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Higher Education

Volume 501: debated on Tuesday 1 December 2009

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Steve McCabe.)

I want to begin, Mr. Benton, by saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship and how delighted I am to have secured this extremely important debate on the future of higher education. Along with the rest of the sector, I was extremely relieved when Lord Mandelson finally announced the long-awaited review. After all, I had spent much of 2007, 2008 and 2009 calling for the Government to get on with that review.

As many people have said before, there is much to be proud of within our higher education sector. Its wider influence is important to the ongoing success of the British economy, its output is worth about £59 billion, it sustains 700,000 jobs and in the financial year 2007-08 the sector earned £23.4 billion. For every £1 million of university output, a further £1.38 million is generated in other sectors via a multiplier effect, according to a Universities UK report, so it is crucial that we do nothing to damage the sector’s ability to continue its strong economic performance and world-class reputation.

However, I wanted to secure the debate this morning because I felt it important that Members of Parliament should have an early opportunity to discuss and possibly influence the review process while it is still at its beginning. I have always felt that this matter is far too important to play politics with. Therefore, I hope that all parties will get involved with the review to endeavour to make it work for the entire higher education sector.

Since the review was announced, I have heard far too many people—both students and vice-chancellors—say that a rise in student fees will be the inevitable outcome. Some students and parents are concluding that this independent review process is nothing more than a public relations exercise to justify a rise in student fees. I acknowledge that the actions taken by this Government when they have conducted such consultations and reviews have led one to the conclusion that they perhaps arrived at the answer before they had even asked the question. I sincerely hope that that is not the case with this review, and I do not believe that it is.

Indeed, it is absolutely critical for the reputation of Parliament and the Government of whichever persuasion who will be in power by mid-2010 that this review and its recommendations are absolutely beyond reproach. There must be no hint of any conspiracy to raise student fees. I know that we in the Conservative party will treat the review and its conclusions completely on their merits.

I warmly congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this very important subject to the House at this time. Has he seen early-day motion 32, which talks about the negative effects of student fees, particularly on poorer families and students, in that they discourage students from going to university, which is a great loss to the country? It goes on to state

“that there are alternative models of funding higher education, which do not involve top-up fees; and therefore calls on the Government to publish full details of these alternatives to facilitate proper, informed debate and understanding before proceeding”.

Does he agree with that aim?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Yes, I saw early-day motion 32 and I think that the important thing is that the review, because it is independent, takes a detailed look at the current system and all the alternative systems, and then makes its recommendations. We should not try to prejudge that review at this stage.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman not only on securing the debate, but on the tone with which he has started it. I say that because he is quite right that higher education is a crucial sector.

Furthermore, does the hon. Gentleman agree that, for us to have a proper debate in the lead-up to the general election and so that we are not deluding people, we should put our cards on the table as to our own policies and make some proposals? If he agrees with that, will he, during this debate, make his own proposals, which he would like others to consider alongside the proposals of the Government, the Liberal Democrats and perhaps even the Scottish nationalists?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The key is that we have this debate before and during the general election, and that everybody has their chance to have their say. Indeed, the Liberal Democrat position is very confused, as he will know. The Liberal Democrat shadow Chancellor, the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), is saying that he wishes to cut student numbers and does not wish to abolish student fees, and of course the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) is saying something completely different, so it would be good if the Liberal Democrats arrived at a firm position and debated from it during the general election.

From my own time shadowing the—

I will come to that, if the hon. Gentleman will allow me to do so.

From my own time shadowing the higher education brief, I know that vice-chancellors and universities have a powerful voice in the corridors of power, which has been supplied by years of lobbying by their campaign groups. Although those voices sometimes compete with each other, they are none the less very influential; one has only to look at the number of briefings that we all received for this debate to realise the truth of that. However, I do not think that students will mind my saying that the student voice is not so clearly articulated. That is quite understandable, given that students have less resources to commit and experience more difficulty in establishing continuity within their leadership and organisation.

I will give way shortly, if hon. and right hon. Members will be patient.

Having said that, my former university, which I now represent as its constituency MP, fortunately has a first-class student union president and executive team in what is a very important year for students, and I know that they are doing their best to engage in this debate and provide a thoughtful and positive voice for Reading university students. Of course, the National Union of Students does its utmost to articulate the entire student voice and it rightly has a big role to play during the review.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I congratulate him on securing this very important debate. Will he join me in congratulating the NUS on the effectiveness of its lobby a couple of weeks ago? I have certainly valued the contacts that I have had with student representatives from both Oxford university and Oxford Brookes university. That lobby was extremely well organised and I think that it has influenced the course of this very important discussion that we are having.

That is an important point. I have noticed that, over the past few years, the NUS has greatly improved its communications with Members of Parliament and its lobbying efforts, so I join the right hon. Gentleman in congratulating the NUS on its efforts in that regard.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I congratulate him, both on securing the debate and his measured opening remarks. However, are not students extremely concerned that the higher education system, rather than being an engine of social mobility, is starting to entrench social inequality? For example, the social profile of those students who go into Russell group universities shows that fewer than one in six of them comes from a family with a less-well-off background, although such families represent 50 per cent. of the population. That cannot be allowed to continue and Lord Mandelson is right to look at the assessment procedures for those universities, is he not?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good and valid point. I will address it later in my contribution, if he will be just a little patient.

I do not think it sensible for the Government to exclude the democratic student voice from the independent panel involved in the review. Having a former chairman of the British Youth Council on that panel is welcome, but it appears to some people to be window dressing and is simply not sufficiently persuasive for those who doubt the Government’s intentions in announcing the review.

The Minister will be aware of early-day motion 1085, which calls for proper student representation during the review. As fee-paying customers, it is only right that students have their say, and as I said to the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), I applaud the NUS for its efforts to make itself heard. Reading university students union has also taken the lead on this issue, hosting a debate in conjunction with the NUS the other week. It is only right in a democratic society that we have such debates, as the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) mentioned.

However, it is also important that any organisation that wishes to be part of an independent review process must not prejudge the outcome. It is critical that the review relies on the evidence and bases its recommendations purely on it. I know that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, makes a big thing of evidence-based policy, and tuition fees is one area where that is exactly what we should be using.

Today’s debate provides the Minister with a good opportunity to explain in his own words why the democratic student voice is not currently welcome on the panel and how he intends without it to ensure that the student voice is effectively heard. That will be important to the review’s universal acceptance and overall success.

