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As I said at the outset, I have focused on the new skills challenge and its relationship with part-time study. I end by paying tribute to a pioneer in this field—Bob Fryer, who 10 years ago was the principal of the Northern college. He was chair of the National Advisory Group for Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning and, since that time, he has continued the important work of widening participation by developing innovative and Government-supported strategies that could be seen as a model for future action. He was a leading figure in the
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early years of the University for Industry, which is now rebranded as learndirect, then the chief executive of the NHS university, and he is now the Department of Health’s national director for widening participation in learning. His work shows how seriously the Department of Health takes the development of its staff, especially the 25 per cent. who are qualified below NVQ level 2. His first report last year identified a great disparity between professional and non-professional employees in the national health service, and it is something that I know the Department will take seriously. It is very much part of the whole debate about widening participation.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House referred to the fact that we should not be narrow in our definition of higher education. It is not entirely about residential, full-time university opportunities; it is about work-based learning, home-based learning and a whole host of other things that have been developed by fine institutions such as the Open university.

I conclude not only by referring to the great and the good, such as Michael Young and Bob Fryer, as pioneers, but by recognising those people at the grass roots, such as Lesley Smith and Julie Bibby, who are carrying forward the work of widening participation for working-class women in former mining communities through the work of organisations such as the Dove workshop in the Dulais valley. It is now held up throughout Europe as a model of how to address the skills deficit in socially deprived communities. I should declare an interest at this point: my wife was one of the founders of the workshop and is its current president.

I am wearing the tie of the university of Wales, whose motto is “Prifysgol y Werin”—the people’s university, an aspiration that we all share. The challenge before us today is much easier than it was 150 years ago, when the university of Wales was established. The pennies of the poor, which inspired the establishment of the university of Wales, still inspire developments such as the Community university of the valleys, with which I was associated, Birkbeck college’s fine work in east London, and—most inspirationally of all—London South Bank university’s partnership with universities in South Africa to widen participation for black and coloured peoples, women, and working class people in that new country. It is the task of this Labour Government to sustain, widen and deepen such initiatives so that they are not marginal, but are mainstream in our higher education system. That would be a real achievement.

Mr. Boris Johnson: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not allowing him to interrupt during my speech. It was because I was taking so many other interventions. I want to join him in what he says about Birkbeck. I hugely support Birkbeck’s fantastic efforts in the east end. But does he really think that women represent a minority whose participation in higher education needs to be expanded, given that they currently make up 59 per cent. of the student body?

Dr. Francis: I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but what was lacking in his contribution was any class
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analysis. I am talking about working-class women and black working-class women. People from all kinds of social backgrounds should be encouraged—particularly women of working-class origin.

My last point is that this is a worthy, honourable and appropriate challenge for a party in government today that gave this country and the world the national health service and the Open university. It is a challenge that it will meet and in which it will succeed.

4.56 pm

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis), because I want to pick up on some of the points that he made about part-time students, but also because I share with him an interest that I should declare: until fairly recently, my wife was in charge of widening participation at Warwick university. I should put that on the record from the outset, before I start complimenting Warwick university on all the wonderful work that it did until recently to widen participation—and, of course, is still doing.

It is quite apparent from what we have heard in the debate so far that the issue of widening participation in higher education has been around for a great many years, but the issue has changed and developed. Whereas once upon a time we might have talked about the need to bring more women into higher education, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) has just observed, that is most distinctly no longer the issue. If anything, the issue is now the opposite of that. It is just as true to say that, as the Secretary of State observed yesterday and this morning, we must look at how to bring more white working-class boys and young men into higher education, as to say that we must look at many ethnic minority groups.

The issue is changing and developing and we find new challenges within it. One of those new challenges, to which reference has also been made, is the need to bring more disabled people into higher education. That brings with it specific challenges that are to do with the need to persuade people with disabilities, whether physical or mental, that university is an environment within which they can thrive. I say that because for those with a disability, it is particularly challenging and worrying to have to adapt to a new environment. It is important for that group that we make every effort to ensure that the environment is reassuring and that the development they will need to find within the environment that they will move into will be suitable for them.

