HC Deb 17 March 1987 vol 112 cc803-5
7. Mr. Allan Stewart

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what recent representations have been received by his review group on student grants; and if he will make a statement.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. George Walden)

The review group has received written evidence from over 100 organisations, nine of which have been invited to give oral evidence. Some 1,688 letters have been received about the review.

Mr. Stewart

I thank my hon. Friend for that information, but will he tell us about the evidence and representations that he has received concerning systems of financial support for students in other countries? Is it not instructive that in America the student loan system has been associated with better rates of access to higher education then we have had in this country?

Mr. Walden

I share my hon. Friend's view. I should only add that a lot of nonsense has been put about by the National Union of Students and others to the effect that it is the Government's policy to replace all grants by loans. That is not the Government's policy. There would be serious disadvantages in going down that road in this country's circumstances. We recognise that an absolutist approach could act as a disincentive to the children of lower income families, women, mature students, the disabled and others. Among other things, my review is looking at a system of top-up loans to supplement grants. The purpose of the review is to improve the overall prospects of students, not to make things worse.

Mr. D. E. Thomas

Will the Minister explain to the House how access and age participation in higher education can possibly be increased through a loan scheme as contrasted with an open-grant scheme?

Mr. Walden

The hon. Gentleman must first explain to the House how an admitted decrease in the value of the grant over the last few years, and during the 1970s, has coincided — particularly in the last few years—with a massive increase in access?

Mr. Dorrell

Has my hon. Friend seen reports that the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) supports the total replacement of student grants with a system of student loans? Does he know what the Liberal party thinks about that proposal, and will he accept my word that his announcement today, that the Government have no such proposals, will be welcomed in every British university?

Mr. Walden

Everyone knows that the question of student grants is complicated, but the alliance has confused things beyond reason. I have heard the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) say that he is against loans, but I have here a copy of a speech by the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport, in which he says: Students would be able to take out loans for part of their costs … Students would also be able to take out loans for topping up basic social security levels of support". The alliance has a duty to clarify to the House and to the country its position on student loans.

Mr. Meadowcroft

Why does the Minister believe that students can survive in real terms on less grant than he had? What is the difference between loans and the overdrafts, into which the Government have forced students?

Mr. Walden

I am disappointed that the reply of the hon. Gentleman did not direct itself to the perfectly reasonable question that I put to him. I am glad to see that the right hon. Member for Devonport has now joined us, and I hope that he will give us a reply.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels

Does my hon. Friend accept that it is a privilege to go to university and that our grant system is the fairest and most generous in Western Europe? Should we not, as a matter of urgency, be looking at a partial loan, at least, and encouraging our students to look to a career prospect at the end of their time at university? In other words, they go to university with a career aim at the end of it.

Mr. Walden

I share my hon. Friend's view. I would add only that it is clear now that the Conservative party is the party of social equity. That is why we are considering the possibility of sharing the cost of student maintenance between taxpayers, parents and students.

Mr. Strang

Is it not the Government's policy that it is desirable to increase the proportion, if not the absolute number, of working-class students attending our universities? Will he accept that even a top-up loan in this context would not be helpful?

Mr. Walden

The hon. Gentleman is inadvertently perpetuating the myth that access to higher education for those from low-income backgrounds is pre-determined by the current level of the grant. That is not the position. Access is pre-determined to a large extent by the quality of the schools which students attended, and the Opposition have much to answer for on that score.

Mr. Powley

Is my hon. Friend aware of the demonstrations that are taking place at the University of East Anglia in my constituency about the level of student grants? Is he further aware that in the latest incident a Mr. Osborne, a worker at the university, was physically injured? Will my hon. Friend accept that such demonstrations are counter-productive to the cause of the student fraternity?

Mr. Walden

In recent months I have often found myself wandering in what are called loan-free zones. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is deplorable that students should behave in the way to which he has referred. In my experience — I have been to many education institutions—the extremists are a minority. I have met many reasonable students who understand perfectly well what we are about in our review. They understand also that any Government will be faced with spending priorities. They know that student grants come from the same budget as the aid budget, the National Health Service budget and everything else.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Will the review be available in time for the debate during the general election, or will it be smuggled out afterwards? If the Chancellor of the Exchequer has so much money in his pocket, why cannot a little of it be used to increase student grants this year so that a start can be made to counter the erosion that has occurred, or are the Government insisting on penalising students to make it easier to introduce loans in due course?

Mr. Walden

The hon. Gentleman has involved himself in a double hypothesis. He does not know when the next general election will be and nor do I. I do not know when I shall complete the work on my review. I know, however, that I plan to do a thorough job. Likewise, the hon. Gentleman does not know when I shall complete that work. That being so, how can I possibly answer his supplementary question?

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman referred to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who will be giving us some news later. I have read the suggestion in the press that there may be several billion pounds to be given away. I know nothing about that. I know only that the National Union of Students has made an advance demand for £2 billion from the taxpayer.