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The hon. Gentleman will perhaps share my disappointment that his party is opposed to the aim of raising the participation age for these young people so that each of these 16 and 17-year-olds is either in work with training or in education. Given his concern about these issues, I hope that he will speak to his Front-Bench team and persuade them to change their policy.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Given the Secretary of State’s previous answer, I think that he has missed the point. Under the previous Conservative Government, when I was in business we took on young people and trained them on the job. They went away for academic education once a week and obtained a qualification at the end. That is because they wanted to be there, rather than because they were forced to be there. Was not the Conservative Government’s approach better?

Mr. Denham: No, because what went hand in hand with the Conservative Government’s approach was huge numbers of long-term young unemployed people who were out of work year after year. The new deal has achieved an end to that long-term youth unemployment. There is an issue to address concerning young people who are in and out of work. Too many young people are not engaged in education, work or training, but what we are doing, both in the short term and by raising the participation age, is the best way of ensuring that that group of young people does not slip through the system. Because we will introduce diplomas and strengthen the apprenticeship system, the offer in place for young people will be of higher quality than we have been able to provide in the past. That is the attraction that will keep them in the system.


6. Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): What assessment he has made of the effect of the university bursary system on the number of university students from disadvantaged backgrounds. [164258]

The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Bill Rammell): The university bursary system is an integral part of the wider student finance package that ensures access to higher education. The system is working. Applications have increased this year by more than 6 per cent., the proportion of applicants from the lowest four socio-economic groups has increased too, and universities are committed to paying more than £300 million in bursaries to students.

Mr. Evennett: I thank the Minister for that encouraging response. However, in my constituency, potential university applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds still have concerns about the financial cost of going to university. When the Government raised the upper limit for top-up fees last year, they said that they wanted each institution to prove that it was widening access. What more can the Government do to encourage and reassure potential students that they will get the necessary support from bursaries or whatever if they come from disadvantaged backgrounds where their families have no history of going to university?

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Bill Rammell: I think the challenge of ensuring that we get people from all backgrounds to fulfil their potential and to access higher education is one of the most significant that we face. We have done more to bring in our fairest and most progressive system of student financial support, but we are going even further with a series of changes for next year. We are significantly increasing the proportion of students who will get non-repayable grants and, crucially, we are guaranteeing to young people who get the education maintenance allowance at 16 the amount of money that they will get when they go to university at 18. That is a positive and important step forward, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman welcomes it.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): I agree with my hon. Friend on that last point, in that a much earlier intervention in the individual’s aspiration to go to university is required. What steps is he taking to work with other Departments to ensure that university remains an option to children earlier on in their schooling, not just because of the financial background but because of an aspiration that university is part of their education and a gateway to a much better life in terms of training and their ability to earn as they go on?

Bill Rammell: I agree with my hon. Friend. Student finance is important, but I think that aspiration is the most critical challenge that we face. That is why the Aimhigher programme, for example, which runs taster weekends and taster schools to encourage students from non-traditional backgrounds to go to university, is so important. We also need a much better relationship between universities and the school system, with universities taking responsibility for widening access. The recent announcement from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the importance of more partnerships between universities and schools is particularly important.

Chris Mole (Ipswich) (Lab): Further to that question, could the Minister expand on the success of the Aimhigher programme so far in reaching those groups who do not have a tradition in their families of going to university?

Bill Rammell: I think that the Aimhigher programme is particularly important, and we have recently announced the continuation of the funding of that programme for the next three years. The evidence shows that the scheme is working, but we also need to ensure that it is targeted as effectively as possible. That is why last year we asked the Higher Education Funding Council to ensure that that is happening and we will bring forward proposals to make it happen.

Maintenance Grants

7. Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): How many additional students entering higher education in 2008 he estimates will be eligible for maintenance grants under the new arrangement. [164259]

The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): From September 2008, the income thresholds for the full maintenance grant
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will be increased from £17,500 to £25,000 a year, with a partial grant available for incomes up to £60,000. We estimate that an additional 100,000 students will ultimately be eligible for a maintenance grant. Around one third of all students will be entitled to a full grant and a further third to a partial grant.

Kerry McCarthy: I thank the Minister for that response. I welcome the answer given by the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education in response to the previous question about the fact that pupils receiving educational maintenance allowances will get confirmation at 16 that they will be entitled to a grant. Could the Secretary of State tell me what is being done to reach out to people who leave education but then want to re-enter it slightly later, and to educate them and inform them about their right to grants?

