I beg to move,
That the Higher Education (Higher Amount) (England) Regulations 2016 (S.I., 2016, No. 1206) and the Higher Education (Basic Amount) (England) Regulations 2016 (S.I., 2016, No. 1205), both dated 13 December 2016, copies of which were laid before this House on 15 December 2016, in the last Session of Parliament, be revoked.
It has taken a long time to get to today’s debate. The Government first snuck out this fee rise in a written statement on the last day before the summer recess, and they tabled the regulations we are debating the day before the Christmas recess. The Opposition tabled a prayer against the regulations on the first sitting day after that, but it took some time until the Government eventually allowed a vote, which was scheduled for 18 April—only for the Prime Minister to dissolve Parliament before that vote could even be held. It was almost as if the Government did not want to discuss their plans to raise tuition fees again during an election. And judging by the way young people voted in that general election, we can see why. Perhaps it is not surprising that the Government have been even more desperate to avoid votes in this House since the election result.
Let me remind Ministers of what the then Leader of the House, now the Justice Secretary, said from the Dispatch Box when he granted us a vote:
“The Government have delivered on the convention, and slots have been provided for debates on the prayers against the statutory instruments concerning tuition fees and the personal independence payment. The Opposition will get their opportunity to debate those after the recess. The Government will act, as all Governments do, on the basis of what Parliament decides.”—[Official Report, 30 March 2017; Vol. 624, c. 409.]
That was a commitment made by a Minister to this House. Perhaps the Ministers here today can tell us why they are breaking it—because, of course, we were not given those debates. We had to secure an emergency debate on the regulations, and even then the Minister refused to allow a vote. In fact, Mr Speaker, it was during that debate that you yourself had to intervene and tell the House:
“I had thought there was an expectation of a debate and a vote, and that the Opposition had done what was necessary”.—[Official Report, 19 July 2017; Vol. 627, c. 895.]
But eventually we have had to provide Opposition time on an Opposition motion that we are voting on today.
Today’s discussion goes beyond policy choices on tuition fees, although that is extremely important: it goes to the role of this House and our democracy. We have heard a lot about parliamentary sovereignty from Conservative Members, and we have heard a lot from Ministers about how they can be trusted with delegated powers such as those in the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. Unfortunately, the Ministers here today have shown by their behaviour that they will now go to unprecedented lengths to deny this House a vote on a serious legislative decision made using delegated powers. Frankly, their attitude would put Sir Humphrey to shame. They refused a vote on annulment within 40 days, despite the clear convention that we were entitled to one. They then provided a vote, only to dissolve Parliament before it could even be held. Then, after the election, they delayed even longer, and when we called a debate they said it was too late.
I hope that the hon. Lady notes that after having to bring this Government to the House to discuss this really important issue time and again, we have had to do this in Opposition time. I hope that Conservative Members who promised the electorate that they were against rises in tuition fees will take that on board today and support the Opposition’s motion.
Ministers seem to have found a parliamentary Catch-22 which, in effect, makes it impossible for this House to have a say on regulations like these if they decide that they do not want to grant one. They refuse a vote within the time limit, and then afterwards say that the deadline has passed. Even more incredibly, they seem to be suggesting that they would simply ignore this House if we voted the wrong way on today’s motion—that is, of course, if they allow us even to have a vote. In the space of this week they have gone from Henry VIII to King Charles I. Let me be clear that so far as we are concerned, it is unthinkable that this House would pass a substantive motion and that the Government would refuse to honour it.
I do not wish to behead the hon. Lady’s argument, but she is labouring this point of process. I wonder whether that is to mask her lack of policy; let me be charitable and suggest that it is not. When we will we hear what her policy is on this important issue?
First of all, let me say that my husband would have been Charles I; I probably would have been a Cromwell. On the important point about our policy on tuition fees, we were clear in our manifesto that we would abolish tuition fees. I think the general public absolutely were clear on our policy on that. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State says, from a sedentary position, “What about Wales?” In Wales, we have a policy, despite this Government, of giving maintenance grants. What will the Secretary of State do for the students in England who need maintenance grants? The Government still refuse to give that support to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
I will make some progress. The intention of the parent Act, the Higher Education Act 2004, was clear. It allows any such regulations to be annulled. The then Minister, the former Member for Hull West and Hessle, assured the House that
“any change to the fee cap must be made by the affirmative resolution procedure, not the negative procedure. Although we cannot do it in legislation—if we could, we would—we give an undertaking that if Labour is in government, the statutory instrument dealing with the matter will not be taken in a Committee but on the Floor of both Houses. That will ensure that all Members have the opportunity to speak if called, and they will all have the right to vote on the matter.”––[Official Report, Higher Education Public Bill Committee, 26 February 2004; c. 323.]
He gave that assurance to a Conservative Member who demanded it. That Member is now the Transport Secretary in a Government who are doing completely the opposite.
The job of a legislator is to legislate. If we are not allowed to do that, our role will be reduced to turning up every five years, voting in the Government and letting them rule by decree, which is what they are attempting to do on tuition fees. If the Government act in this way on matters such as tuition fees, Members from across the House will have to ask themselves whether we can trust the Government with the powers that they are seeking to grant themselves in the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. It is ironic that just this week, the Brexit Secretary was keen to assure us that no such thing could happen. He told the House:
“Secondary legislation is still subject to parliamentary oversight and well established procedures. In no way does it provide unchecked unilateral powers to the Government.”—[Official Report, 7 September 2017; Vol. 628, c. 357.]
Even as he was saying that, the Ministers opposite me were busy proving him wrong by refusing to follow these procedures, rejecting parliamentary oversight and adopting exactly those unchecked unilateral powers to force this through. Of course, the Brexit Secretary has some other disagreements with the Education Secretary on this matter. I remember him saying that he had always been against fees. He said:
“In 2005 our policy was abolition and I was one of the drivers behind that”,
and that he was prepared to be “a rebellion of one”. Let us see whether he beats that figure today. He was right that the Conservative party’s policy used to be the abolition of fees entirely. A former Conservative shadow Education Secretary once said that the party would
“show we care about the student who wants to go to university, but can’t afford tuition fees.”
She is now the Prime Minister, but her past promises seem to have been thrown in the bin along with Nick and Fiona.
If we are talking about promises broken, I seem to remember my daughters who are still at university being promised free tuition fees by the Labour party. I then remember the hon. Lady saying on the Marr show that that was nothing more than an ambition, largely because it was going to cost £89 billion.
I presume that the hon. Lady is slightly confused by the diktat from the Conservative Whips, which says something about student debt and tuition fees. We have been absolutely clear on both issues. We would not even be having this debate if the Labour party had won the general election, because we would have abolished tuition fees, as promised. The Conservative party already trebled tuition fees in 2010 to £9,000 a year, and that is what we are debating today. They have abolished the nurses’ bursary and scrapped maintenance grants for students from low and middle-income backgrounds, and ignored the fact that the drop-out rate among disadvantaged students reached a five-year high afterwards. They have also imposed interest rates of 6.1% and frozen the repayment threshold at £21,000 a year, despite Conservative Ministers in the coalition Government promising that it would rise in line with earnings.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that there is now evidence that students from less well-off families are graduating with significantly more debt than those from wealthier families, which is a direct threat to social mobility?
I absolutely agree, and the points that I have just made show that the Government could progressively do something about that. The interest rates are scandalous, and the income threshold has been frozen despite the Government’s promises that they would not do that. They also still refuse to bring back maintenance grants. Shame on this Government—they do not care about social mobility.
Only this morning, the director of the Conservative think-tank Bright Blue echoed a point that we have been making for months, writing:
“What would make a real difference is increasing the salary threshold of £21,000 for repaying student loans.”
That is one of the—[Interruption.]
Order. The shadow Secretary of State is clearly not giving way at the moment. [Interruption.] Order. She is not giving way, and there is a long-standing convention that Members do not consistently harangue and barrack when their request to intervene has not been granted. [Interruption.] Order. After a reasonable period, which people use their judgment to decide on, they can try again. What they are not entitled to do is rant incessantly from a sedentary position. Let me be absolutely clear that it is not going to happen from either side of the House, and that is the end of that matter.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
As I said, only this morning the director of the Conservative think-tank Bright Blue echoed a point that we have been making for months about increasing the salary threshold. That is one of many options that we have told the Government time and again they need to look at.
I had a group of young air cadets from my constituency down here yesterday, and I hope that they are watching today even though the debate is a bit later than I told them it would be. It makes me so angry to think of the opportunities that the Government are denying those young people and others across my constituency. Through their policies, they have left graduates in England with the highest level of debt in the world. Students will now graduate with an average debt of £50,000, and those from the poorest backgrounds will have debts in excess of £57,000.
I have two universities in my constituency, and further education colleges. As my hon. Friend knows, not only have the Government abolished the education maintenance allowance, but more importantly, they have been trying to sell off the Student Loans Company. Interest levels will go higher if that goes through.
I thank my hon. Friend for that important point. We are trying to highlight a number of things that the Government have done in both further education and higher education that have genuinely damaged the opportunity for our young people to get on and get by in life. Today, they have an opportunity at least to do what some Government Members promised at the general election by refusing to raise tuition fees again, taking them beyond £9,000 a year.
The hon. Lady will no doubt recall that it was her party that promised not to introduce tuition fees and then, when in government, went on to do that. Does she accept that application rates among disadvantaged English 18-year-olds and black and minority ethnic 18-year-olds are at an all-time record high?
The hon. Lady makes two important points, but she fails to recognise two important things that have happened alongside that. Lord Adonis made it clear that the Frankenstein that the Government have created with tuition fees is completely unsustainable, so Conservative Members cannot hide behind that if they think it limits their responsibility for trebling tuition fees. They are now trying to justify increasing them.
Our young people need that opportunity, but the Government feel that tuition fees need to rise again. When we last debated this issue, I said that Conservative Members might disagree with our desire to reduce tuition fees but it was wrong to deny the House the right to make the choice. Today, despite the Government’s best efforts, the House can make that choice, and I know that our constituents will remember the choice each of us makes.
The £9,000 limit was introduced more than five years ago, but given inflation over that period, in real terms it is £8,500 today, and by 2020 it will be £8,000. Is it not the case that the direct consequence of the perfectly honourable position that the hon. Lady advocates is that less money will go into higher education?
I am at a loss about how to answer the hon. Gentleman. Our young people know the reality of the debt they take on today. I have just spoken about many different ways in which the Government could alleviate our students’ debt: there is the interest rate, the income threshold, and even maintenance grants if they really cared about students from poorer and disadvantaged backgrounds. Despite what the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) said, part-time and mature students are dropping out at record levels, and students are deterred from going to university.
We could debate this issue for many hours, but the motion that Members of this House can vote on tonight is clear. It is not about the debt or whether we abolish the £9,000 tuition fees; it is about whether the Government hike fees by another £250 a year—more than £1,000 over the lifetime of a course—making them unsustainable and completely unfair for students. That is the choice that Members have to make today. If they decide not to support this motion, they will have to answer to the students in their constituency.
