Teaching bill dodges the critics

March 20, 1998

THE controversial Teaching and Higher Education Bill cleared another parliamentary hurdle this week after the government promised to cap fees at a quarter of the average cost of tuition.

MPs voted on Monday to give the bill a second reading and to send it to committee stage in the Commons. Earlier in the debate Education Secretary David Blunkett called on opposition parties to enter talks on how best to introduce safeguards. He said that if the 25 per cent cap were not enough for the opposition parties then he was open to other suggestions.

Conservatives and Liberal Democrats continued to query the bill, which sets up an income-contingent student loans system and a General Teaching Council, introduces the right to training time for young workers and gives ministers tuition fee controls.

Opposition unity secured a series of amendments in the bill's earlier stages in the House of Lords. Mr Blunkett, moving Monday's second reading, compared the bill to a heavily damaged aeroplane and himself to a mechanic trying to ensure the repairs.

Mr Blunkett, ignoring the fact that most of the bill's most vocal opponents in the Lords are life peers, said: "We have a situation in which those in the upper house with the privilege of being hereditary peers amended the bill in a deliberately destructive manner."

Shadow education secretary Stephen Dorrell said fees would deter poor people from entering higher education and Sir Ron Dearing's recommendations to set a flat-rate Pounds 1,000 tuition fee and retain means-tested maintenance grants should be adopted.

He said that by opting instead to means test tuition fees and scrap maintenance grants the poorest fees-exempt students would have to borrow Pounds 5,265 to cover maintenance while the wealthiest, whose parents would presumably pay maintenance, would face only a Pounds 3,000 bill for tuition fees.

Liberal Democrat further and higher education spokesman Phil Willis attacked the government for failing to ring-fence tuition fee income. Hostile fire came too from Labour benches. Diane Abbott (Hackney) said: "I am quite clear that, without access to a grant and free tuition, a working class, black 16-year-old could never have gone to Cambridge."

The government will almost certainly overturn the Lord's amendments in committee. The bill then goes through report stage and third reading in the Commons before returning to the Lords. Peers could reject Commons' amendments but at the risk of provoking a constitutional crisis.

WHAT THE AMENDMENTS SAY

THE government was defeated on three points but agreed to the following amendments in the Lords: * to limit interest rates charged to student borrowers to no more than the level necessary to maintain the real terms value of the loan debt * clarification of the definition of fees as those which include admission, registration, tuition and graduation fees, but exclude things like board and lodgings charges.

* amending the bill's provision for time off for study and training for 16 to 18-year-olds. To appease employers, valid study and training can take place in the workplace.

* there are three main opposition amendments which will be overturned in the Commons:

The first gives the General Teaching Council more power; the second seeks the restoration of maintenance grants; the third ends the anomaly of English and Welsh-domiciled students paying for a fourth year at a Scottish university.

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