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Finally, we will look at the impact on institutions, especially the long-term implications for specialised institutions such as the OU and Birkbeck. We hear the Minister’s comments about supporting the universities over the first three years, but the crucial aspect to understand is what happens at the end of those three years. When the Minister winds up, I hope that he will tell the House what will happen after those three years
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if the OU, for instance, has not made up the quota of students that would guarantee its base resource funding. Do we go on supporting it or will it have to make significant cuts in its organisation? That is an important question.

Mark Durkan: When the Secretary of State responded to my intervention about the protection lasting only three years, he explained that that was the length of the comprehensive spending review period. However, there is a protection for six years, in terms of the teaching out of people who have already started an ELQ at the OU, and hon. Members are right to be concerned that the other protections will last only three years.

Mr. Willis: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I am sure that the Minister will respond to that point when he winds up. I hope that the inquiry will also be able to clarify the situation.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: Has the hon. Gentleman considered that the Leitch proposals suggest that many more people should have level 4 qualifications and above? There will therefore be a pool of adults from which the OU and other higher education institutions will be able to draw additional students in the future.

Mr. Willis: I shall return to the subject of the pool, because there is a real question about where the 20,000 extra students will come from, especially as we will have a significant demographic downturn. The number of 18-year-olds going to universities will decline significantly over the next decade. I take the hon. Lady’s point that there will be a pool of people which will need to be tapped, especially married women who are returning to the work force.

Despite the Christmas period, we have already had 300 submissions to the inquiry and the Minister will not be surprised to learn that most are hostile to the proposals. We hope that by 14 January we will have had even more responses. I have not carried out a scientific analysis of them, but the typical response is from someone who took a three-year full-time arts degree as an 18 to 21-year-old and now plans to take a degree or lower qualification in computer science, accountancy or management. They are people who genuinely want to change course. Among the many points made by those students is an echo of what the Government have said many times—that we now live in a constantly shifting global economy, that qualifications relevant even 10 years ago may no longer be relevant in the workplace today and that ELQs are essential to keep up with the pace.

It would be wrong to prejudge the outcome of our inquiry, but tonight is an opportunity to examine the context in which this somewhat surprising announcement was made. After all, there was no consultation about the principle behind the initial announcement. The Secretary of State was very honest, as he always is, when he said that he had asked HEFCE to find money to fund another 20,000 full-time equivalent students. That is where the £100 million figure came from. The Secretary of State has done a valiant job in defending a policy that HEFCE—not the Government—decided. It was HEFCE’s answer to the problem of the extra
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20,000 students. Tonight we have had a recognition of the fact that there will be a £100 million cut for mostly part-time students studying for ELQs. That will be a cut in order to finance an expansion in the number of students elsewhere by 20,000. That has been fully established.

The Secretary of State has produced no research evidence to support his strongly held views that the change will not damage the drive for new skills in the workplace. As other hon. Members have commented—the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) made the point in his opening remarks—why choose now, when there will be a review in 2009? We recognise that there has to be a fundamental look at how we fund higher education and at what we want it to deliver in the 21st century, but why pick out such a small bit—merely £100 million of the £7.1 billion that is spent on teaching in higher education?

I have listened carefully to the arguments that the Government have presented to our Committee as well as those that they have made tonight. We have no problem with Lord Leitch’s analysis that 40 per cent. of adults need to be at level 4 by 2020. We believe that that is a sound policy. We accept that to achieve that target we will have to increase significantly the number of students studying for the first time at that level, as the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) said. We accept that in order to support a more highly educated and skilled work force employers will need to contribute to developing that pool of labour, as the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West said. We accept that as far as the overall spend in higher education is concerned, there will not be a net reduction but simply a redistribution of the resources. We can accept all those facts without questioning them deeply.

There is a question about whether the Secretary of State has fully understood the nature of the part-time student market, and in particular the market for existing graduates to retrain in new areas where they can, we hope, become more economically active. I am sure that the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education would agree it would be absurd to develop a policy whereby initial qualifications, provided they were at level 4, were sufficient to meet the hugely complex and ever-changing demands of a modern economy. That would be nonsense. I do not believe that the Minister believes that at all. How does the ELQ policy fit into a broader Government strategy of not simply upskilling—which we all accept is a good policy—but reskilling at whatever level is necessary to make individuals more economically active and productive?

There is a worry that by simply applying the Leitch upskilling target we are in danger of making the same mistake as when Tony Blair set the target for 50 per cent. of 18 to 25-year-olds to go to university. A drive for quantity rather than the appropriateness of the qualifications is a mistake that we should not make again. Far too many of those who have graduated over the past 10 years have qualifications that they simply cannot use or they find themselves employed in positions that require at best a level 3 and, more often, a level 2 qualification. How on earth do those people
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who become caught in a qualifications trap get out of it without reskilling? ELQs are an essential element of that reskilling.

