David Willetts MP, Minister for Universities and Science.
In our first six months, the Coalition have seized the initiative on the highly sensitive issue of higher education funding. That has not been a universally popular decision and yesterday's protests reflect the passion that people (rightly) feel about higher education. People are of course entitled to make their case – by peaceful means – but may perhaps not have picked up on the details of our proposals: our goal is a world-class higher education sector that is not closed to anyone on financial grounds.
The Labour party left us with a higher education system that was unsustainable, especially given the state of the country's finances. That was why they set up the Browne review whose conclusions we have broadly accepted, while Labour have remained strangely quiet. But this is not only a debate about finance. The higher education system we inherited is also one in which the proportion of poorer students at our most research-intensive universities remains stubbornly low.
So Nick Clegg is right to draw people's attention to the positive and progressive details of our proposals. No graduates will pay back anything until they are earning £21,000 – as opposed to £15,000 now. The maintenance package will be more generous for nearly all students – around one million people. Part-time students will get more support than ever before. Around one in four graduates will pay less than under the current system. And universities charging higher fees will be made more accountable for their progress on widening access.
We have promised a 150 million National Scholarships programme to help students from poorer backgrounds through mechanisms like a free first year. And we have promised much better information about the different returns of different courses at different universities so that people have the information they need to take up the courses best suited to them.
Labour are completely divided over the issue of university funding. Ed Miliband has called for a graduate tax, but his Shadow Chancellor thinks that's a ‘sop to the left’. They oppose our reforms without saying where else in BIS they would have found any savings – further education and science perhaps? If they do end up committing to their leader's policy of a graduate tax, then they should admit it will hit the poorest students hardest – those earning above the income tax threshold of £6,475 would have to make repayments, as opposed to £21,000 under us.
Labour left us with a higher education system that didn’t meet the UK’s needs and that was falling down the international league table. It was crying out for reform and I believe that our proposals are the right way ahead. At the heart of this argument is a fundamental belief and commitment from the Government to make the system a better and a fairer one, while protecting universities' autonomy and the public finances. We want a system that encourages aspiration and meets the needs of all students irrespective of their background.