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House of Commons

Thursday 15 November 2007

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Innovation, Universities and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

University Spin-outs

1. Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): How many spin-outs by universities have been floated on the stock market in the last five years. [164249]

The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): According to data collected by the University Companies Association, or Unico, in the last five years 30 university spin-outs have been floated with a flotation valuation of £1.5 billion. The number of spin-out companies formed rose from 232 in 2004-05 to 261 in 2005-06.

Dr. Palmer: Universities’ approach to the issue varies. Some, such as Cambridge, are keen to encourage their staff to set up spin-outs—Nottingham also has a strong record in this respect—but others are keener to secure the proceeds of success themselves. Have the Government a view on which approach is best, and has there been any attempt to issue best-practice guidelines?

Mr. Denham: We do not yet have an approach that we advise universities to adopt as best practice, although in a speech at the Universities UK conference in September I said that we needed to discuss how universities and wider society could best capture the benefits of the intellectual property that is developed in universities. We will discuss the issue over the year, but if my hon. Friend will forgive me I will not commit myself to producing guidance until we are sure that the current diverse approach is not a better way of allowing universities to find a way forward. We will, however, continue to invest in the higher education innovation fund which has enabled many universities to exploit innovation so successfully.

Company Start-ups

2. Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): What estimate he has made of the number of companies started up by graduates in Wales in 2006. [164250]

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The Minister for Science and Innovation (Ian Pearson): The higher education business community interaction survey records 159 graduate start-ups in Wales in 2005-06. That is, however, an underestimate, because it records only start-ups known to higher education institutions, and some graduates will set up companies after leaving higher education.

Ian Lucas: In north-east Wales, the North East Wales institute of higher education is concentrating on developing links with industry because we want to develop an entrepreneurial spirit in the area. Does my hon. Friend agree that the establishment of a university in north-east Wales for the first time in its history would make a huge contribution to the entrepreneurial spirit in the area, and will he do all he can to assist that step?

Ian Pearson: As my hon. Friend knows, both higher education policy and support for enterprise are matters for the Welsh Assembly Government, and the status of institutions is a matter for the relevant authorities in Wales. However, he is right to draw attention to the importance of universities working closely with business. I know that the North East Wales institute has a strong track record in working with the aerospace sector and a number of other important sectors in that part of the world. My hon. Friend will have to take the matter up with the Welsh Assembly Government directly, but I wish him and the institute every success.

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): Yesterday at Aberystwyth university there was a conference on the problems of female entrepreneurship and the growing disparity between the numbers of men and women establishing businesses. Notwithstanding what the Minister said about the devolved nature of these matters, may I urge him to contact those in charge of the female entrepreneurship programme at Aberystwyth university and see what lessons can be learned and applied across the United Kingdom?

Ian Pearson: The hon. Gentleman is certainly right about the fact that we want to encourage more entrepreneurship in our universities. According to a study published earlier this week by the National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship, our universities need to do more. In fact they have transformed themselves over the past 10 years, but if I were asked whether more needed to be done my answer would obviously be yes. If we are to ensure that we have a successful, competitive United Kingdom economy in the future, we need our universities to work ever more closely with business.

I should be happy to make inquiries about Aberystwyth university’s entrepreneurship programme. Although the NCGE survey suggests more or less gender-equal access, I am sure that there is more we could do.


3. Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to increase the number of people studying science at university. [164251]

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The Minister for Science and Innovation (Ian Pearson): The Government are committed to increasing the number of young people studying science, technology, engineering and maths at higher education level. The Department works closely with the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and funds STEMNET, the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Network, which promotes awareness of those subjects and engagement among young people.

Dr. Iddon: I am pleased to hear that my hon. Friend is working closely with his colleagues in the sister Department. I often hear criticisms of the careers advice given to young people in schools, which is said to be not all it should be when it comes to steering people into STEM subject areas. Is my hon. Friend aware of the excellent work that some trade associations and learned societies, such as the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Chemistry, do to promote such subjects so that people are encouraged to go to university to study them?

Ian Pearson: A lot of good work on the STEM agenda has been going on for a number of years and I pay tribute to all those who have been working in the area. Progress has been made and the number of STEM qualifiers has increased by 10 per cent. since 2002-03. The situation is very patchy but a lot of people are working in this area, including the learned societies. My hon. Friend will know that I was at the recent Bill Bryson awards launch from the Royal Society of Chemistry, a terrific programme encouraging young people to take an interest in science. We want more people to be excited about science and taking science at GCSE, A-level and university. That is important for our society as a whole and for our economy.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I share the sentiment expressed so eloquently by the Minister at the end of his answer, but does he accept that getting the data right is key? Does he also accept that it is progress since 1997 that should be measured, rather than picking out what might appear to be a random year for each individual subject? Will he stick to a constant set of data on STEM entrants and base it to 1997 so we can all monitor progress effectively?

