Emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Government’s decision to increase tuition fees implemented by the Higher Education (Basic Amount) (England) Regulations 2016 (S.I., 2016, No. 1205) and the Higher Education (Higher Amount) (England) Regulations 2016 (S.I., 2016, No. 1206).
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this emergency debate. It is a shame that it has been necessary when we have a First Secretary of State who called for a national debate on tuition fees, a Brexit Secretary who says that this House always votes on statutory instruments and a Justice Secretary who, when Leader of the House, actually accepted the need for a debate and a vote. Of course, that was before the election; 100 days later, this weak and wobbly Government do not even trust their own Back Benchers with a vote on their own policies.
The Higher Education and Research Act 2017, which the Education Secretary and the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation took through this House, is very clear on the matter. Paragraph 5 of schedule 2 states that the upper limit of fees can rise only when
“each House of Parliament has passed a resolution that, with effect from a date specified in the resolution, the higher amount should be increased”.
Will the Minister guarantee that no students will have to pay the higher fees until both Houses have passed such a resolution allowing it, and will he tell us when the votes on these resolutions will take place?
The Minister seems to be one member of the Government who does not want this vote, judging from his Twitter feed last night. He said that plans to raise fees were first outlined in July 2016, and that we have since had extensive debate. Perhaps he forgot that the plans were announced on the last day before summer recess last year, and were snuck out as one of 30 written statements on that day. The statutory instrument was then put before the House just before Christmas last year. Not long after that, the Opposition prayed against the measures, yet despite repeatedly pushing for it we were not given a debate. As the Minister said, the regulations came into force on 6 January.
On the subject of being weak and wobbly, will the hon. Lady confirm whether it is still Labour policy to pay off all £100 billion of the outstanding student debt—yes or no?
I do not know how many times I have to explain this to Conservative Members before they finally understand. A cynic might say that they are wilfully misrepresenting my party’s policy. We have never said that we would simply write off all existing debt. Conservative Members refer to comments made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, and I remind them that he said we would look at steps to reduce or ameliorate the debt burden. Perhaps that confused Conservative Members, because their Front Benchers have not done that in seven years. For instance—
Several hon. Members rose—
Conservative Members may want to listen to this before they intervene. For instance, we would look again at the repayment threshold for student debts; the Government have frozen it at £21,000, which will cost lower-earning graduates the most. We would look at the interest rates on debt, which the Government have allowed to reach an extortionate, unacceptable 6.1% for the year to come. I have said it once and I will say it again: we have no plans to write off existing student debt and we never promised to do so. Unlike the Conservative party, we made sure that all our plans were fully costed and outlined in our manifesto. Perhaps it could learn something from that.
In 2010 the Government tripled tuition fees and then slashed the education maintenance allowance. In 2015 they took grants from students and now they are raising fees again. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is no surprise whatsoever that young people are turning away in their droves from this Government?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, who makes an important point. Conservative Members have a sour-grapes attitude because they clearly understand that, unlike them, we have connected with the young people of this country.
I wonder if the hon. Lady could put to one side the script she was given seconds before she got up and answer this very simple question. During the election, her party made it categorically clear to endless numbers of students that it would abolish the student debt. Will she now get up and apologise for using them as election fodder?
As I said to the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), that was not—[Interruption.]
Order. Members must calm down. Earlier we were blessed with the presence of the Father of the House, who asked a question at Prime Minister’s questions. The rest of the time, he exuded a Buddha-like calm, which other right hon. and hon. Members should seek to emulate. I deliberately granted this debate the full three hours, so there is plenty of time, but Members should not shout at each other across the Chamber.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) seems to have failed to understand our policy, which was absolutely clear: we would abolish tuition fees from the day we took office—[Interruption.] Please listen to my answers. That was absolutely clear. We said that we would abolish tuition fees from the moment we got into power. We also said that we would bring back maintenance grants. Unlike Conservative Members, who are chuntering away and not listening to what I have to say in response to their interventions—
Several hon. Members rose—
I am not taking any more interventions if Conservative Members are not prepared to listen to the answers.
May I suggest to my hon. Friend that she does not take any nonsense from Government Members? They repeatedly told this House that whenever the Opposition prayed against a statutory instrument, they would guarantee a vote in this House so that people could put their vote where their mouth was, but they have repeatedly failed to do that. They are trying to do this by the back door, which is why she is absolutely right to show them the door.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and I congratulate him on having more experience than I do of such matters.
Several hon. Members rose—
I am going to make some progress.
The Minister said that the regulations came into force on 6 January, but they did so without debate, let alone a vote in this House. Then, when we were finally granted a debate and a vote, the Prime Minister called her early election and the regulations came into force while Parliament was dissolved. We have since raised the issue repeatedly, only to be told, eventually, by the new Leader of the House that the Government do not intend to provide any time for it. So much for the Minister’s “extensive debate”.
I promise the hon. Lady that I will listen intently to her reply. She and I will agree, I am sure, on one thing: this country is very lucky to have people with high-quality brain power at university today. They have told me and my Conservative colleagues what they thought her party leader said during the election campaign, and it is at huge variance with what the hon. Lady claims he said. Nobody remembers the weasel words and caveats that she has deployed today. Will she now apologise?
The hon. Gentleman calls them weasel words, but I can guarantee him that before and throughout the general election campaign I travelled up and down the country with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and we were absolutely clear on this. Many students—
Will the hon. Lady give way?
Order. Members have really got to learn the ropes and the hon. Gentleman has been here a number of years. It is normal manners and parliamentary etiquette that a Member be given the chance to respond to an intervention before being hollered at to take another. It is not a laughing matter, Mr Jenrick.
I wasn’t laughing.
You were—you were smirking. Don’t smirk at me. I am telling you what the situation is and you can accept it, whether you like it or not. Behave.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I believe that our party was absolutely clear on the matter. The thousands of students who have contacted me are clear on it as well, so I do not know why the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) is not.
The consequence, of course, is uncertainty both for universities and for thousands of students due to go to university next year. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what will happen if, once we eventually secure a vote, the regulations are revoked during the university year. This fees hike is damaging enough in itself, but leaving it unclear is even worse.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government’s response to this debate is extraordinary? They are mocking the issues when they should be much more concerned about the recently published drop in university application figures and the rising debt of young people. Parents and grandparents have told me of debts of about £50,000 for young people and their families. Should we not be sending a message of hope to young people, not saying that we will increase their anxiety before they even start on life?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. This was a really hot topic during the general election. I believe that the Opposition have the best interests of young people at heart, and the Government really need to listen to where the population are on this particular issue.
The current plans are all part of a pattern of behaviour from this Government. They tripled tuition fees to £9,000. They abolished maintenance grants for students, meaning that the poorest students will take on the most debt. They promised, when they tripled tuition fees, that the threshold at which graduates repay their student debts—it is currently £21,000—would rise in line with earnings. In fact, the then Universities Minister said:
“We will increase the repayment threshold to £21,000, and will thereafter increase it periodically to reflect earnings.”—[Official Report, 3 November 2010; Vol. 517, c. 924.]
They broke that promise as well. While tuition fees continue to rise, the repayment threshold remains frozen, hitting graduates on lower salaries each and every year.
The hon. Lady refers to broken promises. Will she tell us which party stated in 2001 that it would not introduce top-up fees because it had legislated against them, and then introduced them in 2004?
The hon. and learned Lady will know that when we introduced tuition fees and dealt with that issue, we invested considerably and increased the amount of maintenance grants and support on offer to poorer students. Recently, even Lord Adonis, the architect of those tuition fees, called fees a
“Frankenstein’s monster of £50,000-plus debts for graduates on modest salaries who can’t remotely afford to pay back these sums while starting families”.
I was in Parliament at the time when that Bill went through, protesting against it. Not only has our noble Friend Lord Adonis had a change of heart; so has the entire Conservative party, because it railed against the introduction of top-up fees. George Osborne called it a “tax on learning”. Who would have thought that only a few years later, it would be the Conservative party that plunged students into the highest levels of debt in the western world?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I am really trying to make this debate constructive, instead of ping-ponging who said what. It should be about what the young people and students of today expect of us. They are telling us that the current debt levels are unsustainable, and they clearly are unsustainable.
Conservative Members say all the time that a record number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds are going to university. If only that was the whole story. The evidence shows that students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are the most likely to be deterred by debt.
Does my hon. Friend agree that something different is happening in Wales, with the implementation of the Diamond review? It is moving back to a grant-based system, so the vast majority of students will receive a full grant and support for living costs, which is something that the National Union of Students and various other student union bodies have called for. That shows that there can be a different way. That is the difference between having a Labour Government in Wales and a Tory Government in England.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will have pre-empted some of the interventions from Conservative Members, who like to say that the Welsh Government are not doing things right. Of course, the Welsh Government have invested in their young people. They believe that their young people are the future of the Welsh economy. I congratulate them on making those decisions. Of course, the Welsh Government make decisions about education—before I get an intervention about what Wales is doing about loans.
As I was saying, burdening students with more than £50,000 of debt means that we will see more disadvantaged young people not going to university. After all, we have seen that at many of the most prestigious universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, the number of disadvantaged students is falling.
The hon. Lady complains that we keep asking questions about who said what and when. The trouble is that the Opposition perpetrated a scam on the British people. They clearly led students in our constituencies to believe that their loans would be written off. If she is now saying that that was not the intention, but that they would just cancel future tuition fees, how is it fair to those people, including my children, who have notched up tens of thousands of pounds of debt, which she is complaining about, that she leaves them with a debt when future students will not have a debt? What is fair about that?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I cannot really say it any more clearly than we have said it. We said we would look at that, but that we would not do anything with it unless we could afford it.
I have put forward and will continue to put forward three things that the Government could do right away to help our students, including the hon. Gentleman’s family members. First, the Government have decided to freeze the repayment threshold, which they do not have to do. They could put it in line with earnings. Secondly, they could look at the percentage rate of the loans. It is 6.1%, but it does not have to be that much. It was the Bank of England rate plus 1%, which would now be 1.25%—considerably lower than the current 6.1%. Lastly, if the Government really care about social mobility and getting students into university, let them bring back maintenance grants.
I was a nurse until a month ago. I was not even adequately paid, let alone overpaid. I got a bursary when I trained. I was a single parent and I could not have trained without it. The fact that nursing applications have fallen by 23% since the Government took away bursaries means that people like me will not be able to train. What are my hon. Friend’s comments on that?
I welcome my hon. Friend to this place. She makes an extremely important point. Ending nursing bursaries has had a negative impact on people applying to go to university to do nursing courses. As we look to exit the European Union, Members on both sides of the House know that we have to train and skill up our own workforce in order to provide all the nurses, doctors and other skilled workers we require. Conservative Members said during the general election campaign that they wanted to cut immigration. If they truly want to do that, they have to invest in young people in this country.
It seems that the Secretary of State believes that access to higher education simply ends with admissions. Figures from the Office for Fair Access show that the proportion of students dropping out before they finish their studies is at a five-year high. Disadvantaged students are nearly twice as likely to drop out than their more affluent peers.
I appreciate that this is a difficult day for the hon. Lady because she has come to raise some important issues, which we should debate, but her credibility is completely undermined by the difficulty of her saying that she speaks in the best interests of young people on the one hand, while on the other hand her party’s policy has changed to a position where today she says she has no plans to write off student debt. Therefore, her party’s word cannot be trusted on anything and young people will become more cynical about what politicians say.
The hon. Gentleman knows that we are talking about the tuition fee rise that his party said it would not impose on students and that it is trying to deny us a vote on. I hope he will push his Government to ensure that we do get a vote and that he will vote with us not to hike up tuition fees for young people.
Social mobility is stalling and drop-out rates are rising. Student debt in the UK is the highest in the world and more than 75% of students will never pay off their debts. The fact is that the Government’s policy on higher education simply is not working.
My position on tuition fees is perfectly clear, as my voting record in this Chamber will attest. The difference in what the hon. Lady has outlined today is that the normal run of things with Labour policy is to promise students something and backtrack when in government; this time, Labour has promised to write off students’ debts and then backtracked in opposition. Will she therefore apologise to the grandfather in my constituency who simply got his information from the news and wrote to me to tell me that he was going to vote Labour so that his children’s debts would be written off? If not, is she accusing him of being a bit stupid?
What I promise I will do for any of the hon. Members in this Chamber and any of their constituents who potentially were misguided is ask them to refer to our website, where they can get a copy of “For the many not the few”, which highlights our national education service. That is a huge number of pages longer than the policy in the Conservative manifesto, which was, quite frankly, to take the food from children’s mouths. That was rejected by the people of this country quite outstandingly.
There is an alternative—one that was outlined by the Labour party at the last general election. We pledged to end university tuition fees so that future generations will not be burdened with debt simply for seeking an education. We would fund that by taxing only the wealthiest individuals and the biggest businesses, rather than forcing only those graduates unfortunate enough to be £50,000 in debt to foot the bill. By contrast, the Government’s system will still cost the taxpayer nearly £6 billion a year in the long term. We would also bring back student maintenance grants to support students from low and middle-income backgrounds with their living costs, reversing one of the Government’s most regressive decisions.