Today’s debate is about student finance—an issue on which, as we have just seen, the Opposition put rhetoric ahead of results, spin ahead of substance, and self-interest ahead of students. As we have just heard reconfirmed, Labour’s policy is to have no tuition fees, but no fees means fewer students at worse universities. Labour’s policy is an anti-social mobility policy writ large. It is a disgrace.
Let me talk about how far we have come in recent years. We have made extraordinary strides in higher education since the Government took office. More people are at university than ever before, including record numbers of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. That is not a hypothesis but a simple fact. In 2016, disadvantaged 18-year-olds were 43% more likely to go to university than in 2009.
Over the summer I received a heartbreaking email from a young lady who was a student at Keele University in Newcastle-under-Lyme:
“Starting in September both my brother and I will be hoping to go off to university…My parents are having great difficulty trying to work out how they are going to support both of us and have suggested that I drop out of university as they can only support one of us financially. Last year I got the minimum loan from student finance and will be getting the minimum loan again”.
I ask the Secretary of State to consider that this is not just about rising tuition fees or turning maintenance grants into loans, but costs and support for students, in particular for what some people like to call the squeezed middle. Is it not time that the Government looked at this seriously, in the round, for the sake of students from all families in the country?
First of all, there has never been more funding available to enable students to go to university. Secondly, the facts simply do not bear out the hon. Gentleman’s point. If what he says is correct, we would see fewer and fewer students going to university, but the exact opposite has happened. [Interruption.] We can hear Labour Members’ faux anger about how much debt students have, but the bottom line is that they do not want to even engage with the fact that there have never been more young people getting the opportunity to go to university. I was the first person in my family to get the chance to go to university. If Labour ever has the chance to bring in its policy there will be fewer people from backgrounds like mine who will have the chance to go to university. That is a statistical fact.
Let me just make some progress and I will give way to my right hon. Friend in a second.
What would a policy of no fees mean? It would mean an emergency cap on student numbers, going back to the days when we had to limit the number of young people who went to university. That is because if we are not willing to fund the system, there can be fewer people in it. It has to be paid for.
I recently returned to my alma mater in Scotland, some 30 years after leaving. I was surprised to discover that Scottish students were capped at 20% of the student body. It is a disadvantage for all students if there are no fees, because universities cannot afford to educate them.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are two groups of people who miss out in Scotland. We know what no fees would mean; we only have to look north of the border. In the interests of evidence-based policy, I encourage Labour Members and the Labour party to actually look at the impact of what they are proposing. Go to Scotland. See whether disadvantaged young people from the poorest families have more or less chance to go university in a country where there are no fees. They have less chance. In fact, young people overall have less chance of going to university in Scotland. I am not putting some kind of hypothesis before the House; this is a simple fact. It is a consequence of the Labour party policy of no fees.
Will the Secretary of State give way?
In the interests of providing evidence and discussing evidence-based education policy, which I am very keen to do, I have to ask the right hon. Lady whether she agrees that we have seen a reduction in the number of part-time students attending university and a reduction in the number of mature students. Part-time and mature students predominantly come from more economically deprived backgrounds, so they are missing out on their chance to attend university.
I am pleased the hon. Lady accepts that there are more young people going to university. A number of different factors are involved when it comes to mature students. We will be providing more support for mature students, but part of the decline is due to the fact that more young people are going to university in the first place, so there is simply a smaller cohort of mature students.
Will my right hon. Friend please never cease to remind people, as there is sometimes a risk that we are losing the PR war on this, that we are doing more for disadvantaged students, courtesy of the tuition fees—in particularly with the element of support above £6,000—than many previous Governments? That is why south of the border participation rates by poorer students, relative to students as a whole, are so much higher than they are in the north. We need to keep drilling that message home, because it is one of the best aspects of tuition fees.
My hon. Friend has made the point brilliantly, and of course it is not just about making sure that university is open to young people from disadvantaged families—although it is about that too; actually there is much greater diversity among the young people now able to get to university for the first time, particularly among black, Asian and minority ethnic groups across our country. That is something that we should welcome and be proud of. Moreover, through the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, we are doing more to ensure that once people get to university they stay and complete their courses.
I want to finish my point about Scotland. In that country, which has no fees, as Labour is proposing for England, there are fewer young people going to university. Research by the Sutton Trust found that last year in Scotland the gap between the number of people from the most and least advantaged areas going to university was the highest of any of the home nations of the UK. Disadvantaged young people are less likely to go to university in Scotland than they are here. Labour cannot want to see that happen here, yet under its policy the better-off would still go to university and the worse-off would lose out.
Of course my hon. Friend is absolutely right. The last Labour Government left youth unemployment 30% to 50% higher than when they came in. The ultimate opportunity destroyer in our country is a Labour Government running our economy.
I shall add a further reason why disadvantaged young people would lose out under Labour’s policy: who would pay for those people who did get to university to go to university? It would be some of those disadvantaged young people who had missed out, it would be their families, it would be pensioners—we would all be paying for the cohort of young people most likely to become higher-rate taxpayers to get a degree.
I think what most of us taking part in this debate want is the right balance. I was the Chair of the Education and Skills Select Committee when we introduced the £3,000 fees, and the balance then was between what the employers paid, what the individual who benefited paid, what the taxpayer paid and the good to the community. The problem is that the cost has been ratcheted up to £9,000 with an unacceptable level of interest. Is it not time we had some moderation and a balance that is fair to students?
The hon. Gentleman should direct that question to his own Front-Bench team. It is they who are proposing a policy of zero balance by saying we should go from our current structure to no tuition fees at all. As I have said, the big losers would be the most disadvantaged young people in our country. Labour has proposed a policy for the moneyed, not the few. Whereas no cap on students means more students in England, no fees means fewer students. As we know from Scotland, no fees also harms quality, because it means a return to the past for our universities—a past that saw them starved of cash.
I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman again.
In the decades before tuition fees, per-student funding plummeted by 40%. When Labour first introduced fees, it was against a backdrop of an underfunded higher education system.There was a chorus of voices clamouring for change so that we could ensure that our world-class universities could have the funds that they needed.
We now have the highest GDP spending per student in the OECD. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that the 2010 reforms increased the resources being invested in our students by universities by 25% in real terms since 2012. That is why the OECD says that our system is sustainable, unlike the unsustainable, underfunded university systems that we see on the continent. I had a chance to discuss the issue with Andreas Schleicher yesterday, and he made that very point.
We already know that 75% of students will not pay back their loans, or will not be able to do so. How can the Secretary of State say that the system is sustainable? And what about the young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who increasingly drop out of university because they cannot afford to stay? Is not the removal of maintenance grants part of what is disadvantaging those young people, and they cannot maintain their places at university even if they are fortunate enough to win one?
The facts simply do not support the point that the hon. Lady has made. The facts are that more disadvantaged young people are making the decision to go to university, which I think is hugely welcomed and hugely important.
If Labour is able to pursue its catastrophic policy, our higher education system will be much more broadly at risk. It will not be just a case of students missing out. We have universities that are among the best in the world, but being the best in the world requires continued investment, and a no-fees policy would undo all that success. Funds for universities would dry up, and within a few years there would be a big funding crisis all over again.
The Secretary of State did not actually address the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood). What is she going to do about the fact that drop-out rates among disadvantaged young students have gone up, what is she going to do about the fact that part-time and mature applications are in free fall, and what is she going to do about the fact that students are increasingly struggling with maintenance costs? Her statement reeks of complacency; perhaps she will address the challenges ahead.
Complacency is pushing ahead with a policy that we know will mean fewer disadvantaged young people going to university. As for the hon. Gentleman’s question about drop-out rates, they are lower now than they were in 2009-10, so there has been progress. However, he is right to say that we should continue to work on that issue and make progress. He will welcome the fact that the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 amends the Office for Students so that, as I have said, it focuses increasingly not just on access to universities but, critically, on participation and ensuring that young people finish the degree courses on which they embark.
I was talking about just how catastrophic Labour’s policy would be for continued funding for universities, which would simply dry up. Our world-class universities would wither on the vine. No fees—which is what Labour wants—would mean fewer students, in worse-funded universities. I think it is now time for Labour to admit that it will have to cap student numbers as well.
Let me take the Secretary of State back to her earlier point about the sustainability of funding. As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), we know that 75% of students will not pay back their loans, and that all the Government are doing is saddling a future Government with having to pay off the huge debt that will remain unpaid, which will place a burden on the young people who have that debt now. The funding is not sustainable in any way. When will the Secretary of State address that?
Our approach means that students make a time-limited contribution, and that the students who are earning the most pay the most. That is how the system works. The bottom line is that if the Labour party is saying that we should have no fees and that this system does not work, and people getting degrees should not have to pay for them, the only way to avoid this outcome is, presumably, although I would welcome any clarification from the Opposition, to place a huge burden on everyone else—on the majority of people who never went to university.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that the estimated cost of cancelling tuition fees and writing off debt will be £100 billion, a price to be paid by all taxpayers, many of whom will not have gone to university, and many of whom will not be earning as much as the graduates who benefit from that? Does she think that that is fair?
Order. There is very unseemly gesticulation and what I can only describe as noisy chuntering from a sedentary position on both sides of the Chamber; chuntering from one side and what I will call eccentric gesticulation on the other. I do not wish to be the umpire as to which is the less desirable of these two undesirable behaviours.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I did not see the gesticulating, but am pleased that you are on top of keeping the House in order.
What we are having here now is a real debate, because I am prepared to take interventions from Labour Members and to engage in a debate. The hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) took just one, or perhaps two, interventions from Conservative Members.
I thank the Secretary of State for taking interventions. She is making a very spirited—albeit, in my opinion, flawed—argument that somehow because tuition fees went up at the same as time student numbers went up, one is linked to the other. How does she square that interpretation of the facts with the situation in my constituency, which has a nursing school where the conversion from bursary to tuition fees has seen a reduction in numbers of 33%, and nationally it has fallen by a quarter? If the Secretary of State is correct, surely the increase in tuition fees for nurses should have led to the number of applications skyrocketing?
The hon. Gentleman is trying to make a case that is fundamentally flawed. He is desperately scrabbling around, trying to find some alternative facts to cover up, with a little fact fig leaf, the reality that more disadvantaged young people are going to university, and more young people are going to university.
I am now going to make some progress, as I have allowed Opposition Members to make enough interventions, but none of them has any alternative facts of any real worth.
I want to conclude by saying that the only other way to maintain the £12 billion a year investment is for taxpayers to foot the bill under Labour’s policy. They would ask us taxpayers to pay £12 billion now and even more in the future. Indeed, the Institute for Fiscal Studies said that even those sums were not right: it said there was a £2 billion black hole in Labour’s spending plans. Of course, that would mean immediate cuts—the equivalent of 40,000 lecturers losing their jobs and 160,000 students without a university place because of this black hole. Indeed, the cap on numbers would mean universities taking fewer students and closing courses. Some institutions would even become unviable. It would be the equivalent of closing several Russell Group universities.