Ian Pearson: We are always happy to publish time-series of data in these areas. I was trying to indicate that there has been an increasing problem but that there are some signs that the situation is getting better. It is particularly pleasing that the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service acceptances are up by 9 per cent. for maths, 9 per cent. for chemistry and 12 per cent. for physics compared with the previous year. But there is a problem, particularly in computer science, and in that we do not have enough qualified physics teachers in our schools.

Let us not forget some of the progress that has been made, or that the level of science graduates aged between 25 and 34 in the UK work force is higher than in the United States, Germany or Japan. In fact, our figures are 50 per cent. higher than the European Union average. There are a range of further things that we as a Government need to do to encourage the STEM agenda, but we should not forget where we are today in terms of the labour market.

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Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): I praise the Minister and the Government for all they have done to promote science. Never in my lifetime have I seen a Government promote science as well as this Government have. Given that nuclear power is once again on the political agenda, I am seriously concerned that there are no undergraduate courses in nuclear engineering in this country. I urge the Minister to talk to the universities and to explore the possibility of setting up nuclear engineering courses, as there is no doubt in my mind that we will need far more nuclear engineers in the future.

Ian Pearson: There is a lot of nuclear engineering research capacity, particularly in the north-west, and we had the recent announcement of the development of a nuclear skills academy. This is an important area, not least because the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency is doing substantial work and will continue to do so over the next 20 to 30 years. The Government will have to make decisions on a new generation of nuclear power capacity. Those decisions have not been taken yet, but I would expect the academic community to want to do its bit to ensure that we have the high level of skills that will be required in the future if the Government make those decisions.

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): We certainly welcome the Government’s recognition that the number of students studying science at university is a key part of the overall investment package for science. Indeed, the Minister and the Government has been almost evangelical in preaching to higher education institutions and industry about the virtues of investing in scientific research and development. However, since 1997 the Government’s departmental spending on scientific research and development has been falling, both in percentage terms and in real terms, over the last few years. Why is that?

Ian Pearson: My Department has been in existence for only just over three months so it is a little difficult to refer to such figures. The simple fact of the matter is that the science budget was £1.3 billion when we came to power in 1997 and it is £3.4 billion now, so it has more than doubled—and it will have more than trebled by the end of this comprehensive spending review period. We now have 150,000 more undergraduate students studying science subjects than in 1997-98, so we are making considerable progress. There is a challenge, however. David Sainsbury’s report, which the hon. Gentleman is waving around, talks about the race to the top, and that is exactly where we need to go. That is why the Government are implementing in full the findings and recommendations of the Sainsbury review, and we are launching a debate on how we can move beyond Sainsbury. I want us to have the world’s best innovation ecosystem. We are starting from a strong position, but we can and must do better.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op): If we are to have enough science graduates to meet the needs of a globalised society and the challenges from China and India, we cannot leave it all to the boys; we will have to ensure that we encourage girls to take up science subjects. I am encouraged that my hon. Friend is having discussions with the Department for Children,
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Schools and Families. There is some evidence that teaching science in a single-sex environment encourages more girls to come forward. Will my hon. Friend please have more such discussions on that subject?

Ian Pearson: I am always happy to have discussions with my colleagues in the DCSF on the STEM agenda and how we can encourage both more young men and more young women to take science subjects. We currently fund a UK resource centre that is specifically targeted at encouraging more women to take up science subjects, but I will be happy to have the discussions my hon. Friend recommends.

Work Placements

4. Mr. John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the availability of work placements for apprentices. [164252]

The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): Since 1997, we have expanded the number of apprenticeships from 75,000 to about 250,000. In 2013, we aim to introduce an entitlement to an apprenticeship place for all 16 to 19-year-olds who meet the entry criteria, and our longer-term commitment is to increase the number of apprenticeships in England to 400,000.

Mr. Spellar: May I draw the Secretary of State’s attention to a survey by the excellent Building magazine which found that last year some 50,000 youngsters applied for 7,000 construction apprenticeships, and that number of placements was about 25 per cent. lower than in the previous year? Providing training places is only one part of what needs to be done; there must also be training placements in industry. Does the Secretary of State accept that that requires clients to insist on proper training on the job? What will his Department and other Departments do to insist on apprenticeship training on the jobs that they are paying for?

