HC Deb 08 May 1968 vol 764 cc424-33
The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Mrs. Shirley Williams)

With permission, I wish to make a statement about student grants.

Copies of the Report of the Advisory Panel on Student Maintenance Grants, which has considered the changes necessary to maintain the real value of awards to undergraduate and equivalent students, have been placed in the Library of the House and will be on sale tomorrow.

My right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Education and Science and the Secretary of State for Scotland intend to increase the grants to these students from next September. The basic grant will be increased by £25 to £395 in London and at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, and by £20 to £360 elsewhere. For students living at home the increase will be by £15 to £290 and for those resident at colleges of education in England and Wales by £7 to £163.

All the supplementary grants and allowances, paid in respect of dependants and for a variety of different reasons, are, with some slight adjustments, to be increased by the full amounts recommended by the Advisory Panel. There will also be improved grants for certain widows and divorced and separated wives, while the grants for part-time teacher training students will be increased by £90 to £180 for day students and by £70 to £100 for evening students.

Other changes will include a revised scale of parental contributions. The starting point will be raised from £700 to £900. Parents with a residual income of more than £1,100 a year will pay a little more than at present, but the increase in parental contribution will not exceed £6 a year, except for those affected by the following additional change. There will be a reduction from £200 to £100 in the maximum allowance which can be claimed in assessing parental contribution in respect of fees of a child attending school.

I should like to take this opportunity of again paying tribute to the responsible attitude of the student unions throughout our discussions with them.

Full particulars of the changes proposed will be circulated in the OFFICIAL REPORT. The necessary Regulations will be laid before the House in due course.

Revised rates of grant for postgraduate students, which will also come into effect on 1st September, will be announced later this year.

Sir E. Boyle

As the hon. Lady knows, we remain unhappy on this side about, in the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Barnet (Mr. Maudling), this arbitrary and unselective action by the Government. May I ask the hon. Lady three specific questions? First, since hall fees in the London area alone will rise by as much as £39, and the cost of books will almost certainly rise, will she, even now, consider the requests that we have repeated from this side, that a special review of student grants should be undertaken in 12 months time?

Secondly, would she consider, on the parental contributions, the suggestion that we made for a system of information to parents on how the grant is made up, and their part of it, so that they recognise the importance of making a contribution to the student?

Thirdly, will she institute a thorough review of the discretionary grant system? Lastly, would she also not agree on the importance of this whole subject, and that in the students' own interests they should observe reasonable courtesy and some restraint when listening, to Ministers with which they disagree? And would she not equally agree that intimidatory letters to students when grants are paid should also be regarded as a rather retrograde act?

Mrs. Williams

I would say, first, that it is with regret that the Government cannot enter into an absolutely definite statement about when the next review will take place, except to say that it will obviously take place within the period of the next three years. It is bound to depend upon economic circumstances.

With regard to the increased charges in certain hostels, of which as the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle) will know London is an extreme case, we are at the moment discussing the matter with the University Grants Committee, and we hope that some consideration can be given to ways in which economies might be made.

On the point of informing parents of the need for their contributions to be paid, we are already entering into discussions about this and will do everything possible to bring home to parents the necessity for every attention to be given to this, and to make them realise the extreme importance of their contribution.

On the third point, about the discretionary grants, the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate, as will the House, that there are strong limitations imposed upon the power of the Secretary of State to intervene in this matter by the terms of the 1962 Education Act. Within the terms of that Act we have gone as far as we possibly can by stressing in circulars to local authorities how much we deplore any great discrepancies in conditions and terms upon which grants are paid. It is difficult for us to go further within the terms of the Act, unless new legislation is brought before the House.

On the last points raised by the right hon. Gentleman, I would certainly share, as someone who in a mild way has encountered this, his concern. He may have had in mind the treatment suffered by his hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) and what can be extreme student action. We accept that there will be some opinions which students find it very difficult to hear peacefully. Nevertheless, they have an obligation, and it is a profound obligation, to do so however difficult it may be. We must ask them to act as adults if we are expected to treat them as such.

Finally, as I have already said in a recent debate with the right hon. Gentleman, I certainly deplore any action by local authorities which assumes behaviour on the part of students rather than discovering whether the behaviour has been perpetrated, and whether university authorities feel that action must be taken.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell

Can the Minister tell us what extra grants are to be paid to widows and separated wives?

