Sharon Hodgson MP

Working hard for Washington and Sunderland West.

Tuition fees debate 09.12.10

Sharon spoke during the debate on increasing tuition fees in Parliament.

rs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak against the motion on behalf of all my constituents, especially the teenagers who have e-mailed me over the last few days asking me to do so. I want to talk about what the Government's plans will mean for many of those young people, if not all of them.

In a Liberal Democrat press release during the election campaign, the Deputy Prime Minister said:

"If fees rise to £7,000 a year, as many rumours suggest they would, within five years some students will be leaving university up to £44,000 in debt. That would be a disaster."

I am sure that this is going to be the only time I find myself saying this, but "I agree with Nick." Even if most universities charge the minimum of £6,000, it will still be a disaster. If most of the more prestigious universities charge £9,000, it would be an even bigger disaster.

For many young people in my constituency, fees of £27,000 will prove the ultimate deterrent to carrying on their education and realising their academic potential. If their ambition were strong enough, they would still find themselves having to think very seriously about going to a local university-to avoid the living expenses-rather than to the best university that would accept them, based on their ability. Indeed, comments made by the Secretary of State in the last debate on this subject lead me to believe that this is exactly what he intends people to do. I find that totally hypocritical, given that he had the opportunity to live in Cambridge and attend a top university.

Do not get me wrong, Madam Deputy Speaker, as many of the local higher education providers in my constituency are excellent for both the quality of teaching and the student experience. The university of Sunderland was recently declared at The Times higher education awards as the top university for the student experience. That does not mean, however, that staying local offers the best possible educational opportunities for everyone in my constituency. Many of my constituents are able enough to earn a place in a highly sought-after course elsewhere in the country, and it is imperative that they should feel able to apply to such institutions to study such courses without their main focus being on the potential cost.

Gavin Williamson (South Staffordshire) (Con): The hon. Lady talks about top universities, but the Russell group of universities says:

"There has been much misinformation about the effect of fees on access. The evidence is clear that fees do not deter poorer students from university-particularly when combined with a progressive repayment system, precisely as the Government is proposing."

Does that not destroy her argument?

Mrs Hodgson: Not at all. That is rubbish, and I totally disagree with it. As hon. Members have said, the proposal will put off people from working-class backgrounds from going to any university, let alone a top one.

Of course the headline cost-the £44,000 spoken of by the Deputy Prime Minister-will not remain static. I have done my sums, and assuming my constituents graduate with a debt of £40,000 and are lucky enough to find a job that pays £21,000 in a market ravaged by the Government's cuts, that debt will start to creep up. We hear that the interest rate will be 2.2% plus inflation. I note that for the purpose of raking money in, the Government have chosen the retail prices index, yet for paying out-say, in benefit uprating-they have chosen the lower measure of the consumer prices index. If we add the current RPI to 2.2%, we get 7.1%, which will mean an interest payment of £2,840 per annum on a debt of £40,000. To keep up with that interest and stop the debt rising, a graduate would need to earn more than £52,000 a year.

Most people in this country, graduate or otherwise, would consider themselves lucky to earn £52,000 by the age of 52, let alone 22. Where is the sense in the Government's proposals if many graduates will have a bigger debt at the end of 30 years than they did when they graduated? On my calculations, I estimate that large numbers of students will have their debt written off under the proposals. How is that a better way of doing things? At least under the previous system graduates were able to pay off their debts, if they were working, on average within 11 years.

Concessions have been outlined over the past couple of days, as they were when the matter was discussed in a debate in Westminster Hall secured by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy). They must have been drawn up on the back of one of the Deputy Prime Minister's ever-growing pile of empty fag packets, but their announcement gives me the impression that someone in the Government must recognise the damage that their plans will do to the life chances of many young people and to the wider economy. It beggars belief, therefore, that they are still pressing ahead with them.

Christopher Pincher: I do not know who has done the hon. Lady's sums for her-possibly the shadow Chancellor-but they do not add up. Graduates in my constituency on a median salary of £24,000 are currently paying back £810 a year. Under the coalition's proposals, they will be paying back £270 a year. For graduates, that is real practical help, which her party never gave.

Mrs Hodgson: I inform the hon. Gentleman that I did my sums myself. I have them here, and I will forward them to him so that he can see the truth of the matter.

The Government's reckless behaviour in this and other areas of policy directly affecting young people, such as scrapping the EMA without proper scrutiny, shows that the policies are less about pragmatism and totally about dogmatism. Incidentally, I urge my hon. Friends to read the illuminating article in The Times-written in 2003, it must be said-by the current Secretary of State for Education. The article highlights exactly how the minds of those in this Administration work, and how they will be worse for our constituents than even the Thatcher Administration, who ruined lives and wrecked communities.

If Liberal Democrat Members file obediently through the Government Lobby tonight, their betrayal will not be forgotten, and they will never be taken seriously again by their constituents. For the sake of young people throughout England, I sincerely hope that they will manage to locate their spines between now and the putting of the Question, and will join me and other hon. Members in opposing this regressive and deeply divisive motion.

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