Second-degree students lose as rebels are sunk

MPs accuse Government of 'contempt' for universities as Tory motion to save funding is voted down. Rebecca Attwood reports.

January 17, 2008

Hopes that the Government might drop plans to stop funding students taking second degrees suffered a setback this week after a motion opposing the cuts was defeated in Parliament and the Prime Minister defended the plan.

A debate in the Commons provoked strong criticism of the decision to reallocate Pounds 100 million in funding, but the Conservative motion was defeated by a majority of 53.

During the debate, Stephen Williams, the Liberal Democrat Higher Education Spokesman, accused the Government of taking a position that showed "total contempt" for universities.

The Labour MP and former Health Secretary Frank Dobson said he was concerned by the Government's decision.

David Willetts, Shadow Universities Secretary, said it was the first time in the history of British higher education that a group of people would not receive finance for their tuition costs. He called the change "an unprecedented shift in the pattern of higher education financing" that should only have been made after a review.

"(Students) will be treated as though they were from China," said Mr Willetts.

Phil Willis, the Lib Dem chairman of the Innovation, Universities and Skills Committee, said the IUS committee had received 300 submissions to its new inquiry into the policy, most of which were hostile.

Tory MP Boris Johnson, former Tory higher education spokesman, said the plan would particularly harm London institutions.

But John Denham, Secretary of State for Universities, showed no signs of backing down. He said: "Cash protection, protection of a wide range of courses, opportunities for increased employer co-funding and improved support for part-time courses will together enable institutions to respond to a change that is being phased in over three years."

Mr Denham also announced a new consultation by his department into the future of adult learning in the 21st century.

Some universities have warned students taking degrees equivalent to or lower than their existing qualifications will be forced to pay as much as Pounds 7,000 a year.

But Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, told MPs that he believed that universities would "think long and hard" before raising fees.

After the vote, Mr Willetts accused Labour MPs of "breathtaking" hypocrisy, pointing out that more than 60 who had previously signed a cross-party early day motion expressing concern about the plans ultimately voted with the Government.

Labour MP Denis MacShane, a fellow of Birkbeck, University of London, said the Conservatives had made a tactical error by calling the debate. "Had they held their hand, the pressure could have continued from all sides on ministers," he said.

He added that because the Prime Minister had also come down "unequivocally" for the policy in Parliament last week, "John Denham and Bill Rammell are no longer under any real political pressure to come up with a different policy".

In answer to a question in Parliament, Gordon Brown said: "Our commitment to lifelong learning is, first, that those people who have no qualifications whatever should get better chances than they have had in the past ... the first priority for money is first degrees and qualifications for those who do not have them at the moment ... There is no cut in the overall budget. There is more money going to education than ever happened under the Conservative Government."

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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