Mrs. Williams

It is the intention that all widows, divorced women and separated wives, who do not come under the regulations enabling them to have extra grants, because they are students who have earned in the past, will be entitled, if they have one dependant or more, to claim either £100 extra grant or £100 disregarded income. This, we hope, will be a major contribution to one of the most hard-pressed groups of students in the country at present.

Mr. David Steel

Can the hon. Lady clarify her earlier reply when she said that she would promise no further review within the next three years? Does that apply to the cuts that have been made in the Advisory Panel's recommendations?

Secondly, may I ask whether this statement means that the Government, as a matter of fundamental policy, have abandoned any hope of implementing the recommendations of the Anderson Committee? Are the Government prepared to continue a system of two classes of students in our universities—those dependent on the State and those dependent on their parents?

Mrs. Williams

I do not entirely follow the last part of the hon. Gentleman's question, because it was a strong recommendation of the Anderson Committee that these parental contributions should continue. With reference to the Anderson Committee, we have maintained a system of parental contribution. This is not to say, and I think the House would agree with this, that one would not wish to make some modification in parental contribution. The present total of parental contribution is £30 million, and it is difficult to see how at present one would wish to make this the top priority in terms of improving student grants.

I wish to make it clear again that I cannot promise that there will be an early review. This is bound to depend upon the economic situation. Of course, if that situation permits us to bring in an earlier review, we would be very ready to do so. My remarks do apply to the decision that has been made to bring into force half the recommended increases of the Brown Committee, which will replace our decision on the 1968 review, which follows three years after the 1965 review of student grants.

Dr. Gray

While welcoming what my hon. Friend is to do for widows, divorced and separated women, will she also say what she is to do for married women and students who marry while at university?

Mrs. Williams

With regard to married women, my hon. Friend will have noticed that the position is the same as at present, in other words the grant has not been altered. As to married women who are mature students, there will be a substantial increase in the grant, and the same is true of those married women, admittedly mostly separated wives, who have two households to maintain.

With regard to the position of students who marry during the course of their period at university or in other education, we are still following up a recommendation of the Anderson Committee, which was that they should not then be regarded as independent of their parents if they had not reached the age of 25, or if they had not married before their course began.

The reasons for this, I suspect, are that one does not want to put a student in a position when it is a positive incentive to a student to marry during the course of their education, because there is some reason to believe that wastage is higher among married students than among single students.

Mr. Maudling

Can the hon. Lady give us any figure for the costs of the recommendations?

Mrs. Williams

The estimated cost of carrying out the Brown Report recommendations in full was £11 million. Since they are being carried out by half the cost will be £5,500,000.

Mr. Dalyell

What is the reason behind the Government's apparent decision to continue what appears to be favourable treatment for Oxford and Cambridge?

Mrs. Williams

The reasons for giving favourable treatment to Oxford and Cambridge, and it should be said, London, are based simply on the cost of college charges and accommodation in these towns. This is borne out by the studies made by the Brown Committee, which showed that there is still a sharp distinction in the charges between these three universities and other universities in the country.

Mr. Chichester-Clark

Has any further consideration been given to the particularly difficult position of medical students?

Mrs. Williams

While the allowance for medical students in terms of equipment, remains the same, the amount which may be paid in each week over the normal 30-week upon which the grant is based, and which normally applies to medical and veterinary students—and for that matter to any other students whose normal term is longer than 30 weeks—will be added to by the increased attendance allowance beyond 30 weeks.

Mr. Leadbitter

Is my hon. Friend aware that there is some considerable hardship for those students who have grants made to them on the basis of a parental contribution calculation, but who do not receive that parental contribution? Although the numbers may be relatively small, the hardship is one requiring further study. Can she tell the House what discussions she might have so as to make that parental contribution obligatory?

Mrs. Williams

We hope that the increase from £700 to £900 of the initial income for parents before they are obliged to pay a parental contribution, and the further concessions to those between £900 and £1,100, in reducing the parental contribution, will do something to remove the hardship to students, many of whose parents are most needy of all. We shall have to see what the effects of this are. There is good reason to think that some hardship is experienced by students whose parents earn considerably more than this minimum.

As I have said in answer to the right hon. Gentleman, we are now considering, with the local authorities, how we can best bring to the parents' attention the necessity for this contribution to be paid. I will be glad to answer a further question on this at a later stage.

