HL Deb 01 March 2004 vol 658 cc436-8

2.44 p.m

Baroness Greengross

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have to amend the rules for student loans so as to benefit those aged 54 and over and part-time students.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland)

My Lords, the age limit is 50 for eligible students meeting the residence requirements. Those aged 50 to 54 at the start of their course can also apply for a student loan, provided that they plan to return to work after finishing their course. We already cancel loans at the age of 65 and have no plans to change the age restrictions.

Baroness Greengross

My Lords, I am grateful for the Minister's reply, but I have to say that I am extremely disappointed in it. The Economic Affairs Select Committee of this House recently concluded that student loans were blatantly ageist. Given that people live longer and will have longer working lives, how can the Government's current policies really encourage lifelong learning?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I pay tribute to the work of the noble Baroness. However, in our proposed changes that are currently before the House of Commons there will be a 25-year debt write-off and the existing write-off at the age of 65 will continue. The proposed new higher education grant will also have no age limit attached to it, which is important. There are many instances regarding vocational training, further education and so on, where we have a good story to tell in terms of supporting older learners.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, will my noble friend comment on the work of the Open University in providing education for people of all ages at a price that is within peoples' pockets?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, indeed, I pay enormous tribute to the Open University and say to my noble friend that the existing position of repayable loans for part-time students will be replaced with a non-repayable grant within a means-tested system that will apply to all students, regardless of age.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that in practice the Higher Education Bill on top-up fees discriminates against part-time workers? Why on earth can she not concede that something needs to be done now, in respect of part-time workers as students, because so many need to pursue their further education for themselves and the country? If ageism is to be defeated, that should apply equally to allow the over-50s such as myself to study.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

Surely not, my Lords. As I gallop towards that age I am well aware of the matter.

The Bill does not simply concern top-up fees; it is also about a new approach to the funding of higher education and it contains many other measures which I look forward to debating in your Lordships' House. Also, regarding my comments about part-time higher education students, it is worth reiterating that we are replacing loans with a grant. Eight grants will be available. as opposed to six loans. There will be no age limits for grants. We believe that we have a good package. Regarding other students being able to access courses, we have a good story to tell on access to further education for people of all ages—and rightly so.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, does the Minister agree that although she is replacing loans with grants for students at the Open University, the lack of availability of loans to those students discriminates against people who wish to study part time to acquire a degree? Given that the Open University offers by far and away the most cost-effective form of degree training in this country, why are we discriminating against its students?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I am not sure that I agree with the noble Baroness that we discriminate against those students. The point of the present loans system is that a loan has to be repaid. As I believe I said in my Answer, those older people who are able to verify by declaration that they intend to go back to work and will be able to pay back the loan are included. Although we keep the matter under review and I am aware of the work being carried out in this field, it is important that we look at the resources available for higher education and where we need to enable our students to access the available loans and grants. I believe that we have the balance right.

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe

My Lords, I welcome the changes that the Minister described to support part-time students. Does she agree that part-time students form the key to our aims of widening participation, and that the costs of teaching such students should be borne in mind in the Higher Education Funding Council's allocation to universities, particularly since part-time students will not be able to take advantage of the proposed graduate contributions scheme?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. It is important that we recognise the contribution of part-time students to the Government's aspiration to ensure that people are able to access higher education. I agree that we would expect that to form a part of the way in which the Higher Education Funding Council thinks about its allocation.

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what representations the Government have received regarding financial arrangements for these students?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the noble Baroness will be well aware that Age Concern recently published a report, and the department is currently considering its response. I would be happy to write to the noble Baroness with more detail of those individuals and groups that may have been in touch with the Government. We are aware of the work of the House of Lords Committee, and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, Age Concern and other organisations with which we have an active relationship. We keep these issues under review.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that many students who sadly drop out of full-time higher education turn to the Open University to enable them to complete their degree? I declare an interest as a past vice-chairman of the Open University. Does the Minster agree that unless and until the current plans are changed, those universities' part-time studies will be left at a trading disadvantage and that the present arrangement discriminates against the disadvantaged students whom it most aims to help?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, we have addressed that issue to a degree in the package that we have described for part-time students. It is important to recognise that it is not only through higher education that those aged 50 and over are able to be involved in lifelong learning. For example, 25 per cent of all enrolments on adult education courses in November 2002 were made by individuals aged 60 or over. It is important that we think across the piece in terms of the education opportunities for all our citizens and our older citizens in particular in this context.

Baroness Greengross

My Lords—

Noble Lords

Next Question.