Mr. Denham: For those who would be eligible for the same financial assistance for their first degree, I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the DVD that I have recently advertised to all Members. It is available to Members from my Department in suitable numbers to communicate with all constituents; or the simpler way is to provide a link to the new website created for our advertising campaign. We are keen to get the message across to as many people as possible.

If my hon. Friend is talking about people who are later on in life and would not come under the same financial provision, perhaps because they are working, she is right. There will be a need to encourage older people back into university, often to study part time, as well as those young and first-time undergraduates whom we are encouraging through the current financial system.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): The way in which the package of measures for maintenance grants and tuition fees available to students in England and Wales is arranged means that there is a financial incentive for Welsh students to go only to Welsh universities. Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be profoundly depressing if we had reached a situation where youngsters in the Rhondda, one of the most disadvantaged areas in the country, went only to Welsh universities? Will he engage in conversations with his counterpart in the Welsh Assembly to ensure that youngsters in my constituency have a full range of possibilities when they go to university?

Mr. Denham: I am responsible for the financial arrangements in England; the devolved Assemblies have to make their own arrangements. Although we discuss these matters with the devolved Administrations at an official and ministerial level where necessary, it is for those Administrations to take their own decisions on them.


8. Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): What steps he is taking to ensure that higher education is able to meet the skills needs of employers and their staff. [164260]

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The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Bill Rammell): We are already working to address employers’ higher-level skill needs. The Higher Education Funding Council’s three regional higher-level skills pathfinders linked to “train to gain”, the 13 higher educational institutional employer engagement pilots that are developing new approaches to co-funding by employers, and the growing number of foundation degree enrolments all exploit close links with business. Our forthcoming higher-level skills strategy will boost that activity further.

Paul Farrelly: I thank my hon. Friend for his reply and for his forthcoming visit next Wednesday to Keele university in Newcastle-under-Lyme, where he will find Labour well and truly alive and kicking. Keele Labour club has record membership and is busy seeking student views on the lifting of the £3,000 tuition fees cap. I am sure the Minister agrees that the best way to meet employers’ and the country’s needs is to encourage as many students as possible from all backgrounds into higher education. Where does the review process on the cap now stand? Will he ensure that the process is not monopolised by vice-chancellors, and encourage students in higher education, further education and schools to send in their views?

Bill Rammell: I am very much looking forward to my visit to Keele next week. Our position on the cap has not changed one iota. We want to see the first full three years of operation of the new system, and then we will have an independent commission that will report to Parliament. That is the right stance. It would be wrong to rush to premature judgment. It is a pity that the Conservative party does not take that view. We have recently heard from the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) that he wants to see the cap lifted, and we have heard from the hon. Member for—

Mr. Speaker: Order. These are not matters for the Minister on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Two months ago the Department announced that it would withdraw funding for students in higher education studying equivalent level qualifications. Will that not have a disproportionate impact on institutions such as the university of Northampton, which have been successful in attracting students from disadvantaged groups? Does it not go against all the principles that the Government espouse about people being able to retrain for better career opportunities?

Bill Rammell: I respect the hon. Gentleman’s point of view, but I profoundly disagree with it. Spending public money to give people who already have a degree a second degree, while 70 per cent. of adults in the working age population do not have even their first degree, is not the right priority. One could argue that we should choose to focus more on those with existing qualifications and less on those without them. I would disagree with that proposition, but it is at least a coherent view. However, one cannot legitimately argue that the choice is not there to be made.

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Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): The Secretary of State spoke earlier about encouraging adults back into the education system. Does he not appreciate that institutions such as the Open university, which have such a major contribution to make to educating adults, expect that they will lose up to £32 million of funding? Does he value the contribution made by such institutions, and how can he equate what is happening with his other statements about wanting a flexible work force that embraces retraining?

Bill Rammell: It is simply not the case that the Open university will lose that amount of money. I and the Secretary of State have met people from the Open university to make that clear. We have also made it clear that no institution will lose in cash terms, and the Higher Education Funding Council for England is currently consulting on the issue. We are not cutting funding from higher education. We are saying that £100 million over three years ought to be reprioritised from those people who already have undergraduate qualifications to those who do not have even their first degree. I believe that that is the right priority in public policy terms.

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): If the Government are serious about improving skills, why have they cut £100 million from institutions devoted to part-time and mature students? The funding change was sneaked out over the summer by the Secretary of State, probably because it contradicts the Leitch report. It appears that the Government do not wish to support graduates who need to retrain.