The review on tuition fees will report after the general election. It is commonly understood that its terms of reference and chairmanship were decided jointly, or that at least the Conservative party was consulted on that remit, so does the hon. Gentleman think that the Conservative party pressed for the NUS to be included in the review?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I no longer have party responsibilities on higher education, but I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) will be happy to provide an answer to that question later in the debate. The Minister will be aware of the importance I place on that issue as I have raised it several times on the Floor of the House and written to him about it. While not wishing to pre-empt his reply in any way, I hope that he treats the views of the student population of Reading and the NUS with the seriousness and respect they deserve.

I would like to make a couple of further points on the review of tuition fees. I have already said that any recommendations on that matter must be evidence-based. Frankly, however, I am not completely satisfied that the current fees have been fully justified by universities. As I travelled across the country while shadowing the HE brief, I felt that some students were being slightly short-changed by the quality of teaching and the support services at a number of our universities. Fees raised an additional £1.3 billion for universities, but I am not sure that I have seen a £1.3 billion improvement and investment in the student experience. Perhaps the Minister will say that that was never the intention of the fees, but we need that on the record.

Although comprehensive figures for student debt are still unavailable for the most recent student intake, several figures have been published that make sobering reading. A 2007 survey by estimated that students commencing studies in 2006-07 could expect to owe an average of £17,500 on graduation, while those starting in 2007-08 could see their average debt increase to £21,500, and medical students, who have lobbied me for the debate, of course have much higher debts. Before any Government consider burdening our young people with even more debt, it is imperative that the review justifies how the previous fee money has been spent.

If the review recommends a further rise, based on the evidence, I would like two further conditions to be satisfied: disadvantaged students must be better off and ordinary hard-working families no worse off, and all students should receive a markedly enhanced student experience.

There is one further consideration. The student loans method of financing higher education is far from cost-free to the taxpayer. Any raising of the cap under the current system will require additional subsidy from the Treasury, which is already subsidising student loans to the tune of about £700 million a year. The Minister’s departmental projections confirm that, at the current rate, that subsidy is likely to rise to £782 million in 2010.

With the national debt and the country’s finances in such a terrible mess, is lifting the cap financially sustainable? I am not yet convinced that it is. Figures I have obtained from the House of Commons Library show that increasing fees to an average of £5,000 would increase annual Government subsidy to around £1.25 billion in 2015, and just over £1.3 billion in 2020. However, if the cap rose to £7,000, the figure could rise to an astonishing £1.85 billion by 2020. The cost to the Treasury of student support in 2010, including grants, is projected to be around £2.6 billion.

Of course, I use those figures with caution as examples to illustrate my point, but in the light of the need for transparency in the review it is important that the Minister is open and honest about all the potential implications. In these times of economic struggle, can the Treasury afford to keep raising the subsidy it provides to student loans? At the least, the review will have to justify that huge taxpayer subsidy to the Treasury if it recommends a rise in fees.

I do not want the debate to concentrate only on fees. The review’s official remit is to

“analyse the challenges and opportunities facing higher education, and their implications for student financing and support”,

taking into account

“the goal of widening participation, affordability and the… simplification of the student support system.”

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and being so generous with his time. Does he agree that one of the problems is that the university sector is not homogenous? There are now very different universities, some of which, particularly the new ones, have never managed to get on top of their funding gap. If we are to look at the sector properly, we must examine the differential roles of those differentiated universities.

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. There is wide variation in the types of university in the sector, but I think that that is a cause for celebration, rather than concern. If we can get the review right, there will, as he said, be room for all types of university and that diversity will be celebrated, perhaps even more than it is today.

I would like to cite the example of the university of Leicester, whose motto is “Elite without being elitist”. It goes for the highest possible standards, but the broadest possible intake of students, and it achieves that to a significant extent. That could be a model for the Government in how to avoid fees pricing out ordinary working-class students from the best universities.

The hon. Gentleman shows enormous pride in his local university, which is as it should be, but the answer to his question about which model the Government should use should really come from the Minister, rather than from me.

Although fees constitute a major part of the review, other important factors must be addressed over the coming months. One such factor is access to higher education, or widening participation, as it has become known. In July, a panel led by the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) reported that the Government have failed to help people from disadvantaged backgrounds to get to university and pursue elite careers. It found that

“the UK’s professions have become more, not less, socially exclusive over time”,

with 75 per cent. of judges and 45 per cent. of top civil servants having been privately educated.

The issue of social mobility gathered pace over the past week, following Lord Mandelson’s comments about admission to top universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. He said that instead of relying on A-levels and exam results, universities should also take account of “contextual data”, such as an applicant’s school or home neighbourhood.

However, in talking about access to Oxbridge, Lord Mandelson was wading into dangerous waters by reigniting the argument about social engineering. For example, his comments were translated by one newspaper into the following headline: “Middle class students face university place struggle as Mandelson backs giving poorer students two-grade ‘head start’”. Yet both Oxford and Cambridge have set tough targets for the proportion of pupils they will take from state schools by 2011—Oxford’s is currently 62 per cent. and Cambridge’s is between 60 and 63 per cent. Although that is an important and admirable attempt to widen participation, we must be careful when setting top-down targets for admissions.

I believe absolutely that more of our brightest students from state schools need to attend our best universities, but instead of simply imposing top-down targets, we must ensure that young people are not put off from applying to those universities in the first place. That is arguably a bigger barrier for many young people, and it often comes down to lack of aspiration in those around them rather than in the young people themselves.

In one of its excellent reports on widening participation, the Sutton Trust analysed entrance to Oxbridge by individual school over the period 2002 to 2006. Interestingly, although probably as expected, it found that only 30 schools, or less than 1 per cent. of the total, accounted for 15 per cent. of all Oxbridge entrants. Why do certain schools and not others succeed in securing their pupils Oxbridge places? Careers advice has a crucial role to play. It is desperately lacking from the vast majority of state schools, where our brightest young people are simply not pushed to apply to our top universities.

Writing in The Guardian earlier this year, my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), the shadow Minister for universities, said:

“Young people from more deprived backgrounds do not lack aspiration, but rather knowledge of the routes to realise it.”

As we have been stating for years and as the Milburn report reiterated, there is not much good to say about the ailing Connexions service. The careers service in our schools has let down young people badly and contributed to a curtailment of social mobility.

The bottom line is that good information is vital to improving university access. Young people need proper support at every stage, from choosing appropriate A-levels to understanding student finance. I do not want to generalise, but a substantial cultural change is necessary in our schools if more bright young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are to apply to top universities in the Russell group, for example.

