HC Deb 13 March 1973 vol 852 cc1089-96
3. Mr Frank Allaun

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science how many letters and petitions she has received seeking an increase in students' grants.

17. Mr. Roy Hughes

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what representations she has received calling for an increase in student grants; what action she now proposes in the matter; and if she will make a statement.

25. Mr. David Steel

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether, as a result of her meeting with the National Union of Students on 1st March, she will undertake a review of student maintenance grants; and if she will make a statement.

26. Mr. Cronin

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what further consideration she has given to a general increase in student grants.

35. Mr. Judd

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether she will make a statement on her discussions with the National Union of Students concerning the future level of student grants and the provision of better facilities for centres of higher education other than universities.

Mrs. Thatcher

I have received representations from a number of organisations and individuals amounting to about 600 in all. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has had meetings with the Vice Chancellors' Committee and the National Union of Students. I am now considering these representations. I have had no discussions with the National Union of Students about facilities in higher education outside the universities.

Mr. Allaun

Does the Secretary of State accept that the cost of living has risen as fast for students as for anybody else and that they claim they need an extra £65 a year to keep pace with that increase? When will she reply to their proposals which were made to her last October—five months ago?

Mrs. Thatcher

I do not necessarily accept their figures. The increase in student grants in 1970–71 was 13.2 per cent. During the next year the increase was 3.5 per cent. Students will be getting an increase in September, the third year of the triennium, of a further 4½ per cent. which amounts to £20.

Sir Gilbert Longden

Has my right hon. Friend received a recommendation, unanimously passed by the Conservative National Advisory Committee on Education, urging that action should be taken in this matter? For example, will it be possible soon to raise the threshold above which parents have to make a contribution?

Mrs. Thatcher

I have received that memorandum. The committee has taken a great deal of trouble with it. That was one of the main points that were made. We raised the minimum threshold in the last triennium. I agree that this is one of the most important points and we shall be considering it with the other representations.

Mr. Steel

Surely the right hon. Lady accepts the validity of the figures that her own Department gave to the House on 8th February showing that for students in halls of residence the equivalent grant to keep pace with spending power ought to be £532, not £445. How does she propose to deal with the £87 shortage?

Mrs. Thatcher

We do not deal separately with grants for students in halls of residence, and never have done. They are part of the grants system for students living away from home. Those living in halls of residence represent a minority of students. Part of the problem is looking at the facilities in halls of residence. The UGC is to survey that matter. I accept, if it is of any help to the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friends, that the value of the student grant has fallen slightly—perhaps a little more than slightly—because of inflation. However, I should point out that the increases were substantially cut in 1968.

Mr. Kilfedder

As the majority of students are over 18 years of age and as such are regarded in law as of full adult status, is it not inconsistent to expect their parents to make a contribution towards their upkeep? Are not many hard-pressed students suffering hardship because their parents are unable or, in some cases, unwilling to make the payments which bring the basic scholarship up to the standard level?

Mrs. Thatcher

The age of majority has never been critical in determining the amount of parental contribution. The critical age has been 25, not 21, so a change in the age of majority from 21 to 18 has no significance in the system of grants that we now operate. To abolish the parental contribution completely would cost about £40 million a year on the existing rate of grants to the present number of students. Of course, the amount would go up year by year. If I had £40 million extra to spend I should not put the whole of it into this particular area.

Mr. Cronin

Despite what the right hon. lady says, the vast majority of students are now suffering serious financial hardship as a result of runaway inflation. Is it not essential that something be done long before the end of the present triennium? Will she also bear in mind the importance of standardising discretionary grants as far possible and putting an end to the absurd anomaly of married women students being treated so unfairly?

Mrs. Thatcher

There is a later Question on the Order Paper about discretionary grants. I cannot accept that all students are suffering serious financial hardship. I again point out that students had an increase of 13.2 per cent. in 1970–71 followed by 3.5 per cent. last year, and they are to get another 4.5 per cent this year. I admit that they have fallen a little behind due to inflation, but so have many other groups of people who have demands to make upon the taxpayer.

Mrs. Kellett-Bowman

Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity in her busy life of reading the report of the Federation of Conservative Students, sent to her by the Lancaster University Conservative Association, in which, among other things, attention is drawn to the problems in the long vacation faced by students who are not aware of the support that is available to them? There are many who are aware of this assistance and grab with both hands, but many worthy students are not so aware. It would be of great assistance if my right hon. Friend would issue some advice in this regard.

Mrs. Thatcher

Apart from the element in the grant for help in the vacation, other matters would be for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services, and I believe that he has had Questions put to him on this matter. I know from personal experience in my family that a number of students get jobs in the vacation and that this does both them and their pockets good.

Mr. Moyle

Does the right hon. Lady agree that as well as the Conservative National Advisory Committee on Education supporting the NUS, the Association of Local Education Committees and the vice-chancellors and principals of universities have called for a review of student grants? Does it not leave the Government in an isolated position if they intend to carry on with their hard line? The crucial fact is not that students are among a number of large groups affected by inflation but that their margins are so much narrower than those of many other groups. Is it not time that the Government took action?

