HC Deb 22 November 2001 vol 375 cc445-6
3. Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr)

What recent discussions she had on student finance with the Secretaries of the National Assembly for Wales. [14633]

The Minister for Lifelong Learning (Margaret Hodge)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with the Welsh Assembly covering a range of issues, including student finance.

Adam Price

I am grateful to the Minister for her reply, however brief. She will be familiar with the contents of the National Assembly's Rees report, which in June showed that student debt had increased threefold since the abolition of the maintenance grant; and that the greatest debt was found among students from the poorest backgrounds, who were most likely to drop out of university because of financial problems and least likely to enter university in the first place because of the psychological barrier of having to borrow, in some cases, more than their parents earn in a year. Does she agree with her Labour colleague in the National Assembly that the best way to widen participation in higher education is to reintroduce the maintenance grant? If she will not endorse that position, will she at least devolve powers over higher education funding to Wales so that we might at last get the system that best suits our circumstances?

Margaret Hodge

We want to increase the number of students from working class backgrounds who go through higher education, but it is not as easy as the hon. Gentleman suggests. We need to raise their attainment at school so that they get the necessary qualifications to go to university, and we need to raise their aspirations. As I have said before, almost half of young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds do not during their school years hear about university as an option for them. Until we change that, we will not get those young people into university.

In addition, we are examining issues of student finance and student funding and reviewing them to ensure that everybody, whatever their background, has access to a university place.

Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent)

The Minister will be aware that one of the reasons why some Members voted against the introduction of tuition fees was their likely effect on mature students entering higher education. Will she comment on figures for the period since tuition fees were introduced, which show about 7,000 fewer mature students now entering higher education?

Margaret Hodge

I have to say that my hon. Friend's figures are not correct. This year's acceptance figures—we do not have entry figures—from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show an increase of 12.5 per cent. in the number of 21 to 24-year-olds accepted, and an increase of 7.7 per cent. for those aged 25 plus. We should compare that with the increase of less than 2 per cent. in the number of Scottish people entering university. It is now generally accepted that people who gain a personal advantage from university education in terms of increased earnings over a lifetime, which average out at about £400,000, should make a contribution to the cost of that post-compulsory education. The issue is how and in what way.