An interesting report on applications and admissions for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, also by the Sutton Trust, highlights the problem. It found that students from FE colleges were the least likely to apply to top universities. There is clearly scope for further investigation of the reasons why students from FE colleges do not apply to top universities in the quantities that might be expected. My party would tackle part of the widening participation agenda by redirecting funding towards a substantially enhanced independent careers service in every secondary school and college. However, teachers must also encourage pupils with ability to apply to our best universities and not simply to assume that the best universities are for the privileged or wealthy. They are not, and I am totally convinced that they do not want to be.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is being generous in giving way. I agree strongly with the point that he just made about the need for a culture shift and raised aspirations in secondary schools—and, indeed, in primary schools—so that a far wider range of children can reach the highest level. Does he agree that the efforts being made by Oxford colleges, as well as other universities, to reach out into poorer communities, including mentoring by students, can be an important force in creating such a culture shift?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. When I visited Cambridge, I saw a number of outreach programmes. I was extremely impressed by that university’s mentoring programmes and the work it is doing to attract more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. The work being done in that respect at Oxford, Cambridge and other Russell group universities is first-class.

Does my hon. Friend also recognise that mentoring has been around for some considerable time during the 25 years since I went up to Oxford? I went to the same school as the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith). He, of course, was the black sheep of the family, having gone to grammar school and ending up a Labour Member of Parliament. However, the serious point is that we were lucky to have been at a state school with a tradition of sending a number of boys to Oxford every year. Twenty-five years on, the number is considerably larger than when we were there.

Oxford and Cambridge college tutors—not all, but many—have made a substantial commitment going back some decades to reach out as far as they can, but is not the real issue schools’ aspiration, as my hon. Friend says, to ensure from the age of 14, 15 or 16 that the brightest children from deprived households see any university, let alone Oxbridge, as an option for them?

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I agree wholeheartedly. As I have suggested, I do not believe that the real problem lies with tutors or the outreach work done by Oxford and Cambridge. They are trying very hard indeed to attract large numbers of disadvantaged people through a series of programmes. Unfortunately, that is not being reflected by activities in some schools, such as those of the careers service. It is also partly to do with the fact that some teachers might have fewer aspirations for young people than those young people have for themselves. Good advice would certainly not go amiss within such schools.

The hon. Gentleman is being incredibly generous in giving way. That is what is good about debates such as this.

In the spirit of the debate, may I say that when we talk about higher education, we always go on about Oxbridge and the Russell group, but the reality is that not enough young people from lower socio-economic groups aspire to go to any university at all? That is the challenge. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that although we concentrate on a small group of elite universities that, as we found when we investigated, are doing a strong job of trying to get young people in—I do not blame those universities—the challenge is getting youngsters to stay on at school after 16 and aspire to go to any university? That is why the FE sector delivering HE is crucial as part of that journey.

The Chairman of the Select Committee speaks with great knowledge and passion. I will come to exactly that point in a few minutes, but I must make some progress now. I have been speaking for 25 minutes and I know that other Members want to speak, so I would like to keep interventions down to a manageable level.

The review can play a major role in ensuring that all able students—irrespective of background, postcode or father’s profession—can attend university, including the very best university if that is their wish.

We cannot discuss widening participation without mentioning the importance of part-time learners, who represent a significant proportion of the student body and have always been somewhat disadvantaged within the system. Again, the review is a perfect opportunity to put right some of the wrongs that they have suffered. I think that we would all agree that the artificial barrier between full-time and part-time students is unacceptable in a modern, diverse and accessible higher education system. Staffordshire university’s vice-chancellor, Christine King, has undertaken useful work on the matter, and I hope that it will be taken into account during the coming months as the review progresses.

In light of the changing student demographic, the review should also consider the higher education taught in further education colleges. The benefits of such provision include local access, wider participation and affordability. What is most important is enabling people to access education in a way and at a pace that are right for them. That means more HE taught in further education colleges and more part-time, distance and modular learning.

For that reason, as the Minister will be aware, I have long advocated that the UK take note of the US community college model of higher education. Such colleges provide access to higher learning for millions of students and, a bit like the UK’s further education sector, have a higher proportion of entrants from lower socio-economic groups.

Although I do not wish to use my time today to plug the American education system, several things of relevance to the review are worth noting. First, the US system is based on credit, enabling people to drop in and out of study as their lives dictate. The career ladder is rightly viewed as a career lattice, and students can accumulate credit until they are ready and able to transfer to a traditional university to complete their degree. I do not see why a progressive sector such as the UK’s should not have comparable flexibility. I acknowledge that the Government have moved in that direction by broadening foundation degrees, but much more could be done.

The second factor that impresses me is how networks of colleges pool their resources as part of articulation agreements. Some embryonic examples of that model can be found in the UK, such as the Staffordshire university regional federation—a collection of FE colleges affiliated to Staffordshire university. If we are to make tough decisions about the sector’s financial future, sharing backroom expenses could be one way to cut wasteful administrative costs.

The third point about community colleges is their engagement and integration with local businesses. The model has proved so successful that funding is usually in thirds: one third from the Government or state, one third from the individual and one third from local business. The emphasis on localised provision to meet local business needs has helped to differentiate community colleges from traditional US universities. The range of work-based learning provision covers courses such as soft skills, customised job training, short intensive courses and training for local businesses.

According to the Association of Colleges, one third of higher education places in colleges are often for adults seeking professional qualifications, with their fees being paid by the employer. The higher education review should look to expand such provision and examine closely what is happening in the US.

I believe, however, that true business collaboration will occur only when investing businesses have more say in the course material within institutions. In recent months, business in this country has justifiably criticised the quality of the school leavers that our schools are turning out, but it also needs to start putting more effort into supporting further and higher education so that the skills it needs are provided locally.

As well as debating the contentious topic of the future level of fees, the review will, I understand, consider the whole financial package on offer to students. That package is confusing to young people at school, as I think the Youth Council found in a report published earlier this year. The current system of local bursaries, grants, loans and other financial assistance such as private sector input is confusing. That is particularly unhelpful to those disadvantaged groups that rely more on such financial assistance. I hope that the review makes recommendations that would simplify the system for users. It may well be worth considering the merits of a national bursary system, for example.

In coming to informed conclusions about the student finance mix, the review should consider all potential options. That should of course include the call from the NUS for a graduate tax. Clearly, there are issues with that, as the cost of pump-priming such a solution may be well beyond anything the country can afford in the current circumstances, but it is essential that the review considers all possible solutions for student financing.

I intended to round off my remarks with a few comments on employability, but I am conscious that a number of hon. Members want to speak. I shall simply say that it is important for organisations with an interest in this issue to make their feelings clear during the coming months if they want to have a chance to influence the review. Such windows do not open for long, and for the first time in years the sector has a genuine opportunity to make real changes that will benefit the country both socially and economically.

I hope that by securing the debate and advancing my views constructively, a dialogue has been started that will result in a secure and, indeed, prosperous future for higher education in this country.