There is someone in the Conservative party who for a long time agreed with that policy. There was a Tory shadow Education Secretary who said that the removal of the maintenance grant would
“far from widening access, narrow it.”
She told her party that it needed to
“show we care about the student who wants to go to university, but can’t afford tuition fees.”
She then helped to write, and stood on, a manifesto that would have scrapped tuition fees altogether. She is now the Prime Minister. But she is now the one narrowing access, not widening it. She is showing students that she does not care, and is hoping that her manifesto promises can be disposed of as quickly as Nick and Fiona were.
To think that on Monday the Secretary of State accused me of peddling “snake oil propaganda”. I guess that is her specialist subject. She promised to protect school budgets in her manifesto in 2015 before cutting them in real terms. She pledged to give 30 hours of free childcare to working parents only to tell tens of thousands of them that they do not earn enough to be eligible. Now she is breaking every single promise the Conservative party has made to students.
I have told the Secretary of State again and again what could be done to address the existing debt burden. I repeat that she could look again at the extortionate interest rates on students, due to rise to more than 6% at a time when the Bank of England base rate is 0.25%. She could keep the promise originally made to students to raise the repayment threshold on their debt in line with average earnings. She could look again at the unacceptable levels of disadvantaged students dropping out of university, and give them proper maintenance support.
All of those things would reduce the burden of debt on today’s graduates, and most of them would not cost the taxpayer an extra penny. The 2015 general election feels like a long time ago, but I remember a time when the Conservatives stood on a manifesto that said that
“we as a nation should not be piling up and passing on unaffordable levels of debt to the next generation.”
But that is exactly what the Government are doing. Increasing tuition fees again will simply leave more and more young people with debts they will never repay. Labour believes that is the wrong thing to do. Conservative Members may disagree, and that is their right, but what is not right is to deny this House the chance to decide.
Tuition fees are an important issue, but they are not the main issue before us today. The question before us today is much more fundamental. It is about trust in our Government and ultimately our democracy. Frankly, if Ministers cannot keep their promises to us, why should anyone else believe them?
On a point of order—
I hope that this is a point of order, rather than a point of frustration.
The point of order is that the Leader of the Opposition said to the NME—
Order. The hon. Gentleman must resume his seat. It was a nice try, and he is an industrious fellow, but that is a matter of debate. He cannot ask the Chair to adjudicate on who said what when, especially when it was outside the Chamber. I appreciate his assiduity, but he needs a rather better disguise than that.
I am sure the Minister is about to make what he believes is a convincing case. However, the real test is not to give us his words, but to give us a vote on them. That is the question I put to him now. If he is so convinced that what he is doing is right, will he have the courage of those convictions and put them to the House?
The Labour party wants to talk about process because its policy platform is disintegrating before our eyes. I welcome the opportunity to set out once again the Government’s approach to the student fees regulations. This is hardly new terrain for Parliament. The Government made it clear as far back as the Budget in June 2015 that maximum tuition fees would rise in line with inflation, and I set out changes to fees in detail for 2017-18 in a written ministerial statement in July 2016. Changes to fees were subsequently extensively debated during the passage through both Houses of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, with numerous votes on student finance issues that were all won by the Government.
The regulations are not “proposed” as the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) suggested: they have been in force for six months. This debate, which cannot change arrangements for 2017-18, is therefore a sham exercise. I suspect that this is simply more of the same cynical politics we saw over the weekend, when Labour broke its own pre-election pledge—about which we have heard so much this afternoon—to write off historic student loan debts.
Let us recall precisely what the Leader of the Opposition told the NME seven days before the general election. He said:
“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 a clear pledge to young voters. The first sign of trouble came when the shadow Education Secretary said a few days ago that she was still trying to work out the costs of that policy on a big abacus. The penny dropped completely over the weekend when we heard from the shadow Chancellor and others that that pre-election promise was being downgraded to the lowly status of an ambition. We all know what that means. It means that it is never ever going to happen. It does not do anything for the credibility of the Labour party to abandon such a striking commitment to young people just a few weeks after the general election.
I may be becoming a little forgetful, but was the manifesto to which my hon. Friend just referred the “fully costed” manifesto from the Labour party?
My hon. Friend has exposed the truth, which is that the Labour party is delivering what is perhaps the biggest act of political deception we have seen in decades. It is the old game of bait and switch, saying one thing before a general election and another thing immediately after. Of course, given that this would be a £100 billion hit to our public finances, which would hurt hard-working taxpayers across the country and deliver a significant addition to our national debt and the interest burdens of the next generation, I am glad that the Labour party has done this spectacular and embarrassing U-turn. I suspect that it will not be too long before it abandons the rest of its unaffordable, unfunded and fantastical policy platform. It is a programme that it has clearly taken wholesale from the statist playbooks of 1970s tax-and-spend regimes that all ended up needing the International Monetary Fund to step in.
The policy that Labour proposed before the general election would have increased our national debt by a whole five percentage points of GDP, adding no less than £3,500 to the debt carried by every household in the country.
At what point does my hon. Friend think the hon. Lady decided to make that U-turn? Can he enlighten the House on that? It seems a real puzzle.
I suspect that the Opposition decided to do that spectacular U-turn when they realised what impact it would have on hard-working taxpayers up and down the country. As I have said, the proposal to write off student debt will add £3,500 to the debt carried by every household in the country.
The decision to scrap the maintenance grant means that the most disadvantaged students will graduate with the highest level of debt. Does the Minister think that is fair?
A better way of looking at it is that the Government are making the most resources available to the people who are most in need of them. We want people from disadvantaged backgrounds to go to university. We are delighted that they are doing so in record numbers, and that they are now 43% more likely to do so than they ever were before.
If we were to put the best possible gloss on what the Leader of the Opposition said, and imagine that he was merely misunderstood in his intentions by students when he said that he would “deal with it”, what faith can we put in the new language that is being used? It is now being said that the Opposition will merely “look at” a number of propositions. If we cannot trust what “deal with” means, how can we possibly trust merely “look at”?
That is exactly right. The Opposition’s policy platform is collapsing before our eyes. The inevitable next step is their abandonment of the albatross around their neck that is their policy of abolishing tuition fees in their entirety. They are currently saddled with it. They are trying to wriggle off the hook of their clear promise to abolish student debt, and they will soon be trying to get rid of that appalling albatross of getting rid of tuition fees in total. As I have said, abolishing student debt would mean a huge addition to our net debt. The proposal to abolish tuition fees and reinstate maintenance grants would add £12 billion to the national deficit, which is equivalent to 0.7% of GDP and to an additional 2.5p on the basic rate of income tax.
Let me make a very simple procedural point to the Minister. If the Government want to make dramatic changes in schemes, they should take those changes through the House fairly and properly so that Members can vote on them. Ministers have said repeatedly in the House that if the Opposition pray against a statutory instrument, including those that are relevant in this case, there will be a vote. That promise has not been fulfilled. Will the Minister make it again now?
As I said in my opening remarks, we have had lots of votes on student finance issues, and we won them all. [Hon. Members: “What about the statutory instrument?”] The statutory instrument in question has been in force for six months. It went through all the parliamentary processes. Labour Members had plenty of opportunity to push for votes at the correct time; they are now six months too late.
When we reformed student finance in 2011, we put in place a system designed to make higher education accessible to all. Students are now supported by a system of Government-subsidised loans, which are repayable only when borrowers are earning more than £21,000 a year. Controlling the cost of higher education to the general taxpayer who has to fund public spending in this way allowed us, critically, to remove the cap on student numbers and ensure that higher education was available to all with the potential to benefit from it.
The Minister rightly points out that funding higher education will involve a cost to the public purse. His own Government will be aware that 45% of all loans that are taken out are never repaid, and that after the 30-year rule period has elapsed, 70% of students have a debt outstanding. Has he worked out the figures to establish whether that money, which the Government must ultimately pay off, could be better used to reduce the cost of tuition fees up front so that more students could go to university?
The hon. Gentleman is correct in saying that there is a Government contribution towards the loan book. It is a conscious, deliberate Government subsidy towards the skills base of the country, and towards giving more people from disadvantaged backgrounds a chance to go to university with finance being absolutely no barrier. We want people to pursue worthwhile, socially valuable careers that may not lead to high earnings—careers in social work, for instance—and we also want people to be able to take on childbearing and family-rearing responsibilities. Those are all reasons why the state will continue to make a contribution towards the cost of the loan book
Several hon. Members rose—
I have already given way a number of times, and I am now going to make some progress.
The move to a predominantly loan-based system has enabled us to increase the level of financial support available to disadvantaged students. I am pleased to say that the application rate for 18-year olds from disadvantaged backgrounds is at an all-time high. We have also seen record numbers of black and minority-ethnic students going into higher education in recent years. There is more to be done, but we are making progress. The effectiveness of our system and our reforms has been recognised by the OECD. In September 2016, its head of education, Andreas Schleicher, said
“the UK has been able to meet rising demand for tertiary education with more resources…by finding effective ways to share the costs and benefits”.
The Government remain committed to providing a fair deal for students and ensuring that England’s universities are sustainably and properly financed. That has enabled them to maintain their world-class standing, with funding per student per degree up 25% as a result of our changes.
There are two great universities in my constituency, and they are both telling me that they face huge uncertainty because of Brexit, not least because they do not know their own fee arrangements for EU students. They are worried about not attracting those students. What is the Minister doing about that, if he wants to ensure that they are well funded tor the future?
We have provided significant clarity in that respect. EU students will continue to be eligible for access to student support in 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19. We have provided the clarity that they need. They know that for the duration of their studies they will be able to come here, access home fee status and access student support.
The £9,000 fee cap that we set in 2012 is now worth £8,500 in real terms. If we leave it unchanged, it will be worth just £8,000 by the end of this Parliament. We simply cannot let that happen, as it would inevitably put the quality of teaching in our universities at risk and undermine the financial sustainability of the sector.
I chair the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. Before tuition fees were trebled in 2012, the Committee held a session during which it interviewed the then Secretary of State for Education. He said—I quote from the report—
“When the Government’s economic policies have produced the successful outcome that we all expect, we can return to the question of how universities can be supported in a more generous way, but at the moment we face a massive financial crisis.”
The current proposals are actually less generous, not more generous. Are we still experiencing a financial crisis? If not, when will the present Minister and the current Government live up to the commitment given by that Minister?
I am puzzled by that intervention. Our per-university, per-student funding has risen by 25% as a result of our reforms. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to read the report published last week by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, he will see that, on a per-student basis, our universities, per degree, are better funded than they have been at any point during the past 30 years.
May I pursue the logic of that point? Is it not the case that if these fee increases do not take place, we will effectively be cutting spending on universities? Should we not be fighting cuts and opposing Labour’s plan to cut spending on higher education?
Indeed. Our system of student finance is enabling our universities to be funded sustainably. As I have said, per-student, per-degree funding is up by 25%, but we will put all that at risk if we move anywhere near Labour’s policy platform.
Is it not true that Labour Members are now feigning confusion over parliamentary process on this, having previously deliberately created their own confusion? The reality on the doorsteps across Eastleigh was that Labour’s promise to deal with tuition fees included the possibility of covering bank overdrafts. Does the Minister agree that this is an empty promise from a mathematically illiterate party? People felt bank overdrafts, as well as student loans, were being dealt with.
That goes to show the extent to which the Labour party misled the country in the run-up to the general election, and I think my hon. Friend’s constituents are owed an apology.
Let us not forget that it was a Labour Government under Prime Minister Tony Blair who sensibly put in place these legal powers, which we used some six months ago, to uprate fees in line with inflation through a negative procedure. However, under the regulations we are debating today, rather than increasing fees for everyone, we are only allowing providers to maintain their fees in line with inflation if they can demonstrate that they are using these resources well in terms of providing high-quality teaching and good outcomes for their students. Universities UK and GuildHE, the two main representative bodies that collectively represent over 170 higher education providers, have made it clear that allowing the value of fees to be maintained in real terms is essential if our providers are to continue to deliver high-quality teaching. Gordon McKenzie, the chief executive of GuildHE, made it clear 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”,
as the Government are doing.
University education is also a route to higher earnings, worth up to a quarter of a million pounds over a lifetime. If we go forward with Labour’s policy to abolish tuition fees, it would have a damaging effect on those from disadvantaged backgrounds, as we have seen in Scotland, where there is a fall in the number of people from disadvantaged communities applying to university.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Labour’s policies would do the opposite of what it says they would do; they would represent a huge step backwards for social mobility in this country, they would be bad for taxpayers, who would be left shouldering the entire cost of the higher education system, and they would leave the finances of our university system in tatters.
As Professor Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of Exeter University, has said:
“The Teaching Excellence Framework presents us with an opportunity to invest in our students’ futures and the long-term economic success of our country, and to be recognised for outstanding teaching at the same time…The Government rightly wants ‘something for something’, for the economy and for students.”
