HC Deb 22 January 1985 vol 71 cc850-2
8. Mr. Nellist

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science by what percentage the real value of a student grant is different from the level which would be paid had its value been increased since 1965 by (a) the rise in retail prices and (b) the rise in average industrial earnings.

Mr. Brooke

In 1984–85 the real value of the student grant was equal to 87 per cent. and 61 per cent. of its 1965 level when compared with increases in retail prices and average earnings respectively.

Mr. Nellist

Does the Minister agree that the cuts in the real value of grants in the past five to six years by the Government of whom he is a member have had an adverse effect on the right of working-class students to enter higher and further education, especially mature students? [Interruption.] Does he also agree that that right has been restricted by the value of the grant, which the Government have cut repeatedly? Does he accept that provision for the education and maintenance of students should be more firmly back in the hands of the state, where it belongs, and not increasingly put on the backs of parents?

Mr. Brooke

The statistics depend always on the base year. If the hon. Gentleman were to take 1970 as his base year, when the previous Conservative Government took office, he would find that the reduction has been only to 97 per cent.—it had almost held its ground. The hon. Gentleman spoke about working-class families. He will be aware that 30 per cent. of the mandatory awards that are subject to means-testing are full grants, which go to families with two children which are on two thirds of average national earnings.

Mr. Pawsey

Will my hon. Friend advise the House by how much spending on student grants has increased since 1979?

Mr. Brooke

My hon. Friend is right to draw the attention of the House to the fact that 60,000 additional students have greatly increased the amount that is spent on student support.

Mr. Wilson

Does the Minister accept that by quoting the lowest standard of 1970 as an example he has not done his case any good? Whichever angle is taken, the statistics show that the grant is basically inadequate and should be increased in the coming year.

Mr. Brooke

I acknowledge that the grant is at a lower level than it has been historically. However, taxpayers' interests have to be taken into account as well as those of students. The fact remains that a larger proportion of the relevant age group are choosing to go into higher education than ever before.

Mr. Forth

Does my hon. Friend agree that many of the arguments about student grants could be eliminated if we adopted a system of student loans, whereby adults of 18 years or over could obtain a loan from society which they could repay in compensation for the benefits that they received from higher and further education?

Mr. Brooke

My hon. Friend will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced on 5 December that the Government would be conducting a review of student awards, and loans will be on the agenda of that review.

Mr. Freeson

When will the Secretary of State implement the proposals, which have been in and out of his Department for the past 10 years under successive Governments, on the introduction of a mandatory grant for all prospective students between the ages of 16 and 19 years? If the proposals cannot be implemented in the immediate future, what action will be taken within the coming months to enlarge and increase the scope of discretionary grants, which require more resources being given to local education authorities?

Mr. Brooke

The sum involved in meeting the right hon. Gentleman's request would be about £600 million. That is not within the Government's present gift or disposition. Secondly, if the Government were to make more money available to local education authorities for the funding of discretionary grants, they would not be able to control how the money would be spent, because discretionary grants are, by their very title, discretionary.

Mr. Tony Lloyd

Despite the laughter of Conservative Members when my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) spoke about the access of working-class students to universities and higher education, is it not a fact that Britain does badly in giving access to children from that background to our universities and other higher education establishments? Is it not a fact also that the level of student grant has declined in real terms, which means that there is a stronger disincentive for students from a working-class background to enter higher education, thereby denying the opportunities that are given to the children of Conservative Members?

Mr. Brooke

I can only repeat the 30 per cent. statistic which I quoted previously, which I agree was calculated on an income basis. The fact remains—and here we do have a problem—that the classification and numbers in the various categories vary as social movement takes place.

Mr. Sheerman

Does not this deterioration fit into the pattern of the Government's intention and policy to depress the standards of living of young people wherever they are found, whether they are students, whether they are on YTS, whether they are in work or whether they are on supplementary benefit? Does not the decision that has obviously been taken to withdraw supplementary benefit from young people up to the age of 18 fit into this conspiracy against young people? The Minister can protest, but he and his hon. Friends came from privileged backgrounds. Is it not about time that some of the fat cats opposite stood up for the young people of the country?

Mr. Brooke

I have a sense that the hon. Gentleman, in that question, was trying to ask the question that he sought to ask me on a previous occasion, but I deny absolutely the charge that he makes.

Mr. McQuarrie

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I will take points of order after Question Time.