Above all—this applies not just to disabled potential students, but to many of the other groups that we have talked about—we need to find new and imaginative ways to persuade people of something on which everyone has focused. I am talking about the need to explain that, despite their initial perception, university is a place within which they can do well and feel comfortable. One of the most imaginative and effective ways to do that is to develop mentoring programmes. If it is possible to demonstrate to someone that a student who is just like them—in terms of their background, the challenges that they have faced and the interests that they share—has done well at university, that is the most effective way that I can think of to show a prospective student that they will also do well in a
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university setting. I hope that what the Government have in mind for developing the widening of participation in higher education will include an element of mentoring, because that is very effective.

I want to widen the debate beyond the issues about which we have talked at some length and to concentrate on how we can broaden out the 18-to-30 age group that is going into universities. We could widen participation among those outside that group. I disagree with the Government’s 50 per cent. target for participation in higher education among the 18-to-30 age group for several reasons. One of the target’s flaws is the fact that it tends to focus too much attention on that age group and thus to underline the perception that higher education is only for people between the ages of 18 and 30, and that when one reaches the age of 30, it is no longer an appropriate course to pursue. That is profoundly wrong, and it is entirely at variance with other things that the Government are properly trying to do to develop the idea of education being a lifelong experience.

In many ways, the problem is mirrored by what is happening with adult learning courses. For perfectly understandable reasons, the Learning and Skills Council is focusing its attention and funding on the 14-to-25 age group, but the people who suffer are those outside that age group who are trying to attend adult learning courses later in life. Again, I understand why that focus is there and I sympathise with many of the reasons for it. However, one of its consequences is that it underlines the perception that if one has not taken the chance to go into higher education early in life, one cannot do so later. Such a situation would be profoundly regrettable.

I am not making my point solely to criticise the Government. On the contrary, I think that they are trying to deal with the situation. It is important that people understand that education, and especially higher education, is about second chances as well as first chances. Someone who did not go into higher education should be able to do so later, and people who, for whatever reason, went into higher education and then came out of it should be able to go back. Academics and those involved in higher education often say that people who go back into higher education later in life after an initial only-too-brief experience have done proportionately better on the second occasion, and better than others who have gone straight into higher education. There is a lot to be said for the opportunity to go in, or back in, at a later date.

It is important that we develop the idea of lifelong learning and consider widening participation in that context. We face a changing economic world in which few people of my age or younger will be able to look forward to one career from the moment they leave education to the moment they retire. We have realised that that is true for manual trades and technical professions, but we might not have recognised it quite so comprehensively for the professional or academic fields. For people in those fields, too, there will be huge burdens of retraining and expectations of re-education, so universities have a massive part to play in developing that re-education and retraining.

I accept that that already happens, to an extent, so I congratulate universities on what they do. They already effectively provide continuing professional development
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for those in mid-career who wish to develop their skills. I would like to see more of that. However, we face a particular challenge when addressing those who are between careers because, for whatever reason, they have left their particular employment or profession. Such people might wish to retrain and re-educate themselves so that they can go forward in a different field. However, those people are often in an especially difficult position. Employers, of course, see it as in their interests to pay for the continuing professional and academic development of their staff, so they do so. The universities find that helpful and they provide a good service. However, people who are between careers have a problem because they do not, by definition, have an employer that can help to fund what they wish to do to retrain, to be re-educated, or to re-skill. How are they to fund what they wish to do? Those individuals face particular problems. The hon. Member for Aberavon mentioned people who wished to become part-time students; overwhelmingly, the people I am describing will wish to study part-time, rather than full-time. They may face caring responsibilities, or more general family responsibilities, and they may well be obliged to earn money while studying. They will almost certainly face the challenge of having to reacquaint themselves with how studying and learning works, because they will have been absent from education for some time. They will face particular challenges, and although the issue is partly about how we can structure their educational experience so that they feel more comfortable with it, it is substantially about funding.