I am shocked that vice-chancellors want tuition fees to rise—this comes as a complete surprise to everyone!
Vice-chancellors want fees to rise every year. Surely the Minister will be able to confirm today that tomorrow he is very likely to use powers to once again increase tuition fees to a higher level, and that once we get to 2019-20, under the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, passed just before the general election, we are going to have to have votes in Parliament in order to allow and facilitate fees rises. If we are going to be doing that in the future, why not do it now?
As I have already made clear on a number of occasions, these regulations have been in force for the last six months; they are already law—they are already applying across the sector.
Widening participation is an important policy objective for this Government. Alongside incentivising improvements in teaching, the Government’s policies on student fees have also allowed us to lift the student number cap. This is allowing more people than ever before to benefit from a university education. As I said, disadvantaged 18-year-olds are now 43% more likely to go to university than in 2009, and 52% more likely to go to a high-tariff institution. For the last application cycle, the entry rate for 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds is at a record high: 19.5% in 2016, compared with 13.6% in 2009. The application rate and actual number of English 18-year-old applicants is at record level in this entry cycle.
This Government have made it clear that finance should not be a barrier to going to university, which is why we have made more funding available to students. By replacing maintenance grants with loans, we have been able to increase the funding for living costs that some of the most disadvantaged students receive. It is an increase of over 10% in the current academic year, with a further 2.8% increase for 2017-18. We have worked with the Office for Fair Access to encourage universities to do more to help disadvantaged students. In 2017-18, institutions are expected to spend over £800 million on measures to improve the access and success of disadvantaged students. This is more than double the amount spent in 2009-10.
I am sure my hon. Friend is aware that our education exports last year exceeded those of our insurance industry, mainly fuelled by the excellence of our universities. If we do not fund them properly, we will not maintain world-class education at our universities.
My hon. Friend is entirely right. Sustainable funding of our system is essential for our universities to continue to attract international students from around the world. Moving to the system Labour is advocating would leave their finances in tatters and be hugely damaging to the quality of teaching they can offer.
Although we are making good progress on widening participation, more can be done, and we are doing more. For example, in the latest guidance given to the Director of Fair Access we acknowledged that selective institutions, including Oxbridge and parts of the Russell Group, already do much to widen access, but we have asked the Director of Fair Access to push much harder to see that more progress is made. In the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, we are strengthening our approach to widening participation by placing an overarching duty on the Office for Students to consider the promotion of equality of opportunity in relation to access and participation in all that it does. The new Director for Fair Access will have a clear role looking across the full student lifecycle.
The hon. Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden) has been chuntering about drop-out rates for several minutes. I would like to inform him that drop-out rates are lower now for all students—young, mature, disadvantaged and those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds—than when we came into office in 2010, and we are taking all the steps I have just mentioned to ensure they stay among the very lowest in the OECD. The Act also requires individual higher education providers to publish their respective student application, offer, acceptances, drop-out and attainment rates, broken down by gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic background, through the transparency duty on the Office for Students. Greater transparency will push universities into further action in this area, to build on what has already been achieved.
Will the Minister confirm that applications from mature students were down by 18% in the last year alone? In 2011-12, applications from part-time students were down by a massive 30%.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and I acknowledge the fall, but he needs to understand that there are complex reasons for it, including the rapid increase in the proportion of people entering higher education at the young age of 18. This means that there is a smaller stock of students seeking to participate in part-time and mature study later in life. We also have one of the most buoyant labour markets of any economy anywhere in the world, which increases the opportunity cost of study for people later on in life, at a time when they would otherwise be earning significant sums of money. But we recognise that there is a fall, and we are taking significant steps to address some of the financial barriers that mature students face. That is why from the next academic year we are introducing a part-time maintenance grant on the same basis as the current full-time equivalent grant.
On the point about disadvantage, before young people get to university they have to go through the FE system. Will the Minister therefore congratulate North Lincolnshire’s Conservative council, which has confirmed this week that its post-16 student bus passes will again be set at £30 for the coming year, down from £200 a year under Labour? Does this not demonstrate once again that, when it comes to students, Labour says one thing when in opposition and does something very different when in power?
My hon. Friend makes some superb points, and he is a tireless champion of his constituents.
On the repayment of loans, our repayment system offers a fair deal to students. The current student loan system is deliberately subsidised by the taxpayer and is universally accessible to all eligible students, regardless of their personal financial circumstances or credit history. Our repayment system is based on income, not on the amount borrowed. Graduates with post-2012 loans pay back only when they are earning more than £21,000, and then only 9% of earnings above that threshold. After 30 years, all outstanding debts will be written off altogether with no detriment to the borrower, and the Student Loans Company has no recourse to their other assets. The maximum fee cap is being maintained in line with inflation in 2017-18, so it will not be increasing in real terms for anyone going to university. We believe that it is right for those who benefit most from the higher education they receive to contribute to the cost of it. We should not forget that higher education leads to an average net lifetime earnings premium that is comfortably over £100,000.
Labour continues to scaremonger about the changes to higher education. The Conservative-led coalition and this Government have introduced important reforms. The Opposition have promised to write off student debts, to cut tuition fees and to restore maintenance grants. However, they have failed to set out a credible plan on how to fund their promises, and are now shamelessly abandoning them just weeks after the general election. That is hardly surprising, given that they had not even managed to persuade key figures in the Labour party who served in their previous Government. For example, Lord Mandelson described their policy offer as “not credible” and urged Labour to
“be honest about the cost of providing higher education”.
Of course, it is not just Lord Mandelson who has commented on this. The former shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, said that his party’s failure to identify a sustainable funding mechanism was a “blot on Labour’s copybook”.
I therefore challenge the Opposition to explain how they would fund their alternative proposals on tuition fees, maintenance grants and the write-off of student debt. We estimate the annual cost of their policy on tuition fees to be £12 billion a year over the next five years of this Parliament. In addition, a one-off expenditure would be required to make good the promise of writing off historical student debt to the tune of £89.3 billion in cash costs. If Labour wanted to go the whole hog, a further £14 billion would be required to compensate graduates for historical borrowing that they had already repaid.
Make no mistake, Labour’s policy of abolishing fees would be a calamity. It would be ruinous for our world-class university sector, leading almost certainly to a fall in per-student funding of the same magnitude we saw in the decades before the introduction of top-up fees—a fall of around 40% in terms of the unit of resource. It would lead to the inevitable re-imposition of student number controls, which would cause the poorest and most disadvantaged to miss out on university, throwing social mobility into reverse. It would do all this at an eye-watering cost to the hard-working general taxpayer, whether he or she had been to university or not. Gone would be the concept of a fair sharing of the costs of university between graduates with higher-than-average lifetime earnings and society at large; taxpayers would foot the entire bill. That would be bad for universities, bad for students and bad for the taxpayer. It is no surprise that in the one place where Labour is in power, it has chosen a different approach. Last week, the Labour Government in Wales quietly increased their tuition fees for 2018-19 to £9,295 a year, making them marginally higher than the current rates in England. Labour in Wales at least knows that the party opposite’s plans are unfair to students and ruinous to universities. Perhaps it should tell the Labour party leader.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
I hope that it is not a point of debate.
It is not, Mr Speaker. I did not want to interrupt the Minister earlier, but he claimed that the Opposition had had the chance to call a vote on the statutory instrument and did not do so. Perhaps you could confirm for the record that a prayer was laid against the regulations, and that the Government have simply refused to allow the House a vote on them since then. I understand that the Minister has a particular responsibility not to misinform the House and I therefore ask for this matter to be clarified.
The hon. Lady has put me on the spot, but I make no complaint about that. Knowing the Minister as I do, I know him to be a person of integrity, and I would not and am not doubting that for one moment. My recollection—I am open to advice and possibly even scholarly correction from the source from which it usually derives—is that the Opposition had prayed against this set of regulations. My further recollection—I think this is in the Official Report—is that the Government had indicated an intention for this matter to be debate and voted upon. It is not always possible to predict the course of events, but I think the commitment was made on 31 March for 19 April. Members will recall, and others will be aware, that on 19 April the House debated a motion to facilitate the calling of an early general election. Thereafter, there was a small amount of business in what we normally call the wash-up session, and then we departed to our constituencies, so there was no debate and vote. That is how I remember it.
It is not desirable for the Chair to be asked to take sides between the parties, and I am not taking sides. I am certainly not taking sides on the merits or demerits of this issue; the Speaker should not do that. I had thought there was an expectation of a debate and a vote, and that the Opposition had done what was necessary to maximise the chance of such a vote. To be honest, I thought that the Government were open to such a debate and vote, until events overtook. That is history; we are where we are.
As to whether there is to be a substantive vote now, I await the development of events. [Interruption.] I am being fed a note. Oh, that is very helpful—and I mean very helpful. It is from one of our senior Clerks and says: “Don’t have the details. Believe you are correct. We can check.” I am very grateful to the Clerk, who is extremely committed to the public service.
It is a fundamental Scottish National party principle that access to education should be based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay. SNP MPs have a strong and principled record of opposing tuition fee increases in England and Wales and, if we are able to, we will reject any Bill that would increase the financial burden on students.
In 1997, I personally lobbied my predecessor in this place on the introduction of student fees. I had never met him before, but I think he still remembers that meeting, because I was incensed at the idea that students should have to pay fees. I found their introduction by a Labour Government particularly objectionable, especially as so many of them had gone to university themselves; they then pulled up the ladder behind them. Neither I nor the SNP have changed our view that access to education must be based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay.
The SNP’s commitment to free tuition is firm and unequivocal. In 2007, the SNP Scottish Government abolished tuition fees. The Scottish Government’s free tuition policy benefits 120,000 undergraduate students in Scotland every year, saving them from accruing debts of up to £27,000, unlike their peers in other parts of the UK. The SNP will always guarantee that access to education is based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay.
Since we came to office in Scotland, the number of Scottish-domiciled full-time first-degree entrants has risen by 12%, but this is also about our values and the kind of Scotland we want to live in. Scotland as whole values free access to higher education, as does the SNP. Unlike the Tories in Scotland, we have no intention of billing our young people for their education, either up front or after they have graduated.
In 2015, the president of the National Union of Students Scotland, Vonnie Sandlan, said:
“The idea that abolishing free education—a clear recognition of the public and social good provided by higher education—would improve fair access seems bizarre.”
It is almost as bizarre as the recent comments by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on “The Andrew Marr Show”, when he said that only graduates benefit from their studies. As a Scot, has he not heard of the commonweal? Everyone benefits. Society benefits from a higher tax take, and from its teachers, its doctors, even its lawyers, and sometimes, perhaps, its MPs.
Has the hon. Lady read the report by the Sutton Trust, the social mobility charity, which was absolutely damning about social mobility in Scotland as a specific result of the SNP’s policy of capping places? Does she not deprecate the fact that social mobility in Scotland is going into reverse?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I totally disagree with him. I will come on to that point further on in my speech. The fact is that Scottish education is different; the way into it and how to progress in it are completely untypical.
Does my hon. Friend share my frustration at the blatant gaslighting that is going on, once again, around the number of young people in Scotland from disadvantaged backgrounds attending university? Does she agree that our young people have many pathways to university? If children coming through further education colleges are included in UCAS figures, there are significantly higher numbers of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in Scotland going through to university than in the rest of the UK.
As a former further education lecturer, I have personal experience of that. Indeed, I will be disseminating my wisdom on this when I take up my place on the Education Committee; I see that the Chair of the Committee, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), is sitting on the Government Back Benches. The point that has been raised is a well-known canard. We cannot measure Scottish education by the same yardstick that we use in England and Wales because it is different.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. I have for some time been trying to make the point that things are done slightly differently in Scotland. I once was a Member in another place. The scrutiny of subordinate legislation in Scotland is very thorough indeed, and consideration is given to whether it should be positive, negative or super-affirmative. The heart of the problem is that the instrument to which the parent Act refers is perhaps a little too draconian in the powers that it gives the governing party. The fault may lie with what was originally agreed months ago—this may be what is bedevilling hon. Members—and perhaps the role of the House was not made suitably strong.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and welcome him to his place. Yes, there are many differences, and trying to compare apples and pears just does not work.
There are international comparators. The fact is that the SNP Government’s record on education in Scotland is a national disgrace: there are 4,000 fewer teachers, class sizes are up and, of the increased number of students going to university, 10 times more are coming from the wealthiest backgrounds than the poorest backgrounds. The gap is widening, and that is under an SNP Government.
If the hon. Gentleman listens to the end of my speech, he will find that I completely refute what he is saying. The facts tell a different story. Larry Flanagan, the general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, has said that Scottish education is not in the parlous state that is ascribed to it by other parties. I believe that he is one of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues.
Scottish-domiciled full-time first-degree university entrants rose 12% in 2006-07. The figure now stands at 28,777, 58% of whom are women. As I have said, the SNP firmly believes that access to university should be based on the ability to learn. To support that, the SNP Government have invested record levels of funding in our universities—£5 billion since 2012-13, with a further £1 billion planned in 2017-18.