Of course, the Minister can talk about the ambassador’s wife taking a course in French or some other mythical example, but as the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson) pointed out, those who are studying in the marketplace that we are discussing are serious students. I ask the Minister to set out the Government’s policy on reskilling rather than simply upskilling.

No doubt the Minister will point out the many exemptions—such as medicine, economics, law and psychology. However, I ask him when the policy suddenly arose. If the public purse in education is now to be used to influence people’s choice of course and the outcome to meet national skills needs, why does the policy not apply at level 4? That would be more appropriate. What principal difference means that a student is allowed carte blanche to study wherever he likes for his first degree, provided the institution will accept him, but not if he wants to retrain to become economically active? There is a difference between the two policies.

Like many who reacted strongly to the attacks of the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) on mediaeval historians, I have a real unease about the state deciding what students should study—

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley) (Con): Hear, hear.

Mr. Willis: “Hear, hear,” says the mayoral candidate from a sedentary position. However, my serious point is that this is a legitimate subject for debate. The debate is important in the broader context of what we should expect from higher education, given that no party can devote limitless resources to it. However, the policy under discussion is not being applied to the vast majority of post-18 graduates, so why are the Government picking on one small group of students?

Finally, I return to the fundamental question, which the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West did not answer: should employers contribute to training costs? Many employees want to do ELQ courses because they do not like their current jobs and want to move elsewhere. What employer would want to pour money into helping dissatisfied workers to get skills so that they can go somewhere else? I do not know of any. It is not a sensible description of the process, and I am sure that it is not what the hon. Lady meant.

In his brilliant speech to the inaugural conference of Universities UK, Richard Lambert asked why it was thought that employers would take that approach. The Government say that they must do so to ensure that people have the skills they need, but employers have responded by saying that they would simply go to the EU, as there is now a global market in labour. The task of ensuring that our nation’s work force have the necessary generic skills lies with the Government, and the necessary funding must come from the taxes that we pay to the state.

The debate is important, and the motion under consideration is reasonable. The House has responded to it in a reasonable way, and I trust that the Minister winding up will do likewise. I am sure that he will.

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9.21 pm

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): As ever, it is a particular pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). He has always been a champion of adult learners, and I welcome the inquiry that his Select Committee is conducting.

At the outset, I should declare the interests that reveal my enthusiasm for adult learning. I am an honorary life member of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, and I am also a vice-president of Carers UK. I want to say something later about the relationship between carers and adult learners.

I welcome the debate because it offers another opportunity for the Government to showcase their achievements in higher education and lifelong learning, especially when it comes to widening, deepening and increasing participation. It also gives us an opportunity to remind the House about the Government’s commitment to implement the Leitch report. However, I am one of those who counsels caution in respect of the proposal to withdraw funding for ELQ students, and I am among the signatories of early-day motion 317.

I wish to put it on record that, of course, I endorse the Government’s contention that there needs to be a reprioritisation of resources so that access and participation can be widened and rendered more equitable, and so that quality can be maintained. However, I worry about the unintended consequences of the proposal. We have heard about them already this evening, and they have been described eloquently by the Open university, Birkbeck college, NIACE and the think-tank, Million Plus. The consequences have also been set out by the CBI director general, Richard Lambert, who has been quoted several times in the debate.

I tend to agree with those critics who worry that the proposals will distort—clearly unintentionally—the Leitch agenda. They have noted that there are risks that the proposals will destabilise the part-time HE sector, have an unequal impact on certain institutions and disproportionately affect certain adult learners. It is that final risk about which I want to speak now, especially as it relates to carers.

As chairman of the all-party carers group I take a particular interest in the circumstances of carers, and my Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act 2004 made special provision to ensure that carers were encouraged to pursue lifelong learning. What will happen when a carer happens to be a graduate and is unable to upskill after years, sometimes decades, of enforced caring?

I come to this debate as a strong supporter of my Government, but one who is an enthusiastic supporter of Birkbeck, the Open university and all adult part-time learners. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has rightly acknowledged tonight that such admirable institutions need time to adjust to the changing challenges of our time and to ensure that we have a more radical and enabling higher education system. The House should welcome that commitment as a genuine gesture of support and of his willingness to await the results of the HEFCE inquiry. I urge him to go further and allow even more time for change to take place and to consider the suggestions made by the OU and Birkbeck, particularly that the proposals should be withdrawn or at least that the money saved should be reinvested specifically in institutions that support the skills development of mature part-time learners.

