This Government promised to extend opportunity and to ensure that 50 per cent. of young people attended university. That promise was made by the former Prime Minister Mr. Blair in a speech 10 years ago, and it was repeated in the 2001 Labour party manifesto, yet today’s debate has been all about broken promises and false claims. The scar of disappointment cuts deep—in some cases to despair.
Even though the figures have been recalibrated and recalculated, by last year the Government had achieved just 43 per cent. participation in higher education. Success for women masked failure for men, for whom the rate stood at 38 per cent.—just one percentage point higher than a decade ago. Under a consistent measure, the proportion of university entrants from both sexes increased hardly at all over the whole decade.
Even though the Government are spending £2 billion a year on widening participation, the participation rate for working-class students has hardly improved since 1995. If that were not bad enough, the improvement rate has actually declined. In the previous decade, participation by working-class students grew at a faster rate. Although I acknowledge the genuine determination across the House to try to widen participation, the truth is that the Government have failed by any measure. It is clear that there are Labour Members, such as the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), who care about these matters. It was especially distressing to hear how her ambitions, and the ambitions of the whole country, have been frustrated down by Ministers—not through lack of concern, but through their inability to deliver results. The experience at the beginning of the current academic year has demonstrated beyond all doubt that the Government have no hope—and, worse, no intention—of meeting their 50 per cent target.
Even though applications increased by a predictable measure this year, the result has been chaos. While the Government blew up expectations, parents and students have been let down, the dream of a generation has been exploded, with universities left to pick up the pieces. There are 140,000 potential students who cannot find a place in higher education, and only 22,000 places were available through clearing; that is down by 50 per cent from the year before.
That so many young people should lose their chance to learn can hardly come as a surprise to Ministers. Universities received roughly 60,000 additional applications this year. The Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property broadly confirmed that, yet the Government simply did not allocate sufficient places to meet that extra demand. Every previous recession has brought an increase in the number of applications for university places, so the Government must have known that that would happen. The issue should have been anticipated and dealt with, and a solution should have been found.
The Government are still nowhere near their target, and yet the system of student finance that they established has not been able to cope with the pressure, as was generously acknowledged by the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor). She said that the situation was not good enough, and challenged those in her own party, on the Treasury Bench, to recognise the problem. I must be fair to the Minister of State: he did acknowledge it. His words were damning of his own record and that of his hon. Friends. He said that the situation was not good enough; that it was not effective; that it had not been sensibly anticipated; that the technology had failed; and that systems had let students down. But who is to blame? I am afraid that the buck stops on the Government Front Bench. The Minister knows that, and should have acknowledged that, too. After all, it is the Government who shifted responsibility for processing loans from local authorities to Student Finance England.
Announcing the new system in 2006, the then Education Minister, the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), said: “As well as clearer information, faster decisions, timely payments and accurate repayments” would be assured. It is no wonder that after doing so little for HE, and FA for FE, he was sent to the FO. He left a legacy for the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property; I know that the situation was not of the latter’s making, but it is still his responsibility. How stark is the contrast between past soft-soap rhetoric and the granite-hard reality of the problems facing students and their families this year!
Some 175,000 students started this term without loans. Worst hit are first-year students. At the end of last week, 28 per cent of first-year applications had yet to be dealt with, and universities are being obliged to make emergency pay-outs.
The problems could have been anticipated. Indeed, they were; minutes from the board meetings of the Student Loans Company reveal that in July 2008—a full year before the problems became public—the company forecast that 40 per cent of telephone calls would go unanswered. At the same meeting, a policy of avoidable contact was adopted. That, by the way, is Labour-speak for not answering the phone. The Student Loans Company is using an 0845 number, against official Ofcom advice, so callers must pay for a 10p-a-minute call, and some of the revenue can be “shared” with the Student Loans Company. I call that adding insult to injury, and adding impertinence to both.
To add to the chaos, the future of the student loan book is now unclear. At the beginning of the week, the Government announced a fire sale of Government-owned assets. Back in 2007, the comprehensive spending review committed the Government to raising £6 billion over the next three years from student loan sales, yet no sale has yet been made. When the Minister winds up the debate, will he tell us whether the £3 billion is in addition to the £6 billion in the CSR? Can he tell us when he expects the first tranche of loan sales to be made, and if no sale is expected to be made by the end of the financial year, can he say how the Government intend to make up the £6 billion shortfall?
In the past year, there has been a succession of crises in HE, further education and skills. First, there was the crisis over FE capital funding; then the crisis of the Train to Gain overspend and the problems with apprenticeships; and now there is the crisis in student finance. Is it any wonder, when responsibility for this vital area of policy has been shifted from one Department to the next, like a macabre game of pass the parcel—first DFES, then DIUS and now BIS? But this is not a game. The Government are playing with people’s lives—the hopes, dreams and potential of a generation. In Labour’s end, to paraphrase Eliot, is its beginning—a 13-year journey back to where it started.
As the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property knows, I admire his progress from disadvantage in Tottenham to high office. I know that in his heart he must be ashamed that as a result of his Government, few others so disadvantaged will follow in his footsteps. For he must also know in his heart that if we want to reinvigorate higher education, if we want to reignite social mobility, if we want to deliver social justice, we need a Government who genuinely believe in education: change driving hope, a fresh start—a new Conservative Government for a new Britain, because Britain deserves better.