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Teaching and Higher Education Bill [H.L.]

Consideration of amendments on Report resumed on Clause 16.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn moved Amendment No. 51A:

Page 12, line 37, after ("terms,") insert--
("( ) the Secretary of State has first commissioned an independent view and published the findings,").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, there is real anxiety that the Government will, despite their present protestations, at some future date use the powers of the Bill to increase the tuition fee, which is compulsorily payable, above the figure of 25 per cent. proposed by Dearing, which is represented in the Government's current figure of £1,000. But, in addition to the need for an affirmative resolution in this matter, the Dearing Report proposed a further safeguard. Its Recommendation 79 proposed,

However, the Government, while accepting the tuition fee concept from Dearing, and the provision for an

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affirmative resolution, says on page 55 of the new glossy document Higher Education for the 21st Century, Response to the Dearing Report,

    "the Government does not see the need also for an independent review".

There are anxieties here that a future Administration might well seek to increase the proportion of the total tuition costs which would be charged through a tuition fee. I have in my hands a letter from the Students' Union of the University of Wolverhampton referring to an unpleasant experience in the Antipodes. It says,

    "The [present] Bill is skeletal and leaves the powers given to the Secretary of State wide open and without detail. We find this alarming, especially when we see how the percentage of tuition fees charged in places such as Australia has increased dramatically over recent years, from 23 per cent. to an average of 45 per cent".

What Dearing has already proposed is, in many quarters, felt to be bad enough. When the Government set aside the safeguards suggested by Dearing, it is time to smell a rat. I think it is necessary that, in addition to the affirmative resolution procedure, there should be some independent review as proposed by Dearing. So, I beg to move.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I rise to support my noble friend Lord Renfrew. One's suspicions are aroused when, in response to the Select Committee report, the Government appear to see no reason why an independent committee should be established to consider any increase in tuition fee charges. Contrary to what the Government said on that occasion, it would not necessarily mean that any increase in grants or fees paid to students, however minor, would have to go before Parliament. That was the argument used by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, at a previous stage. However, it would mean that an independent review, which is what my noble friend is seeking, would be able to give an independent view of the fairness and appropriateness of the case for any increase. That would make any changes to the level of tuition fees paid by students more transparent. We think that it is the transparency that is important.

It is deeply worrying that the independent review, which was recommended by the Select Committee, has been conveniently dropped by the Government. I know that students are particularly worried about this. It may well be that they are reading more into it than is appropriate, but the Government should not use the argument that Parliament will be bothered by itty-bitty pieces of legislation for very minor changes. That is not the argument that I am advancing in support of my noble friend. I am saying that there should be an independent review body to consider any increases that may be suggested so that we do not end up going down the Australian route. It is true that, since the introduction of those proposals in Australia, fees have risen; the threshold at which post-graduate students are required to start repaying their loans has been lowered, and applications for places have certainly declined, particularly from mature students. That result is mirrored here in the United Kingdom for the coming year. Furthermore, the funding crisis which the

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proposals set out to address in the first place has not been resolved and, hey presto, in Australia yet another review is pending.

Great disquiet has been spread among students and they are fearful about what the Government may do in the future. I believe that the Government should either accept my noble friend's amendment or accede to the recommendation of the Select Committee that there should be an independent review to act in the interests of the students.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I recognise that the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, has reflected the anxieties in the student community. Nevertheless, I believe that those anxieties are misplaced in view of what the Government have already said and in view of what we intend to be in the Bill. The Dearing Report recommended that the proportion of costs to be met by student contributions should not be increased without an independent review as well as an affirmative resolution of both Houses. However, that was in the absence of any explicit and clear government commitment reflected on the face of the Bill. We have said that we intend that the maximum annual student contribution should remain broadly at 25 per cent. More importantly, we are seeking an explicit provision in Clause 16(5) that parliamentary approval should be required before we can increase the maximum annual contribution by more than the rate of inflation--in other words, there is a built-in control. We start from a figure of 25 per cent. and we cannot increase it by more than the rate of inflation without parliamentary approval. When Dearing was considering these issues, there was not the commitment--and certainly not the draft clause--which limited us, without parliamentary approval, to the rate of inflation.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, can the noble Lord point to where in the Bill there is an absolute guarantee that fees could not rise beyond 25 per cent?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, Clause 16(5) provides that we would not increase it. We need a certain flexibility. We can increase it by less than the rate of inflation, but we are limiting any increase to the rate of inflation. That is a changed situation from that which faced the Dearing Committee and the immediate comment after the Dearing Report. We are committed to not raising it significantly differently from the 25 per cent. which Dearing recommended. That guarantee should convince the student community that we are committed to not increasing the proportion in the way that has happened in Australia. I give that commitment again tonight. I hope that in the light of that the noble Lord can withdraw his amendment.

8.45 p.m.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that explanation which gives some encouragement. I am aware also that circumstances have not allowed us this evening to discuss another safeguard which would have been offered under Amendment No. 46, so it may be better

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to reserve these matters for further discussion at Third Reading if it then seems appropriate. I thank the noble Lord again, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 52 not moved.]

Baroness Blackstone moved Amendment No. 53:

Page 12, line 40, after ("subsection") insert ("(3A)(a) or").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 54:

Page 12, line 49, at end insert--
("(9) A statutory instrument containing the first regulations under any provision of this section shall be laid in draft before, and shall be subject to approval by resolution of, each House of Parliament.
(10) A statutory instrument containing the second or subsequent regulations under any provision of this section which is made without a draft having been laid before, and approved by resolution of, each House of Parliament shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 54, I should like to speak also to Amendments Nos. 69 and 71. I return to the specific recommendation of the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation. As I said at a previous stage, this Chamber has a 100 per cent. record of always agreeing the recommendations of that Select Committee. I believe that there should be no exception here. I beg to move.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I am happy to support this amendment. I have here the recommendation of that Select Committee. It states:

    "We invite the House to consider whether the subject matter of the regulations under section 16 is so important that the bill should be amended to require affirmative procedure for the first regulations".

I explained in Committee why that is the strongest wording that the committee puts forward.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, that this Chamber has so far accepted all the recommendations of that Select Committee. No rule is true forever, but I have been shown no reason why this should be the first occasion for departing from it.

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