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May I finally urge the Secretary of State to consider consulting Education Ministers in the devolved institutions, who are clearly committed to widening participation, as we are here in England, but who do not appear to be going down this road? I urge my right hon. Friend seriously to consider consulting HE Ministers to strengthen wider participation rather than weaken it.

9.26 pm

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley) (Con): When it was my privilege to help shadow the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, I had the pleasure of giving the founders day address at Birkbeck college. I also saw a great deal of the wonderful work done in universities across London. It is also one of the most important jobs of the Mayor of London to speak up for education in London, to use all his powers to defend London universities and entrench the position of London as the knowledge centre of Europe, and to make sure that we continue to have a constellation of first-class institutions that continue to attract huge numbers of foreign students from across the world and contribute healthily to the £1.5 billion in fees that are so vital to the higher education economy of this country.

At the risk of being partisan, I think it is incredible that the current Mayor of London has said nothing about this issue or about cuts that profoundly affect higher education in this city. I do not wish to do him a disservice; I have not heard him say anything about the issue in the past few weeks. Thousands of people come to London to start their lives afresh and often a major part of that reinvention is a process of re-education and acquiring new skills. That is why there are so many institutions in London whose bread-and-butter work is to teach those who already hold a qualification at an equivalent or higher level. They include City of Westminster college, Birkbeck, South Thames college, the Conservatoire for Dance and Drama, London Business School, Open university, the Institute of Cancer Research, the School of Pharmacy, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, City university, Thames Valley university, Lewisham college, the University of East London and London Metropolitan university. Many of these institutions will have to rethink radically their provision in order to survive. Nine out of 10 of the most seriously affected higher education institutions and 54 per cent. of students taking equivalent or lower qualifications are in London. This move is seriously regressive for London. It is injurious to the interests of thousands of potential learners across the city. As my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) has said, it is particularly damaging to women who wish to acquire further qualifications after a change of career. It frustrates opportunity, stifles aspiration, and sends a negative message to those thinking of pursuing higher education in London. It does nothing to help our status as the centre of the global knowledge economy.

As was pointed out by my hon. Friends, and by the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, the cuts are completely antithetical to the Leitch agenda and the Government’s previous gospel on the subject. Last September, at the Universities UK conference, the
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Secretary of State gave a speech underlining the need for universities to offer flexible part-time provision, in order to help hit the target of 40 per cent. of the work force holding an HE-level qualification by 2020. Many London institutions are uniquely placed to deliver that.

Birkbeck has specialised in the high-quality, research-led teaching of working people since 1823. In 2007, it broke all records for its recruitment, and it was praised by its students for the third year running for delivering an exceptional, high-quality education. As a result of the flexible style of its provision, a third of Birkbeck’s students are equivalent or lower qualification students, yet under the new measure they will pay for that. It is estimated that 6,000 or 7,000 people will be affected. The Government’s cuts will directly limit the potential of a great institution, and the potential of thousands of students to change their lives. London is disproportionately affected by the cuts. I urge the Secretary of State to rethink this arbitrary decision, and to instead incorporate the proposal in the wider review of fees expected in 2009, as my hon. Friend the Member for Havant and Members of all parties have argued.

I think it incredible that we will allow Scottish MPs to vote on cutting higher education funding for English students in a manner that will not apply in Scotland. It is an infamous measure, and in all conscience they should abstain from voting on it. It threatens to discriminate against the very people whom we are trying to help.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Johnson: I am sorry, I have wound up my speech.

9.32 pm

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): The debate on ELQ funding has surely shown the House at its best, focusing on an issue of real concern in a measured, non-partisan way. It is all too easy for politicians to follow Napoleon’s advice to “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” That course of action would do for the moment, but it would surely be found wanting over time. What really counts are the interests of thousands of potential learners, whose opportunities will be stifled, and whose life chances will be limited unless Ministers change their minds about the proposal.

Just a few weeks ago, the Prime Minister said, on the subject of learning, that we must provide

in a society that places

The proposal’s impact flies in the face of that aspiration. I know that Ministers take the issue seriously, and I do not for a moment accuse them of anything other than good will in their aspirations for higher education, but surely the tone and tenor of tonight’s debate will oblige them to think again, taking into account the early-day motion, the debate, and the representations that they have received from all parts of the House, country and sector.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) said, supported by the hon. Member for
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Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), no consultation took place before the proposal was made. There was no lobby or campaign to bring about the change. I repeat that there was no consultation on the principle. The Secretary of State implies that a consultation is under way, and he is of course right, but it is a consultation on how to implement a proposal that has already been made, as the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education told me in answer to a written parliamentary question. In other words, rather than asking those who know best whether the change should happen, the Secretary of State will consult them on how to limit the damage when it does.

Two days after the Secretary of State announced the withdrawal of ELQ funding, it was reported that he wanted to re-educate the work force with

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