HC Deb 08 February 2001 vol 362 cc1061-2
6. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

What recent discussions he has had with universities on the introduction of top-up fees payable by students. [147908]

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett)

My right hon. and hon. Friends and I hold regular meetings with representatives from the university sector. We introduced the new funding arrangements for students and for repayment precisely to avoid the universities levying additional charges.

Mr. Heath

Just before the 1997 election, the then Leader of the Opposition said that he had no plans to introduce tuition fees, yet that was done within two months of Labour's coming to office. The same formulation is being used now; we are told that there are no plans to introduce top-up fees. Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that he did not favour top-up fees. Will the Secretary of State now give us a clear assurance? Will he categorically rule out top-up fees for the lifetime of the next Parliament? That question has only two possible answers—yes or no. Which is it?

Mr. Blunkett

I am really sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman. I have made my position clear during the past two years: I am against the levying of top-up fees. I can now make the Government's position clear. If we win the next general election, there will be no levying of top-up fees in the next Parliament.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 282, and congratulate the university of London students union on its campaign in the capital against top-up fees? If any university went off on a tangent and introduced top-up fees, what would he say to that university and what action would he take against it?

Mr. Blunkett

My hon. Friend is right—there was a vigorous campaign, and understandably so. I assure him that the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998 permits us to rule out top-up fees. The power to do that is in the hands of the two Houses of Parliament. As I have just said, with our majority in the House after the next general election, we shall ensure that those fees are not levied.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

Is not it interesting that Ministers are so far out of touch that the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks), has already told the House that participation in higher education by socially disadvantaged groups is increasing when the facts show that the welcome advances of the last 10 years of the Conservative Government have been stopped in their tracks? The figures from UCAS—the Universities and Colleges Admission Service—show that the numbers from such groups fell by 168 during the first two years of the Labour Administration. Given those circumstances, are we not confronted with an Administration who do not so much believe in widening participation as in widening waffle on these matters.

In view of the breach of Labour's past pledges and the implausibility of Labour's present pledges, will the Secretary of State make it clear to the House, now that he is ruling out top-fees, whether he has any similar commitments to make in relation to what, in shorthand, I call "mainstream fees"? Has he any proposals to increase the total amount of mainstream funding to meet the deficiencies in university funding that many universities have already identified?

Mr. Blunkett

Between 1989 and 1997, there was a 36 per cent. cut in the unit funding per student under the previous Government. We have for the first time since the early 1980s reversed that trend, with an 18 per cent. real-terms increase in university funding over the lifetime of the two spending reviews. The figure is £.7 billion.

I am fortunate in that I am in possession of the actual facts on the number of disadvantaged students attending university, so I shall give them to the hon. Gentleman. From 1996 to 2000, there was an uplift of 12 per cent. in the number of students from unskilled, manual backgrounds going to university. Although the total is abysmal, there was an uplift in the number from 4,900 to 5,500. That is not a drop; it is an increase. The new excellence challenge, the opportunity bursaries and efforts to reach out to raise the expectations of parents, pupils and schools will, over the years ahead, reverse a legacy of which none of us can be proud.