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Universities (Academic Freedom)

5. Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): If he will make a statement on academic freedom in universities. [73372]

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The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): Academic freedom is a fundamental principle of our higher education system. It is vital that academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and voice controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy.

Michael Gove: I thank the Minister for that reply. He recently appointed Dr. Atta Ullah Siddiqui of the Islamic Foundation in Leicester to review Islamic education at university. Given that the Islamic Foundation has been described by the BBC’s “Panorama” as one of “the most influential” outposts of “militant Islamist ideology” in Europe, given that it led the militant opposition to Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” and given that it promotes the work of Abu Ala Mawdudi, who called for a worldwide Islamic revolution, how is this move likely to promote freedom in our universities?

Bill Rammell: This is an important issue and an important review that we are pursuing. It is crucial that we get it right. I appointed Dr. Siddiqui after careful consideration and decided that he was the best-qualified of a number of candidates. If the hon. Gentleman looks at Dr. Siddiqui’s record, what he has said and what he has written, they will show that he has a commitment to improving relations between Muslims and the wider community. He is vice-chair of the Christian-Muslim association launched by the Archbishop of Canterbury. He also has a distinguished academic record, and in terms of the number of questions that have been put forward, he has categorically assured me that he has no links to the Jamaat-e-Islami party. I think that he is a very credible candidate to take on this task.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): We completely agree with the Minister about the importance of academic freedom. Does he agree, however, that the freedom that academics enjoy must be matched by a responsibility to their students? If the strike by academics were to leave many students unable to take their degrees and jeopardise their careers, that would be taking academic freedom much too far. Further to the Minister’s answer, will he confirm that he will support universities that legitimately make alternative arrangements to ensure that exam papers are marked this summer?

Bill Rammell: The answer to that question is, of course, yes. The Government want absolutely to ensure that students are not adversely affected by this dispute. We have made it clear on several occasions that a resolution of the dispute is crucial. I regard it as an encouraging sign—I put it no stronger than that—that talks were held at ACAS on Tuesday and that talks are taking place today. We urge the trade unions to put an offer to their members and hope that the dispute is resolved as quickly as possible.

Secondary School Places (Milton Keynes)

6. Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): If he will make a statement on the availability of secondary school places in Milton Keynes. [73373]

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The Minister for Schools (Jim Knight): As I made clear in my response to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), the local authority determines the demand for and supply of places at its schools, which is a procedure reinforced by the Education and Inspections Bill. Where an authority demonstrates that it cannot fund the statutory number of places from the funding that it is allocated, it can apply to my Department for exceptional funding. It should be noted that the Government have met all funding requests from Milton Keynes borough council since 1997.

Mr. Lancaster: Every day, Milton Keynes welcomes 13 new residents as the Government force the city to expand. That puts enormous pressure on our schools. Currently, 450 pupils are being educated in temporary accommodation, and the temporary accommodation at Oakgrove is now set to stay for another five years. Given that the Government are happy to set the expansion plan for Milton Keynes until 2031 but funding for schools only until 2008, does the Minister at least accept that temporary schools appear to be here to stay?

Jim Knight: I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the expansion of Milton Keynes and the subsequent need for enhanced infrastructure. Under this Government, Milton Keynes and its schools have been allocated more than £125 million of capital support for 2005-06 and 2007-08 alone, including£86 million based on new pupil places criteria. Iam aware of his concerns about temporary accommodation, and the overall position on temporary accommodation has improved dramatically under this Government. He will know that, in 1997, investment in school buildings was just £683 million, and that will increase to more than £8 billion by 2010-11. The Government are committed to ensuring that we do not need temporary buildings and that we keep them to a minimum, but, clearly, where there is rapid expansion of population and schools, they will be used.

Prisoner Education

7. Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): If he will make a statement on his policy on the education of prisoners. [73374]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Phil Hope): With the Home Office and the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Education and Skills has produced an education policy for prisoners and offenders generally, “Reducing Re-Offending Through Skills and Employment”. We aim to improve the skills of offenders, including prisoners, and to improve their employment prospects, so that we can help to reduce reoffending and ensure that those individuals make a positive contribution to society.

Greg Clark: I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware, however, that 70 per cent. of prisoners are illiterate, though it is obvious to anyone that their
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rehabilitation depends on them learning to read and write? Is he also aware that the director general of the Prison Service appeared before the Public Accounts Committee, on which I serve, and pointed out that only 30 per cent. of prisoners have access to education during their sentences? He said that there is

Does the Minister agree that that is a shameful assessment?

