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Mr. Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.


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Higher Education

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): We now come to the debate on higher education and adult learners. I have to announce that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister. I remind the House that there will be a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions to the debate.

7.24 pm

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): I beg to move,

Although that is the motion, it is really early-day motion 317, which is a cross-party motion tabled by the two Members who represent Milton Keynes, where the Open university is situated—my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) and the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey). That early-day motion has collected more signatures than any other motion before the House. The official Opposition are simply a modest vehicle to ensure that the House has an opportunity to debate and vote on that excellent motion. The Prime Minister has claimed that he believes in radical constitutional reform, but I doubt that even he envisaged anything as radical as a non-partisan Opposition day debate on a cross-party motion. Let us see how we get on.

First, let me help the Secretary of State with a little problem that I think he has recognised. It seems that his amendment to our motion is seriously defective and is not an accurate account of the Government’s policy. I hope that he will correct the record, either now or during his speech, and amend his amendment so that it gives a more accurate account of his Government’s policy. If we cannot rely on the Government to table an amendment that is an accurate account of their policy, we should not be surprised that they got into such a muddle.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): Has my hon. Friend noticed that the second objective of the Secretary of State’s new Department is to:

Without prejudice to my hon. Friend’s speech, does he not think that it would have been helpful if, instead of bringing forward these measures, the Secretary of State had deferred consideration until after the comprehensive review of student support in 2009, which is only next year, and had then consulted on its conclusions?

Mr. Willetts: I totally agree with that excellent intervention, which was based on the excellent early-day motion. There has been such support for that early-day motion because of the enormous respect on both sides of the House for the work done by the Open university, Birkbeck college and other institutions across the country in providing educational opportunities to mature part-time students, and especially to women, giving people a second chance in life regardless of what they have studied in the past.

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Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Does my hon. Friend not think it odd that, at a time when the Government are increasingly saying that the faith communities are important, the new regulations will impinge on the training of priests, imams and rabbis? In the Church of England alone they will add at least £500,000 to the cost of training priests.

Mr. Willetts: My hon. Friend is right. Many people who share his concern about education will have received a host of representations from a variety of professions that often recruit and train people who have already done a degree in a different subject. I think that some 75 per cent. of ordinands in the Church of England study theology after they have studied a separate degree. Those are exactly the groups that will be affected by the proposal.

Harold Wilson famously believed that the Open university was one of his greatest achievements. Some on this side of the House might say that it was one of his few achievements. Nevertheless, it was a Labour creation. That might be one reason that we welcome so many Labour Members to the debate. The Prime Minister is proud of having taught at the Open university. We ask all hon. Members, especially Labour Members, to be true to the principles of their party and its historic achievements, and to be true to themselves by voting for a motion that many of them have already signed up to.

Of course, although the debate will focus on the Open university and Birkbeck college, the decision has a much wider application. The Government are proposing that students who already have a degree qualification should not receive any support if they return to university. We are talking not about grants or loans, as the regime governing them is already much tougher for returning students, but about the removal of Higher Education Funding Council teaching support for any university that takes on returning students. For the first time, home students on approved courses at English universities will not get even a contribution towards teaching costs. They will be treated as though they were from China.

That is an unprecedented shift in the pattern of higher education financing. I believe that such a decision should have been taken only after a serious review of its implications, and that it should have been considered alongside all the other issues connected with the future of university fees that legislation already requires us to look at in 2009.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman mentioned the 2009 settlement, but the proposal under discussion is part of the existing settlement. Will he share with the House how he would substitute for the £100 million that the proposal will produce, given that his party’s record on higher education funding before 1997 was so abysmal?

Mr. Willetts: My argument is very simple. It is that the Government’s decision should be sent for review, and perhaps considered as part of the 2009 review of fees. The HEFC budget amounts to £7.5 billion, and the Government have no reason to impose a cut worth only £100 million.

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Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): Would it not be more honest to say that the motion is fine but that taxes must be raised to pay for it?

Mr. Willetts: We are talking about an HEFC budget of £7.5 billion. For reasons that have left most people baffled and confused, the Government have decided to take £100 million away from mature students who already have a degree qualification and to use that money for some other, unspecified, purpose. We believe that that decision should be reviewed.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): The purpose is not unspecified, as the money will be used to help those mature students who do not have a recognised qualification.

Mr. Willetts: The Government’s decision was announced last September. The relevant brief from the HEFC—the Government’s own quango—was last updated on 11 December. It takes the form of questions and answers, and one question was how the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills intended to use the money saved from withdrawing funding for ELQs—that is, students with equivalent or lower qualifications. The response was:

That was two and a half months after the reduction was announced, and yet the “agreed priorities” were “yet to be decided”. It seems to me that the decision was taken in haste, and that we are in danger of having to repent at leisure.

The Government argue that people with a degree who return to study must be hit so that new students can be helped. Of course, the Opposition want more new students to participate in higher education, but the Government’s argument rests on a false dichotomy. The Government often cite the Leitch report but, as has been noted already, that deals with lifelong learning, which is about both reskilling and upskilling. To say that we must penalise people who are reskilling to make available money for new students who are upskilling is to fail completely to understand what the Leitch agenda of lifelong learning is all about.

