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I know who I would rather believe—the Open university. The briefing also says that the Open university would get a share of the £100 million that has been reallocated within the DIUS budget

The Open university has told us that it thinks that these proposals will undermine its existing course provision rather than enhance its ability to recruit new students. The briefing goes on to say:

The implication is that that is okay then—it can afford to take a financial hit. That is rather like the Secretary of State’s colleague in the new Department for Children, Schools and Families hovering like a magpie over schools’ balances; the same attitude is being taken here.

There are just two more quotes to go. The first is:

This is the real gem:

That attitude shows total contempt for universities, which are feeling bounced into this and that they have to deal with the implementation of the consequence of a decision that has already been made. The briefing was of course was a private document that was not meant to be circulated, but I am glad that somebody helpfully circulated it to me.

What is in the public domain is the guidance for students who are contemplating an ELQ course, or have, in many cases, already applied. The DIUS website offers this advice for new students:

That is hardly helpful advice for somebody who is taking a fundamental decision. It goes on to say:

How on earth are institutions going to make up for pretty drastic cuts, in some cases, in their core teaching grant if they do not increase fees? The website goes on to give the justification for this reallocation of funding, saying that £100,000 in public support is given to somebody who has progressed all the way to a second degree-level qualification, as compared to £55,000 of support to somebody who leaves school at 16. Surely that is not the right comparison to offer in public. I thought that the whole point of this was to reallocate money from people who want to pursue a second degree to people who might want to pursue a first degree.

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I was just wondering whether the hon. Gentleman is, very helpfully, going through the Labour briefing in such detail because he does not have any policies or points of his own to raise.

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Stephen Williams: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. We in the Liberal Democrats are going through a fundamental review of our policies at the last general election.

Mr. Willetts: And that is what the Government should do.

Stephen Williams: Indeed, the Government could do with some in-depth thinking as well. Unlike the hon. Lady’s colleagues, my party will take a proper decision on the issue at a party conference, after 18 months of deliberation and the taking of expert advice from throughout the sector, including the Open university.

What I have to say is not all negative. I recognise that there are exemptions, some of which the Secretary of State outlined earlier, particularly for SIVS—strategically important or vulnerable subjects. I have some questions for the Minister of State. What is the Department’s calculation of the number of SIVS ELQs that will be exempt when the new arrangements are in place? How many students will not fall within that exemption, based on the information we have at the moment? Those students will have to pay for their education to make up for the loss of core teaching grants to the institution at which they are taught.

What will the fees be? Does the Department have a view on what course fees institutions should charge to recover their costs? It is important to remember that someone studying for an ELQ at the moment may already be paying £3,000 for their second degree. The cost in question will be imposed on top of what they are already paying as a student. In effect, they will be treated like international students from outside the European Union. And while I am talking about the international aspect, what will the effect be on UK taxpayers who did their first degree at a foreign institution—such as my new party leader, for instance? It looks as though they will be charged in the same way, even though it did not cost the British taxpayer anything. Surely that cannot be right. There will be anomalies within courses where people studying exactly the same course, sat next to each other in the same lecture theatre, could be paying nothing, or £10,000.

There are also anomalies within the exempt courses. Medicine has been mentioned, but what about the professions allied to it? What about radiography, physiotherapy or psychology? My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) mentioned cognitive behavioural therapy. Stress in the workplace is important, and we need to deal with it to achieve the Leitch agenda and get more people back into work. However, none of those professions allied to medicine fall within the exemptions.

Not only has there been no consultation on the implementation of the funding change, but there has been no equality impact assessment, and I would like to know why, particularly when many ELQ students, or first-time students studying part-time—they may feel the ongoing implications as their courses become unviable—are likely to be older students. The majority, as in the rest of higher education, will be women. The Open university tells us that 13 per cent. of its current ELQ students come from the bottom quartile of areas of multiple deprivation. There are certainly the sort of equality implications that the Government want
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everyone else who changes their policy to consider, whether in local government or elsewhere, but they do not seem to have gone through such an exercise before they made their announcement.

