I beg to move,
That this House welcomes the contribution made to the economy and civic life by universities; notes the sharp increase in university applications for 2010-11; is concerned that the Government’s plans are likely to lead to a reduction of 6,000 undergraduate places for UK and other EU students in 2010-11; further notes that this fall in the number of places is likely to hamper efforts to widen participation in higher education; calls on the Government to improve opportunities for young people by providing 10,000 extra university places in 2010-11, paid for by offering a new incentive for the early repayment of student loans; further calls for more apprenticeships and training places; recognises that better careers advice could provide an important contribution to improving social mobility, and therefore commends initiatives which match prospective students to course places; and further calls for a new focus on higher education in further education colleges and other providers.
The amendment is significant because it is an entirely tendentious historical account of the past few years. It gives the Government gloss on what has happened, but mentions nothing about the crisis of equivalent or lower qualifications—ELQs—which has affected many people who are trying to return to study further. It also ignores the current crisis in the funding of universities and the issue on which we wish to focus, which is the sheer difficulty that prospective students face in finding a place this year—
The hon. Gentleman mentions being tendentious. Does he agree that the history of higher education over the past few years is important? Was it not tendentious of the Opposition’s motion to fail to mention the fact that when we really needed their support on top-up fees they did not have the bottle to vote for what they knew was right?
We were concerned about the effect of fees on participation, although so far it looks as though fees have not had the effect on participation that was feared. We are being consistent, because we want to focus on the effect on participation of the current pressures that universities face. Above all, and rightly, our motion focuses on the future. We are looking at how we can spread opportunities for young people to go to college, get apprenticeships or go to university. After all, Ministers and the Chairman of the Committee were elected on a manifesto in 2005 entitled “Britain forward not back”. But the amendment is entirely backward looking and contains nothing about the future. By contrast, our motion is forward looking. It looks at how we can spread opportunities and educational access to people across the country.
The background to this debate is the Government’s target of 50 per cent. of people going into higher education. The target was first set by Tony Blair in 1999, and the 2004 public service agreement expressed the aim of increasing participation to 50 per cent.—it was already sliding backwards. The target then became an aspiration, and eventually, as we see from the amendment, the aspiration subtly changed. It is no longer an aspiration for the Government; instead the amendment talks of the aspiration of more than 50 per cent. of young people to go to university. The Government have changed the definition of the aspiration yet again.
We on the Conservative Benches do not believe in top-down targets for how many people should go to university. We do not believe that to be the right approach. Rather, the number of people going to university should emerge from the decisions that well informed young people make about the different opportunities available to them and about how best they can take advantage of them. To us, that seems much more consistent with trusting young people than the Government’s approach.
My hon. Friend is making an extremely good start. In the light of the recession and the vital importance of ensuring that young people, and in particular those between 18 and 20, have the maximum opportunity to get work, does he agree that one of the most important things is for them to be given access to further education, and in particular education of a practical kind, if they are not necessarily attuned to the academic world? In other words, we want to help those young people to get into work.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Our approach is a properly balanced one, whereby those young people who would benefit most from going to university should have that opportunity. However, what many young people could benefit most from is work-based learning, notably apprenticeships. That is why we have proposed refocusing the Train to Gain budget on more apprenticeships, so that more young people have the opportunity for practical learning. We particularly salute the efforts of further education colleges, which are often an effective route into work, with practical experience linked in.
May I commend the work of the Open university? Does my hon. Friend accept that more and more young people are looking to study part time, so that they can go into higher education while continuing their work? Does it not seem odd that nearly two thirds of part-time students are unable to get any form of Government support?
Yes, and one of the things that we very much hope will emerge from Lord Browne’s inquiry into the funding of higher education is a fairer deal for part-time students. This relates to the previous intervention, but one of the ways forward is for people to combine working and part-time study at university.
May I congratulate my hon. Friend on including in the motion a mention of higher and further education colleges? If we examine the Government’s amendment, we see that it does not mention further education colleges, which is a serious omission, but perhaps one indicative of the way that this Government have treated further education generally, and not least Wiltshire college in my constituency.
One area where the current pressures are most severe is in the delivery of higher education in further education. Because universities are under financial pressure, some are retrenching and withdrawing support for higher education courses that are delivered in local further education colleges. We very much regret that trend, which is something to which my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) may refer in his speech at the end of this debate—if he succeeds in catching your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker—because higher education in further education is a cost-effective and flexible form of provision.
The hon. Gentleman and I share a love of history—I know that he is very much an admirer of Michael Oakeshott—but will he cast his mind back over the true history? History with things wiped out is not good history, and when Mrs. Thatcher was Prime Minister she wiped out apprenticeships. That should certainly be recognised. This Government have been rebuilding the apprenticeship system over a number of years, and, before the hon. Gentleman leaves further education, I should mention that we have also rebuilt 60 per cent. of the FE estate. Is that not a commitment to FE?
The Chairman of the Select Committee has just revealed his guilty secret to the House, which is that he was a student of Michael Oakeshott, for which reason I am prepared to forgive him a lot. However, his account of what has happened to apprenticeships is tendentious. As the structure of the British economy changed, and as there were fewer manufacturing jobs available, there were fewer manufacturing apprenticeships. We put in place a reform of apprenticeships, with more modern apprenticeships, but under this Government we now have a decline in their number.
If the Chairman of the Select Committee is interested in the figures, I have here the Government’s latest statistics on post-16 education and skills. I can tell him that the number of people in apprenticeships in the first quarter of 2009 showed a decline on the figures for the first quarter of 2007-08. There is now a downward trend in apprenticeship participation, and if we are to reverse it, we need the policies that my party has put forward—policies for easing the bureaucratic burdens on companies taking on apprentices, offering a fairer deal for post-19 apprenticeships and helping small businesses take on apprenticeships. That is the way forward, not the decline that is happening under this Government.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree, as a man allegedly of great intellect, that there has been a massive increase in the number of apprenticeships available, compared with the situation that the Labour Government inherited in 1997?
What has happened is that the Government have redefined apprenticeships, so that level 2 qualifications —GCSE-equivalent qualifications—are now also called apprenticeships. If we look simply at level 3-equivalent apprenticeships, which is what apprenticeships used to be—in other words, if we look at apprenticeships that are the equivalent of A-levels—we see that the history of the past 10 years is nothing like what the right hon. Gentleman claims. In reality, there has been a decline in level 3 apprenticeships, which has been offset by the redefinition of level 2 qualifications as apprenticeships. That, I am afraid, is a classic example of this Government failing in the real world but then redefining how their performance is measured so that they appear to be doing better than they really are.
However, what I want to focus on, alongside our proposals for new apprenticeship places and more training places at colleges, is the problem that universities will face this summer with the surge in applications and, if anything, a decline in the number of university places. Indeed, it would be interesting if, when the Minister speaks in this debate, he can confirm the figures attributed to the Higher Education Funding Council for England showing that there will be an absolute fall in the number of university places this summer. We have come up with a proposal to bring extra cash into the system to enable this summer’s places crisis to be eased, and we have proposed a discount for the earlier repayment of student loans. With £30 billion of student debt outstanding by this summer, we would need only 1 per cent. to be paid back early, bringing in £300 million, to enable us to pay for 10,000 fully funded university places over three years. That would be an attempt to tackle a crisis facing young people this summer before having an opportunity to receive Lord Browne’s report, which we hope will put forward proposals for the long-term reform of higher education funding.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about a discount of 10 per cent., and comparing that with the Australian and New Zealand schemes, where the discount is 20 per cent. Has he seen the figures calculated by millennium plus, which reached the conclusion that his policy will not raise the amount of money that he is claiming?
I am surprised by some of the claims made by millennium plus, because our estimates are extremely cautious. We require only 1 per cent. of the outstanding stock of student debt to be repaid earlier to generate the cash needed for our policy, and that is a cautious assumption.
However, I have heard the objections of the Government, and want to take a few minutes to go through them, because I do not think that they are well founded. We had the opportunity to hear what the Minister’s concerns were in last week’s debate on higher education organised by The Guardian. I want to do him the credit of going through his four contentions and seeing whether any of them stand up. The first is that our policy is supposed to be
“Regressive, benefiting only the very wealthiest graduates,”
the argument being that only wealthy graduates will wish to repay. The key feature of our proposal is to enable more university places to be offered. The crucial point is that the extra applications this year are from students from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, students from poorer backgrounds and students from families without a history of going to university. The 10,000 extra places will benefit students who, given their backgrounds, would otherwise be unlikely to go to university. The key test is the purpose for which the money is used. In this instance, it is being used for a purpose about which Conservative Members care greatly: improving social mobility and opportunities in this country.
The Minister’s second objection, which we have just heard from the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), was that our proposed scheme would not generate anything like the sums needed to provide 10,000 additional fully funded places. As I have said, the scheme already operates in other countries. Obviously the specific circumstances of countries differ, but early repayment reward schemes operate in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, and in all those countries they generate substantial extra early repayments. We need only 1 per cent. to be repaid early to fund our scheme.
The Minister’s third objection was not expressed in a particularly coherent way. He said:
“The interest on the amount saved invested instead over the period of the loan repayment by the graduate would outweigh the benefit of the discount by far.”
I think that, translated, that means that in the Minister’s view it would cost more for the repayment to be made earlier, and that he would prefer to receive a flow of income from the interest receipts from the loan over a period of years. My understanding is that he did not want to end up losing interest on the amount that would otherwise have been repaid gradually. However, he is proposing his own sale of the student loan book. The Government have taken powers to sell it. Indeed, given some exchanges during the Committee stage of the Sale of Student Loans Bill, it seems that they may have envisaged selling it at a discount—a larger discount, I rather suspect, than the 10 per cent. that we propose.
It is all right for Ministers to sell the student loan book early at a substantial discount on a wholesale model, but as soon as we, in true Conservative manner, give individuals the ability to choose whether to repay early with a 10 per cent. discount, apparently it is suddenly a bad return. All that we are doing is offering a retail individual option alongside the wholesale option which, as we know, Ministers have been discussing with banks. I would welcome an assurance from the Minister that in no conversation with the banks has he ever considered a discount of more than 10 per cent. for the sale of the student loan book. I strongly suspect that he has considered a substantially larger discount, and I therefore do not think that he is well placed to make that objection.
I do not think it is true that the Australian scheme is unpopular. What we are talking about is individual choice. We are not compelling anyone to take this option; we are simply offering it as a choice for individuals. Individuals in Australia, New Zealand and Canada may wish to take advantage of it, and we will ensure that it is also available to individuals here in the United Kingdom.
The hon. Gentleman cannot get away with what he has said. The Australian scheme is not generating the income that he suggested his scheme would generate, even with a 20 per cent. discount. Does he accept that, and, if so, does it not undermine his argument?
I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. We looked carefully at the Australian scheme, the New Zealand scheme and the Canadian scheme. Of course there are differences between them—no country’s student loan system is exactly the same as that of another country—but all three provide the same option, and we are ensuring that British people will no longer be deprived of that option. The assumption that 1 per cent. of £30 billion—£300 million—will be repaid early with a 10 per cent. discount is extremely cautious, and that would enable us to fund 10,000 extra university places this summer. Otherwise, according to the figures that we understand the Minister to be considering, there would be a fall in the number of places at the same time as a surge in the number of applications.
The Minister must explain to young people throughout the country why he is willing to contemplate a doubling of the number of people applying for university places who will not be able to secure them. We believe that our scheme will help to tackle that crisis, alongside our extension of apprenticeships and training places at colleges. Between them, our proposals add up to a coherent approach. We intend to ensure, at a time of high employment under the present Government, that this summer young people have an opportunity to take up further education and training opportunities.
I propose to make some further progress with my speech.
The Labour party has not come up with a single constructive proposal for this summer. We are looking ahead at a problem that we recognise to be of great concern to young people and their parents. Ours is the party that is proposing more university places, more apprenticeships and more places at college. All that we get from this Government is a retrospective, historical motion and a set of completely unconstructive attempts to prevent us from presenting a practical proposal for action that would help to tackle the problem.