I have to ask whether Labour Members really mean to have this policy. Have they understood the impact it would have? It has been confused and unclear at every turn, and most of all we have seen confusion over what they plan to do about the existing stock of student debt, which amounts to more than £100 billion, or 5% of GDP.
No thank you. I have taken lots of interventions.
During the election, the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) said that he would “deal with” student debt. I think he meant that taxpayers would deal with it. Then he ditched that promise after the election. It was snake oil populism at its worst. I have to say, however, that this debate represents a new low in Labour’s integrity-free politics. The hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne stands here today and opposes a fee increase in line with inflation, yet this is a core part of the fee regime that Labour put in place in 2004. Frankly, it is laughable that they are trying to be taken seriously on this. It is also an insult to everyone’s intelligence.
Indeed. The Labour party has a confused, muddled, counterproductive and anti-social mobility policy on student fees and student debt that would put at risk much of our higher education sector. It would be absolutely disastrous.
The bottom line is that, even now, across the border in Wales, the Labour colleagues of the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne are implementing the very increases, in line with inflation, that she is opposing here today. That shows a level of hypocrisy that is becoming a hallmark of the current Labour Front Bench. The bottom line is that they are in—[Interruption.] I am taking no lectures from the hon. Lady about taking interventions when she was scared to take more than two. The bottom line is that Labour’s student finance policy is a cold, calculating con trick on young people. It is shameless politics.
I have three serious questions for the Opposition on the policy of no fees, and they are questions that they need to answer. How many of the poorest children in this country are they going to prevent from going to university under that policy? How many world-class universities will shut down because they run out of money? If highly paid graduates do not have to pay to go to university to get their degrees, who is going to pay the bill? Those questions have never been answered. The Opposition have no answers, because having a sensible approach that has the best interests of students, universities and taxpayers at its heart is not their objective, is it? Driving social mobility is not Labour’s objective. Enabling more disadvantaged young people to go to university is not their objective. Properly funded universities are not their objective. It is just a cynical con trick. That is Labour’s objective. Far from Labour being the friend of students and universities, its policy would destroy opportunity and destroy our world-class universities. This House should see straight through it. Frankly, the motion is not even worth the paper it is written on.
It is a pleasure to follow the Secretary of State’s myth-spinning about Scottish universities. She would have us believe that our universities are not world-class. I am sure it would be of great interest to the 19 higher education institutions in Scotland, many of which are in the top 200 in the world, to hear her comments today. I thank the Secretary of State for that.
As legislators, we must ask ourselves why it is that we educate. Is it for self-enhancement, or is it for the benefit of society? I would say that for young people, as they set out considering tertiary education, it would probably be the former—get a decent job, a nice house and a decent education. However, for legislators there should be a clear distinction. First, of course, we are concerned about the individual and their future life chances, but we must take a wider view of the purpose of education and it must include our vision for society. To talk about “burdening” society with fees, as the Secretary of State just did, is to fail to take into account the benefits gained from having a well-educated population and a well-educated workforce. As we move ever closer to Brexit, with the cliff edge looming, key skills shortages in healthcare, education, digital and IT mean that graduates are needed now more than ever to ensure that the UK remains competitive in a post-Brexit environment. When that is considered, fees for tertiary education—fees that young people pay simply so they can fuel economic growth—become nonsensical.
We can clearly see the effects of that ludicrous policy when we consider the abolition of nursing bursaries. The steep decline of 20% in those choosing to study nursing should be a warning to us all. That, coupled with the devastating 96% drop in EU nurses registering to work in the UK, should be a wake-up call to the Government and their damaging policies.
It is a fundamental principle of the SNP that education should be based on the ability to learn and never the ability to pay.
Would the hon. Lady be willing to inform the House about the effect of the Scottish policy on the abolition of fees on disadvantaged students? To quote the Sutton Trust,
“the Scottish…policy of avoiding tuition fees meant that it was obliged to cap university places…with particularly negative consequences for less advantaged students”.
First, the Scottish Government abolished fees, but secondly, since we came to power in 2007 there has been a 12% increase in Scottish-domiciled students going to university. We have a strong and principled record of opposing increases in tuition fees in England and Wales, and we will reject any legislation that seeks to increase the financial burden on students.
I will not give way.
The fact that such a sweeping change to fee structures can be brought in by stealth as a statutory instrument—or that such an attempt can be made—is an indication of how low the present Government are willing to stoop, and how scared they are of putting this brutal policy to the test.
That is not the only attack on English students. The interest on tuition fees has risen sharply from 4.6% to 6.1%. Maintenance grants have been scrapped. Now we hear that debt on completion of course has reached an astronomical £50,000 for students in England, which will leave many young graduates saddled with debt throughout their entire working life. I wonder how many hon. Members would have trooped willingly through the Lobby in 2010 to support the policy that, seven years on, has left so many of our young people financially crippled.
In Scotland, we take a holistic view of education that is not simply about higher education. In fact, I have referred to “tertiary education” several times already because the distinction between further education and higher education is fluid in Scotland. The Secretary of State suggested that fewer young people from disadvantaged backgrounds enter higher education in Scotland than other parts of the UK, but let me quote what UCAS has to say:
“For people living in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, UCAS covers the overwhelming majority of full-time undergraduate provision. Therefore, the statistics on acceptances or entry rates can be taken as being very close to all recruitment to full-time undergraduate higher education. In Scotland there is a substantial section of provision that is not included in UCAS’ figures. This is mostly full-time higher education provided in further education colleges, which represents around one third of young, full-time undergraduate study in Scotland… Accordingly, the statistics on UCAS entry rates and acceptances in these… charts reflect only that… undergraduate study that uses UCAS.”
To put that simply, UCAS only considers direct entry from school to university and takes no account of higher education provided in our FE sector or, indeed, of young people who enter university having completed an access or college course. To talk down the interactions between FE and HE in getting young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into tertiary education does a great disservice to the institutions and the young people served by them.
Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the fact that youth unemployment is at its lowest level in Scotland for nearly 20 years? At 8%—7% in my constituency—it is one of the lowest rates across the EU and is significantly lower than across the UK.
I thank my hon. Friend. In Scotland, we tailor courses to meet the needs of our economy, meaning that we have jobs for our young people to go into.
Our free tuition policy benefits 120,000 undergraduate students every year, saving them from accruing the massive debt seen in other parts of the UK. Even taking into consideration my previous comments about tertiary education, the number of students from Scotland’s most deprived areas entering university has increased by 19% in just two years. We are clearly ahead in supporting those young people to ensure that they remain in education and do not drop out, which we have heard about from several hon. Members.
This debate is also about the kind of nation that we want to build. Scotland values free access to higher education and so do many young people across these islands. We saw that in the general election both through their interaction and in the results. Many young people came out to vote against damaging Tory policies.
Does my hon. Friend agree that many of us on the SNP Benches would not even be here today were it not for the SNP’s policy of scrapping tuition fees? Does she also agree that the Government could learn some lessons from Scotland?
The Government struggle to look north. They use statistics to their advantage and to spin their particular story, but the facts in Scotland are quite different. We have the most educated population in Europe—only Luxembourg is ahead of us. We value education, and we are fully committed to ensuring fair access to higher education so that every child, no matter their background, has an equal chance of going to university.
Education is not an industry to be opened up to free market practices. This is a sector that operates for the common good. I was interested to see how DUP Members would vote today. Would they be happy to continue with their support for high fees in England while getting their £1 billion bribe? Unfortunately, it appears that they have all headed to the airport. What of the Liberal Democrats, who worked in coalition with the Tories in 2010 to impose this crippling debt on our young people?
Ideologically I am opposed to fees in education; as an educator I am opposed to fees in education; and, as we teeter towards the Brexit cliff edge, societally I am opposed to fees in education.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. The Labour party bears a responsibility. There is no doubt in my mind that, in my constituency of Harlow, young people thought Labour was going to scrap student debt. [Hon. Members: “No, they didn’t.”] They did. The leader of the Labour party said it was going to “deal with” student debt. Whatever the small print said, the impression was given. We have problems enough with trust in politics in our country. I urge Labour Members not to repeat that exercise.
On the general subject, I am not against student fees because, as the Secretary of State said, we have a clear duty of fairness to the taxpayer and to those who do not go to university. The taxpayer should not shoulder the burden alone. A number of principles need to be clear when it comes to tuition fees, the most important of which is value for money.
What does value for money mean in terms of a university education? Why can universities charge the same high fees when there is such variation in both the quality of education and the jobs secured on graduation? Surely the time has come to consider the level of fees compared with graduate destinations. People go to university to climb the ladder of opportunity to prosperity and to improve the productivity of our nation. I was amazed when one vice-chancellor said that I am wrong to say universities are about people getting jobs at the end of it, and also that universities are really more about the experience. If people want an experience, they can go to Alton Towers. Between a fifth and a third of graduates end up in non-graduate jobs. If they are paying £9,250 a year and coming out with a good, well-paid job, the university has done the right thing. If they are not, what is the £50,000 debt for?
I welcome the new longitudinal education outcomes data that the Government have introduced and the opportunity they provide to look at graduate outcomes and earnings after one, three and five years. Closer monitoring of graduate outcomes is essential to this debate and to the conversation on value for money. It is encouraging to hear that the Government are considering linking tuition fees to graduate outcomes, one of which should be a university’s success with degree apprenticeships. The Minister with responsibility for apprenticeships, my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), who is on the Front Bench, has done a huge amount of work on that issue.
Yesterday, the Chancellor said there is a significant difference between leaving university with debt but with a good degree and employment prospects, and leaving with the same debt but with a poorer qualification and no job. I strongly support those words, and I am aware that the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson) is actively working to support these measures.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about the need to use both university access and degree-level apprenticeships, and we worked together on this when he was in his former post. The issue of accessing degree-level apprenticeships is fundamental. Does he agree that some sort of UCAS system to help people move between those two things, to advance opportunities for young people, is a good policy to pursue?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right on that, and I was pleased to visit her excellent local college when I was in my previous role. Of course she is right to say that we need a UCAS for apprenticeships and the skills system. That was in the Conservative manifesto and I believe the Government are working hard to achieve it.
Over the summer, the issue of vice-chancellors’ pay has consistently been in the headlines, and we need to examine the salaries of the senior management of universities. It cannot be right that 55 universities are paying their vice-chancellors more than £300,000 and yet a recent survey found that just 35% of students believe their higher education experience represented “good” or “very good” value for money. I am worried about the seemingly Marie Antoinette approach taken by some vice-chancellors, who are living in their gilded palaces and saying, “Let the students eat cake”, as they receive almost obscene amounts of pay.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the salaries of not only some vice-chancellors, but some chief executive officers of academy chains and multi-academy trusts in this country are obscene, at a time when our education system is seeing so many cuts and schools are struggling so badly? Does he agree that we should also be looking at the obscene rates of pay in these academy chains?