Before I call the next speaker, may I point out that I propose to commence the winding-up speeches at 10.30? I call Mark Williams.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) for securing this important debate. I feel slightly like a Welsh interloper in an English debate, but I hope that as I speak it will become apparent why some of the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman are directly relevant to my constituents.

I represent two universities in Ceredigion, at Aberystwyth and Lampeter. Lampeter has now merged with Trinity College, Carmarthen. The universities are a source of great pride to us and provide significant employment in the county. Approximately 18,000 students are enrolled at our two universities and, as the hon. Gentleman described, those students play a huge role in the local economy. The university of Lampeter has had a tough time in the last year or so with the merger. There has been a great deal of pain; there have been job losses. However, the merger was essential and I think that the worst is now over. The new vice-chancellor has a great vision for the way forward.

There is hope. We have moved forward, thanks to the support given by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales and the Assembly Government. I will not stray into devolved matters, but I would like to place on the record our appreciation for that support. Higher education in Wales is rightly devolved. The Minister for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills, Jane Hutt, is talking to the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs this morning and the Minister present for this debate will come to see us on Thursday.

Last week, Jane Hutt made a statement about higher education in Wales. The point that I want to make is that decisions here and the review that we have been hearing about have a direct impact on the Welsh higher education sector as well.

Let me give some context for the higher education sector in Wales and its importance to the Welsh economy. Its annual turnover is £1.1 billion and it brings a further £1.1 billion into the Welsh economy. The sector provides 33,000 jobs directly or indirectly to Wales, and 640,000 jobs in the UK as a whole. It is fair to say that Wales punches above its weight in the higher education sector. If anything, the sector is more important to the Welsh economy than it is to the English, because it involves a larger proportion of gross domestic product. The Assembly Government have placed renewed emphasis on growing the knowledge economy. Higher education is one of our best sectors and we need to use that to our advantage.

Cross-border implications are of fundamental importance and need to be considered when policies are proposed, not least because Wales has the highest proportion of students coming from outside the country of any nation in the UK. We are having the review of fees. Such reviews and reviews of other higher education structures can have significant effect on how Welsh universities operate and their capacity to attract students. We need to keep the official lines of contact between the Minister’s Department and his counterparts in Cardiff Bay. That issue was raised in one of our previous Select Committee reports. I am referring to the extent of that collaboration and the extent to which there is knowledge in the Minister’s Department of a separate structure in Wales. I would be grateful if he outlined the extent to which that dialogue is ongoing.

I am a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee, and when we produced a report on cross-border higher education we identified a number of areas for improvement. The most stark was the £60 million funding gap between Wales and England. The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) alluded to the funding differential between institutions in England. There is a real funding gap between Wales and England. I would be grateful if the Minister at least acknowledged that divide, as it has a huge effect on us, not least because Wales has a strong record of attracting students from overseas to our colleges. We also noted the importance of further education and the need for learners in some instances to cross the border. Again, that requires close collaboration between the Governments in Westminster and Cardiff.

We have heard about the importance of part-time study. In a refreshing speech, the hon. Member for Reading, East alluded to the importance of part-time education, including part-time degrees. Lampeter in my constituency has been at the forefront of developing models for part-time learning. Some 40 per cent. of the students in Wales are studying part time. At Lampeter, 6,400 of the 7,800 students are part time—a huge proportion. Again, Liberal Democrat Members want to break down the divide in that respect.

The higher education sector in Wales is an important driver of Welsh language provision. There are plans for a federal college to be established in 2010. That will make a major contribution to the development of the Welsh language at a higher level, and it is being supported at the universities of Bangor and Aberystwyth. We have made great strides in improving knowledge of the Welsh language through primary education, but there is a need to expand the knowledge of advanced and technical Welsh, and the higher education sector is starting to meet that need.

I am conscious of the time, but I want to touch on one other important matter affecting Welsh institutions. Concern has been expressed in Wales about the Secretary of State’s apparent intention to concentrate research funding on a few elite universities that can demonstrate world-class capability. I stand to be corrected if that is not the case, but it is the perception of what he has spoken about. Currently, of the £2.8 billion distributed by Research Councils UK, Wales receives about 3 per cent. This is one of the rare areas where I would be pleased to see the Barnett formula applied. We have high-quality institutions that will continue to attract research funding, no matter what the situation, but I hope that we are not moving to artificial control of the supply of research funding to certain favoured universities and departments, which could have a real and detrimental effect. What did the Secretary of State mean? Can the Minister assure me that if quality bids are made, they will not be prejudiced if they are not deemed by the Secretary of State to be from world-class departments?

Research funding is hugely important. One case study is the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences, near Aberystwyth. It has received significant funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which supports the institute.

Wales has some exceptional universities. My youngest daughter did her first degree at Aberystwyth and was very happy with that institution—the hon. Gentleman’s own university. On finance, and research finance in particular, surely the generous Barnett formula allows sufficient latitude to provide the extra funding needed by the universities to which he refers. We in the east midlands, with a population of 4.25 million compared with 3 million in Wales, have substantially lower public expenditure per capita than that which the Barnett formula allows for Wales. There is scope in it for the funding; the hon. Gentleman does not need extra resources.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that observation. I know that he knows my area well, but I question the extent to which that latitude is there. That has not been the reality for research work in my constituency.

The work of IBERS would be considered world class, perhaps more so, as a result of the merger between Aberystwyth university and the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research, but there is a danger that other growing and improving departments could miss out on funding that would enable them to increase their reputation. An element of competition is essential in research funding, but any perception that funding was sewn up for a favoured few would significantly damage our research base.

One recommendation in the Select Committee report was

“that DIUS makes available a specific allocation of research funds to develop the research capacity of HEIs outside the established elite to enable them to gain a track record of success and so be able to compete more effectively for research funds from other sources.”

In other words, we need to prime those institutions for the future. We also recommended that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, as it then was, investigated why Wales does not appear to receive as high a proportion of research funding as we would expect given its relative size. The Government were lukewarm about those recommendations, but I hope that the Minister looks at those matters again. I do not want to pre-empt the questioning, but he will certainly have questions on that subject on Thursday. We should not expect Wales necessarily to get a share based on population, but we need to investigate whether there are institutional factors within the funding councils that are operating against Wales and whether they can be addressed.

I shall conclude with a couple of examples of the work that IBERS is doing. It has just been awarded a Queen’s anniversary prize for further and higher education for projects to develop plant types that are more resistant to drought to combat climate change. It is doing pioneering work on biofuels and has been at the forefront of developing cattle feeds that reduce methane. That is only a snapshot and I could certainly introduce an entire debate on the work of IBERS, as I have before.