The hon. Gentleman says that he proposes to provide more training places. The motion says that as well. Presumably, it would mean abolishing Train to Gain. How would that produce more training places, and how many more does the hon. Gentleman think it would produce?
Our calculations suggest that the Train to Gain budget should be refocused on new opportunities for people who are currently outside the labour market. Too much of it is spent on providing qualifications—not necessarily any extra worthwhile skills or training—for people who are already in employment, and whose skills will not be enhanced by participation in Train to Gain. I refer the Minister to the most recent report from the Public Accounts Committee, which made clear that there is a significant problem of deadweight cost in Train to Gain provision. We will redirect that money to where the need is currently greatest—to extra training places.
We have clearly identified 300,000 places over two years—a combination of apprenticeships and training places at colleges. Much of the money is currently being spent on, essentially, giving people paper qualifications without enhancing their underlying skills and without improving their progression through jobs. In any event, those people are already in work. We have made a tough decision about priorities, which is absolutely the right decision in the present circumstances. We have decided that our main priority should be new opportunities for young people: that should be the focus of our efforts.
I hope very much that Ministers will be similarly helpful if my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings or I seek to intervene in order to question some of their own assertions.
We face a crisis this summer, with a declining number of apprenticeship places, further education colleges under severe financial pressure, and a declining number of university places. Conservative Members have been trying to present practical proposals to tackle that problem.
No. I want to make some progress.
I want to hear from the Minister—indeed, from both Ministers—a bit more information about what is happening now to our college and apprenticeship provision. First, will the Minister confirm that, according to the most recent estimates that have been reported and according to the Government’s own plans, there will be 6,000 fewer university places this summer than last year? Secondly, will the Minister explain why, when I visited Derby college last week, I was told that it was unable to offer as many engineering courses leading to higher national diplomas—an important form of practical training—as it had in the past, because all the money was being spent on foundation degrees? That is a classic example of the way in which the Government work. They transfer the funding for vocational qualifications such as HNDs and higher school certificates to new initiatives such as foundation degrees. That may be worth while in a sense, but it will be done at the cost of fewer opportunities for people to work towards qualifications that are already well recognised and well understood.
Will the Minister explain the following? Students from a sixth-form college approached me recently to say that they had embarked on a two-year A-level course and that at the end of their first year, while doing their AS-level, they had been told that, because of funding pressures, it would not be possible for them to complete their course with a second year and so get the full A-level. The college said that the AS-level was a qualification in its own right and that, sadly, it was no longer able to provide the second year of that A-level course. Does the Minister believe that that is happening in sixth-form colleges or elsewhere in the country and does he have any proposals to tackle the problem?
Will the Minister also confirm that there are significant pressures on the unit of resource of universities? Although he has been strangely reluctant to confirm this figure, does he agree that the Higher Education Funding Council for England grant letter of 22 December 2009 made it perfectly clear that the planned unit of funding, which was set at £4,140 at the beginning of the public expenditure period, had, in constant prices, fallen by 2007-08 to £3,950, a reduction of £190?
We fully understand that times are tight and that very tough decisions need to be taken, and we cannot pretend that all these reductions in provision can be avoided, but we believe Ministers should come to this House and give a coherent overall explanation of what their public expenditure cuts mean for colleges and universities. Instead, we have a drip, drip, drip of information—yet another announcement and yet another bit of a budget cut somewhere. The reductions in funding and provision are undertaken without any proper public explanation of what is being done or why. That makes it much harder for colleges and universities to adjust for the tougher public spending regime, because Ministers never stand up at the Dispatch Box and level with them in a coherent manner about what they should bank on in the medium term because times are so tight. We call Ministers to this House time and again because, above all, what we want from them is a coherent and clear statement of what they are planning and why.
It is good to see that the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams), is present, because I must say that his party really does not do much better. In a previous debate on this subject, I spoke about the extraordinary history of Liberal Democrat policy on tuition fees. I am sure that he will understand why I want to return to that fascinating subject.
I have been looking at “Liberal Democrat Voice”, the website on which we can follow the details of Liberal Democrat policy. When I printed out the relevant policy document from it, I was amazed to see that it began by saying that this was the first page of 842 pages, although I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that 837 of those 842 pages are blank. Only five pages contain any statements on Liberal Democrat policy, although, to be accurate, there are two pages describing the policy, followed by a fascinating set of comments. One of them is from someone who gives their name as “Norman Lamb 4 Leader”, and it states that the latest Liberal Democrat proposal, which is somehow to abolish tuition fees within six years, is a
“Good idea but then how will the LDs fund universities in the future?”
That is a rather good question. We would all like to know how the Liberal Democrat spokesman believes universities should be funded in the future if that income were ever to be sacrificed—although we also know that he no longer believes he can do that in the lifetime of a Parliament.
There was another comment from a man called Tim Leunig, whom I know. He is an academic—at the London School of Economics, I think—and he follows the subject closely. His comment on this public forum is:
“So how will univs be funded? Or is the LD policy to slash the quantity of tuition—Mickey Mouse degrees for all? As it stands”—
we must remember that Tim Leunig is a Liberal Democrat policy adviser—
“this policy is as sensible as the old Soviet trick of cutting the price of bread—how will you pay for it?”
Even on the Liberal Democrats’ own website, people are raising serious questions about how their policy is to be paid for and what it means for universities and students.
We Conservatives did not like fees, of course, but now that they are generating revenues for universities, the Liberal Democrats have to explain what happens to the funding of universities and to the quality of the student experience if that source of funding is removed. They cannot have it both ways. They have given up on any credible claim that they can abolish fees in the lifetime of a Parliament. They now say that, for some miraculous reason we have never fully understood, it can be achieved within six years, but they have never explained where the money is coming from. I very much hope that when the hon. Member for Bristol, West comes to speak, he will give us the latest stage in that fascinating saga of the development of Liberal Democrat policy.
On where the money is coming from, I would like to take the hon. Gentleman back to the issue of the 10,000 places. I salute him for trying to find a solution to our present difficulties, but I have to say that I do not think the figures add up. At present, 20 per cent. of full-time students get no state support whatever. Were there to be a discount, if only 5 per cent. of that 20 per cent. decided it was a good deal to take out a loan and get some grant support because they would get the discount, that 1 per cent. to which the hon. Gentleman is referring would already be gone. Part of the problem with his scheme is that if quite a sizeable proportion of the 20 per cent. who at the moment do not take out any loans decide to do so, that would more than cancel out the early discount.
The hon. Gentleman is making very heavy weather of something that is very straightforward. There is £30 billion-worth of debt already out there. The Conservative party is optimistic about the future. Our motion is a set of proposals for expanding opportunities for young people in apprenticeships, in further education colleges and in universities in the tough times they are facing because of this Government’s mismanagement of the economy.
This week is national science week. To mark it, we have produced an excellent report from Sir James Dyson, which clearly sets out how we can encourage high-tech investment in the future British economy. We have made it clear that we back more information for students, including not only advice and information on the web, but recreating a proper, professional, all-ages careers service. That proposal is even made in the so-called Milburn report on social mobility. The Government’s response in their document, “Unleashing Aspiration”, was a simple rejection, which we think is completely wrong. Above all, we Conservatives believe in raising the quality of the student experience. That is what is crucial to our universities. Of course we are confident that universities can achieve that, even in the tough times they are facing as a result of this Government’s mismanagement of the public finances. We believe we offer a better prospect for our universities. All we have from this Government is more of the same: history lessons—looking backwards, not looking forwards.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “2010–11” to the end of the Question and add:
“commends the Government for its record levels of investment in higher education, an increase of over 25 per cent. in real terms since 1997, which has supported more students participating in higher education than ever before; notes a 24 per cent. increase in the number of students participating in higher education since 1997, more young entrants to full-time first degrees in England who are from state schools, lower socio-economic groups, and low participation backgrounds, and recent studies which have shown that over 50 per cent. of young people aspire to go on to higher education; recognises the Government’s commitment to expanding the range of pathways to higher education, including through apprenticeships, and to expanding the opportunities to participate in higher education, including through the development of foundation degrees, which have benefited 100,000 students; further notes that the Government is providing students with high levels of student support to enable them to access higher education; and welcomes the proposals in the papers Quality, Choice and Aspiration, published in October 2009, and Higher Ambitions, published in November 2009, to provide prospective students with better information, advice and guidance to enable them to fulfil their full potential.’.”
Given the performance we have just witnessed, I do not really know where to start. I notice that the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) is wearing a spotted tie; this is a leopard changing his spots. We have witnessed an amazing damascene conversion. In the opening part of his speech he used words such as “access” and “opportunity”, and at the end he mentioned “the student experience”. As we look forward to what is to come this year, with the general election, it is important that students focus on the hon. Gentleman’s past form. They should remember, as we do, university buildings falling to pieces.
The hon. Gentleman ended with a flurry by waving the document by Dyson and saying, “Believe me, we are going to take care of science in this country.” We remember science facilities falling apart; there was no ring-fenced science budget at that time. We remember the unit of resource falling, not by 10, 20 or 30 per cent, but by 40 per cent between 1991 to 1997—that is according to the figures of Universities UK. What was it about students back in the days when the hon. Gentleman was sitting in a Conservative Cabinet that meant that the student experience did not matter, that the unit of resource did not matter and that science did not matter? Why should we, and why should students in this country, believe him now?
My hon. Friend has a long memory, and the Conservatives still do want that, hence this proposal. Let us give the hon. Gentleman credit, as he is largely known for having two brains, although that of course is in the context of his own party. It is clear, as has been demonstrated in the House today, that this fatuous proposal of an extra 10,000 places is elitist, with the numbers not adding up and with students across the world, who have seen that such a proposal does not work, claiming that it is completely unfavourable to poorer students. Yet again, he has not been able to explain the policy coherently or say where he would get the money from to take care of it. I shall return to that later and I intend to repeat that point on every appropriate occasion between now and the general election. He is not going to get away with it, and he can do a damn sight better.
Look, I do not want to embarrass the hon. Gentleman, but I should refer him to the fundamentals of our democracy and he would, thus, realise that the Government do not run physics and other science departments in our universities; vice-chancellors do. He should know that. I should remind hon. Members that the chancellor of Oxford university said about the Conservative party’s period in office that
“in just over a decade we doubled the number of students and halved the investment in each. The Treasury calls that higher productivity—it’s a euphemism for poorer pay, degraded facilities, less money to support the teaching of each student”.
That is what we saw previously and it is against that that we will be judged.
Does my right hon. Friend not recall that prior to 1997 things got so bad and the Conservative party created such a mess that it had to set up the Dearing inquiry, and it then postponed decisions on the student loans until after the general election because it had lost its bottle?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding us about the smoke and mirrors that the Conservatives employed. They did the same in a number of areas. They promised to reform the tax system, but what did they give us? They gave us the poll tax. They promised to deal with training resources, but what did they do? They abolished apprenticeships. That was the level of their commitment.
Moving back to the current state of education, is the Minister aware of the financial crisis at the university of Gloucestershire? The vice-chancellor candidly admits that that has long-standing causes, but it involves the loss of teaching posts, the closing of the Pittville arts and media campus, and tens of millions of pounds of debt. The university has nevertheless managed to attract a record number of applicants, but it has been scuppered by the indiscriminate way in which the cap on student numbers has been applied by this Government, making a bad situation even worse.
The very start of the hon. Gentleman’s question referred to the long-standing issues that exist at that university, and I know, as does he, that the funding council is working closely with it on that. It is disingenuous, in a sense, to lay that situation at the Government’s door.
The hon. Gentleman knows that, as I just said, the Government do not run physics and chemistry departments, but let me make it clear that we are not going to take any lessons from the party whose actions led to the creation of the Save British Science campaign. Let me remind him that the number of applicants for physics has increased, as has the number of applicants for chemistry and biology, and that we have renewed facilities. It is absolutely clear that, because of our commitment to a ring-fenced science budget, science is in a much stronger position than it was previously.
I have already said to the hon. Gentleman and I have already said in this House that we are absolutely committed to the science funding ring-fence and remain so.
