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House of Commons

Thursday 12 January 2006

The House met at half-past Ten o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

University/Industry Links

1. Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): What steps she is taking to encourage the strengthening of working relationships between universities and industry. [41061]

2. Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): How she intends to strengthen working relationships between universities and industry. [41062]

The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): Relationships between universities and industry are both diverse and valuable. This Government have significantly strengthened those   working relationships. We recently announced £238 million for the third round of the higher education innovation fund; sector skills councils are working with universities to address the higher skill needs of their sectors; we are expanding foundation degrees; and we are continuing investment through research councils, regional development agencies and other programmes. The environment is ripe for greater engagement by industry.

Albert Owen: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that response. As he said, links between universities and business are vital in research and development, and there are many fine examples throughout the United Kingdom. In my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams), Bangor university is innovative in its Technium organisations and networks. However, the knowledge transfer partnership suffers from the complexity of the funding streams and procedures. What steps can my hon. Friend take to ensure that we simplify those so that we do not discourage the business community in the future?

Bill Rammell: Although this is a devolved matter, I am aware of the partnership to which my hon. Friend refers. Complexity is an issue that we constantly keep under review; I discuss it with my noble Friend the Minister for Science and Innovation, and we seek to simplify the process. However, according to the latest research, substantial progress is being made on initiatives driven by the higher education innovation fund, with
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£358 million per annum in turnover from spin-off companies and employment for some 13,000 full-time equivalent staff. Knowledge transfer is taking place, but I fully accept that we need to make the process as simple as possible.

Mark Tami: My hon. Friend may be aware of the training partnership between Deeside college, the North East Wales institute of higher education and Airbus in north Wales, but is he aware that the partnership trains hundreds of employees every year to a very high standard? Is not that a model from which industry and Government could learn? May I invite him to visit in the near future?

Bill Rammell: As this is a devolved matter, I am not sure that I can immediately agree to the request for a visit. I am aware of the hugely exciting initiative to which my hon. Friend refers; it is led by the sector skills    council, SEMTA, and supports a fast-track apprenticeship foundation degree programme. What I find particularly attractive about the initiative is the way it seeks to widen and increase participation, moving on to higher level skills and professional jobs in the process—that is one of the key challenges that we face in vocational education. Someone with two A-levels has a 90 per cent. chance of going on to a higher education qualification, but someone with the vocational level three equivalent has only a 50 per cent. chance. Initiatives such as this could help us to crack that problem.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): Is the Minister aware that despite the concerns of local business, which view it as a vital ingredient in the success of the city, Milton Keynes still lacks a dedicated undergraduate university? As the Minister, I am sure, agrees with the principle of infrastructure before expansion, and it is the focus of the sustainable communities plan, will he agree to meet local business leaders and listen to their plans, and perhaps support in principle a new university for Milton Keynes?

Bill Rammell: I will be more than happy to meet those business leaders if the hon. Gentleman contacts my office. Although there is not a dedicated university in Milton Keynes, there is of course the Open university, which I believe to be one of the finest achievements of any Labour Government.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Is the Minister aware of the excellent work of the university of Wolverhampton and its relationship with RAF Cosford and the defence college of aeronautical engineering? If so, will he have words with his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence and ensure that the ongoing defence training review does not move defence training and valuable engineering jobs, skills and training from Shropshire to Wales? May I offer a refuge in Shropshire?

Bill Rammell: I am aware of the initiative to which the hon. Gentleman refers. The fact that the Government have introduced the higher education innovation fund, and sequentially increased the funding from £77 million to £187 million and now to £238 million, has substantially helped such projects. If the hon.
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Gentleman wants to contact me with his specific concerns about the Ministry of Defence, I will of course talk to colleagues.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that getting the world of work and the world of study co-operating effectively is important not only for industry and the further and higher education sectors, but for providing pathways for people either wanting to change career or to retrain after perhaps having lost their job? Does he agree that restrictions such as the 16-hour rule and the 28-day rule all too often get in the way of that, and we need an urgent review of those procedures?

Bill Rammell: My hon. Friend makes some reasonable points from a position of experience, as he dealt effectively with the awful aftermath of the collapse of Rover. The Rover taskforce, where it broke down some of the Chinese walls and barriers between different funding streams and Departments, was successful in overcoming the problems. There are lessons to be learned, and we keep them under review and discussion with colleagues from other Departments.

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley) (Con): The Minister knows how fervently the Opposition support his work to encourage links between the universities and industry. In that spirit of cross-party consensus on higher education, will he join me in supporting all those engaged in the study and teaching of disciplines that greatly stimulate and develop the mind, but which do not have an immediate vocational application? May I also ask him finally to dissociate himself and his party from the remarks of the former Secretary of State, who deprecated the study of taxpayer-funded history? [Interruption.] Medieval history or any other type of history. Does he agree that those remarks were not only sad and surprising from a man who was notionally in charge of higher education, but economically illiterate?

Bill Rammell: I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new duties and look forward to exchanges and debates with him.

I think that the hon. Gentleman misquotes what the former Secretary of State said about history. Although I welcome the hon. Gentleman's conversion to a commitment to such subjects, the difference between the Conservatives and Labour in government is that we have substantively increased funding to universities, whereas the previous Conservative Government cut it.

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware of the excellent work that the north-east process industry cluster has developed between universities and industry, especially in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries? I am sure that we can expect support from our Government to ensure that that work continues. In the same spirit as my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), I invite my hon. Friend the Minister to Teesside to see the excellent work that the cluster is doing.

Bill Rammell: Before I send my diary manager through the roof, I would be happy to consider such a visit if my hon. Friend will contact me with the details.
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I am aware of the initiative to which my hon. Friend referred; in fact, I cited it in a speech last night. It is an exciting initiative that brings together the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. It tackles the downturn in other industries and significantly increases the high-level skills base. I applaud what the partners are doing in that area.

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