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I should like to add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) on a fine maiden speech. Many of us remember her predecessor with much fondness.
Like the Secretary of State, I was the first in my family to go to university, thanks largely to Conservative Governments in the 1980s and ’90s raising participation rates from about one in eight to about one in three. That is why, by the mid-1990s, I found myself campaigning against proposals to introduce tuition fees for the students who would come after me. I feared that prospective students from disadvantaged and lower income backgrounds would be put off from going to university and prevented from having the opportunities that I was enjoying. Indeed, I was so convinced of this that I even voted for the hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) in at least one of his bids to become president of the National Union of Students.
However, it soon became clear to me that those fears, however genuinely held they were at the time, were wrong. I am pleased that they were wrong. It is great that we have seen increasing levels of participation and an increasing proportion of students from lower income families and other disadvantaged backgrounds going to university. We saw the same fears being expressed in 2004 when Tony Blair’s Government trebled tuition fees, and again in 2011 and 2012. They have again been proven wrong. Young people from our poorest areas are something like 43% more likely to go to university than they were seven years ago. The hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) referred to drop-out rates, but those rates have fallen in the past few years, following years of increases. Similar figures apply to those from other disadvantaged backgrounds. Part of the reason for this is that the new system means that new graduates in particular are paying back less at a time when they are trying to set up a home, get a mortgage and start a family. Their repayments might be £45 a month, or £540 a year, lower than they would otherwise be paying. Measured on affordability, mortgages therefore become more, rather than less, affordable.
We are prone to having world-class universities, and we have many universities around the country that are doing genuinely innovative research and promoting first-class teaching in many areas. However, those universities and that teaching must be paid for. If we accept that, it is surely right that those who benefit the most from higher education should also contribute the most. Statistics show that a male graduate is likely to be about £170,000 better off over the course of their career; the figure for a female graduate is around £250,000. We can see that the people who benefit by far the most are the graduates themselves. Under the present system, people contribute more towards the cost of their education as they earn more. Indeed, those who are right at the top of the scale are contributing more to the cost of other people’s university education. That is a rather progressive measure that, in other circumstances, the Opposition might actually be tempted by.
Without the measures in the statutory instruments, the value of the funding going to universities would be reduced from £9,000 in 2012 to just under £8,500 now and to £8,000 by the end of this Parliament. That would be a big loss to our universities. If funding were to become available, and given that the extra £250 would be paid only by those on the very highest incomes—those currently paying the full loan repayment—it would surely be better to consider repayment thresholds.