Let us return to the subject of this motion, which is our 50 per cent. aspiration. It is not clear but a transformation has apparently been undertaken by the hon. Member for Havant. My concern is that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) is, as is the case on many things, much less clear about the 50 per cent. aspiration. He once went on record saying that his party opposed the aim and, most recently, he was asked about it on Mumsnet and he did not answer the question. So it is not really clear whether the Conservatives are genuine about this aspiration and commitment. I know that a former shadow spokesman, the present Mayor of London, said:
“In the words of every saloon-bar analysis of higher education of the last 10 years, what we need is fewer graduates and more plumbers”.
That was their position then and I suspect that it is their position now.
The Minister stood on a platform at the 2005 election of the 50 per cent. target. Will he tell us what progress has been made? What percentage of young men, for example, go to university?
The hon. Gentleman knows that we have made progress, that we have reached 43 per cent. and that he opposed us at every single turn. Let me just spell out why this aspiration is so important. First, we should aim to meet it because it is right. If we believe in the principle that anyone can benefit from higher education and people deserve a chance to go to university to reap the benefits that a degree brings, we should not just pay lip service to the target; we should aspire to reach it. Secondly, it is right for economic reasons—for the reasons that the Leitch review and the Sainsbury review pointed out.
Not at this moment. We all know that the unskilled jobs that Britain relied on previously are no longer in our economy and we must, therefore, make a reality of the knowledge economy, which means higher level skills and higher level education. We remain committed to the aspiration and we are heading in the direction of meeting it.
I remind the hon. Member for Havant that, notwithstanding the Opposition’s fine words, year on year under this Labour Government we have seen an increase in the number of young people in higher education. There are more young people in higher education than ever before in our history and there will be this year, too. There are more young people from poorer socio-economic backgrounds at university than ever before in our history and there are more black and ethnic minorities at university than ever before in our history. That is the record on which we stand and even in tougher times we will still see increases in the numbers of young people going to university.
The 50 per cent. target—or aspiration—is important because we are reminded that we still have a lot to do to get to the level that we see in other EU member states and major competitors such as Japan and Australia. I do not believe that, as the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) has been quoted as saying, it is “fatuous”—he does not need to look nervous, as that is what he said. I also do not believe in the duplicity that we have seen on this issue from the Opposition.
We have heard time and again—
Order. Duplicity is not a nice word, and I would be grateful if the Minister would withdraw it.
As the Minister is concerned about accuracy and inaccuracy, will he confirm that when we look at the participation rates in higher education—the Government have typically redefined this on several occasions, making it very hard to track consistently—it looks as if in 2003-04, 43 per cent. of young people went to university and in 2007-08, 43 per cent. of young people went to university? Will the Minister explain why the fact that the figure remained at 43 per cent. over a five-year period constitutes progress?
We have had this ding-dong several times across the Dispatch Box. It is clear that we started with far fewer students in the system than we have now. I have said before that I would have liked to have seen a faster rate of growth in the number of students from poorer backgrounds. However, the commitment made by the hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), to abolish Aimhigher—I think that he has stated that in the House—will do very little. He is not departing from that commitment to abolish Aimhigher—the programme up and down the country in our schools that supports young people from poorer backgrounds to get into university and that gets graduates back into schools so that participation rates rise. How will abolishing that fund help with the issues that the Opposition are raising?
In the constituency of Plymouth, Sutton there has been a 67 per cent. increase in participation since 1997, taking the number of young people going to university to more than 400. There also seems to be a particular surge at universities that are part of the University Alliance group, such as Plymouth, and in the number of students interested in the STEM subjects, such as maths and engineering. Does my right hon. Friend have anything to say to such universities about how that can be taken forward, given that a very precious thing has been established?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is very precious. I would say “Snap” to her—in Tottenham, we have also seen an increase of 67 per cent. in participation since 1997. Her emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics is the right one. I hope that she welcomes the plans that we set out in “Higher Ambitions” in November to ensure that we support the growth in participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and that we continue to see such a rise and support universities, such as Plymouth, that want to see a transition of students to those courses.
I am not going to give way—I think that I will make progress at this stage. I look forward to hearing what the hon. Gentleman has to say when he makes his speech, because he is always very entertaining.
Time and again, we have heard the hon. Member for Havant pledge that he can create 10,000 fully funded student places for the coming year. We have asked questions of him and time and again he has failed to answer them—as we heard again today—or to furnish the House with the detail that is needed to prove that his policy is anything other than a gimmick. It is a gimmick, because he is simply attempting to give Conservative candidates a little bit of cover as they go out to fight the general election. The Opposition do not really mean their pledge, because they are hugely exposed on higher education. The hon. Gentleman keeps coming back to this one policy on student places as a politically opportunistic device, even though he knows that he cannot cost it, that it would favour the wealthy and the very rich, that it is completely regressive and that what it offers is disingenuous.
That is why the million+ group of universities, made up of the universities dedicated to widening access over a consistent period—the modern universities—will be very disappointed that the apparent future Secretary of State, whose aspiration is to be responsible for higher education, describes the million+ group, these modern universities, as millennium plus. He did that in the House today. He cannot even get the name right—that is how much he cares about the universities’ commitment to this agenda. That is perhaps why they described his proposal for an early discount scheme as one that “doesn’t add up”.
The current president of the National Union of Students Australia, Carla Drakeford, said of the hon. Gentleman’s proposal:
“The Australian experience shows that giving discounts for early repayment of student loans is a con. Enticements to pay early are a trick for all but those who go on to earn the highest wages. It’s a good deal for the wealthiest, and a poor deal for everyone else. That’s why very few students make use of the…discount in Australia. It's simply not in the interests of the vast majority of students to take up discounts on what are effectively interest-free loans.”
Yes—it is the hon. Member for Havant who apparently has two brains, and he adopted that new phrase. Before even taking power, he began to reform modern universities to such an extent that he abolished them. That is an indication of what they can expect.
The hon. Gentleman must explain properly to the House how he would fund that proposal—[Interruption.] He says from a sedentary position that he has explained it, but he has not—or he has explained it badly. The universities do not understand it and students do not understand it, either in this country or in Australia. Apparently, the only person who understands it is him.
The Minister talks about students understanding things, and perhaps he could explain something to some students. UCAS published some figures on 22 January that show that last year, 158,000 of those students who applied for a place at university failed to get one compared with 110,000 the year before. That suggests that without action that number will increase. What message does the Minister give from his Government to those students who will not get a place at university and who cannot get a job as a consequence of Government inaction?
I said, let us turn to this issue. The hon. Gentleman should wait a moment. It is too early to say exactly how many students will be able to start university next year. We know that there will be more students participating in higher education next year than there were this year. We also know that of course demand is up, but I remind Opposition Members that at this point last year they were saying that clearing would be over in half a day, that there would be a crisis and that the Government were failing to support students. We saw nothing of the sort: clearing went on for weeks, and thousands of places were available. We did not see the crisis that they predicted, although I see that the word has been used again today.
It is too early to say. I do not know whether the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser) has a child in the sixth form, or whether he has been into a sixth-form college recently, but I remind him that students have not even taken their mock exams yet. They have not sat their A-levels yet, or received their results. We do not know what they have got, so the funding council has made an estimation. Sir Alan Langlands has said that it is an estimation, so let us see where we get to.
With all respect to the Minister, I asked a perfectly civil and polite question about those students who have been turned down already. I was not asking about those who are currently doing exams, but about those who failed to get into university last year. I gave the figure, saying that 158,000 students cannot get a place at university or a job. I would prefer it if the Minister could answer in respect of his responsibilities and not keep pushing the matter back across the Floor, because I believe that I am asking a perfectly civil question on behalf of 158,000 students in this country who deserve a better answer than the one that I have just been given.
They will get the answer that I have given, which is, first of all, that there will be more students next year than ever before in our history. Secondly, it is too early in the cycle to say what will happen this year, because students have not taken their A-levels and no offers have been made. Thirdly, every year there are students who apply to university who do not get in. I remind the hon. Gentleman that university entrance is competitive by nature and that not everyone who wants to go manages to do so in their first year of trying. However, all of that is against the backdrop of the fact that the Government have increased the number of places year on year. There will also be further increases this year.
I remind the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk that every year there are students who get three A grades but who do not go to university because they are unsuccessful in getting into the particular university or on to the particular course that they prefer.
Order. The hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser) is getting the answer that he is getting, whether he is happy with it or not. However, having asked the question, he must not keep interjecting as the Minister replies.
We have increased the number of apprenticeships available in further education to ensure that young people can also access them.
The Opposition have talked about unemployment, but let us be clear: we set up the future jobs fund to support young people at this time, and it is worth £1 billion. The Chancellor has effectively borrowed that money to ensure that employers and local authorities come forward to provide training and opportunities for young people. That leads me to what will be the central discussion in the general election. The Opposition have turned their face against that kind of borrowing, because they also say that we should cut now, and deeply. In fact, it was their intention to cut £600 million from my Department’s budget 18 months ago, so desirous were they to cut funding. So, if the Opposition came to power, they could not fund the extra places even if they wanted to.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and I know that he is doing his best to answer this important question. He said that it is early in the cycle, and we respect that, but both he and the House know that it is inconceivable that the Department has not modelled what is likely to happen, based on the experience of previous years. It would be a very irresponsible Department, and a very irresponsible Minister, if those projections had not been made. I think that the House owes it to the students concerned—and that he owes it to the House—to share some of those findings with us.
The hon. Gentleman knows that we have said already that demand is up by 23 per cent. We are monitoring the matter, and looking at what is a changing pattern over the course of the year. There is really nothing more to add, except to say that it far more likely that students will be at university under this Government, because we are committed to access and participation. In contrast, the Opposition would impose cuts now, and they have a scheme that cannot be properly funded or sustained. Under a Conservative Government, therefore, it is very likely that many fewer students would go on to higher education.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there seems to be some inconsistency among those on the Opposition Benches? They appear to object to having a target or aspiration that 50 per cent. of young people should go to university, but they complain that there are not enough places at present. They had better make their minds up if they want to be treated as an alternative Government.
My right hon. Friend makes the point succinctly and beautifully. I have nothing more to add, except to say that I totally agree that the Opposition are not clear about whether they are committed to the aspiration or whether they are using it as an opportunistic election ploy.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way, and I am sure that he is looking at future funding possibilities. Has he looked at discounts, and at how many people already pay back early? Has he made some assessment of what would happen if the sort of discount proposed by the Opposition were introduced?
My hon. Friend is right to raise that issue, because a considerable dead-weight cost is attached to the proposal. In addition, inequality problems would arise because the proposal favours the very wealthiest students, with poorer students possibly seeking to borrow money in order to pay back early what they owe. For those reasons, we reject the Opposition proposal.
Given the current nature of the economy, let us consider where graduates find themselves at this time. We are obviously pleased that the worst fears of the Association of Graduate Recruiters about the effect of the recession on graduate vacancies have not been realised. The latest figures from the association and elsewhere suggest that things in the graduate labour market are beginning to look up. The Government’s response to the particular problems that graduates have faced during the recession and the help that we and our partners have given to enhance employability skills and to boost students’ CVs will now start to pay dividends. The creation of the graduate talent pool and of no fewer than 24,000 graduate internships have been an important part of that, as has the scheme that we launched recently with Raleigh International to provide overseas placements for young people from poorer backgrounds. However, we must do more to help those who have taken up the new university places that we have created to carry the benefits of that opportunity through to the world of work. That is why we also recently announced 8,500 internships with small businesses, in partnership with the Federation of Small Businesses. Those internships are in priority sectors like the digital economy, the low-carbon economy and advanced manufacturing, and we hope to see their number grow over the next period.
We hope that that approach will foster new relationships between small and medium-sized enterprises and universities. We also hope that it will introduce graduates to the jobs of the future and give them an insight into the world of the entrepreneur. We have also asked all higher education institutions to produce a statement on how they can promote employability, and on how they plan to make access to information about employability outcomes available to prospective students.
That hard effort to increase the number of internships was scoffed at by the Opposition when we first proposed it. They said that it would not and could not work, and that it was wasted money. However, I remind them that our proposals are eons away from the failed youth training scheme that was offered to young people in the previous recession, when neither graduates nor young people who were a long way from going to university were supported. We are working with the Federation of Small Businesses and with industry to ensure that young people are not sitting unemployed. That is why there has been the decline in unemployment figures; they are employed and they are getting the skills, particularly the soft skills, that industry needs.
