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Student Bursaries

7. Ross Cranston (Dudley, North) (Lab): What plans he has for university student bursaries; and if he will make a statement. [141763]

11. Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): What plans he has to provide university student bursaries; and if he will make a statement. [141767]

The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Alan Johnson): We have made it clear that universities will need to offer bursaries and other forms of financial support in their access agreement if they want to charge a fee above the standard level. We are considering and discussing the precise contents of access agreements and the duties of the office for fair access and will make a statement in due course.

Ross Cranston : I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. While I fully support the policy on fees, one aspect of its fairness is the availability of bursaries. Not all universities have the same kitty as the university of Cambridge. What about universities such as my local university, the university of Wolverhampton? What expectations does he have of such universities, and what has been their response so far to the idea of providing bursaries?

Alan Johnson: I have written to the university of Wolverhampton, and copied my letter to local MPs, because the university made a mistake in its calculations, which it has accepted, in relation to the money that may be available. I know that many local MPs were influenced by that miscalculation. Like many modern universities, it is determined to ensure that it gives bursaries. Its understandable and genuine concern is that because it has a higher level of non-traditional students—to use the jargon—it may be forced to put more of its extra income into widening participation,

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and in a sense be penalised for succeeding in widening participation in the past. We are seeking to deal with that important concern in discussions with the university sector.

Dr. Iddon : The transparency review process showed that all universities are short of money to support their teaching infrastructure, including staff salaries. Is it reasonable to expect all those universities to recycle some of the fees money into bursaries? Would it not be better if the Government supported poorer students by increased maintenance grants? Will my right hon. Friend explain the expression "above the standard fee"?

Alan Johnson: Universities need money to invest in their infrastructure and the pay of people who work for them—I am talking about all staff, not just academics, whose pay has fallen behind—and they tell us that they will also earmark a proportion of the extra money for bursaries. Whether universities should be forced to put a certain amount of money to one side is a controversial point that we are in discussions about.

The definition of the standard fee is the current £1,125. When it comes to universities being able to charge more than that, under our proposals there is, for the first time, a financial imperative for them to reach sensible access agreements to ensure that they are paying more than just lip service to widening participation—as I am assured that almost all of them are, so that should not create an insuperable problem.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): Do Ministers appreciate that while they temporise in taking decisions and submitting them for the judgment of the House, universities have to get on with the job of issuing prospectuses, including those for students who will commence their studies in 2006, at a time when the details of the tuition fee structure, the bursaries available—state or private—and the access agreements are completely unclear to them?

Alan Johnson: Let me try to make matters clear. The new arrangements will not be introduced until after the next general election—after 2006. The hon. Gentleman is quite right. We need to ensure that we have the Bill in place and that it receives Royal Assent in time for the cohort of students who are looking to take up their places in 2006–07 to be aware of the fees and the access agreements, and we are working to that time scale.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): Bursaries help poorer students, but Ministers seem to be totally unaware of the impact that their proposals will have on lower-paid graduates, particularly those in key jobs. Is the Minister aware that, under his plans, 10 years after starting work an NHS radiographer will be paying £1,500 a year in debt repayments—almost 7 per cent. of take-home pay—and still have debts of more than £10,000 outstanding? How will that help to tackle the acute shortage of young people who are willing to go into key roles such as that?

Alan Johnson: Let me make it quite clear that currently the average debt, as recorded by the student income and expenditure survey, which was published last week, is £8,666. We estimate that the figure is likely

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to increase to around £15,000, but for poorer students there is fee remission and the introduction of a maintenance grant, and there is a much more beneficial system of repayment. The main issue is how to get more money into our universities. The hon. Gentleman, whom I welcome to his post, has to explain how a serious, mainstream political party can suggest that the answer to this problem is to take away the £900 million that universities currently have and do away at a stroke with 100,000 places. I rather like the hon. Gentleman—we are going to get on famously. He said that the problem for students—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I listened to what the hon. Gentleman had to say—the Minister does not need to tell the House.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we are to create much wider access to the leadership of our national institutions and leading companies, we must first open up access to our elite universities? Bursaries will do exactly that.

