items but common features of a young person's budget.
There are genuine concerns among students and potential students that they will be unable to see their way clear to repay the loan within five years, as required under the scheme. They are therefore reluctant to borrow. The result, as we have heard from many speakers, is that some potential students are not entering higher education. It seems a curious anomaly that that should be the case at a time when the Government claim in the current consultation document that lifetime learning is crucial to the community.
Sadly, we hear that a substantial number of students do not complete their course of higher education. The Government state that the drop-out rate is 17 per cent. or 18 per cent. and that it has been around that figure for many years. Can the Minister tell the House what is the drop-out rate for reasons of poverty? The CVCP has advised that the inordinate amount of paid work
Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I welcome the review which the Minister has announced. For the past five years, other impending reviews have been regularly cited to me as a reason for doing nothing about whatever I happen to be urging on the Secretary of State of the day. However, I look forward to a different outcome on this occasion since the present Secretary of State is a mover and a shaker in whom I have considerable faith.
We cannot discuss the Bill--opaque and slight as it is--without considering the background. First, there is the well-documented poverty and stress which can no longer be fobbed off as anecdotal. They have increasingly manifested themselves among poor students; that is, among at least 20 per cent. of the student body. I wish to emphasise yet again that I speak about the poor students, not all students.
Secondly, there is the disastrous impact of that poverty on the quality of academic life, and therefore students' ultimate achievement and contribution to the country as graduates, and of the underfunding of universities which, as so many have said, hits libraries, scientific equipment, funding for field work and, above all, the ratio of teacher to student. The Government's pride--and it is justified--in increasing student numbers over the past decade must be tempered by the fact that funding for students has declined by 28 per cent. over the past six years, with the prospect of further reductions. Those are deeply alarming figures.
Let me say at once that the principle of requiring students to make some, and even a substantial contribution to their university education is now widely accepted by most students as well as by many in this House. The Student Loans Company, after a disastrous performance in 1994-95, is now functioning effectively, thanks to Sir Eric Ash. That is not least because there is now regular consultation with both institutions and students which was signally lacking before.
The trouble is, first, that the maintenance grant and the maximum loan together, even with the safety net of the Access funds for a few, is not enough. Secondly, the debt incurred is now 10 times the original maximum loan (£333 in 1991, £3,201 in 1996). By the year 2000 it will be 17 times as great (£5,788). The prospect of a debt of that magnitude can only act as a deterrent to poor prospective students so long as the present mandatory system of repayment over five years remains the policy of the Government. They must consider urgently the merits of a fee contribution scheme, to recover the loan on an income-contingent basis, whether through the Inland Revenue or national insurance. Incidentally, there would be considerable advantages for
The Government are naturally concerned--and if they are not, they should be--at the prospect of heavy continuing investment which is not recovered. We know from the National Audit Office report on the Student Loans Company that despite a good rate of repayment (94 per cent.) so far, as at March 1995, 7.7 per cent. of repayers were in default, owing arrears of £1.8 million with a further £8.2 million due in future. The Student Loans Company estimates that by March 1998 there will be 27,800 accounts in default. Moreover, as at 31st March 1995, 45 per cent. of accounts in repayment status had had deferment of repayment approved.
Thus far, we are talking about relatively small sums because at this stage the Government are still dealing with those students who borrowed in 1990-94. The maintenance grant was far larger then and the loan far smaller. It is not surprising that the Government can speak of an average loan outstanding at present of £1,400 and an average loan repayment of £18 per month. Those are the students for whom the first loan in 1991 was £333. The total debt after three years was, in 1994, £2,015. But the Government should be thinking--students, certainly are (and it is and will be a powerful deterrent to entering higher education under the present arrangements)--about the students going down in 1998. Their debt will be £4,943, and those going down in the year 2000 will be repaying £5,788. That is an increase of over 100 per cent. in the debt which students going down this year will incur. They will incur £2,503.