Labour Members may not want to take my word on that, so perhaps I should quote what the Prime Minister said in a speech on this subject in May 2006. Talking about his approach to lifelong education, he said that it should be “recurrent”, “permanent” and on offer to anyone at any time. We are simply trying to hold the Government to account over a statement that the Prime Minister made about his approach to the matter. He made a commitment that all adults

We believe that that commitment clearly matters to the Prime Minister. It matters to the many Labour Members who have signed the early-day motion, and it is a commitment that the House should reflect in the vote to be taken later tonight.

However, instead of that vision of lifelong learning, we now have what has been called the “measles” theory of education—get it once, get it early and try never to have it again. That is not the right approach, and it is a
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real barrier to people trying to change jobs, shift careers and move forward. I shall give the House some examples of those who will lose as a result of the Government’s approach.

Among the losers would be a person who had studied medicine at university and would now like to study cognitive therapy. I saw that the Secretary of State for Health was here briefly a little earlier. He has launched an initiative to try to ensure that there is more access to cognitive therapy on the NHS. However, people who already have a medical degree and who wish to study cognitive therapy and deliver the Government’s objectives will be penalised by the policy under discussion this evening.

In addition, a person who wants to do a post-graduate certificate in education will get funding, but someone who wants to get a qualification to teach in the FE sector will not, even though the Government are supposed to value the FE sector and to want to see it expanded. Moreover, a person with an engineering degree who wants to use his expertise in business and to study for an MBA will not be funded, even though we are supposed to want to encourage innovation and enterprise in this country.

Another loser would be a woman with a degree in French who may have taken time out of the labour market to raise children. If she now wanted to do a higher education IT course—it does not even have to be at a university—she would not get any support from the HEFC. Let us be clear: some of the biggest losers as a result of the Government’s policy will be women who want to return to the labour market after a long period away.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the policy is a false economy? The people who would benefit from being able to acquire another qualification of degree equivalent or lower would be an asset to this country, as they would be able to get another job that paid more money. That would mean that they would pay more in tax, but the Government appear to be turning their backs on such people.

Mr. Willetts: My hon. Friend is right. We are talking about the importance of spreading opportunity in this country—something that I thought all hon. Members would support. I am sure that hon. Members of all parties will have seen the many representations that we have received, but I shall quote the submission on women returners from the university of London union, a body of which I believe the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education was at one time general manager. The union said today:

I am sure that Labour Members are hearing the same warning, and it is something that the Government desperately need to address.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): I am fascinated by the even-handed approach that the hon. Gentleman is adopting, but will he clarify Conservative policy on these matters? Under his party’s proposals, would anyone—anyone—with a level 4 qualification be entitled to ELQ training?

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Mr. Willetts: We believe that the current regime should be retained, pending a review of the Government’s proposal. We should be happy for such a review to be held, and indeed the relevant legislation on higher education finances makes it clear that the fee regime should be reviewed in 2009. I believe that the Select Committee on Innovation, Universities and Skills, which the hon. Gentleman chairs, is considering the matter, and I look forward to its report.

The Government announced their decision on this matter with no consultation. That caused much shock and unhappiness in the HE sector, so suspending the decision and retaining the current regime would allow an appropriate consultation process—including a review exercise by the Select Committee—to take place. That would be the common-sense approach, and it is what the early-day motion that has been signed by 86 Labour Members calls for.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): The Select Committee of which I am a member is indeed holding a quick inquiry into this subject. I just ask the hon. Gentleman why he was not prepared to wait until the Select Committee report was published. Furthermore, will he encourage some Conservative members to attend the Committee? We have seen very few of them so far.

Mr. Willetts: My hon. Friends are so assiduous in so many functions around the House that if by chance they are unable to attend that Committee, I am sure it is because they are hard at work in another Committee somewhere else in the House.

I hope that we will have a further debate in this Chamber when the Select Committee has produced its report. That will be excellent, and I very much look forward to it. It would be sensible, when we have that type of inquiry under way, not to take any decision until after the consultation. It would be absurd for the Government to announce a decision with no consultation and then, sadly, for the consultation to happen afterwards.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willetts: I will give way, and then I must make some progress. I know that a lot of people want to speak.

Rob Marris: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his usual generosity. Is his priority for state support for higher education first-time students or second-time students?

Mr. Willetts: This is the false dilemma that has got the Government into such a muddle. Large numbers of British citizens historically had a right to go to university and study on approved courses, without any grants or loans but at least with HEFC support for their teaching costs. The decision that, for the first time in the history of British higher education, a group of people should not receive finance even for their teaching costs because they have a first degree is a significant one. I personally think that many such people are deserving. Many of them are women wishing to return to work. Many of them are trying to enhance their skills or change their career. It is wrong to say that the only way in which we
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can help a new student is by penalising a group who have benefited not only themselves but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) said, the wider society and economy by returning to university.

The Government say, “Don’t worry. It’s all going to be fine because many returners will be financed by their employer.” But often one of the main reasons that people study is that they wish to change their career and their employer. In fact, one of the things that Birkbeck, the Open university and other institutions say is that sometimes they have students who do not wish their employer to know that they are studying because it is a prelude to changing the direction of their career. So the idea that someone can go to their employer and say, “I have decided that I want to leave my current employment and do something totally different. By the way, the Government have just slapped an extra charge on me. Would you mind contributing to my studies?” is fanciful. It is not just us who are saying this; we are simply speaking on behalf of the experts and institutions affected across the country.

On this occasion, the point has been made clearly by the director general of the Confederation of British Industry. He said:

He went on to describe the Government’s policy as

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