We remain committed to widening participation and access. We continue to monitor the situation for students this year, reflecting and remembering that now, in March, we are still very early in the cycle. I would ask the hon. Member for Havant not to be opportunistic with his prospective parliamentary candidates and others about this participation scheme, and ask him to think carefully about the messages that he is sending to young people. I also say to him that if he is serious about wanting to stand on this side of the Dispatch Box, he must come forward with a proposal that is properly costed and funded and that is actually workable. I remind him again that when we announced our policy to provide the support that we are giving young people in this more difficult economic time, he opposed those policies as well. He was wrong then and he is wrong now, and that is why I suspect he will never make it from being not a bad writer to being a Minister in a future Government.
This time next week, we shall all be eagerly anticipating the Chancellor’s Budget, which may be his last, both before and after the general election. We shall be waiting to see whether there is a bold vision for higher education and research in that Budget, but I think we would be foolish to hold our breath.
This Government decided not to have a comprehensive spending review to cover the current period and the next two years, quite in contradiction to their previous practice, both under the current Chancellor and the Prime Minister as Chancellor before him; yet higher education and research have been singled out for Budget cuts that have been announced so far, in stark contradiction to what has been announced for other Departments. Higher and further education have so far been the victims of targeted cuts that are announced by the Government, either on a piecemeal basis or alluded to in the pre-Budget report, which specifically mentioned science. I repeat my question to the Minister: what is the future for British science in this country when the pre-Budget report specifically says that science should be a target for cuts in the next period? We will have to wait for eight days to see whether the Chancellor expands on that.
We see the contrast, right at the top of the Government, between the Minister’s superior, Lord Mandelson, at the other end of the Palace of Westminster, and the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families: further and higher education have been put forward for sacrifice in contrast to the message from the Department for Children, Schools and Families.
Lord Browne’s review is under way. My party considers that the review could have started a lot sooner and, more importantly, could actually have concluded in advance of the impending general election. Then we could have had a genuine debate, with three choices being put forward by the three parties, informed by that review in advance of the general election. Sadly, we shall not get that chance at the coming general election, but it remains the position of the Liberal Democrats that the current tuition fees model for part-financing higher education is bust, and should not form part of the long-term future of funding higher education. We also specifically reject any moves for full variability in tuition fees. The theoretical ability to vary tuition fees exists at the moment, but if the cap were to come off or were to be gradually lifted, it would lead to a market in the cost of higher education, and that is a vision of the future that we simply do not share.
Although he is not listening at the moment, I congratulate the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) on using one of his brains to study the blogosphere very carefully. He obviously spends far more time on these matters than I do, whether it is blogs from my own side or from his, or from the Labour side of the Chamber. I am happy to confirm to him that scrapping tuition fees remains the position of my party. We have a six-year proposal to achieve that objective. It is fully costed and will be set out in our manifesto. In year 1, 2010-11, it will cost £595 million, and at the end of year 6 it will, on current figures, cost just under £3 billion. We will, as always, be identifying the sources of those funds.
The hon. Gentleman has just reconfirmed it. Can he now give a commitment that Liberal Democrat candidates up and down the country will stop putting misleading statements in their leaflets that give the impression that all tuition fees will be abolished in year 1? That is what the Liberal Democrats are doing and it is a fantasy.
Order. I say to the House, I appreciate that the general election is not very far away, but this—[Interruption.] Order. This is an extremely important subject, and both those who run our universities and the young people who hope to go there will be either listening to our debate tonight or reading it in Hansard tomorrow, and I suggest the House remembers that.
Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, could he actually answer my question? Will he stop his candidates up and down the country misleading people and suggesting, as many leaflets by Liberal Democrats throughout the country do, that the policy would be implemented and completed in year 1?
I reiterate that the position of my party is that tuition fees do not form part of the long-term future funding of higher education. We have a six-year costed plan to phase out tuition fees, but starting in year 1, 2010-11, we would remove the fees for anyone studying for their first undergraduate course in their final year of study. That means that every student currently at university entering their final year in 2010-11 would indeed be better off, and that applies in Chelmsford as much as it applies in Bristol, West and other parts of the country.
Will the hon. Gentleman answer this question? The politics page on the bbc.co.uk website claims that the overall costs of the Liberal Democrat policy over six years is £7.5 billion. Who is right—the Liberal Democrats or the BBC? Who should these great students in this great nation of ours believe—the BBC or the Liberal Democrats?
I think the simple answer, if I do the mental arithmetic, is that that is probably the cumulative cost over the six-year period. It is not the cost for each year. I have already said that the cost in the first year is £595 million. The cost in the final year—year 6—of the full removal of tuition fees for both full-time students and part-time students, who are very important in this equation, is on current figures £2.7 billion. Although I have not seen the article to which the hon. Gentleman refers, I would guess that the figure that he quotes is the cumulative cost of years 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. That was a nice try, but I do not think he has disproved the figures that I am giving.
The hon. Gentleman clearly hopes that students will be interested in his proposition that the Liberal Democrats will abolish tuition fees, but they will also be interested in a question that flows from that. If the fees were abolished under his scheme and those students were at university, how would he replace the revenue that universities would have lost? Would he shrink the numbers of universities and students, reduce the experience, or do something else?
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman was not listening too carefully to what I said earlier about that proposal being a costed proposal. Indeed, all of the quite limited number of extra-expenditure provisions that the Liberal Democrats will put forward in our manifesto for the forthcoming election are costed proposals. Each of those proposals, whether for the pupil premium, tax cuts for the low-paid or the phasing out of tuition fees, is fully costed. We have identified where all the money is going to come from, whether it is from refocusing tax credits, removing higher-rate tax relief for pension contributions or one of many other examples that I could cite. Those examples will be quoted in full, as they always have been in every general election that I have fought as a candidate going right back to 1992.
The hon. Gentleman accepts that his scheme would cost a considerable amount of money. He has previously described the 50 per cent. aspiration as fatuous, so will he confirm that under a Liberal Democrat Government there would be fewer students attending university?
No, I am not prepared to confirm that there would be fewer students, or, indeed, more. The Minister is probably quoting me out of context. [Interruption.] Surely not, indeed, but I think that he probably is when it comes to the 50 per cent. target. I think that I referred to the number as fatuous, because it could well be 49 or 51 per cent. The fact is that, as the hon. Member for Havant eventually said, the proportion of 18 to 30-year-olds attending higher education has been about 41 per cent. on average over the past decade. In some years, it has been 39 per cent. and in some years it has been 43 per cent., but there has been relatively little progress in the past decade, and unless we get a sharp increase in educational attainment in our schools over the next decade, it is hard to see how we are going to get anywhere near 50 per cent. overall. We are close to that figure for young women, but we are nowhere near it for young men, whether they are white, working-class boys or boys of Afro-Caribbean origin, as the Minister surely knows.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the consternation and multiple interventions that we have heard from Members of the other parties reflect their worry that only one political party is going into this election under the watchful eye of my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) with a fully costed proposal to remove the burden of tuition fees and the debt that accompanies them from future generations of students? Is he not immensely proud of that as a Liberal Democrat?
I am sure that my hon. Friend is absolutely right about the sage of Twickenham. I am looking forward to many debates in the general election, but particularly to the debate among the Treasury spokesmen of the three parties.
I shall now turn to the text of the motion, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I have been attempting to do for the past 10 minutes or so. It focuses on the number of applicants for higher education in the forthcoming academic year. The Minister eventually conceded that there has been an increase in demand, as he put it, for places this year, just as there was last year, but the people who apply this year will be competing with the people who lost out last year. In our debates at this time last year, Liberal Democrat and Conservative Members pointed out that a crisis was unfolding before our eyes, and the Minister said that the process was competitive—he has repeated that today—and that the people who lost out could always come back in the following year. So the Government must have known that this year’s position would potentially be even worse than last year’s, but they do not seem to have a clear response to that yet. Their response last year was completely inadequate: they eventually allowed universities to expand the number of places, but did not provide them with the normal teaching grant from the funding council to make sure that places were funded, so universities took on the cost of the Government’s lack of foresight and planning.
As this is a Conservative Opposition day, I shall address the Conservatives’ proposals.
Indeed, I do. When I have dispensed with the Conservative proposal, I shall turn to ours. The Conservatives have put forward a completely ludicrous scheme to offer a discount to students to pay their fees off early in order to gain a cash-flow advantage for the Student Loans Company and, indirectly, for the Treasury.
The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) hit the bullseye with his question. This is Conservative funny money, I am afraid, and offers no guarantee to young people that they will reap any advantage from this poorly costed, ill thought out proposal. It is the higher education equivalent of the Conservatives’ flagship policy on taxes and the Treasury, where all they have to offer is a cut in inheritance tax for the very wealthy. The only people who are certain to benefit from the proposal from the hon. Member for Havant are those students who are going to university and were always going to do so, and who come from the wealthiest families. There is no certainty that those from a poorer background are going to—[Interruption.]
Order. I remind the Whips that they are not supposed to intervene, and certainly not shout persistently from a sedentary position. It is not in order.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Conservative proposal for 10,000 extra places covers one cohort, which would go through university for three years? It is sometimes spun by Conservative politicians as 10,000 extra university places, without their saying that those extra places are available in one year only, to see the cohort through, which is sleight of hand.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right: there are lots of questions that the Conservatives have yet to answer about their proposal, but I am sure that the election debate, whether it is between the three spokesmen in the Chamber or between candidates up and down the country will draw that out.
Turning to the Liberal Democrat response to the crisis in university places and to the way in which young people have become victims of the recession, we, too, think that higher education is a good place for young people to shelter from the recession. We therefore propose 15,000 extra places, specifically in foundation degrees delivered in further education colleges in subjects such as engineering, IT and logistics—skills that we need—thus directly tackling the issues of social mobility and fair access to higher education. According to current statistics, roughly a quarter of the people who study for foundation degrees come from low-participation neighbourhoods. Before the Minister or someone else springs up and asks me where the money for that will come from, it also entails a refocusing of the Train to Gain budget, and has been costed at £120 million in 2010-11 to fund those 15,000 extra places. It is a precise amount; we say exactly what sort of provision there will be, where it will be delivered, what sort of subjects are involved, the amount of money it will cost and where that will come from. That Liberal Democrat proposal contrasts with the Conservatives’ funny money proposal.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He will forgive me if I missed it earlier, but he has talked about 15,000 extra places and has clearly set out where he thinks the £120 million will come from—presumably every year, and not just for one cohort. His proposal to abolish tuition fees in university, on the current number of students, is equivalent to a commitment of approximately £1.2 billion a year, when it is worked through at the end of the six-year abolition period. He has told us where the funding will come from for the 15,000 extra places. Can he tell us where that £1.2 billion a year, every year, will come from?
We are going back in time to try to cost the overall proposal to phase out tuition fees. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it is not just my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham who makes sure that the sums add up. I make sure that they add up in my portfolio as well. Our proposed extra foundation degree places for year 1 and year 2—foundation degrees are a two-year programme—are fully costed in the second year as well, and our aspiration in the second year to start phasing out the final year tuition fee cost is taken into account. That was dealt with in my previous answers.
Widening participation is mentioned in the Conservatives’ motion, but they had remarkably little to say about it. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of people attending university over the past 40 years, if not in the past 10 years, but that increase in participation in higher education has not been a socially balanced increase. That is the problem on which we should now focus. We know that in some social groups there is saturation point among those who go into higher education, whereas in other social groups things have barely changed since the 1960s. The child of a manual worker who did not go to university is just as unlikely to go to university now as in the 1960s, when I was born.
If the hon. Gentleman concedes that in some groups we have reached saturation point, in his words, does he not understand that that is precisely why our proposal for extra places in summer 2010 is socially progressive? It is the people from the backgrounds that are less likely to go to university, which is where the extra applications are concentrated, who will be helped by our proposal.