I do not have a magic solution to offer the Minister any more than anyone else does, but neither his Government nor any other Government can simply say, “The issue is too difficult and complicated; we won’t address these problems.” An answer must be found, because the group of people to whom I am referring will become ever larger, and will have ever more demanding needs. We need to find a way to ensure that their educational experience is comfortable, and we need to ensure that they can afford to undertake those educational tasks and can sustain themselves economically while they do so. That is partly because of the economic benefits that they will receive, but partly because of the benefits that we will all receive if more people reach a higher standard in education.

There are wider benefits to higher education, too, but very little has been said about them this afternoon. There are huge cultural benefits, benefits of well-being, and straightforward health benefits to higher education and further education. We have an increasingly ageing population that will need to return to education more often. People may wish to return to education once their working life is done. They may well want to re-enter some form of education during what may be a very long retirement, in order to keep their brain active and keep themselves interested, and we should encourage that. Why should we not talk about widening participation in higher education for those in retirement? They will have the time, and may have the income, to go into higher education. There must be considerable advantages to our society of encouraging people to keep their brains active, given that we know that dementia, Alzheimer’s and other conditions among older people will be an increasing drain on the health budget.

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I am keen to allow others to participate, but I wanted to speak in favour of broadening the definition of widened participation, so that it includes those beyond the 18-to-30 age group, important though that is. I want to talk about a broader idea of what education should be; it should be a genuine lifelong learning experience. It should not be expected or anticipated that a person’s education will finish when they are 16, 24, 60 or 84. It should genuinely be an opportunity that people may take advantage of at any stage of their life. If we can achieve that, we will genuinely have widened participation.

5.7 pm

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I, too, congratulate the Minister on introducing today’s debate. Like many others in the House, I share a real interest in widening participation in higher education. As hon. Members may well know, before I entered the House I worked in higher education and did stints at Ruskin college and the Open university, two institutions that are absolutely committed to widening participation.

The debate is important, because it underpins values held by the Labour party, most notably the value of securing equal opportunity for all socio-economic groups when it comes to education. That is one of our foundations, and it remains an important aspiration. I am sorry to start on a contentious note, but I could not disagree more with the hon. Members for Henley (Mr. Johnson) and for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) about the Government’s aspiration of getting 50 per cent. of young people into higher education. We have to look closely at why the Government set that target. It has helped us to shape the debate about higher education by focusing it clearly on getting more people into HE.

Jeremy Wright: I accept, as does the hon. Lady, that it is a good thing to get more people into higher education, so I do not object to the target on those grounds. However, if we set a target of 50 per cent. we instantly suggest to young people who are seeking to go to university that if they do not do so, they must be in the bottom half. There is no problem in saying that we want as many people as possible to go to university who have the capability and ambition to do so, and who will benefit from the experience, but there is no reason to put a figure on it.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: I accept that point only in so far as to say that we should not rest with the minimum. We must do everything that we can to encourage as many young people and other age groups to go to university. However, it is important to provide an aspiration, as it helps to focus everyone’s attention on getting more young people and others into university.

It is a pity that the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) is not in the Chamber, because he discussed the Leitch report, which made the point that we need to upskill the entire population. Some of that upskilling will take place in further education to level 3, but we must give our young people higher-level skills if we are to achieve a knowledge-based economy and
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compete internationally. In the past couple of years, I have had the opportunity of visiting India and China, where there is massive investment in the higher education system and a hunger for learning among young people. If we are to compete in future we must ensure that our young people have suitable skills.

