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House of Commons

Thursday 10 January 2008

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Innovation, Universities and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

Second Degrees

1. Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): What Government policy is on the provision of funding for those seeking to gain second degrees; and if he will make a statement. [177246]

The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): We have asked the funding council to redeploy, by 2010-11, £100 million of the £329 million that currently goes to support students studying for equivalent and lower qualifications. This will provide an opportunity for some 20,000 full-time equivalent students to enter higher education for the first time or to progress to a higher level who would otherwise have been turned away.

Ms Clark: My right hon. Friend is aware that many of those seeking to obtain second degrees are women intending to return to work after taking time off to look after children, people who have lost employment and are seeking to retrain, or those who have a first degree that is not relevant to the employment that they need to acquire. Does he accept in principle that the Government should provide support to such groups?

Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend raises an important point. Although the Government have made clear their desire to reprioritise some of the funding to those who have never had the chance to go to university, we are also protecting for equivalent or lower qualification funding foundation degrees, which are a major route of vocational retraining, and a list of exempt, strategic and vulnerable subjects that are important to the economy and are, therefore, most likely to provide employment opportunities to a woman who is retraining. Even when the changes have been implemented, there will be many routes available to the women whom my hon. Friend describes who need to re-educate at a higher education level.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): The three universities nearest my constituency, Keele, Birmingham and Wolverhampton, have real concerns about the
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proposals. Unless the Government do a U-turn—there is no shame in that; they have done many before—there will be a detrimental impact on all the students, all the staff and, in particular, the budgets of those universities. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) rightly pointed out the other night that the impact on Wolverhampton university’s budget would be equivalent to £2.5 million worth of cuts. Is that acceptable?

Mr. Denham: I do not accept the figures that have been presented as a realistic prediction. Even if one set aside the transitional protection, which means that no institution will lose in cash terms over three years, the figures ignore the fundamental point that no money is being lost to higher education. The £100 million that is being reprioritised will be available for students who have not otherwise had the chance to go to university, so the universities that say they will lose money are effectively saying that they do not believe that they can recruit a single additional student from the vast pool of people who have never been in higher education. In reality, all those institutions are already recruiting such students successfully. They simply need to build on the efforts that they have already made. We are clear that we need to provide the transitional protection that enables those institutions to adjust the ways in which they work to make sure that that happens.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): Since the Open university is a UK-wide institution, does the Government’s policy have implications for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland? Has the Secretary of State discussed the matter with his counterparts in the devolved Administrations?

Mr. Denham: The proposals that we make affect the funding of English students. With reference to the interest that exists in the devolved Administrations, the most important answer is the one that I gave in response to the previous question. We are making sure that we have put in place the transitional protection and the support for relevant courses to ensure that important universities such as the Open university are able to recruit additional students, change their way of working, come through strongly and deliver the education that is needed. There is no reason why any student who might be planning to go from Scotland in the future should fear that the open university that they wish to attend will be damaged by our proposals.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): May I congratulate the Secretary of State on his powers of persuasion with the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Ms Clark), who was one of the 63 Labour MPs who signed the original motion criticising the Government’s policy but voted against the very motion that she had signed. She is a Member for a Scottish constituency, where the policy that she now supports—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman should ask a supplementary question, not question the motives of another hon. Member: put the question to the Minister.

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Mr. Willetts: May I follow the Secretary of State’s previous response and invite him to use his excellent powers of persuasion to argue that his policy should apply in Scotland as well?

Mr. Denham: I, unlike the hon. Gentleman, respect the devolution settlement and believe that it is important. It is not my job to persuade another devolved Administration to adopt particular policies. However, as reference has been made to the debate earlier this week, I point out that it has not escaped the attention of many people—including, I am sure, many members of the Open University Students Association—that the Opposition motion did not oppose the principle behind our proposals. A number of my hon. Friends signed the early-day motion, but Tuesday’s debate was about securing the interests of the institutions that would be affected by the change. The measures that I have set out secure the future of those institutions, and my right hon. and hon. Friends who supported the Government on Tuesday were right to do so.

