HC Deb 23 June 2004 vol 422 cc1382-92

Lords amendment No. 3.

Alan Johnson

I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)

With this the House may consider Government amendments (a) and (b) in lieu of the Lords amendment.

Alan Johnson

The Government have considered carefully the Lords amendment on gap years. We cannot accept it for technical reasons, but we accept the principle behind it. In combination, our amendments in lieu would achieve the same policy intent, but in a more tightly drafted way.

We have previously argued that the decision on whether to exempt gap year students in 2005 from higher fees is more properly a question for individual universities than for the Government. The point of variable fees was to give universities flexibility to respond to a perceived threat. However, we have been swayed both by the arguments in this House and the other place and by the stance taken by the universities themselves. They have made it clear through their support for the Lords amendment that they support a sector-wide response on this particular issue and are content for the Government to legislate.

By providing the protection in the amendments, we avoid the risk, however small, that some students will choose to forgo a gap year in 2005, thus placing extra pressure on places in the higher education system that year. The advantage to students of putting the provision into the Bill is certainty about the fee regime and the student support package to which they are entitled no matter which university they attend. The students will qualify for the same student support arrangements that will exist for students who began their courses before 2006 but are still studying in that year. That includes eligibility for a deferred loan to pay their lower standard rate fees, eligibility for the £1,000 grant and fee remittance of approximately £1,200.

The Government amendments in lieu also address the situation of the very small number of students who, because of a successful appeal against their A-level results, miss out on a university place in 2005 and have to start instead in 2006. We might fairly describe that as an enforced gap year.

I shall say a little about how our amendments in lieu differ from the Lords amendment so that right hon. and hon. Members may be confident about the need for them. First, the Lords amendment includes a reference to "years", which we have replaced with "academic year", in line with the rest of that part of the Bill.

Secondly, the Lords amendment refers to "designated" courses. To be sure that we cover a broader group of students who might wish to take gap years in 2005, the Government amendments refer to "qualifying" courses, which are the subject of separate regulations and which is the correct description of courses for which student support is available.

Thirdly, we have structured the Government amendments to reflect the structure of the rest of part 3 of the Bill—that of an access plan, with the associated right to charge higher fees, linked into the condition of grant in clause 23(1). Our amendment would mean that an access plan cannot allow a higher education institution to charge higher fees to gap year students in 2006, which would make matters watertight.

Fourthly, the Lords amendment contained no provision for sanctions should a higher education institution seek to charge higher fees to the gap year cohort. Those are the very students whom the amendment sought to protect, but it provided no enforcement arrangements. The amendments in lieu correct that by making it clear that clause 23(1)(b) and the sanctions contained in clause 21(3)(b) will apply to that cohort.

Finally, the Lords amendment was based on the first set of regulations that we made in 1998 when a similar arrangement applied, rather than on the regulations as subsequently amended.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD)

We are grateful to the Minister for the way in which he has dealt with this issue. Will he confirm that for a student who goes up to university in 2006, the old fee regime will apply to all three years, or to four or five years for, for example, a medic or an architect? Alternatively, will just the first year be covered, after which they go on to the higher fee regime?

Alan Johnson

It applies to all the years—three for a traditional honours degree course, or four for chemistry and so on.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge) (Lab)

I am interested in the fee to be charged to the gap year student, the way in which eligibility for a grant is affected and the debt repayment terms, which are advantageous for many students. Will the new conditions applying to grants, fee repayment and so on apply, or will the old conditions pertain?

Alan Johnson

As always, my hon. Friend makes her point clearly, and it is an important point. We will treat the students as if they started their university course in 2005. They cannot have the best of both worlds. They will have the lower fee, the fee remission of £1,200 will continue and they will have access to the £1,000 grant: they will not have access to the larger grant of £2,700. However, if student felt strongly about that, they could take their gap year, reapply to university and become part of the 2006 intake. In that sense, they do have the best of both worlds The arrangements mean that the 2005 position will be retained in all senses, including the student support package.

