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Duncan Smith: Only ability should matter

Speech made to students at King's College, London

"Thank you all for being here today.

Before we move on to your questions, I'd like to talk for a few minutes about two big issues that I know are of real concern to students and indeed to us all - Iraq; and, the future of higher education in Britain.

When I've finished I'll then take any questions you have on these or any other issues you care to ask me about.

Iraq

There are genuine concerns about what is happening with Iraq, including a huge amount of misunderstanding and misinformation.

So let me make mine and my Party's position perfectly clear.

Since 1991, I have urged government and the United Nations to deal with the problem of Saddam Hussein.

I warned that the failure to do so would lead to a much bigger problem in the future.

And this is where we find ourselves today.

Saddam Hussein is a tyrant who tortures and murders his own people and poses a threat to the safety and stability of the Middle East.

Of that, I have absolutely no doubt.

And there are few people in Iraq or among its neighbours who will mourn his passing.

I know there is widespread concern about the dangers of war, and where they may lead.

But I believe it will be far more dangerous if we do not act now; if we fail to deal resolutely with Saddam, once and for all.

If we don't deal with him now, our soldiers will only have to go back - in two, or five, or ten years time - just as it is today, after 12 long years of Saddam's cat-and-mouse game with the UN.

Saddam still holds the power to come clean; to disarm; to pull back from the brink of war, which, as any soldier will always tell you, must always be the last resort.

But he must be left in no doubt that if he does not disarm, after years of terrorism and evasion, after years of unanswered questions - from hidden weapons to missing Kuwaiti prisoners of war - then he will face the consequences.

The reality of the world didn't change on September 11th. We had already seen the signs - the new threats had already made themselves clear. What happened on September 11th is that our understanding of the world caught up with that reality.

Let me also clear up another misunderstanding. The next resolution is not the second resolution. It is the eighteenth.

Each one of those resolutions has demanded the eradication of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction.

And for 12 years Saddam has defied the will of the United Nations.

So this is now a crucial test.

There are things at stake here -- and not just for Britain and the United States -- that go well beyond the outcome of this crisis.

There is the credibility of the United Nations and the Security Council as instruments of international security.

There is the future of the Transatlantic relationship - which, given the importance of France and Germany in Europe and their appalling behaviour over the issuing of defence missiles to Turkey - can be said to be at its lowest ebb in 40 years.

And there is a burgeoning threat to civilised, democratic values and their preservation and advancement around the world.

This is now our chance to send a very clear message to Saddam and beyond. It is, I repeat, a crucial test. We must be resolute in our determination to disarm Saddam by whatever means prove necessary, or fail it.

Higher Education

Iraq, and the safety of the world's developed democracies - are the dominant international issues facing us today.

I'm sure that the questions you will ask me, will show just how deeply you care about those issues.

I also know that there is a predominant issue for students domestically - the future of higher education.

Just walking to this room today, I saw many posters protesting about the Government's plans to introduce top-up fees.

Feelings are running high in campuses around the country.

Many of you will feel deeply betrayed by the Government's recent higher education proposals.

They have broken a promise on student funding - and not for the first time, either!

You will know that in 1997 Tony Blair promised not to introduce tuition fees. We know what happened next.

You will know also, that in 2001 the Government promised not to introduce top-up fees.

And here we are, only two years later. . .

If you never trust one of this government's education promises again, then Labour has only itself to blame.

I have very deep misgivings about the Government's plans for the universities - and I'm not the only one.

Nearly a third of the Parliamentary Labour Party oppose top-up fees. Universities do not want the Access Regulator.

And students and potential students are worried about leaving university with debts of up to £21,000.

Ultimately, the Government's policy will be measured against three tests:

- Is it fair to all students?

- Does it help universities to remain strong and independent?

- Will it spread opportunity?

The Government's plans fail on all three counts.

So let's apply the tests.

The first is fairness.

We have been calling for the reintroduction of grants since Labour abolished them in 1998.

But what about the effect of the higher fees on families whose income is just above the threshold for a grant.

The prospect of a large debt overhang will hardly be an encouragement to young people from families for whom this level of debt would seem obviously and naturally fearsome.

The new Access Regulator is also fraught with danger.

We are all concerned about widening access, but social engineering is the wrong way to deal with the issue.

The Government's plans, and indeed the actions of some universities - Bristol being only the latest -- are really only discrimination by another name.

Some may think this is just about private schools. It is not.

The 'Access Regulator' and some admissions criteria will be against candidates from good schools in the state sector and against their parents.

You here today are all rightly proud - I am sure -- to have been accepted onto your course. And I'm sure you take pride in the fact that you earned your place here on the strength of your own accomplishments.

What I therefore find so extraordinary about this so-called 'Access Regulator' is that he will be in a position to override accomplishments such as those which earned you your place here.

He will be in a position to, in effect, reject a would-be student's application for admission on the grounds that his parents went to university.

What it says to young people is: It's not what you know or have done that matters, but where you are from.

It's perverse! It's positively Orwellian. It's the class system -- just stood on its head!

So I was glad to hear the Prime Minister confirm this week that he agrees that only merit and academic potential should be the criteria for acceptance to university.

But he should also be aware that his Education Secretary, Mr Clarke, has other plans.

You may ask me - well, how do you plan to widen access to university?

And I think the best way, is to improve our schools.

Only by giving all of our children the school education they deserve can we genuinely widen university access among our more disadvantaged children.

We're not going to do it by rigging the admissions system or introducing quotas or punishing success. Only ability should matter.

Thirty-five years ago, more young people from state schools went to our top universities than they do now.

Why? Not because university admissions were rigged against them, but because we abolished a whole tier of excellence in secondary schools.

And only by encouraging our students to excel, do we achieve excellence.

So today - on behalf of the next Conservative Government - I make this pledge to all students and future students.

· We will scrap the Access Regulator.

· We will never set quotas for university access;

· A future Conservative Government would make universities publish their admissions criteria

· And we will prevent universities from using parents' level of education or their income as admissions criteria.

So, to our second test - independence.

Not only is the Government's policy unfair, it also damages the independence of universities.

If our universities are not able to choose students on purely academic grounds, their academic integrity will be compromised.

If talented young people like yourselves are driven away from Britain to study in other countries where universities consider only academic ability and potential, then our own universities will lose ever more ground as world-class educational establishments.

It is happening already. Our universities haven't produced a Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, Medicine or Physics since this Government came to power.

We desperately need to reverse this trend so that our universities can once again compete with the best in the world.

The third test is whether the Government's new announcements on higher education - principally its target of sending 50% of young people to university -- really promote opportunity for all.

Labour think the right way to help people is to set a target, regulate frantically in pursuit of that target, then fiddle the figures until the target is in sight, and finally declare victory before scuttling away.

This is not the right way.

It is fundamentally wrong to entice young people into unsuitable courses with spurious promises of a £400,000 'jackpot' -- only for them to drop out with large debts when they realise they have made a mistake.

All that the government have achieved with their 50 per cent access target is to downgrade most vocational qualifications, and waste large sums of money.

I recently visited Holland where I saw a fantastic system that valued a rigorous technical education.

They don't believe that you can only be considered a success if you study for an academic degree. Nor should we.

Money that could be used much better to fill in the funding gap that has driven this Government into top-up fees.

This is a government that lives by tests and targets. Well, it has been hoist by its own petard.

It misses its targets.

Its policies are failing both yourselves and the institutions of higher learning on which Britain relies so greatly for its future industrial, scientific and intellectual capability.

And the harsh truth of it all is, it is your generation who will pay the price for Labour's severely misplaced ambitions."

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