The hon. Gentleman is desperately trying to claim some sort of socially progressive message from the Conservatives’ proposals. Only one side of the equation is certain: who will benefit from the discount. The other side of the equation—who will benefit financially from the provision of extra places—is remarkably uncertain because we cannot be sure how many extra places there will be, where they are or whether they are guaranteed for the full period of a three or four-year degree programme.
If we are serious about socially balanced access to higher education, we know that the solution does not lie in our differences over higher education policy. It lies in driving up attainment in our schools. That is why the most costly proposal that the Liberal Democrats will put forward at the election is the introduction of a pupil premium, so that schools whose pupils who come from a disadvantaged background—for example, those on free school meals, as I was when I was in school—will get extra money for the pupils in their care to invest in smaller class sizes, smaller teaching groups or one-to-one intervention in order to make sure that young people do not fall behind. [Interruption.]
The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West says from a sedentary position, “We already do.” It is true that deprivation funding is granted to certain schools, but that is done on a postcode basis. He will know that poverty can be found in more affluent areas and the schools funding formula does not necessarily reflect the fact that in a school where the children overall come from better-off backgrounds, the funding formula does not provide extra funds for some children. We have proposed a pupil premium which is proven to work elsewhere, most notably in Holland, in order to give schools extra money. Free school meals is just one of the proxy measures that we will use to ensure early intervention, so that children do not get left behind.
Is my hon. Friend aware that in some schools in my constituency—the constituency that is considered the most affluent of the Manchester constituencies—some schools will get hundreds of thousands of pounds extra under our pupil premium proposals?
I am fully aware of that. Schools in my hon. Friend’s constituency, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), in my constituency, Bristol, West, and more importantly, in constituencies all round the country where there are disadvantaged children, will be direct beneficiaries of our pupil premium policy. It is by investment in education in schools or FE colleges that we will drive up attainment at 16 and increase progression to 18, so enabling more people to participate in higher education.
That is the point that I have always made—to return to the Minister’s intervention about the 50 per cent. target. The logical result of our pupil premium policy is that more people from a socially disadvantaged background will have the opportunity to participate in higher education, and then the numbers will naturally rise. It is more credible to have a policy that drives up attainment and participation, rather than to set a futuristic target and expect everything to flow through in order to meet it. Our policy will be fully funded and it will be set out clearly in our manifesto alongside our other proposals.
The hon. Gentleman says that it will be fully funded. When questioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), he put his hand up, in an Arnold Schwarzenegger “Hasta la vista, baby” moment, but he did not actually answer the question. He has to explain where the Liberal Democrats would get the money from to fund their proposal and get the increase, and he has not done so. Where would the money come from?
We are widening the debate into the costing of manifestos. I am happy, for the Minister’s benefit, to reiterate what I said in answer to previous interventions. The package of Liberal Democrat proposals at this election, whether they be for fair taxes for the low-paid, the pupil premium for schools, the phase-out of tuition fees, or extra police officers and youth workers on the streets, will be met by cutting back tax credits for some families, taking away higher rate pension tax relief for higher rate taxpayers, and closing some loopholes in the tax system so that we equalise up the tax rates that people pay on their capital gains to those taxes that people pay on their income or savings—a loophole that the Prime Minister opened up during his business-friendly days as Chancellor. We will not have identity cards as part of the future furniture of British life, and we will not have a bells and whistles replacement for Trident either. That is quite a long list of how our spending proposals will be funded. I look forward to similar candour from the Minister and from the Chancellor in a week’s time and at the forthcoming election about how the Labour Government will deal with their aspirations for the future and how they will tackle the current deficit in public funding.
The other way that we deal with widening participation in higher education, apart from the pupil premium, is by having some higher education outreach programmes in our schools and developing long-term relationships with schools in low-participation neighbourhoods, so that more young people will progress to university in the future. Flexible provision must also be part of that future, both for part-time students and for a key role for further education.
It is also important that we pay some attention to the subjects that young people study when they achieve access to higher education. We have said many times in this debate that we need a revolution in information, advice and guidance provided to young people. A related specific proposal that the Liberal Democrats will put forward at the election is of a national bursary scheme to incentivise people to take certain shortage subjects or strategically important subjects at university. If we do not get more people taking science, technology, engineering and maths, we will not have the people with the answers to climate change, we will not be able to build 21st-century transport infrastructure and we will not have the people who can develop our digital economy in the future.
We need to enthuse the young about science. This afternoon, I had a very enjoyable visit to the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, which reawakened my own enthusiasm for science, where I heard, among its many schemes for science outreach, about the “protons for breakfast” programme. We also need to ensure that science is taught well in schools, by having teachers who are qualified in the subjects and schools that can teach the full three sciences rather than just general science.
Investment in higher education and research is key both to this country’s future prosperity and to ensuring that we have some of the answers for the future, whether they be in health, climate change, or delivering social mobility, which we have also discussed this afternoon. The response of the rest of the developed world to the current recession has been to announce investment in higher education and research over the next decade. We will have to wait eight days to see whether the Government share that vision. The Liberal Democrats certainly believe that there must be investment in higher education and research so that we can have both an economically prosperous future and genuine social mobility.
Order. Six speakers are seeking to catch my eye, and we have about 50 minutes left. If hon. Members can exert a little self-discipline and take something under 10 minutes each, we will try to get everybody in if we possibly can.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall be very brief. I want to put out a radically different message from those that we have heard so far. It does not represent Government policy or Opposition policy, but it certainly represents a socialist policy.
I shall describe where we have come from. When I was a student in the 1960s, we had full grants and no fees. Indeed, my wife was a student at a teacher training college, and she had a full grant on which she could live throughout the year, with no fees. I remember my late father, who was then chair of Barnet constituency Labour party, saying at that time, “It won’t be long before we’ve abolished means testing, we’ll all get full grants and it’ll be paid for out of progressive general taxation.” That is what we looked forward to at that time. Now, we have many more students at university but we have gone way back on that situation, and that is regrettable.
In 1998, much to my surprise, our Government introduced a Bill that abolished grants and introduced fees. It was not in our manifesto, and I was one of33 Labour MPs who voted against it. I was very disappointed, and I subsequently voted against top-up fees as well. The National Union of Students has a modest proposal, saying that
“university education should be free at the point of use, with graduates giving back to the system depending on how much they earn”—
in other words, through general taxation. That just involves abolishing fees, essentially, and the union also says:
“NUS believes that businesses should be expected to make a greater contribution.”
If we restored corporation tax to its 1997 rate, which would not be difficult for companies to adhere to, we would have another £6 billion or £7 billion to spend, and that could go straight into higher education. A figure of £1.2 billion to abolish student fees is a small price: it represents about one third of a pence on the standard rate of tax, or about one seventh of our subsidy on the savings of the richest 1 per cent. of people in the country. Those are small sums of money, and if we look at the tax gap, we find that the vast amount of money that is not collected due to tax evasion, tax avoidance and whatever is estimated to be well over £100 billion a year. The money is there if we choose to find or raise it, and we could pay for a fully free system of higher education, with grants for all our students.
The hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) suggested that we persuade more people to take up apprenticeships rather than to go to university, but I want to see a world where there is a continuum, in which studying at university and being an apprentice are rather similar. The difference is that if one is an apprentice, one gets paid; if one is at university, one has to pay for the privilege. That suggests that university is something for the affluent middle class, because that is where they pay, and that apprenticeships are for working-class people, who cannot afford to go to university. That is profoundly misguided and wrong.
I want to see a world in which students, whatever their social background, have a choice, do not suffer a penalty by going to university and do not feel forced to go into an apprenticeship because of financial arrangements. People should not choose to go to university when an apprenticeship is more appropriate, but mention was made of the student experience, and that varies depending on one’s affluence and background. I have often imagined a scene where, at the same university, the working-class students, who do not have much money and have to borrow, work in bars and serve drinks to the wealthy students who do not have to work. Indeed, if one is a student from a less academic background, and one has to spend more of one’s time and energies raising money to study, one’s performance in one’s studies can be damaged, so we should be concerned about the student experience.
What is going to happen? Students now leave university with average debts of £20,000, and the NUS suggests that the figure might double in time. That will be a serious disincentive to many. It has also been suggested that the lifetime financial advantage of going to university is starting to taper downwards slightly; it is becoming less financially advantageous to go to university, and the way forward should be the funding of education at every level through progressive taxation. There are countries that do that—Finland, for example, does not charge; everything is paid for by the state in its state education system. That means that everybody has a fair crack of the whip and that nobody has to suffer because of their inability to pay.
Those are some of the points that I wanted to make; many of the others have been made already. In conclusion, I should say that in our local town is the university of Bedfordshire. I was chair of governors at the college of higher education that became the university. It is a splendid university that does a wonderful job. Its students are very diverse—a large number come from ethnic minorities or from not traditionally academic backgrounds and many do degrees as adult and part-time students. That is the sort of university that really makes a difference. It does a fantastic job and gets awards for the quality of its teaching and the employability of its students. Just recently it has been expanding research in the STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—subjects, and it is doing a tremendous job on that. The university of Bedfordshire deserves support, but it is not getting sufficient support at the moment. We should lift the cap on student numbers and encourage all our universities to take as many students as they can in future. That would benefit society, the universities and young people. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench have listened to what I have said.
It is clear that ensuring access to higher and further education is in the best interests of most students. Whenever the desire to access such education exists, we must give people the opportunity to fulfil their potential. Action has been taken towards that end. University has gone from being a rite of passage for the few to being a right to a better future for the many. Just as the number of people going to universities has increased, so has the number of courses that are available.
Yet too often that kaleidoscope of options breaks down into a black-and-white outcome. On the one hand, for those who go to university because they have the motivation and application, it is the perfect continuation of their intellectual education. On the other hand, a wasted minority go to university because of the paucity of alternatives. Too often, those who would be better served by apprenticeships, foundation courses or being in work are funnelled into full-time courses with no benefit to their lives. Three or four years later they emerge, saddled with at least £9,000 of debt and with no clear idea of what they want to do. They are no better off than when they started. That is a long time to be going in the wrong direction at such a high cost.
The issue of access to higher education has become confused with getting as many people into university as possible. University is right for some, but not for all. A blanket approach of 50 per cent. participation may be one way to unlock potential, but it will not produce the best results for 100 per cent. of the people who go. The Government are trying to offer more inclusive universities. Instead, they should be creating more inclusive routes to future jobs.
The Government must take a step back. Employers, voluntary associations and colleges could then work together to create a more flexible and worthwhile system for those who choose not to go to university. A greater range of alternative courses—part-time or work placement courses—would then exist, as well as the option of a local college or university. These could be based around jobs that genuinely cater for people’s talents.
Some proposals have been made on a more flexible approach. Increasingly, access to higher education courses and foundation degrees is being offered through partnerships with further education institutions. This brings opportunities closer to local people. Students unable to afford the cost of higher education away from home can still access some level of higher education nearby. I believe that the current figure for such courses is 10 per cent. of the higher education total. The Government’s policy paper, “Higher Ambitions”, noted:
“We are committed to the enhancement of locally accessible higher education that can create new opportunities for individuals and their communities.”
Yet I find it difficult to square such a statement with the impending cuts in higher education. Forcing universities to save £449 million will probably lead them to focus on core, rather than supplementary, services. That will lower the number of partnerships between universities and colleges, and in doing so limit people’s access to higher education, which so many have taken advantage of.
We must foster a culture in which people are not burdened with the expectation that they must go to university when they would better placed pursuing a more realistic alternative. Worthwhile jobs should have the same standing as degrees. Access to higher education should be seen as a lifelong opportunity, and not simply be focused on those turning 18. We must encourage people’s interests and abilities through the choices made available to them. “Give me a place to stand”, Archimedes said, “and I will move the world.” We must recognise that university is but one place to stand—there are other places—and we must ensure that we offer every 18 or 19-year-old a practical and achievable opportunity.
As you rightly said, Mr. Deputy Speaker, this is a very important debate. I know that young people will be following our proceedings, and I am pleased to make a contribution, not only because of that, and not only because I am a recovering academic. I taught in the university system in the mid-1980s, and I recall what it was like at that time—the inadequate facilities that we were trying to cope with, the limited experience that students had, the pressure on courses, the large seminar groups, and the difficulty that many had in getting into the system. The system of the 1980s short-changed students who were at university and denied life-changing opportunities to others who should have been at university but could not get there because of the lack of funding.