We need to look at this across the board to make sure that salaries are related to performance and are seen as fair. I am not against high salaries, but what we have seen with some of these vice-chancellors, although not all, is pretty awful. As I say, their Marie Antoinette response to this just shows that they are completely out of touch with what is going on with a struggling economy, struggling students and so on. That is why I support the recent comments by the Universities Minister on pay and the restrictions the Government have proposed.
In my role as Chair of the Education Committee, I look forward to bringing greater scrutiny to the issue of pay and the wider value-for-money question. The hon. Lady is a new, valued member of the Committee, and I am pleased that one of the first areas the Committee will look at is the extent to which students are gaining a high-quality education and accessing graduate-level jobs. We will look at the evidence on how universities are currently spending the £9,000 and how an extra £250 would improve—or not—the experiences and outcomes of students.
Value for money must also be linked to interest rates. Not only are students graduating from university with greater debt than ever before, but they are facing substantially more interest on their loans. The interest rate of 6.1% is just too high; with the increase it will be more than 24 times the official Bank of England base rate. It has to be reviewed and it must be lowered, and it should be much more comparable to what happens in other countries. As the OECD highlights, our interest rate is one of the highest in western Europe, overburdening our students.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that lowering the interest rate would give a greater advantage to wealthier students, because they are more likely to pay off their debt than the more disadvantaged students or the lower earners? This would probably have the reverse consequence of what he intends to deliver.
I have heard that argument, but the wealthier students are the most likely to be able to pay off the current interest rate. A member of my office staff, who is not paid huge amounts of money and whom I would love to pay more, has £60,000 to pay. I just find that unacceptable—
Order. The erudition of the right hon. Gentleman’s speech is matched only by his readiness to engage with colleagues and take interventions. That is a hallmark of his service in the House and it is very much appreciated. However, may I just advise the House and him that there is a large number of would-be contributors and there will have to be a tight time limit? Therefore, I feel cautiously optimistic that he is approaching his peroration.
Not only am I nearly finished, Mr Speaker, but I shall not take any more interventions.
We need to assess the impact of tuition fees on part-time learners—an issue that has already been raised in the debate. The number of part-time learners peaked at almost 590,000 in 2008-09, but it is now down to 310,000—a fall of 47%—and we know that they are more likely to be older, to be from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and to be women. We may be able to link the apprenticeship policy to those people who are falling off from the higher education system. A decline in access to part-time education removes the opportunity for thousands of workers to upskill or reskill, which would increase their earning capacity and thereby create a higher-skilled workforce. We need to be sure that any rise in tuition fees will not deter such learners and deny them access to higher education.
Any extra rises in tuition fees should be linked to evidence on strong outcomes for graduates, and universities that are failing their students must neither be paying vice-chancellors enormous salaries nor increasing their students’ debts. I hope that the Education Committee can make a useful contribution on such issues in the coming weeks.
Order. After the next speaker, who will be a maiden speaker and accorded the privileges thereof, I am afraid there will have to be a five-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, and I am sorry to have to give the House this notice, but it is unavoidable that some people will be disappointed this afternoon. That is just the reality of the numbers. To give her maiden speech, I call Preet Kaur Gill.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to deliver my maiden speech during this important debate. It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon).
It is such an honour and privilege to have been elected as the Member of Parliament for Birmingham, Edgbaston, a constituency that has returned a female MP in every election since 1953. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] The most recent was my predecessor, Gisela Stuart. Before being selected as the Labour candidate for Edgbaston, I knew of and respected Gisela from afar. I may not have agreed with her on every single issue, but she was passionate, gutsy and a fierce defender of Labour values. [Hon. Members: “Hear, Hear!”] By the end of my first campaign session, when almost every house on whose door I knocked seemed to have a story about how Gisela had helped them, I knew just what a brilliant constituency MP I was following. Gisela’s contribution to Edgbaston will never be forgotten by the thousands of constituents she helped in ways both big and small.
It is also an honour to be the first female Sikh to sit on these Benches and to be here alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), the first turban-wearing Sikh MP. Being the first Sikh female MP comes with a huge sense of responsibility. I and many others will be asked to raise difficult issues in the House on behalf of Sikhs, on matters such as hate crime, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, Sikh ethnic monitoring in the 2021 census and an independent public inquiry into UK involvement in the 1984 Sikh genocide.
For many decades, Sikhs have lived in this country, paid their taxes, fought in world wars and contributed to society in every way imaginable. It is an historic moment for Sikhs in this country because Parliament is beginning to look more like the people it serves. Sophia Duleep Singh, the granddaughter of Maharaja Ranjit Singh—the ruler of the formidable Sikh empire from 1801 to 1839—and the goddaughter of Queen Victoria, would have been immensely proud that the United Kingdom had elected its first female Sikh MP some 100 years after she, a prominent suffragette, had fought for women in this country to have the right to vote.
Having been born and bred in one of the most diverse cities in the United Kingdom, I am so proud of the vibrant and exciting multicultural society that we live in today. I walk through Birmingham and see Caribbean restaurants next to Indian dress shops, gurdwaras and mosques down the road from Catholic schools, Polish accents, Irish accents and even the occasional exotic twang of an, “Alright, bab” from one of our neighbours from the Black Country.
Brummies, whether first or 30th generation, live and work together to make Birmingham the unique and fascinating city it is today. I am delighted at the prospect of this great city hosting the Commonwealth games in 2022.
People are what makes a place special, and Edgbaston is certainly special. The constituency is made up of four diverse wards: Bartley Green, Quinton, Harborne and Edgbaston. Parts of my constituency are very affluent, but, equally, there are areas of deprivation. My constituency is home to the very beautiful botanical gardens, a silver sweep of reservoir, the University Hospitals Birmingham Trust, the very prestigious Birmingham University, the ever-growing Newman University, many excellent schools, the two towers that inspired JRR Tolkein to write “The Lord of the Rings”, an influential chamber of commerce and a world-famous cricket ground.
The University Hospitals Trust and Birmingham University are two of the biggest employers in my constituency, which is why today’s debates on the public sector pay cap and tuition fees are so important. The Government’s public sector pay cap has caused chaos for the NHS. The cap on pay has seen wages fall 14% below inflation since 2010. Nurses in my constituency are being forced to use food banks to make ends meet. The Government have created a workforce crisis in the NHS, which is causing misery for patients. Hospital wards and GP surgeries in parts of my constituency are chronically understaffed and the knock-on effect is waiting lists, which are spiralling out of control. For seven years, Ministers have balanced the books on the backs of NHS staff.
I spent a day in Birmingham’s children’s hospital this summer after an unfortunate incident involving my daughter and a trampoline. As ever, I was bowled over by the skill, courage, and dedication that NHS staff bring to their working lives.
On the rise of tuition fees, I am concerned that young people and their families are impacted by the hikes in these fees, which will further increase student debt. For a young person in my constituency to go to university to study a three-year course, it will cost £30,000. A five-year medicine course is £50,000, and that is not to mention the living costs. For young people growing up in normal households in my constituency where money can be tight, this is an astronomical and intimidating sum of money. Graduate wages are stagnating and student debt will only rise further. Everyone in society benefits from our graduates—they are our engineers, our doctors, and our social workers of the future. That is why, today, I will vote to revoke a rise in tuition fees.
Like all of us in this House, behind the history and the records sits an ordinary story of simple values. For more than 20 years, my father drove the No. 11 bus around the constituency that I now represent. He worked every hour he could to make sure that my siblings and I had the best possible start in life. My mother and father provided my brothers and sisters and I with a simple set of values. Those values permeated through every aspect of our upbringing, and that is what brings me here today. First, that we all had to work to build something with our lives. The hours my father spent driving that bus, delivering community projects as the president of our local gurdwara, or resolving yet another squabble between us kids was never lost on me. It was simple dedication, hard work and a belief that he could make things better not only for us, but for all communities. He certainly achieved that and much more.
Secondly, my parents taught us that we should not forget about the people around us who were less fortunate. My parents both knew what it was like to start completely afresh, and to feel new, alone and lost. Ever since, I have passionately believed that one of the most important things we can all commit to is a simple act of kindness, whether it is a sympathetic ear or a hand-up to somebody desperate for a break. It is this last point that I would like to draw upon in making my maiden speech.
Issues around mental health and emotional wellbeing can make a person feel alone, confused, lonely, hopeless and lost. Such issues are cruel and indiscriminate; they can affect any one of us at any time. My constituency has a high proportion of young people. I have heard about the teenage girl suffering anxiety about her body image after seeing too many photo-shopped images on social media, the middle-aged man suffering from depression so overwhelming that he finds it impossible to make it out of the house in the morning, and the older person living alone, so worried about making ends meet that they cannot sleep at night.
The new “#StatusOfMind” report by the Royal Society for Public Health shows that
“identified rates of anxiety and depression in young people have increased by 70% over the past 25 years.”
That is nearly 80,000 children and young people in the UK suffering from severe depression. The report also states that nearly nine in 10 girls are unhappy with their body shape, that
“Seven in 10 young people have experienced cyberbullying”,
and that no action was taken in 91% of cases in which cyber-bullying was reported.
As a parent of two girls, aged seven and six, this terrifies me. We need to do so much more to stop these trends and to make sure that our children are able to fulfil their potential. We should ensure that schools are given the time, opportunity and resources to make personal, social and health and economic education lessons a priority, not an afterthought, and we should work with social media platforms to identify users who could be suffering from mental health problems and signposting them to help. We need to support families to make sense of heart-breaking issues their children could be facing so that they can build a level of resilience.
For many people suffering with mental health and emotional wellbeing issues, these can both cause and, indeed, be caused by additional issues such as substance and alcohol misuse. The Reach Addiction centre at the Church of the Redeemer in my constituency does amazing work supporting people who, without it, would be completely lost and adrift from society. St. John’s church in Harborne and St. Boniface church in Quinton provide food banks and support to those suffering from homelessness and mental health issues. I recognise the vital support that these faith organisations, along with public sector workers in my constituency, provide. One of Britain’s finest hours was the creation of the NHS and the welfare state in 1946—a safety net for those who fell on hard times. To tackle issues such as alcohol and substance misuse, we need to rethink this safety net to make sure that emotional help and support is there for anyone who needs it, whenever they need it. It is time we treated the cause of these issues, rather than just the symptoms.
Finally, for those growing old in our country, retirement should mean a well-earned rest from a lifetime of hard work—an opportunity to put their feet up and focus on the things they are passionate about, rather than a destination to be dreaded. Unfortunately for some residents in my constituency, this stage of life is about trying to make ends meet and worrying about whether their pension will stretch to cover the whole month. They feel more and more isolated in their homes as more local community facilities are closed, and they are left counting the days since they spoke to someone who was not the checkout assistant at their local supermarket. The recent Channel 4 documentary, “Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds”, was a wonderful reminder of the amazing ability we all have to make a difference to the people around us essentially by bringing people together. This will be my mission as the Member of Parliament for Birmingham, Edgbaston. Whenever I walk into this Chamber, I will be here to fight for funding for the services doing incredible work supporting my constituents who are facing these and many other issues. I will speak up for the young people in my constituency whose voices need to be heard more loudly in this House. I will work with colleagues from all parties to bring all our communities and constituents closer together.
