Previous Section Index Home Page

yet as we heard in today’s debate, it is the very institutions that lead the way in providing flexible learning that will be most damaged. As the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson) said, Birkbeck college in London is among those institutions. A third of students at Birkbeck college, which specialises, as he said, in part-time evening courses, are ELQ students. The proposal means severe cuts to the part-time learning that the Secretary of State claims to champion.

Earlier in the debate we heard the Secretary of State pouring cold water on some of HEFCE’s figures and statements, which was quite a shocking thing for him to do, but nevertheless HEFCE estimates that 20 per cent. of part-time students in England will be unfunded from 2008-09. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) said in a stout defence of the Open university—not for the first time, he was its champion in the Chamber tonight—the OU will be severely affected by the proposal. It was good to hear my hon. Friend speaking up for Harold Wilson’s brainchild. By contrast, the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey)—I do not mean to be unnecessarily unkind to the hon. Lady, and I emphasise the word “unnecessarily”—managed, with remarkable dexterity, to skate on thin ice and dance on the head of a pin at the same time.

One of the other institutions that will be affected is the Cambridge Institute of Continuing Education, where more than 80 per cent. of students already have a first degree or equivalent qualification.

It is not only those high profile institutions that will be detrimentally affected. Universities and colleges should work to widen access because education is a tool to build greater social mobility and a more just nation. Many of the institutions that have the best track record in attracting students from disadvantaged backgrounds will bear the brunt of the cuts. As the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) said, FE colleges and specialist provision will suffer, as well as high profile universities.

HEFCE suggests that, even allowing for the exemptions, institutions such as the university of Wolverhampton, which was mentioned by the hon.
8 Jan 2008 : Column 260
Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), who is not in his place, and the university of East London, both of which attract nearly 40 per cent. of their students from the bottom three socio-economic groups, will lose millions in funding as a result of the Minister’s proposals.

London Metropolitan university was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), who is a champion for London and all that is best about our capital city. It is estimated that 97.5 per cent. of the students at that university come from state schools and it will be among the biggest losers.

HEFCE says that the changes could destabilise efforts to increase the amount of part-time and flexible learning. The policy directly contradicts the aim of widening participation.

Ministers say that the £100 million saving will be recycled within the HE sector to first degree students, but the House is left to guess how or where this will happen and who will benefit. It is not in the letter that the Secretary of State sent to HEFCE. There is barely a mention of the £20 million being redirected to help the students whom he mentioned tonight. We can only assume that he had not made his mind up then or does not know now. I hesitate to say this because I do not want to offend anyone in the House, but I wonder whether that was a rabbit drawn from a hat to cover the Secretary of State’s embarrassment once he realised how unpopular and how unacceptable the proposal was among Opposition Members, the representatives of HE and his colleagues.

Ministers make much of the Leitch review of skills, but Lord Leitch concludes that demographic change means we must reskill and not just upskill the existing work force. The proposal undoubtedly makes reskilling harder for all and impossible for many. The exemptions are arbitrary and inconsistent. Vets will be exempt, but not pharmacists. Land management will continue to be supported, but not law or business studies. Many professional qualifications will be damaged. In 2005-06 21 per cent. of students studying for science, technology and engineering degrees were ELQ students.

Mr. Denham indicated dissent.

Mr. Hayes: That information comes from a Minister’s written answer, so I am surprised that the Secretary of State is shaking his head.

Such qualifications have a direct impact on Britain’s economic chances—and the chances of countless of our countrymen.

The London Business School will be the fifth-hardest hit institution as a result of the change. No wonder the director general of the CBI is concerned; he says that it will damage management and business education. If we are to meet the skills needs of the 21st century, we must enable people to access education in a way and at a pace right for them. That should mean more part-time and distance learning and more modular courses, but the proposals are injurious to those ambitions.

Unless the decision is reviewed, the route back into learning will be harder to travel. Mothers who want to return to work and need to reskill will find that they
8 Jan 2008 : Column 261
will not be funded; workers who have been made redundant because of technological change will not find funding for reskilling. So much for the Prime Minister’s talk of second, third or lifelong chances. So much for the culture of learning in which the Minister tells us he believes.

The early-day motion on which the motion is based was signed by more than 200 Members across the House. It is straightforward, measured and clear. The Opposition have not sought to add or subtract from it; we have simply reproduced it for the House to consider tonight. We just want Ministers to look at ways in which damage—damage to lifelong learning, to the Leitch agenda, to objectives that are broadly shared across the Chamber—could be minimised. We believe that it would be better to defer implementation and refer the issue to the 2009 fees and funding commission. Surely that is fair; surely that is right.

Occasionally, an opportunity arises for Members across the House to speak with one voice. This is such an occasion, and voting for the motion is such an opportunity. The Government’s proposal to cut funding for thousands of learners is simply unwarranted, unwelcome and unwanted. I urge Members who genuinely believe in the efficacy of education, in lifelong learning and in second, third and lifelong chances—and I know that Members across the Chamber do—to join me and my hon. Friends in voting for the motion.

