HC Deb 10 December 1991 vol 200 cc722-4
7. Mr. Pike

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science how many applications for student loans have been processed since their introduction.

Mr. Alan Howarth

More than 245,000 students have received loans since the introduction of the student loans scheme in autumn 1990.

Mr. Pike

Does the Minister accept that the Secretary of State was mistaken when he said that the initial slow and small take-up of student loans showed that there was no widespread poverty and hardship among students since all the evidence of citizens advice bureaux, Members' mail and so on shows clearly that, because of the reducing value of student grants and the attack on student benefits, there is real and widespread hardship and poverty among the British student population?

Mr. Howarth

The rate of applications for student loans this year is almost double what it was a year ago, recruitment to higher education is soaring and student numbers have increased by 10 per cent. this autumn for the third year running. We are giving more public support to more students than ever before. During the 1980s the participation of 18-year-olds in higher education doubled from one in eight of the population to one in four. That is a widening of personal opportunity, a lifting of the nation's educational attainments and a sharpening of our competitive skills which will stand us in good stead for the future.

Mr. Batiste

Does my hon. Friend agree that the real problem facing students, particularly those from areas such as my own in Leeds, is that the local education authorities have been extraordinarily late in supplying their mandatory grants? For example, some eight weeks after the term began students in Leeds still had not had their grants. How long will it be before the Student Loans Company will be able to administer mandatory grants as well as cut out the middle man?

Mr. Howarth

My hon. Friend rightly draws attention to a deplorable state of affairs that applies in a limited number of authorities—about seven—of which his own in Leeds is a conspicuous example. We have a system of student support as generous as any in the world, but, under long-established arrangements, local education authorities administer the award system and students depend on their playing their part. I am concerned at the failure of Leeds in that regard. We wrote to the Leeds authority at the end of October but no one replied. We sent a reminder letter but received no reply. I am told that the authority is not answering the telephone and that is not good enough.

Mr. Matthew Taylor

The Minister will nevertheless be aware of the real hardship this summer and of the queues at the soup kitchens on the campuses. Does he believe that the loans plus grants system covers the full year or does it cover only the terms after the Christmas and Easter vacations and, if so, what does he recommend to students who cannot find work during the summer in the present employment conditions and who had to resort last summer to the soup kitchens?

Mr. Howarth

We introduced the new system of student support last year. We uprated the grant and introduced a top-up loan, the effect of which was that publicly provided support for students rose by 25 per cent. Most students became ineligible for social security benefits, but the loan that was made available was well above the average benefit claimed. To ensure that individual students were not losers under the system, access funds were distributed to higher education institutions for them to use at their discretion to help students in particular need. That is a soundly based principle. More students than ever before are entering higher education. It is important that colleges and universities use the access funds sensitively and target them on those who need them. If students do not take up the publicly provided loans that are available for them, they are neglecting an important element of the student support system.