I will also be thinking back to my dad, driving that same No. 11 route—day in, day out. Through hard work, he was building the platform and opportunities for me and my siblings to succeed. It is that spirit which I will bring to this role. I am so grateful to the people of Edgbaston, and I will be restless in working and fighting for every single one of them.
It is a genuine pleasure to follow the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill). Many Members in this House will have incredibly fond memories of her predecessor, who was not only a lady of incredible principle, but a lady with an irrepressible and irreverent sense of fun. She will be greatly missed on both sides of the House. The hon. Lady said her predecessor was a great advocate of Labour values, but I have to say that she was also a great advocate for national independence and the role of this Chamber in our national life. For those reasons, she will be missed especially by many of us on the Government side of the House.
When the hon. Lady was speaking, I was thinking whether I could possibly find any linkage between my south coast constituency of Bournemouth West and her midlands constituency of Birmingham Edgbaston, but then she mentioned J. R. R. Tolkien and something in her constituency that inspired him to write. Of course, Tolkien did much of his best writing from the Miramar hotel in my constituency, and I hope that that has established some sort of link between us.
I also pay tribute to the hon. Lady for what she said on mental health, something that is profoundly important to many of us in the House, and particularly those of us who have had family members who have been severely affected by different mental health conditions over the decades. If the hon. Lady carries on in the vein in which she began this afternoon, she will find a warm hand to meet hers across the aisle in this Chamber. She made an excellent maiden speech, and she has shown early promise that she will be a worthy successor to Gisela Stuart.
I have two universities in my constituency, Bournemouth University and the Arts University Bournemouth. They add enormously to the area I serve. They provide economic growth and social enrichment, as well as personal development for those who attend them. They are at the heart of the constituency I serve. Only last night, I had the vice-chancellor of Bournemouth University and Professor Keith Brown from the National Centre for Post Qualifying Social Work downstairs in the Churchill Room, doing an event to highlight the financial scamming of vulnerable people. In a week’s time, I will be going to the Bournemouth visual effects conference, to which people will come from around the world—people from Disney and others—to see the projects undertaken by young people in the competition there.
Bournemouth University is absolutely at the core of my constituency, and I have been in touch over all the years I have been a Member of Parliament with all the different presidents of the students union—Toby Horner, Murray Simpson, Chloe Schendel-Wilson and Daniel Asaya, and on behalf of the students, they have told me—as have many of the students I have met— of their concerns about our policy on higher education and particularly on student finance.
However, this is an Opposition day, and this is an Opposition day motion, so it is appropriate that we scrutinise the Opposition. There has been a lot of talk about what was said during the election, so I have dug it out. The Leader of the Opposition, in his now famous interview, said:
“Yes, there is a block of those that currently have a massive debt, and I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that, ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off, or some other means of reducing that debt burden.
I don’t have the simple answer for it yet—I don’t think anybody would expect me to, because this election was called unexpectedly… And I don’t see why those that had the historical misfortune to be at university during the £9,000 period should be burdened excessively compared to those that went before or those that come after. I will deal with it.”
That was heard loud and clear by students in Bournemouth and elsewhere.
Then the shadow Secretary of State, in her outburst of candour on “The Andrew Marr Show”, said:
“It’s a huge amount; it’s £100 billion… It’s a huge amount of money. It’s a big abacus that I’m working on with that. But we’ve got to start dealing with this debt”.
My hon. Friend highlights the words of the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Secretary of State, but is it not a fact that it was not just students in his university town who interpreted the Leader of the Opposition’s comments as a debt write-off? Two shadow Ministers broadcast their interpretation that this would be a 100% write-off of student debt.
My hon. Friend has pre-empted what I was about to come on to. There was a lot of shouting going on when the students heard that the Labour party was going to get rid of their debts, abolish their fees, and deal with historical debt.
Let me quote what a Labour candidate—a Member in the current and previous Parliaments—said to camera. The hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), surrounded by primary school children, looked to camera and said:
“Just this morning Jeremy Corbyn has announced that the tuition fees will be abolished straight away from September if there’s a Labour government, and that we will bring back immediately EMA”,
education maintenance allowance,
this is critical—
“that every existing student will have all their debts wiped off.”
“That’s fantastic news, isn’t it guys?”
Well, it turned out not to be such fantastic news because it turned out not to be true. They were the first Opposition in history to U-turn on a manifesto without the burden of actually having to get elected into office. The reason it was not implementable is the enormous burden it would have added to the public finances—5% on GDP. It was an absolute betrayal of our electorate and students to promise them that we could do that.
We have seen the greatest expansion of student numbers in this country, from a mere 4,357 in 1920 to 73,163 in 1990.
My hon. Friend is talking about the expansion of student numbers, and that is right, but is it not also right that the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds has gone up as well—not just the number but the proportion?
My hon. Friend and neighbour is absolutely correct. Some of the people who in previous generations, when I was at university, could not have dreamed about getting into university are getting in and getting these life chances under this Government, and, in fairness, the Labour Government before this lot took over as the Opposition.
In 1990, only 77,163 people completed their first degree. That was the year that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I began at Southampton University. By 2015, that number was almost 400,000. There are now five times more people enjoying the benefit of a university education than when I was at university. One could say, to coin a phrase, that we on these Benches are the party for many, not just the few.
I have a serious warning to the Opposition. I sat in hustings on campus at Bournemouth University in the 2010 election, when the Liberal candidate was cheered to the rafters. In 2015, the Labour party was cheered to the rafters. If Labour Members look to their left—not metaphorically but literally—they will see the consequences of making promises to students that they know they cannot deliver. It is wrong to do so.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate, and, in particular, to speak after my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill), who made a very powerful and eloquent maiden speech. I concur with her tribute to her predecessor, my good friend Gisela Stuart. An extraordinary lesson that we can learn from Edgbaston is that it has elected women Members of Parliament since 1953—long may that continue. I particularly congratulate my hon. Friend as the first Sikh woman Member of Parliament.
I pay tribute to the new Chair of the Education Committee, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), for the tone and content of his speech. We are at a point where we need to have a serious debate that looks at the evidence about what is happening in our higher education system. My starting point is that surely the current scale of student and graduate debt must worry us all, whichever party we are a member of.
I want to focus on three things: first, student satisfaction levels and value for money; secondly, part-time students; and thirdly, interest rates. The student academic experience survey conducted this year showed a significant shift in students’ perceptions that should concern us all, and I hope the Minister will address it in his closing remarks. Five years ago, the majority of students—53%—rated their university experience as good or very good. That figure had fallen to 35%, and the number of those who rated it poor or very poor had doubled in that five-year period. The figures for England were worse than those for Scotland and Wales—that must surely be a cause for concern.
Other colleagues have spoken about the impact on part-time students. In Russell Group universities this year, the number of first-year students studying part time is 44% lower than it was in 2011. In other higher education institutions, the fall is even greater. In certain subjects, the fall is dramatic: in languages, that figure has fallen from 16,000 to just over 6,000; and in computer sciences, it has fallen from almost 6,000 to just over 3,500. Surely that must be a matter of concern.
Then there is the question of interest rates. When Labour introduced tuition fees, the interest payable on loans was either the Bank of England base rate plus 1% or the retail prices index, whichever was the lower. Interest rates could be expected, in that period, to be as low as 1.3%. Because of the changes that this Government have made, some students are leaving university having already incurred £6,000 in interest. Surely that is something that we have to look at, and it is a matter of concern.
Let us have a serious debate about this subject. I welcome the fact that the Select Committee will be doing so under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Harlow. I absolutely accept that access to higher education is about more than just student fees and graduate debt. Schools and colleges have a vital role to play in raising aspirations and providing support for students. As the Secretary of State has said, some progress has been made on access for some disadvantaged groups, particularly some—not all—black and minority ethnic groups, and that is very welcome, but there is a big challenge for white working-class kids, particularly those from the poorest backgrounds.
I represent a constituency that is predominantly white working class, and one aspect of the challenge is access to our top universities. That is why two years ago I established a programme with eight secondary schools serving my constituency that we have called the Liverpool to Oxbridge Collaborative, which supports the most academic students to consider applying to Oxford or Cambridge. I am delighted to say that five students, from West Derby, Broughton Hall and Cardinal Heenan schools, have gained places at Oxford and Cambridge, starting this autumn. The programme is starting to make a difference. The aspiration of the young people and their parents, and the support that they have had from those schools, has been amazing. I want that level of support for the most academic students to be as commonplace in state schools as it is the top private schools. If it is not, we will not address our fundamental problems of social mobility and inequality.
Further increases in tuition fees risk undermining the progress that is being made in many of our schools and colleges. That is why we need a rethink, and I welcome the investigation that the Select Committee Chair has said that his Committee will undertake. I think that the motion, which would revoke the latest increase in tuition fees, is a step in the right direction towards achieving that rethink.
It is a pleasure to speak after the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), and it was an even greater pleasure to listen to the fine maiden speech from the new hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill). She spoke of some touching and superb family values, which we all look for in our families. Her parents, whom she spoke of, must be very proud of her performance in the House today. I welcome her to the Chamber.
There are many spending commitments that we might wish for, and free tuition would be a wonderful commitment if we could afford to make it. That would be wonderful for me, because I have four children, all of whom may at some point enter the realms of higher education. But there are many other competing pressures, such as the pension system, the police forces, our armed forces, help for disabled people, the NHS and public sector pay. During the general election campaign when I talked to voters on the doorstep about some of the Opposition’s spending promises, the key question that I was asked many times was, “How are they going to pay for it?” The reality is that if students do not pay for tuition, the taxpayer will have to pick up the bill.
Of course, the Opposition will say that they have a fully costed manifesto to deal with the problem, but it is right that we look at the detail of that manifesto. [Interruption.] I am very happy to take an intervention if Labour Members would like me to. The reality is that there was £250 billion of extra spending commitments in that manifesto, on top of the fact that this country already spends about £50 billion a year more than it receives in taxes. The Institute for Fiscal Studies said that there was a £45 billion hole in Labour’s extra spending commitments, which included £125 billion in extra infrastructure spending, roughly £125 billion to nationalise our utilities and railways, and £100 billion to wipe off past student tuition fees—that was a commitment, whether or not it was a manifesto promise.
The reality is that spending commitments can only be made in a strategic way. We cannot simply use cheap party politics and a short-term, kneejerk approach to funding the finances of this country.
