I beg to move,
That this House notes the Third Report from the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, Student Loans, HC 558, and the Government response, HC 777; and calls on the Government to outline proposals that will sustain funding for the sector while addressing the projected deficit in public funding.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to hold this debate, which is of huge significance to universities up and down the country and, indeed, to the cohorts of students at or about to go to those universities. The debate is essentially about the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee report on student loans. I must thank my Committee colleagues because the report’s recommendations to the Government were unanimously agreed on a cross-party basis. It is fair to say that they reflect the concerns of Members from both sides of the House.
I will also draw on other reports not mentioned in the motion, including some by academic and university institutions, but particularly a report by the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies and one by the Higher Education Commission. I stress that the IFS is an independent body with expertise across both the academic and economic spheres, and that the Higher Education Commission report was co-chaired by the Conservative peer Lord Norton of Louth and Dr Ruth Thompson. Although the reports’ details may vary, their conclusions are remarkably coherent and consistent.
I understand that my hon. Friend is due to speak, so although I will draw on his report, I will not pre-empt him by discussing its conclusions.
The motion mainly deals with the policy’s public spending and budgetary aspects, but it is important to recognise that we are not just talking about money. Higher education is vital to the economy of this country and to our society. It is an £8 billion export earner and attracts students from all over the world, because British universities consistently feature at the top of the rankings of world universities. In addition, universities drive and sustain economic growth in their immediate local economies, which are often in some of the most deprived parts of the country.
For an individual going to university, such an education is a potential path to personal fulfilment, and of course an economic advantage. Various estimates of graduate earnings show a minimum of something like £150,000 earned by a graduate over their lifetime over and above what they might expect had they left school after A-levels, and many estimates show more.
The Treasury estimates added benefits from taxes earned, and further benefit to employers through productivity gains. In short, higher education in this country is a success story that needs to be sustained, and it is crucial to reinforce Britain’s position in a global economy that is becoming ever more competitive.
I congratulate my hon. Friend and the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee on its report. Clearly, the size of student loans reflects in great part the size of fees. I have read the Government’s response to the consultation in which they state that they have
“no current plans to initiate a formal review of the sustainability of the student loans system in England.”
That means that there are no formal plans for a review of fees. Does my hon. Friend think that that is right or responsible?
My hon. Friend, as ever, touches on the key issue underlined in the Committee’s report, and I will address that issue in due course.
As I was saying, higher education is a success story and vital for our economy, our society and the aspirations of millions of young people in the country. To underpin it we need a funding system that enables it to respond to the demands that will be placed on it by outside pressures, and to sustain its role as a driver of social change. The current funding system is based on recommendations in the 2010 Browne review and subsequently implemented, with some changes, in 2012. The key change was to replace direct Government funding of university teaching by a fees-based system payable by individual students on the basis of Government loans through the Student Loans Company, capped at £9,000. Those fees are to be repaid after graduation once a salary of £21,000 has been reached, over a period of 30 years.
There were short-term benefits to that model. It removed the cost of funding from public accounts, except for those costs that would have to be written off through under or non-repayment in the future—technically known as the resource accounting and budgeting, or RAB, charge. That model benefited the universities because it led to an increase in funding at least in the short term, and it benefited taxpayers because there was a drop in public subsidy per student of something like 5%. The benefit to the student is far less clear. Although the system delays payment for education until later in life and is income-contingent, the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that the average debt per student will be more than £44,000 for a combination of tuition fee and maintenance loans. In its report the Higher Education Commission stated that focus groups demonstrated a low level of awareness among students about that issue and its potential implications for them.
The IFS and the commission report highlighted the fact that many students we interviewed had no idea that the debt would be that much. They will possibly never be eligible to get a mortgage later on, which I find absolutely stunning, astounding and disgraceful.
It is fair to say that the full implications and potential consequences of the projected level of debt for millions of people have yet to be worked through. We are not yet aware of how it will affect people’s economic behaviour when they have that level of debt.
Many of us feel that the contributions being demanded are often too great, but I would not want to overstate that to the point at which we begin to believe that no student will ever be able to buy their own house. That is more than a slight exaggeration and it needs to be corrected.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his observation. When I speak to sixth formers and potential undergraduates I always make the point that, compared with the cumulative spend in their lifetimes on cars that depreciate immediately, investing in their education is a very good investment. But it will have consequences for patterns of consumer expenditure, the full implications of which we do not yet know.
I am sure that my hon. Friend would not wish to mislead the House and I know that he is replying to an intervention, but the IFS study says that middle earners—the public administrators, the health and education workers—will be particularly affected. That is 40% of graduates, so we are not talking about a small number who may never be able to get a loan for a house.
I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes and I could talk about it at some length, but I recognise that other people wish to speak in the debate so I will not pursue it any further.
It is now clear that the level of debt repayments is predicted to be much lower than when the scheme was initiated. In the early days, the Committee questioned the Minister on that point, and the estimate was a level of default of between 28% and 30%. It is now acknowledged by the Government that the rate is 45%, and that may rise. In crude terms, for every £100 the Government lend, they get only £55 back. That has huge implications for the Government’s long-term budgeting.
The principal reason for the projected increase in non-repayment is the fact that graduate income has not grown as anticipated by the Office for Budget Responsibility. That will keep an increasing number of graduates below the repayment threshold, and even if they reach the threshold they will repay at the lower rate, commensurate with their lower income. That will mean that they will be unlikely to pay off the debt within 30 years.
The IFS has estimated that 73% of graduates will not repay in full. We can add to that the difficulties that the Student Loans Company has had in securing repayments, particularly from former students living abroad, so there is a basic problem and other administrative problems.
The Select Committee has made recommendations on the latter. If we look at the implications for annual budgetary expenditure, we find that £7.4 billion in loans was given to undergraduates in 2012-13. In 2015-16, that figure is estimated to be £12.6 billion. If we estimate that nearly half of the loans will not be paid back, it is clear that that has enormous implications for future budgetary planning. If that were not a big enough problem in itself, the Chancellor added to it in his 2013 pre-Budget report by announcing the lifting of the cap on student numbers to allow the additional recruitment of 30,000 students. He tacitly admitted that there was a funding problem when he said that that would be funded by the sale of the student loan book. The Committee subsequently questioned Ministers and others on that. We expressed considerable concern that such ongoing expenditure should be financed in this way, and we were very doubtful about the Government’s potential to balance their books by doing so.
Does the Chair of the Select Committee accept that, when I was in charge of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, we put considerable effort into trying to sell the previous loan book? We concluded that the inevitable uncertainties—future inflation rates, earnings rates and so on—made it quite impossible to get good value for money from the student loan book. Is that not a second reason why it was quite irresponsible of the Chancellor to suggest that this was an easy way of funding the long-term expansion of higher education?
I agree with my right hon. Friend. Indeed, the report’s recommendations underline that point. It is significant in another way, too: it was a tacit recognition by the Chancellor that if he were to expand the number of places, extra money would have to come from somewhere, and that that was not being provided for in the then current Budget projections. It is still unclear exactly how the escalating cost—it could well rise to considerably more than 30,000 students if the cap were removed completely—will be dealt with by the Government.
The hon. Gentleman talks about costs, budgets and public spending. In the interests of having a clear debate, will he confirm that the resource accounting and budgeting charge is not an item of public expending, as it appears in the national budget or the national accounts?
I understand the question, because I have heard the former Minister’s, shall we say, robust prosecution of this particular argument before. May I make an admission? I am not an accountant. All I do is go by what the authoritative bodies say. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to argue with them that is fine, but I think most people would say it is a matter of common sense that if we lend so much money and get only so much back, sooner or later that particular default rate will have to be incorporated in national accounts and people will have to pay for it.
May I add to my hon. Friend’s point? The Office for Budget Responsibility’s fiscal responsibility report makes it clear that there are three sets of national accounts: whole Government accounts, national accounts and resource accounts. The comments made by the right hon. Member for Havant (Mr Willetts) apply to only one of the three ways of looking at the national books. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If we borrow £10 billion a year and write off £5 billion a year, that is bound to show up somewhere as a cost to the taxpayer—that is common sense.
I welcome the interventions of two former Ministers, which have shone an economic light on some of the most obscure elements of our education accounting.
To return to my point on the student loan book, the fact that the sale has now been abandoned underlines what my right hon. Friend said about the non-viability of this course of action in funding future financial higher education commitments.
In short, we have an education funding model that is producing an ever-increasing call on the nation’s finances, and actually further commitments are being added. The House of Commons Library paper projects that by the mid-2030s the addition to the national debt incurred as a result of this policy will be equivalent to 8%—about £350 billion to £360 billion at current prices. That is a huge sum of money that will have enormous implications for future Governments—and universities and students—in terms of financial planning.
I am sorry to pre-empt my response to the debate, but at the beginning of his contribution the hon. Gentleman mentioned the important benefit—he referred to it as unambiguous—to the Exchequer. Has he made an estimate of that benefit to set against the costs he is referring to?
I believe that these estimates are projected in the figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and certainly there is the netting off if you like, of these figures. There will be benefits. I said in my opening comments that there would be benefits. However, to have this level of future debt without any policy recognition that it will have to be funded in the future accounts is complacent and, in my view, a dereliction of duty. I shall return to that in one moment.
It was because of the figures that the Committee recommended an urgent review of the sustainability of the system, and obviously the sort of figures the Minister mentioned would be incorporated in such a review. If the model does stack up, I do not see why the Government should have any problem undertaking that review to demonstrate it. In their reply to the Committee’s recommendation, the Government quoted, of course, Andreas Schleicher from the OECD—I believe this featured in exchanges earlier today:
“The Government has no current plans to initiate a formal review of the sustainability of the student loans system in England. Indeed the OECD’s Director for Education and Skills, Andreas Schleicher, considers that we are the first European country to have established a sustainable higher education system.”
However, the Government response did not mention, as the Minister’s earlier response did not, that Andreas Schleicher’s comments were about the pre-2012 funding model, not the current one.
I was aware of this matter, and I was surprised to hear that with uncharacteristic discourtesy—it is not his normal demeanour—the shadow Business Secretary accused me of having misled the House in referring to this endorsement from the OECD. It is important to clarify to the House that I met the author of the report, Mr Schleicher, on the day he published it. I know that overseas visitors often do not get the chance to meet members of the Opposition Front-Bench team, but I had the great privilege of meeting him, and there was never the slightest doubt about what he meant. In fact, he wrote to me this week, on 6 January, having read the report from the shadow Business Secretary. He wrote: “I had made it very clear that the rise to £9,000 fees had not changed the overall assessment by the OECD.” In fact, it is in the opposite direction: “The UK higher education system is excellent for individuals and for the Government. England has got it right on paying for higher education. Among all available approaches, the UK offers still the most scalable and sustainable approach to university finance.” I hope that when he responds, the Minister, on behalf of the shadow Business Secretary, will apologise to me for his accusation.
Let me come to the Select Committee’s aid. Does my hon. Friend recognise that it is not only his Committee that has found the system to be unsustainable, but the former adviser to the right hon. Member for Havant (Mr Willetts) when he was a Minister, Nick Hillman, who said that the Government had got their maths wrong? He is now the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and he said in March last year:
“The government has got it wrong and therefore there is a big funding gap and something has to be done about it.”
I agree. What I find odd is that Ministers will pray in aid a body such as the OECD, but refuse to recognise the overwhelming consensus of opinion of experts across the academic and economic sphere in this country that the system is unsustainable.
So far, the Government’s approach has basically been to say that the figures on which the estimates are based are essentially projected hypothetical figures, which could be altered if macro-economic conditions change. I certainly accept that that is absolutely true in broad terms. One point quoted more often than others is that if graduate incomes increase, it will substantially alter the projected potential deficits and increase in RAB charges.
