HC Deb 27 May 2004 vol 421 cc1708-10
11. Valerie Davey (Bristol, West) (Lab)

What assessment he has made of the merits of a gap year to young people's education. [176000]

The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Alan Johnson)

The Department for Education and Skills has commissioned a review of gap years, and the results of that research are due to be published at the end of July.

Valerie Davey

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. I am sure that he is aware that the Government are considering whether to support young people from low-income families to ensure that they, too, have the opportunity to take a gap year. Will he ensure that the Department's report feeds into that, and that admissions tutors in further and higher education and people who employ young people in their gap year are made aware of the value of a gap year for young people?

Alan Johnson

I can give my hon. Friend an assurance that the results of the research that we have commissioned and of the young volunteer challenge pilot which she mentioned and which operates in nine educational maintenance allowance areas, will be co-ordinated and, indeed, fed into the work of the Russell commission, which was announced by the Chancellor and the Home Secretary on 17 May, giving us a comprehensive look at a range of issues. We already recognise the value of gap years, but we need to know more about what students do in their gap year, what they get out of it, and other matters that have been under-researched in the past.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury) (LD)

Given that asking round the first year sixth-form students in my constituency this year has shown that many of them have been significantly put off the chance of going on a gap year because of the coming change in top-up fees, what investigations have the Government made to see what effect top-up fees will have on those who are deciding whether or not to take a gap year?

Alan Johnson

I am not surprised that some sixth-formers have been frightened to death by some of the figures floating around—

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con)

They are realistic.

Alan Johnson

They are not realistic at all. The suggestion the other day that students will end up with debts of £40,000 is incredible and wholly unhelpful. In reality the gap year issue is different now from in 1998–99, when fees were introduced. Then students who were applying for university did not know that there would be a fee to pay; now there is three years' notice. Given that the current situation is payment up front—not on graduation—no maintenance grant, no 25-year debt forgiveness and a smaller loan, it is questionable whether students would decide to take a gap year, especially as in 2006 they will get the benefit of all those proposals. We do not intend to legislate in respect of the situation. Universities have the power to deal with any problems that they foresee.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con)

This is yet another example of the Government saying one thing and doing another. Clearly the Minister has not talked to sixth-formers recently. If he does a straw poll of them, he will find that many of those leaving in 2005 are saying that they will not take a gap year to avoid top-up fees. Does the Minister accept that that will cause chaos in the universities admissions system in 2005 and represents a genuine injustice to many young people who for financial reasons will not take a gap year and will lose out on the kind of opportunity about which the Chancellor has been waxing lyrical this week?

Alan Johnson

I talk to sixth-formers all the time. These proposals are still subject to parliamentary approval; the Bill is still going through the House. If, in the expectation of the happy day coming, the Bill receives Royal Assent, we can do an effective job of explaining the deal to students and their parents, many of whom believe that they will pay £3,000 up front, there is no maintenance grant and there is not an increase in the threshold for repayment. I have not come across a single student whose decision to go to university has been affected. I agree that there is an issue about whether to take a gap year, but once the situation is fully explained, there will not be a gap year problem. Certainly if it is foreseen, universities, who will have the opportunity under variable fees to set a lower fee to avoid a gap year problem, have that solution in their own hands, rather than us legislating, as the hon. Gentleman proposes, to remove that money from the universities and prevent them from having that choice. We have taken a balanced approach to a currently perceived problem.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab)

Is not the missing ingredient in this debate the role of the parents? Is it not unquestionably in the interests of the majority of parents to encourage their young people to take a gap year, thereby making themselves £1,175 a year better off? Once parents start to understand that by deferring entry to 2006 they will have an enormous tax cut, attitudes to gap years will change.

Alan Johnson

I am told that youngsters today do not listen to their parents. Many of us will hope that they do on this occasion. There is an awful lot in what my hon. Friend says, not just in respect of parental responsibility, but in respect of students recognising that if they enrol in 2006 they will get a bigger loan, a deferred fee, a £2,700 non-repayable grant, a bursary of up to £4,000 from the university and 25-year debt forgiveness as well as all the other proposals that we will have already introduced, such as a higher threshold. It is questionable whether there will be a gap year problem. We cannot be absolutely confident that there will not be one, but once we have got the message across in the next three years there will be a change of perception. I hope very much that we can deal with this issue.