HC Deb 17 February 1987 vol 110 cc758-60
6. Mr. Spencer

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will make a statement on recent progress in the review of student grants.

Mr. Walden

The review group is meeting regularly. It has received written evidence from about 100 organisations, seven of which have been invited to give oral evidence. Questionnaires have been sent to 17 foreign countries, seeking information on how their students are financed. I have visited America and plan to visit France, Germany and Sweden. To assist the review group in its work my Department is commissioning an independent survey of student's income and expenditure. I would expect the review to be completed this year.

Mr. Spencer

Does my hon. Friend agree that any new system must hold the balance fairly between the responsibilities of taxpayers, parents and students, but must also ensure that access to higher education is not made more difficult for those who come from low income backgrounds?

Mr. Walden

I can only endorse both those sentiments. I should like to add that although I am entirely against attempting to import ready-made systems from abroad, I was deeply impressed in the United States by the overall acceptance by parents, students and institutions that there is a tripartite responsibility for the maintenance of students, shared by taxpayers, parents and students.

Mr. Bermingham

Does the Minister agree that the experience of America is of a considerable number of students who must spend part of their time working in industry, stores or shops, and the rest of their time worrying about how they will ever repay the loans that they have had to take out to finance their education?

Mr. Walden

The hon. Gentleman has touched on several problems. First, he must remember that my review is not considering charging students for their educational fees, so even if we adopt a loan system there is no remote possibility of students having the same burden of debt as they have in the United States. Secondly, it is often Opposition Members and the educational community who sing the praises of the American system, which, besides having loans, somehow provides greater access than we do. That contradiction should be reconciled by the critics of loans.

Mr. Maclean

When my hon. Friend was in the United States, did he note the pride that most American universities have over the greater access to their higher education system for poor and working-class families than we have with our present grant system?

Mr. Walden

I am glad that my hon. Friend asked that question. It is a myth, which again is cultivated by the Opposition, that access to higher education is determined by the present rate of grant. The fact is—we are not denying it—that the value of the grant has decreased in recent years and at the same time access has exploded to levels which can only be compared with the Robbins period. Access is determined, not by grants, but by the quality of schools. The Labour party is now the party of low standards in schools—[Interruption.] Yes, it is. A child does not stand much of a chance of gaining entry into higher education if he has had the misfortune to be educated in Brent.

Mr. James Lamond

Is the Minister aware of the atmosphere of uncertainty and anxiety among students, which is caused not only by the continuing delay of the report, but by the rumours of a loan system, the reduction in grants to universities, which could affect their course, and the Select Committee's report, which strongly supports the case of students for a proper grant system? Surely the hon. Gentleman cannot believe that all that is conducive to students making the best use of their time at university?

Mr. Walden

First, we have increased the student grant rate this year by 3.75 per cent., which is fully in line with the projected rate of inflation. I take the hon. Gentleman's point in so far as there are students who, for various reasons, are having a thin time. That is why we are having a review of the problems. Secondly, I share his point about the efficient use of our higher education system. We have rather a good higher education system, partly because it is efficient, and nothing that I shall recommend will damage it.

Mr. Greenway

Does my hon. Friend accept the unanimous view of the Select Committee that the retail prices index is no real measure of student expenditure and needs, and that a completely new student index needs to be produced to give a proper measure of student expenditure?

Mr. Walden

As I said in my initial reply, the review group, of which I am chairman, is commissioning an independent survey of student income and expenditure, but I must tell my hon. Friend that the fact that we are looking in detail at student expenditure does not mean that we are undertaking to underwrite that expenditure. The Government must take some cognisance of the strong financial pressures coming from perhaps even more deserving areas.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Will the Minister confirm that the Select Committee found considerable hardship among students and that it recommended that this year's grant increase should be well above the rate of inflation? Will he further confirm that he argued for the minimum increase to make it easy to introduce loans? Will he make it clear that the loans proposal will involve students in receiving part grant and part loan—about half and halt?

Mr. Walden

First, the Government are very grateful for the timely Select Committee report on student grants. I must draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that the Committee's terms of reference were restricted to considering the present grants system and not to finding an alternative element of funding. As the hon. Gentleman is so bold today, I draw his attention to his considerable reticence and evasiveness when I asked him in Committee whether he supported the National Union of Students in its call for a tripling of Government grants to the phenomenal figure of £1.5 billion. It will be interesting to know whether the hon. Gentleman will be as evasive today, and I should also like to know what is the position or positions of the alliance on that estimate?