HC Deb 20 January 1994 vol 235 cc1024-6
2. Mr. John Marshall

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement about the number of students entering higher education in Northern Ireland in 1993–94.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Michael Ancram)

Approximately 16,000 students entered higher education in Northern Ireland in 1993–94. This represents an 8 per cent. increase on the previous year's intake.

Mr. Marshall

I congratulate my hon. Friend upon his well-deserved promotion. Does he agree that the fact that the proportion of students entering higher education in Northern Ireland is greater than in the country as a whole reflects well upon the Northern Ireland education system? Does he also agree that the upsurge in the number of students entering higher education gives the lie to the absurd forecasts that the introduction of the student loan system would lead to fewer people doing so?

Mr. Ancram

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks, and I totally agree with what he said. It is worth reminding ourselves that an estimated 39 per cent. of young people in Northern Ireland enter higher education, compared with an estimated 31 per cent. in Great Britain. Those are the figures for 1993–94. As my hon. Friend so rightly said, the figures show the results of the high-quality education that is provided within the Province.

Mr. Beggs

I, too, welcome the Minister to the post to which he has been promoted. I trust that he will not be too speedily promoted yet again.

The Minister will be well aware from statistics from the Department of Education for Northern Ireland that 44.8 per cent. of students in Northern Ireland depend on student grants and are in receipt of no parental contribution. Is he aware that many young graduates in Northern Ireland do not earn anything near £14,000 per annum, and that it will be a long time before they are in a position to repay student loans and to reach the national average for earnings? Will he monitor closely future enrolment, especially the impact of the 10 per cent. cut in student grants? Will he seek to ensure that Northern Ireland's young people have the opportunity to realise their full academic potential without the burden of too-heavy loans?

Mr. Ancram

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's kind remarks. The questions of promotion are not for me, thank goodness, and I find my role as Minister with responsibility for education in Northern Ireland challenging and fulfilling.

The point that the hon. Gentleman makes is important. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) made it clear that we recognise that, even with the loan system, the number of students has increased considerably. That shows that there is an enormous demand for increased higher education within Northern Ireland by the young people of Northern Ireland, and that demand is being satisfied. Since 1988–89, the number of students in higher education institutions in Northern Ireland has risen by 44 per cent. to about 37,500. That is an enormous increase and reflects the value of education in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Ian Bruce

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government will continue to operate the loan scheme and will not withdraw loans? Will he also confirm that the Government reject the policy suggestions made by the Labour party in a debate last night—that it would withdraw loans but not introduce any grant in their place? Is not that a strange way in which to increase the number of people in higher education?

Mr. Ancram

I have not seen the report of that debate, but if my hon. Friend is correct, his comments are significant. We are satisfied that the current system, offering a mixture of grant and loan, is effective. It is giving sufficient sustenance to students and that is reflected in the increasing number of young people who wish to enter higher education.

Dr. Hendron

I, too, congratulate the Minister on his new position. Bearing in mind the fact that several thousand students leave Northern Ireland every year to pursue further education in Britain and beyond, will the Minister reaffirm his support for the proposed plan by the university of Ulster for its new university campus, which would stretch between the west and north of Belfast from Springfield road to Woodvale? That proposal commands the support of a massive number of people in both communities and has the support of my colleague and friend the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Walker) and myself.

Mr. Ancram

Again, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. The Springfield project is still in the early stage of consideration and the university of Ulster is currently carrying out a feasibility study on it. We have made it clear that we would wish to consider the proposal after that study has been carried out, not before. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, however, that we shall have to judge the results of that study within the constraints of available resources.

Mr. Stott

I have already congratulated the Minister in private on his promotion, but I have no objection to doing so formally, once again, for the record.

The Minister said that the number of students entering higher education in Northern Ireland has increased, and the Opposition welcome that. Despite what the hon. Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) said, the Minister will be aware that recent records show that that number is levelling out, particularly the number of students from poorer backgrounds. They are increasingly deterred from entering higher education because of student loans, which cause them great worry because of the great debts that they cause.

Can the Minister therefore explain how his Department intends to attract students from all backgrounds in Northern Ireland to the proposed fifth campus? Will he tell the House when he intends to meet the Northern Ireland Congress of Trade Unions to discuss the matter, because I gather that, so far, he has refused to do so?

Mr. Ancram

I will meet representatives of the congress when I believe that we have an appropriate agenda for discussion.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his public congratulations as well as for those which he offered me in private, which I greatly welcomed at the time.

The issue of the number of students from the lower socio-economic groups who enter university education has been raised on a number of occasions. The relevant number for Northern Ireland compares very favourably with that for Great Britain. As I said earlier, of those students who enter higher education in Northern Ireland, 33 per cent. come from the lower socio-economic groups, compared with 21 per cent. in the United Kingdom as a whole. Once again, that suggests that the university and higher education system in Northern Ireland is producing what is required by those who wish to enter it.