I want to make it clear that the research is extremely worth while and useful work, and it is being done as a result of research funding, which is why we need to continue to support Welsh research.

The Welsh higher education sector remains a hugely important part of our economy, and I urge the Minister to reflect on the impact on the Welsh sector of any decisions that he takes and to continue to develop strong relationships with his Welsh Assembly Government counterparts.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) on introducing this important debate. Its focus, understandably, has been largely on access and funding, as we heard from the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams). I want to add a few thoughts of my own.

I know well the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East as it includes the town I was brought up in. I was educated at the local grammar school, Reading school, as I mentioned earlier. John Weeds, the principal, does a fantastic job. When I was there over three decades ago, it opened up a lot of opportunities for a lot of people from relatively deprived backgrounds. I fear that its academic excellence, coupled with the fact that its catchment area is rather broader than it was in the 1970s and early 1980s when I was a pupil, mean that it probably has more children from middle-class, aspirational and professional backgrounds than when I was there. It continues to have fantastic academic results. It is a beacon, and it is rare for it to slip outside the national top 10 state schools for academic results.

At this stage, I ought to declare an interest: I have spent the past almost five years as a member of the advisory committee of a private college called the London School of Commerce. I do not know whether the Minister has yet visited it, but his predecessor, the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), who is now Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, did. It has strong connections with the university of Wales institute, Cardiff, so I have been to Cardiff a number of times and am therefore aware of some of the funding and broad structural issues to which the hon. Member for Ceredigion referred. Professor Antony Chapman and his team at UWIC do a tremendous job developing an international flavour and first-class courses, particularly MBA courses, which have grown out of recognition over the past few years.

That role is an example of having an outside interest in an area in which I did not have much experience. I was a businessman before I entered Parliament and, obviously, representing my seat, as the Minister and other hon. Members will recognise, most of my interest and expertise in the House is on economic and financial matters. My interest in the college has opened my eyes to how higher education and quality higher education operate. The London School of Commerce is an innovative and leading college, the founding college of the Association of Independent Higher Education Providers, and it focuses on best practice.

I wish to touch on visa issues, if I may. The college works closely with the Home Office, the British Council and visa control staff in our embassies abroad to ensure that, as far as possible, there is proper attendance—there are strict guidelines on expected attendance. Through text messaging and state-of-the-art technology, it ensures that it keeps tabs on its students, particularly those with visas coming from abroad. Working with other colleges will set a template that I know it will be proud of as time goes on.

We face some problems. This year’s student visa changes have left stranded many thousands of foreign students who wanted to come to this country. I am pleased that by the end of the year we anticipate the results of an urgent review by the Home Office and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on the operation of the visa system. It is right to ensure that a proper visa system is in operation, but everyone will accept that some hard cases have gone the wrong way.

A lot of colleges require money from international students. Let us face it: higher education is one of our biggest international businesses and the visa issue has become a major problem. There are issues at stake here. We need to promote education. Some £1.5 billion a year is raised from overseas students, which inevitably helps to cross-subsidise British students. In many ways, tuition fee levels cannot be discussed without considering the number of international students.

I am lucky enough to represent a constituency that takes in three of the finest of our global universities—Imperial college, the London School of Economics and King’s college. I spoke with Sir Richard Sykes, then rector of Imperial college, and he made it clear that to balance the books he had to take a lot of overseas students. He felt that there was an obligation, which I think applies to all our institutions, to ensure that we also take our home-grown product and do not allow the desire—and, in many ways, the need—for funding to crowd out suitably qualified students, particularly at postgraduate level and, to a lesser extent, at undergraduate level from our institutions. However, we should not forget the importance of overseas students to our economy. Not only do they bring in £1.5 billion in fees annually, but they spend about a further £2.5 billion off-campus and have huge export earnings.

Of course this is about bringing money into our system, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is also about building meaningful partnerships between institutions in this country and institutions abroad? I think of my example of Lampeter, with its Chinese students and Confucius institute, which is partly funded by the Chinese Government. That is an example of meaningful links between two countries.

I was just coming to that. The single most important issue here is that this group of relatively young people will, we hope, go back to their own countries and become ambassadors for this country, or perhaps I should say these countries, given that I am speaking to the hon. Member for Ceredigion.

It is important that we build those links. As part of my involvement with the London School of Commerce, I have been to Dhaka in Bangladesh and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, where there are two overseas colleges, both of which are thriving and doing tremendously well. It is no secret that many of our top universities—even those in the Russell group—are actively seeking connections with China and increasingly with India and other places in Asia as an important part of their growth.

In this country, we obviously have the benefit of speaking the lingua franca—English—which is vital in attracting students to these shores. We also have an internationally respected system. We must pay some tribute to this Government, although I hope that the same will apply to past and future Governments, for the fact that we have a rigorous examination system and a rigorous inspection system for our higher education product, which means that that product remains a great success.

We need to look at other countries, particularly the United States and Australia, which have a tremendous track record in higher education. Again, that is appealing because they speak English. We should recognise that we are talking about an important growth industry: 20 million people a year are being added to the ranks of the middle classes in China and India, so there is a tremendous opportunity for some of the brightest and the best to do postgraduate and, on occasion, even undergraduate courses here. This is an important market and we should be looking to plug into it.

I say that not least because, in the light of the credit crunch and the financial crisis, I have all too often given speeches in the past couple of years saying that we cannot and should not be overly reliant on the financial services industry in the years to come. Everyone recognises the need to achieve a balance of business. That is not to say that we should not admire our world-beating financial services industry, but it would be unwise to become overly reliant on it, as we have perhaps done in recent years, particularly in the tax income that comes from it.

We must look at other industries that will be sources of great strength, and those include the creative industries, environmental technologies and education. Calling education an industry may make one or two vice-chancellors quake—it is and remains a profession—but it provides an important overseas service and we should recognise its great importance.

One of the most encouraging aspects of my relatively limited experience in this field is that when I speak to vice-chancellors and other leading lights in the universities, they recognise the importance of broadening their horizons beyond this country and of ensuring that we are a beacon throughout the world. We need to keep a close eye on developments in this area, because they will provide a great opportunity not only in the next few years, but in the decades to come.

If we can position ourselves, we will reap enormous benefits, not least from the relationships that we will build institutionally and individually. As I said, one of the most important things that we can do is get some of the brightest and best young Indian and Chinese entrepreneurs of the future to spend a year or two in this country. That will provide some of our most important links. As we know from people we met in our own undergraduate and student days, if we can get people at that stage, it can make a terrific difference to this country.