All those figures relate only to three-year courses. For the four-year course, which is becoming more frequent, the debt to be repaid in the year 2000 (only five years away) will be £7,811. The CVCP calculation is that those going down in 1999-2000 will be paying over £96 per month.
I have spent so much time on the issue of the great increase in the size of the repayment, not only because of the increasing deterrent that it represents to poor students who fear debts of nearly £6,000, or nearly £8,000 for four-year courses, to be repaid so early and so fast, but also because I strongly believe that under the present system the Government will have to wait a long time for their money and may never recover much of it. It would, I submit, be a far more certain method of recovery, quite apart from removing student fears, to move to some form of income-contingent repayment scheme on the lines of the fee contribution scheme. In that way, the money would come in, as students would regard the system as fair and not frightening.
Many noble Lords have referred to the poverty which is having such a serious effect on the academic work and thus the future prospects of students. That is due directly to the fact, many times emphasised in earlier debates, that the maintenance grant and maximum loan together do not equal the former value of the maintenance grant and housing benefit. In Edinburgh rents have increased by 44.7 per cent. over the past five years. Rent alone now frequently exceeds the full maintenance grant and that obtains all over the country.
How much does that leave, even on a full loan, for books (the libraries have been cut back heavily), and field work, during which no work to earn money can be done--let alone the simple business of eating, keeping warm, travelling and staying alive. It is deeply disturbing that of 2,000 students who replied to a questionnaire in Edinburgh in 1995, 26 per cent. worked to earn money during term and 44 per cent. worked through the whole 30 weeks of the academic year for an average of 12 hours a week, but in some cases for much more. Since the work they do is often in bars or stocking shelves, the pay is very poor; 55.4 per cent. of the students had an average debt of £743 at the end of the academic year in addition to their student loan. Few could clear that non-student-loan debt by working during the summer--either because no work was available or because it was, again, very poorly paid. As one student wrote, "This year I shall have to work double my hours in paid employment to pay off my debt and, to be honest, my course is no longer my first concern". I find that a very frightening statement.
Other noble Lords referred to the growing evidence of drop-outs, especially among mature students, because of poverty rather than for academic reasons. The Minister will refer such students to the Access Funds. But we all know that they, frozen this year at £22 million, are wholly unable to meet the present level of student needs.
It is a tragedy that the Government, who have done so much to bring more students into higher education and have effectively changed the culture of complete state subsidy to one of enabling graduates to repay to the public purse a substantial part of the cost of their higher education, still fail to recognise that roughly one-fifth of the student body is insufficiently funded, so that poverty is, in its turn, impoverishing the quality of the academic experience.
It will be a culpable waste of money and human investment to create a generation of graduates who have simply not had the time or the tools to learn. They will go out into the world inadequately taught and imperfectly prepared for the intellectual challenges they ought to be fitted to meet.
It is not the least of our general regrets that this Bill still provides only for undergraduates. Nothing is available for postgraduates, nor for the large numbers in part-time education. I hope very much, with the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, and many others, that my noble friend the Minister will tell us that some account might be taken of the possibility of extending the availability of loans to them. The extra cost could well be compensated for by greater certainty of recovery of the
Lord Desai: My Lords, first, I congratulate the Minister. He introduced a Bill on a constitutional innovation. He managed to make a Statement to this House without having to mention it as such. He gave a very deft summary of the Statement made by his right honourable friend in another place. I admired the way in which he managed to take it in his stride. Having made the Statement before introducing the Bill, he then gave us an injunction to stick to the Bill itself. If only he had done so himself, we should have followed. However, since he did not, we do not have to do so either. We, too, can speak on other matters, and not confine our remarks to the Bill. Being the last-but-one speaker, I use that ruse in order to be able to mention the matter.
I never fail to be astonished that, in the 17th year of a Government who say they believe in the free market, again and again they push legislation before us which shows either that they are ignorant of the market or that they do not have the guts to follow their own philosophy.