The trouble is that it is possible to look at a whole range of economic variables, many of which might work in the other direction. Let me cite a couple of examples off the top of my head, but there are many others. First, if the cap in student numbers is removed and we have a larger number of graduates coming on the market as a result, that could further depress the starting salaries for graduates to a lower level than before. That could also have a significant impact on future RAB charges. If the Government had to borrow money at a higher rate than applies at the moment in order to re-lend, that, too, could considerably alter RAB charges.
Order. I am listening intently and with great interest to the hon. Gentleman’s opening speech. I hope he will not take it amiss if I express the hope that the four or five sets of papers arrayed in front of him do not constitute individual chapters in the development of his speech. Although we are not hugely pressed for time, there are several other hon. Members who wish to contribute. The hon. Gentleman, being a considerate and sensitive fellow, will wish to tailor his remarks accordingly.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I reassure you that, given the expertise of some Government Members, and one in particular, the papers in front of me are there to provide a factual basis on which I can respond to them. I am coming on to conclude my particular comments.
The broad point is that where it is possible to look at future macro-economic variables that will benefit the RAB charge, it is equally possible to look at a whole range of them that do not or even work in the opposite direction. What I find particularly worrying is that so far, on the basis of available evidence, it is the authoritative research organisations that have predicted an increase in the RAB charge and they have proved to be correct, while the Government sources, which have been very complacent on this issue, have not been proved correct.
I have spoken about the range of the research done on this issue. In summing up, as a Committee, we did not put any specific proposals before the Government. What we wanted was a review. I recognise that a number of organisations and individuals have looked at this in some detail. They include, of course, the Higher Education Commission, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) will talk about some of its recommendations. They also include my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham), who I know has done considerable research and will want to talk about his suggestion, and, of course, the shadow Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne).
I think it important for us to begin by recognising that there is a problem, but the Government do not appear to recognise that. It is not possible to solve a problem without starting from the basis that there is one, and it seems to me that the Government are sticking their head in the sand. All those other organisations and individuals are putting considerable effort and research into finding a solution, but from the Government we have had no response, just the complacent argument that there is no problem so no problem needs to be fixed. I believe, my colleagues on the Committee believe, and an increasing body in the academic and economic world believes that there is a problem, that there needs to be a review, and that we need to look at these issues. There is no easy answer, no silver bullet, but universities and future cohorts of students can reasonably expect to have some sort of answers to these questions.
I pay tribute to my colleague the Chairman of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, the hon. Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey), not just for the report, but in recognition of all the years during which we have worked together on the Committee, with me as his would-be vice-Chairman. I believe that I speak as the longest-serving member of the Committee: I have been a member for nine years, and the grey hairs can attest to that record. I also thank all the other Committee members with whom I have worked during those nine years. It has been a fascinating experience.
I hope that I may wander off the main topic of the debate just a little—and it will only be a little. It is about time we saw Select Committee membership as an alternative career choice in the House of Commons. I hope that the importance of Select Committees will be enhanced, because, if that does nothing else, it may end what I consider to be the dangers of patriotism and patronage that apply in this place. I hope that that remark has been recorded, and will be picked up somewhere.
No, not patriotism; I meant patronage, and I am glad that my right hon. Friend has pointed that out. I will now continue to speak according to the terms of the motion, Mr Deputy Speaker, which I am sure will delight you.
My colleague—indeed, I shall use the term “hon. Friend”—the Chairman of the Committee said that he would concentrate on wider issues than that of the money itself. I want to concentrate on the issue of the resource accounting and budgeting charge, the money and the black hole that the charge is producing for future generations.
I realise that pinning down the RAB charge is rather like Phil Taylor—the legendary darts player who comes from my constituency of Newcastle-under-Lyme—throwing darts at a moving board, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that, with 45% of student debt expected to be written off in the future, the current system is really not working for students or for the taxpayer? Even in this age of austerity, lower fees would lead to the recovery of more debt, as well as wider potential economic benefits for students as they make their way in the world after university.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. I shall say a little more about my views on the point he raises as my speech unfolds, but I will say now that every small business man in the land—I do not mean small in stature; I mean small in the sense of the size of the business—will know that if he lends money that he will not get back, he will have a cash flow problem that will create real trouble for him, if not now, then certainly in the future. I do not believe that Government money is any different in that respect.
The saga of higher education funding and support has rumbled on for a long time. Reforms in the 1990s created an expansion in higher education that widened participation, which, of course, is welcome. However, those reforms necessitated a change in the financial model for universities and those attending them. That is becoming increasingly unsustainable and could lead, as I have said, to a sizeable black hole in the Exchequer accounting, which the Government seem not to wish to recognise.
Many Government members are also my personal friends, and I am sure they are working on contingencies and do not have this in mind, because I would not ascribe to them the financial inadequacy that not recognising the problem would suggest. I hope my good friend the Minister will recognise that I do not think he is inadequate and I do think he will come up with the answers we require—that he will recognise the problems and consider very carefully the need for a proper review not only of the RAB charge itself and the loans surrounding it, but the way our universities work. I will talk about that as my speech unfolds.
I thank my very hon. Friend for giving way. Is it correct that if my children go to a Scottish university, they will pay a lot of money, whereas those from Scotland, or from France or Poland, do not pay tuition fees? That is unfair and should be addressed, too.
I will allude to that problem, which I hope will be corrected when this place discusses—if it has the courage to do so, and I pray it does—devolution and the Barnett formula, because there is no doubt that Scottish students who attend Scottish universities get a much more helpful and lucrative deal than Scottish citizens who attend English universities. This is a matter not of English or Scots, but of devolution, which in this instance works very much against students in English universities. They are ill done by, as are citizens more broadly, on whom less per head of population is spent than on our fellow Scottish citizens.
The much discussed 50% target for participation in universities, although arbitrary, was entrenched in the need for change in the 1990s and was one of the motivators of the current situation. I was a secondary modern schoolboy under the tripartite system, which could have been enhanced and could have flowered in the extent of choice it gave to parents. I regret that, at a stroke, it was done away with. I fear that was to our great cost and genuinely feel that the extension of offers in education that is beginning to flower now is an important development. Most importantly, we must place apprentices, technologists and all those who are so vital to the well-being of our economy on an exact par with university students, and in the past I fear they have not been given that recognition. I want to see a more equitable division between those who have gone on to higher education in technical fields and those who have chosen the academic areas for which the universities are famous. I think that that is part of the answer and I am sure that the Government will take it on board.
The 2011 White Paper promised that higher education would be put on a financially sustainable basis. The Browne review established the principle that the beneficiaries of higher education would need to make a greater contribution towards the costs, and I agree with that. It was also proposed that graduates should pay a proportion of their salary only when they were earning more than £21,000 a year, and that was widely welcomed. That provides a part-answer to a previous question.
The Select Committee inquiry in the first Session of this Parliament, to which I contributed, drew two conclusions about the affordability of the loan system. We agreed that there should be clarity for students about the relationship between the burden borne by them and that borne by the taxpayer, as a function of the performance of the economy. That seemed to me to be vital, because we have turned students into customers and consumers, and consumers have a right to know that they are getting a fair deal. That fair deal will also have an impact on their children and grandchildren, which is why this matter is so important.
I genuinely believe that we are leaving a massive black hole for future generations to deal with, and I say to my right hon. Friend the Minister that I find that immoral and totally unacceptable. I know that he thinks of politics in terms of an ethical and moral base, and I hope that he will hear my plea. We have no right to lay so much danger and concern on to those who follow us. We are already doing it with a deficit that was built up to far too high a level. That is causing us problems now and will continue to do so for at least the next five, six or seven years. I do not want that problem to be added to by a black hole because we did not take the trouble to consider this issue properly.
That is why I am appealing to my right hon. Friend in this regard, and I do so not for ourselves. Of course the Government can hide the problem away, but if they do so, they will not be acting in the ethical and moral way in which the Minister and I would want them to act. I therefore hope that he will recognise this element of the problem. This is not about the accounting that the Treasury seeks to project; it is about what most Members of the House of Commons want to see. I have served here for almost 10 years, and I believe that Members consider morality, ethics and good practice to be massively important factors in their deliberations, and I hope that we can apply those factors to this issue.
I shall be leaving this place in three months and I want to make a heartfelt appeal to the Minister on behalf of my two children and three grandchildren. The problem could easily be shoved aside, but it will come back to haunt us in a big way in 15 or 20 years if we are not careful.
The Select Committee inquiry drew two conclusions. I have just outlined the first, but the second has greater significance. We stated:
“The affordability of the new system is dependent on a wide range of variables which are outside of Government control.”
The truth is that we doubted that they had been fully taken into account when the system was set up. That gives the Minister the opportunity to say that there is a need to revisit this issue to consider what the other variables outside the Government’s control are. We are not the masters of every issue we face—we are rarely the masters of any issue we face, but that is especially true of this one, which will leave a deficit for our children and grandchildren if we are not careful. This issue is not totally, by any means, within the Government’s control and we need to consider that aspect. If we do not do so, we will be letting future generations down. Consequently, I wish to focus my remarks on the second conclusion.
Let me repeat for the record the doubts I had at the time the reforms were introduced. My right hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr Willetts) will know of them, because of some friendly, courteous but relatively robust cross-examinations when he was on the Front Bench. He knows that we were deeply concerned at that time, and nothing that has happened since has changed my mind. I do not believe that proper regard was given in the first place to long-term sustainability, and I want to concentrate on that nub of this matter.
In October 2012, my right hon. Friend the Member for Havant, a wise and certainly highly intelligent Minister, was reported in The Independent—this was “reported”, so I cannot claim he actually said these things, as we all know the dangers that lie in that term—to have said that the RAB on students loans would not rise above 32%, with a 38% ceiling being the worst possible outcome for the taxpayer. In April last year, in response to a parliamentary question, he asserted that estimates at that time placed RAB at about 45%—in such a short time it had already risen way above what I believe were his genuine and heartfelt estimates. In my view, a level not far off 50% has been reached—perhaps it has already moved above that figure—and that simply highlights how important this matter is. To be totally fair, I should point out that he also stated that the Government had achieved significant savings for students, and increased income for universities. I believe he was right to say that, and I welcomed that view then and do so now. We pay tribute to the work he did in the Department, which will benefit my children and grandchildren. I hope I have given an even view of how I see the work of a right hon. Friend I am criticising just a little.
Looking at the reforms from a more detached perspective, it is far from clear that the Government can claim that these changes were a total success, not least on the RAB. A forecast drop in student loan repayments has raised existential questions about the true sustainability of the new system, and we could face a situation in which the effect of trebling tuition fees has resulted in a more expensive settlement for taxpayers, in the way that I have described. A report in March last year by London Economics found that if the charge increases beyond 48.6%, the cost of the reform
“will exceed the 2010-11 system that it replaced.”
That is a startling fact and it ought to add not only to our concern, but to the need for an immediate review in the way the Select Committee is requesting. As I have said, the RAB index is perhaps already above 50%. No business could sustain, and no Government should be prepared to sustain, such a situation, because it is the worst kind of accounting. It is the worst kind of financial thinking about the future, and I reject it, not only as a business man, but as a parent.
I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman during what is emerging as an outstanding contribution on the Floor of the House. Does he agree that, given the Government’s continued repetition of the need to balance the country’s books, this is an extraordinary outlier in relation to that clear view that we have to have a sustainable economy? The fact the RAB is moving beyond 50%, as he is indicating, should cause real alarm.
I am most grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks, and I add that this situation should cause real alarm to not only every Member of this House, irrespective of their position or party, but to every parent, business man and citizen in the land. At some stage their children and grandchildren will have to meet this charge if we do nothing about it now. I do not take the accounting answer given earlier by a man I respect, my right hon. Friend the Member for Havant, and I welcome the comments made by the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham), a former Labour Minister, who, sadly, is leaving this place, too—that will be a great loss. He made the point that we cannot avoid debt of any kind and we cannot talk it off a balance sheet; it has to be dealt with at some stage. I would rather it be dealt with now than at some point in the future.