9.42 pm

The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Bill Rammell): We have genuinely had an exceedingly good debate about an important issue. What has come across strongly is that across the House there is a genuine commitment on these important issues.

I strongly believe that the issue of part-timers and adults in higher education is hugely important to every community in the country and to us as a nation. As Sandy Leitch’s thought-provoking, challenging analysis of our skills needs until the end of the next decade made clear, if we are to remain competitive, we need to do much better in getting people to the highest skills levels. He identified that to be globally competitive we need to increase the proportion of the working-age population with a higher education qualification from 29 per cent. today to 40 per cent. by the end of the next decade.

That is a challenging target. Even if we achieve it, it will move us from 10th place in the international league table just into the upper quartile. The target is stiff and challenging; that is why as a country and as a Government we have to ensure that the highest priority for public, taxpayers’ funding is people who are not yet at the first-degree level; that is why that has to come first.

Mr. Chaytor: Does my hon. Friend not think it significant that in the speeches from the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Front Benches there was not a single mention of the 70 per cent. of the work force who do not have a university degree? Does he think that they would have turned out in such large numbers had we been talking about apprenticeships or national vocational qualification level 2 or 3? They would not have done.

8 Jan 2008 : Column 262

Bill Rammell: As usual on these matters, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have heard nothing from the Conservatives about the 20 million people in the adult work force, 10 million of whom are women, who have not got to that first degree level, and we should hear more about that.

Mr. Boris Johnson: Can the Minister, for whom I have the highest regard, explain exactly how he will increase opportunities for people who have not yet had a degree by taking away opportunities from those who might go on to acquire further qualifications?

Bill Rammell: We are redirecting £100 million, which is 0.2 per cent. of the higher education budget, in the first year of the operation of this new system, and we are redirecting that £100 million towards people—20,000 of them by the end of the three-year comprehensive spending review period—who are not yet at first degree level. In order to meet that stiff and challenging target, adult learning and part-time study are important; that is why the Government have been so keen and determined to increase both in higher education.

Words, including some of those that we heard from Opposition Members, are cheap, but our commitment has been reflected not in words but in actions. We have also been treated to some words intended to suggest that the Government are somehow trying to persecute the Open university. Let me make it abundantly clear for the record that nothing could be further from the truth. I say this with genuine conviction. I believe that the Open university is one of the finest creations of any Labour Government; that is why that institution has such strong support from my right hon. and hon. Friends. I have to say that Conservative support for the Open university was not as apparent at its inception, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State pointed out when he quoted the late Iain Macleod, who, when he spoke for the Conservatives, described the idea of the Open university as “blithering nonsense”. Let us bring it further up to date. My right hon. Friend might have added that as Education Secretary in 1970, Margaret Thatcher had to struggle hard against pressure from her own Back Benchers in order, as she said her biography, to save the Open university. This commitment to and support for the Open university is a little late and opportunistic.

Nevertheless, the Labour party—the party of this Government—created the Open university and we continue to support it. We retain, importantly, our commitment to part-time study as a route to individual betterment for people who, for whatever reason, have missed out on the chance of higher education first time round.

Mr. Hayes: Could the hon. Gentleman be clear about what consultation took place with the Open university, Birkbeck and others before the letter was sent from the Secretary of State to HEFCE suggesting these measures?

Bill Rammell: The Secretary of State has made the position clear. We set out the policy, we have been consulting on its detail, and that consultation has not concluded. HEFCE and Ministers have been listening to the points that have been made.

8 Jan 2008 : Column 263

Under this Government, part-time student numbers have risen by no less than 40 per cent.—faster than numbers of full-timers. That has happened because we have continued with the strong and long Labour tradition of support for mature students in higher education and for the part-time mode that is so important to them. That is why this Labour Government were the first Government to bring in part-time student support. It is why, two years ago, we increased the part-time student grant by 27 per cent., and why in each of the past two years we have allocated an additional £40 million, through the funding council, to support part-time provision. Compare and contrast that with the record of the last Conservative Government, of whom the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) was a member, when there was precisely no incentive for higher education institutions to recruit part-timers and no support to allow learners to study part-time.

Mr. Willetts: But does the Minister not understand that his proposals will damage part-time students who do not have a degree already, as well as those who have a degree? Those proposals will make part-time courses less viable, they threaten existing part-time provision, which means those without degrees suffer, and they will limit the range of students studying part-time courses. He is undermining his own policy through those ill-conceived proposals.

Bill Rammell: That is emphatically not the case. I urge the hon. Gentleman, whose views I normally respect, to look at the detail of the proposals, and to recognise the fact that we are increasing the part-time premium to institutions such as the Open university through the Higher Education Funding Council. Institutions such as the Open university and Birkbeck will be exceedingly well placed to take up the additional growth from the redirected £100 million, and the 2 per cent. above inflation increase in the overall higher education budget each year, in order to make good any loss in respect of ELQ students.