The changes will undermine the delivery of the Leitch recommendations. The 70 per cent. of the 2020 work force referred to in one of the most quoted parts of Leitch are already in work, and they will need the retraining implicit in the taking of an ELQ. The Open university tells us that 68 per cent. of its existing ELQ students are over the age of 35. They are precisely the people whom the Leitch report talks about—people who will need to upskill at some point during their career. If a person is over 35, their first degree is clearly 15 years out of date. Birkbeck has specialised in the refreshing of adult skills since 1823, but it tells us that the proposal will fundamentally undermine its capacity to support Government policy. It provides several case studies, and I shall just mention one. Jayne Kavanagh got her degree in medicine in 1990, but in 2002 she went to Birkbeck in order to do a degree in philosophy. Birkbeck says:

Surely everyone would think that worth while.

The change may lead to some courses becoming unviable. The Open university and Birkbeck have provided examples and many other higher education institutions, including Bristol university, have made representations to me.

The change will be especially felt by smaller institutions, particularly specialist institutions. The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education has given several examples. The Conservatoire for Dance and Drama will suffer a 26 per cent. cut in its core teaching income. The Institute of Cancer Research will experience a drop in its core teaching income of 19.5 per cent., which undermines the publicity that the Prime Minister received for his new found enthusiasm for prevention being better than cure. In an Act last year, the Government gave further education colleges foundation degree awarding powers, yet their provision for full-time higher education honours courses could be undermined because they tend to be few in number. There is a lack of joined-up thinking.

Switching £100 million in the budget is a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul, which brings me to recognising the effect on the clergy that several hon. Members have mentioned. Westcott house in Cambridge and Trinity college in my constituency are examples of institutions that could be affected. They say that 60 per cent. of ordinands who go for training in the Church of England do not do their first degree in theology, so they clearly need to study a further course. Training for the priesthood is obviously not a Leitch target—it must be one of the few things that does not have a target in the Leitch report.

The final disadvantage of the proposals is the regulatory and administrative burden that they will impose on universities. How will they know, when someone approaches them, whether that person already has a degree? There is no national register that they can check. The proposals
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will impose an additional burden on them. After yesterday’s news about the Irish international university, we know that anything is possible in higher education.

If the Government want to effect the proposals in the Leitch report—to which Liberal Democrats are signed up; we recognise that they are necessary—surely it would be better, if higher education is to make its contribution to delivering the Leitch agenda, to do something to help part-time students in the way in which the old Select Committee on Education and Skills recommended. We should remove the distinction between full-time and part-time students, as happens in Australia. Our higher education funding system is modelled on that in Australia, with the exception of the anomaly that I outlined.

As I said earlier, the Department is only six months old but it already appears to have upset many people in the sector. We have heard much about the Labour Government’s legacy in recent times. The Secretary of State ended his speech by citing the main legacy of the 1964-70 Government, led by the previous longest serving Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, as being the Open university. I am sure that right hon. Gentleman does not want to be the Secretary of State who damaged the Open university. Despite what he says, the Open university tells us that that is the implication of his policy announcement. Surely it would be better to delay implementation until 2009.

Whenever I have taken part in such debates, the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education has said that it would be 2009 before the Government understood all the implications of the changes that they have made in higher education in the past five years. He said that it is too early to tell whether the changes have had an adverse impact on applications—indeed, too early to tell many things—and that the Government would hold an in-depth review in 2009, as was promised when the Higher Education Act 2004 was being considered.

Given all that, why introduce such proposals now? Why are the Government subjecting themselves to such self-inflicted pain when a fundamental review will take place next year? Surely it would be better to postpone the change and wait until the in-depth review so that they can have some joined-up thinking and a properly thought-through policy.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before I call the next speaker, let me remind the House that the 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches now applies. An awful lot of hon. Members are trying to catch my eye and it would therefore be helpful if they felt able to take less than their 10 minutes.

8.38 pm

Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) (Lab): Birkbeck college is in my constituency. It is one of many distinguished academic institutions in my constituency but most of the others provide full-time courses for undergraduates and graduates. Birkbeck provides full-time courses for graduates but mainly part-time courses for teaching people to study for first degrees or other, lower qualifications. Its undergraduates are not the usual 18 to 20-odd-year-olds;
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they are people who work for a living during the day and study at Birkbeck in the evening. Unlike other undergraduates, they also pay tax, because they are working people, so when we talk about looking after taxpayers we are talking about them, among others. Those students show an amazing commitment to learning and a zeal for knowledge that puts to shame what I suspect most graduates in the Chamber—that certainly includes me—showed when we had the privilege of doing our full-time degree courses.