Any business would stem the flow of debt immediately, as it would be so damaging—it would threaten the very livelihood and stability of that business. Any business would be looking for ways of tightening up on credit control—it would probably have done that already, because it could never have afforded to have got into this situation. Any business would look for ways of increasing productivity within the system, and you will be pleased to know that I wish to say a few words about that relatively shortly, Mr Deputy Speaker, and then I will sit down. Does that reassure you?
I fear that they are enjoying my contribution immensely, but your job is another matter.
Any business would be seeking to tighten credit controls and to find ways of increasing productivity in the areas of service provision, and would talk to its bank about contingency arrangements that might be in put in place and how that might be done. We are simply appealing about that aspect, because in this respect our bank is the taxpayer. I wonder what the taxpayer might feel about our not considering those contingencies. I have made that point in a number of ways during these remarks, but it is a vital part of what this place is about.
How must we seek to emulate that good, solid business man who would take those steps? I would seek from the Minister a wish and plans to improve loan contracts, with special emphasis on repayment procedures. We now have the information to prove that the procedures are simply not good enough to reclaim taxpayers’ money, especially from overseas students, and we have to look at that. Secondly, we have to improve collection procedures—again, particularly in respect of overseas students. It is not the job of this House to finance the education of those people, even though doing so creates a better world; I understand that aspect, but it is still not our job to finance their further education for the nations that they come from—I do not believe that our bank of the taxpayer would disagree with that view.
I would also equalise the cost of university education through the nation. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who is no longer in his place, has already talked about the disparity in the fee situation between England and Scotland, which many people find unfair and unacceptable.
We need to increase university productivity. We should also consider compressing the time it takes for a student to complete a course. We could have courses of two years, or even 18 months if we are talking about golf course management. As a businessman, I despair at some of the degrees that come before me when people seek jobs, but that is another matter. We need to think about compressing courses and improving the productivity of a sector of our national life that has had it easy for too long. Members may think that there speaks a secondary modern schoolboy who did not have the opportunity to sit at the high table, but many people in this land believe that our university structure has been too aristocratic and too full of itself and that it needs to recognise that it is a contributor to our national wealth and well-being, and it is from that aspect that I come to this subject. We need to ensure that the Treasury finally improves contingency planning to reduce the impact of the deficit that we say will meet us in ever greater amounts as time goes by.
I have some questions for the Minister. I would welcome his confirmation on some of the details of our assumptions. In particular, what proportion is assumed to be used up by foreign nationals whose offspring would not have legal access to loans? What analysis has there been of the key variables affecting repayment rates, such as the future performance of the economy? A very long telescope is required for such a difficult job. None the less, we must have some contingency plans in place for worst-case scenarios, as they have not been built into the sector.
What work are the Government undertaking to understand more the nature of defaulters and, in the light of other options, the desirability of the continued expansion of higher education, particularly in the context of apprenticeships? We need to put even more effort—I do recognise how much the Government are doing in this regard—into technology apprenticeships and all those practical skills that the target of university entrance has demoted in the minds of many of our young people. I see too many people who think that the only objective in life is to go to uni. What a tragedy that is. We are increasing the number of people who see opportunities in engineering, technology and other such skills, but we are still not putting enough effort into that sector, and we are still not changing the view of young people that university really is the place to be.
I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s points about engineering and vocational degrees. But does he also agree that at levels of £9,000 a year plus maintenance loans, many of those degrees at the likes of Imperial, which stretch over more than three years, make it less likely that people from more modest backgrounds will enter those professions, and therefore socially restrict the entry?
That is absolutely correct, and it underlines the need for a proper review and perhaps the need to rebalance things. We should have not an across-the-piece £9,000 level of payment, but a rebalancing of the loans in association with what is required. This is a more complicated business than we first thought, and we need a review to take into account those factors to ensure that we have enough young people who can pay for my pension and the pensions of those who follow me and that this nation has the well-being to compete in an ever-more competitive world. That is what we are talking about. This arrogant view of universities as the place where we produce rounded men who talk with wonderful accents must end. These people who talk the Queen’s English sometimes do so to such an extent that they are not understood by those from a working-class background. I want all of our people to benefit. I want our nation to be serviced by people, from whatever background, with the skills and the ability to ensure that we maintain the well-being that I and other Members of this House have had the good fortune to enjoy.
Finally—you will be delighted to hear that, Mr Deputy Speaker—I want to mention the European dimension to this black hole. What prediction has the Minister made of changes and developments whereby equal access rights and obligations arise for EU nationals to borrow and study in the United Kingdom? If that is to be the case, will we find ourselves increasingly subsidising foreign nationals? I believe that charity and support must start at home.
I have every faith in my right hon. Friend the Minister. I know that he is an honest man and I look forward to his response with great interest, because I think that he might surprise us all and say that he agrees with many of our points.
Order. I did not expect to have to do this, but may I advise Members that the Front Bench speeches will start at 1.45? Two speakers have taken an hour already, and that cannot continue. I would be grateful if all Members could bear that in mind.
I welcome this debate and congratulate colleagues on both sides of the House on securing it. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) and the hon. Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley) who opened the debate with their excellent speeches that summarised so well the situation and the conclusions of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee. I will try not to tread the same ground, but I do wish to strike the same note as the Chairman of the Select Committee and query why the Government are refusing to review the system when so many organisations across higher education as well as in the business community are saying that changes are needed. Such complacency is very dangerous indeed.
It is clear why so many organisations are saying that something has to be done, even if they do not agree on the solutions. It is because English universities are boxed in. As the real value of fees erodes, the squeeze on university incomes threatens teaching quality and research excellence. Over the past few years, universities have done quite well out of the system, and have not faced the sort of pressures that our colleagues in health or local government have experienced. But everyone in universities knows that that will not last. The real value of those fees is now well below £8,500 and continues to shrink. The public finances cannot bear ever more debt write offs, but raising fees and graduate payments is still politically toxic. I would be surprised if any political party goes into the next election promising that. Indeed, I would be surprised if they are not forced to rule it out over the course of the campaign.
The idea of allowing universities to fund their own fees might have some role to play if current fees were much lower, but sanctioning ever-more eye-watering fees is likely to be controversial and socially divisive. All the solutions that people come up with essentially boil down to making graduates pay more, pay earlier, pay at higher rates of interests and pay for a longer period of time. The idea that we can simply solve a problem by going back to graduates and asking them to pay more money, however we dress it up, is clearly not right.
It is worth noting that concerns are coming not just from within the sector, but from a range of business and employer groups, including the CBI, which all claim that the system is not working. I will base my remarks around not one, but two observations. Yes, we need to reform the funding system, but we also need to reform the delivery of some of the higher education systems, to echo what the hon. Member for Northampton South has said. The second of those two points is as important as the first.
We have engaged in this debate for a year now and there is a marked division between those largely in the sector who say that there is nothing wrong with higher education just the way we fund it and those largely outside it who say that it is not just about funding but about the higher education on offer.
Before turning to funding, let us review the problem of delivery, which is intimately linked to it. There is now strong evidence that there is a mismatch between the education of many graduates and the needs of employers, society and the graduates themselves. According to the latest figures, which I got from the Office for National Statistics yesterday, the long-term employment prospects of graduates are continuing to deteriorate. The percentage of graduates not working in graduate jobs five years after graduation has now reached a record 34%, up 4% since 2010. The newest graduates are doing a little better in the sense that the percentage not in graduate jobs just after they graduate has fallen from a peak of 48% two years ago to 44%, but that is still much worse than in any year before 2010 and has happened despite the much-trumpeted increase in overall employment in recent years. Whatever sort of recovery is under way, it is clearly not using the skills and education of recent graduates in high value-added graduate jobs. These levels of graduate underemployment are a far cry from the aspirations of students who now borrow huge sums of money to go to university. At the same time, organisations such as the CBI continue to complain about the quality of graduates being produced.
Does my right hon. Friend agree, on that fundamental point, that not only is there underemployment among that group of graduates who are not working at the level that was expected, but those graduates have pushed out other young people who are unemployed—in London, one in four young people are unemployed and they are depressed because they are outside the market—who cannot get the jobs that they were hoping to get, often in retail, as a consequence?
That must of course be the case if graduates are working in non-graduate jobs. That is a bigger issue than higher education, of course, but the failure to use a graduate work force in graduate jobs is a huge drag on the economy and is one of the reasons why the RAB charges and debt write-off charges are as bad as they are.
Let me be clear that if we understand an honours degree as giving not just knowledge but technical expertise and the capacity to analyse, think independently, exercise intellectual judgement, take responsibility and innovate, we certainly need 50% or more of our population to be educated in that way. We do not have too many graduates, but too many graduates who are not receiving the most appropriate degree-level education.
One of the effects of Government policy over the past four years has been to undermine employer-based higher education. Foundation degrees, usually employer supported, have declined by nearly a half under this Government and employer-funded part-time degrees fell from 40,000 to 25,000 in one year. Out of the hundreds of thousands in university, fewer than 20,000 full-time students across the entire higher education system in all years of study are being funded by employers to do their degrees. The work force development programme, created when I was a Minister, was shut by the coalition, even though it alone was creating 20,000 employer co- financed degrees a year by the time of the last election.
There is much that is good and much that is excellent in the English higher education system and we do not need to change all of it, but we need to make changes that increase the diversity of routes to study and enhance employer engagement with delivering higher education. When we talk about funding higher education, we need to think about how we deliver a better system.
Let me make one point about the long-term sustainability of the system. The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee has done an excellent job and I will not go over that ground, but since then we have had the latest fiscal responsibility report from the OBR, which makes interesting reading. Ministers justified heavy cuts in teaching funding as part of a deficit reduction programme, arguing that we should not put the costs on to future generations. The Chancellor said in 2010:
“If we do not deal with these debts and do not have a credible plan, it will be our children and grandchildren who are saddled with the debts that we were not prepared to pay.” —[Official Report, 20 October 2010; Vol. 516, c. 989.]
The leader of the Liberal Democrats said:
“This strikes me as little short of intergenerational theft. It is the equivalent of loading up our credit card with debt and then expecting our kids to pay it off.”
The recent OBR report underlines just how the debts we are building up now will hang around the necks of graduates and non-graduates in years to come. The OBR estimates that additional net debt arising from new loans will reach nearly 10% of GDP in the late 2030s and 2040s. That debt brings cost. Some debt will have to be written off after 30 years and after 2046, when that kicks in, it will leap dramatically to 0.25% of GDP. Graduates will be making cash repayments of about 0.45% of GDP in the same period and the Government will be paying interest on that stock of debt that the Library estimates at 0.3% of GDP. Many of those costs fall on taxpayers as a whole, not just on graduates.
There is a lot of uncertainty about the figures, but those are the best we have. They tell us that in about 30 years, the public and private cost of paying for the regulated debts will be around 1% of GDP. None of that will fund anybody going to university. According to the OECD, in 2010 the UK spent only 1.3% of GDP from public and private sources on higher education and at that time little was being spent on the cost of debt. The simple conclusion from the OBR is that the policies of the Government are pre-empting a massive share of future national wealth being used to pay for their high-fee, high-debt priorities and not being available to fund future higher education. It is the opposite of what Ministers claimed and it is loading debt on to future generations in a way that is unfair and unsustainable. That is my answer to those who say that we should not worry about RAB charges as they are all technical: there comes a point at which these debts have to be paid and when they do, they will take money out of the national economy that will not be available to pay for higher education.
