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Higher Education White Paper

Volume 403: debated on Monday 10 March 2003

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What representations he has received from students on the White Paper "The Future of Higher Education". [108250]

Our consultation on the White Paper has so far received 57 responses directly from students. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have had numerous meetings with students during our visits to the universities, and as part of our regional consultations. We will publish a full report of the White Paper consultation later this summer.

Has my hon. Friend had time to look at early-day motion 994, which has now been signed by 49 hon. and right hon. Members? It is also supported by Cambridge university students' union, in my constituency. Will she consider the view that the early-day motion expresses, which is that, if extra money is required for universities, a measured increase across the board in tuition fees would be preferable to a system of top-up fees?

I have seen the early-day motion to which my hon. Friend refers, and I have considered the views that it expresses. Indeed, we considered that option when we put together the proposals in the White Paper. A number of arguments counter my hon. Friend's view of the matter, perhaps the most important being that we know that there are different returns for individuals who attend different institutions and take different subjects. At its most extreme, there is a 44 per cent. difference in average returns between graduates from institutions at the two extremes of the graduate pay scale. I put this to my hon. Friend: is it really fair to ask for an even contribution from students when graduates get an uneven return from their attendance?

Does the Minister accept that most students take the view that the replacement of grants with loans and the introduction of fees have had a devastating effect on low-income families? Would not a much better way forward be to reintroduce grants, rather that constantly expanding the number of universities? That would mean that children from poor homes had a better and more equal opportunity in education.

It is entirely because we accept that people from low-income backgrounds may be deterred from attending universities that we are proposing the changes in the White Paper. They include the reintroduction of grants for a third of the student cohort; the continuation of fee remission on the first £1,100 for students with low-income backgrounds; the abolition of the upfront fee, so that students have to repay only after they become graduates and start earning; and the continuation of no real interest being charged on the loans. That is a package of proposals that will counter the feelings of some students, particularly those with low-income backgrounds, that may deter them from attending university.

Has the Minister seen the Open university's submission on behalf of mature students? It makes the point that 50 per cent. of students are mature students and expresses concern about the White Paper's lack of emphasis on such students and, indeed, on part-time students. How does the Minister intend to respond to that?

We regularly meet the Open university—indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State met its vice-chancellor only last week. I do not accept that the White Paper fails to address issues affecting mature students, and I would put two points to my hon. Friend. First, the Government's targeted support in the existing regime has been increased, which particularly helps mature students. Secondly, the White Paper contains proposals to support part-time students, introducing grants to such students for the first time ever.