HL Deb 24 June 1992 vol 538 cc440-2

2.54 p.m.

Lord St. John of Fawsley asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have any plans for raising student grants.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, under the arrangements which we introduced in 1990, the main rates of maintenance grant payable as part of mandatory awards have been frozen since 1st September 1991. Increases in students' resources have been made through the student loan facility and will continue to be made in the same way until the loan facility is equal to the value of the grant.

Lord St. John of Fawsley

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Is he aware that, while general statistical evidence of student hardship is of necessity hard to come by, I have knowledge from my own college of Emmanuel of undergraduate and graduate students who are in severe difficulties at the present time? Will the Government have a look at the situation of student grants again, bearing in mind the drying up of vacation employment opportunities, the failure of a number of parents to make their contributions and the withdrawal of social security benefits?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, we have increased students' resources substantially. Full year support from grant and loan this summer will be nearly 40 per cent. higher than the grant alone in 1989–90. Access funds are also available for students in particular financial need. Many students do find summer jobs. A recent survey by the National Union of Students suggested that 65 per cent. of students found employment in the summer of 1991. They earned around £800 on average.

Earl Russell

My Lords, can the Minister tell me whether it is still the case, as his right honourable friend Mr. Scott told me on 20th April 1990, that, taking into account housing costs, student incomes are below social security benefit levels?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, support for educational purposes is now rightly directed through the education programme, but housing benefit and income support are still available for certain students in vulnerable groups. These include disabled students and those with dependent children.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, the Minister said that some students may have special needs. How will that be certified; how will the students be informed; and what action will they have to take to have their special needs considered by the department?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, supplementary allowances are available as part of the mandatory grant to help older students, disabled students and those with dependants. These allowances continue to he uprated. For example, the Government have made full provision for disabled students. There are three allowances available as part of the mandatory award for disabled students. In the current academic year, 1991–92, they are: £4,240 for the year for a non-medical personal helper; £3,180 for the whole course for specialist equipment; and £1,060 for the year for other expenses relating to the course.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that a considerable weight of carefully researched evidence of nationwide student hardship in 1991 was presented to the Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts in the other place by the universities and polytechnics at the committee's request earlier this year? While the published proceedings show a most careful consideration being given by the committee to the representations made, we still await the committee's own report on this increasingly urgent issue. Is my noble friend further aware that the access funds, which are the only source of help available to students in serious difficulties, were increased by less than 0.5 per cent. in 1991–92; that is, not even by the rate of inflation?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts of another place published before the election the evidence submitted to it on its inquiry into student support. I understand that the committee has not been reconstituted since the election. Whether it will in due course publish a report of its predecessor's findings is entirely a matter for another place. The access funds are part of a generous package of student support, including grants and loans. The sums made available are what we judge to be sufficient having regard to factors such as the take-up of loans.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, are the Government aware of the incredible administrative costs of running the student loans scheme, now amounting to 25 per cent. of the total expenditure on the loans scheme? Does the noble Viscount agree that something ought to be done about these administrative costs? If they could be brought down, more money might be available to help those students who will undoubtedly suffer hardship in the summer vacation.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, we believe that the loans system is simple, straightforward and cost-effective. It works.

Lord St. John of Fawsley

My Lords, perhaps I may express my gratitude to my noble friend for the careful answers that he has given to the detailed and difficult questions that have been raised. I should like to ask him a general question. Does he agree that, while students are in a privileged position in society, their contribution and vocation are essential to society's future well-being?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend.

Baroness David

My Lords, despite what the Minister said about the access funds, the student loan scheme and so on, is he aware that a great many students are ending their three or four-year period at a university or a polytechnic very badly in debt? For example, debts of £1,500 or more are very common. Further, does he believe that the banks are behaving responsibly in allowing students to run up such large overdrafts?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the answer to that question is that we have instituted the loan scheme which will provide a better source of finance for students than through commercially available bank overdrafts.