We have invested in and supported part-timers; the previous Government did nothing whatsoever to support them. Let us also remember what happened to overall higher education funding under the previous Government. During the last seven years of that Government, there was a 36 per cent. real terms cut in higher education funding. When one talks to vice-chancellors and lecturers, one finds that they very much remember those days. In the past 10 years, we have seen the biggest increase in higher education funding for 40 years. Since this Government came to power, we have increased funding by 23 per cent. in real terms, and for each of the coming three years of the CSR period, there will be a further increase of 2 per cent. above inflation. This Government are not cutting funding for higher education; we are maintaining and expanding higher education. What we are doing, rightly, is redirecting 1.5 per cent. of the overall higher education budget by the end of year three in order to give a chance of a university education to more than 20,000 full-time students who would never have had that opportunity otherwise.

8 Jan 2008 : Column 264

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): The Minister is throwing out a lot of stats, and going back 20 or 30 years in some cases, but could he explain clearly to this House which bit of the motion he disagrees with?

Bill Rammell: I disagree with the bit of the motion that says that the Government should ensure that we minimise the impact on institutions such as the Open university and Birkbeck because that is exactly what we have already been seeking to do through the consultation. We have sought to ensure that those institutions are able to benefit from the growth that will come from the redirected £100 million and the overall increase in higher education funding. I shall return to that point later.

I shall now comment specifically on some of the points that have been raised during the debate. The hon. Member for Havant made a significant issue of the proportion of women who will be affected by the policy. Let me be clear and state for the record that 47 per cent. of ELQ students are women, just as 47 per cent. of non-ELQ students are women. It is also the case, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) alluded to, that tens of millions of women in the adult work force do not have a first degree, and ensuring that they receive funding will be a priority under the proposals.

The hon. Member for Havant was challenged by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) to say what he would he do if he were faced with this decision, and on where the money would come from, and he said quite simply that he would not make this decision. That is fine; such a priority can be made, but if another decision were taken, the Opposition would have to go out and explain it to the 20,000 students who would not have their first degree funded as a result.

The hon. Gentleman also made a point about our proposals being contrary to what Sandy Leitch has recommended. I do not believe that that is the case. The proposals will give significant opportunities to enable people to reskilll through employer co-funded courses, vocational foundation degrees and whole range of exempted subjects.

Kelvin Hopkins: As I said at the beginning of the debate, if the Tories were honest, they would say, “Let’s raise taxes and have it all.” That is what I believe.

Bill Rammell: I know from many conversations that my hon. Friend believes that. I will leave it at that.

More interesting was the intervention from the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who chairs the Select Committee. He challenged the Conservative party to make a commitment that, if a Conservative Government were elected—

Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): Heaven forfend.

Bill Rammell: Indeed. The Chairman of the Select Committee challenged Conservative Members to make a commitment that any student who had a first degree could get a funded ELQ. The hon. Member for Havant could not make that commitment and urged us simply to wait for the results of the commission in 2009. We
8 Jan 2008 : Column 265
therefore have principled opposition, but only for a year. Indeed, we have political opportunism that masquerades as principled opposition on the issue.

The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams), whom I welcome to his new position and responsibilities, mentioned foundation degree awarding powers for further education colleges. My memory of that change was of significantly more noise and opposition compared with the reaction to the proposals that we are introducing today. Yet now that the change has been made, we hear not a murmur from the sector. That demonstrates that we sometimes have to do what is right, consult and take people with us.

Stephen Williams: The reason for the noise from the sector was that the Government had not consulted it. Matters improved and there is not so much noise now because we went through a legislative process in this place and significantly amended the original proposals. We will not get that chance with tonight’s proposal.

Bill Rammell: The same principle applies. One presents a proposition and consults about the detail—we did that previously and we are doing it now. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is new to the Front Bench, but he is seriously misinformed about the current position. He lamented the fact that ELQs would now be unregulated and that higher fees could be charged, but that is the current position. Institutions can already charge higher fees for second degrees. Given the competitive market, I believe that universities will think long and hard before raising fees. They know that significant other sources of funding will come forward as a result of the changes.

I respect the integrity and commitment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson). Let me reassure him about Birkbeck college. I have met representatives of Birkbeck twice and I spoke at its founder’s day before Christmas. I have been impressed by the college’s willingness to engage with the Higher Education Funding Council and examine the way in which it can reorientate the organisation to take up the opportunities that are on offer. It is a model for the way in which we expect higher education institutions to respond.

The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) claimed that the changes would result in the Open university losing £49 million in funding. That is categorically untrue. It does not serve the cause of the argument to make such claims. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) passionately supports the Open university, as was demonstrated when she made exactly the same arguments in private to me as she made on the Floor of the House.

Let me conclude by making the position abundantly clear. First, there is no overall reduction in funding for higher education. On the contrary, it will continue to increase. Secondly, funding for students taking ELQs in strategically important and vulnerable subjects will be protected. Thirdly, students taking foundation degrees will be protected. Fourthly, funding for employer co-funded courses will be protected. Finally and crucially, no institution’s grant will be reduced in cash terms in the next three years while the new policy is introduced. That is an important message to Birkbeck and the Open university.

Next Section Index Home Page