The latest UCAS statistics have shown a drop in Scottish-domiciled students applying to higher education institutions, but that is not necessarily a negative. Indeed, it is further evidence that the approach taken in Scotland to ensuring that young people have equal choices and chances to succeed in life is working. For example, the youth unemployment rate has fallen from 14% since 2007 and now stands at 8.4%, and Scotland continues to have among the lowest rates of all the EU countries.
A record proportion of young people from Scotland’s most deprived communities are continuing their education, entering training or getting a job after they leave school, with 88.7% of school leavers from these communities going on to a positive initial destination—the highest ever proportion, and up since 2011-12. A record 93.3% of young people are continuing their education, going into training or getting a job—that includes modern apprenticeships—after leaving school. This is a good news story. They do not all want to go to university; many of them want to earn and learn.
According to the Scottish Funding Council, nearly 85% of further education students who achieve a qualification go on to a positive destination such as further study, training or employment. In 2015-16, almost 12,000 more students than in 2008-09 in both further and higher education at college successfully completed full-time courses leading to a recognised qualification. I know about that because I taught in a further education college. People in the most deprived areas of Livingston and West Lothian, where I taught, started in further education colleges at 16, and in some cases at 15. They progressed through college. They did further education for perhaps one or two years—in the same place—and continued on to higher education courses at higher national certificate and higher national diploma level. They were then able to articulate into the second or third year of Scottish university courses. That is how it is done in Scotland.
I was privileged to be part of the educational journey made by these people, some of whom were from the worst areas. I can think of one woman student who got pregnant at 15, had to leave school and came back to university. I interviewed her and saw her potential; she had no formal qualifications, yet she ended up with a degree—and no debt. I think that answers the question of the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) about social mobility.
Thanks to free tuition, Scotland is making progress towards achieving the target of 20% of students who enter university coming from the 20% of Scottish communities that are most deprived. There is no doubt about the SNP Government’s investment in additional places for access students; my husband was an access student. He decided to go to university aged 65 and joined the local college, which at that time was called Motherwell College. He took an access programme, did a year at college and gained a place at Glasgow University. He was unable to continue his educational journey for various reasons, but I know many others who have followed the same route. These students go to not only former technical colleges or institutes of technology that have since become universities, but our ancient universities. That is to be cherished and encouraged—and they have no fees.
That is why the Scottish Government continue to invest £51 million a year in supporting approximately 7,000 places. Scotland’s universities continue to attract students from around the world, and the number of non-EU international applicants has increased by 6% since last year; that is higher than the 2% increase in the UK as a whole. This is good news for Scotland, and we are keen to welcome those who wish to come to Scotland to live, learn and work.
The Scottish Government are determined to support our valuable higher education sector and are committed to working with our universities to continue to attract the very best students from around the world.The UK Government’s failure to provide an offer that goes far enough for EU nationals after Brexit has had a worrying knock-on effect on applications to HEIs in Scotland.
Down here, the Tories are all for front-door fees; back in Scotland, the Tories are all about back-door fees. If Ruth Davidson’s Tories had had their way in the 2016 election in Scotland, they would have introduced a £6,000 graduate tax, which would have had to be paid back when graduates earned £20,000. The UK Tories want to stop international students studying in the UK by abolishing the vital post-study work visa, but the Scottish Tories want to deter EU students by threatening them with additional taxes. By contrast, the SNP Scottish Government have pledged to reform student loan repayments: graduates will not pay loan debt until they earn £22,000; the repayment period is reduced to 30 years. If even a wee country like Scotland can do that, so can any other.
Over the past 10 years, the SNP Scottish Government have worked hard to make Scotland the best country it can be. It is no wonder that other parties are now taking their lead from the SNP on tuition fees. Labour and the Tories opposed progressive SNP policies tooth and nail for a decade; now they have changed their minds. The SNP has opposed tuition fees since they were first introduced by Labour in 1997, and scrapped them in 2008. Now Labour has said it will follow our lead in England—imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery.
Average student loan debt in Scotland continues to be the lowest in the UK: £10,500 per student in 2015-16, compared with £24,640—up 2% since 2014-15. By contrast with the UK Government, who abolished maintenance grants entirely for new students in England from the 2016-17 academic year, we raised the income threshold for the maximum bursary from £17,000 to £19,000. That will benefit an additional 2,500 young students and 400 independent students.
Have not further education budgets in Scotland been cut continually, which has led to a reduction of 152,000 young students in Scotland? Is it not high time to do what the Conservative party manifesto pledged to do, which is to reverse those cuts so that we give our young people a fair chance in life?
May I also rebut that canard? When I started teaching in further education in Scotland in 1992, many college courses were not vocational but leisure courses. West Lothian College ran a very successful one on which people my age—now—spent six hours a week doing art. The Scottish Government cut funding for courses like that and increased funding for vocational training. They also do huge programmes in places where there has been a loss of jobs locally, and the first thing the Scottish Government do when they send in a taskforce is include local colleges to provide short-term training courses. More people now leave further education with good qualifications—and that is totally what matters.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am sorry, but I would like to continue—I am feeling a little dizzy, to be fair.
The SNP Government are not complacent and are committed to doing more to support students. They want to ensure that support is equitable, in particular for the most vulnerable, which is why the Scottish Government are conducting a comprehensive review of student support under an independent chair and a wide range of membership, from Scotland’s colleges to the National Union of Students and other bodies.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
As the hon. Gentleman persists, I will give way.
The hon. Lady is generous in giving way. She has talked about the most vulnerable students in Scotland and about being able to work and learn. Can she explain why the Scottish Government receive the apprenticeship levy yet sponsor only a very modest 30,000 apprenticeships, compared with the 3 million awarded in the UK during the last Parliament?
Let me say one thing in response to that. The Scottish Government consulted businesses in Scotland; they were already doing good work with businesses, encouraging them to take on modern apprenticeships. Modern apprenticeships were far further advanced. The Scottish Government did not just make decisions for themselves. There was almost an imposition on the Scottish Government because our devolved Parliament deals with issues such as training and education. When the UK Government introduced the new levy for all employers, we consulted those employers and the agreement went forward.
I am not prepared to take any more interventions; I have almost finished.
The terrible decision to introduce fees for nurses and to scrap bursaries in England and Wales is clearly having an impact on nursing application numbers from England; figures show a massive 23% fall on last year. In Scotland, we remain committed to free tuition fees and protecting the non-means-tested, non-repayable nursing and midwifery student bursary, which we believe is essential to ensure a steady supply of trainees into the profession.
Those who want a highly educated workforce should follow Scotland’s example. After all, it ranks at the top of the world’s statistics, with Canada and Russia: 45% of Scotland’s population aged between 25 and 64 are educated to degree level. Will the Minister consider doing what the Scottish Government have done so well? Do not attempt to increase fees for students in England and Wales—abolish them. We have world-class universities too, and what the Scottish Government do works.
I call the Chair of the Education Select Committee, Mr Robert Halfon. As we have discussed, the right hon. Gentleman is welcome to speak from a seated position if he wishes.
This is an important debate. I have huge respect for the Minister and all the work he has done to make our university sector better by ensuring that students from all backgrounds have the chance to climb the ladder of opportunity.
In considering student fees, we have a duty of fairness to both the taxpayer and the student, and it is right that taxpayers should not bear the burden alone. A number of principles need to be clear when it comes to tuition fees. The first is that we help students from disadvantaged backgrounds not just get on that ladder of opportunity, but get to the top. The second is that the interest rates charged should be fair for students. The third is value for money. When we talk about disadvantaged backgrounds, we need to be sure that we mean those at the very bottom struggling the most, as well as those who are just about managing.
Earlier this year, we heard that the numbers of working-class students entering the top universities had fallen over the last decade. Although more of our poorest young people are entering university, most are winning places at the lower and middle-ranked institutions rather than those offering the best opportunities for high-earning graduate careers. Disadvantaged graduates will suffer even more acutely than their more affluent peers on graduation, but they will also suffer a class pay gap that means that professional employees from poorer backgrounds are paid almost £7,000 a year less than their peers from more privileged families.
My hon. Friend the Minister spoke powerfully about what he wanted to do to improve the prospects of part-time students, and he recognised that the figures had declined. I welcome that and urge him to do everything possible to support part-time students, particularly single parents on low incomes who may fear going to university because of the size of the loan.
What does value for money mean when it comes to a university education? Why can universities charge the same high fees when there is such variation in the jobs that students find? The Minister has done a lot of work on that and on the new measurements he has introduced, but surely the time has come to look at the level of fees as compared with the destination data. People go to university to climb the ladder of prosperity, and to improve the skills and productivity of our nation. If they pay £9,000-plus and come out with a good job—job done. If they do not come out with a good job, we need to ask why.
My right hon. Friend is making an excellent argument, but does it not focus his attention on the repayment threshold? In a sense, a higher threshold enforces the very point he is making. If people get the higher salary, fair enough; they repay their loan. If not, they do not repay it anyway.
I have a lot of sympathy with my hon. Friend’s point.
We need to look carefully at the salaries of the senior management of universities. Something is going wrong if there are significant increases in the salaries of top management but poor destinations for graduates. To be honest, I do not mind what management figures earn if every single person who leaves that university gets a good job at the end. If they do not, I cannot understand why some vice-chancellors receive huge increases in their pay but fail to provide good outcomes. I am not going to name those universities today, but we need to take a hard look at this.
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful and considered speech. Does he agree that we should also look at the length of university courses? Three years seems a little long for some courses, considering the smaller number of teaching hours.
Yes. My hon. Friend makes a point that I will come to, which relates to business rates. This is about not just the length of courses, but the way in which terms are structured. I said at the beginning of my remarks that the burden on the taxpayer needs to be fair, but we also need to ensure that the burden on the student is fair.
A constituent of mine entered university during the first year of £9,000 tuition fees, and her debt is now around £45,000 including the maintenance loan. I am not against student loans. It is not fair for working people in my constituency to bear the full burden of paying for all students to go to university. However, value for money also involves interest rates. Interest rate levels are much lower in the United States and, as I understand it, there are quite a few months in the year when students have more opportunities to work so they can pay back their loans. That relates to what my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) just said. The interest rate here, which the Minister knows is quite high, puts people off. I urge him to look into what can be done to have a system similar to that in the United States.
Of course, not all courses or institutions offer the same opportunities for employment after graduating. A history degree from a Russell Group university could, after five years, see someone earning double what they would have earned had they received the same degree from a less prestigious institution. University graduates have traditionally out-earned their non-graduate peers, but the gap appears to be narrowing. The value of a degree has begun to decline as the supply of graduates has outstripped demand. The Institute for Fiscal Studies recently warned that further increases in the number of graduates could lessen the financial gains of a degree.
The Minister knows that I am passionate about and strongly believe in apprenticeships, and he is a huge supporter of degree apprenticeships. It is important that all students know that there is a choice. There is a chance that we can offer every young person an apprenticeship, all the way from level 2 right up to degree level. We need as much investment as possible in degree apprenticeships, for which there is no loan. Apprentices earn while they learn, are virtually guaranteed to get a job afterwards, and get the skills and training they need. That would be a huge boon to people from disadvantaged to backgrounds. The levy must be used to fund degree apprenticeships as much as possible, as this will transform the nature of the debate, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. At this stage, as colleagues will be aware, I have not imposed any time limit on Back-Bench speeches, and I would prefer not to have to do so from the Chair, but it might be a helpful guide to colleagues if I say that a seven-minute speech by each colleague would probably enable everybody to contribute. If somebody goes on longer, let that Member be clear that he or she is stopping other Members speaking, which would seem rather unfair.
I am pleased to follow the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), and I congratulate him on his election as Chair of the Select Committee and on his thoughtful contribution to the debate, which bodes well for the future. I represent more students—some 36,000 at the last count—than any other Member of this House, and consequently I chair the all-party parliamentary group on students. I represent many post-2012 graduates as well. They have been described as “generation rent” but we might also describe them as “generation debt”. The poorer the family they come from, the greater the debt as a result of the Government’s actions, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has reported. We are talking about debts of up to £57,000.
It is five years since the coalition Government forced through the £9,000 fees, but the impact is only beginning to take effect. This recent election was the first to be held since students starting graduating with the debt as a consequence of £9,000 fees—in May 2015, they had not started to do so. As a consequence, the issue took centre stage in this election. It is an issue not just for generation debt, but for their parents and, apparently, for some senior members of the Government. Even the Prime Minister’s deputy, the First Secretary of State, says, in a way that contradicts the confidence of the Minister, that we need to have a national debate on the issue. He is right, because we do, and this is only an opening salvo. We need to examine how we can provide the funding that our universities need to maintain their world-leading position, but without burdening our young people with unsustainable debt. That is the big challenge.