One of the reasons I left academia to come here was to try to address some of those problems and to seek a transformation in the university experience of students, which is what has been happening for the past 10 years. I wanted more people to go to university and those who did go to enjoy high-quality courses. About 300,000 more students are now going to university, and the chances of getting there have improved. I did some research that shows that 10 years ago about 64 per cent. of those applying to university got in; the figure now stands at about 68 per cent., so there is a distinct improvement. In my own constituency, which started from quite a high base, the figure has risen by a further 27 per cent. in the past 10 years.
I wanted extra investment to go in to support each student who was at university, and that, too, is exactly what has been happening—it is up by a third in real terms and now stands very favourably against the OECD average. I wanted more students from lower income backgrounds to get into universities, and because of the policies that we have been pursuing, we are seeing the fastest rise in access to university for students from lower decile backgrounds and some of the poorest and most deprived areas in the country.
One thing that is making a big difference is the education maintenance allowance. EMA support makes the difference for people who might otherwise have left the education system at 16. Because of EMA, they see their potential and realise that they can get to university. Any proposal to scale back EMA or to abolish it completely, which we are hearing from Opposition parties, would be detrimental to their declared objectives for universities.
I wanted more investment in further education colleges as well as in universities. In my constituency, we have seen a transformation in Warwickshire further education college in the past 10 years—a record level of investment and a sharp increase in the number of students who go through. That is partly attributable to the inspirational leadership of Ioan Morgan, who is due to retire this summer, and whose great work and contribution should be acknowledged.
I have also seen the difference in the two local universities, Coventry and Warwick. The latter is now among the top universities internationally. It is highly successful at securing private investment, but it is still dependent on significant public investment to sustain it. It plays a key role in the west midlands economy. The Warwick manufacturing group has become world renowned for its contribution, and Warwick’s medical school, which is new under this Government, now trains around 1,000 doctors and levers in important private research money. It is now involved in some leading aspects of medical research. Warwick medical school is supported by £6 million from Advantage West Midlands, the regional development agency. I am concerned at the suggestions we hear from the Opposition parties that RDAs might disappear, which again does not sit very neatly with their alleged aspirations to improve universities and the university experience.
Many of those developments have been supported by the controversial reform of funding, about which we have had intense debates. However, I believe that we have settled on a fair policy. It recognises that there will continue to be a major public contribution to support people going through university, but also that there will be a contribution from the students themselves, reflecting the long-term advantage that they will gain. I wanted a review after the original cohort had left university, and I am pleased that that is now happening. I am delighted that the review will involve student representation—indeed, students will be represented by a Warwick university student. We should await the outcome of the review, but if it concludes that we are keeping the fees system, I hope that we will not depart from the core principles of widening access, improving quality and matching any change in fees with changes in grant.
May I make one long-term proposal to my hon. Friend the Minister? Can we think again about child trust funds? I raised that in 2003 when we debated revising the cap on fees, but I want to talk about it again. The first child trust funds will be fully maturing in about eight years’ time. Will the Government consider allowing some people to convert their child trust fund as it matures into an education trust fund if they choose to use it to fund themselves through university? If they come from a family background that meant that they benefited from additional top-ups during the growth of the child trust fund, could we not provide a further top-up if it is converted into an education trust fund? That, too, would go a long way towards long-term investment for education, and is part of what we must do to widen opportunities and diminish inequalities. We should be thinking not about abolishing the child trust fund, as we hear from Opposition parties, or about limiting its scope, but about widening it in imaginative ways to serve those longer-term educational objectives.
When I have discussions with year 10 students in schools in my constituency, I do not find a great love for fees, but nor do I find great love for the alternatives. That is certainly true when we discuss the graduate tax or having a slimmed-down university system as a way of getting rid of fees. Those students accept that we must share the costs fairly. They will carefully scrutinise what we propose after the review, just as they scrutinise ideas and suggestions now. They have spotted the quack remedy that we have heard from the Opposition this evening, funded as it is by the bizarre belief that tens of thousands of new graduates will rush to make early repayments of their loans—an unreal suggestion.
The Government have higher ambitions, and the young people we are talking about have higher ambitions for themselves. I am certain that the only way that those ambitions will be realised is if we maintain the approach to universities and funding that we have seen from this Government over the last 10 years.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this important debate on access to higher education. I wish to focus my comments this evening on the challenges facing those who are already studying at university, because we should not have a debate about improving access to higher education without considering the alarming level of drop-outs—a situation that has been made much worse by the student loans fiasco that the Government oversaw last autumn. Remarkably, they are still making a giant cock-up of that as we speak.
It is fair to say that no hon. Member would disagree that widening access to higher education is very important. Indeed, I would go as far as to say there is something of a cross-party consensus with regard to intention. There is general agreement that all young people, whatever their background, should have the opportunity of a place at university if they have the ability. Young people have no lack of aspiration, but there are clearly barriers to that aspiration. That is why we must all do what we can to ensure equality of opportunity for all.
Last year, according to UCAS, 158,000 people who applied for a place at university failed to get one—40,000 more than in the previous year. That suggests to me that the number of disappointed applicants will increase again this year, possibly by an even greater number. The situation is being exacerbated by the fact that many applicants, who would have otherwise secured employment, have been encouraged to apply to university by the sharply contracting job market. Let us not forget that some 1 million young people are now not in education, employment or training. This recession has hit the young particularly savagely.
The harsh reality is that despite a sharp rise in applications, many bright and able young people will be denied a university place, especially as we expect a reduction of 6,000 undergraduate places in 2010-11. If that is not a signal that the Labour Government have failed young people, what is? Even Pam Tatlow, who represents million+, and who apparently wants to be a Labour MP, believes that what Labour has done in cutting university places is wrong. In its report entitled “Scarred for Life”, million+ said that
“young people who might have gone to university, risk being relegated to the ranks of the long-term unemployed, with all the personal, family and health consequences this brings”.
Pam Tatlow and her report are right. The Government are not doing enough to help while our young people struggle. They are allowing the talents of a swathe of young people to be wasted.
In fact, the Government have failed young people since they came to power in 1997 by largely failing in their efforts to widen participation in higher education. Rarely has so much money been spent to such little effect. It is scandalous when we consider the reality of what has happened.
As well as this 13-year failure, there is also the scandal of the past year and the student loans fiasco. Many students still have yet to receive the financial support that they are entitled to and so desperately need. It is causing huge problems—some students have dropped out already and others are on the verge of doing so. While the current drop-out rate stands at about 7 per cent. for universities, I have little doubt that this figure will rise in light of the student loans crisis of the past year. I recently raised the current situation with Reading university, based in my constituency. As things stand, about 200 students at Reading university are still awaiting loans from Student Finance England, although I find it remarkable that the organisation is unable to produce an accurate list, so it is impossible to determine the exact number of students affected by the ongoing crisis. Reading university is doing its best to help those who have contacted it for help, but many students have probably not contacted the university, as I found out when I visited one of the halls of residence and discussed the matter with students. It is highly likely that Reading university is far from unique, and other universities throughout the country have students who are still affected.
As things stand, many students are hanging on to their degree courses by their fingertips. I am sure that the whole House would agree that this is an unacceptable state of affairs. In the context of today’s debate, I fail to see how such ongoing failure and incompetence can be seen as a commitment to widening participation or widening access. In fact, it is disastrous for widening participation. Let me be absolutely clear: it is the most hard-to-reach groups that are being made to suffer the most in this debacle. That should be to this Labour Government’s eternal shame. Having overcome all sorts of personal obstacles and barriers to secure a university place, many disabled students are still not getting the financial support that they need and deserve.
Astonishingly, recent figures from Student Finance England have shown that only 6,000 of the 19,000 applications for disabled students allowance have been processed. Last month my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) asked the Minister about the disabled students allowance. The Minister confirmed that 27 per cent. of applicants were still awaiting the result of an assessment, and that payments had been made to only 29 per cent. of applicants. Although recipients of the grant constitute a small number of the overall student population, figures show that in 2007-08 they totalled 40,700. Indeed, in a parliamentary answer given in November in the other place, the figure given for total expenditure on such students was £90 million, which equates to an average of £2,210 a student.
Assuming that the numbers have grown slightly since 2007-08, by my calculations around 30,000 disabled students have not received their proper entitlement. If that had happened under a Conservative Government, there would quite rightly have been howls of outrage, not least from newspapers such as The Guardian, yet we have heard little or nothing about it. It is with great sadness that I say that it is our most vulnerable students who are being let down by this useless, inept Government. I find the situation shocking and, quite frankly, unacceptable. How could any Government manage to be so incompetent?
However, it is not just disabled students who have been let down. Many families on low incomes have also been affected. That is because anything over and above the basic level of a maintenance loan is means-tested, and the processing element of such requests is done after the standard loan has been decided. That means that mature students with considerable family responsibilities are suffering. Such students from non-traditional backgrounds are the very people whom this Government have preached about helping into higher education, and the very people who are on the verge of dropping out, owing to the disgraceful lack of financial help and support.
Such people are often the recipients of child care grants and adult dependent grants. The figures for 2008-09 show that 9,800 students in England received child care grants worth a total of £36.1 million, which is an average of just under £3,700 for each student in receipt of the grant, while 7,800 students received a total of £18 million in adult dependent grants, an average of just over £2,300 for each student. Those people are in real trouble, and yet Student Finance England is apparently completely unable to provide any data on the backlog, because payments are being processed manually. Can you believe it, Mr. Deputy Speaker? Tens of billions of pounds have been spent by this Government on computers, and yet the funds to reach some of our poorest students are being processed manually. You just could not make it up if you tried.
I do not criticise the support package itself; indeed, it is commendable. In a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller), the Minister confirmed that a child care grant of up to £13,260 a year is available for eligible, full-time undergraduate students with children in child care, although as I have just mentioned, the average works out at about £3,500.
Let us put the exact figures aside, however. How can people look after their children if the money has not arrived for the past six months? Where is the money now, and when will it be paid? How can a family survive in such circumstances? Although only 0.5 per cent. of students are eligible for support, they are in many ways the most affected. Such students are crucial to the widening of participation, and they should be nurtured.
Let me say one last word before I am told to sit down. [Interruption.] The Front Benchers spoke for an hour and a half, and I want to have the final say.
Another group has been let down by incompetence on account of another failure to deliver the financial assistance that was promised. This Government can never again preach about widening participation, given that they cannot even deliver on their basic duty of care to disabled students and mature students who want to look after their families.
I want to explain, in clear language, why so many chemistry and physics departments close. That accusation was made by the Conservatives, and it is true.
There are two main reasons why it has happened. First, under the Conservative Government teaching was made a very unattractive proposition owing to the huge cuts that were forced on secondary schools. Secondly, the number of specialist teachers available to teach physics, chemistry and mathematics in those secondary schools fell under successive years of Conservative Government, and eventually—until the present Administration took control—non-specialists were trying to teach very technical subjects. Given that factor alone, is it any wonder that there was little demand for university places for the study of science and engineering?
In the 1960s and 1970s, there were four examples of what I would term colleges of advanced technology, churning out thousands of scientists and engineers. They were Brunel, Aston, Salford and Bradford. What happened in 1981, just after the Conservative Government had taken control? Those four colleges almost closed. It is true that the Conservatives made them into universities, but then they almost closed them. John Ashworth, the new vice-chancellor of Salford university, arrived in 1981 to face—and this is the truth—a 44 per cent. cut in funding for a single university, and that was not uncommon. All the other colleges of advanced technology churning out all those scientists and engineers suffered similar cuts, which completely destabilised their chemistry, physics and engineering departments.
Salford used to have the largest chemistry department in the country; it also taught physics very adequately, and had a very good mathematics department. Even more important, it had large and productive engineering departments teaching civil, mechanical and electrical engineering, and the graduates experienced no trouble in obtaining jobs in British industry. Following the cuts made by the Tory Administration, however, those departments closed one by one, and there were similar developments throughout the British university system.