As for the alternative, I have set out my views over the past year on a number of occasions and, given your remarks, Mr Deputy Speaker, I shall make just two brief observations. Let us not deny that this started under the Labour Government, but it has accelerated under this Government, and we have developed a one-size-fits-all higher education system that is entirely focused on 18-year-olds studying for three years away from home for a residential degree. That has been at the cost of part-time education, at the cost of employer co- sponsored education and at the cost of mature student study.
In a constituency such as mine, where even today relatively few young people go to university, we are closing the door on every single person who did not get a chance to go to university by saying that if they did not do it when they were 18 or 19, they cannot afford it, it will not be flexible, it has to be done over three years, they cannot study part time, they cannot do it intensively and all the rest of it. That is a bad thing for social mobility. Of course, the fact that the move towards younger people from deprived backgrounds going to university has continued is welcome, as many of us said at the time, but we must consider the whole picture if we want to see what is happening.
Of course, we have a difficulty in that there is no new public money for higher education so we will have to do something within the skin that we have. The good news is that money, public and private, is wasted hand over fist in the current system. Every year, billions of pounds are borrowed with the intention of writing it off. The RAB charges essentially mean that almost £1 in two is written off. We have the most wasteful, or at least the most expensive, model of higher education in the three-year residential degree. We are by far the outliers in the OECD as regards the extent to which our higher education system is based on a three-year residential degree for young people. Nobody else graduates so many young people so expensively in that model at the moment.
I fully appreciate the point that my right hon. Friend is going to make, because I have read all of his work. Germany, to take the example of one of the most successful economies in the world, does not have the levels of fees that we do, so what is Germany doing so wrong that we are doing so right?
That is an interesting point. Germany had a fees system and got rid of it, but the German system is much more diverse. Far fewer German students study away from home. The Germans have a different way—I would not suggest we go down this route —of seeing the diversity of the technical degree-level qualifications and other degrees and allowing people to study over a longer period of time. In other words, they have designed a system that meets the needs of their economy, but I believe it also meets the needs of graduates. I reject those who say, “If you should work more closely with employers, you are corrupting the purpose of higher education.” There will be room in the system for the senior common room on which the hon. Member for Northampton South missed out, and room for those who want to study hard for two years to get an employment-related degree. There is space in the system for everyone.
We should therefore not say that there is a simple model to pick off the shelf from somewhere else, but, as I shall say in a moment, we should pick up the elements of our system that work and take elements that work from other systems. We could even invent things of our own that are appropriate to our needs. We have the most expensive model of higher education. Ten years ago, when we first aimed for 50%, very few people, including Labour Members, assumed that the expansion would be done through having so many young people in such an expensive model of higher education.
Because teaching funds have been deliberately cut, fees are higher than would otherwise need to be the case. The private cost has risen, which is important because we should be stewards of what happens to people’s private money just as much as we are stewards of public money. Those who repay do not just repay their own course costs. Their fees help to subsidise research and to pay the fees of those who will never repay in full. I predict that there will be a point at which those graduates kick up against the bills they are being asked to pay for other people.
That is wasteful because the introduction of increased fees has caused politicians on both sides of the House to introduce new elements of public spending that do not teach students anything—Government’s of all parties have made maintenance systems more generous. The current Government required universities, under the Office for Fair Access, to put back 30% of all fees above £6,000 into widening participation, much of which was in fees and bursaries of completely nugatory value, which does not encourage universities at all—they just make universities compete for the same students. We have built waste into the system because politicians have been afraid of the consequences of their decisions. There is huge potential to use public and private money more efficiently to deliver a better system.
I have had a lot of support from the House of Commons Library, for which I am very grateful. Apart from my colleagues, one of the things I will miss most about being a Member of the House is the excellence of the House of Commons Library staff. I asked them to look at a model that would retain current levels of public spending; maintain institutional income to the sector from public and private sources; protect low-income students, so that no one in future would pay as much as people pay today, whatever the mode of study; have more intensive and flexible two-year and part-time courses; and have more employer-funded courses. I asked the Library to consider a system in which 70% of students do the traditional three-year residential degree and 30% study more intensively, have employer-sponsored courses and so on.
I also said to the Library, “Let’s be radical. Let’s spend public money on higher education to teach students something. Let’s strip away as much as we can of the money that is not spent on teaching students something.” That has the effect of reducing fees dramatically and reducing the cost of debt cancellation. In the spirit of my idea of keeping what is good, I said, “Let’s keep the current system that allows students to choose the university they want and take their resources with them—let’s not go back to a fixed allocation of numbers.” Having created a much larger fund for teaching, I would grant every English student a student entitlement that goes to the university that accepts them towards the cost of their fees.
In summary, in my model, public spending is at current levels and university sector income is unchanged, but spending on teaching increases from £0.7 billion to £5.5 billion. RAB charges fall by £3 billion a year. The student entitlement for each student, irrespective of the type of course they do, is £15,000, meaning that fees at full-cost universities, which currently charge £9,000 a year for a three-year degree, would fall to £4,000 a year. A two-year intensively studied degree costs just £4,500 in total—the student would probably study from home. Employers could co-sponsor a degree for an average contribution of £5,000 towards fees, less than typical recruitment and retention costs for a graduate. The same number of people would graduate because intensive study means fewer students at any one time. Spending per student would rise by 13%, an immediate and important boost to university finances.
More graduates would pay for their course in full. Let me be clear that I happen to believe that that is morally right: if we ask people to take on a debt and buy something, they should pay for it in full. For every mode of study, average lifetime payments would be less than they are today. If under that new much lower-cost system the higher-earning graduates—the City high-fliers—were paying too little, there would clearly be scope to introduce a free-standing graduate tax on the highest earnings, which could provide a useful fund for reinvestment in higher education teaching and research.
I take responsibility, as all hon. Members must, for the use of those figures, but I have done my very best to ensure that they and the modelling have been done by the House of Commons Library, using the simplified higher education model produced by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
My proposals would replace the maintenance grant with the maintenance loan. In other words, the income available to the student would remain exactly as it is currently. The key thing is that, provided fees are low enough, the total graduate debt would be less than under the current system. Putting maintenance grant cash into teaching enables us to get the debt cancellation charges down.
I do not want to overstate my case. Producing an outline model with the help of the excellent people in the House of Commons Library is not a policy, but it shows that a different policy is possible. I would look to the Government to do the sort of modelling I have talked about, but properly, completely and within their resources. In the real world, we would not, as I have done, separate honours degrees from level 4 and 5 apprenticeships, and we would not separate higher and further education study in an integrated system, but it is clear that there should be a review, because things could be different and better than they are at the moment.
This has been an illuminating debate, although my successor, the excellent Minister for Universities, Science and Cities, might think he is in danger of hearing from too many former Ministers going through our old arguments. We look forward to his fresh approach. I want to respond to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee report. I always appreciated the courtesy of the Committee’s interrogations and the acuteness of its questioning.
There is shared ground. Going to university brings substantial public and private benefits. There is little evidence that the benefits are decreasing even when the number of students and graduates is increasing. The private benefits come in the form of significant extra earnings. The public benefits come in many forms, including higher income tax receipts. The extra that a graduate is likely to earn during his or her working life, which on average is £200,000 or more, and the extra that the Exchequer is likely to collect from a graduate during his or her working life, which is possibly another £300,000 or more, are significantly larger than the amount of so-called debt that graduates have—it is a fixed monthly payment through PAYE, so the extent to which it should be regarded as normal debt is open to dispute.
Rightly, we contribute public resources to universities through the Higher Education Funding Council for England grant, which runs at almost £2 billion a year, and through support for students in maintenance grants and other specific payments. It is interesting that we are now hearing from the former Labour Secretary of State a proposal to abolish maintenance grants and replace them with further maintenance loans. Those costs that are paid through the Exchequer—the HEFCE grant to universities and the maintenance grant, disabled students allowance and so on to students—are undoubtedly actual public spending today and are accounted for as such.
There is a third cost—on which too much of the debate has already focused, but I will touch on it now—which is the extent to which these loans that are now being made for students will be collected back in the future, and the extent to which, at the end of the 30-year period, in 2046, people in this Chamber will discuss the public expenditure item that year of writing off the loans that have not been repaid. The former Secretary of State said that there are lots of different methods of treating this, and the Select Committee Chairman said that this was accounting. It is not a fiddly accounting point; it gets to the heart of the system. This is a forecast of what might happen in the future. That is why it is not public spending today. If it were treated as public spending today, we would get into the nonsensical position in which it would affect real things that BIS was doing. A BIS Minister would have to say, “I will cut back spending on catapult centres because I have to spend more money on the possible future write-off of loans in 2046.” That is no way in which Governments should operate and, thank heavens, they do not.
Of course I understand both the experience and knowledge with which my right hon. Friend speaks, but at the end of the day we do have a duty—it is why children and grandchildren have been mentioned so much in this debate—to think about what they will inherit. Does he recognise that, and how does he see that duty being undertaken by this Parliament?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. This is not public spending, as is explained in the Office for Budget Responsibility “Fiscal Sustainability Report” at page 174, paragraph B.21, which states:
“given the way the National Accounts are measured this does not directly affect our fiscal forecast.”
But that does not mean that we should be cavalier or wilful and say, “It doesn’t matter what the write-offs are. That is a problem for 2046.” My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is what I want to touch on. Clearly, we have to do this prudently, which is why this appears as an item of spending in some BIS departmental budgets. Quite rightly, BIS Ministers and Treasury Ministers have to discuss what they think will happen on the write-offs. Incidentally, a very sensible reform a couple of years ago, when even the Treasury understood that having this in the annual budget bouncing around as forecasts was nonsense, was for the accounting charges to happen at a rate of one thirtieth a year. We want to recognise this issue, but it would be a mistake for it to be regarded as just like normal departmental expenditure.
I am conscious that this may be the last time in this Parliament that we have a debate on higher education on the Floor of the House, so it is appropriate to salute the right hon. Gentleman’s extraordinary career and contribution, not just to this field of public policy, but to public policy in this country more generally. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]
During the last year or so, the right hon. Gentleman has been sanguine about a debt write-off rate that has risen quite dramatically. Why does he therefore think that a debt write-off rate of 100% would be a bad thing? Does he draw from that hypothetical argument that there is an optimum rate, and if so, will he share it with us?
I thank the shadow Minister for his generous remarks. I, too, as the former Secretary of State was saying, shall miss the House and even, no doubt, these debates. The shadow Minister asks a very fair question: what has happened to the RAB charge and why? The RAB charge is a peculiar calculation. First, it is a forecast, not public spending, and it has several elements. One element is a schematic assumption of the cost of Government borrowing. One reason why I am less worried about the so-called RAB charge than some other Members in the debate is that the RAB charge calculation assumes that the cost to Government borrowing is 2.2% real, when it is not. That is fixed by the Treasury. It may have been before the right hon. Gentleman was Chief Secretary, but under the previous Labour Government in 2005, when they first launched their scheme—very similar in structure to the scheme we have now—the RAB charge was 42%. One of the reasons why it was 42% was that it assumed a Government cost of borrowing of 3.5% real. In 2005, they announced that the actual cost to Government borrowing was 2.2%, and in a stroke, that reduced the RAB charge to 33%.
One piece of advice I would give to my excellent successor is that he should go back to the Treasury and ask why we are all having an argument about a figure that is based on a completely incorrect assumption for the cost of Government borrowing. If he does not do it, and the right hon. Gentleman were to be in Government, I will make a modest prediction that one of the first things that will happen to the RAB charge is that there will be a different and more realistic cost of Government borrowing, and lo and behold, the RAB charge will suddenly be discovered not to be 45%. As the OBR helpfully point out, 1% off the cost of Government borrowing lowers the RAB charge by 10 percentage points. So we are stuck on a calculation, one crucial element of which is fixed by Treasury stipulation. It does not respond to the real world.
