HC Deb 04 March 1986 vol 93 cc136-8
5. Mr. Dubs

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science when he last met the National Union of Students to discuss the level of student grants.

19. Mr. Ashton

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science when he last met the National Union of Students to discuss the level of student support.

Mr. Walden

My right hon. Friend has received some 940 letters about the level of student grants for 1986–87 and last met NUS representatives to discuss student financial support on 3 December 1984. I last met NUS representatives on 12 February 1986.

Mr. Dubs

Will the Minister confirm that student grants are now 14 per cent. below the level in 1979 and that that represents a significant drop in the living standards of students? Is that not damaging for the future of university education?

Mr. Walden

I would go further and confirm that student grants have been dropping on and off ever since 1962, under both Conservative and Labour Governments. The fact that the number of students is rising to unprecedented heights under this Government hardly suggests that the level of grant is a major disincentive to higher education.

Mr. Pawsey

Is my hon. Friend aware that there are hon. Members who believe that the shortfall in grants could be made up by loans? We could adopt a system that is in existence in western Europe and the United States.

Mr. Walden

I note my hon. Friend's views on that matter, and I have made the Government's views clear on numerous occasions recently.

Mr. Donald Stewart

Is the Minister aware that the Government's policy appears to be that students will be able to attend universities only if they have rich fathers or if they have made sufficient earnings in the vacation? Is he aware that very few students have these options available?—[HON. MEMBERS: "Rubbish".] I am stating the facts. Will the country reach the position where we have to reduce the level of university education and so become a barbarian dung-heap?

Mr. Walden

That is neither the Government's policy nor the effect of their policies.

Mr. Neil Hamilton

Does my hon. Friend recall that when the levels of parental contribution were altered just over a year ago there was a great outcry against them? At that time many parents felt that they would face great cash-flow problems arising from the proposed changes, but that a system of student loans would have gone a long way towards reducing the genuine hardship which many students now face because their parents will not top up their grant to the level that the Government think is appropriate.

Mr. Walden

I note my hon. Friend's point.

Mr. Willie W. Hamilton

What proportion of the correspondence that the Minister has had on the matter supports the Government's view on student grants? Is he aware that only yesterday I received a letter from a student in Fife who says that he must give up the last year of his course if the 2 per cent. rise is imposed? Does the Minister agree that that is a disaster and speaks volumes about the Government's priorities?

Mr. Walden

I imagine that under this Government, as under previous Governments, few students will have written to welcome a cut in grant. I would be glad if the hon. Gentleman would send me the details of the case to which he referred.

Mr. Forman

Is it not the case that it is not merely the level of student grants which has caused anxiety, but the overall problem of student finance, which comes from a variety of departments and quarters? Will my hon. Friend explain why the review of student finance which at one time was anticipated was abandoned?

Mr. Walden

I am sure that my hon. Friend recalls our position, which is that once the Government decided against the student loans proposal, it was decided that there was insufficient material for the review.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Does the Minister not believe that at present some students are suffering acute hardship because of the level of student grants? Does he believe that student grants can fall any further than their present level? Why cannot we have the public inquiry into student grants which was promised last year? It now appears that even some alliance Members are in favour of loans. Would it not be useful to have that inquiry to establish that loans are impractical and determine the genuine difficulty facing students today?

Mr. Walden

We are constantly alert for evidence of genuine difficulty of the type that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Again, I extend an invitation to him to send me details. On the question of a review, I have nothing to add to what I said a moment ago.

Mr. Meadowcroft

Why do the Government assume that students can survive on up to 30 per cent. less grant than members of the Government had when they were at university? I am thinking, for example, of the Secretary of State for Social Services. Surely there should he parity between what members of the Government received and what students today receive?

Mr. Walden

We must take a broad view of these matters and look at the expansion, which, I insist, continues to take place and which is welcome. We must look at the burden of expansion which is placed on people with lower incomes than the majority of students will ever have, and think of a partnership beween students, their parents and taxpayers when financing that welcome expansion.