When I first arrived, 31 years ago, I was astonished that one could borrow three or perhaps four times one's income to buy a house, but not to buy a race-horse. That is an imperfection in the capital market that should have been removed. What difference does it make whether I buy a house or a race-horse. A race-horse might be the better winner. It was always thought that it was good to borrow money for certain things but not for others. Therefore governments of many hues have established distortions in the capital market and have even given them support in legislation. That idea still exists. This Bill perpetuates the notion that only full-time undergraduate education is such a great good that the Government will provide precious taxpayers' money to support it under an inefficient scheme, while a variety of other demands for higher education are not thought good enough.
We do not trust the consumer to know his or her own interests, to go to the bank and ask for a loan. There is obviously a case of market failure here. Banks have no incentive to provide this money. The Government, recognising market failure, have now decided that they will perpetuate the distortion by giving support to one part of the market but not to other parts. That is anomalous, to say the least.
As this Bill stands, it perpetuates certain restrictions. For example, in the schedule (lines 23 to 26) if a loan is taken out with a private company, another cannot be taken out with a public company. I do not see why not. If someone wants to take out two loans let him take out two loans. Provided he is not cheating, what does it matter to anybody how many loans are taken out? Why should the Government say how many loans I should take out? Do they believe in the free market, or not?
In having a degree, I buy a piece of human capital and enhance my lifetime earnings. As anybody knows, my life-time earnings do not grow immediately because I am a graduate, but they grow over my life-time. All my life I can pay for the very precious asset I have bought. To have to repay it over five years is folly. I should be in negative equity throughout the five years, and nobody can convince me otherwise.
From any point of view a five-year loan system is irrational. I do not need to tell the Minister what Gordon Brown called the "neo-classical indigenous growth model". It shows that acquiring an education is the best guarantee of economic growth for a country. By encouraging people to acquire higher education we are improving the competitiveness of the economy in the future, and it is perfectly valid to help that along.
The subsidy need not be as large as the one the Government are about to give. That is another problem. As many noble Lords have said, an income contingent loan scheme would overcome the hump of extra payments within a short period of time. The only question is how to get the Treasury to come up with an imaginative idea in order to shift that burden in such a way that it does not appear in the PSBR to be awkward.
I suspect that there is a mole in the Government who makes them choose the electorally most unpopular loan system that could possibly be devised by a human being. By helping the Government I may be hurting my own party. I may be helping them to win the next election and so I hesitate to say anything about it.
In a sense, over a lifetime students are not poor. They will be better off than many of those who do not obtain a higher education. The kind of debt burden about which the noble Baroness, Lady Park, spoke, should be negligible within a lifetime's income, but it weighs heavily because the scheme devised makes no economic sense. We are burdening a potentially high income earning group early in life with sums of £3,000 to £5,000 which, over a lifetime, would be negligible.
Not all that long ago, 18 year-olds used to leave school and buy houses costing more than that and paid for them over their lifetime. Now we have people who cannot afford loans of that size. That is due to the term of the repayment of the loan. Having arranged an uneconomic five-year repayment term, we than have to give an uneconomic subsidy to the private sector to arrange the loan. The existing subsidy is not enough to persuade lenders to lend, so we have to increase the subsidy. It would be cheaper to give the students the money directly.
We must be clear that a student impoverishment problem is a self-created problem. It arises because of the restrictions on students borrowing against future income. It is a kind of market failure. We do not have specialised institutions to provide educational loans in the same way that we have specialised institutions to provide loans for property. It is a shortsightedness of the economy that we value bricks and mortar more than we value knowledge. Anybody can show that buying an education is a much better investment than buying bricks and mortar. Bricks and mortar are consumption goods and education is an investment. We should therefore be encouraging the buying of an education.
I see little hope that the Bill will be improved, even if we try to amend it. The Government have already scuttled it by announcing the inquiry. I see that as another sign of a lack of will to tackle the problems which could be tackled overnight if the Government wanted to do that. The income contingent loan solution has been known since 1988 when my colleagues, Dr. Nicholas Barr and John Barnes, published a paper on that topic. We have shown it to every successive Minister in the Department of Education and the Treasury. We have explained its logic. It was invented here before the Australians took it. But we have had to wait eight years while the Government continue to reject it.