Another bit of the calculation absolutely responds to the real world, and with excessive sensitivity. The other reason why it has gone up is what it is thought the £21,000 repayment threshold will be worth in 2016. Clearly, it will be worth more relative to earnings than we thought it would be when we set it. That is because, rightly, Ministers take the OBR earnings forecast, and the OBR’s assessment of what will happen to earnings year on year has kept on changing.
There was a deliberate decision to have a higher threshold than the previous scheme. We wanted to lower graduates’ fixed monthly outgoings. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) asks whether graduates will be able to get into the housing market, and all the lenders to whom I spoke made it clear that when it came to mortgages they looked at fixed outgoings. So if the threshold is raised, fixed outgoings are lowered and the capacity of graduates to take out mortgages is increased. That was one of the arguments for the higher threshold. Nevertheless, it has turned out that that £21,000 will be worth more in 2016 relative to earnings than was expected.
The real impact comes because it is then assumed that the £21,000 threshold is uprated with earnings, year after year for the next 30 years. In other words, the real value of that threshold, relative to earnings, over the 35 years of a graduate’s experience, is entirely determined by the performance of wages between 2011 and 2016 compared with the OBR forecast in 2011. That is a peculiar way of modelling a graduate repayment scheme. The Labour party, which says that that proves it is unsustainable, did not increase the £15,000 threshold during the entire five years after it came into force. The Labour party lowered the RAB charge by changing the figures for the cost of borrowing, and the threshold stood at £15,000 without an annual uprating.
What is happening? The reason why I am so uncomfortable with this focus on the RAB charge is that this is a forecast that we have to make, but it is a very peculiar forecast indeed, and we need to keep it in proportion.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that contribution, because I think he has given us one of the best arguments that I have heard this afternoon for precisely the review that my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) has called for. If the right hon. Gentleman poses significant questions about the right interest rate and the right earnings threshold—which we all know was a compromise with the Liberal Democrats—there are obviously some serious questions that demand a review. That is why the logical conclusion is that the Minister should stand up later today and admit that he has changed his mind. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will just underline an acceptance that, although we might dispute the right way of calculating a RAB charge, being concerned about the level of debt write-off is none the less very important, because the lower we can keep it, the more money there is for future generations.
On write-offs, I hope people can accept that what we are talking about here is a forecast shaped with some rather peculiar assumptions, not an item of public spending today. On a review, a lot depends on what people mean. My view is that the last thing that the higher education sector needs is another equivalent of Robbins, Dearing or Browne. All three political parties represented in the Chamber today, when faced with how to finance higher education when money is tight, have all essentially reached the same decision: to go for a graduate repayment scheme. My right hon. Friend the Minister is entirely correct when he quotes Andreas Schleicher and the OECD in saying that this is the sustainable model.
In my experience as Minister—I am sure that it is my right hon. Friend’s experience as well—there were certain Ministers around the world who looked at us and tried to work out how to get something closer to what we have. The last thing we need is a review that throws all this up into the air, particularly if the anxieties that people are focusing on arise from an unfair comparison. The reason why there are so-called anxieties about the sustainability of this model is the forecasts, which are very peculiar indeed, and the assumption that everything is fixed until 2046.
When the advocates of a graduate tax stand up and say that they want a graduate tax, they do not then say, “It’s going to be 9%, and it’s going to have an earnings threshold of £21,000, and we commit now that that will be the threshold related to earnings for 30 years.” As soon as they did that, exactly the same kind of calculations would be possible and we could calculate the x billion pounds that they expect to collect in the next 30 years, and every six months we could recalculate and announce that they had just lost £3 billion and ask what they were going to do about the fiscal crisis in their scheme. In other words, the advocates of a graduate tax are of course assuming that it is a flexible device to ensure that people continue to pay for higher education, and that is what this graduate repayment scheme is. Although designed by Labour and adjusted by us, it is conceptually the same thing. The last thing we need is to reopen that question.
I look forward to hearing the right hon. Gentleman, who I think is pursuing a debate about a pure graduate tax, which is of no interest to my proposals, as he will have heard. Could he tell us what the RAB charge represents? The only common-sense interpretation is that it is the best estimate we have at present of how much money will not be repaid. Does he accept that? It is not good enough to say, “It’s not very good, so I will ignore it.” Surely, the very least that he should be demanding from the Minister is a sensible projection of how much will not be paid back.
The only country that has a system like ours is Australia. The last time I was in Australia, comparing notes and discussing our two systems, when I asked the leading Australian expert what the Australian equivalent of the RAB charge was, he said, “I think when we launched the scheme five years ago, we did an estimate of write-offs, and come to think of it, we probably ought to have another look at it now.” The idea that every six months a new figure was churned out essentially based on what has happened to earnings in the previous six months compared with the OBR forecast in 2011 would have been regarded as absurd. I would happily have a much more credible set of assessments of write-offs, which would have to allow for the fact that this must be a flexible system.
Returning to the shadow Minister’s intervention, I accept that all of us in all parts of the House should openly recognise that the scheme will not remain unchanged until 2046. We do not sit around with our income tax system, saying, “Well, of course Geoffrey Howe decided income tax rates and thresholds in 1980, and now that 35 years have elapsed we can decide on a new set.” That is not how policy is conducted in this country. One of the reasons why I am unhappy with this focus on a particular way of calculating the RAB charge is that it brings with it a set of assumptions which, unlike any other area of public policy, have been determined until 2046, so the only thing to do if someone wanted to change it is to tear the whole system up and start again.
I completely accept that there will be a necessity—I am interested in this and I am doing something on it at present—for us to discuss the right balance of public and private benefit from higher education and the balance of public and private contribution to the costs of higher education. The graduate repayments must clearly reflect the private benefit from higher education, but nobody should be preoccupied with a set of calculations that are possible only because of some highly precise assumptions that bear no relationship to the real world of higher education over the next 30 years.
I have been listening to the right hon. Gentleman with great interest. It seems to me that part of the case for a review is that, when the scheme was introduced, the Government based it on certain assumptions about RAB charges that have subsequently proved to be incredibly inaccurate. That may at some time in the future result in a need at least to amend policy. Given that the scheme has been in effect since 2012 and these inaccuracies have been exposed, is not this the most appropriate time to review it to see what changes should be made?
On inaccuracies, the RAB charge is largely determined by external factors. The 2.2% cost of borrowing is determined by Treasury assumption. The repayment threshold in 2016 relative to earnings is entirely determined by OBR forecasts. We did not go round trying to reach an alternative wages forecast; we just took the OBR forecast, which was the only sensible way to proceed. Then the British jobs market performed differently from what everyone expected in 2010, with good news on employment and less good news on increases in the real value of wages.
There was an error. The error that was made, which emerges from increased research on what has happened to graduates, is that it looks as though graduate earnings do not bounce around as much as was expected. That is another factor, although not a significant one in how the RAB charge is forecast. The forecast is inevitably shaped by the kind of assumptions that I described earlier.
I have spoken for 20 minutes and I do not want to go on any longer. I have touched on my concern about the way this debate is going wrong. It is going wrong by treating the assumptions necessary to make any kind of RAB charge calculations as somehow fixing the design of the system for the next 30 years, when that is absolutely not the purpose of the specification of those assumptions to make the calculation.
I deliberately mentioned black holes because they have an event horizon. Once an object crosses that event horizon, it is stretched out of existence. Part of the reason why I want us to have a review is to know where that event horizon is. That would be one of its important purposes. Is my right hon. Friend eschewing the other aspects that we talked about—better debt collection, better loan agreements and better productivity from our universities—which would be useful now?
That is very fair, and it is the point on which I want to end. I think debt collection is not a particular weakness of the scheme. Again, some of the Select Committee reports and even the NAO stuff is unfair in regarding debt collection as an area where we could do massively better. Essentially, we are forecasting income tax receipts up to 2045—calculating 9% of earnings above a threshold out to 30 years and discounting its value back. This preoccupation with the RAB charge is relatively new. When Labour’s RAB charge was 42%, we did not have agonised debates about it. It has suddenly become the hot topic of the day, as though it somehow proves that the system is unsustainable.
The real issue, as has been correctly identified by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley) and the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham), is what is happening to the student’s academic experience. When I talk with student unions, I find them relatively relaxed and accepting that 9% of earnings above £21,000 is affordable, but what they say is, “We are entitled to £9,000-worth of higher education today for the fees we pay.” There is a lot of dissatisfaction with the quality of the academic experience—for example, the amount of contact time they have with academics and the quality of the teaching—and that is the real-world challenge for our universities. I am one of the culprits in this regard, but I hope that in future our debates on higher education—I look forward to reading the Hansard reports—will focus a little more on that question and a little less on esoteric calculations of what might or might not be written off in 2046.
What a privilege it is to take part in this debate. The quality of the contributions has been excellent. The House will recall that I have been involved in higher education for a very long time. Over the 10 years that I was the Chair of the Education Committee it partly covered higher education, so I was very absorbed in the subject. I was also a university teacher for 12 years, back when I used to work for a living, as I sometimes say—like the hon. Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley), I am one of the few Members who had a career before entering this place. The fact of the matter is that this has been a very high-quality debate.
I care deeply about higher education and love what it has done for my generation. I am the youngest of five children and the only one to go to university. I got into the local grammar school and was saved by going to Kingston technical college and then getting a scholarship to the London School of Economics, where I am now a governor. Higher education made my life. It gave me opportunities that my brothers and sister never had. I think that we underestimate just how powerful it can be and just what it has done in a short number of years for the people of this country.
I was at the LSE when the Robbins report was being written. Indeed, we had to walk quietly past the great man’s study in case he was behind the door, working on the royal commission. What he came up with still guides us, and I still think that it is right. He said that higher education should be paid for through a fair balance between the individual who benefits, the employer that benefits and society. That thread has run through all the contributions we have heard today. We are still concerned about how to deliver that fairness and that balance.
I do not want to repeat the excellent contributions we have heard on funding or to get into the black hole, so I will instead focus my remarks on delivery. However, I will say that the reason I gave, as co-chair of the Higher Education Commission, for doing a report on the long-term sustainability of higher education in our country was that everyone is talking about it. As my old friend the right hon. Member for Havant (Mr Willetts) knows, the higher education sector is very gossipy, and people in every corner—including vice-chancellors and business people—have been asking whether this is a long-term, viable model. They are asking that because higher education is so vital to our future. To get it wrong would be disastrous for our country’s future.
Fifty years ago Harold Wilson, who was born in my constituency, delivered a speech to the Labour party conference in Scarborough. It is now known as the “white heat of technology” speech. He said that for years this country had been ruled by a few people who went to posh schools and then to Oxford or Cambridge and who were essentially amateurs, but that the new world had no future for people without skills, or even for semi-skilled people. He saw that the future was in high skills, quality management and high science. He told us to look at what was happening in Russia: they had put a man into space before the Americans. He had been to the United States and seen production lines in the automobile industry where nothing was touched by a human hand. He could see that as a country we had to become highly skilled.
Harold Wilson also said some ridiculous things in that speech. He said, “Why do only 5% of people go to university? It should be 10%.” What a silly statement—I say that in jest. Why should we not have a university in every former industrial town? When Labour won the election a few months later, the polytechnics were introduced. There is a lovely story that Harold, when given the list of colleges of technology that were to be brought up to polytechnics, said, “Eee, where’s Huddersfield?”, before writing it in. I mention that because it is an amusing story, but there is a serious point: any town or city in this country that does not have a university cannot get into the super league. Up and down the country, large towns and cities that do not have a university—Huddersfield is lucky to have one—are in a lower league. I do not mean to decry those places, but universities are so important to the life of our communities, to their wealth and success. If we took them out of our towns and cities, we would be left with very little.