I was explaining about the two sets of regulations. The amendment in the other place would amend the original regulations from 1998, but we changed those regulations in 2000. The regulations differ in the way in which they treat students who change courses between acceptance by a university and the start of the courses a year or more later, either because the original course for which they were accepted no longer exists or because they have decided to take a different course. The second set of regulations is a little less restrictive on what students are allowed to do when changing courses if they are still to qualify for the concession. I am sure that hon. Members would want us to replicate the regime that worked well in 1998, and that is what the amendment in lieu would achieve.

Mr. Simon Thomas

I welcome the Minister's comments, although the provisions will apply only to students in England. They will apply to students from Wales who study in England, but we do not yet know what will happen in Wales on the introduction of top-up or additional tuition fees. The National Assembly may introduce them at a later stage, but it has not yet decided to do so. As we need primary legislation to address the issue of gap year students in England, will the Assembly be able to address the issue as it desires under this legislation or will we need another dose of primary legislation here? Is the Minister confident that the Bill gives sufficient powers to the National Assembly to deal with the issue of gap year students in Wales when that matter arises?

Alan Johnson

Sometimes when I cannot immediately think of a response to a question, inspiration strikes, amazingly, when I sit on the Front Bench for a few minutes. I hope that by the end of the debate I will be able to give the hon. Gentleman the answer to his question.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con)

The date in the amendments in lieu is 1 August 2005, but that may mean that they do not affect those students who secure a place through the clearing system. If they do not achieve the grades that they expected, but obtain a university place none the less later in August or in September through the clearing system, would they be excluded from the exemption that he amendments in lieu provide?

Alan Johnson

I hope not. We nave tried hard to ensure that the exemption applies to students who make their applications in the traditional way and the minority of students who wait for tearing before they make an application. I would have thought that those students would be covered. I understand his point about 1 August, and I may be able to provide a more considered response to that question by the end of the debate.

I urge the House to reject the Lords amendment, in the best possible spirit, and accept the amendments in lieu.

Chris Grayling

I welcome the Government's decision to accept the principles behind the amendments that were first tabled by me and my hon. Friends, and then by our colleagues in the other place. In the spirit in which the Minister rightly paid tribute to his colleague, Baroness Ashton, for the work that she did, I congratulate Lord Forsyth, who did a tremendous job on this Bill. Many sixth formers should feel great gratitude to him, because his work has contributed to the concessions that the Government are making this afternoon. Those concessions are enormously welcome for those sixth formers and others who have been concerned about the issue.

3.15 pm

The flaw in the Government's of original proposals was that anyone leaving school in the summer of 2005 and deciding not to take up their place for a year—as many thousands of young people do—would be forced to start university under the new funding regime, with £3,000 fees, rather than under the old regime with £1,125 fees. Any hon. Member who has visited, a school sixth form recently—I have and I am sure that others have done so—and has asked those in the lover sixth, who will be those affected by the issue, about their intentions for 2005 will know that many have decided to go to university straight away and miss out on a gap year. Indeed, the specialist gap years organisation Gap Year Fairs says that the soundings that it has taken in sixth forms suggest that as many as three quarters of those who would normally take a gap year had decided against doing so because they wanted to avoid the higher fee regime that will be in effect from 2006.

It was not only those planning to take a gap year for the potential experience who were set to lose out as a result of the Government's plans. People do not take a gap year only for the experience. There are many students who work to raise money for their university costs, and they would have also lost out. I await with interest the Minister's clarification on the issue of clearing, because many people only obtain a university place through the clearing system after 1 August. Others find that their results were much better than they expected, so they take a gap year, reapply for a place and start university a year later. I hope that the Minister will address the problem faced by young people in that position. Some, for example, expect to get three Cs, apply for a university course that is realistic given their abilities and then discover that their results are better than that. What will happen to those people? Does the amendment take their situation into account?

The Government have rightly identified in the amendment the situation of those who appeal against the grades that they have been given. They are also at risk of losing out. I welcome the fact that that has been addressed. What made the situation particularly absurd was that when this same situation arose back in 1998 when university fees were first introduced, the Government did allow transition arrangements that ensured that no student would lose out financially by having a gap year. However, when we debated the issue in Committee and on Report both the Minister and Labour Members were unconvinced. The Minister said that those affected this time had had plenty of notice—three years' notice, he claimed—but no doubt they are the same students who were told at the time of the last general election that the Government would not introduce top-up fees.

The hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) was even more dismissive. He said in Committee that the amendments we were putting forward were for just one group of people in society, and that for many of his constituents a gap year would be working in the shop of the same name to save money for university. Actually, he is right, and the amendments in lieu will make it easier for those of his constituents fortunate enough to go to university. We look forward to more of them doing so. The change will give them the opportunity to work and save money, if they believe that that is the right approach for them.

Mr. Allen

I was alluding to the fact that as I represent the constituency that sends the fewest young people to university, most of my constituents do not have the privilege or pleasure of going to university and therefore do not have to make onerous decisions about gap years. Unless the Conservatives come to power and remove the £3,000 grant that will apply to most of the youngsters in my constituency, more and more will probably take up that option and will face the dilemma of what to do in their gap year.

Chris Grayling

In that case, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the changes made to the Bill as the result of our debates on the issue, which will mean that those in his constituency who plan to take a year out to save for university will now have the opportunity to do so in 2005.

Of course, even when the issue reached the other place, the Government were still lukewarm. The Minister in the Lords—getting warmer—had accepted that there was a problem but said that it should emphatically be left to the universities to do something about it. Happily, their lordships disagreed and the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education has now accepted that they were right.

Their lordships disagreed because they realised that the proposals would have an impact not simply on students but also on universities. Without the amendments that the Government are proposing today, the next application year—2005—would have been a nightmare for universities. Students who would normally have gone to university in 2006 would have started a year early; tens of thousands more students than usual would have been trying to get into university; and people would have been turned away by universities because there were not enough places. Those students would also have been losers without the amendment.

What an irony if the Government had refused to accept the wisdom of our arguments. It is hard to see how the view of the Minister and the Secretary of State could have been squared with that of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, because 2005 is the international year of the volunteer and the Chancellor sees that as a big opportunity to encourage young people to participate actively in helping the developing world and to get involved in worthwhile causes. Recently, he even held a summit at No. 11 Downing street to bring together all kinds of voluntary organisations, to encourage young people to use 2005 as the opportunity to do their bit in the voluntary sector. He talked about the importance of volunteering and of young people offering to volunteer. He talked about students using their gap year to do good work as volunteers. The focus was all on 2005: the international year of the volunteer—the very same year in which the Secretary of State and the Minister had planned to scrap the gap year for so many young people. What nonsense it would have been if the Government had not agreed to this concession today.

I congratulate the Minister on his belated conversion to our arguments, or perhaps it should be on his decision to succumb to the pressure from No. 11. Either way, those affected will not mind. All the groups of young people to whom I and other Members have spoken will greet the decision with a sigh of relief. It will be hugely welcome. The last time I visited a sixth form in my constituency, I asked for a show of hands from those students who had decided not to take a gap year in 2005: hands went up all over the hall. On that day, I promised those students that we would carry on fighting the battle for them. Thanks to the efforts of our colleagues in another place, the Minister has agreed that we were right and we have won. For that, we, and especially those sixth formers, should be grateful. I congratulate the Minister; we shall be delighted to support the amendments.

Mr. Rendel

I, too, am delighted to support the Government's proposals. We are very pleased that they have changed their mind. As the Minister and others in the House who have been attending to the business know, we have been fighting on the issue for a long time—almost since the suggestion in the White Paper that such a problem might arise. At that time, charities organising gap year placements for young people immediately began writing to us to explain that they felt it might cause them great danger, and that some of them might go to the wall, were there to be one single year when nobody would take a gap year. I am therefore delighted that the Minister has decided to go along with the wishes of many Members about gap years.

There is no question but that the Government's original plans would have been bad for the tens of thousands of students who wanted to take a gap year in 2005; they would have been bad for the charities, as I pointed out; and they would have been bad for organisations that have come to rely on the voluntary help of gap year students, especially in third-world and deprived countries. The plans would also have been bad for the universities. It came as no surprise when the Minister said that the universities had been pressing for change; without exception, every vice-chancellor to whom I have spoken has told me that they prefer gap year students. On the whole, they tend to be the best students and are obviously more mature than some of those who do not take gap years. They tend to make the best possible use of their university education. The change will benefit the universities, too, so I am delighted that it will be made.

