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The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): We have had a good and constructive debate, and I am grateful to all hon. Members who contributed to it. I start by reciprocating the acknowledgment of the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) that we have rightly discussed the Bill across the Benches and improved it as it has progressed. I believe that where can do that, it is the right thing to do.
I start from the premise that I strongly believe that our further education sector is probably more life-transforming than schools or universities. There are literally countless examples up and down the country of further education colleges that have given people a second chance and have immeasurably improved the quality of their lives. For too long, however, the further education sector has felt neglected and undervalued. I believe that under this Government that has changed, and will change further.
We were the first Government to commission two successive skills White Papers, highlighting the crucial role of further education in delivering skills for work. We commissioned Andrew Foster to conduct the most comprehensive review of our further education system to date. We commissioned, across Whitehall, Lord Leitch to undertake a detailed analysis of what we need to do to meet our skills aspirations by 2020 and the critical role that further education will play in the process. This is the first further education Bill that we have discussed in the House for 15 years. Further education is now centre stage in a way that it has not been in the past, and we should all welcome that.
In the past decade we have rightly increased investment in further education significantly, by almost 50 per cent. in real terms. That is a huge contrast with the 14 per cent. real-terms cut in the five years preceding 1997. We know that a poor environment leads to poor learning, but in 1996-97 there was not one penny for further education in the earmarked capital budget. This year the Government will spend £500 million on further education capital projects, which will shortly increase to £850 million. In virtually every college I visit, all over the country, I see physical examples of regeneration.
Bill Rammell: That figure relates to changes that have already taken place. The savings are already being delivered under the LSCs strand 7, and those changes will further streamline the LSCs operations. I shall deal with the right hon. Gentlemans point in detail later in my speech.
Because of the Governments extra investment, because of our reforms and because of the
phenomenally hard work of those who work in the further education sector, to whom we should all pay tribute, we have seen significant improvements in performance over the past decade. In the past six years alone, overall success rates in further education colleges have rocketed by a third, from 56 per cent. in 1999 to 2000 to 77 per cent. in 2005-06. We have seen 1.6 million learners attain their first skills for life qualifications in literacy, language and numeracy. We haverightlyincreased dramatically the number of people gaining both level 2 and level 3 qualifications.
Much of todays debate has centred on the relationship between the Bill and the Leitch agenda. Let me respond in detail to the points that have been made. The Leitch report built on reforms already introduced through the further education White Paper and, indeed, the Bill. The Bill is about the supply side preparing to deliver a more responsive system, increasingly engaging with employer needs, while Leitch focuses more closely on stimulating and channelling the demand side. If we are genuinely to rise to Lord Leitchs challenge, Government, employers and individuals must work together. That is why we are engaged in a process of consensus-building on the Leitch recommendations. Should we and partners agree at the end of that process that any of Leitchs recommendations require legislationand we may well take that viewwe will use a separate legislative vehicle. In the meantimeand I consider this the really important pointthere is no benefit to be had from stalling the momentum for change that has built up in the further education system, and which the Bill enables us to take forward.
the switch to demand-led funding and end to the supply-side planning of adult skills provision fundamentally changes the role of planning bodies, such as the LSC.
Bill Rammell: Lord Leitch made it clearas the Government have made clearthat the role of the LSC can and should continue to evolve and change, but Lord Leitch also made it clear that instinctively he was not in favour of ripping up structures and starting again simply for the hell of it, but that we had to reform the process overall.
The two other significant areas of debate this evening have been interventions and foundation degree awarding powers. On intervention powers, we need a new relationship with colleges that will release the energy of providers in order to focus on the improvements that we need and to meet the needs of learners overall. We have committed to new freedoms for FE providers to enable them to transform their provision. However, that must be matched by clear commitments to continue to drive up the quality of the system. We now have much less failure and unsatisfactory provision in the FE system than in the recent past, but we have to ensure that we eliminate such poor provision. As any failing provision means
that we are failing learners, that is imperative for all of us. The White Paper made it clear that we would establish a robust intervention strategy, and the Bill seeks to do that.