I made a point earlier about being a secondary modern schoolboy at a time when only 2% of the population went to university, and I desperately regret not being able to take advantage of further education. I am really glad that so many of our young people can now do so. I was one of those boys that Harold Wilson was perhaps talking about—I was not a great fan of his, but that is another matter. Thank God we have a university that is doing its job so well in Northampton. I agree with the hon. Gentleman in that respect.
I have a close relationship with Northampton university and its excellent vice-chancellor and know of its commitment to social enterprise. I am astonished by how few Members are in the Chamber for this debate. Huddersfield university is the biggest employer in my constituency, the biggest bringer of wealth, and it is what makes my town so vibrant. It has 25,000 students, and growing, and a massive number of staff. Think what that means for local businesses and supply chains. It pays very fair wages and sticks to all the principles. Indeed, not only was it last year’s university of the year, but it has just been given an award for the best level of employability of graduates. I will say more about that in a moment.
What Harold Wilson said 50 years ago is even more true today. If we do not produce the high skills we need in this country to compete and earn our living, we will be in dreadful trouble. Out in India, Brazil and China there are masses of people getting high-level and very practical qualifications. In every area where we have expertise we will find more and more competition as time goes on. We have to become brighter and smarter all the time. There is no place in our society for people without skills. That is a tragic aspect, but it is also a hopeful one. We have built up a fantastic university structure.
When I got the “Too Good To Fail” report going, what I wanted to say was that we do not want to throw everything up in the air. I do not want another Browne report, and I do not want to have to go back to the LSE and have another Robbins report. It is time that sensible men and women get together, as we have today, and say, “The system is working fairly well, but there are some real problems—can we fix them intelligently by co-operating?” The interesting and remarkable thing about the way in which higher education policy was produced, as Members might remember, is that it came out of an all-party agreement not to discuss the subject during a general election. We said that we would set up an inquiry agreed by both sides—Opposition and Government—and let it get on with its job.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very powerful speech that I agree with. He talks about the fantastic system we have. However, it is basically a market-based system that is not delivering the balance of skills that the country needs. For example, we need 500 power engineers a year but we have only 100 undergraduate places. What does he think we should do about how the market delivers what the country needs?
The hon. Gentleman anticipates the second part of my remarks, and I do not want to detain the House for much longer.
I wanted to begin by setting the scene in establishing how important universities are to towns, cities and communities. Our higher education system is pretty marvellous. People come from all over the world to see it. I show them around and they marvel at its quality. However, it is not perfect; the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in many ways. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) said, we are not delivering the right product in our universities. All my vice-chancellor friends will disown me for saying “product,” but it is a product.
Are we delivering the kinds of graduates our country needs? In lots of cases, we are—they are brilliant. My own university has one of the best design departments in the country. Young people who do its fashion degrees are snapped up by fashion houses all over the world. Indeed, the head of Burberry is one of our graduates. Mechanical engineers and design engineers are snapped up by Formula 1. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) has a son who is a graduate working in F1 because of the fine quality of the department. We do loads of things right—of course we do—but often not in a way that is appropriate to what is really needed.
That is not to say that things are not happening. There are people doing two-year degrees in Coventry. Skoda Coventry has people doing degrees either only in the morning so they can work in the afternoon, or only in the afternoon so they can work in the morning. The diversity of what is being done around the country is much greater than we might think.
In its evidence, million+ said that the political sensitivity of fees denies it the chance to run two-year degrees that would cost 80% of the cost of a three-year degree, because that would take the fees to more than £9,000 a year, even though the degree would be cheaper. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to remove some of the artificial constraints that have stopped universities being as flexible and creative as they would like to be?
That is absolutely right. We must find the right model and give opportunities to people. Part-time degrees have plateaued—some say diminished—but not in Scotland and Wales, interestingly. We need a more flexible system.
I get a bit tired of the CBI saying, “We’re not getting the right people with the right skills as graduates”, but there is a strong element of truth in that. When people are delivered having finished their degree, there should be a strong element of their being fit for employment. When a good arts or social sciences graduate comes to see me, I say, “You’ve got an arts degree—go to Cranfield or the LSE and get yourself a business degree or something with economics that is much sharper, because that is what the market is looking for.” That is a good combination, but it creates a greater level of debt, and a lot of people are reluctant to increase their debt.
The level of debt is always on my mind. Young people’s inability to get mortgages is a very important issue. We are in an age when it is getting more and more difficult for people to get a home of their own. Many people are still living at home with their parents when they are in their 30s. Those within the middle-income areas in public services, education and health will be most hit by the inability to get a mortgage.
I do a great deal of work in identifying entrepreneurs and increasing their ability to be entrepreneurs. As some Members will know, a lot of it involves crowdfunding and crowdsourcing. I have been working with a number of universities to ensure that they are knowledgeable about crowdfunding platforms. Then, when their undergraduates become graduates and want to start a business, there is on the campus, as in Northampton, an ability for them to get money through crowdfunding for start-ups. When I go to universities nowadays, I look very carefully at how much space there is for young entrepreneurs. They do not have to be a private entrepreneur; they can be a social entrepreneur. Enterprise and entrepreneurship is going to be the future.
When people ask me why the industrial revolution started in places like Huddersfield, I say that it is because we had cheap power in the form of the water that flowed from the Pennines and turned the water mills that made the factories possible; we had high skills; and—people tend to leave out the third element—we had entrepreneurs who could put all that together and make something. Our universities have to be much more focused on how to create opportunities for entrepreneurship to be not only learned but encouraged. As opposed to the old, tidy world of going into the City, academic life, or whatever—the traditional occupations—we have to make it much more possible for young people, and older people, to find the spark of enterprise and entrepreneurship.
By the time people have graduated, they should understand some of the rules of how to be interviewed properly and organise themselves properly. That would make a real difference. I once horrified some people at a meeting in the House when I said that I would teach management from four years old onwards. I chair the all-party management group. Managing one’s life is pretty darn important. When I talk to undergraduates, I find that they do not know how to manage their life. If they did, they would be much more likely to get a job.
I go round universities all the time. I am a visiting professor at Huddersfield and at the Institute of Education in London. I talk to graduates and they do not know what the British economy is like. I ask, “How many people in this country make anything?”, and they say that the figure is 30% or 40%, but of course it is less than 10%. We have 1% of people working in agriculture, 30% in what Conservative Members tend to call public services—but I call it education, local government and health—and 60% in private services. People working in early-years or later-years care will be on the minimum wage or minimum wage-plus, as will those in retail and distribution. When I tell students this, they say, “Wow, is that true?” Then I say to them, “If you’re on the minimum wage or minimum wage-plus, you can’t have the good life.” Someone at the back always puts their hand up and says, “Mr Sheerman, I really disagree with that. You can have the good life in a cave—it is in your heart.” Then we get into the best discussion of the reason most of us come into Parliament—to give the people we represent and the people of this country the good life. We con people if they end up thinking that one can have the good life without high skills.
The model for universities has to be refined; we do not have to throw everything up in the air. We need more flexible degrees, with much more emphasis on people being work-ready and enterprising so that they can become entrepreneurs.
This has been a tremendous debate, and the quality of the speeches has been excellent. For the first time in a long time, I may not stay until the end. I have a sick elderly relative who has been rushed into hospital with pneumonia, so I may have to disappear, but that is no disrespect to those who speak after me.
I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), who said that one of the advantages of speaking towards the end of a debate is being able to reflect on the quality of the speeches so far.
As we head towards a general election, it is fitting to debate an issue that was central to the last one; I very much feel that as the Member of Parliament who, according to the last census, represents more students than any other. It was certainly an issue on which the Liberal Democrats, who are conspicuously absent from today’s discussion—
The Liberal Democrats are absent in terms of their contribution. They put the issue at the very centre of the campaign in my constituency. My political neighbour, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg), was very busy at both the universities in Sheffield—they are both in my constituency—emphasising the pledge that he subsequently quickly forgot.
The debate in the early days of this Parliament arguably introduced the biggest changes to higher education funding since those introduced in 1962, following the Anderson committee report. I have enormous respect for the right hon. Member for Havant (Mr Willetts), but I do not agree when he says that the Government simply in some way tweaked the system that they inherited. The fundamental changes introduced in 2012 effectively removed all public funding from the majority of undergraduate courses in most of our universities, which was a very significant alteration to the model that had been in place for the previous 50 years.
As other hon. Members have mentioned, the changes have put huge debts on students. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Sutton Trust—I think this is the most recent calculation—we are talking of a debt of about £44,000, when maintenance costs are added in, for an ordinary three-year course, and the debt is clearly much higher for medicine, dentistry and other longer courses.
My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield was right to view such debts in the context of the other burdens we are placing on the generation graduating this year, who face such debts for the first time. They are also having to deal with a housing market in crisis, and all the costs associated with buying or renting. That generation will not be able to enjoy the benefits of final salary pensions, which many of us expected to have in our careers, and will have to put aside very substantial sums to provide for their old age. We have created a real financial crisis for them.
The problem is not just one for that generation, but one for the public purse. That is the key point of our Select Committee’s report. I underline and echo many of the points made by my good friend and Committee colleague, the hon. Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley). In the unanimously agreed report we said that we were
“concerned that Government is rapidly approaching a tipping point for the financial viability of the student loans system.”
Our point about the tipping point is based on our assessment of the RAB charge. We have discussed that a great deal, and I will talk about it a bit more. The Government, like the right hon. Member for Havant, are keen now—it was not always thus—to talk down the importance of the RAB charge. He said earlier that we are not talking about spending, but about a forecast. That is absolutely right, but it is a forecast of costs that will fall on the public purse, and we cannot get away from that.
The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills was much more cavalier at last year’s Liberal Democrat conference, when he said:
“These losses crystallise in 30 or 40 years’ time—when I’m well over 100. I shan’t be sitting round, spending the rest of my life worrying about what happens in the year 2000 and whatever it is.”
Actually, the responsibility of this place is to worry about such issues.
It was a very different story when, back in December 2010, we debated proposals to treble fees and to shift the cost of higher education from the Exchequer to students. The Secretary of State was keen to justify the measure by reference to cost savings, and he talked a lot about the RAB charge. Of course, he talked about a RAB charge of 28%, which was subsequently amended to 30%.
At the time, many of us questioned the Government’s assumptions. Most notably, the Higher Education Policy Institute—now led by the former special adviser to the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Havant—argued that the Government had significantly underestimated the RAB charge, and published its own analysis suggesting that it would be about 40%.
When the Select Committee questioned the Secretary of State in October 2012, soon after the introduction of the new system, he was very quick to defend the RAB charge assessment. He refuted HEPI:
“We do not accept that they are right… We had the HEPI view put to us two years ago, when we were thinking of the current changes, so we are aware. But they are an outlier in this whole debate.”
At least in one respect, he was right and HEPI was wrong—not because it overestimated the charge, but because it underestimated it.
We now know that the Government have assessed the RAB charge at 45% and, in an exchange in the Select Committee last year, BIS acknowledged that it is modelling a RAB charge of more than 50%. That is important because once it exceeds 48.6% the new system will cost more than the system it replaced. The new system, introduced in response to the Browne review, was supposed to last for a generation, but after less than three years, it is broken.
The RAB charge is only one part of the problem. In the debate back in 2010, the Deputy Prime Minister desperately tried to save some face on the fees issue by saying that one of the new system’s benefits would be the introduction of loans for part-time students. He said that it was an important initiative and a progressive development, but he did not say that it would be linked to an increase in fees. It has contributed to a 50% fall in the number of part-time students between 2010-11 and 2013-14, according to Higher Education Funding Council for England analysis.
There was also a miscalculation of how fees for full-time students would be set. The assurances given to the House back then have proved worthless. In particular, I remember that the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) sought reassurances that fees of £9,000 would be exceptional. The Business Secretary gave him a clear pledge, saying that he would not allow another
“migration of all universities to the top of the range”.—[Official Report, 9 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 547.]