Mr. Willetts: That was a very complacent answer. I invite the Secretary of State to confirm that Universities UK, the Open university, Birkbeck, the university heads of pharmacy, Million Plus, the National Union of Students, the University and College Union and the CBI criticise his policy. Will he confirm that he has even united The Guardian and the Church of England in opposition to his policy? I applaud him for creating such a broad coalition, but I thought that the new Prime Minister wanted to create broad coalitions in favour of his policies, not against them. Can he identify a single serious body in the world of higher education that supports his policy?

Mr. Denham: One of the responsibilities of government, which I accept, is that sometimes one takes difficult decisions that are widely criticised. It is true that not everyone accepted our decision to prioritise opportunities for people who never had the chance to go to university. In Tuesday’s debate, not a single voice among Conservative Members was raised on behalf on people who have never had a chance to go to university, which tells hon. Members everything they need to know about the Conservative party.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Of those studying at the Open university, 25 per cent. are doing science, maths or technology courses. The Prime Minister recently said that science, innovation and technology are crucial to any advanced industrial economy. Why is the Minister planning to make it harder for undergraduates to study those very subjects?

Mr. Denham: The answer is that those STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—subjects are among the list of protected courses in the proposals on which the Higher Education Funding Council for England has consulted. We have yet formally to receive HEFCE’s advice on its consultation and to respond to it, but I entirely share the point that has been made. We need to ensure that individuals have the opportunity to study the disciplines that are important to the economy.

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): I, too, congratulate the Secretary of State on persuading 63 of his colleagues to vote with him on Tuesday night. Meanwhile, back in the real world, the higher education sector remains
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unconvinced that this is a sensible policy, particularly in its impact on certain students whom the Government want to attract into higher education. Will he belatedly now undertake a full equalities impact study on the impact on women, older students and poorer students, and, to allow room for that study, delay implementation until 2009 when the wide-ranging review of higher education is scheduled to take place?

Mr. Denham: It was not my powers of persuasion on Tuesday but the fact that the hon. Gentleman, whom I welcome again to his post today, spent most of his speech reading out the briefing for Labour Members of Parliament that—

Mr. Willetts: That was the turning point.

Mr. Denham: That was the turning point. That was what they found persuasive.

The Department intends to conduct a full equalities impact assessment of the entire system of higher education funding when the relevant decisions have been taken. That is the right way to handle that important matter.

Academic Freedom

2. Mr. Siôn Simon (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): What definition of academic freedom his Department uses; and if he will make a statement. [177247]

The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Bill Rammell): Academic freedom is a fundamental principle of our higher education system. It is vital that academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and voice controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy. A definition of academic freedom setting out this principle is included in the model articles of government for higher education institutions. We expect all institutions to include such a provision, protecting academic freedom, in their governing documents.

Mr. Simon: How could such a definition be used to help combat the growth, such as it is, of extremism on university campuses, where surely, of all places, intolerance of any kind, particularly intellectual intolerance, should not be allowed to flourish?

Bill Rammell: I very much agree with the thrust of my hon. Friend’s question. I recently gave a major lecture on the importance of academic freedom; I argued that within such freedom lies one of the most powerful means at our disposal to refute violent extremist views on campus and promote a cohesive community. I strongly believe that academics must use the tools of their trade to expose the faulty logic and flawed arguments of those in favour of violent, extremist solutions.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): The Minister will be aware from Adjournment debates of my interest in this subject, and he will know that there is statutory protection for freedom of speech on university campuses. If a lawful meeting, approved by university authorities and the police, takes place and there is a demonstration against it, does he agree that
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the police have a duty to ensure that the lawful meeting can go ahead, rather than be disrupted by demonstrators? Demonstrators would have the right to demonstrate, but not to prevent a meeting’s right to freedom of speech.