Alan Johnson: That is absolutely right. We need to get youngsters from all backgrounds to acquire two decent A-levels, because where that happens, nine out of 10 go on to higher education, but there is an 8 per cent. gap between those who apply to Russell group universities, for instance, and to other types of university. That is why the Russell group published yesterday a very welcome document on its intention to provide bursaries post-2006 to help tackle this problem. My hon. Friend is right: for the first time, we have an opportunity to close the obscene social class gap that has dogged our higher education sector for the past 50 years.

Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central) (Lab): On bursaries created out of fee income, will universities be free to have their own tests of income, in order to decide who gets them and who does not, or do the Government intend to impose a standard test of income across all bursary schemes?

Alan Johnson: No, we do not intend to apply a standard test of income. We intend to look at how universities are helping to widen participation, and to help students from poorer backgrounds. That could take the form of outreach activity in primary schools, which has had a marked effect, and raising the aspiration of 14-year-olds to go to university. It could also take the form of providing extra pastoral care, student support through extra grants, and so on. The access regulator's directions will be published when the House considers the legislation. We need to be clear that a proper arrangement is in place to help such students, and it forms a major element of our proposals.

Post-16 Education

8. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): What assessment he has made of the availability of practical training courses in the post-16 education system. [141764]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis): Every local learning and skills council has been asked to undertake a strategic area review of its post-16 provision. These reviews will identify changes required to ensure that young people and adult learners in every community have access to a choice of high quality provision that supports their progression and attainment. Such provision will include quality vocational education. Some 230,000 young people are currently undertaking modern apprenticeships in this country—the highest ever number. In our skills strategy, we announced our intention to introduce a new entitlement to a free first level 2 qualification for all adults.

Sir Nicholas Winterton : I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, but does he agree that our country and society, including industry and commerce, are in dire need of more young people with practical experience, qualifications and expertise? The question of whether young students go on to further or higher education should be based on their needs, merits and qualifications, and not on an arbitrary target of entry to university, or to any other higher education institution.

Mr. Lewis: This Government are committed to ensuring that we have high quality, high status vocational education, and that we do not divide young people into sheep and goats, as the Conservatives seek to do. I should point out that a significant proportion of the 50 per cent. of young people who will go into higher education will do so via vocational education. If we repeat the mistakes of history and say that the choice is between either vocational education or higher education, and that we regard vocational education as second rate, we will again fail to deliver the high quality, high status vocational education that we need.

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that in areas such as Stoke-on-Trent, which is going through the most profound economic and social changes, we continue to be blighted by a skills gap? It is amazing that while those changes are taking place there is still a lack of the necessary skills. Is he satisfied that the balance between education and skills that our learning and skills councils are operating is correct?

Mr. Lewis: The challenge in closing the skills gap is to ensure that far more young people stay on in some form of education or training, and make progress post-16, while giving the adults who are already in the labour market, or who are still on the edge of it, the opportunity to up their skills. School standards, Sure Start and a new approach to education between 14 and 19, combined with a coherent adult skills strategy that enables millions of adults who are already in the workplace to upskill, is the most effective long-term way to narrow the skills gap that continues to undermine this country's productivity.

Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): Globalisation demands the raising of post-16 and adult education skills and standards, but the recent Ofsted and adult learning inspectorate reports were highly critical of existing provision. In addition, the Learning

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and Skills Council figures demonstrate that the three-year funding allocation will not even provide sufficient money for the Government's core priorities of education and basic skills for 16 to 18-year-olds. What does the Minister intend to do to reverse that situation, and will he assure the House that the anticipated and feared funding shortfall—equivalent to losing 10,000 full-time students, or up to 70,000 part-time students—will not materialise?

Mr. Lewis: I welcome the hon. Gentleman both to the House and to the Front Bench, but it does not seem to me that, in the context of a debate about education, a party that advocates 20 per cent. cuts in education spending can say that there are inadequate resources to deliver the education reforms that we need. It is true that we need to improve the quality of work-based learning: 60 per cent. of work-based training courses were not adequate, but in 12 months that proportion went down to 46 per cent., and the work that the Learning and Skills Council and the inspectors are doing to raise standards is beginning to come through and improve the quality of provision. We are not complacent or smug, but the fact that the largest ever number of young people—230,000—are undertaking modern apprenticeships demonstrates that we are beginning to change attitudes to the importance of practical training.

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