The most important reason for the change and the one that made the Government's previous position untenable, as I have said on many occasions, is the effect on students who come, in the main, from less traditional university backgrounds and the poorer areas of the country. They would have been excluded from university because in that one year many more applicants—many from the independent schools and the richer parts of the country—would not have taken a gap year and would thus have pushed out some of the more marginal students from less traditional backgrounds. It was for their sake that the change was so necessary. It is also in line with the Government's efforts to widen access to universities.

Mrs. Anne Campbell

Given that universities are under some obligation to try to increase the number of students from non-traditional backgrounds, I fail to see why a glut of applications in any one year would mean that the less traditional students were less likely to get places than those from the independent sector.

Mr. Rendel

If the hon. Lady studies the statistics she will see that, on the whole, students from less traditional backgrounds and from the poorer parts of the country tend to get into university with rather lower grades than some of those from the independent schools, who tend to take a gap year. At present, almost by definition, a student taking a gap year will have high A-level grades; they would not try to take a gap year unless they were sure that they would be accepted for a deferred place. In order to be accepted for a deferred university place, one almost certainly has to have better grades, so on the whole gap year students will inevitably push out the more marginal students with lower A-level grades. That is why the original plans would have been bad for inclusivity.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con)

But does the hon. Gentleman not acknowledge that gap year organisations are anxious to increase the number of their participants from the less privileged socio- economic groups for reasons of balance, so Government supporters should not misinterpret the amendment as being class-slanted?

Mr. Rendel

Absolutely. I entirely accept the hon. Gentleman's point and I hope that I was not misleading the House by what I said. I certainly accept that it is extremely important to widen the group of people from whom those who take gap years are selected. We should try to give everybody that opportunity whether or not they come from traditional university backgrounds and whether they are rich or poor. The effect of a gap year on a young person is equally beneficial whatever their background, so I entirely accept the hon. Gentleman's point.

The Government advanced two arguments against our original proposal. One has already been mentioned—that students had long enough to think about the situation. I found that argument slightly hard to understand, because the longer students had to think about it, the more likely they were to realise that taking a gap year was a bad idea. They would be more likely to refuse to take a gap year, thus causing the problem to get worse. I did not understand why having a long time to think about that would help the Government's original point of view.

Despite being grateful to the Minister for the change that he has made, I cannot resist to teasing him a little by pointing out that his other argument was that, in practice, a lot of people would be so attracted by the new regime that they would all suddenly go on gap years instead of those who wanted to do so under the old regime. Given the move he has made, perhaps he now accepts that that is a load of nonsense. It is certainly a load of nonsense, given the survey that we undertook in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), which clearly showed that the number of those who want the new financial regime is negligible. We found one person, out of some 300, who wanted to take a gap under the new regime. I hope that we have laid that one to rest at last.

Alan Johnson

I just want to make a few remarks. If I entered into the debate, I should be arguing from a previous position: much of the debate has been about the arguments that I was putting before I was persuaded to go down this route. So it would be perverse to go through all those arguments again, but the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) tempted me to do so by over-egging the pudding. I think that "The Dambusters March" was bursting out at the end in terms of the huge achievement.

The hon. Gentleman made an important point about the cut-off date of 1 August, and I was hoping for some further time to inspire me to respond. Such places must be offered before 1 August 2005, so clearing places offered before that date would be covered. Why? The reasons are, first, that that was the case in 1998, so we used that date, and secondly, that date was included in the Lords amendment. So the triumph in the Lords that he mentioned contained that date, but that gives me some cause for concern for the reasons that he gave.

Given the point about university, flexibility, however, the universities could still recognise that there was unfairness. Looking back to what happened in 1998, when they would not have had such discretion—they would still have had to charge the £1,000 fee—we can be safe in agreeing to that part of the Lords amendment, replicating what we did in 1998, but I need to make some further inquiries, and if we find some problems we can ask the sector to resolve them itself.