We will ensure that the concerns that have been expressed during the passage of the Bill will be addressed when we introduce amendments in Committee. We retain our commitment to intervene, but we will also address the concerns that have been raised, and I believe that we can come up with a set of proposals that establish the role of the LSC and that of the governing body in dealing with failure and underperformance.
One of the most innovative aspects of the Bill is the proposal to allow high-performing colleges to award their own foundation degrees. Foundation degrees give students a strong basis for employment in their chosen sector. Programmes are designed and delivered in partnership with employers. The amount of people on foundation degrees continues to rise; there are currently about 61,000, and we are confident of moving towards 100,000 by the end of the decade. There are significant rewards for students; they have better job prospects, and once they are in work they have better prospects for progression. Foundation degrees also provide an accessible route for many people who would not otherwise go into higher education.
Some FE colleges already run foundation degree programmes, but colleges without full degree-awarding powers cannot award the qualifications in their own right. We strongly contend that if they meet the necessary quality criteria they should be able to do so. The measure aims to innovate and to free up providers within the system. The robust quality criteria on which we will be taking these changes forward are based closely on those for full taught degree awarding powers. We have rightly listened carefully to the feedback that we received since the Bills publication and that has helped us to strengthen the proposals on foundation degrees. For example, a Government amendment to address the issue of colleges franchising their foundation degrees was rightly passed in another place, and another Government amendment required a report on the effect of proposals to be laid before Parliament.
It is vital that all foundation degrees are of the same standard and carry the same academic value regardless of whether they are awarded by a college or a university. A foundation degree is a significant and important qualification in its own right, but it needs to provide a gateway to more advanced levels of study, should the learner wish to pursue that option. All foundation degree awarding institutions will be expected to have progression routes to more advanced levels of study in place in respect of their foundation degrees. Nevertheless, because of the widespread interest in the matter of progression, I am minded to introduce a further amendment that will focus on the importance of progression routes. The Opposition have pushed strongly for that.
I am grateful to the Minister for those assurances. He has addressed a number of our concerns, which are shared by the university sector. Will he, however, go one step further? He has travelled a long way with me, and I am inviting him to take one
extra step. Will he agree that these degrees might be jointly promoted and marketed, thus illustrating the strength of the partnership between HE and FE to potential learners? That would be helpful. I cannot see any downside to it. He might want to make further concessions on that either this evening or during the course of the Bills passage.
Bill Rammell: With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I do not think that the issue requires concessions, but I am sure that in Committee we can discuss in detail the way in which further education colleges and universities can work together to promote those crucial qualifications. We have responded to concerns by introducing proposals on foundation degrees that ensure that the system is as innovative and flexible as possible so that we genuinely meet the countrys skills needs.
May I address specific comments made in our debate, starting with the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), who led for the Opposition? It was noteworthy that we managed to go through the whole evening debating education without one comment from Opposition spokesmen about grammar schools, but perhaps that is a subject for discussion on another occasion. The hon. Gentleman said that the Bill was something of a missed opportunity, and he made significant criticism of the 17 different regulatory and inspection bodies. We have already responded to concerns on those issues, as well as the concerns expressed by Andrew Foster. We have merged Ofsted and the adult learning inspectorate, and we have streamlined the Learning and Skills Council to reduce the planning burden. We have put colleges in charge of their own regulation, and we have invited them to introduce proposals. We have reduced the burden on colleges imposed by data collection and the publication of documents. It is far from the case that we have not ensured that there is a more appropriate system of regulation for our colleges.
The hon. Gentleman made significant criticism, too, of the burden of bureaucracy on the Learning and Skills Council. For the record, may I make it clear that the LSC continues to make significant savings on its administration budget, and has delivered savings of more than £100 million? Compared with its predecessor bodies under the Conservative Government, expenditure on administration has fallen from 4.6 per cent. to 1.9 per cent. I believe, too, that the hon. Gentleman made a false accusation that the proposals on foundation degree awarding powers had come out of the blue. If he reads very carefully what Andrew Foster said in his report, he will see that he explicitly recommends that consideration be given to allowing some colleges that meet the quality criteria the ability to award their own qualifications. Far from coming out of the blue, the proposals were very much in the grain of Andrew Fosters recommendations.