We are talking about tuition fees, on which the Leader of the Opposition made a clear commitment to deal with past debt as well as future fees. The reality is that we have to find the money to pay for the commitments that we make, and there was a huge gaping hole in the funding for the Opposition’s commitments. Such a gaping hole was why this country ended up £1.7 trillion in debt, and the Conservative party had to deal with inheriting a £153 billion deficit on the back of uncosted spending commitments. Of the 13 years for which Labour was in power, it did not balance the books in nine of them. Its public spending was greater than its tax receipts. We need an end to this short-term party politicking and gesture politics. We need properly costed manifestos and properly costed public spending. We simply cannot wipe out tuition fees without finding the money to pay for it.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), the Chair of the Education Committee, made some good points about how we should look at reforming tuition fees by making sure that they are performance-related so that universities are held to account for providing a good education that provides a return on investment for students. We also need a more flexible approach so that students can have lower debt by taking modular courses, for example.
May I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, which took just that approach by ensuring that universities can offer two-year degrees, which will save students money? They can also offer lifelong learning opportunities and so on, all of which helps more than the Opposition’s approach would.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Taking a university course in two years rather than three or four makes perfect sense for someone wanting to reduce their debt. So does attending a local university, and we should move towards modular courses to ensure that students have ways around accumulating large debts, which nobody wants to see.
Opposition Members will say that we need to make the spending commitments that they are suggesting today, but they miss the point. There are huge ticking time bombs in our public expenditure for the coming decades, including our health and welfare spending. There is no strategic element to their spending plans. It is simply gesture politics.
There are 12,000 more nurses on our wards in the UK than there were in 2010. More money is going into the NHS, and there is a commitment to spend another £8 billion by 2020. We are investing in the health service, but there is no doubt that those commitments will be very significant in future years. Of course we need to invest in our public services wherever we can, but we need to do so strategically without cheap party politicking. A piecemeal approach to our expenditure would have catastrophic consequences for our future debt. We need the strategic approach taken by the Conservative party.
I should start by declaring an interest: I am still paying off my student loans. Student fees will always be an emotive issue, but I believe that everybody on both sides of the House wants the same outcome. We all want an education system that allows every child to reach their potential and equips citizens for life and work in our country.
Some Members argued that the staggering debt that students leave university with is notional, but considering that I have been paying mine off for 15 years, I can assure them that it does not feel notional. It feels very real indeed, and I am sure it feels very real for everybody else in the UK who is still paying off their student debt in the same situation.
I am mindful that we are discussing heaping debt on people who might never earn enough money to pay it off, yet every one of us earns nearly three times the national average salary. During my two maternity leaves, I saw my student debt increase each year because the interest kept being added while I was not earning enough money to pay it off. For people who have not been on maternity leave, I can tell them that it is financially difficult, and people can struggle. It is incredibly demotivating and demoralising to see a debt from going to university and trying to get on in life constantly increasing. I assure the House that my constituents, too, feel demoralised at seeing their debt increase. Members might say, “It doesn’t matter. If they don’t earn more than £21,000, so what? They will never pay it off,” but if they got a statement each month telling them that the money they owed was going up and up, that would make them feel demoralised, dejected and fed up with their life.
I am looking forward to working with the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who is unfortunately no longer in his place, on the Education Committee, and I agree with him that the interest rates are appalling. How can it be justifiable that they are so much higher than the Bank of England base rate? To show that the unfairness of the high interest rates is even worse than that, someone contacted me the other day and said, “Do you realise that they start adding interest to student loans from the moment you start university?” Students’ debts increase while they are still studying at university—they have not even graduated. How is that fair or justifiable?
One of the best things we can do to help universities with funding—I hope the Minister takes this on board—is to encourage overseas students to come to our country and pay for our university education. I hope the reality of our universities’ funding problems will break through Conservative Members’ ideological aversion to overseas students coming here.
I am concerned about the reduction in the number of part-time and mature students. I believe in lifelong learning. I think everybody should have the opportunity to go to university at a time that suits them. Let us be honest: it is often women with caring responsibilities who study part-time at university. They will miss out, and I think that is a travesty. We should look at that issue.
I am sorry, but I do not buy the idea that more people from deprived backgrounds are going to university and we have tuition fees, so having tuition fees mean that more people from deprived backgrounds go to university. That is rubbish; that is correlation, not causation. The Government cannot say that increasing tuition fees means that more people from deprived backgrounds go to university. That is total nonsense.
Let us be honest: the current model of ever-increasing tuition fees and student loans does not work for students or our universities. Because so little is repaid, I do not believe it works for the Treasury either. It is time to consign tuition fees to the same bin the Government dumped their election manifesto in.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy). It was also a pleasure to have been in the Chamber to listen to the maiden speech of a fellow west midlands MP, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill). She gave an absolutely delightful maiden speech setting out some of her family values and her community values, which are shared by so many of us across the House. I do not know whether I am supposed to say this of someone from the Opposition Benches, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I wish her well in her parliamentary career.
I would imagine that many Members in the Chamber went to university. Some will have paid their own fees, which were introduced by Labour in 1998. Some will not have paid fees, because they are a little bit older and a different system was in place. Some will have been educated in Scotland. There will be others who, like me, did not go to university. At 18, I chose to go straight into the workplace and to study later. I went to the institution that the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden) knows very well, the Open University. As he will know, students at the Open University pay as they go along. I was paying and working throughout taking that education route. In the end—it may have taken me some time—I did get my master’s degree.
I passionately believe in choice in education, whether university, technical or apprenticeships. The Government have an excellent track record on apprenticeships. In my constituency, there is an excellent apprenticeship provider, In-Comm training, which is at the heart of developing the skills required not just for today’s employers, but for those in the future. The point is about choice and providing a fair deal for students whichever route they choose, while at the same time ensuring our universities are properly and sustainably financed. It is about funding. Whatever the choice, it has to be paid for, either by the individual or the Government, or by a combination of the two. What really matters is that the education system is accessible.
The student funding system removes financial barriers for anyone hoping to study. It is backed by the taxpayer, and, as we know, any outstanding debt is paid off after 30 years. To those on the Opposition Benches who say that increases in tuition fees will reduce access to university for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, we have heard today that the figures do not bear that out. Recent figures show that in the academic year 2016-17 the entry rate for 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds is at a record high: 19.5% in 2016 compared to 13.6% in 2009.
I appreciate, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I do not have many minutes left in which to speak. That is the disadvantage of speaking towards the end of a debate of this nature.
I struggle with the definition of a disadvantaged background. The figures bear out that one can come from a disadvantaged background and still receive a good education, increasingly so through the university route. At the heart of that is choice and availability of places. Whatever the educational route, the education system is about merit, not background. It should be a system that is based on hard work and aspiration, and I believe the Conservative party is the party of aspiration and hard work.
As I have probably pointed out before, I represent more students than any other Member, by a long way, and on their behalf I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), the shadow Secretary of State, for securing this debate. She has fought as hard to ensure that Parliament is involved in key decisions on student funding as the Secretary of State has fought to avoid it.
It is not as if the Government do not know the system is at breaking point. They clearly do. In July, after Labour’s commitment in the recent election put the abolition of tuition fees at the centre of the political agenda, the First Secretary of State, the Prime Minister’s deputy, called for a national debate on the issue, and only yesterday the Chancellor of the Exchequer apparently told the Economic Affairs Committee of the House of Lords that the Government were carefully considering a review because—this is the reason he gave—the system had not worked out as originally expected. A bit of an understatement!
Why are the Government ploughing ahead regardless with the fees increase? It is important that we not only reject this increase but look to make fundamental change. According to reports, the Government are considering some change. As the Chair of the Education Select Committee did, they are floating the idea of reducing the interest charged on student debt. Clearly the rate is too high—I have argued against it previously and action should be taken—but of all the changes to make it is perhaps the least important. It is probably attractive to the Government for the reason that the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) pointed out: because it will primarily assist higher earners. It will not help those most in need, however, from the poorest families who will, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, face the greatest debt burden.
What should the Government do then? They should start by reintroducing maintenance grants for students from lower-income households. They were central to the 2012 settlement. The House would not have agreed to the £9,000 fees without those grants, and the fact that the Government got rid of them at the first opportunity when they formed a Conservative Administration on their own says an awful lot about their priorities. They should reconsider and reverse that decision.
Before cutting interest rates, the Government should think about the retrospective changes to repayment terms. Obviously everybody understands that they got their calculations badly wrong on the unrepayable debt. Its measure, the resource accounting and budgeting charge, rose relentlessly from the introduction of the new system in 2012. People make mistakes, but what was wrong was for the Government to make graduates pay for the consequences—to make them pay for the Government’s miscalculation by changing the terms of the deal to which they had signed up. Before the 2015 general election, I asked Ministers for assurances that they would not make those changes, and I was told that they had no plans to do so, but no sooner were the votes counted than those plans were rolled out in the 2015 Budget. Unfreezing the repayment threshold—making graduates pay more than was in the contract they signed up to—is frankly fraudulent. It undermines confidence in the student loans system and trust in democracy, and it should be reversed.
Finally, the Government should reconsider the decision to scrap bursaries and introduce fees and loans for nursing, midwifery and allied health courses, as a number of people have mentioned. Back in January 2016, when we debated the issue in Westminster Hall, the then Health Minister, Ben Gummer, told Members—this is a good one, wait for it—that the move would lead to an increase in applications. Now we know how wrong they were. In my city, there has been a drop of 22% in applications to Sheffield Hallam University, but it did slightly better than the rest of the country, because across the UK the drop is estimated to be 26%.
On issue after issue in relation to student funding, the Government have got it wrong. Today they can start to get it right. They can agree with us in ruling out this increase and, beyond that, they can revert to their 2005 manifesto commitment and join us in committing to abolish tuition fees.
I join other Members on both sides of the House in congratulating the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) on her election and her excellent maiden speech. I think that her election—along with that of the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), who is no longer in the Chamber—is testimony to the ongoing success and strength of the Sikh community in this country, and I wish her well for her time in the House.
Like the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston, I support local schools throughout my constituency, and I encourage young people to pursue higher education, as I did. Going to university has a number of benefits, such as life chances, salary uplifts and skills. However, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) that those who advocate an entirely free system are simply living in the past. They forget that if that system were allowed to persist, very few people would be able to go to university.
In 2002, having benefited from an assisted place myself, I became the first member of my family to go to university. I was also one of the first to pay tuition fees, which had been introduced by the Labour party in 1998 and increased in 2001. Even as recently as 2002, it was not commonplace for people from my background to go to university, which is why, when the Conservatives came to power, we opened up the higher education system to make it more accessible and increased student numbers by lifting the cap.
That had two benefits, which I want to highlight in the short time that I have in which to speak. First, universities finally had the resources that they needed in order to give all their students a high-quality, world-class education. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns), the £9,000 cap that was set in 2012 is now worth £8,500 in real terms, and, if left unchanged, will be worth only £8,000 by 2020. If our higher education system is to have the resources that it needs to be sustainable and maintain its world-class reputation for excellence, it must be financed properly and the quality of teaching must be maintained. Only by giving our universities those resources can we maintain our world-class standing in science, the arts, the humanities, and all the other disciplines that are needed to ensure that our country is globally competitive in the years ahead.
I welcomed a recent report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies which states that, on a per-student basis, our universities are better funded than they have been for the last 30 years. That represents an incredible opportunity for universities on the south coast, including those in my constituency, but also for universities throughout the country.
