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Higher Education

Volume 405: debated on Thursday 22 May 2003

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What proposals he has to help students from modest backgrounds to gain access to higher education. [115007]

Under our proposals, no student will need to pay up-front tuition fees. We will also reintroduce maintenance grants and require universities charging higher fees to offer bursaries. Unlike the Conservatives, we intend to increase opportunities for students from modest backgrounds to access higher education—not cut them.

Does the Minister accept that one consequence of the existing funding regime for higher education is that increasing numbers of students are staying at home and going to their local university, rather than going away—as many of us did in the 1970s—and enjoying, let us say, the wider benefits of higher education? Is that not regrettable, and does she not agree that her proposal to increase tuition fees will actually make the situation worse? Would it not be better to scrap them?

When the hon. Gentleman went to university, probably one in 10 young people did so; now, four in 10 do so. There are many and varied ways in which people participate in higher education: some at their local university, some in the workplace, some part-time, and others through e-learning. That should be welcomed. The proposition of the hon. Gentleman's party to abolish any contribution towards tuition fees would simply mean fewer students, less resources and less independence.

One of the obstacles to access to higher education for many people in my constituency is the distance that they have to travel—the nearest university is almost 100 miles away. Will the Minister therefore agree to study Sir Brian Fender's recent report, which points the way forward for greater access to higher education in Cumbria?

I am looking forward to reading Sir Brian's report on access to higher education in Cumbria, and to discussing the recommendations with hon. Members representing that area. I agree entirely that we have to ensure proper access for every talented young person, wherever they live.

Does the Minister not understand that the proposal for a variable fee regime could he the final straw for many students from modest backgrounds? Their parents, if they struggle through the bizarre and byzantine forms of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, discover that they are eligible for various tax credits. But if they struggle through the equally byzantine forms of the Department for Education and Skills, they discover that their children are not eligible for a student loan. Will that not be the final straw for such people?

The final straw for students from low-income backgrounds, in terms of ensuring access to higher education, would be the Conservative party's policy, which would cut places and yet again centralise university admissions.