I will take many criticisms on the Governments behalf, but being criticised by the hon. Gentleman for our record on apprenticeships is a bit rich. In the 1980s and 1990s, the concept of an apprenticeship had
almost disappeared in this country. When the Government came to power, there were 75,000 apprenticeships a year; today, 255,000 are being delivered. Yes, we need to do more, but we are moving firmly in the right direction.
My right hon. Friends the Members for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) and for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) raised important issues concerning the scrutiny of the legislation and the enabling powers of the Welsh Assembly. I should make it clear that in Committee every line of the Bill will be scrutinised. Any proposed measure by the National Assembly for Wales must be fully debated by the Assembly, and we will ensure that there is adequate and proper scrutiny of the proposals.
The hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) made a criticism of 16 to 19 funding, and she advocated that it be transferred to local authorities. I am not convinced by her argument, and it is usually the case in these issues that the Liberal Democrats support the view of providers. In my experience of talking to college principals up and down the country, there would not be support for her proposition.
We then had a very interesting and well informed contribution from the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), whose remarks drew on his experience in these matters. He was absolutely right to highlight the importance of the status of vocational education and the FE system, and came very close to supporting the proposals for restructuring of the LSC that we are proposing. He said that he did not support the 47 area councils in the Learning and Skills Act 2000, but he now seems to be supporting what we are proposing in this Bill.
The hon. Member for Daventry also raised important points about the qualification reform process. Our reform of vocational qualifications is to be delivered by 2009, and that is an exceedingly important issue. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned foundation degrees in the Bologna process, but there is no incompatibility there. Indeed, the Bergen communiqué at the last but one Bologna conference explicitly recognised the principle of foundation degrees in national systems. That gives us the licence and ability to move forward with that agenda.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) made an excellent speech that demonstrated her enormous personal experience of FE, and it was a fluent and persuasive contribution. She highlighted the importance of quality in the FE system, and spoke about the need to continue to professionalise the work force. One of the Governments commitments is to ensure that there is at least 30 hours continuous professional development for people in the FE system. That is very much part of the way forward.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough also asked how we could ensure that the LSC and colleges were responding to the employers agenda. One significant way that we are doing that is through the roll-out of the train to gain initiativethe incredibly radical proposition that, for the first time in this country, adults in the workplace who do not have a full level 2 qualification should be guaranteed that training. I am extremely heartened by the evaluation of the initiative so far, with employers who have engaged
in it expressing roughly 89 per cent. satisfaction. We are also doing very well in accessing hard-to-reach employers.
The hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) expressed concern about the marketing of train to gain. In fact, we are ahead of profile on many of the benchmarks for success that we have set for the initiative.
My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) made a number of points, and claimed that officials in the Department for Education and Skills had no experience of the FE sector. That may have been true in the past, but the Department has undertaken a deliberate policy of recruiting officials with some direct experience of the sector, and that was absolutely the right way forward. Also, I disagree with my hon. Friends view that we are squeezing adult education to fund the provision for young people. That is not the case: what we are doing is shifting the priority in adult education from shorter to longer courses, to courses that offer progression, to skills-for-life programmes, and to work-based delivery. I believe that they are the right priorities.
The hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) said that all Governments would admit to being responsible for neglecting the FE system. That may have been true of the previous Conservative Government, but it is most certainly not true of this one.
My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) spoke fluently of her experience of further and higher education. She gave strong support for the regionalisation of the LSC structure. The hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) made some important points, as did the other hon. Members who spoke in the debate.
In conclusion, our further education system has achieved a great deal in the past 10 years. We need to do more and to respond to the skills needs in the country. To make that a reality, we need a strong and excellent FE system. The Bill will help us to achieve that and I commend it to the House.
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