Where did we end up? We saw precisely such a migration. Far from being exceptional, £9,000 became the norm, because universities needed to cover their costs, as they told the Government they would.
The Government’s objective was to create a market of fees set between £6,000 and £9,000. Rather than universities meeting their costs, the Government somehow expected them to set their fees in order of perceived quality, presumably with Oxbridge at the top and the rest neatly ranking themselves below. When that did not work, they started tinkering with the controls on student numbers. More recently, they have made an unfunded commitment to lift those controls altogether.
When the Chancellor announced that policy, he suggested that it would be funded from the sale of the income-contingent loan book. As it has become clear that the sale of the loan book is unachievable, the report asks how the Government will fund the expansion of student numbers—however desirable that objective might be—without creating a further £5.5 billion black hole in the Department’s books. Of course, there is already a smaller, but significant, black hole of some £650 million on loans and grants to students in private colleges. That is because of a lack of Department control, which the Select Committee has consistently raised.
There are other issues. Although it is not part of the report, we should not forget the way in which the Home Office’s approach to international students is limiting our ability to maximise university income and the wider economic benefits of a growing worldwide market, preferring to let our competitors benefit by increasing their market share, as the United States, Canada and Australia are doing. I particularly congratulate the right hon. Member for Havant on his comments about the further Home Office proposals that seemed to appear before Christmas but are now retreating.
Where do we go from here? We clearly need to look at alternatives to the current system, and that was the conclusion of the Higher Education Commission inquiry into the sustainability of the current funding model which, as the Chair of the BIS Committee pointed out, was co-led by Conservative peer Lord Norton of Louth. The inquiry involved Members of both Houses from all main parties and experts from the sector and from business. Over nine months they considered the risks to sustainability for student numbers, students, institutions and government, and concluded that it was
“the cumulative impact of these risks that is most concerning. The current funding system represents the worst of both worlds. We have created a system where everybody feels like they are getting a bad deal. This is not sustainable”.
The report went on to argue that we must look at alternatives. The first of those is tweaking the current system, which I guess is probably closest to the Minister’s thinking. I would therefore be grateful if when winding up the debate he answered three questions. First, there will be growing and understandable pressure from universities for an increase in fees. He suggested soon after taking his job that he did not accept that there was a case for increasing fees during the next Parliament, but is that still his view? Secondly, some top universities argue, as they always have done, for a substantial increase in the fee cap—I think the latest argument from the vice-chancellor of Oxford is for a cap of £16,000 a year. Does the Minister rule out any such increase? Thirdly, some have argued that the RAB charge could be reduced by lowering the salary threshold for repayments or increasing interest rates. Will he rule out any such changes?
The Higher Education Commission report offers six options. There are clearly more, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) made a convincing argument for a different approach. The commission’s second option is one that many of us have supported for years and has been mentioned in the debate, which is that of breaking with income-contingent loans and moving to a more progressive model that replaces fees with a graduate tax.
Although it does not endorse any of the options, the commission highlights the work of London Economics in providing strong evidence to back a graduate tax. That would break the link between the cost of tuition and repayments from students, moving to a graduate contribution that we all accept and that would be based on ability to pay and not on what a student needs to borrow to get through university. The right hon. Member for Havant will know that the modelling by London Economics is specific in the percentages it proposes for different levels of income and the period for which such a model might work. We would need to consider hypothecation and seek a system that covers all tertiary students, addresses the problems with undergraduate maintenance costs, establishes viable support for postgraduate taught courses, which risk becoming the new barrier to social mobility, and deals with issues of transition and historic debt. Those challenges have to be faced because we need a system that is fair and sustainable, and that is why the report calls for, and why we need, a comprehensive review.
This has been a simply excellent debate, and I am grateful that it has presented the Minister with an unanswerable case for the review called for by the Select Committee. Nobody listening to the arguments and evidence presented this afternoon could leave the Chamber and say that everything at the moment is fine and perfect and that nothing must change. Wide-ranging concerns have been raised across the House, and I hope that when he winds up the debate, the Minister will confirm that he will launch that review immediately.
I congratulate the members of the Select Committee on initiating this debate, and I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley). This will be one of the last set-piece debates in which he participates, and we will all want to salute his sagacity, wisdom and wit, not just in this debate but in many other debates and Committees over the years. At the core of the speech that was referred to earlier, Harold Wilson made a great deal of the difference between amateurs and players, and Members across the House will share the view that the hon. Gentleman is not an amateur but very much a player. The House will be much poorer for his departure.
The reason this debate is so important was set out with great eloquence by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) and by the Royal Society in its excellent report in 2011, “The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity”. Unless we grow smarter as a country, we will grow poorer. Over the last century or two, about three quarters of economic growth has been driven by innovation, and there is no reason to doubt that that trend will continue into the future. That is why we need universities that are stronger, and world-class institutions that sit within a world-class system. It is not good enough just to have a country of great universities; we need a system that ensures that world-class universities work together pursuing excellence in mission in a good way. That is why it is not good enough to permit the current system to stand unadjusted and unaltered, because the basic truth revealed by this debate is that our system is falling off a cliff.
The Government are fond of rhetoric about a long-term economic plan, and we wish there were one. However, if we are to be candid with each other, we all know that the current student finance system was not the platonic design of the right hon. Member for Havant (Mr Willetts), but the outcome of a messy negotiation. The Liberal Democrats needed something back for breaking their pledge not to raise fees, and what they received were guarantees on income thresholds that have basically left us with a broken system that is not fit for the future and needs to change.
My next point is that there is tremendous urgency to this matter—that argument was made with much power and eloquence by the hon. Member for Northampton South. We all know that living standards need to rise, and that will be a big part of our debates over the next three or four months. We also know, however, that the only strategic way that Britain will lift itself out of the current cost of living crisis is first by creating a better supply of good, well-paid jobs, but also by building better ladders to those jobs for people, no matter where they start in life. Right now, that is not happening in enough places. In fact, in swathes of the country, the number of jobs in the knowledge economy is not increasing but decreasing.
I started my career flipping burgers in McDonald’s, and I have done every job under the sun. I have started a technology business; I have created jobs for others. I happen to think that any job is better than no job, but during my career I have also learned that a good job is better than a bad job, and right now in large parts of the country there are not enough good jobs. There are 22,000 fewer jobs in the knowledge economy in north-east England today than there were in 2009. In my region of the west midlands there are 2,000 fewer jobs in the knowledge economy, and there are also fewer such jobs in the south-west and in Scotland. All over the country people are tempted to vote for extremist parties because no one is giving them a sensible, realistic story about how we rebuild the opportunity economy for the years to come. Universities are critical to rebalancing our economy in a new way.
Having created those jobs, we have to build the ladders to them. Industry tells us—as I am sure it tells the Government parties—that the skills problem is becoming more and more pronounced. KPMG says that a third of manufacturers cannot reshore jobs to this country because of a skill shortage. Jaguar Land Rover, which works on my doorstep, reminds me that we need around 90,000 engineers a year in this country, and we have some 50,000 graduates—a 40% deficit each year. The Royal Academy of Engineering tells us that we will need 820,000 STEM professionals between now and 2020. We are just not producing enough of them.
The great tragedy in constituencies such as mine, which has the highest youth unemployment, is that we do not have a training and skills system—or a university system—that will create the people for the jobs in the good businesses that we actually have. I asked the Library this morning to tell me how many jobs have been added to the shortage occupation list. Hon. Members will know that if a job is on that list, people from outside the country can be fast-tracked in. I was told that 61 jobs have been added to the shortage occupation list since the last election. In part, that has allowed businesses to fast-track in nearly 200,000 people from outside Britain because they could not find the skills on these islands. Those people brought 142,000 dependants with them, so some 334,000 people have come to Britain because businesses could not find the skills here.
I am a supporter of an immigration system that is a little more generous than the Government have given us, especially when it comes to post-study work visas and students, but the fact that businesses are forced to recruit from abroad because they have failed a resident labour market test is an admission of failure and shows that our skills system is not working. That is why the Committee’s report is so important. As the Chair of the Committee pointed out with such eloquence, this report is not a one-off. It is now one of several reports that have been published over the last 18 months that tell us that the system is in crisis.
Most recently, we had the Higher Education Commission report that questioned the fundamental stability of the system. In April last year, the Institute for Fiscal Studies said that 73% of graduates will never pay back their loans in full. The Public Accounts Committee said that between £70 billion and £80 billion of loans will be written off by 2042—I make that about £500,000 of debt write-off every hour of every working day for the next 28 years. That should concern us all, because it is money that is not available for reinvestment in the future. What has happened over the last three or four years is probably one of the biggest off-balance sheet financing tricks in the history of the public finances. Up to £200 billion has been moved off the public books and shunted from the present into the future. The hon. Member for Northampton South mentioned the curse for future generations and that was a point well made.
In 10 years in this House, I have learned that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. That is why we should pay attention to all the warnings we have heard from the PAC, the IFS and now the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee and the Higher Education Commission. I am grateful for the opportunity to salute the contribution from the right hon. Member for Havant, but even he had to admit that the RAB charge, imperfectly constructed as it is, draws our attention to the risks of preserving in aspic every single precise feature of the current design, whether that is the sticker price of tuition fees, the earnings threshold or the rates of interest. The current RAB charge is telling us is that all is not well. The right hon. Gentleman did not say whether he thought that a 100% RAB charge was a bad thing, but I took from his remarks a general acceptance that a high RAB charge is bad and a low RAB charge is good. Therefore, the current trajectory is in the wrong direction and things should change. If things should change, good people should reflect on what those things should be. We should call that reflection a review—and that is what the Committee has called for. An unanswerable case has been made to the Minister this afternoon.
Two extra risks add to the urgency of the review. The first is the marketisation of the higher education system which is driving fiscal risk substantially. The University and College Union raised this issue as early as September 2010 and warned, in an excellent paper, of the fiscal risks of sub-prime education. The union asked us to look at the US, which has had problems of over-recruitment and inadequate safeguards on quality and academic freedom. Those issues have bedevilled higher education in some parts of the US. The union warns us to guard against those risks, but the truth is that we have seen a twentyfold increase in publicly backed funding to students at private colleges—the figure for this year is forecast to be £600 million. The PAC warned us that the Department
“went ahead with its reforms to expand the role of private colleges without ensuring there were controls in place”.
That is an added fiscal risk that we cannot ignore.
The second great risk, which several hon. Members have mentioned, is the hastily constructed plan to uncap student numbers. The rumours in the higher education sector suggest that the plan was largely cooked up in the Treasury rather than BIS. It was certainly unveiled with some speed in the final days—if not hours—before the last Budget and it proposes an ambitious expansion of student numbers, funded by the sale of the student loan book. Most of us were surprised when the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills told us that the loan book sale was off. We were even more surprised when the Minister answered a question by saying that civil servants were still working on it. In the letter, which he kindly provided yesterday, he was unable to tell me how much the Department is spending on a policy that the Secretary of State has ruled out—I guess that is the reality of coalition Government.
As these fiscal risks multiply, what has most concerned people is that the Department has refused to spell out the departmental expenditure limit provision for maintenance grants and teaching in 2016-17 and beyond. That will be the third year for the extra students who were taken on by universities last year. I suspect that people want to know that the unit cost of funding for 2016-17 will be protected, but that was the big omission from the Minister’s letter to me yesterday. I notice that the student loan book sale is still in the OBR’s fiscal forecasts, so perhaps it will magically appear from left field and save the day, but it would be a significant risk.
We have report after report saying that the current system is not sustainable. The former Minister who was the architect of the current system has told us that some features and functions might need to be adjusted over the next 20 years. We have the extra risks from marketisation and uncapping student numbers. The Minister, with his responsibility for science, is the champion of evidence-based policy making in the Government. I am not sure how he can hear the evidence that has been laid before him this afternoon and say that it is so underwhelming that we do not need a review and that the current system is perfect in design and should persist long into the future.
