HC Deb 09 September 2004 vol 424 cc849-51
6. Mr. David Rendel (Newbury) (LD)

If he will make a statement on the proportion of 18 to 20-year-olds applying for higher education entry this year. [187699]

7. Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell) (Lab)

What the latest figures are for higher education applications; and if he will make a statement. [187700]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis)

The latest figures published by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service at the beginning of the month showed that 466,222 people had applied through the UCAS system to UK universities and colleges for 2004 entry. That represents an increase of 2.8 per cent. on the same time last year. The number of people accepted so far represents an increase of 3.4 per cent.

Mr. Rendel

Does the Minister accept, as the Prime Minister did in his letter to me of 6 August, that over the past year the percentage increase in the number of English student applicants under 21 has fallen as compared to the increase in the cohort of that age group? Can he give any reason for that—as the Prime Minister did not—other than the one I suggested: that people were being put off by the top-up fees with which they are now threatened? Does he agree that if there is a fear putting people off applying to university, an increase in the interest rate to a commercial rate would only make the position far worse?

Mr. Lewis

I only agree with the last point. The hon. Gentleman should actually be celebrating the fact that, year on year, an increasing number of young people in this country want to go to university. The real scandal is that Liberal Democrats want to scaremonger, and imply to young people—especially those in low-income families—that university education is somehow unaffordable. That approach will not work, and is not working, for a number of simple reasons: rising school standards, improving GCSE and A-level results, educational maintenance allowances and Aimhigher, as well as the growing confidence and aspirations of hard-working families.

Individual young people will want to continue to enter higher education. The Liberal Democrats' policy is different from ours. While they prefer to increase subsidies to graduates, we prefer to prioritise provision for under-fives. Those are the real foundations of a fair and successful society. The Liberal Democrats are opportunists; we face up to the real challenges and choices facing our country. I am content for the British people to decide which approach is appropriate for a responsible political party.

Mr. Challen

I welcome my hon. Friend's statement, which shows that the Government are committed to getting more young people into higher education. That is essential for the country's economic future.

Maths and physics are two key subjects. Since the publication of Professor Adrian Smith's report on post-14 mathematics education, what progress has been made in persuading more young people—at an early age, when they are choosing school subjects—to take up maths and physics? When the Government respond to the report from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, will Ministers involve people from the private sector—it has happened before: for instance, in March we met members of Pintronics plc—in encouraging young people to take up those subjects?

Mr. Lewis

I entirely agree. It is important for us to engage employers in inspiring and enthusing young people about science. We have made it absolutely clear that we intend to implement the Smith inquiry's recommendations. As my hon. Friend knows, there are no quick-fix solutions, but we think it is essential to apply our strategy to inspire young people about maths and physics early in their school careers.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con)

Is not the system that the Government are introducing placing substantial extra costs and indebtedness on families with quite modest means? Should we not consider the effects of it? Whether or not there is an effect on the number of people applying to universities, will the system not result in years of extra indebtedness for young people from modest backgrounds? Whatever else may be the case, is it not a fact that the Government hardly led those people to expect this at the last general election?

Mr. Lewis

It was the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson), a former higher education Minister, who described the policies announced this week by the Conservative party as regressive—almost as regressive as the return of the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) to the Shadow Cabinet.

If we want dividing lines, we should bear in mind that those on the lowest earnings take the longest to repay and therefore, under the Conservatives' proposals, will pay the most. The worst effect is on those taking a career break, for example to start a family. The hon. Gentleman should speak to his Front Bench more often, because he is, I believe, one of the more sensible members of his party. Let me give him an example. A medium earner, such as a teacher, with a loan of £10,000 would repay something approaching £30,000, whereas a higher earner working in the City—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I will stop the Minister.

The Minister should stop now, and he should refrain from referring to Conservative policy. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] I will tell the House why. The Minister should give an account of his stewardship, not the stewardship of the Opposition. We will leave it at that.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con)

May I begin by associating myself with the Secretary of State's earlier remarks about the right hon. Member for Hull, West and Hessle (Alan Johnson)? He has been a good-humoured opponent and we wish him well in his new role.

I look forward to campaigning on the doorstep in the next general election to abolish tuition fees, but as I listen to the Government covering themselves with plaudits about the education system, I ask myself one question, to which I shall be very interested to hear the Minister's response. Can he explain why, during the summer recess, almost eight years into a Labour Government, the leading and eminent historian Dr. David Starkey warned that some students need remedial teaching in basic literacy, and that there is a growing need for four-year degrees to make up for the poor quality of first-year undergraduates?

Mr. Lewis

I can explain. None of the young people at university or in the labour market today benefited from this Government's literacy and numeracy strategy in primary schools, none benefited from the key stage 3 strategy in secondary schools, and none benefited from the 14 to 19 reforms that are already under way. But all experienced cuts, cuts and more cuts to school budgets, and neglect of the most disadvantaged in our communities. Nor was there a programme for the millions of adults in this country who lack basic numeracy and literacy skills. I am pleased to report to the House today that 750,000 of the adults who did not have such qualifications before this Government came to power have now achieved them. Those are the dividing lines on which we will campaign on the doorstep at the general election.