It is astonishing that a low-cost, efficient solution will be rejected in favour of the present solution. "Choice" I am afraid, it is not, unless it is a choice between being hanged or being drawn and quartered. The borrower is no better off. The lender may be better off, but the borrower is not and the borrower does not have much choice. All we are doing is offering the cherry pickers an extra bonus for cherry picking. I hate to say this, but the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, with his desire to study archaeology, would have had no chance whatever of studying that subject; he would have been rejected out of hand by the cherry pickers because clearly archaeology is not a commercial proposition. As an economist, I would have had all the cream. Perhaps lawyers would be better off, followed by the
I urge the Minister to say that it is all a mistake; to say that we would be better following my suggestion. I urge him to say, "We want to win the election after all. We will try our best, despite what happens on the Back Benches in another place." Good sense may then prevail, after 17 years, and we may yet see a proper free market solution to the financing of higher education. I live in hope. But I am an optimist.
Lord Berkeley: My Lords, I shall not detain the House for long tonight as it has been a long debate with a virtual unanimity of views on the Bill. I declare an interest as a member of the council of the University of Canterbury. I am probably one of the few speakers tonight appointed as an amateur in the academic world. I am appointed from the business community to help the university meet the needs of the community; to support its management, its efficiency and quality.
I asked my vice-chancellor for his views and he urged me strongly to speak. I have seen at first hand the frustration at all levels in the university; the lack of policy coming from the Government; the stop-go on growth--enormous growth when it levels out--and the changes and reductions in funding. We cannot separate student funding from university funding; they are inextricably linked.
While universities have been rightly introducing efficiency gains, they are lumbered with more and more government paperwork which uses up thousands of hours of staff time--assessments, benchmarking, auditing, grant applications (we all have to do that) and reporting. There is more and more of it. This is not work that clerical assistants can do. It is paperwork which requires careful judgment and non-routine responses. It is academic staff time that is absorbed in completing it; academic staff time filling in forms and not teaching or researching. Now we have further form filling exercises in the shape of the new student loan proposal.
We are told that the universities will have to certify that students are eligible for private sector loans. Who will do that? We await details with great interest but, on the basis of past experience, very considerable foreboding. There will be yet more administrative work for universities. Will the noble Lord the Minister commit the Government to reimbursing all the costs involved? Perhaps we should be told. We have heard that most students are struggling financially or are just plain broke. Perhaps the Government will say "Tough, get on your bike and look for a job", and earn £1 an hour at a burger restaurant or work 16 to 20 hours a week doing something else. We have heard all that. Now that students have one more financial juggling exercise to contend with, it is almost as if they will need financial advisers as well as the university.
To what end are the Government proposing these changes? Are they really committed to free higher education? They say that they are, but by their actions to date they make it virtually impossible for those with
Am I the only person in this Chamber to suspect that the objective of the Bill is to make next year's budget look more favourable, with no thought about what will happen thereafter? I do not know. In the meantime, I hope the Minister will be able to tell us how the Government expect the universities to fund themselves in the next three years. Do they expect the principals of universities to start charging students? Is that what they want, or do they not care?
Lastly, given all the problems now facing further education over all, as an amateur among some of the most eminent professionals in the business, I join others in calling for the Minister to withdraw the Bill.
Lord Addington: My Lords, when discussing the student loans regulations I feel roughly the same way as I do about an old rugby injury. It comes back and it hurts, no matter how long ago it was first acquired. I cut my teeth or was blooded parliamentary-wise on the Education (Student Loans) Bill in 1990. I said then that as I was in the position of having graduated two years previously I knew more about the financial system. In a debate on a Motion which I tabled two or three years ago--the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, mentioned it--I said that I no longer knew anything about the system because it had changed a great deal.
