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Higher Education Funding

Volume 405: debated on Thursday 22 May 2003

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2.

What publicly funded scholarships and bursaries are available to assist students from low-income backgrounds to participate in higher education. [114995]

A number of publicly funded bursaries already exist for students from low-income families. They include opportunity bursaries, learning allowances for student parents, and student awards from hardship funds. The Government also fund student bursaries for those training in public sector work—teaching, social work and a range of health professions. From 2004, new students will be able to apply for the new higher education grant of up to £1,000 each year.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, but I hope that she will agree that the current system is complicated for potential students. Will she consider a proposal to reintroduce state scholarships that are based on merit and means tested? Such scholarships could be both publicly and privately funded, and would help to achieve her objective of improving access for students from low-income backgrounds.

I accept that we need to be better at getting proper information out to potential students about the funding that is available to support them during their university degrees. We have a system of what could be termed state scholarships in terms of the fee remission scheme and the introduction of the higher education grant. Going beyond that, we want institutions themselves to accept responsibility for ensuring that they have bursary schemes to support students from low-income families, rather than having further central prescription. However, I am always willing to consider new ideas from hon. Members.

Does the Minister agree that one does not raise the aspirations of one group of children by suppressing those of another? Is there not every likelihood that that is what the access regulator, or "Offtoff", will do? Here is a suggestion to the Minister: scrap "Offtor, leave universities free to admit on merit and spend the savings on poor students, of whom there are all too many under this Government's policies.

I find it very hard to understand how cutting student numbers can open access and increase opportunities, particularly for those from low-income families who wish to attend universities. I also find it very hard to understand how the Big Brother regulator that the Opposition undoubtedly want to introduce to tell universities which courses they can and cannot offer would improve access for students. It may well be that the hon. Gentleman does not like our proposal to introduce OFFA, the office of fair access, which will ensure fair access for students in all our universities, but I am not sure that I think much of the Opposition's idea of simply telling students to OFF off.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the proportion of children from poor households going to university in this country is still far too low? Does she know of any other country in the world that does not have a target to increase participation? Can she tell me what proportion of households pay the full tuition fee at the moment?

I completely concur with my hon. Friend that too few young people from low-income households are going to university. The thrust of all our policies is to ensure that the brightest and most talented young people, from whatever background, get the opportunity to go to university. I also concur that no developed nation that is aspiring to compete economically in the global economy is not increasing the number of people who are participating and going to university. Finally, he is right to draw to the attention of the House the fact that only four out of 10 young people currently pay the full contribution to the fee that we ask of students.

The hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) is absolutely right; information is not getting through to students, as the Minister admits. That is because the way in which she answered the question was about as clear as mud. Why is she spending so much time and money setting up all these complicated schemes that no one understands, when the simple solution is so obvious? My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) announced our policy to great acclaim last week. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State knows that this is right. The way to encourage more young people from all backgrounds to come into higher education is to scrap university fees altogether. Why do not the Government simply abolish the tax on learning?

I welcome the hon. Lady's guest appearance. I am delighted that the Conservatives have finally introduced a policy on higher education—one of their first—and I am sure that it will unravel very quickly. Underlying it is the clear message that if someone wants their child to go to university, they should not vote Conservative because under their policy there would not be a place for that child.

It seems obvious that only a minority of students would benefit from a limited supply of scholarships and bursaries. If we want to widen participation in higher education, as we all do on this side of the House at least, we should reintroduce state grants for all students. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is the only realistic way forward in the long term?

I would make three points to my hon. Friend. First, four out of 10 young students do not have their fees remitted. Secondly, with the introduction of a higher education grant on top of a well-subsidised student loan, a third of the student cohort will receive £1,000 a year. Thirdly, by abolishing the payment of an up-front contribution towards the cost of fees, no student will have to contribute to the cost of their education during their time at university. Graduates who benefit personally from gaining a degree should contribute over their lifetime to the cost of that degree from their earnings. It is therefore graduates who pay, not students.