Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. St. Aubyn: Does my hon. Friend agree that that highlights the Government's mistake in ignoring the

1 Jul 1998 : Column 285

recommendation of the Dearing report not to abolish the maintenance grant? The fact that they flew in the face of that recommendation is at the heart of the problems we are discussing.

Mrs. Gorman: I agree with my hon. Friend. We are discussing a very important issue. The gap year is not a frivolous extra in the pattern of education that has evolved in this country, but an integral and very important way to help those entering higher education to broaden their knowledge and develop a sympathetic view of the life style of what we choose to call ordinary working people and those overseas who are so much less fortunate than people in this country.

We sometimes take for granted the tremendous advantages of being a British citizen and having the opportunities of higher education offered by the taxpayer, which the previous Government, like all Conservative Governments, sought to expand. The proportion of young people going into higher education has risen from, I think, one in eight to one in three. That is a massive increase. It is important that those young, and to some extent privileged, people go out into the world and learn how the other half lives.

I urge the Minister not to neglect the damage that his party is doing by making higher education more expensive. Those who decide when they leave school that they cannot afford to go to university may be lost to higher education for ever. They may go off into the world of work and find that the cost of severing that connection to go back into higher education is too great. We can take credit for the fact that so many mature students joined our universities under Conservative Governments. Such students have already achieved what might be called gap years by having worked. They now realise the value of education, and have gone back for it.

I left school at 16 and went for what would now be called a gap year, although I did a Louise Woodward and got a job abroad, which was quite poorly paid, but was a wonderful experience--and one that I would not have had if there had been a minimum wage and the employers had had to pay me more than they thought I was worth. That experience was worth a great deal more than money. We should emphasise that point.

The Minister should not just encourage such schemes, but should review again the Government's detrimental move that has made it more difficult and more expensive for people on lower incomes to take those opportunities. There is a fine balance for people coming from what we call a working-class background between choosing higher education and going into work, which they may never come out of to return to higher education. Pushing people in one direction--I think that it is the wrong direction--is one of the many downsides of the Government's policy.

I hope that the Minister will take that criticism on board. It is meant to be constructive, and is based on my experience. I am sure that many other hon. Members have a similar background. Many of those who have come up the hard way to sit on the Labour Benches would, if they were here--I understand that they are busy elsewhere--undoubtedly support the idea of not just keeping but extending the possibilities of the gap year, and making it financially possible.

1 Jul 1998 : Column 286

For all the grandiose talk about the value of such schemes, we shall not achieve an increase in the university of life year unless we make it financially viable. I hope that the Minister will give us a constructive answer, not a lot of political propaganda trumpeting Labour's changes to education. He should admit that there are downsides to his policies, which he should ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment to review carefully.

10.25 am

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) on securing this debate on such an important and topical subject. He should be given credit for the work he did in his gap year, which he described as having taken place a few years ago. As he and I were contemporaries at university, I have inside knowledge on how few those years are. It is probably better for both of us if I draw a veil over the number.

My hon. Friend made a powerful case based on his experience. Being a social worker in Soweto in those days would have been radically different from any experience that he had had before or has had since. It will have been important for his personal growth, and for those for whom he did useful work. It certainly sounds more useful than my gap year, which I spent as a journalist. I am not sure that that improved my social and moral growth, and it may not have been as useful for the community.

I also thank the other two hon. Members who have spoken. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) gave a learned and thoughtful dissection of the chaos that fell on the Government when they made their tuition fees announcement last summer. My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) made a characteristically pungent and thoughtful contribution on the wider benefits of the gap year.

It is regrettable that more hon. Members did not feel impelled to join the debate. The last time that I looked, the parliamentary Labour party had five ex-presidents of the National Union of Students, and their specialist knowledge might have been useful. I can assume only that, like much of the rest of the country, they are spending the morning sticking pins into wax models of David Beckham. That will be my last reference to that national disaster.

We all agree on the importance of this subject. The gap year is important for students. It needs to become more important, but it is in danger of becoming less important for a variety of reasons relating to the attitude of young people and the Government's policies on student funding. It is widely agreed across political divides that promoting lifelong learning is one of the most important steps forward we can take to educate our people and provide a more competitive economy. However, we might be about to take a step backwards on this issue, in which the interaction of real life and academic life has been encouraged for many years. It seems perverse--just when, as a society, we are encouraging people beyond the traditional student age to go into education--to discourage people of the traditional student age from gaining experience in the real world.