I appreciate that I have spoken on a somewhat different plane from the other two contributors to the debate, but I think that we need to look at two issues. First, we need to have a quality product. To be honest, there has been some complacency in this country. As a graduate of Oxford, I certainly think that my alma mater has been rather complacent about its place in international league tables. A huge number of American universities are gradually making more and more progress in many of the international research tables, not least because they benefit from huge alumni funding and can attract some of the brightest and best students and academics. However, we have some tremendous universities, and a positive comparison can certainly be made between their positions in world tables and those of other European universities.

None the less, we need a much more global outlook. One needs only to look at the technology colleges and technology universities in India going back to the time of Nehru to see that they remain strong competitors. In a couple of decades, some of the best operators among the Chinese universities will also be global players. In terms of the quality product on which we will look to base our international appeal, therefore, this is and will remain a very competitive world.

We also have to look at the issue of quantity; we should not shy away from that. Obviously, there will be funding issues. One complaint is that some of our universities have put too much effort into getting bums on seats and filling courses, almost regardless of the quality of the product provided. However, the reality is that more and more people will want to go to university and will recognise the benefits of a university education as not only this country but the world becomes more middle class in its aspirations and outlook.

That is not to take away from the debate that has taken place about access, which is important, but it is vital for our quantity product that we look at some of this country’s competitive advantages on the higher education scene. We will not necessarily need a heavy touch from the Government, although much of our testing and regulation stand us in good stead. Degree-awarding status should not be watered down for the sake of it, because we want to ensure that our degree-awarding bodies set something of a gold standard in the international world of education.

I have had an opportunity to speak for rather longer than I thought I would. Hon. Members who have been able to make contributions feel passionately about this issue and higher education is an important aspect of this country’s expertise. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East for his contribution and look forward to what the Minister has to say about what I am sure is a very much a work in progress, although we will no doubt return to these debates in the months and years ahead, as higher education maintains its importance in the British economy.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) on securing a debate on such an important topic. He has been a Conservative higher education spokesperson and served on Select Committees alongside me for a couple of years, so I know that he has a long interest in these matters. Now, however, he is safely ensconced in the Conservative Whips Office. He said that the views that he expressed were essentially his own, although I assume that they were not too out of tune with those of his party or his Front-Bench spokesmen.

It is good to have a debate on this important issue, because in the run-up to the general election it is a worry that the Government and the Conservative party should be determined to stifle debate on the future of higher education and will deny voters at the election a clear opportunity to distinguish between the two political parties. My party is absolutely determined that higher education will be high on the agenda at the election.

Higher education is crucial to the future of the British economy. If we are to compete in the world, the knowledge-based economy will be crucial. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) rightly said that if we are to compete, particularly against the emerging economies of China and India, it will be on the basis of quality, not volume. People around the world look to the quality of British higher education, which already gives us the second largest share of the international market in higher education.

The hon. Gentleman also rightly drew attention to much concern in the sector about the tough regime introduced by the Home Office to control student numbers. It is important that the review body should look at how England, Scotland and Wales can be open in the international market to academics and students from all over the world.

The hon. Gentleman is usually intelligent about these things, but he must get out more. If he did, he would know that the Conservative Opposition have a highly distinctive position on higher education; it is sensibly and constructively critical of the Government when it needs to be. He should know that, because I was articulating that position on a platform with his colleague, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), just last week.

I shall look with interest at what my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman said in that debate.

The size of the sector has been mentioned and the hon. Member for Reading, East referred to the 50 per cent. target. Just to make it clear, I should say that the Liberal Democrats have never supported the 50 per cent. target. We believe that more people should have the opportunity to go into higher education, but setting an arbitrary target has never been a key part of that. [Interruption.] The Minister is chuntering from his seat, but what is more important—an Opposition party that honestly says that an arbitrary target is not the way forward, or a Government who for a decade have clung to a target that they were meant to achieve by 2010, which starts in 31 days’ time, but that they have no hope of achieving? They still say that that target is incredibly important.

Now, in the framework announcement of just a month ago, we have a new target of 75 per cent. of people achieving level 3 and above; no doubt that is to obscure the fact that the existing target has not been met and has no hope of being met in the foreseeable future.

What is really important is what the hon. Member for Reading, East focused on in a large part of his speech—not the volume of people who go to higher education, but who goes to higher education.

Will the hon. Gentleman clear something up for me? Does he agree with the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman, the hon. Member for Twickenham, that the Liberal Democrats should cut the number of young people who can go to university?

My hon. Friend has not said that we should cut the number of people going to university, but simply reiterated the position that I have made abundantly clear on many occasions: we do not support and have never supported the 50 per cent. target. However, we do agree that there is a big problem with the social divide in higher education and with who has access to a high-quality higher education. That is why at the next general election one of our key pledges is for a pupil premium, so that disadvantaged children are not left behind their classmates and are able to succeed at 16, to stay on at 16 and to have the opportunity to participate in higher education. The logical outcome of that policy is that more young people will be able to go into higher education.

If the Liberal Democrat position is that to support a 50 per cent. aspiration is no longer right, is it not axiomatic that that must mean a cut in the number of young people studying full time at universities? That is what has been said by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable). Can the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) confirm this morning that that is the Liberal Democrat position?

The Minister talks about a cut, but according to the Government’s preferred measure of 18 to 30-year-olds, for most of the past decade participation in higher education has been about 40 per cent.—sometimes slightly below, currently slightly above. We are saying that a 50 per cent. target, which was meant to have been reached next year, involves an arbitrary number with little meaning. We are about 10 per cent. away from that target, so to say that the Liberal Democrats’ not subscribing to a target that has not been met amounts to a cut is, I am afraid, not a very numerate position for the Minister to put forward.

Is the hon. Gentleman confirming that the Liberal Democrat position is that 43 per cent., the current percentage, is about right?

No, I am not saying that. I made it clear in my earlier remarks that we believe that there is a problem with the number of people going into higher education. There are vast pools of untapped opportunity in the country. I have made such points on umpteen occasions in the past four and a half years, when I have been speaking for my party on the subject. We have never subscribed to the arbitrary 50 per cent. target.

The hon. Member for Reading, East and several other hon. Members mentioned part-time learners. It is crucial that the review looks at how a level playing field can be constructed for people who choose to study part time. We know that the number of young people is going to fall over the next decade and that we need to upskill our work force, who are largely going to come from people who are studying part time. The financial and course regimes make that hard for people to do. Whatever the funding future is, we must make sure that it is level between those who study full time and those who study part time, and that credit accumulation and transfer is part of that future.

Before the hon. Gentleman leaves the previous topic of student numbers, can he explain why the hon. Member for Twickenham included in his calculations the money savings from the cut in student numbers?

