HL Deb 01 July 2004 vol 663 cc368-71

2 Clause 23, page 9, line 18, at end insert— () to ensure that, in respect of any qualifying course, no qualifying fees are charged to any eligible student for any academic year beyond the first three years of a first degree course.

2A The Commons disagree to this Amendment for the following Reason—

Because any special assistance for students on longer courses is better targeted through grants, loans and bursaries.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on its Amendment No. 2, to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 2A.

Noble Lords will remember that the Bill left this House exempting students in England from fees beyond the third year of a course but making no such provision in Wales. As I said at Third Reading, we estimate that the cost of the amendment to universities would be on the order of between £;130 million and £180 million annually, because it would take away from universities all fee income, not just that which would be additional to the basic fee.

I recognise the genuine of noble Lords who supported that amendment, but I fear that it will be counterproductive. By taking away that fee income from universities, we would introduce a real disincentive for them to provide longer courses, including medicine, engineering and architecture. The amendment would also have an impact on sandwich courses that include a year in industry, and on applications to veterinary science or modern language courses. We should not jeopardise the supply of qualified professionals in this way.

We already have the right approach—a flexible system that allows us to target support at those subject areas and students who most need it. For example, medical and dentistry students already have their fees paid by the NHS for the fifth and, where there is one, sixth year of their courses. In addition, in years 5 and 6 they may also receive a means-tested NHS bursary of up to £2,703 in London. They also remain eligible for a student loan for living costs under the student support regulations.

The evidence is that this approach works. Students are not deterred from taking longer courses because the support is there to enable them to complete the course. The increasing number of applications to medical courses since 1998 underlines that. We already monitor demand for courses and provide incentives where needed to ensure that recruitment in key areas remains at the right level. We shall continue to operate in that way under a variable fees system. For the reasons that I have put forward, I beg to move.

Moved, That the House do not insist on its Amendment No. 2, to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 2A.—(Baroness Ashton of Upholland.)

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, as the Minister said, on Report noble Lords agreed to an amendment to restrict top-up fees to the first three years of a university course. It was intended to cover students studying to become medics in the widest sense, vets and architects and others with longer than normal courses to become fully fledged professionals—or so we thought. In condemning the amendment in another place, the Minister—like the Minister today—pointed out that the amendment went far wider and included students on some sandwich courses and also the basic tuition fees that students pay at the moment. That was clearly unintentional, and Mr Johnson was right to point it out. However, had he been prepared to accept our central premise that these students should be treated fairly with their cohort doing other shorter courses, he could have proposed an amendment in lieu and this debate would have been very different, as this House, I am sure, would have accepted the olive branch.

However, when my honourable friend Mr Boswell asked Mr Johnson directly whether he would open negotiations with my noble friend Lord Forsyth on this basis, he replied with a blunt "No". What did he recommend the other place to do instead? He proposed stamping on our amendment with a very heavy foot, carrying the day in favour of his position by 291 votes to 193. The amendment now comes back to us with a surprising reason for rejecting it: Because any special assistance for students on longer courses is better targeted through grants, loans and bursaries".

Increasing loans, and therefore postgraduate debt. is what the Higher Education Bill is all about, and that will apply to all students. What will not apply to all students are grants and bursaries; some will get them while others will not, for exactly the same courses. In a debate in another place, much was made of the position of less well-off working class students, which is not the phraseology that I would have used. It totally ignores the position of students who get no financial help, whether from parents or through bursaries.

When I first saw this reason, unfair as it clearly is, I was tempted to propose to your Lordships an amendment in lieu, and press it to a vote. Clearly, I have resisted that temptation, for two reasons. First the Government would have turned it down flat. I could live with that, but in the end it would have meant keeping students' hopes up unnecessarily. After all they should be given the longest possible time to prepare for the future. Secondly, as we all know, then will be a general election within the next two years. It is inevitable that one of the things that will influence many voters, student voters in particular, is the unfairness of this Bill. They cannot fail to realise that Medical students will continue to be subsidised by the state for their fifth and sixth years; the public sector looks after its own. Vets, architects and the like in the private sector will not be subsidised.

A mischievous thought then came to me. Will the Labour Party manifesto contain a commitment to pre-university Civil Service exam, with successful students then being subsidised through university? Perhaps there would even be special universities such as the ècoles d'administration in France. Irrespective of that, the right thing for your Lordships to do now is to let the Government have their, way, and let the electorate decide.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, from then Benches, we supported this amendment when it was, tabled in this House. We are sad that the other place has seen fit not to support the amendment. Much has been made in our debates of the position of those studying medicine and architecture. I was always more, concerned about the normal run of students, particularly those studying engineering and languages, which entail a four-year course, and who are hit disproportionately by having to pay fees for that extra year. Over the course of time, the law of unintended consequences may well play its part. We shall see many students opting not to take these courses because they are longer-term courses, and instead opting for the shorter courses because they are shorter and fees must be paid only for a shorter time.

However, that is as may be, as the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, said. This goes forward now as part of the Bill, and it will be for the electorate to make up their minds at the next general election. In the elections last month, it was noticeable that in university towns where students were voting there was a considerable vote against the Government.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I will make a couple of points, which I hope will be of some reassurance. First, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, will agree that I have been open in the opportunities for debate. I appreciate that that is not quite the same as the Minister of State for Higher Education; I hope that none the less that has been some comfort to him.

Secondly, it is important to realise that we will consider and ensure that government departments monitor demand and take-up of places to address the concerns of noble Lords that we do not see fewer applications. The Langlands review is an important part of that, and the House recognises that Sir Alan Langlands will do a great job on that. I hope that on that basis noble Lords will see that we are continuing to monitor the situation, and they will not press the amendment.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

11.45 a.m.