There are other reasons for extending higher education opportunities. Recent forecasts by the Institute of Employment Research show that half of the 12 million jobs—some 6 million—likely to become vacant between 2004 and 2014 will be in occupations most likely to employ graduates. Graduates are more likely to enjoy better health and are less likely to commit crime. They are much more likely to engage actively in civil society, and we need no other reason for trying to encourage access to higher education. So far, the Government’s record is quite good. Since 1997, university applications for undergraduate enrolment have risen by about 23 per cent., and there has been a 28 per cent. increase for postgraduates. The proportion of first-degree entrants to university from state schools has risen, as has the number of young people going to university from low-participation areas. About 28.2 per cent. of young entrants to first degree courses are from the lowest socio-economic groups, which shows that good progress has been made on achieving the 50 per cent. target. However, Government Members are not at all complacent, and we accept that much more needs to be done if we are to achieve the 50 per cent. target and, indeed, exceed it, as we all want to do.

To achieve that goal, the Government have taken a number of steps to improve the admissions process. In particular, they have sought to raise aspirations. Not only do we have to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for everyone, but we must ensure that we raise the aspirations of people in the lowest socio-economic groups, as well as their attainment at university level. That means encouraging more young people to engage in post-16 learning. As well as young people doing A-levels and going straight on to university, there has been an increase in part-time study at university.

When considering the 18-to-30 group, we perhaps do not pay enough attention to the expansion that has taken place in work-related learning and work-based learning, and the excellent work that a number of trade unions are doing in the workplace through Unionlearn and by getting employees signed up to opportunities for more training and further qualifications.

Aimhigher has been mentioned this afternoon. It is a national programme that we know works in some of the intensively disadvantaged areas of the country. It co-ordinates a number of activities locally from HE, FE, schools and the learning and skills councils to encourage more young people into higher education and further education. I welcome the activities that Aimhigher carries out in my constituency, but I would like to hear more from the Minister about how it will be reviewed and how it might be transformed so that it can extend its work further.

I shall say something more about the higher education institution and the further education institution in my constituency. When we have these debates, we sometimes forget about the tremendously good work that is already being undertaken by institutions to raise aspiration and extend access. As
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the MP for City of Durham, I draw attention to the work of Durham university and New college Durham. Durham university is one of our leading research institutions. It would probably accept that it could do more to widen access. Nevertheless, it has a school- targeted aspiration-raising scheme, which it calls STARS, fortunately. That is targeted at local schoolchildren aged 14 to 16 to give them an idea of what it is like to be a student. They are brought into the university for study days and given mentors in the community.

I also want to draw attention to the mentoring scheme that Durham university runs through Collingwood college for its students to mentor looked-after children. We need to put more effort into raising the educational attainment of looked-after children, and the mentoring scheme has been shown to be extremely successful in raising the aspirations of those children. The Government should try and think of ways in which that scheme could be rolled out further. Durham university does all the things that almost all higher education institutions in the country do, by offering master classes, summer schools, talks and tours for years 12 and 13.

New college Durham undertakes activities though the Aimhigher programme. It has a target of taking 75 per cent. of its students from low-income neighbourhoods. We should applaud that target and the college’s efforts to work with local schools and other colleges to meet it.

There are a few topics on which I should like to hear the Minister’s comments. We have heard the figures that show that the Government are making considerable progress towards the 50 per cent. target, but there is more to do. What role will extending foundation degrees, particularly vocational foundation degrees, play in achieving the target? How might the Further Education and Training Bill address the issue by giving colleges the ability to award their own foundation degrees? What more can be done to encourage universities, particularly ones like Durham, where the majority of the intake comes from the independent sector, to get more applications and more students from state schools into our best universities, and to ensure that some of those students come from lower-income backgrounds, to raise aspirations across the board? Will the Education and Inspections Act 2006 be an important factor in that respect in terms of extending the right of schools to have a sixth form?

Will the Minister acknowledge that there is still a need to streamline all the different organisations involved in promoting skills and skills development? The situation is incredibly confusing not only for young people, but for older people who are trying to get back into higher or further education, because they are bombarded with information from a huge number of agencies. There needs to be better liaison between local authorities, learning and skills councils and schools in an area in order to plan effectively.

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