I caught the end of what was a golden era for students when there was a guaranteed level of income. Initially that was done by the grants system. By the time I was finishing at university it was done by the grant plus social security benefits covering up the cracks. The present scheme was first brought in by top-up loans. In the first year students received £300 or so. The system of a top-up loan plus a few hundred pounds was acceptable. It papered over the cracks. It does not work with £5,000 of debt, which is what we are getting now.
The noble Lord, Lord Desai, ran through his favourite flower patch and pulled out some of the choicest buds for us all to admire. The scheme just does not work in logical terms. The Bill itself is a small thing. It says that we should transfer some level of debt from the public sector to the private sector. The banks may be interested because the scheme may attract students to them. When a student opens a bank account he tends to stay with that bank until he becomes an economic asset. That was tried with the initial scheme but the banks said that they did not want to know. What will happen next time round, if it happens next time round--we have heard
There is very little one can say about the Bill except to refer to a quote from the late, great Peter Sellers, that it is interesting but stupid. It does not really make sense. We are simply shifting around the level of debt. It would look better on a balance sheet. There is no real benefit to anyone.
If the Bill addresses anything it is individual student finance. As the noble Lord, Lord Desai, and almost every other noble Lord who has spoken this evening said, it should be sufficient to allow them to graduate. We have a degree structure system, particularly in England and Wales, of intensive preparation for three years. That means that students get through the course quickly. I am a graduate of a Scottish university, and it was nice to hear one other speaker who has a more recent connection with that university. I am slightly prejudiced. There should perhaps be a more flexible road into the course with students able to decide later what subject to take on at a higher level of education.
In England and Wales the period of study is intensified. It ensures that the student goes through the system quickly. In this kind of funding one is not allowing students to subsidise their income without working. We have a system where one is borrowing and paying back over a very short period of time and at the same time we are consistently leaving students, if they cannot find work during the long vacation, worse off than they would be on social security. On numerous occasions this Chamber has pointed that out to the Government. Talk of extra funding being available was rubbish. When the system was brought in many people lost in cash terms in the first year. There has never been any real argument or dispute about that.
I feel somewhat guilty because one should not shoot the messenger. However, the noble Lord is the only one in range tonight. If the Government intend to bring in this scheme--and there are many "ifs" and "buts" about it--will the Minister consider expanding the level of funding available to students because they need extra money? Will he consider ensuring that the private sector has the opportunity of providing a longer term for repayment? If the Minister gave us that assurance there would be some point to this debate; if not, we have really wasted our time.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, at the beginning of this Second Reading debate my noble friend Lord Morris of Castle Morris raised and identified the crucial issues underlying this Bill and the flaws in the scheme, the lack of parliamentary accountability in the detail, the failing loans policy, the F&HE funding crisis and the Government's mishandling and mistiming of the matter. All these points have been amply justified during the debate.
I for one was grateful to the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Henley, for giving us a precis of the Statement read in the other place. I listened carefully and I shall read Hansard carefully. In his precis he read:
The background to this debate is that the Government have accepted that a committee of inquiry is needed to look at all aspects of higher education, including student support. What is the sense in asking the taxpayer to fund costly proposals--the degree of subsidy in these proposals must be so severe that the Government will not even lay them before Parliament at this stage--for a scheme which is not intended by the Government now, as a result in the changes in timing, to be implemented until after the committee of inquiry has reported?
In presenting the proposals at this Second Reading, the Minister said that the taxpayer, private sector lending and risking its own money, were the issues before Parliament. The Government's favourite slogan is "choice, competition and diversity" and they believe that personal lending is not a natural activity for government. However, since Burke, governments have accepted that education provision is a function of government.
The Bill before us lacks details. The Minister asserted that it has no downside for anyone. How can we know when we know not the cost? The private sector, the banks and the building societies, have not come forward with bids. The Government tell us that they are considering how to bring them in.
My noble friend Lord Morris of Castle Morris referred to the important issues which the Dearing Committee will have to consider. Speaker after speaker referred to the need to protect and enhance the quality of further and higher education and to encourage access from students of all backgrounds while not discriminating between full-time and part-time students or against students on the grounds of age. Will the Minister assure us that the figure of £1,500 per student subsidy is not one that the Government intend to match by way of subsidy to the private sector to encourage it to take part?
