HC Deb 05 July 2001 vol 371 cc390-1
7. Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)

What assessment he has made of reports from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales in respect of alleviating student hardship. [875]

The Minister for Lifelong Learning (Margaret Hodge)

Our objective is to break down the barriers to wider participation in higher education, so that 50 per cent. of 18 to 30-year-olds will enjoy the opportunity of higher education by 2010. Our system of student support provides targeted support for students most in need while balancing, overall, the costs between student, family and taxpayer, but we shall continue to keep that under review, bearing in mind our participation objective and different approaches elsewhere.

Mr. Rendel

Is the Minister aware that, according to a recent Barclays report, the average level of student debt is £6,500 and that that is expected to rise to up to £12,000 within a few years? Given that both the Cubie and Rees reports recommended radical reform of student financing in order to relieve student hardship in Scotland and Wales, do the Government accept that similar radical reform is necessary for English students, so that student hardship can be relieved throughout the United Kingdom?

Margaret Hodge

Many of the surveys that I have looked at since I have been a Minister make for a rather blurred understanding. The issue of student hardship is not as clear as the hon. Gentleman makes it out to be. For example, although students may incur a debt while at university, their earnings after university are 20 per cent. higher than those of people who did not go to university. That means that, over their lifetime, they are likely to earn £400,000 more. If that is set against the potential debt, it is not a disincentive to participation. Most students recognise the benefit of higher education.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East)

I welcome the suggestion that my hon. Friend intends to keep the situation under review, but does she accept that there is growing evidence in constituencies such as mine that tuition fees are a disincentive to young people to go into higher education in the first place? In keeping the situation under review, will she at least keep her mind open to the possibility that there may be a case for reform in the near future?

Margaret Hodge

I can assure my hon. Friend that I will keep the situation under review. I draw to his attention the fact that, at the start of this autumn term, we expect over 50 per cent. of students not to have to pay tuition fees. We have targeted support, particularly for poor students, by quadrupling the hardship and access fund and by introducing the excellence challenge: a total of £190 million will be available over three years.

I wish that we could to reach our target of increased participation in higher education, which we know is of benefit to individuals, society and the economy, just by dealing with student hardship. The reality is that nine out of 10 young people who achieve two A-levels do participate in higher education. The real challenge is to increase the number of young people achieving two A-levels. That comes under our schools agenda—our 14 to 19 agenda. A particular problem is the haemorrhaging of young people, who achieve five A to Cs at GCSE level and then do not stay on to do further education full time.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I must appeal again. I wish no offence to Ministers, but the replies are far too long. I must get through the Order Paper.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster)

I congratulate the new Department for Education and Skills team and in particular the hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), who had an important part to play in my political career because I was a resident in Islington in the late 1980s when she was presiding over that shambles of a council. Indeed, it led to a legacy in education that resulted in none other than the Prime Minister ensuring that his own children no longer went to Islington schools—but I shall move to a serious point. We shall discuss in the House this afternoon the whole issue in relation to our allowances. [Interruption.]

There is an implicit understanding that there are great costs involving staff in central London. May I ask the Minister—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am afraid I shall have to stop the hon. Gentleman.