Opposition Day Debate on Tuition Fees

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Below is the Hansard copy of Stephen's speech in Labour's Opposition Day Debate on Tuition Fees. 

You can watch there video here

It is a pleasure to take part in this debate, and, in particular, to speak after my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill), who made a very powerful and eloquent maiden speech. I concur with her tribute to her predecessor, my good friend Gisela Stuart. An extraordinary lesson that we can learn from Edgbaston is that it has elected women Members of Parliament since 1953—long may that continue. I particularly congratulate my hon. Friend as the first Sikh woman Member of Parliament.

I pay tribute to the new Chair of the Education Committee, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), for the tone and content of his speech. We are at a point where we need to have a serious debate that looks at the evidence about what is happening in our higher education system. My starting point is that surely the current scale of student and graduate debt must worry us all, whichever party we are a member of.

I want to focus on three things: first, student satisfaction levels and value for money; secondly, part-time students; and thirdly, interest rates. The student academic experience urvey conducted this year showed a significant shift in students’ perceptions that should concern us all, and I hope the Minister will address it in his closing remarks. Five years ago, the majority of students—53%—rated their university experience as good or very good. That figure had fallen to 35%, and the number of those who rated it poor or very poor had doubled in that five-year period. The figures for England were worse than those for Scotland and Wales—that must surely be a cause for concern.

Other colleagues have spoken about the impact on part-time students. In Russell Group universities this year, the number of first-year students studying part time is 44% lower than it was in 2011. In other higher education institutions, the fall is even greater. In certain subjects, the fall is dramatic: in languages, that figure has fallen from 16,000 to just over 6,000; and in computer sciences, it has fallen from almost 6,000 to just over 3,500. Surely that must be a matter of concern.

Then there is the question of interest rates. When Labour introduced tuition fees, the interest payable on loans was either the Bank of England base rate plus 1% or the retail prices index, whichever was the lower. Interest rates could be expected, in that period, to be as low as 1.3%. Because of the changes that this Government have made, some students are leaving university having already incurred £6,000 in interest. Surely that is something that we have to look at, and it is a matter of concern.

Let us have a serious debate about this subject. I welcome the fact that the Select Committee will be doing so under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Harlow. I absolutely accept that access to higher education is about more than just student fees and graduate debt. Schools and colleges have a vital role to play in raising aspirations and providing support for students. As the Secretary of State has said, some progress has been made on access for some disadvantaged groups, particularly some—not all—black and minority ethnic groups, and that is very welcome, but there is a big challenge for white working-class kids, particularly those from the poorest backgrounds.

I represent a constituency that is predominantly white working class, and one aspect of the challenge is access to our top universities. That is why two years ago I established a programme with eight secondary schools serving my constituency that we have called the Liverpool to Oxbridge Collaborative, which supports the most academic students to consider applying to Oxford or Cambridge. I am delighted to say that five students, from West Derby, Broughton Hall and Cardinal Heenan schools, have gained places at Oxford and Cambridge, starting this autumn. The programme is starting to make a difference. The aspiration of the young people and their parents, and the support that they have had from those schools, has been amazing. I want that level of support for the most academic students to be as commonplace in state schools as it is the top private schools. If it is not, we will not address our fundamental problems of social mobility and inequality.

Further increases in tuition fees risk undermining the progress that is being made in many of our schools and colleges. That is why we need a rethink, and I welcome the investigation that the Select Committee Chair has said that his Committee will undertake. I think that the otion, which would revoke the latest increase in tuition fees, is a step in the right direction towards achieving that rethink.