There are some immediate things that the Government could do on this. First, they could scrap the proposed increase in interest rates to 6.1% from the current 4.6%. This will be 6.1% at a time when the base rate is 0.25% and rates for average mortgages are less than 4%. The Minister will say that this is an automatic rise based on the formula of RPI plus 3%, but that formula is wrong. It means, as the IFS estimated, that students are accruing an average of £5,800 of additional debt in interest during their studies—before they even have the chance to start paying it off. As the former skills Minister, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), has argued:
“It is unutterably depressing for hard-working students to see the amount they owe spiralling upwards, before they have even started paying it off.”
The greatest burden is on the students from the poorest homes. So will today’s Minister hear what his colleagues are saying, what students and parents are saying, and what this House is saying, and commit to press the Chancellor to scrap the proposed increase in the interest rate and to review the formula?
A second thing the Government should do immediately is reintroduce maintenance grants for students from lower-income households. The grants were a central part of the package put together in 2012 and without that commitment this House would probably not have passed the proposals that saw tuition fees rise, because the grants mitigated the impact of trebling the fees. Scrapping grants for the poorest at the first opportunity after the 2015 election says a lot about this Government’s priorities and went a long way towards undermining confidence in the system.
While we are on the question of confidence in the system, the Government should think again on their retrospective changes to the terms of repayment, which make graduates pay for the Government’s miscalculation of the cost of the funding system and the escalating RAB—resource accounting and budgeting—charge. The Minister says it was a conscious decision; he knows well enough that the conscious decision his predecessor talked to the House about involved a RAB charge of 28%. That got out of control—it rose into the 40% area, and it was even being modelled at more than 50%—and the Government made graduates pay for their miscalculation.
Anticipating that before the 2015 general election, I asked Ministers for assurances that they would not make students pay for the Government’s mistakes by changing the terms of the 2012 system, and the Minister’s predecessor told me there were no plans to do so. Running into the election, the promise to students was that there were no plans to change the terms of the repayments. However, no sooner were the votes counted than the plans were rolled out in the 2015 Budget, freezing the repayment threshold and making graduates pay more than they signed up for. Conservative Members talk about broken promises, but there could be no worse breach of faith, breach of promise and breach of contract than that retrospective change. It is, frankly, fraudulent, and if this had been any other organisation than the Government, the Financial Conduct Authority would get involved. This decision undermines confidence in the loans system, and it should be reversed.
Let me highlight one further thing, of many, that should change: the decision to scrap bursaries and to introduce fees and loans for nursing, midwifery and allied health courses. Back in January 2016, when we debated the issue in Westminster Hall, the then Health Minister, Ben Gummer, told Members that the Government wanted—listen to this—
“to spread to nurses the same benefits that have been realised in the rest of the student population.”—[Official Report, 11 January 2016; Vol. 604, c. 236WH.]
Some of us in the debate expressed some scepticism that nurses and midwives would see £50,000 of debt as a benefit. We warned that these courses, which still provided a route into professional careers for those who were put off university by fees—mature students and others from low-income backgrounds—would see applications fall, at a time when we need more nurses.
Those concerns were cavalierly dismissed by the Government, but the final numbers have been published in the last few days, and Sheffield Hallam University in my city has seen a 22% drop, with the drop across the country estimated at 26%. The Government were clearly wrong. Will they accept that and reverse their decision on bursaries? They have been wrong time and again. We need a fresh start in this whole policy area.
At the general election, the Labour party managed to rally an extraordinary number of young people to its cause—in one constituency, it even had young people standing on roundabouts with “Vote Labour” signs. I am sure many Labour Members will concede that they have those votes to thank for their place in this House today.
It is not difficult to see why students were tempted: not only did Labour promise to abolish tuition fees, but there was even talk of forgiving all student loan debt—an extraordinary, expensive undertaking. I wonder what those young voters must think now, barely a month on from the election, as they see Labour desperately trying to downgrade that promise to an aspiration, or as they see Wales—the only corner of the kingdom where the Labour party is in power—actually increasing fees, despite Labour’s having attacked them during the campaign.
What goes around comes around. I should inform the House that the film of the Labour party, effectively, backtracking on this promise has been shared 1.3 million times, so perhaps those roundabouts will not be quite so full of young students holding up signs for the Labour party at the next general election.
Perhaps the Labour party, including in Wales, now realises that there are very progressive elements to the tuition fee system.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am not going to give way at the moment.
Loans are available in this progressive system to everybody. They are paid back only when the student is earning enough to afford it, and the amount to be repaid scales up with income. Effectively, student loans are a type of graduate tax, rather than a tax on everyone, including everyone who does not go to university. No bailiffs are sent out to collect on student loans, and after 30 years any outstanding debt is forgiven by the Government. No other loan has so many protections built in for low earners.
However, to focus narrowly on the repayment structure is to ignore so much of what makes the current system a good deal for less-advantaged students. It secures more places and higher-quality teaching.
I know there is a lot of nostalgia in some circles for the days when university was free, but too often those people fail to acknowledge that this was only possible because the proportion of school leavers who went on to higher education was tiny. I was the first member of my family to go to university. I come from a council house background and a lone-parent family. It was a really unusual event at my school to go to university, to such an extent that when people found out that I had a place, I and a few others at my school were called on stage. When I went to university, only one in 10 were able to take up the advantages that I had, and I do not want us to go back there, under any circumstances.
When the previous Labour Government decided to massively expand higher education, the costs for universities ballooned, and it was rightly decided that those who stood to benefit should shoulder a share of the cost. The alternative was to fund the entire cost from general taxation—shifting the burden to millions of people who have never had higher education—or to leave it to universities to fill in the gaps in their budgets themselves. Scotland illustrates the dangers of that approach. Local students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, have been consistently squeezed out of Scottish universities in favour of fee-paying international students.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am not going to give way, I am afraid.
Actually, I will.
Scotland used to say to the rest of the United Kingdom, “We have a gold standard in education.” I think it is a matter of shame that the SNP has presided over the collapse of Scottish education in the way that it has.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No—you had your chance.
As all studies show, the introduction of fees in England has seen an increase in the number of students from poorer backgrounds. Tuition fees have opened up the opportunity to study, and the repayment structure shelters them if they do not get the graduate dividend that they hoped for.
Of course, the current system is not perfect. There are legitimate questions over the interest levied on loans, and especially about the fact that nearly every university charges the maximum amount of fees. Price signals should be an important way for students to gauge the actual value of a degree course. I also think that some courses may be too long, and if they were to be time-limited, that would bring down the costs for all. But abolishing fees and forgiving debts that will only ever be repaid by high earners, and replacing the current system with one that taxes those who do not benefit or leaves universities fighting over high-income applicants, would be a huge transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich, and a ferocious attack on opportunity and social mobility.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing me to make my maiden speech in this important debate on tuition fees—a subject that came up time and time again on the doorstep in Blaydon. I know this debate will be of interest to many constituents.
I would like to start by thanking the people of Blaydon constituency for electing me to represent them here. It is a great privilege. Some of you may first have heard of Blaydon through our local anthem, “Blaydon Races”, played proudly by many a brass band at the Durham miners gala. You will be glad to hear, Mr Speaker, that I will not be bursting into song in this Chamber—parliamentary decorum and a lack of musical talent mean that I should avoid that at all costs—but it does remain a theme and a constant symbol of our proud and sometimes raucous local history.
It is customary in maiden speeches to talk about your predecessor, and for me it is not just a tradition but a matter of great personal pleasure to talk about my great friend and comrade, Dave Anderson. Dave served Blaydon very well in the 12 years he was in this House, and was—and still is—a great champion of working people not just in Blaydon but throughout the trade union movement, working most recently on the Shrewsbury 24 campaign with Ricky Tomlinson. As a former Unison president, Dave spoke up for the public service workers who do so much to deliver the vital services that we all need. Dave will also be remembered here for his work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on muscular dystrophy—a campaign close to his heart as it affected his family, and for which he twice received charity champion awards in this place.
In this maiden speech, I want to talk about the communities that make up the constituency—a constituency that takes in rural areas, industrial sites and areas of great natural beauty, representing the traditions, past and present, of Blaydon. I start from Chopwell, in the west, separated from County Durham by another river, the Derwent. Chopwell, known as “Little Moscow” for its strong socialist links, is a community defined for many years by its proud mining history, and it retains its strong community links and boasts the Chopwell woods, which were thankfully saved from sell-off in 2011. Then I move on to Crawcrook and Greenside, where last Sunday I was proud to open the Greenside community picnic, part of the celebrations to commemorate the last shift at the local pit, and where on 8 July I marched with the local community and the band through the village on our way to Durham for the miners gala, banner flying high. And on to Ryton, where the beautiful Ryton Willows and the Keelman’s Way run alongside the River Tyne towards Blaydon itself. The old Blaydon horse races have long been replaced by a road race on 9 June each year from Newcastle to Blaydon. You can still see hundreds of people
“Gannin’ alang the Scotswood Road”,
not to see the Blaydon races, but taking part in them.
Then on to Whickham, where Dave Peacock and other members of the local community have recreated a lost garden, making a tranquil green retreat in the village open to all, and to Sunniside, another former mining community that is proud of its history, as well as to Winlaton and High Spen, where the red kite now flourishes after being reintroduced some years ago. It was magnificent to see them high overhead as we knocked on doors. Further south and east are the communities of Birtley, Lamesley and Kibblesworth, and the magnificent Angel of the North. Created by Antony Gormley, it looms over the A1 and the surrounding landscape, demonstrating the strength and endurance of our local communities. Sadly, I never managed to identify the Angel’s voting intention, but I think I could have a guess.
Blaydon is also open for business, taking in much of the Team Valley trading estate and the Metro Centre, representing manufacturing and retail. On the day we have seen the new polymer £10 note, I must mention De La Rue, which produces passports at the Blaydon site—and long may that continue.
These communities, and so many more I could mention, make up my constituency of Blaydon, but as in so many areas, the people of Blaydon have had much to deal with. They have felt the impact of austerity. Too many of my constituents have been hit hard—by the bedroom tax, by benefit sanctions, by reassessments for employment and support allowance or for the personal independence payment—and too many find themselves without money to buy the necessities of life for their family, like food or money to pay for gas and electric. It is fortunate for them that we have a well-established food bank in Blaydon, and I must pay tribute here to the Reverend Tracey Hume, who has worked with so many local volunteers in Blaydon to make sure that those who need help get it. What they do is magnificent, but this should not be needed in 2017.
Then there are the 1950s-born women, who told me on the doorstep how badly they have been hit by the equalisation of state pensions. This cannot be right or just. Mr Speaker, I must declare an interest as one of the 1950s-born women. Sadly, unlike me, most of them are not able to take up an apprenticeship in this House and must manage as best they can, but I intend to do all I can to work for them.
All of us come to this House with not just a passion for politics, but a personal history that influences the issues we care about, and I want to share a little of mine. Seventeen years ago, my husband, Charlie, ended his life by suicide. Many of you in this House will have been affected by suicide, but you only find out how many others have been affected when it happens to you. I do not ask for sympathy; I ask for your support for action to reduce the number of people who take their lives. I am glad to be a Samaritans listening volunteer, but we need deeds as well as words to prevent suicide.
In March, Samaritans produced a report, “Dying from inequality”. To put it bluntly, a rigorous academic study has shown that suicide risk increases when people face unemployment, job uncertainty and poverty. These are the very problems faced by the constituents I have talked about and by many others. Two weeks ago, I had the chance to ask the Secretary of State for Health what action he planned to take in the light of this report, and he told me that he always listens to the views of Samaritans. I give notice that I will be pressing the Secretary of State for Health and other Government Ministers to take real action to tackle the causes that lead to too many people taking their own life. As Samaritans chief executive, Ruth Sutherland, said:
“Each suicide statistic is a person. The employee on a zero hour’s contract is somebody’s parent or child. A person at risk of losing their home may be a sibling or a friend. And each one of them will leave others devastated, and potentially more disadvantaged too, if they take their own life. This is a call for us as individuals to care more and for organisations that can make a difference, to do so.”
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing me to speak in this debate. I will do all that I can in this House and in my constituency to speak up for the people of Blaydon and to represent them in the best way that I can.
I thank and congratulate the hon. Lady on that wonderful maiden speech.
It is a pleasure to be called to speak in this debate and a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist). I congratulate her on her maiden speech, which was very moving and powerful, particularly in relation to suicide. We all share her sentiment and hope to see greater progress on that. It is a terrible tragedy that so many still choose to take their own lives.
Having stood on many a football terrace, I am familiar with the Blaydon anthem, but I do not think that the edited lyrics to which I have been subjected are repeatable in this Chamber. I welcome the hon. Lady to the House.
This debate is on an important subject. Having intervened earlier on the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), I have great sympathy for her. She has maintained her composure in the face of her party’s policy wobble over historical student debt, but, if we look at what the Leader of the Opposition said to the NME prior to the election, we cannot form any conclusion other than that he wished to wipe out historical student debt. He said that he would “deal with it.” Those were his words. What other conclusion could we form?
