§ 1. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)
If he will make a statement on the level of unit funding in higher education. 
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks)
Good morning, Mr. Speaker. The Government are planning to spend £1.7 billion more on higher education in England over the six years to 2003–04. For the first time in more than a decade, there will be a real terms increase in the unit of funding per full-time student of 0.7 per cent. in 2001–02, with fully funded increases in student numbers over the following two years.
§ Miss McIntosh
I welcome that answer, but will the Minister give us the true figures of unit funding? They reveal that unit funding has decreased for students because their numbers continue to rise. In the 1997–98 financial year, the unit cost was £4,850; it has now gone down to £4,770, with no prospect of it rising. What message does that give those who wish to enter higher and further education?
§ Mr. Wicks
I do not agree with the hon. Lady's analysis. Unit funding will increase over the next three years, as I said, and by 0.7 per cent. in 2001–02. I understand the Opposition's embarrassment because when we contrast our record with that of the Tory years, we see that funding per student in higher education fell by more than £2,500, or 36 per cent., between 1989 and 1997. The Conservatives undermined the universities; we are investing in them.
§ Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central)
My hon. Friend no doubt receives a lot of external advice on the funding of 1168 higher education. Has he yet had an opportunity to assess how much it would cost to endow the universities with a sum sufficient to generate their current level of income? Does he agree that if that were to happen, top-up fees for students would be inevitable?
§ Mr. Wicks
I have not made the estimate, but Universities UK has. It has independently estimated the cost of the Tory endowment plans at £101 billion. We are not certain where that money is to come from—I do not know whether it is in the Tory spending plans—but, clearly, logic suggests that it would be through the introduction of top-up fees. While we have a fair student finance system, they have to become the top-up Tories.
§ Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)
Is not the real position that the Government are unable to defend their record over the past four years on the level of funding per student? In a Parliament, now is the time when one refers to the Government's record. The Government, rightly, say that in primary education student funding has increased, and is not that a good thing? The truth is that under this Government, despite their discredited tuition fee policy—charging students and making poor students poorer by abolishing the grant—the unit of funding has gone down.
§ Mr. Wicks
I never know where the Liberal Democrats are coming from. The hon. Gentleman voted against the continuation of maintenance grants during the Report stage of the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998. [Interruption.] Opposition Members do not want to listen because they do not like the truth. The Liberal Democrat education spokesman, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), said in March 1998:We support the Government's proposal to end maintenance grants and replace them with income contingent loans as the fairest way of securing a greater contribution from students.—[Official Report, 16 March 1998; Vol. 308, c. 995.]The hon. Gentlemen are now saying something different. Being a Liberal Democrat means never having to be consistent, except consistently in opposition.
§ Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South)
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is extraordinarily rich for the hon. Members for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) and for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) to attack the Government on unit funding when the previous Government cut it savagely year on year? Neither of them had the grace to refer to the range of additional measures that this Government have introduced—opportunities of bursaries, access funding and so on—that add significantly to the welcome increase in unit funding that the Government have announced.
§ Mr. Wicks
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Having secured the funding of our universities and having introduced a fair and efficient student finance system, the future challenge is to increase the numbers of our young people able to go to university, for which the Prime Minister has set a target of 50 per cent., and to ensure that those from backgrounds and communities with no previous experience of higher education have that opportunity. That is why my right hon. Friend has introduced the excellence challenge, with more than £190 million over the next three years and different ways, 1169 including summer schools, of enabling those children to have that opportunity of going to university. We are about quantity, while ensuring quality; but within that, our goal of equality is also crucial.
§ Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)
May I invite the Minister to acknowledge that the inflation increase is really in his estimate of the cost of the Conservative proposals? It has risen from the estimate of £80 billion given by his noble Friend Baroness Blackstone at a meeting in the Palace earlier this week, to more than £100 billion. That suggests that his study of the Taylor report and our proposals has been less than comprehensive.
In the light of that, let us turn back to the Government's stance. Will the Minister acknowledge that, after countless questions and letters, and even a full Adjournment debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and me, he has still not given us the detailed figures that underpin his assertion that unit funding will increase over the next three years? Given that independent figures prepared by the Library show that, at best, the amount will be functionally static—therefore, a £10 per capita increase could not be reconciled with the Minister's assertion that the increase will be 0.7 per cent. per annum—will he come clean and give us the actual figure on unit funding that will benefit students?
§ Mr. Wicks
I believe that the hon. Gentleman has received the figures in correspondence from me, but let me give the unit cost in real terms: in 2001–02, it is £4,800; in 2002–03, it will be a little more, but more or less £4,800; and it goes up to £4,817 in 2003–04. It is a real terms increase over those three years—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) makes a zoo-like noise, presumably to hide his embarrassment about quarrelling with us over the detail of our—[Interruption.] I do not know what the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) is saying, but then I never do—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ooh!"] The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) quarrels with us about the details of our increase; he has nothing to say about the fact that, during the Tory years—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ooh!"] Tory Members are saying "Ooh" because they are so embarrassed that, during the Tory years, the percentage declined by one third. They have nothing to say about that.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I remind Ministers that they should not worry about the Tory years. Question Time is about Departments—that is what Ministers should worry about.