The other benefit of our 2011 reforms was our ability to lift the cap on student numbers to ensure that all those who were qualified to go to university had the opportunity to do so. They also gave people from disadvantaged backgrounds and minority-ethnic communities a greater opportunity to go to university, and I am pleased that other Members have mentioned that record numbers now do so.
In the final two minutes left to me, I want to highlight the Opposition’s record, given that this is an Opposition day. Others have pointed out that the proposals and policies articulated during the election were unrealistic, but I want to explain why they were unaffordable as well. It has been mentioned that writing off student debt was an important element of Labour’s proposals, and I am sure the whole House will acknowledge that it would increase our national debt by about 5% of GDP.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
If the hon. Gentleman does not want to intervene, I will continue.
As I was saying, the policies articulated at the time of the election were not only unrealistic but unaffordable. They would have added to the national debt and burdened future generations with their own debts, but they would also have choked off our higher education system from the essential funding that it needs. That is why I support the regulations. They are reasonable, they bring extra resources into the higher education system, and they sensibly and reasonably allow fees to be increased in line with inflation to ensure that, in real terms, the system is protected. Students and their parents, employers and universities want a fair and reasonable system that provides both wide access and sustainable funding, and I therefore urge the House to support the regulations.
In a few short weeks’ time, students up and down the country, including at the University of West London in my seat, will be going back for a new term. This is supposed to be an exciting time, but it is also an anxious one, because the fee regime they have been subjected to is continually changing by stealth. I am not just talking about the trebling since 2010; even since I have been an MP in the last two years we have seen many shady changes. This week, people have been discussing Henry VIII powers—the things done by shady Committees upstairs, rather than on the Floor of the House—but we have seen that in what has happened to student fees since 2015 as well, with the convenient cover of the teaching excellence framework, which seems to be another way to inflate fees. The worsening terms people are on means their repayments have gone up since they took out these loans; that is moving the goalposts after the game has started, which is very odd.
This £250 increase might look small, but, as has been pointed out, that is for three years, so we times that by three. There is also the monstrous interest rate of 6.1%. So if we add that up, we are looking at increases of thousands and thousands over a lifetime. Even if there is no upfront payment, our fees in this country are higher than those of any of our near neighbours. In France, across the channel, the fee is only a couple of hundred euros, while those in Norway, Denmark and Austria pay nothing at all.
We are seeing £9,000 turn into £9,250; when is it going to be £10,000? It seems that with this Government the sky is the limit. It is no wonder that the Institute for Fiscal Studies puts the average student debt at £50,000—we have heard a figure of up to £58,000, and 75% of it is never going to be paid back.
Proponents of fees often say that this is something for the future and is not paid back until the person is earning £21,000, and that there is a 30-year period so that it can be written off and never paid back, but this is affecting students now. There has been a fivefold increase in 10 years in students presenting with mental health problems, and a record number of suicides. The reasons people give are exorbitant housing costs and debt.
When we reduce everything to a cost-benefit analysis, we take out those kind of human stories and the greater good that education can do. People always say that graduates will earn more over their lifetime, but matters beyond the cost-benefit analysis are frozen out of the figures. When we just look at bald admission figures, we neglect to look at the number of dropouts, which is rocketing, and we neglect to look at the number of non-traditional students, which is going down. There are 61% fewer part-time students since 2010, and 39% fewer mature students. If we want to democratise our education, we are going in the wrong direction.
How this has been done is all wrong as well. If the Student Loans Company was a normal lender, it could be referred to the Financial Conduct Authority for mis-selling because these retrospective changes to terms and conditions would not be allowed for any normal lender—we know that the SLC is not a normal lender. Again, we heard all the arguments on Monday about Henry VIII powers and shady processes by statutory instrument, but that is precisely how these things were done in 2015; I remember that my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) and I were present.
It has been said that overview and scrutiny have been sacrificed. As it is now, the sector is reeling from Brexit, with the effect on the number of EU students and staffers and access to the grants regime, and all the funding is going. The same process by which that was rammed through this House earlier this week has been followed here. It was smuggled in, too, in the 2015 autumn statement. All students should have been told properly—[Interruption.]—in the small print, exactly, like the WASPI women; this reminds me of those valiant 1950s women who were never informed and things kept changing. I have just seen that I have only 47 seconds left—no way.
The Democratic Unionist party used to have an anti-fees policy, and even the current Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), has said that he worries about this. In 2010, he joined us on this side—I was not here then. He said that he was worried about what this would do to student mobility. I urge all right-minded people on the Conservative Benches to join us in the Lobby. The election has changed everything, and the Government need to think again.
I should like to add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) on a fine maiden speech. Many of us remember her predecessor with much fondness.
Like the Secretary of State, I was the first in my family to go to university, thanks largely to Conservative Governments in the 1980s and ’90s raising participation rates from about one in eight to about one in three. That is why, by the mid-1990s, I found myself campaigning against proposals to introduce tuition fees for the students who would come after me. I feared that prospective students from disadvantaged and lower income backgrounds would be put off from going to university and prevented from having the opportunities that I was enjoying. Indeed, I was so convinced of this that I even voted for the hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) in at least one of his bids to become president of the National Union of Students.
However, it soon became clear to me that those fears, however genuinely held they were at the time, were wrong. I am pleased that they were wrong. It is great that we have seen increasing levels of participation and an increasing proportion of students from lower income families and other disadvantaged backgrounds going to university. We saw the same fears being expressed in 2004 when Tony Blair’s Government trebled tuition fees, and again in 2011 and 2012. They have again been proven wrong. Young people from our poorest areas are something like 43% more likely to go to university than they were seven years ago. The hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) referred to drop-out rates, but those rates have fallen in the past few years, following years of increases. Similar figures apply to those from other disadvantaged backgrounds. Part of the reason for this is that the new system means that new graduates in particular are paying back less at a time when they are trying to set up a home, get a mortgage and start a family. Their repayments might be £45 a month, or £540 a year, lower than they would otherwise be paying. Measured on affordability, mortgages therefore become more, rather than less, affordable.
We are prone to having world-class universities, and we have many universities around the country that are doing genuinely innovative research and promoting first-class teaching in many areas. However, those universities and that teaching must be paid for. If we accept that, it is surely right that those who benefit the most from higher education should also contribute the most. Statistics show that a male graduate is likely to be about £170,000 better off over the course of their career; the figure for a female graduate is around £250,000. We can see that the people who benefit by far the most are the graduates themselves. Under the present system, people contribute more towards the cost of their education as they earn more. Indeed, those who are right at the top of the scale are contributing more to the cost of other people’s university education. That is a rather progressive measure that, in other circumstances, the Opposition might actually be tempted by.
Without the measures in the statutory instruments, the value of the funding going to universities would be reduced from £9,000 in 2012 to just under £8,500 now and to £8,000 by the end of this Parliament. That would be a big loss to our universities. If funding were to become available, and given that the extra £250 would be paid only by those on the very highest incomes—those currently paying the full loan repayment—it would surely be better to consider repayment thresholds.
It is my pleasure to speak in this important debate and follow the hon. Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) on her excellent maiden speech.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I have been in the Chamber for over seven hours now. I wanted to speak in the earlier important debate on NHS pay and did not get a chance due to the shortage of time and the number of interventions. I have one and a half minutes at the moment, so I do not know how much I can say, but there is plenty that I wanted to say.
Since 2010, under successive spans of Tory rule, students have repeatedly been held back by Government policy. It was a Conservative-led Government who trebled tuition fees to £9,000 in 2012, with the help of the Liberal Democrats. It is a Conservative Government who have frozen the student loan repayment threshold at £21,000; a Conservative Government who introduced the extortionate 6.1% interest rate on student loans; a Conservative Government who abolished the maintenance grants that were a lifeline for many of the poorest students. And most recently, of course, it was a Conservative Government who snuck out a written statement on the final day before summer recess which allowed universities to further raise tuition fees to £9,250 per year.
Thank you for letting me speak, Madam Deputy Speaker.
We have had a very good debate with some excellent contributions from both sides of the House. Obviously, I want to single out one or two of the contributions—my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) said we had to look at student support in the round; and my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods), spoke about the way in which Government were saddling people with debt.
I had to agree with the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), who made the important point that there was no sense of public space or public good in anything the Secretary of State said in her speech. There was no sense of the contribution made to the local economies that people work in or the ideas and productivity they develop.
The right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), the Chair of the Education Committee, in a characteristically thoughtful speech echoed the concerns that we have had about graduate outcomes and some of the issues around vice-chancellors’ fees.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill), in a superb speech, emphasised not just her pride in her Sikh heritage but the multi-ethnic pride in both place and context of her constituency in Birmingham. She spoke movingly about the concerns of the NHS and specifically addressed the issues of student debt and graduates’ sense of public duty.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) was right to focus on the evidence base, especially the academic evidence in respect of the lower numbers of part-time students in the Russell Group. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) reminded us that debt was incurred from day one. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), who did superb work on the Higher Education and Research Bill with me and my other colleagues, said that when we had our Opposition Day debate in 2016 we were right to focus on maintenance grants.‘
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) spoke about the statistics failing to convey—indeed, freezing out—the human stories of the results of the pressure of debt. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Faisal Rashid), who stoically stayed all the way through both of today’s debates, reminded us that it was the Conservatives who had systematically stripped away many of the benefits that were given from 2012.
I want to make brief comments—they will be brief because, unfortunately, I see the Secretary of State is not in her place. She equivocated on an emergency cap on student numbers—another policy that exists only in the minds of the Government. In fact, she said,
“if we are not willing to fund the system, there can be fewer people in it.”
But the Secretary of State ignores the fact that we would be replacing, pound for pound, the actual outlay of the Student Loans Company. Also, when talking about so-called record numbers of students in our universities, she ignored the fact that UCAS figures showed applications actually down 4%.
The context of the debate and all the Government’s procedural shenanigans were eloquently explained by my colleague the shadow Secretary of State, in a superb speech. She also made the point that the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, the hon. Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson), who spoke in the Standing Order 24 debate in July, did not take account of what his namesake, Alan Johnson—there the comparisons end—the Minister in 2004, said about what we should be doing.The effect of annulling the fee increase would do something immediately. For reasons that I will go into, we know that the Government have already performed twists and turns over where they think they might be going, but the fact is that the cumulative effect of Tory Ministers’ actions since the tripling of tuition fees in 2012 has been socially and economically destructive.
Owing to the time left, I will not.
Two recent reports from OFFA and the Social Market Foundation point to growing drop-out rates, especially among students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The most recent Sutton Trust survey shows the poorest stats on school students planning for HE in eight years. The Government have not hobbled just one generation. The tumbrel of ever-rising fees has hit not only the young, but people of the second age and even the third age. I warmed to the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) for her positive words about her Open University experience, but the fees were a fraction of what they are today when I was teaching and when she was studying. The Open University has been badly hit by this process.