The Minister concluded by referring to providing choice. The Bill does not provide choice for students. We are talking about a choice of students by banks, not about students choosing the system or company with which they would like to deal.
Many noble Lords have referred to unit costs per student and to the problems facing students. The noble Lord, Lord Flowers, referred to a "seriously flawed scheme of student loans to be partially privatised". He said that he could not understand why the Government were proceeding with it. Noble Lords have raised a number of anxieties which the Government have so far failed to address. The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals says that the Bill does nothing to address the problems of HE funding.
My noble friend Lord Borrie referred to the fact that the Government could have foreseen the problems. Universities and students knew about the problems. My noble friend also referred to the fact that getting this right is an economic necessity for the country. No scheme should be a disincentive to students, especially those from the least well-off backgrounds. As the noble Lord, Lord Tope, said, the scheme will not solve the problems facing the sector.
Every noble Lord bar none has welcomed the committee of inquiry. What is the sense in throwing away that degree of partnership proposal and that degree of unanimity by wasting time on a Bill that has been overtaken by events?
The noble Lord, Lord Dainton, referred to private good and public good. The loans scheme does not encourage students from all backgrounds. Also, why are there no practical details on the subject of recovery?
My noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn, one of many noble Lords who spoke with a knowledge of education in Wales, referred to the low morale in universities. Why can we not have adequate consultation on proposals as important as those contained in the Bill, albeit in only minimal form? Cavalier treatment of those with detailed knowledge--universities and students--will do little to improve that low morale.
My noble friend Lord Morris of Castle Morris referred to the fact that it is important that we work together, through consultation, to get this right. It is my understanding that my honourable friend the shadow Secretary of State has welcomed in another place the proposed bipartisan approach of the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. That is the time to give detailed evidence and to have it evaluated carefully and properly, rather than proceeding by assertion in a Bill lacking detail that flies in the face of the knowledge of all those who have spoken in the debate, bar one and the Minister.
My noble friend Lord Prys-Davies, asked why the CVCP was not consulted. He referred to poverty as a cause of drop-out. We are entitled to answers to all the detailed questions that have been asked in the debate. To offer less would be not to recognise the almost uniform failure to see any merit in the proposals before us.
Recently I spoke to a 17 year-old student who was embarking on the first year of sixth form. He is Welsh. He had three A*s in sciences, three As, two Bs and a C. He is seriously considering not going to university, because he comes from a single-parent household and he is terrified of debt. We need to find a scheme which will recognise the problems facing the Government but which will also ensure that such young people are not put off.
Student hardship is personally and nationally important. Parliament has a right to know what subsidies are proposed to underpin the legislation. The financial implications of any system need to be spelled out. The noble Lord, Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, referred to the problems facing those students undertaking courses to become vets. A serious problem exists.
The Minister must take back to government the message that, if the Government are right, that will be confirmed by the committee of inquiry. The Government must surely have faith in the policies they are putting forward in the Bill. If that is the case, the Government should take pride in taking back the Bill, putting their views to their own committee of inquiry, and having them stand the test of detailed scrutiny rather than considering them at this stage.
As my noble friend Lady David said, student support needs a complete overhaul. She referred to the issue of students with disabilities. The noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, hoped for support for the Bill. I am sorry, but there is no support for the Bill in this House; there is no support for the Bill in the university sector; there is no support for the Bill from the students who are experiencing hardship. Yet speaker after speaker has talked realistically about the need to face the problems. The problem facing us in this House with the Bill is that the Government solution provides too little, at the wrong time, of the wrong thing.
Knowledgable comments have been made by those with an interest in high-quality education about the importance of good access. Only one in 20 speakers has spoken in support of the Government's proposals. From my noble friend Lady White to my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies, speakers from Wales have referred to the anxiety that exists there.
