Thin air and cocktail parties: Lammy and Willetts exchange blows

Minister and shadows tangle in Commons debate on higher education. Melanie Newman writes

October 22, 2009

Heated words were exchanged last week at a parliamentary debate on higher education called by the Conservative Party, with accusations and counter-claims on both sides of the House of Commons.

David Lammy, the Minister for Higher Education, used the debate on 14 October to question the Tories' commitment to widening participation, accusing David Willetts, the Shadow Universities Secretary, of making "a succession of sketched-out proposals that have vanished into thin air, like smoke from the Bullingdon Club's after-dinner parties".

He also claimed that the opposition wanted to cut the higher education budget by £610 million, and planned to charge 8 per cent interest on student loans. He suggested that a Conservative promise to fund an extra 10,000 university places by encouraging early repayment of student loans would cost £240 million.

Mr Willetts replied that the allegations were "extraordinary".

"There is no Conservative policy for an 8 per cent interest rate for students, there is no £620 million cut and the 10,000 extra places would be properly funded," he said.

He also denied reports that the Conservatives would raise the fees cap to £7,000. Mr Willetts went on to attack the Government over delays in processing student loan applications, mocking Lord Mandelson, the First Secretary, for answering a query about the Student Loans Company by saying, "I'm told that this year it has received a record number of applications."

"Was he perhaps at a cocktail party where this was mentioned?" Mr Willetts gibed.

The day before the debate, Mr Willetts claimed that 140,000 would-be students had been unable to find a university place this year.

However, Kevin Brennan, the Minister for Further Education, countered that a few years ago the Tories were accusing Labour of "shovelling people into university". Noting Mr Willetts' nickname, "Two Brains", he said: "Perhaps that explains how two totally different positions can be maintained within the same head."

Rob Wilson, the former Conservative Shadow Universities Minister, banged the drum for community colleges modelled on a US system, which he praised for "breaking down courses into bite-sized chunks".

He also queried the Government's decision to sell the student loans book, given an earlier commitment to sell only when market conditions could provide a good return. The proposed sale was a "tawdry attempt to cash in on a valuable asset".

At the same debate, Stephen Williams, the Liberal Democrat Shadow Universities Secretary, welcomed the appointment of Sir Deian Hopkin, the former vice-chancellor of London South Bank University, to conduct a review of the student loan affair. He responded to questions about whether the Lib Dems still opposed fees by reaffirming his party's commitment to abolishing the current fees model "because it is broken". He added: "There is certainly no scope for a fee increase."

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