We must also remember mid-life issues, which is why the University and College Union’s 20 July report suggested that things would get radically worse with the ninefold increase in inflation. Who knows where we are going from the 6.1% interest rate? None of this exactly hangs out a welcome sign to young people who have a place at or hope to go to university. The interest rates are linked to inflation and are set to rise by about a third from 4.6% to up to 6.1%. Throw in the disastrous decline in the number of part-time and mature students and we get a sense of how the nudge factor, so beloved of Tory theorists such as the Universities Minister, is now working to push would-be students away from HE. On the other hand, people have the opportunity to do apprenticeships with top employers, removing the debt factor.
This problem is not just an English thing; it is a British problem, affecting not only English students, but students from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who have chosen to study in England. They, too, will be hit by this unjustified and regressive increase. In 2015-16, 28,730 Welsh students were studying in the UK, alongside 9,505 Scottish students and 11,745 Northern Irish students.
Rising fees might have been a coherent defence but, as MillionPlus has said, there has been no direct grant available for university courses in so many subjects since 2014-15. There is an alternative, however. It that was outlined by the Labour party at the last general election, but I will not repeat the eloquent pledges of my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State. Instead of reversing the changes on grants, the Government have just ploughed on regardless. They are wedded to an outdated market-driven Thatcherism that is stuck in the late 20th century. They do not understand the changes of the 21st century or issues relating to our international competitors. In that respect, the Universities Minister has shown a degree of arrogance and complacency in failing to adjust. He pins his hopes on an explosion of new private providers while the threats to our existing world-class HE system are piling up all around him. That system, local economies and the UK economy will suffer if there is no change in this Government’s addiction to these dangerously outdated models.
The Government are now panicking. A recent YouGov poll found that only 9% of 18 to 24-year-olds trust the Tories on education. As we have heard, the Chancellor and various others are tearing their hair out and scurrying around, trying to find quick fixes. Rachel Sylvester said in The Times this week:
“The Tories have smothered their own charm offensive at birth. It is the sense that their future is being stolen from them that has really fuelled the youthful rage against the ascent of the gerontocracy.”
That reminds me that the Government Chief Whip’s tarantula is called Cronus. Cronus is identified in Roman mythology as Saturn, who devoured his own children, so it is appropriate that that should apply to the Chief Whip and the Front-Bench team.
As I said, the tumbrel of ever-rising fees has hit everybody. This Minister and his colleagues are so besotted with the mantras and clapped-out ideologies of late Thatcherism that they have failed to see that nudging has become throttling for graduates. The list of their supportive groupies is shrinking and the evidence of dysfunction and short-termism is there to see. There is no narrative or strategy except the cobbling together of a minority Government of diminished expectations and little vision outside the coteries of private advantage. They have traditionally praised Benjamin Disraeli’s one-nation Conservatism. Perhaps they should remember what he said about Gladstone’s Ministers the year before they were defeated in a general election:
“behold a range of exhausted volcanoes. Not a flame flickers on a single pallid crest.”
Well, there they sit, the 21st-century Theresa May versions of Disraeli’s exhausted volcanoes.
We see that all around. We have set the vision. We have raised the parity of esteem. We have proposed a national education service. We have put those things forward. We are acting anew when the Government are stuck in the past. Acting anew means acting today to move past this ridiculous situation and to cut the fees, as we have proposed. I urge the House to approve the motion this evening.
We have heard many excellent speeches this afternoon, particularly a splendid maiden speech by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill). That she is the first Sikh woman MP, and that she represents the constituency in which her father once drove the number 11 bus, is a powerful demonstration of the social mobility that all Members of this House want actively to promote. That theme of social mobility goes to the heart of this debate.
The Government aim to achieve an outstanding system of higher education that is open to all who have ability to learn and to benefit from it, and one that is fair to those taxpayers who do not directly benefit from higher education yet who are asked to contribute to its costs.
Going to university, as we have heard from many Members this afternoon, is a truly transformational step for young people, which is why this Government are truly proud of our record on increasing participation in higher education. We are ensuring that more people from disadvantaged backgrounds can share in those life-changing benefits than ever before. The entry rates of young people, including the disadvantaged, have reached record levels. Those are the foundations for improving social mobility, and the Government are committed to continuing that positive trend.
The regulations that the Labour party seeks to oppose are essential to the financial sustainability of our universities. They will help our universities deal with the erosion of their fee income brought about by inflation. Fees have been frozen in cash terms since 2012 and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns) said, £9,000 in 2012 will be worth just £8,000 in 2020. Clearly fees cannot be frozen forever. We cannot come back here in 10 or 15 years’ time with fees still frozen at the current rate, not if we want a sustainable university sector that delivers on social mobility and other economic outcomes.
Indeed, the principle of preserving the real-terms value of university fees was central to the fee regime that the Labour party introduced in 2004, which allowed for regular increases to keep pace with inflation. This Government remain committed to a funding system that provides a fair deal to students while ensuring that universities are sustainably and properly financed, which is why, under these regulations, we are allowing providers to maintain their fees in line with inflation only if they can demonstrate that they are providing high-quality teaching and student outcomes. We are therefore imposing a higher standard and a greater degree of conditionality on universities than the Labour party put in place more than a decade ago.
If everything is so bright and rosy, why have we had an entire summer of parents and students complaining about fees going up when they have not had a better service? They are concerned that, although the Minister argues that inflation has kept funding down, vice-chancellors’ pay has rocketed. How can we shake him out of that complacency?
We are determined to secure good value for money for students and taxpayers who are investing in the system. That has been at the heart of our reforms. As the hon. Gentleman knows from being a dedicated member of Committees that have scrutinised our reforms in various ways, we are securing the value for money that will ensure that students and taxpayers feel the system is delivering for them and for their needs.
The sector has made it clear that an inflation-linked fee cap is essential for our universities to maintain and improve on their current high standards and to prosper in the long term. Gordon McKenzie, the chief executive of GuildHE, made that clear recently when he said that
“fees had to rise by inflation at some point and it was fairer for students if those rises were linked to an assessment of quality.”
The Government’s policy is that fee caps should be linked to the quality of teaching, as we are doing in these regulations, and it is counter to Government policy for fee caps to rise in any other circumstances.
Yes, I certainly do. To see that, we only need see what the OECD said yesterday in its latest report on global education systems. Andreas Schleicher, its eminent director, once again gave a ringing endorsement of the sustainability of our higher education system and pointed out that the way we have been successful in sharing the costs of funding the system between individual students and the general taxpayer has enabled us to meet rising demand for higher education and to lift the student number controls, which have been holding back young people from disadvantaged backgrounds for so long.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way—he has more courtesy than the Secretary of State. I am not arguing with what he is saying, but I wish briefly to talk about the Welsh system. What the Government are ignoring is the grant system the Welsh Government are introducing. It is a shame the Secretary of State could not have taken my intervention—I think this was something to do with being cowardly and ignoring the statement of what the Welsh Government are doing.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of the Welsh model. Interestingly, it is a Labour Government in Wales who now have the highest tuition fees of any part of the United Kingdom; the Welsh Government will be having fees in the next academic year of almost £9,300, as compared with the £9,250 we are proposing. He mentioned grants, so let us turn to that issue. The cost of mapping over the Welsh system to England would be more than £5 billion, so I challenge Labour Members to say exactly where they are going to find that extra £5 billion, on top of the £12 billion they are already going to be spending to abolish tuition fees and the £100 billion they are going to need to find to wipe off the student debt. So let us perhaps not hear any more about the Welsh model.
Let us turn to widening participation, which has been one of the signal achievements of our reforms. Alongside incentivising improvements in teaching, the Government’s policies on student fees have allowed us to lift the student number cap, which is allowing more people than ever to benefit from a university education. The Leader of the Opposition, who has just joined us, stated in July:
“Fewer working-class young people are applying to university.”
I invite him to intervene if he wants to stick by that statement. Apparently, he does not. It was outrageous and false, and it is a disgrace that he has not corrected himself. In 2016, disadvantaged 18-year-olds were 43% more likely to go to university than they were in 2009 and they were 52% more likely to go to a high-tariff university. So his suggestion that young people are being held back if they are from disadvantaged backgrounds is patently untrue. The latest provisional data for 2017 show that the entry rate for disadvantaged 18-year-olds has increased again, to 20%, a new record high—
The Leader of the Opposition asks about drop-out rates, so he will be interested to know that across all categories—young, mature, disadvantaged, and black and minority ethnic—those are lower now than they were in 2009 and 2010. He should look at the statistics before he challenges the Government’s record on widening the participation and attainment of people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Labour’s proposal to remove fees—
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The vote we just had reflects that it is the will of this House that the increase in tuition fees be reversed. As was mentioned in the debate, it has taken far too long for the House to have the opportunity to vote on this issue. Now that it has, more than eight months since a motion to annul the regulations when they were first tabled, it has voted unanimously to revoke them. I seek your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker, as to how I may secure an undertaking from the Secretary of State that she will immediately give effect to the will of the House and reverse the rise in tuition fees. We have a constitutional crisis because the Government are running scared and not allowing votes in this House.
Obviously, the House has expressed a view in support of the motion. However, it is an issue for the Secretary of State, who is present now and has been for much of the debate. I am sure that she will wish to reflect on the view of the House and decide how to proceed. It is not a matter for the Chair; it is a matter for the Secretary of State.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Unless I was totally mistaken, we just had a vote. I heard the vote and you decided it on acclamation. The hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) is wrong to say that there has not been a vote.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Earlier this week, I raised a point of order, because I believed that in Education questions the shadow Minister of State, Department for Education, the right hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), who is present in the Chamber, made an inaccurate statement—
Excuse me; it was wishful thinking. In response to my question in Education questions, the Minister of State made what I believe to be a factually inaccurate, possibly inadvertently misleading statement, when she said that Learndirect would no longer be providing apprenticeships. The following day, I rather forensically set out that that was not the case. As she is present, perhaps she might take this opportunity to correct the record and give us some reassurance that Ministers have an idea about what they are doing.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. It could be argued that the first motion that was agreed to this afternoon was a general statement of the House’s opinion, but the second motion, which has just been agreed to, revokes legislation. It states that the regulations should be revoked. If the House agrees to a motion that revokes legislation, how can the Government just carry on as though nothing has happened?
As I have said, the situation this evening is that the House has expressed a view about the regulations, and, as I have said, it is up to the Secretary of State to decide how to proceed. The hon. Gentleman might wish to pursue the matter in business questions tomorrow.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Some reports on social media say that it is the Government’s intention not to participate in any Divisions on Opposition day motions for the rest of this Parliament. Would it be possible under the normal voice and vote provisions of “Erskine May” for hon. Members of this House to vote no in an acclamation, but to vote in the opposite Division Lobby should there then be a Division, thereby enabling the House to see the opinions of everybody present? My understanding is that that would be possible if the Government continued with that line.
It is not a matter for the Chair how Members individually or collectively choose to vote. At the moment, this is rather a hypothetical question. However, this is something that hon. and right hon. Members might like to raise at business questions tomorrow.