HC Deb 10 January 2002 vol 377 cc653-4
1. Patrick Mercer (Newark)

What plans she has to consult the National Union of Students over the new system of student support. [23789]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Estelle Morris)

My hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning met Owain James, the president of the National Union of Students, in the summer to discuss student finance. A review of student finance is now under way. We plan to consult on any proposal for change and, naturally, would expect the NUS to respond and contribute.

Patrick Mercer

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for her reply. This is certainly the most emotive issue among my constituents in Newark and Retford who are involved in further education. Although a review is welcome, I see no evidence so far of consultation with the NUS, Universities UK and even the teachers' unions, on top of which there is confusion about the timing. May I beg for greater transparency? Let us have evidence at least of the open government of which we hear so much and see so little.

Estelle Morris

The hon. Gentleman is a little unfair. We have made the principles of the review clear, and no one in the higher education world or the student body thinks that they are not free to send us their views; they have being doing that in great numbers. When we have proposals, we will publish them and then we will begin a proper consultation exercise. As we have said, the results of the review will be available early in the new year, which is roughly where we are, so it should not be too long from now.

Mrs. Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale)

Does the Secretary of State share my surprise, as an ex-president of the NUS, at the gall of the Opposition, who tried to shut down the NUS, in talking to us about consulting it? Will she please bear it in mind in the review that the NUS also represents students in further education, which is a vital stepping stone for many of our constituents who are still excluded from the higher education that they are capable of attaining, to the benefit of the community and the economy?

Estelle Morris

My hon. Friend is right. We have noted that the Opposition's views on education unions have changed a great deal in schools, as well as in higher and further education. She makes a valid point. When we talk about student finance, we often restrict our comments to people in full-time study between the ages of 18 and 21, who represent fewer than 50 per cent. of those who study. That has always been the case. She will know that, in the Labour Government's first four years, we spent resources to help part-time and mature students, and I assure her that in our on-going work—not only in the review, but in funding adult learning—we will not forget that incredibly important body. The number of students studying part-time in their mature years is likely to grow, not shrink, in the years ahead.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)

I declare an interest in that I have three sons in the student age group.

Given that the Secretary of State has already done two U-turns in the student finance proposals that she has leaked to the press, must she not give a much better answer than the wishy-washy one that she just gave when she said that the proposals will be made some time in the new year, especially as many thousands of students are currently trying to make up their minds about whether they should go to university this year or next year, when they might get a better financial deal?

Estelle Morris

I take the point, and we will publish our recommendations, or our thoughts and ideas, in due course. We have also made it clear—I am glad of the chance to clarify this important point—that we do not envisage major changes for entry in 2002, and I encourage all those who are considering applying to enter higher education to do so. The figures published only yesterday by higher education institutions show either a 5.4 or a 5.5 per cent. increase in the number of students starting to study this year. When they started in October, we had already announced that we were looking at student finance. I take the hon. Gentleman's point seriously. Students who start their studies this year need to know what their situation will be in September. We have talked about that, and we will make it clear again that they should apply. We do not envisage any significant change in the method of student finance for those who apply to enter this year and start in the next academic year.