Phil Hope: The hon. Gentleman is right that there is a huge basic skills gap among prisoners, and we are doing a great deal to ensure that we deliver more skills for life qualifications to offenders, including those in prison. We have doubled the number of offenders receiving skills for life level 1 literacy qualifications, which has been a huge success. The document to which I referred spells out in detail how we are trying to improve the quality of training inside our prisons to widen access to education and training and to ensure that more offenders, inside and outside prison, gain skills that lead them into jobs. If an offender gets a job, the prospects of them reoffending are much reduced.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): For many years, education funding for young people in the secure estate was less than two thirds of funding for the average pupil in a secondary school, although young people in the secure estate are some of the lowest educational achievers and are some of the most vulnerable members of society. What are the Government doing to increase per capita funding for those young people to a higher level than the average funding for secondary school pupils?

Phil Hope: My hon. Friend is right to raise the important issue of young offenders. I was at Feltham young offender institution last week talking to young people who were undergoing education. Many are alienated, disaffected and disengaged from education. They are in secure accommodation because they committed offences that merited imprisonment, and they are some of the most challenging individuals with whom to work.

I spoke to staff at Feltham, who, like staff in other youth custody institutions throughout the country, do a fantastic job in re-engaging young people in education, and giving them skills and aspirations that they have never had before. It is a challenging environment in which to work, and I was deeply impressed. We have doubled resources for the education of offenders, and that increase, along with the talent that is there and the new Offenders Learning and Skills Service—which is now being delivered throughout the secure estate—will raise aspirations and the quality of the education given to young people in our prisons.

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): Does the Minister recognise the concern expressed by the Home Affairs Committee and the Prison Reform Trust about the possibility that progress in the meeting of basic skills targets will be eroded by the ever-increasing number of people going through the system, the high
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level of transfer between institutions, and the apparently large differentials between institutions in terms of provision? Does he share those concerns, and what is he doing to address them?

Phil Hope: I do share those concerns. We are taking a number of steps to ensure that we can deliver education and training in a service in which prisoners move from one institution to another. That is a real challenge, but our Green Paper specifies a number of measures to deal with it. They include modularised courses, which mean that an offender who has been taking a course and is moved from one institution to another can continue to study because the second institution provides a similar course.

The transfer of records is a problem. We want to improve the manual transfer system, and, ideally, to adopt a system of electronic transfer so that prisoners’ learning profiles can follow them to new institutions. All our proposals are spelt out in detail in the Green Paper. The consultation finishes at the end of this month, and later in the year, once consensus has been achieved, I shall present proposals for the implementation of those changes.

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I know that my hon. Friend is aware of the importance of linking education in prisons directly to the development of skills for employment, but will his Department examine the way in which education is structured in prisons? It is important to engage prisoners who are serving short-term sentences. Many of those prisoners are women. Can they be encouraged to take advantage of such programmes, and can the courses be structured in such a way that they can be continued following release?

Phil Hope: My hon. Friend has put her finger on a key issue: how we can improve the quality of education and training in our prison system. Inspection is now conducted at a level equivalent to mainstream education standards, and as a result of that regime, more prisons are paying attention to the quality of education.

I met a young woman in Low Newton prison in Durham who was taking a painting and decorating course. The possibility of a qualification leading to a job was a bonus, but it also meant that she could decorate a nursery at home for her child. We would like that combination of improved skills and enhanced life chances to be replicated throughout the prison system.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): The Government have a criminal record on prison education. A damning report from the Education and Skills Committee stated that 50 per cent. of inmates lacked the skills needed for 96 per cent. of jobs. A year later, only four of its 55 recommendations have been implemented. My hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who is a member of the Public Accounts Committee and whose work I commend, found that only 30 per cent. of prisoners receive any formal education during their sentences.

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The Government set a target: prisoners should devote 24 hours a week to purposeful activity, including education. Why, given the Minister’s fine words, have the Government—according to the director general of the Prison Service—dropped their target for prison education altogether?

Phil Hope: We are in fact exceeding those targets as a result of increasing investment in the Prison Service, and offenders now have more and longer opportunities to engage in education. During the day in prisons, there are not only education courses but, because of the way in which prisons are run, other learning opportunities to enable skills levels to be increased, such as catering and making things in workshops. Training and education is provided across the piece and is seen as an integral part of the way in which the Prison Service operates. We have delivered 18 of the recommendations in the Select Committee report to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Four of them are long term and are being delivered as we speak, four others do not require any action—they were recommendations for others—and six we disagreed with.

Our record on delivering the recommendations of that report—I point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) that it is a good analysis—suggests that we have made and are making real progress. As we build on the Green Paper this year, we will see further delivery of our commitment to improve education and training for prisoners, so that their chances of reoffending are reduced and they can get a job when they leave prison.