3.30 pm
Chris Grayling

I ask the Minister to bear in mind two factors. First, A-level results do not come out until mid-August, so it would be impossible for students to go through the clearing process before 1 August. Secondly, I remind him that the amendments that we tabled in the House set a cut-off date of 1 April 2006, which would have allowed the whole clearing process to be completed in plenty of comfort before unconditional offers were generated by the following year's A-levels. If it is possible for him to reconsider and make any necessary modification before the Bill receives Royal Assent, assuming that there is a little bit of further debate in the Lords, it would be appreciated.

Alan Johnson

That is a very sensible point, and it allows me to say a few words before I take the next intervention.

Mr. Willis

Such a concession was given in the 1998 legislation—the wording is the same as that included in that legislation—and reference was made to the offer of a place on a qualifying course, as is stated in paragraph (a). In fact, that does not affect the clearing process, provided that the application reaches the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service in time. Students can be offered a place that is conditional on achieving certain grades. If they do not achieve those grades, the offer remains, but students go into the clearing system thereafter. I had not considered the difficulty until it was mentioned by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), and it arises with those people who do not apply at all before they get their results and who, depending on their results, apply for a place and ask for a gap year. A very small group of students is involved, but it would be worth covering them during whatever deliberations the Minister can have.

Alan Johnson

I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, which clarifies one of the aspects raised by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell. I recognise that a small minority is involved, which includes a charming girl who works in my office who did not fill in an UCAS form and waited until clearing to apply to university. I will take advantage of the time that we have before the Bill returns to the other place to find out whether we need to do anything differently, but I re-emphasise that that date was used both in 1998 and in the Lords amendment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) had replayed to him the very valid points that he made in Committee about who takes gap years and how we can help youngsters from poorer backgrounds to receive the benefit of a gap year, even though they may not go on to university. The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), reminds me that we have been operating a pilot scheme precisely to discover whether we could provide 18-year- olds from poorer backgrounds with the opportunity to do voluntary work in that way. I guess that it could be said that we are bringing gap years to the people, using that pilot. Those points were worth mentioning.

The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) made two points during his little tease. I should say, just to set the record straight, that we argued that the gap year provision was essential in 1998, because the legislation was put before Parliament in 1997 and became law when students would have already signed up and made commitments to their gap years. The circumstances now are different, not because students have had longer to think about it but because they knew what was coming, unlike the students in 1997–98, who had no idea that a fees regime would be put in place.

There was some logic to the argument that there might be students who wanted to start in 2006 because of the package available at that point. What I had not realised is that, in a fit of outstanding generosity, we were going to abolish all up-front fees from 2006. Many Labour Members understood that students who took a gap year and started in 2006 would get the new regime of deferred fees, whereas those starting in 2005 would have to pay £1,000 up front for every year of their course, which would usually last three years. However, we said in the White Paper that there would be no upfront fees after 2006—we had already made that decision and started work on that basis. In a sense, that makes the argument advanced in Committee by Opposition Members that there would be a gap year problem stronger. However, students who start in 2005 will pay £1,000 up front for one year, and the £1,000 fees for the following two years of an average course will be deferred. We had not appreciated our own generosity in that respect.

I should apologise to the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas), because the thought that entered my mind when I was listening to him was, "We are not absolutely sure." Higher education institutions in Wales could decide to act collectively.

Mr. Simon Thomas

I am grateful to the Minister for thinking about the matter. Let me put my concern on the record, in the hope that he will find time in his busy schedule to reflect on it. It seems to me that if the National Assembly wants to help gap year students in Wales after the introduction of tuition fees, what will be needed is primary legislation passed by this place, not regulations made by the Minister. Had the measure been in regulations, the National Assembly would be able to act because the matter would be devolved, but it appears in primary legislation. I want the National Assembly to be able to deal with the matter in Wales, if it wants to. The Minister suggests that a voluntary agreement might suffice, but I would appreciate it if he considered the matter in detail.

Alan Johnson

I shall of course reflect on that important point.

In conclusion, I urge the House to reject the Lords amendment and to accept the amendments in lieu.

Lords amendment disagreed to.

Government amendments (a) and (b) in lieu of Lords amendment No. 3 agreed to.

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