Following on from what my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) said, can the Minister explain how ripping £8 million out of Birkbeck college’s budget and £30 million from the Open university’s budget increases opportunities and improves skills? Does that not send out the message that the Government have abandoned—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman has had a few supplementaries there.

Bill Rammell: I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Front Bench; I think that this is his first appearance there at Question Time. May I politely urge him on future occasions to listen to the previous answer before he commits himself? I made it abundantly clear that we were not cutting £100 million from the higher education budget. We are seeking to reprioritise the budget from people who already have a degree to those who are not even at first base. If the Conservative party’s position is credible, it must go to adults in the workplace and tell them that they are not a priority for public funding.

Low-income Families

9. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What recent submissions he has received on the number of students from low-income families in higher education. [164261]

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The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): The submissions that I have received tell me that there has been a steady increase in the number of young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds entering higher education. The proportion of young people from the bottom four socio-economic groups entering higher education increased from 17.6 per cent. to 19.9 per cent. between 2002-03 and 2005-06. The new package of financial support that I announced in July will help to remove any financial barriers to going to university, but we also expect universities to become more active in helping to spot and nurture talent in schools at an earlier age, which is why Lord Adonis and I published a prospectus on encouraging university, trust and academy links.

David Taylor: Distribution of educational quality at primary and secondary levels along class lines lies at the heart of a situation in which the 7 per cent. of those who are privately educated bag 40 per cent. of the places at the top 20 universities. That is not only a national scandal, but damages economic competitiveness and impedes social mobility. Despite what the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph might say, will the Secretary of State try even harder to get a broader spread of people into higher education, especially into the Russell group, which has such a chronic and dismal record in that regard?

Mr. Denham: I assure my hon. Friend that we shall continue to work with universities to ensure that they operate fair admissions procedures, unlike the Opposition, who recently announced that they would abolish the Office for Fair Access. My hon. Friend pointed out that educational disadvantage can happen at an earlier age. We want to get more universities engaging deeply with schools so that young people as young as 12, 13 or 14 are identified and encouraged to apply to all universities. That is why we are so keen to see universities working with schools to establish trusts and academies.

Career Development Loans

10. Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): If he will make a statement on career development loans. [164262]

The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Bill Rammell): Career development loans are a successful programme administered by the Learning and Skills Council to help individuals invest in improving their skills. Loan capital is provided by three high street banks at commercial rates. The Learning and Skills Council meets interest costs on loans while individuals are participating in their chosen course. Since 1997, 160,000 loans have been lent by the banks, with a total value of £689 million.

Ms Keeble: I welcome the scheme, but I should like to bring to my hon. Friend’s attention a case involving one of my constituents and his son, who took out an £8,000 loan, which was paid to a training provider who then disappeared with the money, leaving my constituent with debt. Will my hon. Friend look into the issue to ensure that there is not a wider problem
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with the vetting of training providers? And what will happen to my constituent and his son, who still have to pay back the £8,000?

Bill Rammell: I am genuinely sympathetic to anyone who has been affected as my hon. Friend’s constituents have. In general, career development loans work. Of those who take them out, 85 per cent. have said that they would recommend the scheme to a family member or friend. That would not be happening if there was systematic failure. In the small number of cases where a provider has ceased training, the Learning and Skills Council has taken steps to allow individuals with loans to delay the repayments, extend their loans to complete training elsewhere and protect their credit rating. I understand that my hon. Friend’s constituents were written to to that effect. However, given the concerns that she has expressed, I would be more than happy to meet her and discuss the issue in detail.


14. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): What steps his Department is taking to increase the number of completed apprenticeships. [164267]

The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Bill Rammell): We have raised the proportion of young people completing their apprenticeships from 24 per cent. in 2001-02 to 63 per cent. in 2006-07. That has been achieved while the number of apprenticeships has trebled since 1997, standing now at 250,000. We are on track to achieve within the next few years completion rates similar to those of the best of our competitors in Europe.

Andrew Selous: I hear what the Minister says, but a number of my constituents regularly tell me that they would like shorter and more intensive apprenticeships and similar training courses. Does he not agree that for people on low incomes, or perhaps even no income at all, that could be a useful solution? Can he give me any encouragement on that subject?

Bill Rammell: There is a balance between the length of a course and its quality. Nevertheless, we will shortly be making some announcements about how we can ensure that there is greater flexibility for people coming forward with qualifications below level 2—the equivalent of five GCSEs. We need to do more to expand the number of apprenticeships, and we are committed to doing that—but there are already three times as many apprenticeships as there were 10 years ago. That represents real and significant progress.

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