The cuts continued. Between 1989 and 1997, there was a 36 per cent. fall in funding for students in our higher education system. The truth is that the Conservatives caused those departments to close, and caused the shortage of scientists and engineers in this country. They have asked the same question three times, and now I have given them a truthful answer.
When the present Administration took control in 1997, the buildings in our universities and schools were in a shocking state. I am proud of my Government for investing so much money—not just revenue expenditure to support students in our universities, but tens of billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to bring not only schools but, in particular, universities up to a decent standard. I am now proud to enter the chemistry department of Manchester university, and to compare the state of its laboratories today with the state the laboratories that I knew under the Conservative Administration. Students now want to study and research in those laboratories, but if they had gone to a university such as Manchester for an interview during the Conservative Administration, they would have seen some very shoddy laboratories.
I want to be parochial for a few moments. When I was first elected to represent my constituency in 1997, not one of my secondary schools had a sixth form attached to it. The only sixth-form college was geographically remote from many of my constituents, so they either did not bother to get a qualification that would give them access to university or they had to travel out of the borough to Bury or Salford—or they had to go to the other two parliamentary constituencies where the schools did have sixth forms attached to them. Today the position has completely turned around. Thanks to this Government, a brand new community college is now under construction in my constituency, and I also have a new sixth form under construction. Both of them are going to open this September on an educational campus adjacent to the university of Bolton. Also, in one of the poorest areas of my constituency I have a second brand new sixth-form college, and it is oversubscribed. The students who formerly went out of the borough now want to study in these brand new colleges, but if it had not been for this Labour Government, we would not have had three brand new colleges, provided by the Learning and Skills Council. These colleges are now attracting students back to study mainstream subjects.
I have to hand some figures showing the effect of a Labour Government for my students. In the academic year 1997-98, in the most affluent of our parliamentary Bolton constituencies, Bolton, West, 2,220 students enrolled in UK higher education institutes. By 2008-09, that figure had gone up to 2,685. In the Bolton, North-East constituency, the figures are 1,945, up to 2,260. In my constituency, which is the least affluent of the three Bolton constituencies, the figure in 1997-98 was only 1,560, but by 2008-09 it had increased significantly, to 2,155, thanks to the policies of this Government. However, now that these three new colleges are in place—two sixth-form colleges and one community college—I am expecting more of my students, including some from among the poorest estates in my constituency, to begin to access higher and further education.
I warn my constituents tonight that if we see another Conservative Government, we will see another deterioration not only in secondary education, but in further and higher education. That is the choice my constituents will face on 6 May—or whenever the general election is held.
I think that I may have the pleasure of being the last Back-Bench speaker in this debate. More than anything, I want to look forward, rather than backwards. I may be one of the newer and younger Members of this House, but that means that I have a rather different perspective from some other Members.
I do not know how old previous speakers were under the last Conservative Government, but new students now—whom we should be thinking about, and who might be listening to this debate or might read the record of it tomorrow—were five years old under the previous Conservative Government. It does no honour to them at all to say that they have not the brains to look at the choices facing them now, and in the next three years, and the next 10 and 20 years, and throughout their economic lives. It is essential that we look forward, not back. If we do that, we will all realise what choices we have to consider, and students will do that as well.
Let me start by saying that anybody who has the academic ability and ambition to go to university should have the opportunity to do so, regardless of how wealthy their parents are. In my view, a person’s time at university is the beginning of their independence, and it is all the more important that that independence occurs financially, as well as socially and emotionally. Students at the point of moving away to university—I note that many students in my constituency are being encouraged to stay at home, but we might get on to that separate topic later—begin to plan their lives independently of their family background. That is an incredibly important milestone in social mobility. We are talking about the lives of individuals. We are talking about someone moving away from their background and saying, “I am going to create my life. I am going to do what I want to do with my life.” That occurring on a small scale and eventually being writ large across society is how social mobility works. It is about individuals choosing what they wish to do with their lives. I fully support the role of this debate in drawing attention to what choices individual students wish to make. Higher education is, therefore, an investment in one’s own future. I accept that, as I suspect hon. Members from all parts of the House would. I hope that they understand the economic ramifications of it.
I shall draw further attention to myself by saying that I suspect that I am one of the few Members of this House who is paying off their student loan and putting the Department of Resources to the trouble of calculating the payment to come out of my monthly pay cheque—
Irrespective of whatever I may or may not be contributing myself, I welcome Lord Browne’s review of higher education funding and student finance. I particularly welcome its balance and the way in which its terms of reference allow an exploration of the balance of contribution among taxpayers, students, graduates and employers. Some important points of intergenerational fairness are contained in that review, and I wish to discuss that briefly before posing three questions.
This generation is the one that will pick up the bill for this Government’s debt crisis, the one that will have to work harder to obtain higher qualifications in order to have the privilege of doing so and, sadly, for reasons that are outside the remit of this debate, the one that is, in many cases, leaving school with worse qualifications in the sense of being able to read, write and get out into the workplace. Many students I meet during the course of my constituency duties testify to that, as do many businesses, which are seeking to employ them positively but are looking for the things that will help them to do that.
This generation is also the one that will have to work longer and harder to pay off that debt crisis. I understand that we will all now individually be paying £23,500 to get rid of that debt, and that collectively the amount of interest we are paying on our debt is more than the dedicated schools grant. In addition, inequality has widened over the past decade, as I believe the National Equality Panel report confirms. This year’s 18-year-olds are the first to have experienced their entire education under only a Labour Government, starting from that point of five years old, to which I have referred. Given all that, perhaps the Ministers would like to join me in an exercise of arithmetic, although they failed to do that earlier. We know what the choice is facing those young people—incidentally, I should mention that they are also first-time voters—as do they. This Government have failed that generation and its parents.
I wish to focus on just three ways in which this Government are confused. I shall focus on this year’s sharp increase in the number of applications, on the reduction in the number of undergraduate places and on my concerns about a couple of other matters dealt with in the funding letter that went to institutions last December. First, there will be 6,000 fewer university places in September, so why are the Government not considering ways to allow more students to go to university? My second question relates to the teaching allocation. I understand that the letter says that the allocation decreases by 1.6 per cent. in real terms. Why do the Government not agree that teaching quality and the student experience must not suffer in this round? My third question is rather more of a specialist one, and it relates to historic buildings. I would be grateful for some information from the Government Front-Bench team on why the Government are not sticking by a pledge across the Departments to promote access to the built and historic environment. I shall come on to that shortly.
Institutions such as Norwich university college of the arts, which despite sitting in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), who is sadly not in his place, serves my constituents and a wider regional and national area too, are suffering a reduction in resources at a time when demand is extremely high. I can quantify that for hon. Members by saying that there has been an increase of 140 per cent. in the number of applications to it this year. However, it has been limited to an intake of 500 first-year students although it has more than 1,000 applications from students of good ability, attainment and ambition seeking to take its courses. I am not talking just about courses that could be said not to matter—although I challenge anybody in the House to define what such courses might be—but about courses that are strongly linked to areas of emerging economic strength, regionally and nationally.
As any Member will know, we are talking about not just units of growth but individual people—18-year-olds—whose hopes are being dashed. What is dashing them? It is not the economic situation alone but the lack of freedom given to higher education institutions to innovate and do what they do best in teaching students. There are ways to create extra places, as demonstrated by my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts). I simply do not think the Government have considered the economic and human impact of allowing this reduction to pass. Anyone who has the academic ability and ambition, as I have said, should have the opportunity to go to university, and I cannot think how the Minister can reconcile his agreement with that statement with such a policy this year.
The teaching allocation within the higher education settlement decreases by 1.6 per cent. in real terms this year, as per the letter written by the noble Lord Mandelson in December. Teaching quality and the student experience must not suffer. We need more tutor attention for students, not less, so we are able to compete internationally in higher education. I think that the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property agrees with that. He has said:
“Teaching is protected because this government recognises that a higher quality student experience with excellent teaching and research is vital”.
Will he now explain how the teaching budget cuts of 1.6 per cent. in real terms protect that teaching?
If we are to achieve any consensus on the fees review in a way that is progressive, fair, sustainable and supportive of social mobility, the bargain must be that people pay for higher education but only for good-quality higher education. The payment should be for teaching by qualified, experienced, researching academics who work together with their undergraduates and their postgraduates to make our higher education institutions internationally proud places to study in. I want to see whether the Minister can continue to assert in his summing up that Government plans will have no impact on those laudable aims.
The final, rather more specialist, aspect of my speech relates, as I mentioned before, to historic buildings. My understanding is that some universities and colleges will be experiencing a particular impact from the noble Lord’s cuts because of their historical estates. I understand that some higher education institutions will have suffered the withdrawal of the premium for historic buildings because of that letter. Not only will that undermine the ability to provide an environment for learning, but it will damage our national heritage more broadly. We all value the aims and ideals of education, and we can all understand that point, if it is true. I look forward to some clarification, as I can see looks of puzzlement on the Ministers’ faces.
I want to draw out a point of confusion in the Government. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s mission statement—mission statements are wonderful things—states:
“We work to support and promote the widest access to excellence in culture—in the arts, in museums and galleries, in architecture and in the built and the historic environment, and libraries.”
“Access” is a key word there. It runs through the entire debate and through the themes of fairness that we have been speaking about all evening. As today’s motion notes, an enormous contribution is made to our economy and to our civic life by universities. We all want the widest range of access to our economic, civic, educational and heritage assets because that is fair and progressive.
Having said that, I do not expect the Chancellor to speak to the First Secretary, or for him to speak to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, but if some parts of the Government are interested in cultural and historical sites of importance while another part of the Government is cutting funding to educational institutions on the same grounds, surely we are all in a pickle. I do not know why the Government are not helping us in this matter by acting in a joined-up way. I would like them to answer all three of the questions that I have posed.
This has been an important debate, because all our futures are built on how well we educate the next generation. It was begun splendidly by my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) and we have heard the enthusiasm for higher education that permeates this House and crosses parties.
As Disraeli said:
“Upon the education of the people of this country the fate of this country depends.”
This is also an important debate because our country faces real choices. The choice is between a Government who promised so much yet have delivered so little, and a new Conservative Government determined to deliver real opportunity and to help everyone to do their best. As youth unemployment reaches record highs and the number of people not in education, employment or work nudges the 1 million mark, we should not let this Government get away for a second with their claim—and they have repeated it tonight with extraordinary temerity—that 50 per cent. of all young people would go to university.
That is exactly what Tony Blair promised the Labour conference 10 years ago. It is also what the Labour party manifesto promised in 2001, with the claim that it would be achieved by the end of a decade. This Government encouraged all to aspire to the academic path and by that yardstick—their yardstick—they have failed. They have failed to meet their target for participation, failed to widen access to higher education, and failed to expand opportunity.
It is clear for all to see. There has been a sharp increase in applications, with a cumulative effect that was identified by the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams). So applications for HE next year are likely to go up, but in response the Government are planning cuts that are likely to lead to a reduction of 6,000 places.
The loss of those places will disappoint thousands of young people. After spinning the virtues of academic achievement for so long, the Government are pulling up the ladder of opportunity.
On that point, does my hon. Friend agree that what the Minister said to me earlier was an insult to the 158,000 students who were refused a place at university last year? In response to my intervention, the Minister said they should return to sixth-form college. Does that not show a complete lack of understanding of the problem, and of understanding and sympathy for the problems that students face?
I think very highly of the Minister, and I admire his long journey from Tottenham to this place. However, I thought that he was disappointing—understandably, the response that he received in this House was one of surprise, nay shock; and disappointing in the message that he broadcast to all the young people coping with disappointment themselves as a result of the Government’s failure to live up to their pledge. The Government are pulling up the ladder of opportunity, and that is not a happy position for this Minister, or others, to be in.
The facts behind the Government’s failure speak for themselves. Even though the figures have been recalibrated and recalculated, by last year the Government had achieved just 43 per cent. participation in HE. The House will remember all the promises of 50 per cent. participation, but the real rate is only 43 per cent., and participation by young women masks the failure to allow more young men to participate.