Some 2,600 of Birkbeck’s part-time students already have degrees and are working for equivalent or lower qualifications. They include women who want to study again after taking time off to bring up children, people who have lost their jobs, people who are disabled and people whose first degree proved unsuitable or irrelevant to their current occupation. Nearly all Birkbeck’s part-time students are seeking to upgrade their knowledge and skills. They include people in management who want to make further studies of personnel—or human relations, as I believe it is called these days—as well as people who feel the need to add IT or computer science skills to enable them to progress in their current occupation, and those, including doctors and nurses, who work with the elderly, the mentally ill or children in the day and want to study psychology to improve their ability to look after those people.

Generally, part-time students at Birkbeck are not doing flower arranging. They are studying serious subjects. They are doing what the Government want: upskilling themselves. They are setting an example for others, in respect of what the Prime Minister said he wanted when he talked about people needing not one chance but second, third, fourth and, indeed, lifelong chances. That is what Birkbeck has been providing since 1823, but the Government are stopping the funding of those courses, against a background of part-time students and what might be described as part-time institutions getting a raw deal, compared with full-time students and colleges that mainly deal with them. That has gone on for decades.

The Government’s decision means a reduction of about 1.6 per cent. for institutions providing full-time studies, but a reduction of about 16 per cent. for institutions providing part-time studies. The impact on institutions that provide part-time opportunities rather than full-time study is therefore 10 times greater. Yet the work of Birkbeck and other institutions that provide part-time courses is crucial to the Government’s plans for widening participation. They are the very institutions on which much of the Government’s strategy will depend. Indeed, Birkbeck recently opened what might be described as an outpost in Stratford, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), in an effort to spread the opportunities and the benefits.

The Government have said that they will try to help Birkbeck and the others by making provision to tide them over, but that help is time limited. My understanding is that if those institutions are successful in obtaining alternative sources of income, the safety net will be reduced by however much their efforts succeed in securing. The question then is: where can they get the extra money from? Most part-time students and people who go to night classes are not very well off. They cannot get student loans, and their
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means-tested grants, which are available to a limited number because such students have incomes, are not pro rata, as with grants for full-time students, and are capped at a low level.

I am therefore disappointed with the Government’s decision, as well as concerned about it. There does not seem to have been much consultation before the outline decision was taken. I find it hard to believe that this is being done by good and decent people such as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills. He is my friend and he is honourable, but he is not right; he is wrong on this occasion. I cannot believe that Ministers have seriously considered the impact of this change on individual institutions.

I was also perturbed to encounter a suggestion by one Minister that there were more than 250 higher education providers in England so that students could shop around for the best deal. That sounds rather like an “on yer bike” statement de nos jours, which fails to understand the position of the part-time student. For full-time students, study during the day is their main object, so they can shop around and go to where the course they want is provided, but it is not the same for part-time students, who work for a living during the day and study in the evenings. They cannot shop around; they have to stay where their job is; they are not as mobile as the average undergraduate.

Setting aside the impact on students, are the Government seriously telling Birkbeck to go up market? That is plainly contrary to the Government’s policy and Birkbeck’s proud record for the past 185 years. It is also plainly contrary to Birkbeck’s modern intentions, which included and led to the setting up of their outpost in Stratford, east London. I believe that its response has been very temperate. It is asking only for the Government to exempt more subjects from the cuts and to exempt people who are coming back for a second helping, so to speak, after being out of education for more than five years. That would exclude what might be described as the serial scholars. It is a perfectly reasonable request to make and I hope that further long-term support will be provided to Birkbeck and the other institutions to cope with the change in funding and to enable Birkbeck to continue what I regard as its noble past over those 185 years of providing teaching to working people who have a thirst for learning. It is not too late for the Government to reconsider at least the practical implications of what they are proposing.

8.47 pm

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): I confess that early-day motions have been dismissed in the past as political graffiti, but you can imagine my delight, Mr. Deputy Speaker, when I discovered that early-day motion 317, tabled in my name, had been selected as the motion for tonight’s Opposition debate.

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