For once the Government are proposing a proper evaluation of public policy. We have the opportunity for consultation and evaluation followed by good legislation with a consensual approach underpinning a good policy reached through the right processes. The Bill should be withdrawn until the committee of inquiry has reported. Many problems face this country and our system. I hope that the Minister will take away all the serious worries that have been raised and answer them in writing if he is not able to do so tonight. I hope that he will take away the message from all the speakers in the debate that the Government have come up with a good proposal with the committee of inquiry and that we can have co-operation. The answer lies with the Government.
Lord Henley: My Lords, of course I can assure the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, that I shall write in answer to the more detailed points as appropriate in order to keep my speech within suitable limits at this hour of the night. I welcome the noble Baroness to what I understand is the first Second Reading debate that she has wound up from the Front Bench. She will appreciate that I did not agree with absolutely everything she said, but it was a welcome relief to hear a lay voice in this House. On occasions tonight I felt that I had strayed into a branch meeting of the House of Lords chapter of the CVCP. I believe that mere mortals should be allowed to speak from time to time.
As I said in opening, I intend to focus my remarks on the Bill. I accept that certain noble Lords tried to focus on the Bill to a greater extent than my initial pessimism seemed to imply. Obviously, there will be other opportunities to debate the committee of inquiry and the future of higher education. I do not know whether a debate is being initiated by noble Lords on the Cross-Benches on 6th March, as was suggested, but I am sure that noble Lords will find ways and means of ensuring that these important matters are debated in due course. I am sure, that, as always, the usual channels will consider these matters. I noted all the comments made about the committee of inquiry and I am sure that they are matters which Sir Ron Dearing will want to examine in due course.
The noble Lord, Lord Morris, in his theatrical speech, if I can put it that way, quoted from the Conservative Political Centre. I am pleased that he found such good reading emanating from such a source. However, it is not a government body and it is not producing government policy. It is important that the noble Lord should remember that. Perhaps in order to make the point that two can play the same tune I invite the noble Lord to look at the words of his colleague, Mr. Frank Field. Only last week at what I understand was called the "Attlee Lecture for '96", he said:
I do not intend to focus on the wider issues that are being put before me, but I believe that two points are worth addressing before I turn to some of the detailed issues of the Bill. We have seen a massive expansion in higher education over the years. I was grateful for the welcome for that from Peers such as the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, who pointed out that it has grown since my day, 20 years ago, from approximately one in 12 to one in three. That is a record of which we can be proud because the number doubled, and doubled again since 1979.
The latest figures that we have are from the 1992 student income and expenditure survey. I assure the House that we are not complacent on these matters and a new survey will be starting some time in the autumn which may paint a new picture. However, that survey found that while those students were in a minority in 1988, by 1992 they were in a majority. As my noble friend Lady Carnegy made absolutely clear, the number of students from social classes 4 and 5 accepted for undergraduate courses rose by over 50 per cent. between 1991 and 1994. Those figures are just as good as the figures quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, when he talked about the Australian scheme.
Further, there has been much concern--and I appreciate that it is something about which one should be concerned--about drop-out rates. Departmental data for 1992-93 shows the overall drop-out rate to be 17 per cent. That was the same as that for the previous year. Noble Lords should remember that where students abandon their courses there is no reason to believe that finance is the primary cause. I ask noble Lords to bear in mind what happens in that regard for our partners in Europe. There we see much higher drop-out rates. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, mentioned the much higher numbers in higher education in France. But he failed to mention that we have a much higher graduate rate. The implication of that is that many more students in France are dropping out and many more here are completing their courses. We should be proud of that. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, may not like our student support system, but in terms of that support system, which is a mixture of grants and the loan, we probably still have one of the most generous schemes in the world available for undergraduate students.
I now move on to some of the specific points that have been put to me in relation to the Bill. The first and most important point was the allegation made by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, and other noble Lords that the banks simply do not want the scheme. I assure the noble Lord that at present we are encouraged by the amount of interest shown by the banks and building societies and the numbers which have asked to receive the invitation to tender documents. I assure the House that copies of those documents will be made available in the Library.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|