I particularly refer the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) to an article in The Independent on 17 June. If the hon. Member for Twickenham is making those financial savings by making such cuts, how can he not be cutting student numbers at the same time?

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman—probably with assistance from his colleagues in the Conservative Whips Office—studies so carefully what Liberal Democrat spokespersons say in the run-up to the general election. We have a good record at every general election of putting forward not only what policies we would like to achieve in our manifesto but how we shall fund them. We shall certainly be doing so on this occasion. The exact mix of funding priorities and how we meet them have not yet been determined. Obviously, given the turbulent economic circumstances, different ideas have been mentioned at different times, but the final decision has not been made.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) also mentioned part-time students, as well as cross-border issues. He and I are a pretty good example of the complexity of cross-border issues. He went to school in England, went to university in Wales and now represents his adopted-home seat, while I made the opposite journey. That was quite easy for us to do in the 1980s; it would now be a much more complicated educational—hopefully not political—journey for us to make. It is vital for the review to look at the complicated cross-border issues between Wales and England and with Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Coming to funding, the White Paper, published by the Government a month ago, makes it clear that the

“redistribution of existing funds and leverage of private investment rather than…new money”

will be the way forward. In other words, it says that a large part of the future funding growth of higher education will probably come from students or graduates. Everyone expects that the review will recommend an increase in contributions from the graduate body. As I said at the outset, it is a shame—to put it mildly—that that review will conclude well after the general election. The announcement of the framework said that the review would conclude in the summer, while the written statement announcing the review said that it would conclude in the autumn of 2010. Whatever the exact date, it will be beyond the time when people vote to choose their next Government. That is simply not acceptable, either to students or to their parents, and we deserve a clearer choice.

The Liberal Democrats reaffirm our commitment to abolish the tuition fees model of funding higher education. That model is broken. If we got into the fully variable model of the future, which is the logical conclusion of the fees model as begun by former Prime Minister Tony Blair, all sorts of social consequences will follow, including fair access to the professions, which was mentioned by several contributors to the debate.

It is crucial that the review should look at the various alternative positions, and the National Union of Students has done us a service by putting forward its idea of a graduate tax. However, whatever happens, it is not good enough for the Labour and Conservative parties to hide behind the review at the next general election and say, “We will have to wait and see.”

I am drawing my remarks to a close.

Discerning voters in Bristol, West, in Reading, East or in Tottenham deserve far better.

It is a great pleasure to speak in the debate and to follow the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams), whose speech was a powerful reminder of why the Liberal Democrats have not been in government since the days of Lloyd George.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) did us a great service by bringing this matter to the attention of the House, and once again he has shown what a champion he is of the cause of the student voice. He speaks eloquently and with insight on higher education matters, and—I say this to reassure the hon. Member for Bristol, West—there is rarely inconsistency between us. We speak regularly about such matters, and we share a vision for higher education that is informed and inspired by a determination to widen access to people of all abilities and from all backgrounds to the opportunities that they deserve.

That is because we care about social mobility and crave social justice—a Britain without barriers to self-improvement and without limits on opportunity. Participation in higher education has a vital role in feeding social mobility and thus achieving social justice, and so in building a cohesive and just Britain. That is why our great challenge is to broaden access to advanced learning. I have no doubt that that ambition is widely shared; certainly it is by the Minister. However, as the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) said, the uncomfortable truth is that rather than widening access in that way, the expansion in university education in the past 30 years has in some senses cemented social division. Opportunity for some has not meant opportunity for all.

Just last month, Lord Mandelson published his framework document on the future of higher education. Its proposals expose the terrible lack of progress. Even though the figures have been recalibrated and recalculated, the Government have achieved only about 43 per cent. participation in higher education. Furthermore, as the Minister knows, successful women mask failure for men. Perhaps he will comment on that.

By a consistent measure, the proportion of entrants overall has been static for most of the past decade. Even though the Government have spent an immense amount of money on widening participation programmes, under the banner of Aimhigher, the participation rate of working-class students has hardly improved since 1995. If that were not bad enough, the rate of improvement has declined. In the previous decade, participation by working-class students actually grew at a faster pace, as Lord Dearing revealed in his report.

Labour is failing because it misinterprets what widening participation really means. We heard from the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), and others, that a myopic obsession with improving access for a small number of students to a small number of universities has meant a preoccupation with policies focused on admissions and aspiration. The difficulty with both those views is that there is little evidence to suggest that the best universities are prejudiced against working-class students.

Indeed, Higher Education Funding Council evidence suggests rather the opposite—that they favour applications from those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Furthermore, there is no evidence to suggest that working-class students do not aspire to the same things as their middle-class contemporaries. Indeed, all the survey evidence shows that aspiration is growing most among those in the lowest socio-economic groups, and that working-class parents and grandparents want the same for their children as middle-class parents; it is a bourgeois, liberal myth that the working classes have a rather different view of such things. In fact, they know that education at university or college is likely to bring better prospects, and they want that for their children, just as their middle-class contemporaries do. What they lack is the wherewithal, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East so powerfully argued.

Wherewithal is a matter of the right kind of advice and guidance. Survey evidence suggests that many teachers do not point their students in the direction of university applications. The reason why fewer working-class children than middle-class children get to university is that fewer people from working-class backgrounds apply—partly because they do not get the right advice, and partly because they do not have the baseline qualifications to do so. Until we solve those two problems, programmes to encourage applications will at best be icing on the cake and, at worst, may displace the resources for dealing with those more fundamental issues.

The Government have focused on what I describe as push-me-pull-you policies. They have tried to pull more students in, by regulating—some would say interfering with—the admissions system; and they have tried to push students in through programmes focused on aspirations. However, push-me-pull-you policies do little to address the fundamental problems. Media analysis of the Aimhigher campaign suggests that its message is best received not by socio-economic groups D and E, but by group A. Those conclusions were supported by a Government study, which found

“no conclusive statistical evidence that such interventions have then led to increased aspirations to enter higher education.”

Surveys show that three quarters of young people from all social groups aspire to go to university, and another survey, as I suggested a moment ago, showed that 91 per cent. of parents and grandparents want their young people to go to university, regardless of social background.

What we need, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East began to articulate, is a system that empowers learners. That argument has been powerfully made by the NUS and student unions. I entirely endorse the support that my hon. Friend has offered the NUS and student unions. At university I was union treasurer and my hon. Friend was president of his student union, so there is no prejudice among Conservative Members against the student voice—far from it.

Empowering learners means that we need to use the proceeds from the early repayment of student loans to fund extra places—10,000 of them—and that is what we have said we will do. Rather than just talking about helping people from poorer backgrounds, we need policies that do so by taking firm and distinctive action. That, I would point out to the hon. Member for Bristol, West, is a quite different approach from the Government’s. I do not blame the Government for having a different approach from ours. It is good democratic politics to have such debates and exchanges.

