CONSERVATIVE
New Forest East

TREBLING STUDENT TUITION FEES – 9 December 2010

Dr Julian Lewis: Normally when I am called immediately following the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), it is to disagree with most of what he has said, but today is an exception. I endorse most of what he said.

I begin with an apology to the House and the Business Secretary, in that an unbreakable commitment on the Intelligence and Security Committee prevented my being here for his opening speech. Had I been here, I would have sought to intervene and remind him of our exchange when he made his statement on 12 October. I asked him:

"Will it not be a sad day for academic meritocracy if and when able students from poor backgrounds are deterred from going to top universities because those universities are allowed to charge more than other universities in fees to students?"

He replied:

"Yes, the hon. Gentleman is quite right, and for that reason he will recall my comments about the need to be careful about following through the request of the Russell group universities for unlimited fees. There are serious problems with that. Of course there are advantages in terms of world-class universities, but we need to be careful about going down that road, and we will reflect further on it." [Official Report, 12 October 2010; Vol. 516, c. 165]

Well, the right hon. Gentleman has reflected. He has wrestled very publicly with his conscience, and his conscience has turned out to be the loser. Of course we have not gone right down that road, but we have gone a good way down it by allowing some universities to charge 50% more than others.

Geraint Davies: I am grateful to the Swansea-born Member for giving way. Taking that further, is he sympathetic to the Welsh Assembly's position of limiting fees to £3,000 and limiting cuts to 35%, rather than 80%, accepting that what is proposed is a political choice, not just an economic choice?

Dr Lewis: I do not know what the Welsh Assembly plans to do to balance the books, so it would depend on the context. I will, I hope, come to the context that I would propose, which hon. Members may agree with or quite violently disagree with.

Guto Bebb: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr Lewis: For the second and last time.

Guto Bebb: As a Welsh Member, I think that it is worth pointing out that the university system in Wales is already underfunded compared with that in England. As a result of the Assembly's decision, which was made for PR purposes, the situation will get worse.

Dr Lewis: I am certainly not going down the road of turning this into a debate about the affairs of my birthplace, except in so far as it brings me on quite nicely to why I take such a strong stance.

If I have any reputation at all, it is as something of an expert, but in one, rather narrow field – defence and security. I claim no expertise at all in matters of education policy or financing. However, I do claim experience in the matter that we are talking about today. It may be worth people knowing that every hon. Member gets about 15 seconds of fame – if not 15 minutes – when, eventually, The House Magazine comes to him or her and invites them to take part in the production of a profile of their past and their value system. I want to go back to that one occasion, in January 2001, when I was asked to supply my profile. I said:

"I grew up in Swansea and went to the same state grammar school as my father, Sam. The difference was that he had to leave at 14 to help his father as a tailor. He used to tell me – "

when I asked him – that I did not need to know about tailoring, because

"he would be the last of the tailors in my family,"

as now there was a system of students grants. I continued:

"He is an exceptionally intelligent man who would undoubtedly have succeeded at university if he had been able to complete his education in the late 1920s,"

in the same grammar school that I went to.

"The university grant system gave me my opportunity, and I never approved of the changeover to top-up loans – let alone for tuition fees."

I have been listening to some of the arguments – we are beginning to go round and round the same track – but I was particularly struck by the elegant process of ratiocination by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles). He was able to make a convincing case that the more we charge people to go to university, the more people will go – and the more poorer people will go. In that case, I am tempted to vote against the Government on the grounds that they are not charging enough. Perhaps we should charge quadruple fees, quintuple fees or even sextuple fees, to ensure that the entire population of the country can go to university.

I am worried about the prospects for my party. I remember an earlier time when we thought we had a good policy. In fact, I worked with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and one of his most effective speech-writers – a very good young man called Peter Campbell – on trying to sell the poll tax to the people. There were all sorts of elegant arguments to show that the poll tax was actually the best and the fairest policy. Well, even if we have a policy that we genuinely think is fair, unless we can convince people that it truly is a fair policy, it will fail and be rejected.

I can hear people talk about percentages until they are blue in the face – or yellow in the face – but they will not convince me that young people from poor backgrounds will not be deterred. If they would not be deterred, why was it necessary to introduce the special measures for those who have free school meals? I would have been deterred, and I do not want others to be deterred.