The Minister will be aware that several extremely good organisations have for many years been trying to promote gap year activities. Indeed, one, which is neatly called GAP--the Gap Activities Project, an educational charity--

1 Jul 1998 : Column 287

has the Government's specific endorsement. Its most recent brochure contained a message from the Foreign Secretary, celebrating the project's 25th anniversary.

The best quotation in that brochure is from the chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, who makes the point that gap year activities benefit not only students and society as a whole but universities:

one would emphasise "constructive"--

    "some are even beginning to insist on it. GAP volunteers take on social responsibilities and learn the hard way to manage their lives. This means they bring a more mature and broader approach to their studies."

That is clearly true, as I am sure the Minister would agree. GAP is just one of the relevant organisations. My hon. Friend the Member for Guildford mentioned others, and I shall say a word about Voluntary Service Overseas in a minute.

The points made by GAP were emphasised by one of its trustees, Baroness Hooper, who told another place earlier this year that the organisation currently sends 1,300 young people overseas, and that, on her recent visit to the Falkland Islands, she found eight GAP students working in various ways on farms or in local museums. The organisation also brings volunteers from overseas to this country.

Baroness Hooper asked the Government for assurances on three points; I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us on them in this debate. She said that the Government need to encourage broader educational experience and young people should play a more active part in citizenship. All of us must have such an important general aim; we must not let young people drift away from their wider responsibilities.

Baroness Hooper's second point, which I hope the Minister will address, concerned post-qualification applications to university. That fits the wider theme of lifelong learning, about which I am sure the Minister will want to talk. Baroness Hooper suggested that the Government should move to a system of post- qualification applications that

and no doubt other organisations that promote such useful activity--

    "with a clear means of communication to the Department for Education and Employment in terms of being able to provide information from their experience and being able to explain clearly their needs."--[Official Report, House of Lords, 4 March 1998; Vol. 586, c. 1264.]

Baroness Hooper's third issue--my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford also raised it--concerns the millennium volunteers initiative, which has been widely welcomed. It would be impossible to say that all millennium-related activities are uncontroversial. I am sure that the Minister is grateful that the one with which he has most contact--the millennium volunteers programme--is one of the least controversial ideas on the subject that the Government and others have come up with. I congratulate him on that. Nevertheless, I echo my hon. Friend's words, and hope that the Minister will clarify the status of overseas volunteers in the programme. That would clearly give the programme some imprimatur, some badge of approval, which would help to raise its profile and status.

1 Jul 1998 : Column 288

That brings me to VSO, with which, I suppose, most people would associate gap year activities. VSO springs to mind most readily; everyone has heard of it, and everyone has some image of it, which might be wrong. As it is one of the pioneering organisations in its field, the news to which my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford alluded is rather disturbing. VSO has 2,000 volunteers working in 59 developing countries. This year, for the first time, it has seen a fall in the number of its recruits. I am sure that the Minister will have read, as I have, comment inspired by that fall and the possible reasons for it.

The first suggested reason is that many 15 to 25-year-olds simply have not heard of VSO. That is a problem for the organisation. The 10 per cent. drop in the number of volunteers that it will send abroad, which is reflected by a 22 per cent. fall in applications and a 50 per cent. fall in applications for teaching posts, deserves wider consideration. VSO identifies as a potential problem the fact that the word "volunteering" puts people off. As one representative of another voluntary organisation said,

I am happy that, almost officially, the phrase "Cool Britannia" has been buried. It was always a terrible idea. By its very nature, something that is cool today is bound not to be cool tomorrow. Attempting to brand an entire country as cool was an extremely short-term and foolish idea. Behind the slightly flip phrase, however, lies a genuine problem. If it is not considered attractive to young people, the good work--concerning both the people involved and the projects--will suffer. This is one issue on which, for once, the Government's warm words would be useful. I hope that the Minister will consider that.

There appears to be a difference between the attitude of young people to volunteering overseas and to volunteering in this country. The number of volunteers who want to do community service in this country is still rising.

That gives the lie to the general point that has been made in much coverage of VSO's problems that we are entering a "me" generation, in which young people are much less altruistic. My experience is that that is simply untrue. I suspect that the level of altruism in young people does not shift very much from generation to generation. A certain number will be inclined to volunteer, and a certain number will not. The idea that the morality available in any cohort changes radically is slightly short-sighted.

Next Section

IndexHome Page