What would we do that would be so different? The first thing would be to establish an all-age professional careers advice service with a presence in every school and college. The Minister knows that just 6 per cent. of pupils in state schools at age 15 go on to study at Russell group universities, and just one in 10 of those state school entrants comes from the bottom two socio-economic groups. However, that is not surprising given that Sutton Trust research shows that many state school teachers would not advise even their brightest pupils to apply to Oxbridge. Many of those teachers with responsibility for offering that advice have not received the training that they would need to offer the best guidance. I do not blame teachers for that; we simply ask too much of them in that respect. What needs to be fixed is not the university admissions system, but the advice and guidance that young people get.

We also need to offer comprehensive advice about the employment and wage returns of courses. We need a good website to do that. Those things exist in other parts of the world. Indeed, several studies are going on in this country, and we have been looking at them closely, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East is aware. We are determined to put such information in the hands of potential learners. It must be about where, how and when to study.

Employability is not just about what people study, but about how they study, a point that my hon. Friend also made. I have long argued, as he has, that we should revisit traditional assumptions about the pattern of higher education and study. We must recognise the value of different learning experiences such as part-time courses and community based, modular and distance learning. I welcome my hon. Friend’s advocacy of a credit-based approach; we are enthusiastic about considering taking that further. The fees review must give serious attention to the ways in which we support flexible means of study.

As the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough and others have argued—my hon. Friend has also championed the idea—further education colleges are at the heart of that approach. They are characterised by being local, and by accessibility and flexibility. Their cohort is typically drawn from a social range wider than that of most higher education institutions. Perhaps the Minister will explain why the amount of HE taught in FE colleges continues to decline, for it is a damning indictment that it has happened on his watch.

We also want more students to enter higher education through the vocational route. I see apprenticeships as being at the heart of that practical method, which is why we intend to introduce new vocational skill scholarships; that will allow people to go on that vocational pathway into higher education study.

The Government have based their policies on a double prejudice, and I hope that the Minister will either explain why or refute the fact. He may want to step back from that prejudice or he may wish to justify it. It is a prejudice against the university admissions system and a liberal establishment prejudice that the academic path is the only way to travel on the road to the good life.

We do not take that view. We believe that looking again at access points to learning, at modes of study, at the character of university life and at the advice and guidance that young people receive is the best way of allowing more people to achieve the glittering prizes that the Minister has achieved and to which so many others aspire.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) on securing this debate and on the manner in which he put his case—and on his continued support for higher education. Time will not permit me to answer every question asked this morning, but we have had a good debate.

I note the comments made by the hon. Members for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) and for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) and the manner in which they spoke. The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) was his usual consistent self. We have been meeting across the House for a considerable period over such matters, and I was not surprised this morning. The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) demonstrated his most opportunistic style, but it was not worthy of the general standard of debate, and I shall return to the inconsistencies that he continues to display in relation to higher education. I believe that students, parents and the country deserve the best, and I hope that the Liberal Democrat leader is studying the hon. Gentleman’s inconsistencies closely.

Few issues divide the House as clearly as higher education. The Government’s record is clear. There have been year-on-year increases in public investment. In fact, we have seen a 25 per cent. real-terms rise in the public funding of universities since 1997. Large-scale increases in the public funding of research help to drive innovation and economic growth. Since 1997, the science budget has risen from £1.3 billion to £4 billion. When we talk about the success of our universities, particularly those that engage in world-class research, we should remember that it is largely the result of that funding.

We must also consider the students: more maintenance support is available to students than at any time in our history, including non-repayable bursaries for a large majority. There are more students at our universities than at any time in our history. More students from state schools are at university, and there are more students from low-participation neighbourhoods. Less well-off families are sending young people to universities, and I am pleased to say that more black and ethnic minority students are at university. I genuinely believe that that is a record of which the country can be proud. It turns the page on a past in which there was under-investment in research and in which continued growth, particularly for those from less well-off backgrounds, was not happening.

As has been said, last month, my noble Friend Lord Mandelson, the Secretary of State who has responsibility for the universities, published “Higher Ambitions”—a framework document that sets out the challenges that we believe face universities over the next 10 to 15 years. The framework was not delivered to the sector from on high; it was widely championed and supported by the sector itself. It was a product of many months of consultation; indeed, it began with a debate, with many professors from the higher education sector making a contribution. It is a good document, and it has been welcomed not only by the sector but by the CBI and the National Union of Students. It is good a platform on which to build, and I am pleased to see the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings nodding.

An essential aspect of the debate is widening access. We made clear in “Higher Ambitions” that that was an important challenge. Indeed, we ensured that the question of access—not only for young people, but for mature and part-time students—was central to the fees review. We have consistently said that we need greater parity of funding, particularly for part-time students, and we asked the fees review to consider the matter closely.

The document also seeks to build on foundation degrees, and it acknowledges the important role that FE can play in the transition to higher education, so long as certain quality thresholds are passed; and it wishes to build on the work of the Aimhigher programme. I am concerned that the hon. Gentleman seems to have his aim particularly on Aimhigher, but that would not be supported by all universities and certainly not by schools, which have seen an increase in applications to university as a consequence of the important range of activities that is taking place across the country. We say that there should be no artificial cap on talent.

Will the Minister confirm that, when the investigation into the debacle of student finance this summer is completed, we will have the chance to debate the matter on the Floor of the House?

It would be premature to pre-empt the conclusions. The report will be with me shortly. Of course I shall publish it, and hon. Members will of course want to comment. I acknowledge that it is a serious issue, but I also acknowledge the work done by my right hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) on social mobility, to which we will be publishing our response. We have also published our response to the work of colleagues in the Department for Children, Schools and Families on their information, advice and guidance strategy. I would ask hon. Members to read it, because much of what has been said about information, advice and guidance has been addressed there.

I turn to the duplicity that was displayed by the hon. Member for Bristol, West.

Order. I must point out to the Minister that it would be unwise to use the word “duplicity”. It is an unparliamentary term.

You are quite right, Mr. Benton. We have seen an inconsistency between what was said by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on these matters and what was confirmed this morning by the hon. Member for Bristol, West. He now suggests that he will not support even a 43 per cent. participation rate. Does he support a freeze on fees because he sees it as a way to cut student numbers? That is what we heard earlier, but his leader has said that he could not honestly place it at the forefront of his manifesto. He said:

“You can’t carry on promising the same menu of goodies.”

The hon. Member for Bristol, West has to come clean with students.