HC Deb 14 March 2002 vol 381 cc999-1001
2. Mr. David Laws (Yeovil)

What recent representations she has received regarding the review of student financial support in higher education. [40720]

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

We have received correspondence from a range of individuals and organisations. We will be taking their opinions into account as we develop our policy.

Mr. Laws

Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to congratulate the Liberal Democrat-Labour Administrations in both Wales and Scotland on their decisions to bring back maintenance grants for students on lower incomes?

Estelle Morris

The decision was properly taken by the Assembly. I note that that is the way it has chosen to deal with the issue—I will say no more and no less than that.

Mrs. Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale)

Will my right hon. Friend consider the people who study for higher education in a further education setting, in particular those whom we are desperately trying to get into higher education and who have child care needs? Under the present funding formula, such people cannot receive any contribution towards the cost of child care whereas if they were studying in a higher education setting, they could do so. Will she also assure me that she will take no lectures from the Opposition parties? When in power, they spent all their time trying to do down students and student funding.

Estelle Morris

My hon. Friend has a fair point. In this country, there is a long-established tradition of supporting students in higher education, but she is right to point out that traditionally students who go into further education have not received that level of personal support. Since 1997, the Labour Government have invested a great deal in child care support for students in further education as well as for those in higher education. Given her interest in the matter, she will recognise that. I have no doubt that in future years, as we progress our wish to ensure that 50 per cent. of the under-30s have experience of higher education, many people will come through non-traditional routes such as FE colleges. Clearly, their needs must be part of our thinking in the medium and long term.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)

Does the Secretary of State agree that, if and when grants are reintroduced in England, at least part of the cost should fall on the general taxpayer, since all taxpayers benefit from getting more students from less well-off backgrounds into higher education, and that the rest of the costs should be borne by graduates who go into good well-paid jobs rather than by upfront tuition fees?

Estelle Morris

The hon. Gentleman is making the case for a graduate tax, I think. What is clear is that funding students in higher education has to be a combination of contributions from the Government, who have the responsibility, the learner who is the biggest gainer and from the family. We are looking into how to achieve that combination. Clearly, those are the three sources of income and that will remain the case.

Gillian Merron (Lincoln)

May I tell my right hon. Friend that at a meeting with students at the university of Lincoln last week to discuss student finances, I was struck by the fact that their perception of the amount to be repaid on their loans was far in excess of the reality of the repayments? Will she ensure that the review looks into ways to get clear and accurate information to would-be students as well as actual students and their families, so that people are not unnecessarily put off going to university?

Estelle Morris

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Another point that is often misunderstood is that while people are not working, they do not have to repay the loan. Indeed, some of the changes that my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for Education and Employment introduced following the 1997 election have made repayment far easier than was formerly the case. One misunderstanding is that people think they are paying all the fees, if they pay a fee at all. In fact, those students who pay fees—even if they pay the maximum contribution—pay only a quarter of the total amount and the state picks up the remaining three quarters.

Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)

I congratulate the Government on reintroducing grants last autumn in the form of opportunity bursaries. Between 400 and 500 such bursaries have been awarded to students in universities in the north-east of England. However, I have spoken to many of those in receipt of the bursaries and can tell my right hon. Friend that the basis of any future student grant scheme will have to be much broader and wider than the opportunity bursaries, whose tests of parental income and parental experience of education are drawn far too narrowly.

Estelle Morris

As my hon. Friend knows, the opportunity bursaries were initially payable in the excellence in cities areas. If he casts his mind back four years, he will recall that we started the excellence in cities programme in six urban areas; it now covers a third of all the country's secondary schools. The opportunity bursaries have been widely welcomed: from a £36 million fund, a grant of £2,000 has been paid to students whose family income is less than £20,000. Such students are often the first generation to experience higher education. I have heard my hon. Friend's comments, however, and no doubt as part of our comprehensive spending review considerations we shall look at the success of the opportunity bursaries and reflect on whether they are a good form of further Government investment.