The politics of this are quite cynical. Talking about helping students means helping a large number of people, but it is a limited base. Spreading policies to all graduates with historical student debt, however, means appealing to a vast number of people, so to renege on that so clearly is disappointing and deceptive.
Equally, we all have to accept that people are worried about levels of student debt. I have four children and worry about them, should they ever get to university, racking up enormous debts. Who, as a parent and a human being, would not be concerned about that? However, we have to think rationally about the issue.
There are measures that can be used to ameliorate the situation. My right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), the Chairman of the Education Committee, mentioned interest. Of course, student debts are packaged and bought on the basis of securitisation. I want to understand more about how that works, including the redemption penalties and whether it is possible to change those contracts without huge cost to the taxpayer. We would all benefit from knowing more about that. Perhaps my right hon. Friend’s Committee could take evidence on it.
My hon. Friend makes a strong point about the level of interest on debt and securitisation. He will accept that, because of the high proportion of that debt that is written off, it is in effect a grant, so the interest rate will need to be higher to make it attractive to people who want to take on that security.
I am afraid and suspect that that is true. I think that it is also the case that the higher interest rate enabled the Government to increase the low threshold under Labour to the higher threshold of £21,000 under us.
On the subject of the cap—this goes back to my intervention on my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow—if we are able to raise the threshold at which people pay, that is a fairer deal for the student because it ensures greater quality. They repay when their earnings reach a point where we think it is fair for them to start doing so. I think we should look at that, but it is not cheap. My understanding is that if we raise the threshold to £25,000, it will cost almost £2 billion a year in lost income to the Revenue. That is not a minor detail.
We really have to make a decision, as a country and a Parliament, about our priority. What is the most important thing that we want from higher education? Why do people go to university? In my view the most important thing is to have the highest-quality education possible—the best quality degrees. That is what matters. We need to think about the upside, which is that someone who goes to university could earn £250,000 more in their lifetime—the figure is often far more than that—than someone who does not. In fact, to access highly paid professional jobs people need a degree.
Was my hon. Friend as interested as I was to discover that the uplift is £250,000 for females and only £170,000 for males? Both are significant figures, but is it not interesting that the larger figure is the uplift for females who go to university?
I am always interested in female uplift. The striking thing is that, regardless of whether they are a man or a woman, university is an incredible opportunity for individuals to improve their standing and their circumstances and to get a career, so that they can afford a home and to raise a family. That is the upside.
To me, the most important thing is the quality of the degrees. I worry that if we go back to a free system, the quality of degrees will not improve but fall, partly because the funding will fall. We will go back to rationing the funding and the places. If we are honest, will the students who go to university when it is “free” take their education as seriously as those who go when it is not? Of course, it is not free. That is the great delusion. As my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) said, it is not free; it is just that somebody else pays, rather than the beneficiary. The whole of society pays.
The money has to come from somewhere. The Labour party will supposedly pay for it by raising corporation tax. Never mind the fact that all the evidence shows that by cutting corporation tax, we are raising the revenue to the Exchequer. This will not happen without a cost. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) chunters about the Laffer curve—he’s having a laugh about the Laffer curve! If Labour Members studied this, they would realise the reality. The OECD figures show that the predicted tax take from corporation tax when it goes to 17% will be the same percentage of GDP as in 2010 when it was at 26%.
The point is that there is a downside of going back to free education. We have to pay for it in some way. What we need is the upside, and the upside is having a competitive graduate system so that our graduates have the best quality qualifications.
I want to conclude with the big picture. The big picture is that people who go to university now are heading into a much more competitive labour market—a globalised, international labour market. Whatever the effects of Brexit are, that will not change. When our children go to university, they will be up against it. They will be up against graduates from India and all over the world. We need to give them the best weapons in their hands—the best tools with which to navigate their way through the challenges of life—and that means getting the best possible qualifications. I therefore urge my hon. Friends to consider the importance of quality.
Finally, I will remark on a very welcome measure that my hon. Friend the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation has brought in. As I understand it, universities will be able to raise fees to the maximum level only if they can demonstrate that their teaching is of the highest quality. We are moving towards a quality-based scheme. I very much welcome that and we should all support it.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) on her moving, personal and powerful maiden speech, and wish her well for what I hope will be her long and distinguished service to the House.
The late, great Ron Dearing set out in his compact a clear route map for how higher education should be funded. Ultimately, it was to be funded by the beneficiaries. Graduates should make a contribution as beneficiaries; business should make a contribution, because it benefits from well-educated graduates; and society, as taxpayers, should make a contribution, because collectively we benefit from the contribution our universities make, both through learning and teaching, and through their wider impact on our country.
Under the Conservatives in government, first with the Liberal Democrats, then alone and now with the Democratic Unionist party, the Dearing compact has been broken. People in this country graduate with the highest levels of debt anywhere in the world. Most terribly of all, it is students from the poorest backgrounds who graduate with the greatest debt.
Having followed these debates for some time, dating back to my tenure as president of the National Union of Students, I think that one of the most egregious things about Conservative policy on higher education is that every single concession that was fought for and won has been gradually eroded. Maintenance grants, which were reintroduced to help people from the poorest backgrounds, have been abolished by the Conservatives. Interest rates are now well above inflation, which is not what was promised. The repayment threshold has been frozen, which means that the poorest graduates will pay back a disproportionate amount. The NHS bursary has been abolished, which unsurprisingly has led to a free-fall in nursing applications. The part-time and mature access rate would make any decent Government blush.
On poorer students, does the hon. Gentleman not welcome the fact that more students from disadvantaged backgrounds are going to university than ever before—an increase of 43% from 2009 to 2016, and an increase of 73% from 2006 to today?
As someone who has always campaigned for wider access to higher education and who believes strongly that we should have more, rather than fewer, better educated people in our country, I welcome the fact that more students are in higher education than ever before. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raises that point, because it brings me to the issue of Government complacency. It is not really a surprise that more young people are going to university than ever before: there are more young people than ever before. In addition to the shocking record on part-time and mature access—students in those cohorts tend to be from non-traditional and under-represented backgrounds in higher education—the Government are hugely complacent about the extent to which working-class young people are being deterred from accessing higher education by fear of tuition fees and debt.
The hon. Gentleman has made a specious point. It is the rate for people from disadvantaged backgrounds that is 42% higher than it was in 2009-10. That has nothing to do with the number, although that is also higher.
The Minister is right that there has been progress—I do not doubt that—but once again he underlines my point about complacency. Research published by the distinguished academic Professor Claire Callender of University College London warned:
“When we compared working and upper-class students with similar GCSE results, taking account of differences in gender, ethnicity and type of school attended…a lower percentage of working-class students had applied to university…compared with those from an upper-class background…because of these fears.
Our study is an important reminder that academic achievement at school cannot adequately explain the lower proportion of students from poorer backgrounds. High fees and fear of debt play a crucial role.”
I caution the Government against complacency on this issue. They have been consistently complacent about it since they decided to treble fees. If they were not complacent, they would never have abolished the maintenance grants, which was one of the most terrible policies of the last Parliament.
It is not surprising that so many people—not just young people, but parents and grandparents—are angry about the extent to which students and graduates have been plunged into record levels of debt. It is not surprising that the issue has hit the top of the political agenda. It is not only Ministers who are to blame; university vice-chancellors should take some responsibility, too. There is scant evidence that trebling university tuition fees has led to a better quality of experience for undergraduate students. In fact, the student experience survey suggests the opposite. Students believe they get less value for money than they did before. Frankly, looking at retention rates and graduate destination data for certain courses at certain universities, those vice-chancellors who continue to award themselves inflation-busting pay increases should be ashamed.
The truth is that if people from a disadvantaged background take the plunge, go to university, take on the risk of the debt and, for whatever reason, are unable to complete the course, the cost to them is far higher than if they had never been to university—not just in terms of the debt that they still have to repay, but because on their CVs they will forever be branded failures by employers. Having been awash with cash, thanks to higher fees, in a way that the rest of the public sector has not, universities have not demonstrated the duty of care or responsibility to students that I would expect for the fees that they charge and the level of debt that results. We have to be much firmer with universities.
My final point is a broader one about where social mobility in this country is headed and the state of political debate about that. I am horrified by the number of housing cases that I deal with involving children, and the impact on their education. As I said in Communities and Local Government questions this week, I did a school visit last week, and at the end of the Q and A with a group of year 6 students, I was pulled aside by an 11-year-old boy who told me that he, his mother and his two brothers have been living in one room in a hostel, in so-called temporary accommodation, for more than a year.
I will never forget the conversation that I had in my surgery with a mum and her teenage daughter. Again, they were living in one room, in a bed and breakfast. The daughter has to do her homework under the covers at night, with a torch. She does not want to disturb her mother’s sleep, because her mother works all hours to try to make ends meet—evidently not very successfully, which is why they are stuck in poverty in a single room in a hostel.
I will certainly never forget another mother who came to me, a victim of domestic violence living in Ilford with three children, two of primary-school age and one teenager. Her daughter had admitted that she had considered taking her own life because her circumstances were so appalling. That family do not live in Ilford any more; they were moved to Harrow in west London, and then to Wolverhampton.
This is what really upsets me, as someone who grew up on a council estate and did not enjoy the experience: however bad I thought my childhood was—growing up in poverty and relying on the benefits system; living in a council flat that was not nice and to which I did not want to invite friends round to play, because it was not the sort of environment in which they would feel welcome—I realise how lucky I was now. The policies of successive Conservative Governments have led us to a point at which we are disrupting children’s education by moving them from pillar to post in temporary bed-and breakfast accommodation, with huge consequences for their education today and their life chances tomorrow.
If the Government were serious about social mobility, it would be an overriding priority running through every single Department. However, their policies and their pet projects—grammar schools, free schools and everything else—are so far removed from the reality of most people in the country, and from policies that would genuinely make a transformational difference, that they really ought to be ashamed. Theirs may be the largest party, but there is a reason for their failure to win a majority at the general election, and that is their deep detachment from the everyday lives of most people in this country.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), although I did not concur with all his points. I will address one or two of them in my speech. First, however, let me join others in congratulating the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist). She made a very touching and well-delivered speech, and it was wonderful to hear about her work in the Samaritans, which—in addition to her work as a Member of Parliament—shows that she is a true public servant. Whatever the public or the media may say, I believe that the vast majority of people who decide to enter the world of parliamentary politics do so because they want to make the world a better place, and it is clear that that is why the hon. Lady is sitting on the green Benches today. I welcome her to the House.
I think that all of us, when we remember our time at school, describe someone as our favourite teacher. Mine was a gentleman called Ken Hudson, my physics teacher. Ken was a pipe-smoking, bespectacled gentleman with a haircut like Ray Reardon’s—hon. Members may remember that he was a snooker player. Ken was definitely my inspiration, although I did not do tremendously well in physics at A-level or at college.
I remember the day we did our physics mock O-level. None of the class did particularly well. Ken walked into our classroom, stood by the blackboard, wiped it down, and just looked at us until we all went very quiet. Then he wrote across the blackboard in chalk, “The world does not owe you a living”. That has stuck with me for 37 years, and it has stuck with my children, too, because I tell them about it an awful lot—the principle that the world does not owe anyone a living. I also tell them that their parents do not owe them a living.
My son, who had just left his sixth form, had to choose whether to go to university or enter the world of work. Was he going to invest in his education? Was he going to university? If a person can provide for themselves at 18, the world does not owe them a living. At that point, it is their decision whether to invest their money—tuition fees and student accommodation away from home—and time. All that would add to my son’s debt in the future. Did he want to spend up to £30,000, £40,000 or £50,000 on his education, which might pay in the future? As we have heard, it could pay up to a quarter of million pounds over a lifetime, so that might have been a sensible choice to make. He decided not to do that, but instead to move into the world of work. Do I think it is right that he, having made that decision, should fund others who choose to go down a different route and enter higher education and university? I do not think it is right that he should have to bear that burden; surely the burden should be carried by those who benefit most from that education.
Of course other people benefit from the fact that our society is better educated, but there is a clear correlation between someone’s education and their investment in it, and the long-term return that they will see from it. A balance needs to be struck; somebody has to pay. We do not have a bottomless pit of money; that is an absolute fact. So who will pay is the key question.
I tried to intervene on the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), because I wanted to ask him a question. He has a very sensible economic perspective. At a time when we are spending £60 billion more every year than we are collecting in taxes, does he honestly feel that the £11.2 billion a year allocated to this policy in the Labour manifesto is the best way to spend that public money at this time, with all the other demands we have, including on our healthcare and our pre-18 education? Does he honestly feel that is the best use of that public money? I do not.
We have to make ends meet in this country, and therefore must choose where to allocate our resources for the best effect. [Interruption.] I am happy to take an intervention, but the point is that the Labour manifesto clearly has £250 billion of extra spending, plus £25 billion a year in infrastructure spending, which is another £125 billion. It would also nationalise the water companies and the railways. That amounts to £500 billion of extra debt. That same manifesto also says that if Labour had been in government they would have reduced the national debt over the course of this Parliament. How is that possible? How does any of this stack up? It is uncosted spending after uncosted spending.
