Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Blackstone: Perhaps it will be helpful if I put the noble Baroness right on one point. The regulations will not be put before the House in the month of February. She is a little confused. I wrote to try to explain the position. What will be available is the standard document that students always receive in the month of February. That sets out clearly what the position is for loans and grants. That will be available in the month of February.

That document will provide, as it always does, all the information that students need to make decisions. When we talk of regulations, we talk of a highly technical document. In my long experience of working in higher education I have never met a student who reads the regulations. They are extremely complex, technical and hard to understand. I have difficulty in understanding them, as I am sure do other Members of the Committee. That is not documentation that students need in order to be clear about what their position will be.

That document will be placed in the Library and in the Printed Paper Office as soon as it is ready. Perhaps I can make clear that we also place other information in the Library in time for the Committee stage of this Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, says that many people do not know that. All I can say is that when I was the principal Opposition Front Bench spokesman on education I always told my colleagues who were likely to speak in the Committee stage of the Bill what was available. That is reasonable. As the Minister, I cannot know who will be speaking on the opposite side. When, in Opposition, I received a letter from Ministers I passed it on and informed others. That is the only sensible way to proceed.

Perhaps I can say also to the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew--confirming what my noble friend Lord Peston said--that we had a long debate on this topic. I recognise that it is frustrating in some senses for people who are taking part in the debates on legislation that we cannot always have the regulations ready. But I must correct one thing that the noble Lord said. He said that it is normal for regulations to be ready when a Bill is being debated. That just is not true. I can quote many examples over the past 18 years, including education Bills in which I was involved, when the regulations were not only not here when we were debating a Bill in Committee, but they were not even complete when we reached Royal Assent.

22 Jan 1998 : Column 1618

That was normal, particularly in relation to complex, specific and detailed regulations of the kind we are dealing with today.

Baroness Blatch: Perhaps I can come back to the noble Baroness. The progress report on new students' support arrangements in higher education says that publication of the 1998 mandatory award regulations will be in February. That appears in the timetable at the back of the document. It goes on to say that by July there will be further publication of the student loan regulations. There is therefore a set of regulations imminently due. We are almost in February and do not know what they contain.

I take the point made by the noble Baroness that it is not common for everybody to read the technical details of regulations. Students are interested in the regulations that will set the arrangements to which they will be obliged to conform in this coming September-October. It is the regulations that set the detail in law, after which the department produces a lay explanation of what that means to parents, students, LEAs and so forth.

There is, therefore, a real interest in the regulations, given that they come first. The legislation comes first and what it means to the people whom it affects follows. We are simply saying that we are discussing the legislation that will set the framework for the regulations and need to discuss what is to go into those regulations in order to make sense of these debates.

Baroness Blackstone: I want to be helpful to the noble Baroness and clarify the position. The regulations that will come out in February are based on exactly the same provisions that existed last year. There may be some minor amendments to them, but they have nothing to do with the changes that are being brought about in the Bill. Those will involve the second set of regulations to be published in July.

The regulations that the noble Baroness says are now in draft, are in draft; the noble Baroness is correct. But they will not provide the additional information for which she is asking because they relate to the provision of maintenance grants for students and are built on exactly the same provisions that we had last year, the year before and the year before that.

Earl Russell: I was about to make a speech in support of the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lady Maddock in relation to part-time students. Perhaps I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, and others who are concerned with the regulations, that there will be opportunity to discuss that issue on the next group of amendments. I hope not to take up too much of the time of the Committee but it takes two to make progress. I hope I may say that we have an amnesty in that direction.

The point in regard to part-time students is that this is part of a general change in the way the world is organised. The Prime Minister, speaking at the TUC conference, memorably referred to the flexible labour market as the "real world". There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that the labour market is changing in that direction. There is also considerable evidence to

22 Jan 1998 : Column 1619

suggest that the social security system needs to change substantially in that direction to accommodate part- time work.

That is all part of a general change in the way the economy and society are run. It is part of a general change, as my noble friend pointed out, in the way parents care for children. The sharing of care between parents is a much more common situation than it was. My point is that education cannot be left out of that pattern of change. Because the part-time system is becoming more common everywhere else, it inevitably must become more common in education also. That is something on which the Government must be prepared to reach an accommodation. I strongly support my noble friend's amendment and am glad that she tabled it.

Lord Peston: Perhaps I too can join in the debate on this amendment. I should like to say from these Benches that at least one of us is extremely sympathetic to the ideas in the amendment, though I wait to hear what my noble friends have to say. Those of us who have been interested in the economics and financing of education, as I have for a long time, feel that the full-time and part-time distinction in financing has always been anomalous. It has been difficult to find any logical basis for it.

The position has got worse over the years, partly for the reasons explained by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, but also because what is called a "full-time" student has completely changed. Though I am officially retired, because I am not quite sane I agreed to teach a lecture course this year. When I was making arrangements for the tutorial classes I was told "You cannot have classes on a Thursday because that is the day the students go and do their jobs".

When I was a student, full-time students worked every day of the week. That position has long since changed. It is a matter of fact--echoing what has already been said--that the full-time/part-time distinction is difficult to make. Even if one could define "part-time" it has never been obvious to me that those people who are often the most enthusiastic and devoted students should receive no state support. This is a point my noble friend always made against me. I do not like tuition fees. As my noble friend pointed out, part-time students are always being stuck with tuition fees.

As we enlarge our methods of finance it cannot be right that part-time students should not have access to loan finance. Those are my remarks of sympathy. But I believe it is all a complete waste of time. What drives everything in this area as in all other areas of government behaviour is public expenditure constraint. Therefore, though it is useful for us to place on record that we favour all this, I cannot see, within the current restraints on public expenditure, that there is any possibility of change.

If one were to be completely honest, when one is given a public expenditure restraint one must say what one's priorities will be. Much as I support the noble Baroness, whatever the cost--the noble Baroness quoted the figure as a percentage of the budget--I am not clear

22 Jan 1998 : Column 1620

that if that money were available I would devote it to this purpose. However, I felt it right to add support to the ideas put forward in the hope that over the years, as we produce a more rational system of student finance, we will include in it part-time students. That is probably the reason for tabling the amendment in the first place.

4 p.m.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: I suppose that if the main points were settled and on the face of the Bill, we would know whether part-time students were covered. At the moment we do not because, as I understand it, this is contained in regulations. So the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, is trying to sort that out. But the debate would not be necessary if this was on the face of the Bill.

What the noble Lord, Lord Peston, has just said is, of course, true. I understand very well that budgetary constraints are a problem but, having been on the governing body of the Open University for 12 years until quite recently, I know that the number of people who can study depends upon the level of the fees; and the level of the fees, of course, depends upon the government grant. That is self-evident. The Government should not take it for granted that the number of students is necessarily constant. Indeed the Minister well understands the position of part-time students because she ran extremely ably a college which had only part-time students. Student numbers will not necessarily continue at the same level as costs go up. There is a market level beyond which students are not willing to pay, and the Committee will understand that. I have not checked the figures but of the order of 100,000 students are taking undergraduate Open University courses, to name one institution. Many of those people struggle to pay their fees. They pay a lot of money over a period of five or six years, but they struggle. Some drop out and have to return later; some drop out altogether because of the level of fees.

So if the Government do not help part-time students with their fees at all, and if the fees have to be paid by the students, as they are now, the Government will have to watch very carefully that the part-time population of students in this country does not begin to drop. That would have a very bad effect on the labour market, as the noble Lord, Earl Russell, would agree. That is something which must be watched closely. I do not think I have to tell the noble Baroness that but it may be necessary to tell the Treasury, and I hope that she will.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page