Mrs. Thatcher

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the line I have taken is nothing like as hard as that taken by the Labour Government in 1968 when they halved the recommended increases. The hon. Gentleman knows this and does not like my mentioning it. A number of other groups are affected by inflation, many of them a lot older than the students who are a good deal younger and perhaps more able to help themselves than some of the older members of our society.

4. Mr. Horam

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what is the income level above which a university student's grant becomes less than 100 per cent.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas)

For a student who is following a first degree or comparable course, and who is not treated as independent, a parental contribution towards maintenance is payable when the parent's annual income, after allowing certain deductions, is £1,100 or more.

Mr. Horam

That is an absolutely scandalous figure. How can people on £1,100 a year, considering what they must cope with as regards other price rises, be expected to contribute towards a student son or daughter? Is it not scandalous that many alert middle-class parents exploit the situation and do not begin making contributions until the income level of £2,500 or thereabouts while ordinary working-class families must begin at this appallingly low level?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that £1,100 is a residual income figure which is reached after certain deductions have been allowed for dependent children, interest payments, insurance policy premiums and school fees. Therefore, the threshold is higher than he indicated. Nevertheless I agree that, as a result of inflation, parents are carrying a greater share of the total cost of student support than hitherto. However, as money incomes increase we can expect the parental contribution to increase, and there may not be much difference if we look at the contribution as a percentage of the parents' income. It is clear that we need to look carefully at the effect of inflation on the parental contribution scale and, as my right hon. Friend has said, she will shortly be reviewing the whole position.

Mr. Wilkinson

I thank my hon. Friend for that indication of hope for the children of parents who have to make these contributions. May I particularly direct his attention to the position of married women students who are assessed on the same parental contribution basis as single students?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am well aware of the anomalous position of certain categories of married women students—those who live at home with their husbands and are not subject to particular exemptions. As I have said from the Dispatch Box before, I am more than prepared to look at this position again when the review of the next triennium starts

Mr. Freeson

Will the hon. Gentleman, when he is undertaking or continuing the review, take note of the fact that whereas owner-occupiers may apply to have their mortgage payments taken into account when establishing their income levels for purposes of grant, people who rent their accommodation are not allowed to do the same with their rent payments? Is not this grossly unfair and is it not about time that this unfairness was ended?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I have noted what the hon. Gentleman has said and I will certainly take that point into full consideration.

9. Mr. McCrindle

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether she will take steps to replace discretionary awards to students by local authorities by awards at a common level.

38. Mr. Kilfedder

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether she will take steps to ensure that all awards paid to students in attendance at polytechnics are paid at a common level.

Mrs. Thatcher

No, Sir, the courses covered by local education authority discretionary awards range from school level courses in local further education to degree courses involving foreign institutions and certain postgraduate courses mainly of a vocational nature. Courses in polytechnics may vary considerably from craft courses to courses of degree and postgraduate level. I agree that variations in practice among authorities, and variations in their rates of grant for similar courses are undesirable. My Department has drawn the attention of authorities to the need to reduce such variations.

Mr. McCrindle

I imagine that my right hon. Friend's attention will have been drawn to a recent survey which showed that grants of the type to which the Question refers range from £110 to £445. She will be aware, particularly in the light of the reply she has just given, of the unsatisfactory nature of this wide disparity and the friction that this might tend to create between similar classes of students who simply happen to come from different local authority areas. Will my right hon. Friend consider reinforcing her request to local authorities to see whether she can eliminate some of the unfairness that this situation reflects?

Mrs. Thatcher

I shall consider my hon. Friend's latter point. With regard to variations in grants, the reason for the variation is the great variation in courses and in students' needs. It is unlikely that we shall get exactly similar grants unless we have far fewer of them.

Mr. Kilfedder

I am grateful for what my right hon. Friend has said. Does she not agree that the purpose of the Government's policy is to give equal status to both sides of the binary system of higher education and that, therefore, there is no justification whatever for having a scholarship distinction between students at university and students attending polytechnics, because it introduces discrimination to put students who attend polytechnics at this sort of financial disadvantage?

Mrs. Thatcher

Many degree level awards would be mandatory unless a person had already had one particular degree level award, in which case the local authority would have a discretion whether to give another. If it exercised that discretion at degree level, it would have to be at the same amount as a university award. But I agree with my hon. Friend that we wish the polytechnics to have equal status.

Mr. Marks

Is it not largely from poor local authorities, in the sense of rateable value, that the low grants are coming, and does not this add to the handicaps of students who have fought all the other handicaps? Will the right hon. Lady establish minimum grants for these courses?

Mrs. Thatcher

I cannot confirm what the hon. Gentleman has said. Sometimes I find that it is from the authorities with a very high proportion of the age group going for university or polytechnic degrees that we have more problems with discretionary grants, because they have already put a lot of their resources into the mandatory awards. So I do not think that the point raised by the hon. Gentleman would necessarily bear further examination.