HC Deb 12 February 2004 vol 417 cc1558-60
8. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey) (LD)

How much the average student loan taken out by students was in each London borough in the 2002–03 academic year. [154517]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Charles Clarke)

On the basis of information provided by the Student Loans Company, the provisional average income-contingent student loan taken out by full-time students in the London borough of Southwark in the 2002–03 academic year was £3,900. I will write to the hon. Gentleman giving the average loan figures for other London boroughs, and place a copy of such information in the Library.

Simon Hughes

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply. Those figures—and figures given by his right hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education for last year for the whole region—show that students who are resident in inner-London graduate with a much higher level of debt than those living anywhere else, and that outer-London students are placed third in the league table. What will he do, therefore, to ensure that his current policy, with top-up fees included, does not inevitably result in students who live in London graduating with higher debt than those who live elsewhere? That would inevitably prove a disincentive to students' coming to, and staying at, universities in the capital.

Mr. Clarke

First, as I announced in the debate about this, the level of maintenance loans for students in London will be increased significantly. One of the main reasons why they get into debt now is the fact that they have to borrow to live, because their maintenance loans are insufficient to meet their costs. We are dealing with that, and what we are doing will make a very positive difference.

Secondly, the decision to abolish the up-front fee means that students will no longer have to borrow money on plastic, for instance, to pay a fee that, for whatever reason, their parents would not pay. That has been happening in many homes in London.

Both those moves represent a significant improvement for students in London.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab)

People such as my constituents who want an education in London are not supported by their families in the same way as many who already live in London. Is it not important for loans and fees combined to reflect the actual cost of the education that they want? My right hon. Friend mentioned credit cards. The average cost of a credit card this Christmas was £6,500. The rate of repayment is what matters, and students should be made aware of the benefits of an interest-free, affordable rate.

Mr. Clarke

My hon. Friend is entirely right. First, we have addressed the up-front fee question. People have been getting into debt because it has not been addressed properly until now. Secondly, we have addressed the problem of the maintenance loan in London, thus reducing the pressure on those living there while receiving their education. Thirdly, as my hon. Friend pointed out, repayments after graduation will be made at a zero real rate of interest and through the tax system. That is a major improvement, at each stage, on the current state of affairs.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk) (Con)

Now that it is clear that the next generation of students will be burdened with a record level of debt because the Government broke their promise not to introduce top-up fees, may we be clear about what that means to universities? Will the Secretary of State confirm that just as the introduction of tuition fees five years later has left universities with less funding per student in real terms, the introduction of top-up fees will not increase universities' net income by a penny, because he has not persuaded the Treasury to increase his departmental limit? This is a policy that, uniquely, achieves the triple whammy of being bad for students, bad for universities and bad for taxpayers.

Mr. Clarke

What an extraordinary question. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should spend a bit more time on his health or golfing responsibilities.

The fact is that there will be upwards of £1 billion of extra money coming into universities. Do not ask me; ask Universities UK, and ask every vice-chancellor. Vice-chancellors are telling Conservative Members, just as they are telling Labour Members, that they should support the Higher Education Bill because they know that the extra resource will make a difference to their universities. What must be borne in mind—and we will point this out every day between now and the next general election—is that the vote of the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues in the House the other day was a vote to take money away from universities and to damage them. We will riot forget it; the country will not forget it.