The issue of past student debt was not in the manifesto, of course, but what the Leader of the Opposition said about that is clear, and not every party commitment needs to be in the manifesto for people to have a reasonable degree of expectation that it will be delivered. He said:
“I will deal with those already burdened with student debt.”
That was a clear commitment. So on top of that £500 billion, there is another £111 billion—uncosted debt after uncosted debt. That is the reality, and we cannot carry on like that. We must not go back to the 1970s, which is when I grew up; my household had uncollected rubbish and the TV used to go off at 10 o’clock. I am old enough to remember that, and we will return to it if we do not maintain a sensible economic policy.
It is wrong to think that we on this side of the House are not worried about student debt. Of course I am worried about student debt—both that of the many students across the country, and potentially that of my children, as I have three more children, some of whom might choose to go to university. We should be talking about constructive ways of allowing students to go through university and benefit from higher education without incurring so much debt. One way of doing so would be to have shorter courses. My daughter is looking at a psychology course.
My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, enacted on the last day of the last Session, makes it possible for universities to offer shorter courses, such as two-year degrees.
That is an example of ideas in action, and it is tremendous news. I should have been following that more closely, but—[Interruption.] I see that you want me to conclude, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I will make a couple of quick points, if I may.
We should look at the US system, with its modular courses. Students can also live closer to home and not incur the accommodation and living costs involved in moving away. There are ways to reduce the financial impact on students, but overall this is about choice and who pays for those choices. I believe the burden of the cost should be borne by those who benefit from the education.
I call James Frith to make his maiden speech.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is an absolute pleasure to be here making my maiden speech during this debate on tuition fees, and I give thanks to the people of Bury, Tottington and Ramsbottom for the fact that I am standing here in the first place. Bury North is an amazing place, and I have 100 years of history there, from my late great-grandfather, a vicar in Bury, to me, his great-grandson, the new MP. For me and my wife, Nikki, and our three children—with a fourth on the way—it is our family’s home town.
Growing up, public service was a staple of my home life. My mum was a leaving-care worker and magistrate with a passion for music. Dad was a Church of England minister with a love of cricket and politics. And so it goes that my passions are politics and music. These were supercharged within me when, 20 years ago, I witnessed Romania and South Africa newly emerging as political states, recovering from a ruthless dictator and the abhorrence of apartheid respectively.
I then moved to the music capital of the world—Manchester—to study. There, I formed an indie rock and roll band, in which I was the singer for 12 years. I joined the Labour party and married a Bury woman. The rest is history. I never did get that elusive record deal, though few people need to know me for long before learning that I did in fact play Glastonbury festival, long before it became the thing to do. [Laughter.] I’d have killed for his crowds, though.
During the election—the competition, as my son, Henry, called it—my eldest daughter, Jemima, asked me, “What is an MP, Daddy?” I tried to explain, saying, “If someone wants help, might be in trouble, wants something changing, needs to talk to someone or maybe just has a really good idea, they might go and see their MP.” Jemima looked at me and said, “Well, Daddy, you’re my MP already.”
It is customary to pay tribute to one’s predecessor. David Nuttall was graceful in his victory last time, as he was in his defeat this time. For all our considerable political differences, I always found him to be an affable man. I wish him and his wife the very best for the future.
Bury North is a fantastic place to live. It is book-ended by two traditional market towns, and the world-famous Bury market is home to the new superfood, Bury black pudding. There is also a magnificent market in Ramsbottom, from where, one winter morning, my wife started her own business. My constituency stretches from the foothills of the Lancashire Pennines in the north—it is overlooked by Peel Tower atop Holcombe Hill—to Gigg Lane, home of the mighty Shakers, Bury FC, in the south. Proudly, we are home to the Lancashire Fusiliers and veterans. They are legendary for being awarded six Victoria Crosses before breakfast at the battle of Gallipoli in 1915—a battle in which one Clement Attlee also fought.
Local charities including SuperJosh, Annabelle’s Challenge and Bury hospice are an inspiration. Whether attending a community event at the Jinnah Centre, relaxing around the boundary at Greenmount cricket club, enjoying our countryside or a curry at the Jewel in the Crown, or taking the East Lancashire railway up to Ramsbottom, all human life and experience is there. Local employers set high standards, drawing on the strengths of our town and its heritage. They include the award-winning Eagle and Child pub and Pennine Communications. Stories of this fine place are expertly retold by the local paper, the Bury Times. My new constituency office will be hosted in the same building as the Freedom church, which welcomes everyone to its door with “it’s great to see you”—a simple message that sums Bury up.
But, Mr Speaker—sorry; Madam Deputy Speaker—Bury has had seven years of bad luck, with £120 million cut from services, local government and our economy. Our walk-in centre is used by thousands of patients a month. They rely on it not as Labour or Conservative supporters but as patients, so why is it threatened with closure? The reality of austerity is being lived through in hospital wards, or by carers and the underpaid, overworked parents who know differently. Mental health services are disappearing. We do not have enough nurses because the Government’s own target is 20,000 short. Children with special educational needs are no longer supported. Social care has been reduced to minutes per day. Last year, 6,000 food parcels were handed out in Bury alone. A veteran in Bury had his benefits sanctioned for selling poppies. There is no access to finance for many of our growing businesses without people risking the family home. In this once weathervane seat many feel, at best, that we have stood still as a country; many more feel stood on.
As my daughter might ask, so we say from this House: what are we for? What do we do? For Bury North, I am here to help to determine what comes next. That is the point of being here: the power to intervene, to disrupt and to change; the authority to speak out and to help manage. That is the point, not to manage decline or sponsor disadvantage. But austerity continues at pace. Austerity is not “living within our means”; austerity is lifeless economics. We must be as much about humanity as about eventually balancing the books. You grow by investing. You nurture talent and empower people. A business would not seek to grow by taking its people off the road, and nor should a country.
I believe that politics is a force for good and for hope, not an excuse for despair. My belief in Labour values is why I believe we need a fairer, more diverse economy. We need an economy that is more innovative and entrepreneurial and that takes risks and gives rewards. We need an economy with work-life balance, an economy that affirms the fact that both public and private sectors combine to create wealth. From nursery to university, these ambitions should feature, too. We need proper investment paid for by a broader economy. We should be empowered by a curriculum that prepares our young people for a successful, modern working life, whether via an apprenticeship or a degree, or if they are starting up for themselves, not the ever-narrowing curriculum it has become.
Too often, it is our young people who have been the first to face the political calculation of this place. With tuition fees as they are, they face a future saddled with debt, and rising interest rates on that debt. We must move to a higher-skilled economic ground. We must harness our assets: creativity, intuition, emotion, empathy and intelligence. In doing so, we must outbid the threat to jobs and livelihoods that automation poses for so many. We need a collaboration of all levels of education, research development, trade unions, business and new national industry, pulled together by the Government, jumpstarting the plan.
In closing, Mr Speaker—sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker; you will have marked me out already. On Brexit, please, a less bombastic approach and more grace; a Brexit that works for Bury is what I have said. I am not religious about Brexit—few people are—but away from this bubble, Brexit for many was a chance to stop the show, smash the glass and pull the leave cord, and it struck a chord. For the first time, many who have not been listened to have now been heard, but they did not vote to be worse off or poorer.
I am proud that in Bury North people voted to trust Labour with public services, and to trust Labour to ensure that industries are made anew and that our workers are protected. My mission is to improve the lives and the living of everyone I represent in Bury North, whether they voted for me or not.
I am not here to trade insult but to advance our argument. Politics—the great intervener, the enabler, the change we want to see, the kicking out and the putting in—may too often be a wasted force, but it is a force for good. After a historic result in Bury North, I now join my colleagues in what might feel to this musician like a difficult second album. I will be working with my friends and colleagues to advance our argument and win it with inspiration, assurance and vision. Desmond Tutu once said “never underestimate man’s capacity to do wrong. But never underestimate man’s capacity for good also.” The same is true of our estimation of politics, and the responsibility on us to ensure that our politics’ capacity for good begins in this place—restoring faith in politics and professing to a new generation that its power is the best force for good and for change that we have for the many, not the few.
It is a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bury North (James Frith). He paid a fitting and generous tribute to his predecessor and my friend, David Nuttall. He spoke with eloquence and with confidence. He said that his passions are politics and music; I would stick to politics and cricket. He said that we should not be trading insults, so I look forward not to trading insults with him in future but to disagreeing well. I am sure there is much on which we will disagree, but I look forward to his future contributions in this place.
In a very short speech, I shall make just a few points. The history of tuition fees has already been mentioned, providing a helpful reminder of what happened. The fees were introduced by the Labour party in 1998. In 2001, the Labour party manifesto pledged:
“We will not introduce top-up fees.”
Then Labour proceeded to do just that in 2004. The final piece of the jigsaw that has not yet been mentioned is the Liberal Democrats’ pledge in 2010 that they would scrap university tuition fees, and, in coalition, they voted to put them up.
This debate is not just a timely reminder of those facts, but an opportunity for us to consider the issue of social justice. It is an issue that my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), the new Chairman of the Education Committee, picked up. I love his vision and his picture of the ladder. What we mean by social justice should be opportunities for the next generation, particularly for those who are less advantaged. Others can make the economic argument. My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) did so eloquently and well. I fear that the Leader of the Opposition has dug himself into a bit of a hole if we listen to what he said in the run-up to the election campaign—the promise that he made on the stump to students—and what was said at the Dispatch Box this afternoon.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but more people from disadvantaged backgrounds are now going to university than ever before—not just more people, but a higher proportion of people. The Minister set it out quite rightly at 43%. It has gone up from 13.5% in 2009-10 to 19.5% in 2016. The proportion has gone up 73% since 2006. This is not an accident, but a result of this Government’s policy. The quid pro quo is that we give universities more money, but, as part of the deal, they must ensure that there is social justice and that more people from less well-off backgrounds get to university. We heard some of that from the Minister this afternoon. I look forward to more about it in the future. The hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) said that we should not be complacent. He is absolutely right—we should not, and this Minister and this Government should ensure that these statistics persist and that we continue to see more people from poorer backgrounds going to university, improving their life chances. It is happening now under a Conservative Government.
What would happen if Labour got into power and introduced its policy? We would see a reduction in funding, reduced access, crumbling institutions and fewer students—and, importantly, on the question of social justice, we would see fewer students from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university. How do we know that is true? How do we know that is right? We look at Scotland; we look at what has happened when student tuition fees have been taken away. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) made this point in an intervention earlier and he is absolutely right. These are not my words but those of the Sutton Trust—they tried it in Scotland and there were
“particularly negative consequences for less advantaged students.”
If people are concerned about social justice and about the ladder mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow, they should follow this Government’s policy on tuition fees.
I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to give my maiden speech in this important debate on education fees. Many young people are facing this increased burden more often.
It is with great pride that I rise to speak representing a constituency in my home city of Manchester. In May, the city I love was the victim of a terrible attack—22 adults and children were killed and more than 100 people were injured attending a concert at Manchester Arena. It was an act of pure evil. Faced with this tragedy, the people of Manchester responded in the only way they know: with solidarity, with compassion, and with the determination that those who seek to endanger our way of life will not succeed.
When such events happen there is always a danger that some people will try to use them to divide us, and unfortunately we witnessed an increase in hate crimes in the wake of the attack, yet just a few weeks later the people of Manchester elected me—a Muslim—as the city’s first ever BME MP. I cannot think of a more powerful message to the terrorists and bigots that their attempts to divide us will never succeed.
I am humbled to follow in the footsteps of my predecessor, the late Sir Gerald Kaufman. Sir Gerald was a legend in this place and he will be missed by Members on all sides. He brought colour to proceedings here—sometimes literally through his keen sense of style, and at other times through his sharp wit. He served in this House for almost 47 years, until he passed away earlier this year. He served in many roles: as an Environment Minister, a senior shadow Cabinet member, Chair of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, and later Father of the House. But above all, Sir Gerald was a tireless champion for his constituents and in return he was loved by them. I worked with him for 20 years on issues such as peace in south Asia and the middle east and standing up for oppressed people in general—work that I will try to continue in this House. I was always grateful for his support, advice and, above all, his friendship. I know he will be a hard act to follow, and although I cannot promise to match his dress sense I will try my best to at least fill his shoes. Most of all, I will never forget the people of Manchester Gorton, who have given me the privilege of representing them here.
The Gorton constituency is a wonderfully diverse and vibrant place, taking in Fallowfield, Gorton, Levenshulme, Longsight, Rusholme and Whalley Range. It has thriving local businesses, such as Belle Vue speedway and dog track; wonderful green spaces such as Platt Fields, Debdale, Alexandra and Crowcroft parks; and, of course, the famous curry mile. It is also a spiritual place, home to a huge number of places of worship, with beautiful historic buildings such as Gorton monastery and Victoria Park mosque, the first mosque in Manchester.