Mr. Denham: I must make it clear that the figure of 250,000 is for work-based apprenticeships, so it does not include the extra number of programme-led apprenticeships. My right hon. Friend raises an important point, however: in some sectors of the economy the need for apprenticeships and our capacity to fund them exceeds the number of employers willing to create them. Over the next few years we will significantly increase the resources available for apprenticeships in sectors such as construction and, possibly, some areas of engineering. We will need to engage with employers both directly ourselves and through the sector skills councils, because we as a Government do not want to be in the position of putting money on the table to fund apprenticeships without the employers being willing to match it. The offer is a substantial one, and we need to get across to employers the advantages of taking it up.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The economy of north Oxfordshire is almost entirely made up of vibrant small and medium-sized businesses. At a recent business breakfast in Bicester, I conducted a straw poll and found that not a single employer had yet heard of diplomas or what would be expected of them in terms of their involvement. The same point applies to apprenticeships. I have a
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simple question for the Secretary of State: who is meant to be going out and talking to employers, and signing them up and getting them involved in both apprenticeships and diplomas? If that does not happen, there will be a complete disconnect.

Mr. Denham: That is a very important question. At the moment, responsibility for that matter is led by the sector skills councils, as well as my Department, and we have enormous support from the private sector, particularly through the apprenticeship ambassadors network of senior employers. However, the hon. Gentleman has put his finger on a really important question—whether the apprenticeship programme as a whole needs a clearer focus and leadership. That issue was raised by the House of Lords report on apprenticeships, and we are looking at it and a number of other issues. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced a couple of weeks ago that we want to reform the programme so that a young person who qualifies for an apprenticeship effectively has a credit—the value that we are prepared to pay to them to fund the apprenticeship—so it becomes clear to an employer that the value of taking on an apprenticeship might be £3,000, £5,000 or even £15,000. That will really encourage the small businesses that the hon. Gentleman is talking about.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): When Stafford college and I make joint presentations to employers about the “train to gain” initiative and apprenticeships, we find that we can stimulate greater interest among employers in providing places for apprentices. Will my right hon. Friend consider what more he can do personally to approach employers at a national level, and how he can make the best use of Members in approaching employers at a constituency level?

Mr. Denham: First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend who, like a number of other Members, is very active at a local level in pushing training. My ministerial team has already committed itself to meeting representatives of every CBI region. We are about halfway through that programme, and we hope to undertake a similar exercise with the British Chambers of Commerce later this year and next. So at a personal level, we are trying to get out there to talk about “train to gain”, the skills pledge and apprenticeships in particular. However, my hon. Friend is right—an enormous amount of work can be done by Members at local level, and I shall certainly give consideration to writing to them setting out the practical actions that can be taken at local level to promote these important issues.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): In answer to my parliamentary questions, the right hon. Gentleman has acknowledged that the number of advanced apprenticeships has fallen, but he has admitted that he does not know how many are provided by employers directly. He talks about the House of Lords report, which said that of the 130,000 businesses that the Prime Minister claims are providing apprenticeships, many are in fact private training providers. Yet in 2002, the Government agreed with their own advisory committee that apprenticeships should be employer-led, with training providers acting as agents providing support for work-based schemes,
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rather than providing the bulk of training. Five years on, the Government have failed to honour that agreement. Is that not because on apprenticeships, as with so much else, this Government are just bluff, bluster and blunder?

Mr. Denham: Let us just recall that some years ago—around the time, I think, that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) was a senior economic adviser to the then Government—not a penny of public money went into apprenticeships and there were just a few tens of thousands of them. When we became the Government, there were just 75,000 apprenticeships; now there are 250,000 and, what is more, we are achieving higher completion rates than ever before, so I am happy to defend the Government’s record on apprenticeships. However, I want to ensure that apprentices receive uniformly high-quality training, based with employers, that provides a proper combination of work-based learning and the additional skills that a fully fledged apprenticeship needs to bring with it. If there are any parts of the system in which that is not so, we need to deal with that as we expand the programme.

Vocational Courses

5. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): When he next expects to meet representatives of the small firms sector to discuss vocational courses. [164257]

The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): I and my Ministers regularly meet a number of representatives of the small firms sector, such as the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce and the Engineering Employers Federation. As I said a few moments ago, we are embarking on a programme of meetings with representatives of the CBI regions to push “train to gain”, the skills pledge and apprenticeships in particular.

Mr. Bellingham: I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman recognises the role of small businesses; incidentally, I am very glad that he has been appointed Secretary of State, because he will do an absolutely first-class job. However, can he confirm that figures from his own Department reveal that the number of 16 to 18-year-olds not in education, employment or training—the so-called NEETs—has gone up from 154,000 in 1997 to a staggering 206,000 in 2006? Is that figure not an absolute disgrace and an indictment of his Government?

Mr. Denham: Everyone recognises the challenge of those young people who are not in education, employment or training; the most recent figures for 16 and 17-year-olds are actually down, which is welcome. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families set out a number of measures on 5 November to strengthen our current work. In particular, we will ensure, through Connexions and other means, that we do not lose track of young people who drop out of the system and that there are no artificial barriers, time delays and so on to bringing young people back into training when we can encourage them back.

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