HC Deb 21 February 1996 vol 272 cc351-3
5. Ms Corston

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment what representations she has received regarding top-up tuition fees for higher education in the 1997–98 academic year. [14680]

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Mr. Eric Forth)

We have had representations from students, parents and others with a direct interest in higher education, expressing concern at the proposal of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals to introduce top-up entrance fees. The Government share that concern and see no need for universities or colleges to impose such fees.

Ms Corston

Does the Minister accept that while a fundamental review of the funding of higher education is welcome and overdue, action must be taken now to deal with the funding crisis which has caused universities even to consider top-up tuition fees? Is he aware that the vice-chancellor of Bristol university has said that this year's 7 per cent. real terms cut, coming on top of cuts of 3 per cent. to 4 per cent. per year every year for the past 15 years, is doing irreversible damage and is irresponsible because the quality of education cannot be maintained?

Mr. Forth

Vice-chancellors are free to give their judgment at any given time, and I have heard similar quotations from other vice-chancellors from time to time. That has occurred against the background of our investing an enormous amount of money in higher education, which represents a large proportion of the total educational spend in this country.

I hope that no vice-chancellor is suggesting that the quality of education at his university is anything less than ideal or the maximum. If that were so, that vice-chancellor and his colleagues would have a lot of questions to answer when their position was set against the background of the amount of public money that they receive and the work that they do at their institutions. I therefore hope that we can put that matter to one side.

I pay tribute to Bristol university and other universities which have done excellent work to achieve productivity and efficiency gains over a period of years. We expect them to continue to do so.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

Does my hon. Friend accept that some universities run themselves much better than others, and that some pay their way while others just bleat and moan? I am happy to say that Lancaster university has always paid its way. Its standing is so high that it has raised no less than £10 million in a bond on the financial market, allowing it to build new buildings for undergraduates and graduates and to peg rents. Why cannot other universities follow that example?

Mr. Forth

As always, my hon. Friend makes a pertinent and penetrating point. Among our higher education institutions are many which do excellent work, manage themselves efficiently and effectively and deliver the highest quality of education, while others may not carry out such excellent work. If institutions were to share information with one another and adopt best practice, many of them would achieve better results with the money that they already have.

Mr. Don Foster

Further to the response that the Minister gave to the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Ms Corston), will he answer her question? Can he confirm that the setting up of the Dearing inquiry in no way absolves him from taking action now to resolve some of the serious problems in higher education, not least in relation to capital funding? Is the Minister aware that the chairman of the private finance panel has said that the private finance initiative is ill suited to many non-commercial academic projects? As PFI will not be suitable to solve those problems, what action will the Minister take now—or will he use the Dearing inquiry as an excuse for a complete cop-out?

Mr. Forth

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are in close touch with the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom and with those responsible for making progress with the private finance initiative to discover exactly how it can meet the needs of higher education, where there may be difficulties and how those difficulties may be resolved. There is no sense in which the Secretary of State and I are not listening to what the CVCP has to say; we are doing so and we shall continue to do so. We are working hard to ensure that the private finance initiative can work as effectively as possible in higher and further education, as it has done in the past, and we expect it to work more effectively in future.

Mr. Bill Walker

In considering education, fees and expenditure, will my hon. Friend condemn the action of the students of Stirling university, who have invited Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein to Stirling? Following the bombings in London, is that not at best insensitive and at worst stupid?

Mr. Forth

My hon. Friend raises a difficult issue. The tradition of free speech on our campuses probably overrides any other concern, and I have always said that all students should be able and free to listen to all points of view that are offered to them, no matter how unpopular or unpalatable, and make up their own minds. Although I well understand my hon. Friend's concern, on balance I would stand firmly on the principle of freedom of speech and the ability of students to make up their own minds about what they hear rather than any suggestion of discouraging or, even worse, banning any individual point of view.

Mr. Steinberg

Does the Minister agree that if the universities introduced a top-up charge, it would be the straw that broke the camel's back in terms of student debt? Does he also agree that students find it extremely difficult to manage at university, that many are suffering tremendous financial hardship, and that such a charge would be a further burden on them? Does the Minister further agree that we are reaching a stage when only well-off families are able to send their children to university?

Mr. Forth

I do not agree with the premise of what the hon. Gentleman says, but I do agree with him that the registration fee proposal recently floated by the CVCP would, if implemented in what I understand to be the suggested form, bear most heavily on middle and lower middle-income families, as the hon. Gentleman suggests. That is one of the many reasons why the Government completely oppose the suggestion and hope that it will not be implemented by the CVCP.