Skip to main content

Access to Higher Education

Volume 585: debated on Thursday 11 September 2014

Last year, the Chancellor announced that we would remove the cap on the number of university places in 2015-16 so that no bright person who wants to study at a higher level should be turned away. The Government have also put in place a new framework placing more responsibility on higher education institutions to widen access, and that approach is paying off, with more young people admitted to university this year than ever before and a big increase in the number of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Earlier this year, the Government announced plans to create a further education college for nuclear engineering. As my right hon. Friend will know, not only is Devonport home to an engineering university technical college, but its dockyard deals with the refitting and refuelling of nuclear submarines. As he might also know, it faces a real challenge with Hinkley C. What progress is he making in introducing either higher or further education for engineers?

From the work we did on the Plymouth city deal, I know that my hon. Friend is fully apprised of the need to invest in skills in Plymouth. The Government are working with the Nuclear Industry Council to determine the remit and location of a national nuclear college, and we hope to announce some progress later in the year.

May I welcome the Minister to his post and congratulate him on those excellent figures for participation in university? Will he confirm, however, that many of the best access initiatives, such as bursaries and summer schools, are financed from the income from fees above £6,000 and that if fees were reduced to £6,000, those excellent initiatives, which have improved participation, would have to be closed?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I pay tribute to him for the work he has done in this field, which is respected on both sides of the House and across all the institutions of higher education. One of the great pleasures of taking this office was to check my desk drawer and discover that there was no note from my predecessor with some unwelcome news. It is a very happy inheritance.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: the system we have in place for student finance, which he took through the House, is proving remarkably successful. We have seen record student numbers, and only this week the OECD said that the

“UK is…one of the few”


“that has figured out a sustainable approach to higher education finance”

and that

“that investment…pays off for individuals and tax payers.”

He grasped the nettle and made the reforms, and those reforms are now working.

I welcome the Minister to his post, and as he rightly acknowledged, he has some big shoes to fill—I, too, pay tribute to his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Havant (Mr Willetts), and the extraordinary work he undertook. I am surprised, however, that he did not leave the new Minister a briefing on the disaster of the student loans system and the £50 billion to £100 billion extra that will now be written off as public sector net debt as a result of the spiralling resource accounting and budgeting charge.

My question today, however, is different. This week, the Minister has to decide whether to abolish the disabled students allowance. All over the country over the next month, disabled students will be applying to Oxbridge and medical schools, and they deserve to know whether they will have good support in place—not just PCs, but people. This week, will he heed the call from vice-chancellors, the National Union of Students and Members on both sides of the House and ensure that disabled students do not have their chance to study—wherever they get into—destroyed by the abolition of that vital allowance?

I second the praise that the right hon. Gentleman gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Havant, but it is curious that he should reflect in the way he did on the finances of the system. I would have thought that he of all people might have cause to reflect on the state of the finances. Reading his recent pamphlet, I noticed that he said that to win arguments

“we must show that we will spend taxpayers’ money sensibly, effectively and efficiently.”

I wonder whether, on reflection, he would regard that as consistent with his record in government.

On the disabled students allowance, I think everyone here shares the ambition, as I stated in my first answer, that everyone who is capable of benefiting from a university education should be able to do so. That of course applies forcefully to people with disabilities. The decisions we take on support for people with disabilities will be entirely about making sure that they have the support to be able to pursue their studies to the best of their abilities.