EU Students (Loan Repayments)

8. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): What estimate he has made of the number of EU-domiciled students who will receive loans for study at a UK higher education institution and will then default on repayment of those loans. [73376]

The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): We estimate that 14,000 students each year from other European Union countries who are studying in English institutions will be able to take out loans for tuition fees. We have put in place robust measures so that after graduation, these borrowers repay their loans—just as United Kingdom graduates do. Repayments are affordable and linked to income, and will be collected even if the graduate returns home.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I am very grateful to the Minister for that constructive reply, but what will happen to those students who do not keep the Student Loans Company informed of any changes and those who move, for example? How will they be traced? Is it right that the hard-pressed British taxpayer should be responsible for picking up the cost of those loans that are not repaid? Why, moreover, are EU countries apparently not prepared to help the UK in recovering these loans?

Bill Rammell: I made a parliamentary written statement on this issue on Tuesday, and we have done a
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number of things. We have deliberately introduced lower repayment thresholds for less wealthy EU countries, so that students who return to them will nevertheless make an income-contingent repayment. Crucially, we have put in place procedures to enable the Student Loans Company to take action to enforce the debt in court both in the UK and abroad, if necessary. We intend to use EC regulation 44/2001, which will allow the SLC to enforce a judgment made in the UK courts and in the rest of the EU. On rights and responsibilities, these provisions stem from a European Court of Justice ruling back in 1988. I ask the hon. Gentleman to recall how many times in the nine subsequent years, when the Conservatives were in office, the Conservative Government challenged the ruling. In my recollection, they did so not once.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Contrary to the implication of this question, which is that EU-domiciled students are foreigners, is it not true that actually, all British students are also EU-domiciled? Indeed, they have benefited enormously from greater opportunities to study elsewhere in Europe over the past few years, but such opportunities depend on reciprocal arrangements with other countries. If we are to ensure that those opportunities really are advanced for young students—be they from the Rhondda or anywhere else in the UK—is it not vital that we strengthen our relationship with other countries? Would it not also be a good idea to have greater integration of our legal systems, so that we can pursue debts elsewhere in Europe?

Bill Rammell: My hon. Friend tempts me too far on this issue, but I strongly agree with him that we have a massive strategic national interest in a two-way flow of students: students from Britain going elsewhere in the European Union, and other EU students coming to this country. But it is important to make it clear that, although we welcome those overseas students, it is right that on leaving their courses, all those who can contribute to the cost of their higher education should do so, regardless of what country they are from and where they choose to live. The arrangements that we have announced this week will ensure that that happens.

Further Education

9. Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): What steps he is taking to increase the participation in further education of people with no qualifications. [73377]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): A wide range of policies exists to increase participation in learning by adults without qualifications. Our national employer training programme, Train to Gain, and the entitlement to free tuition for a first level 2 will both be available throughout England from this September. We also announced in our recent White Paper a new foundation learning tier to create progressive pathways below level 2.

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Helen Jones: I welcome my hon. Friend to his new post, and I also welcome the steps that the Government are taking to improve participation in further education. Will he consider the issue that I raised in a recent debate in Westminster Hall, which is the closure of some adult education courses that, without leading to qualifications in themselves, actually bring into education adults who have no qualifications and who would not come through the college doors otherwise? Will he undertake to monitor that issue carefully and to learn from the success of adult and community learning in increasing the participation rates of those without any qualifications, so that we can get to those who are hardest to reach?

Mr. Dhanda: My hon. Friend makes her point exceedingly well and I enjoyed reading the report of her Adjournment debate in the early hours of this morning. She will be well aware that the personal and community development learning courses that she mentioned in her debate are being protected by a fund of some £210 million for the next two years, and I know that she will also agree that the Government face a challenge in terms of equipping people for the workplace at level 2. Part of the difficulty is that over the years so many people have taken courses below level 2 and have not made it through to that level, and 51 per cent. of those who do not have any qualifications do not end up in work, whereas 75 per cent. of those with a level 2 qualification do find work. We want to complete the pathway from no qualification to level 2, so I am sure that my hon. Friend will support the new foundation learning tier that will be implemented from September to do just that.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I welcome the Minister to his post and I entirely endorse the comments by the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones). It is disappointing that the Government have cut the funding for the learning and skills council in north Yorkshire to such an extent that York college is no longer able to offer the sort of evening classes and community education that are so important in rural areas. The Minister mentions level 2 qualifications, but why should funding for that level exclude funding for community education and evening classes? The Government must surely fund both.

Mr. Dhanda: The hon. Lady makes an interesting point, but provision for spending the £210 million that I mentioned, which is ring-fenced for the next two years, is patchy nationally. Provision is not consistent across the board, and we will look at that. I am determined not to be overtly partisan on my first outing at the Dispatch Box, but it is important for Opposition Members to realise that funding for further education has increased by 48 per cent. since 1997, whereas it fell by 14 per cent. in the last term of the Conservative Government.

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