But it is not without its challenges: seven years of austerity have hit my constituents hard; more than one in three children live in poverty, the average wage is £100 less than the national average; £300 million has been cut from Manchester City Council’s budget; and there are 2,000 fewer police on our streets.
During my election campaign, I promised I would always put Manchester, Gorton first; that is exactly what I intend to do during my time in this place. Manchester is a thriving, world-class city and a great place to live. The people in my constituency are decent and hard-working. They play by the rules and do the right thing, but they have not always felt the benefits of our city’s success and they have not had a fair deal from this Government. So I will stand against the cuts and further austerity, and I will fight for the extra investment in housing, schools, NHS and local businesses that Manchester, Gorton needs and deserves.
My own journey to this place has not been a typical one. I was born in Pakistan and came to the UK when I was adopted out of poverty as a child. Since then Manchester has been my home for nearly 40 years. I often tell people that although I was born in Pakistan, I was made in Manchester. I left school with no qualifications and, at 16, went straight into work as a labourer in a cotton mill. Later I became a bus driver and then a police officer, one of Manchester’s very few BME officers in the 1980s. That caught up with me during my election campaign when a voter approached me and said he would not vote for me. Like any candidate, I was a little hurt and wanted to know why. He said, “Twenty years ago, you arrested me.” Even after a brief chat, I was not able to change his mind.
I always felt that I had missed out on an education. I was supporting my wife and young children, but I also went to night school, got my O-levels, A-levels and eventually a law degree. I became a solicitor because I wanted to defend those most in need. I worked my way up to become a partner at my own law firm in Gorton. Over the past 17 years, I have been a Manchester councillor and Lord Mayor, and latterly an MEP.
I entered politics because I believe in the power of social justice to transform lives, to bring hope and to deliver opportunity. I believe in a world in which someone’s prospects should be determined by the content of their character and not by their circumstances at birth or the colour of their skin. Although progress has been made, it is clear from the recent increase in inequality that more is still to be done.
As a father, I can see society’s unfairness clearly when I look at my children—I have three, two daughters and a son. I see them equally, but society does not. It is more than 45 years since the Equal Pay Act 1970, but women still earn less than men. I do not want to have to wait for another 45 years for my great-great-granddaughter to be treated equally.
In the House, I will always be a champion of equality; I will stand against anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and all other forms of discrimination. I look forward to the upcoming release of the race audit so that we can better ensure that our public services do not fail the most vulnerable in our society. I will no doubt touch more on such issues in future debate. I also hope to bring my experience from my time in the European Parliament to bear on the important discussions to come on Brexit.
For now, I thank the House for indulging me while I made my maiden speech. I look forward to making the voice of Manchester, Gorton heard loud and clear during my time in this House.
I call Mike Hill to make his maiden speech.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech today. As the first person in my family to attend university—on a grant, a wing and a prayer—I know just how difficult it is to survive university, let alone be saddled with debts as a result of tuition fees.
I begin by paying tribute to those who elected me—the most wonderful, friendly, warm-hearted and welcoming people. It is an honour and a privilege to represent Hartlepudlians in this House. I should also like to pay tribute to the town’s previous MPs—Iain Wright, Peter Mandelson and Ted Leadbitter. Sadly, I did not know Ted, but I do know that he was a true and much respected constituency MP, and that is something that I aspire to emulate. I thank Peter Mandelson for his energy and efforts in helping to regenerate the town, for throwing his weight behind some wonderful projects such as our most beautiful world class marina, and for flying the flag for that little known northern delicacy, guacamole.
As for my immediate predecessor Iain Wright, who could ever forget his true tenacity and ruthlessness as Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee as he exposed the disgraceful and completely unacceptable exploitation of workers at Sports Direct, or his dogged determination to stand up for British Home Stores workers when they lost their jobs in the blink of an eye and during the pension scandal that followed? Yes, we lost our BHS in Hartlepool too—and yes, Philip Green deserved to lose his knighthood over it.
At the turn of this century, I had the good fortune to land a new job with the trade union Unison. Of all the places where I could have lived in the wonderful region of the north-east, I chose Hartlepool. As I said earlier, the people are warm and welcoming—straight-talking and honest folk. But they were not the only attraction. Hartlepool is a real hidden gem, a beautiful coastal town steeped in history. From Greatham to the Fens, from Elwick village to Hart village, from the prehistoric petrified forest seen at low tide at Seaton Carew to the medieval St Hilda’s church on the Headland, there is history everywhere.
Robert de Bruce is famously connected with the town. It has sitting in a dry dock in its centre one of Nelson’s original flagships, HMS Trincomalee. We have recently welcomed to the town the new Royal Navy museum of the north. The Heugh battery on the Headland, a survivor of the first bombardment of British soil from the sea in the first world war, is a hidden treasure. Hartlepool truly has a wonderful tourist offer, and I am proud to be here to promote it today.
My constituents are no fools—they know their own minds and speak plainly. They voted massively for Brexit; 69.5% was the highest vote in the north-east. But that did not mean that they were converts to UKIP or the Tories, as UKIP found out when it lost its deposit in the general election and as the Tories found out when we increased our majority. I thank the Prime Minister for deciding to go to the polls early. The fact that Hartlepudlians voted in the local football mascot H’Angus the Monkey as their first ever elected Mayor shows their humour and ability to challenge the establishment when they need to.
Unlike the monkey Mayor, I did not get elected for promoting free bananas for every primary school pupil, but I did on the promise that I would fight for those kids, for their schools, for the NHS, for our hospital and for our public services—and against the Government hellbent on breaking them. I pay tribute to all those who supported me in getting elected to this strange place—particularly to my family, who are with us in the Gallery, and to my mother and father, who passed away in February this year. My dad, Mr Robert Hill, from the other monkey town of Heywood in Lancashire, was a true inspiration and he would be proud of me today. Yes, it is true—I moved from one monkey town to another and became its MP. You simply could not make that one up, could you?
My experience here so far has inspired me all the more to do what I promised to set out to do. Hartlepool is a wonderful place, yet it has some of the most deprived wards in the country. Life expectancy for women is the second lowest in the country, and unemployment is significantly higher than in any other town in the north-east. It is my job—my determination—to fight tooth and nail in this place against the constant attacks on our people and communities by the failed austerity agenda delivered by a Government who are disconnected and uncaring of our people and communities.
I want to champion and fight for mental health services—mental health is a growing issue emerging from austerity—and, as a former union official, for health workers, who themselves fall ill and often suffer a second-class service when it comes to their own treatment. I want also to champion and fight for the trade union movement and the co-operative movement. I am proud of my co-operative and union roots. I pay personal tribute to all my work colleagues and friends in Unison, particularly my secretary, Angela, and everyone at the Middlesbrough office, who are nothing short of family to me.
I also pay tribute to a true inspiration and giant of the trade union movement, Mr Rodney Bickerstaffe—my friend and the former general secretary of Unison. He is a brilliant man and working-class hero who is currently suffering from a terrible illness and is having an operation today; I wish him well.
I am unashamedly a trade unionist and my constituents know that. They also know that I am a tried and tested campaigner. I am privileged to have their support and to be able to do what I said I would do: fly the flag for Hartlepool, put the town on the map, and fight every inch of the way for the people who elected me.
The House will know that I was not here for most of the debate, but I would like to join the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) and send best wishes from this side of the House to Rodney Bickerstaffe, who I knew in my various roles. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and his supporters on doubling the majority of his predecessor. The House will look forward to many more contributions from him. The less controversial ones will be welcomed, including his commitment to investment—private and public—in his constituency, and the more controversial ones may get a riposte later on.
The hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) comes to this House as one of the best qualified people to contribute to our debates for all the reasons he mentioned in his speech. He is the sort of person who will give Parliament a good reputation. I hope he and we can co-operate, working across the House to achieve many of the things to which he is committed. I congratulate both hon. Gentlemen on their maiden speeches.
I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Blaydon (Liz Twist), for Bury North (James Frith), for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) and for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) on making excellent maiden speeches today. I came into the House with them and I am sure that we will carry on our journey together to help transform this country.
I have been waiting for 20 years to make a speech in a debate on higher education funding and tuition fees—ever since 23 July 1997, when Ron Dearing published his report and I was an executive officer at Leeds University union. In the past three months, I have spoken to hundreds of students from the University of Leeds and Leeds Beckett University. Since Parliament dissolved, they were not aware that their fees were rising to £9,250 from £9,000. The fact was not made clear to them at all. The Government seem to have created a tuition fee rise escalator. In other areas, they are abandoning such escalators, but not for tuition fees. Fees are expected to hit £10,000 by 2020. I wonder how many students are aware of that.
The teaching excellence framework adds an additional element, starting an Olympic-style race with gold, silver and bronze medals awarded for quality. Future increases will be linked to the rostrum, creating a new hierarchy in higher education whereby gold medal-winning universities will be able to place their fees ever higher.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that the average student now graduates with more than £50,000 of debt. The replacement of maintenance grants with loans also means that the poorest students are worst hit, whereas the richest 30% of households would have lower borrowings, at “only” £43,000. The poorest are hit hardest, the richest are hit the least and the middle are hit in the middle. Is that the sort of system we are trying to create? How much further does debt need to rise before the Government stop the debt spiral they created in 2012?
Graduates have raised the issue of loans with me consistently over the last period and before I was a Member of Parliament, because students currently repay loans at a rate of 9% of their earnings over £21,000. The repayment threshold was due to rise in line with earnings, but in 2015, after the previous general election, the Conservative Government froze the threshold until at least 2021. We are now seeing inflation rising but the repayment threshold staying the same, which is creating a real-terms increase in the payments. In addition, people have to deal with the high interest rate. We are talking about mortgage-style debt—this is not a short-term loan—but the Government are treating it like Wonga. Students are having to pay 3% above RPI; this is currently 4.6%, but in September, when the new academic year starts, it will go up to 6.1%. Why are students being lent money without fully knowing the terms that they will be repaying? Why are they totally at the whim of the economic climate and of the Government? A further irony is that graduates who earn more pay their loans back more quickly and incur less debt than those on lower incomes, who have to wait longer to repay their loans and are continually having to pay back interest.
So we have a quadruple whammy of rising fees, real-terms cuts in the threshold for when graduates have to pay back, rising interest rates and larger debt for lower-earning graduates. Has not the worst of all worlds been created? Students know that no aspect of this system is fit for purpose, and the general election showed just that, with many new hon. Members, some of whom spoke today and made maiden speeches, now representing university and student-heavy seats because students have lost trust in the Government. They know that the only party that will fix this broken system is the Labour party, with the action on both fees and loans outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner).
I was lucky enough to go to Liverpool Polytechnic to study law in 1987 and have my tuition fees paid in full. I am sure many of the people here in this Chamber who went into higher education also had their fees paid. I do not know whether the prospect of having substantial debt at the end of my studies would have put me off, but it would have made me stop and think. That is the crux of the problem with tuition fees: many students from low-income families that might not even earn £20,000 a year would seriously baulk at the idea of having to pay back £50,000. With maintenance grants being replaced by loans, total student debt for those from poorer families will be much higher than for those from wealthier ones. It is therefore no accident that, on average, one in 20 freshers drops out from university every year, whereas the figure for those from poorer families is one in 12. Even when they graduate, those from poorer families earn 10% less than their wealthier peers, who find it easier to get placements and internships, and impress with CVs with better extracurricular activities. On the subject of jobs, it is also worth noting that many professions, including teaching and nursing, are struggling to recruit graduates, partly because of the low pay and the inability of graduates to pay off their loans.
Another invidious factor that arises from tuition fees and debt is that many young people are putting their lives on hold, as they have to live with their parents sometimes well into their 30s to save up enough money to buy a home of their own. That has a knock-on effect on their relationships and life choices, such as whether or not they want to start a family. It is not just young people who are affected by this; many potential mature students and part-time students have already been put off studying since 2012, when tuition fees were hiked up to £9,000. We have seen an overall decline of 61% in part-time students and 39% in mature students.
With the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimating that average student debt is £50,000 on graduation, and with 77% of students expected never to pay off their loans entirely, it is scandalous that the Government are trying to increase tuition fees at this time. They should take immediate steps to reduce tuition fees, not increase them.
We have heard that Conservative Members question Labour policy on tuition fees, but if they wanted to debate Labour party policy properly, they should have voted for our amendment on Monday to give us more Opposition days.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Government's decision to increase tuition fees implemented by the Higher Education (Basic Amount) (England) Regulations 2016 (S.I., 2016, No. 1205) and the Higher Education (Higher Amount) (England) Regulations 2016 (S.I., 2016, No. 1206).
I thank hon. Members for their self-denying ordinance. We managed, without a time limit, to come in almost exactly perfectly on time. In particular, I pay tribute to the people who have made their maiden speeches this afternoon and done so within the limits which Mr Speaker asked them to keep to. Thank you very much indeed.