HL Deb 02 December 1998 vol 595 cc489-92

2.45 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action is being taken to increase the number of mature students at universities.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone)

My Lords, we are focusing more than half of the expansion in higher education next year on part-timers who are mostly mature students.


Baroness Blackstone

We have also announced that tuition will be free next year for part-time students on benefits, as well as those who lose their job during their course. We have doubled access funds and asked universities and colleges to give priority consideration to mature students, whether they are studying full-time or part-time.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, the Minister will not be surprised that I did not hear much of what she said. I am sure that it is all good stuff.

Will my noble friend confirm that the Government are still as concerned about mature full-time education students as they are about students who enter university at about 18? Is she aware of the figures issued by the universities and colleges admission service? The number of students aged 21 and over has decreased by no fewer than 10,000 since the figures issued a year ago. In those circumstances, will she ensure that there is a thorough investigation into the reasons why that decline is taking place?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I can confirm to my noble friend that what I said, which he did not hear, was all good stuff. Yes, the Government are committed to lifelong learning and to ensuring that we have the maximum number of mature students in our universities and colleges. In order to ensure that that happens, as I indicated earlier and perhaps should repeat, we have decided that we shall increase the number of places for part-time students—and 94 per cent. of part-time students are mature—and have made it clear that those part-time students who lose their jobs while they are studying will not have to pay tuition fees. Moreover, we shall also make it possible for all part-time students who are on benefits to have their fees remitted.

Baroness Perry of Southwark

My Lords, is the Minister aware that over a quarter of the students in full-time education are mature? That is a trend which I understood had been welcomed by all. If the present drop in student applications continues next year, we shall revert to a system of full-time higher education which is restricted only to students aged 18-plus.

Will the noble Baroness confirm that that is not the Government's intention? Can she also explain how the drop in access and opportunity for mature men and women meshes with the Government's commitment to access and opportunity for all in the population? Are all students to be driven to part-time study?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am very much aware of the fact that a quite substantial number of mature students study full-time. There has been a small fall in the number of mature students taking up places this year. The figure is about 10 per cent. However, statisticians in my department who have been evaluating and monitoring this situation have made it clear that a substantial part of that fall is due to demographic decline. There has been a big drop in numbers in the age group 21 to 34 from which most mature students are drawn. The number has decreased by about 3 per cent. which explains 3 per cent. of the fall. Between 3 per cent. and 4 per cent. of the fall is explained by the rush last year of applications by those students who wanted to beat the fee system. That leaves a small unexplained part.

Of course the Government will evaluate the situation to see whether it continues next year. However, I believe that a long-term levelling off in the number of mature students derives from the fact that the pool from which they are drawn is smaller as a result of the expansion in higher education for younger students.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, is there an upper age limit for mature students? If not, how mature can they be?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, there is no upper age limit. This year, the Government decided to allow students between the age of 50 and 55 to become eligible for student loans. If any Members of your Lordships' House would like to take up a loan when they have a little more time on their hands the Government would be delighted.

Baroness Maddock

My Lords, I welcome the fact that the Government are to help part-time mature students, but may I press the Minister a little further? Is it not time that we offered such students the income contingent loans for which there is provision in the Teaching and Higher Education Act?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am sympathetic to the needs of part-time students. Anyone who knows anything about my background will be aware of that. The Government are considering a variety of different ways of supporting them. One way might be to make available, perhaps in a pilot scheme, some aspect of the new student loans regime.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the Minister sounded sanguine about this year's fall in the number of mature students. It is not all explained by demographic change. Many universities are suffering greatly from the fall in the number of mature students; the problem for them is acute. The move to waive fees for part-time students would disadvantage the full-time mature students. When we talk about mature students, we mean those aged 21 to 24-plus for whom a higher education is very important.

The combination of the introduction of tuition fees and the abolition of maintenance grants is causing great pain. As the academic year ends, it will be materially important to universities to keep their students, not, as my noble friend said, to lose them by their becoming part-time rather than full-time.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am not sure what the question was. One was not put. However, I am clear, and I thought I was earlier, that the Government will not be sanguine about a serious long-term decline in the number of full-time mature students. Perhaps I ought to explain to the noble Baroness that the vast majority of full-time mature students do not pay fees. They are categorised as independent students because they have no income, unless they have a large private income. Because they are full-time and not working they will not have to pay tuition fees.