HC Deb 10 December 2003 vol 415 cc1046-8
5. Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab)

What recent discussions he has had with (a) the First Secretary and (b) the Secretary of State for Education and Skills on the future of higher education in Wales. [142073]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain)

Regular ones—we and our officials have worked closely to agree our proposals to transfer to the National Assembly for Wales responsibility for the remaining elements of higher education funding, including responsibility for student support in Wales.

Dr. Francis

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. He will be aware of the successful and excellent widening access strategies in Welsh higher education. For example, at the North East Wales institute of higher education, 50 per cent. of the students are over the age of 30. May I invite him to join me on a journey of hope whose destiny is to guarantee sustainable, fair and equitable opportunities for part-time and full-time adult students?

Mr. Hain

Indeed, we are increasing the grants for part-time and mature students, and this is part of a new package, under this Government, of raising and widening opportunities for students right across the income level. Since he referred to this matter, may I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work prior to becoming a Member of Parliament with the Community university of the valleys that he initiated—am I right in saying—in Banwen in my constituency? That work, together with the wider work that the Government are doing both here in Westminster and in Wales, is giving new hope to part-time students and to students who never thought that they would have a chance to go to university.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con)

Does the right hon. Gentleman think that it is fair that the Assembly has suggested that it will pay the top-up fees for Welsh students studying at English universities or should it be using its money to support students at Welsh universities?

Mr. Hain

The longer that the hon. Gentleman is on the Front Bench—and I hope that it will be the Opposition Front Bench—he will understand that, if the higher education Bill goes through, this matter will be devolved to the National Assembly so that decisions can be made in Wales. I hope that he will speak up for Wales and encourage that devolution.

Compared to what we are offering to the students and families of Wales, the hon. Gentleman offers a prospectus for higher education funding that would see, on average, the number of students from each constituency in Wales cut by 400. There would be 400 fewer students from each constituency going to universities under the Conservatives when compared to our higher education proposals, which will increase the number of students getting the chance to go to university. In many cases, they will be from constituencies such as mine and they will be the first people to go to university in their families" history.

Mr. Wiggin

We think that students should go to university based on the size of their brain and not on the depths of their wallet. How many Welsh MPs does the right hon. Gentleman think agree with him that the Government's policy on top-up fees needs to be tweaked, or is this similar to his comments on the European constitution and is just a "tidying-up exercise"?

Mr. Hain

We are looking in detail at all the representations made to us in terms of the final proposals that come in the Bill. I remind the hon. Gentleman and the House what the choice is. The choice is between a Labour Government, who are increasing opportunities for students in Wales, who are removing the up-front fee and who are also offering more and more students the chance to go to university, and his policy, which will plunge Welsh universities back into the bankruptcy from which we have rescued them and deny thousands of students in Wales the chance of studying at university. That is the choice; we are confident that the people of Wales will back us in the choice that we are making.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab)

To see excellent examples of widening access, may I invite my right hon. Friend and other Members to visit the exhibition in the Upper Waiting Hall that is being held by the North East Wales institute of higher education in Wrexham? All Members will see what can be achieved and how lives can be changed by widening access to higher education. Is he aware, however, of the difficulties that a border university faces in dealing with students from England and Wales? Does he think that the Government's proposals will improve the position or make it more difficult?

Mr. Hain

May I first acknowledge the excellent job that the North East Wales institute of higher education does with my hon. friend's support as its local Member of Parliament? I have visited that fine institute and hope that everyone will have the chance to see the exhibition. My hon. Friend will also agree that we are putting record investment into universities and creating record opportunities for students. I am sure that the specific issues that he wants to address will be solved by the new proposals that we are bringing forward—with his support, I hope.