Especially welcome in this debate have been the contributions that have pointed towards the need for much bolder thinking about a different future for our higher education system, one that offers for the first time a proper, apprenticeship-based professional and technical route to degree-level skills. All of us agree that there is no prosperous future for people without skills, so we must transform—indeed, revolutionise—the number of people on an apprenticeship track who get the chance to go up to degree-level skills. The fact that only 2% of apprentices go on to that level of study is unacceptable and needs to be revolutionised.
I hope that one aspect of the new system will allow further and higher education institutions to come together in a more valuable way, both with each other and with the business communities that they serve. I also hope that the review that I know the Minister will promise in a moment will look at every possible option for protecting the unit cost of funding but also bringing down the cost to students. We know that reducing tuition fees will lower the RAB charge and therefore lower public sector net debt, which is the stated intention of the Government.
Finally, I would like to underline the point made in the excellent speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield). We cannot abstract this debate from what is happening to our young people. Today’s generation is the first for a century who will be poorer than the generation who came before. There are now more young people living in poverty than there are pensioners. Unemployment for young people is still too high and apprenticeship numbers for the under-24s are now falling. We have to change that and it is incumbent on us to do so. That was the argument made in an excellent book called “The Pinch”, which was published towards the end of the previous Parliament.
When I was preparing my own thoughts on higher education reform, one of the documents that influenced me most was a paper prepared in 1962 and 1963 by a group of senior policy makers who wanted to persuade Harold Wilson to implement the Robbins review, which he subsequently did in 1964 and in the years thereafter. One of the phrases that rang out from those pages is that we must not and cannot be
“afraid to build splendidly for our young.”
As we approach the next election, those are good words to inspire us.
We have heard many good words to inspire us in what has been, as many Members have said, an excellent debate. The fact that three of the Members who have spoken will be leaving the House at the election invites us to pay tribute to the contribution they have made over the years. It could be, of course, that more than three may find themselves leaving the House, but three, at any rate, are planning to leave.
I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting us the opportunity to have this debate, and to the Select Committee, several of whose members have spoken. They have done a valuable job and I echo the tribute paid by my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr Willetts). They have an important job to do in scrutinising the implementation of the reforms to student finance. As the Chair will know, the Government have rightly adopted many of its specific recommendations, for example on continuously improving the forecasting methodology and on targets for the Student Loans Company. In a different context, I told the Committee that my experience in this House has always been to listen very carefully to the advice of Select Committees. I will always do so.
As the new system is gradually exposed to the clear light of how it works in practice and not in prospect, it is becoming increasingly plain that it is a very considerable achievement and a source of confidence in our future excellence and prosperity. My right hon. Friend the Member for Havant has reason to be very proud of his achievement in carrying through the reforms.
I want to make some progress. I have the least time of all, which is appropriate in a Backbench Business debate. However, if I have some time later, I will of course take an intervention.
Since the Committee took its evidence, which the Chair will acknowledge was about a year ago, the evidence in favour of the positive effects of the reforms has been mounting. We have discussed whether to undertake a review. I encourage the successor Select Committee in the next Parliament to undertake a stocktake of the system in practice. I suspect that it will draw the same conclusion as I have.
In the words of the OECD, which is widely regarded as the leading authority in the world on comparing education systems, the UK is one of the few countries that has figured out a sustainable approach to higher education finance and the investments pay-off for individuals and taxpayers:
“among all available approaches”—
the OECD includes 34 countries—
“the UK offers still the most…sustainable approach to university finance.”
In responding to the debate, I want to summarise how the advantages are clear for students, the taxpayer and universities.
The system is good for students, because it has allowed more of them than ever before to fulfil their dream of a place at university. Many Members have acknowledged the importance of achieving what has previously been beyond the reach of many of our fellow citizens. This autumn, for the first time in the history of this country, half a million applicants were placed in higher education. The head of UCAS put it this way just last month. It is, she said,
“a stunning account of social change, with the most disadvantaged young people over 10 per cent more likely to enter higher education than last year and a third more likely than just five years ago – 40 per cent more likely for higher tariff institutions.”
Despite predictions to the contrary, students have seen that going to university is an exceptional investment. Graduates earn on average £9,000 more than non-graduates. In the past year, the graduate premium for young graduates—those under 30—has risen to £6,000. Graduates are half as likely to be unemployed as non-graduates and two-thirds are in highly skilled jobs, a proportion that has been rising substantially as we recover from recession. Students know that they will pay nothing up front and that they will pay back only if and when they can afford to do so. It is important to be clear to the House that for a graduate earning £30,000, a high salary compared with the population as a whole, for the benefit of a three year degree they will repay £2.22 a day. That is an eminently reasonable reflection of the value they obtain from that degree. It is no wonder that students are responding with such alacrity—more than ever before.
Let me say why the system is good for taxpayers, as the OECD director said. The reforms have made it possible—without them it would not have been possible—to abolish the cap on student numbers. That is overwhelmingly in our national interests, as I think most Members would acknowledge. The earning power of graduates means that it is not just the graduates themselves who gain—the Exchequer gains hundreds of thousands of pounds over a graduate’s lifetime of employment. That is many times more than even the most conservative estimate of the so-called RAB charge. Andreas Schleicher of the OECD said that what one loses through non-payments is small versus the tax revenue uplift from more students earning more in work and that this premium is expanding.
It is important to emphasise—it has not been clear in some of the contributions—that this subsidy is nothing like a commercial loan, in which any debt that is written off is somehow a mistaken lending decision. It is not like that. It is a reflection of a set of deliberate policy choices to write off, for example, outstanding debt after 30 years, and to repay at 9% above earnings of £21,000. It is highly progressive, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies: the lowest earning 10% get a 93% subsidy and the highest earning 10% get a 1% subsidy. For the record, I am perfectly content with all the policy choices that produce the published RAB charge.
Let me make a bit of progress, but I will come back to the hon. Gentleman.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Havant said, the published RAB charge, as it is known, is notional and, in fact, ultra-conservative. I mentioned—to the mystification to the OECD, I might add—that it takes no account of the dependable tax revenue uplift that the Treasury takes. It also assumes, as my right hon. Friend said, that the Government’s cost of borrowing is 2.2% a year in real terms. In practice, it has been closer to 0% in real terms. The student loans system is therefore a good deal for students and a good deal for taxpayers.
The Minister speaks of confidence in the system. Does he share the widespread concern across the country that other Government changes are making it more difficult for students to cast their verdicts on the fees and funding system they have inherited? The changes to electoral registration rules mean that universities cannot register their students en bloc. For example, at Keele university in Newcastle-under-Lyme just 144 students registered last month, and we have lost nearly 2,600. Is he concerned about the likely effect on student participation and their ability to give a verdict on the system in which he is so confident?
Every Member takes great pains to encourage young people to register to vote. Through the online registration system, it is easier than ever, and I think that everyone in the House, over the next few months, will encourage people in schools and universities to register. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the university of Keele, but he has to accept that without the reforms that my right hon. Friend the Member for Havant introduced, there would be fewer students going to Keele university in the future than is now possible. That would be bad for the university, which I had the privilege to visit just before Christmas, and bad for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, who benefit substantially from the presence of that fine university.
The system is excellent for universities too. It is an extraordinary achievement, at a time of financial stringency, that, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the resources available to universities for teaching have on average increased significantly. It estimates an increase from £22,000 under the previous system to about £28,000 per student under the current system. The Institute for Public Policy Research, which tends towards the left in its assessments, said that the main strengths of the current system are that it has increased the resource flowing into higher education, which has enabled institutions to maintain or enhance their level of provision. This led the OECD to conclude that the UK is probably the only country in Europe, and one of the few in the world, to be able to support and sustain a big increase in participation and yet raise unit costs. No wonder that recruitment increased last year for all university types with higher tariff providers to record levels.
Our system of university finance offers extraordinary opportunities to students, universities and the taxpayer, which is why it is mystifying that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) called for a review. It was not clear to me in his response whether that was the Opposition’s new policy. They have had four and half years to come up with a policy, but now it seems to be a review. Just a few weeks ago, he was speculating vaguely, just as the success was being recognised, about turning turtle on it. It is completely unclear what his policy is. Is it a review or a change? He has previously said that fees would be reduced by £3,000, but that would blow a £3 billion black hole in the public finances and force universities to go cap in hand to the Treasury every year just to maintain their funding. It would decimate that stunning social progress I referred to earlier, since it would obliterate the funds from the access agreements, which will be worth £718 million next year—I was surprised that the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) did not think they were worth having—and impose pressure to cut student numbers. The IPPR said that the pressure to cut student numbers would crowd out students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
For the record, I judge that of the roughly £700 million, £300 million is replicating the work that Aimhigher used to do and is of real value in encouraging social mobility, but £400 million is spent on fees, reductions and bursaries, which has almost no value in persuading somebody to go to university.
Those funds are available through the access regulator to be invested in the best way. Social progress has been made and people from my background now have the chance to go to university in increasing numbers. To rob universities and our young people of that help and assistance is an extraordinary suggestion from the Labour party.
For what purpose? It would reduce the payments not for poorer graduates but for the very richest. Those who pay off the £9,000 loans in full would be the only beneficiaries. I am talking about the richest 20% of earners, who would pay off their loans on average 28 years after graduation, when they are in middle age, and when they are earning on average £78,000, according to a think-tank. Ironically, this debate has been largely focused on the concerns that too high a proportion of loans is notionally projected to be written off, yet the Opposition want to write off 100% of loans over £6,000 for all graduates, even the ones who can comfortably pay.
I am not instinctively a partisan politician, and I believe it is strongly in our interest that policy questions about our universities should be, wherever possible, rooted in consensus and stability. That was the intention behind the Browne review, which the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) referred to, and which the previous Government set up. My right hon. Friend the Member for Havant implemented that dispassionate and thorough report. I hope that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill will reflect on the ever more obvious success of the system, get behind it and drop his temptation to engage in a stunt that would plunge the financing of higher education into chaos.
I am just about to conclude.
If the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill does get behind the system, in the same spirit, he will attract praise, not opprobrium, from those on the Government Benches—I am sure that my right hon. Friend would be generous in acknowledging that—and he will earn the respect of the sector, which values the stability and the sustainability that we now have in the financing of higher education in this country.
I would like to endorse the comments about the quality of today’s debate. It demonstrates the depth of expertise in the House on this issue. It is appropriate to pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Havant (Mr Willetts). We have had robust exchanges in the Select Committee in the past, but there has never been any doubt about his commitment to higher education and the expertise he brought to the issues it faces. Similarly, I thank my colleague on the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley), who is a great believer in Select Committees and in going where the evidence leads. He has been prepared to back me even when, politically, it has been inconvenient for him to do so.
To summarise, the arguments for the review have been made largely, but not entirely, by Opposition Members, but, strangely and perversely, the arguments made by the former Minister and the current Minister in defence of the existing system underlined and reinforced the case for having a review. The right hon. Member for Havant seemed to argue that the current RAB charge calculations are essentially an accountancy issue. If that is the case, why not have a review to demonstrate it to everybody so that all those institutions that are criticising it can get some reassurance from the Government? The Minister’s and the OECD’s argument about the benefits of graduate education and investment in the industry are a given. I understand that. The problem is whether in the future the country finds the level of projected debt that will have to be funded politically acceptable in view of the benefits accruing from it. There is a big debate to be had here, and this review could kick-start it.
Whatever current and past Ministers have said in defence of the existing system does not take away from the opportunity that a review could create to refine and improve the system and address any issues.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House notes the Third Report from the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, Student Loans, HC 558, and the Government response, HC 777; and calls on the Government to outline proposals that will sustain funding for the sector while addressing the projected deficit in public funding.