Mr. Biffen

The only reasonable inference to be drawn from the request of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle) for a special review is that this would lead to a further increase of public expenditure. Could the right hon. Lady say whether she is prepared to consider soon a sympathetic review with a view to deciding whether or not student loans would be a more satisfactory system for financing university education than grants?

Mrs. Williams

Undoubtedly, consideration has been given at various times in the past by Governments of both parties to the question of student loans. I must make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend and I have very little sympathy with the concept of student loans. The system we have enables us to have intense first degree courses which are short, and which have one of the lowest wastage rates in Europe. These courses enable a large proportion of children from the homes of manual workers to attend university, and they seem from the point of view of cost efficiency to be outstandingly successful.

Mr. McNamara

I welcome the supplementary benefits which are being given under the new award. Is my hon. Friend aware that the problem of the students is the increase in residence fees? When can we have a statement about her negotiations with the University Grants Committee on this? This is the point which niggles students more than most.

Mrs. Williams

My hon. Friend has undoubtedly knowledge of students' problems. It is perfectly true that this is one of the things that niggles students most. It is a matter for each individual university to balance its hostel charges. Therefore, I cannot go as far as he wishes. I can only tell him that we are keeping the matter under review with the University Grants Committee. I would have to consider the question in the light of the fact that universities are ultimately responsible for their own finances.

Following is the information:

1. Following are the particulars of the grants to be paid from 1st September, 1968 to students taking first degree and comparable courses with, for comparison, the present rates of grant:—
(a) Basic Maintenance Grant
Living in College, Hall, or lodgings:—
Now £ From 1st September, 1968 £
At London, Oxford and Cambridge Universities and other further education establishments in the London area 370 395
Elsewhere 340 360
Living at home 275 290
Resident at colleges of education in England and Wales 156 163
(c) Grants to part-time Teacher training students
Now £ From 1st September, 1968 £
Part-time day students 90 180
Part-time evening students 30 100
2. Other adjustments to the grant arrangements will be made as follows from 1st September, 1968:
(a) Parental contribution
The starting point at which a parental contribution is required is to be raised from £700 to £900. At £900 of residual income the contribution will be £20, and this will increase at the rate of £1 for each £10 of additional residual income. Below is an outline of the new and existing scales:—
Residual income £ Parental contribution now £ Parental contribution from 1st September, 1968 £
800 16 0
900 24 20
1,000 32 30
1,100 40 40
1,400 64 70
3,000 224 230
(b) Allowance for child in fee-paying school
In assessing parental contribution the maximum allowance for the fees and other educational expenses paid by the parent in respect of children attending school will be reduced from £200 to £100 for each child.
(c) Widows, divorced women and separated wives who do not make a claim under Regulation 14 of the University and Other Awards Regulations, 1965 and who have at least one dependant will be able to claim either a further £100 disregard of income or an additional grant of £100.
A woman who is widowed or divorced or separated during a course is to be allowed to retain married status for grant purposes if this is to her advantage.
The additional disregards of income at present allowed to widowed mothers attending colleges of education are to be extended to widowed mothers attending universities and establishments of further education.
(d) Mature Students
(i) The calculation to establish claims for mature student's grant under Regulation 14 of the University and Other Awards Regulation 1965 will be based on an assumed personal maintenance grant of £360 for all claimants. Other allowances will be added in the normal way to arrive at the maximum grant to which a student is eligible.
(ii) Claims under Regulation 14 relating to earnings during periods earlier than six years before the 1st September of the academic year in which a course is due to begin will not be accepted for new awards tenable on or after 1st September, 1968.
(e) Non-resident college of education students
Non-resident students at colleges of education in England and Wales (excluding those living in "approved lodgings") will receive grants on the same basis as university students; i.e. they will receive a basic grant related to 30 weeks attendance, and additional payments at the normal rate for periods of attendance in excess of 30 weeks.
(f) Married women students
Married women students who are living in the husband's home will be treated as a separate category of student, and will receive a basic grant of £275 a year. Extra attendance allowance at the normal rate will be paid for periods of attendance in excess of 30 weeks. These arrangements are to apply to all married women students who are receiving awards under the University and Other Awards Regulation 1965, or the "Arrangements for Teacher Training" (Department Circular 18/66).
3. The basic maintenance grants are to be increased by half the amounts recommended by the Advisory Panel. The total cost of the increases in the basic and supplementary grants, when taken with the other adjustments, will be about half the cost of meeting in full all the increases recommended by the Advisory Panel.
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