Participation among men stands at only 38 per cent.—just 1 per cent. higher than a decade ago. That is all the difference that the Government have made, despite all their rhetoric and spin. Under a consistent measure, the proportion of entrants overall has hardly increased over the decade. And even though the Government have spent more than £2 billion a year on programmes to widen participation—and we heard the Minister wax lyrical about them again earlier—the participation rate by working-class students has hardly improved since 1995. As my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) memorably put it, so much for so little.
As though that were not bad enough, the improvement rate for working-class participation has actually declined. In the previous decade, participation by working-class students grew at a faster rate, according to the Government’s own figures—[Interruption.] The Minister makes an intervention from a sedentary position with a degree of complacency that I think inappropriate, given the subject that we are debating. However, he will know that the latest statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that the number of undergraduates from lower socioeconomic groups is falling.
In all our key competitors, vocational education and training provide an alternative route to higher-level skills, as my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) said. Here, however, the number of people taking level 3—that is, technician-level—apprenticeships has fallen. At the beginning of the decade, 84,600 people started an advanced-level apprenticeship, but last year that number was 81,400.
The Minister shakes his head once again, but the figures are here for him to consider, when he wishes to do so. Let us just compare our figures with those for France and Germany. In both those countries, more than 500,000 people start the equivalent of a level 3 apprenticeship every year.
John Ruskin was right:
“Education is the leading of human souls to what is best, and making the best of them.”
Too often people, especially young people, do not get the advice and guidance that they need to turn their ambitions into reality. In two thirds of schools in England, careers advice is given by staff without any formal qualifications, and a recent study found that only 31 per cent. of young people feel that they are getting adequate information about going to university. That is why we so desperately need a dedicated, impartial, all-age careers service with a presence in every school and college in this country and a presence on the high street too.
If we are to help more people to access higher education, we have to move away from the Government’s narrow view that the only form of study that counts is full-time degree courses taken at 18. According to a recent report written for the Government,
“the UK is not doing enough to provide a more or less complete online educational experience to students who, for a variety of reasons cannot enjoy a conventional campus based learning experience.”
I believe that institutions must be given more flexibility to deliver greater opportunity in practice, and that means that, as a nation, we cannot afford to fall behind other countries in the provision of e-learning and other forms of distance learning. We need to look again at part-time study, flexible learning, credit-based learning and modular learning.
It is extraordinary that institutions are not encouraged by the Government to learn from the Open university, which has led the way in developing innovative ways to study online. Many new universities, first as polytechnics and since, have developed strong links with local industry over many decades. They have pioneered sandwich courses and part-time day release courses in which students can combine work and study. But the Government’s expectation that universities should all be alike has often undermined those links. [Interruption.] The Minister is chuntering again, but he must know that sandwich courses have declined, according to Universities UK and CBI research. He knows, too, that the number of students participating part-time has declined too.
Lord Mandelson talks about a two-year degree course. We already have a two-year degree course: it is called a foundation degree, often developed in collaboration with FE. My hon. Friend the Member for Havant made it clear that alongside HNDs and other traditional vocational educational routes, we value foundation degrees. They make possible flexible study and are a route to a full degree. But the danger is that under the Government’s plans, in future many more students will be denied the chance to take up foundation degrees, as universities claw back these places from colleges. That is what the Association of Colleges warns and we are hearing from colleges up and down the country that their provision of HE in further education, with all the advantages it offers in terms of widening participation, is now jeopardised.
I will not, because I want to make progress. I do apologise. There is limited time.
When I meet students up and down the country, I am struck by just how many work part time, even though they study for a full-time degree course. The fact is that many now need to combine study with work, even if they are registered as full-time students. Condensing studies into two years may be a barrier to some potential students. Instead of prescribing to universities how to deliver new forms of provision, we should be giving institutions the freedom that they need to develop programmes that best meet the needs of their students and their communities. We should be encouraging greater collaboration between FE and HE. We should be more imaginative and innovative about what is taught, where it is taught and how it is taught. That is the best way of widening participation, not dictating to universities from the centre in the micro-managed, target-driven way so favoured by this Administration.
I know, of course, that these Ministers are not despicable, and I know they are distressed because they are distrusted and now disdained. I know too that they are disappointed, disabled by their own incapacity to put right what they have done wrong, because they carry the bitter legacy of their Labour predecessors’ failure. Ministers, however well meaning, will not concede; they do not prepare because they cannot pretend to be capable of making the change that we need. Instead we have the obfuscation, exaggeration and self-congratulation of the amendment they have tabled tonight. It is all about the past, not the future. Spin, not substance, is given undeserved attention by that misleading amendment to our modest motion. Only a fresh start can bring the change we need: change and hope, change for the better and hope for the future.
As Ezra Pound said:
“A man’s hope measures his civilization.”
I know that Ministers are civilised people. They are marked not by malevolence but by mistakes and misadventure. They are drowning, not waving.
Whatever Ministers’ motives, they have done for Britain what Philip Larkin said our parents do to us all. Strangely, they have let down the parents as much as their children. All those ambitions frustrated by a cut in the number of university places—more than a quarter of a million will miss out this year. For that reason alone, it is time to change.
It is time to dare to dream again of a change for the better: a better Government who will create 100,000 new apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeship places; a better Government who will provide 50,000 more FE college places a year; and a better Government who will fund 10,000 extra student places and so make people’s dreams come true. There is a chance to change and a chance to hope for a better Government—a Conservative Government.
By putting that third poet in, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) took more time than he was allocated, Mr. Speaker, but he is a literate man and we are always delighted when he does that.
I congratulate hon. Members on an excellent debate, despite the knockabout at the end from the hon. Gentleman. We have had some great Back-Bench contributions, including from my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins), who expounded higher education policy on behalf of himself. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) made a fine contribution, and on the Labour side there was an extremely thoughtful and thought-provoking speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt), who described himself as a recovering academic, unless I misheard him. He rightly pointed out that the success rate for students getting into universities has increased in the past 10 years from 64 to 68 per cent. One would not think so from listening to Opposition Members, but that is a fact. He rightly paid tribute to Ioan Morgan from his constituency, who is a native of Tredegar in the county I come from in south Wales. He made an interesting proposal on education trust funds that I think bears further examination.
We heard from the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon). My hon. Friend spoke with great authority, as ever, about science and science teaching and rightly pointed out the investment that this Government have made in further education in the past 10 years. Hon. Members did not mention, but could have, that in 1997 not a single penny was spent by the Conservative party on capital in our further education system.
We also heard from the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Chloe Smith), who mentioned the historic buildings proposal, which I understand comes from the funding council. We were not looking perplexed; that is the case. Interestingly, she pointed out to the House that she is still paying off her student loan, so reminding us of exactly the kind of person who would benefit from the discount that the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) proposes. It would be Members of Parliament and people of that ilk who would get the 10 per cent. discount that he wants to offer. I noted that the hon. Lady did not declare an interest, but that is, perhaps, understandable: she knows that the hon. Gentleman has no intention of introducing the policy, because he knows that it is completely unworkable.
The Conservative Front-Bench contribution perfectly embodied the values and playbook of the Cameroonian Conservative party—a series of assertions, positionings and manoeuvrings designed to suggest a feint to the left on the political field, while all the time the ball is being shoved up the jumper, hidden and moved carefully to the right wing, where we know it really is. Any good coach would tell you, Mr. Speaker, that when such tactics are used you should look at the big picture. Despite all the hullabaloo, distraction and nods by the Tories in this debate to more being done on FE and HE, they plan to cut public spending quickly and deeply this year if they get anywhere near to power. In the meantime, however, they want to pretend that they would like to do more.
To sustain the illusion, the hon. Member for Havant is peddling a bogus policy based on Mickey Mouse maths. On his student loan refund scheme, he thinks that if he repeats often enough in the House, with sufficient swivel-eyed conviction, that two and two make five, eventually people will start believe that two and two make five. I have to point out, as Labour Members have already pointed out several times, that his refund scheme simply does not add up. He does not have to listen to us—he can listen to people outside, because he might think that I am a little biased. He would be right, because I am, but there are other voices he could listen to. Perhaps he should listen to million+, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East mentioned, and which says some interesting things about the proposal. It points out that the immediate likely impact would be an increase in the uptake of student loans by people who do not need to take out a student loan, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) rightly pointed out.
An early discount repayment scheme would incentivise students who can afford to pay to take out a loan. If tuition fees were £10,000, by taking out a loan with a 10 per cent. discount for early repayment, they could pay back £9,000, rather than £10,000. On that, million+ says:
“There is a real risk that such a scheme would change student behaviour with wealthier students…paying less towards the cost of their higher education than students are not…well off”.
So much for the progressive policies of the Opposition—their proposal is a giveaway for those who least need it. Where have we heard that before?
At least the Opposition are consistent. Whether it is inheritance tax or student finance, they make sure that their minted mates are looked after first. It is worse than that, because the amount that the proposal would raise in revenue would fall pitifully short of what would be required to fund the 10,000 student places that they bogusly say they are going to fund—more Mickey Mouse maths. The policy of the hon. Member for Havant costs him £30 million before he has funded a single extra place, because £300 million is already repaid by graduates every year without a discount operating. If they receive his 10 per cent. discount—and he cannot prevent them from doing so—it will cost him a cool £30 million in exchange for precisely nothing. More Mickey Mouse maths.
In any case, the hon. Gentleman’s assumption that he will get big money from his scheme flies in the face of the evidence from Australia, which tried double the discount rate that he is offering. The take-up was tiny, so nowhere near the amount of money that he thinks will be raised, in his carefully considered wild guesstimate, could be raised. More Mickey Mouse maths. They like giving it out, but they do not like it up ’em. The money that the hon. Gentleman hopes to get back from his scheme, although it is much smaller than he thinks, is money that is already owed to the banks, so in reality, there is no new money in the proposal at all. It is disguised borrowing. What is more, it is expensive, bureaucratic and convoluted borrowing for one cohort of students, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West pointed out.
If the hon. Member for Havant wants to commit to borrowing to fund more student places, he should do it openly and in the most efficient manner for the public purse, but he will not do so, because he wants a buy now, pay later, something-for-nothing policy, the true cost of which he does not have to admit to the country and the House—Mickey Mouse maths. No wonder the president of the NUS in Australia has described this kind of discount scheme as a con, a good deal for the wealthiest and a poor deal for everyone else. She has a very good point.
That is not the end of it, because the Opposition motion calls for more training places—another apparent move to the left, but actually just more Mickey Mouse maths, because the Opposition’s policy is to abolish Train to Gain. They say that they have several uses for the money, but as far as I can see, they have spent it several times over. However, I will give them the benefit of the doubt, despite their Mickey Mouse maths. One thing that would be certain if they abolished Train to Gain—one thing on which we can depend as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, and as sure as the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) will quote poetry in his speech—is that there would be fewer training places.
We have had 1.4 million people training through Train to Gain. Just this month I shared a stage with the millionth learner to get a qualification through Train to Gain, and he had his boss, the managing director of William Blythe Ltd of Accrington, with him—
claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).
Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.
Question agreed to.
Question put accordingly (Standing Order No. 31(2), That the original words stand part of the Question.
The House proceeded to a Division.
Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the proposed words be there added.
The Speaker declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to (Standing Order No. 31(2)).
That this House welcomes the contribution made to the economy and civic life by universities; notes the sharp increase in university applications for 2010-11; commends the Government for its record levels of investment in higher education, an increase of over 25 per cent. in real terms since 1997, which has supported more students participating in higher education than ever before; notes a 24 per cent. increase in the number of students participating in higher education since 1997, more young entrants to full-time first degrees in England who are from state schools, lower socio-economic groups, and low participation backgrounds, and recent studies which have shown that over 50 per cent. of young people aspire to go on to higher education; recognises the Government’s commitment to expanding the range of pathways to higher education, including through apprenticeships, and to expanding the opportunities to participate in higher education, including through the development of foundation degrees, which have benefited 100,000 students; further notes that the Government is providing students with high levels of student support to enable them to access higher education; and welcomes the proposals in the papers Quality, Choice and Aspiration, published in October 2009, and Higher Ambitions, published in November 2009, to provide prospective students with better information, advice and guidance to enable them to fulfil their full potential.