Bill Rammell: I agree with the hon. Gentleman; he and I have discussed such issues in the House before. He, I or other people might find a whole range of views objectionable and disagree fundamentally with them, but individuals have the right to express such views at a higher education institution as long as they are within the law. That is why the Government do not support a blanket no-platform policy. The most effective way to counter and challenge views with which we fundamentally disagree is by open, rational argument.

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): The House is well aware of the danger of extremism on university campuses, and we understand that the Government are shortly to publish guidelines on the monitoring of extremist activity at our universities. What obligations and duties over and above those required of an ordinary UK citizen will be imposed on academics to report the activities of students?

Bill Rammell: The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not pre-empt guidance that we will shortly publish. Nevertheless, we published guidance last year on helping institutions to secure the safety of their students. Clearly, if illegal activities are taking place, it is incumbent on any responsible citizen to deal with them and report them.

Lifelong Learning

3. Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): What assessment he has made of the effect that withdrawal of funding for equivalent or lower qualifications will have on lifelong learning. [177248]

7. Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): What assessment he has made of the effect that withdrawal of funding for equivalent or lower qualifications will have on lifelong learning. [177254]

The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Bill Rammell): We are not cutting funding to higher education; in fact, funding has been and is increasing significantly. Our decision is the right one for lifelong learning. It directs funds to those who most need them and is a fairer way to spend public money. It is the best way of making progress towards the target that 40 per cent. of the working-age population should have a higher-level qualification.

Mr. Harper: I listened carefully to the Minister’s answer and the Secretary of State’s at the beginning. The Secretary of State referred to the full assessment that will be made as part of the review of higher education funding. Would it not be more sensible to delay the decision on the withdrawal of funding until that assessment had taken place? However persuasive Ministers were to their colleagues, they have not managed to persuade any of the institutions, including the university of Gloucestershire, which has written to me expressing great concern about the issue. If the
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Ministers’ case was so sound, surely they would be able to use rational argument to persuade their colleagues in higher education?

Bill Rammell: I do not believe that there is a case for delay. Were we to delay, the alternative critique would be that we were not allowing institutions sufficient time to plan for the new system. Interestingly, as the Secretary of State said earlier, the Conservative party did not oppose our policy in our debates earlier this week. It offered principled opposition for just one year—until the 2009 commission. With respect, that is not really principled opposition, but opportunism.

Mr. Mackay: Notwithstanding the Secretary of State’s characteristic good humour, we still do not know why the 63 Labour MPs who signed early-day motion 317 voted against an identical motion on Tuesday evening. Will the Minister explain? Does he agree that it adds to public cynicism?

Bill Rammell: I do not believe that that is the case at all. [ Laughter. ] Forgive me—perhaps it is not a surprise, but I do not agree with that. There was a request for reassurance that institutions will be able to cope with this pace of change, and we have set out very clearly, in detailed terms, the protections that will be available to enable them to do so. That is why people are being, and will be, reassured.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): Was it not the case on Tuesday night that neither of the conservative parties defending the status quo opposed the principle of this, nor did they make any constructive alternative proposals on the way forward? In my constituency, 82 per cent. of constituents have never been to university, some have never been anywhere near a university, and some do not even know what a university is. If their children and grandchildren are to have a better chance in life than they did, this transfer of funds is an essential first step.

Bill Rammell: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It was he who pointed out in the debate earlier this week that we heard not one word from the Opposition about the importance of targeting people in our communities who are not yet at first degree level. Six million adults in the workplace have the equivalent of A-level qualifications but have not yet progressed to degree level. I believe that they are our first priority in public expenditure.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): Doubtless one of the tools in the tool box that the Secretary of State used magically to convert the 86 Labour Members who signed my early-day motion was to convince them about all the exemptions regarding students currently studying for ELQ qualifications. Will he acknowledge that those exemptions account for just 4.8 per cent. of students currently studying for ELQs at the Open university? If he does not acknowledge that, will he, as he has clearly considered the matter, tell me exactly what percentage of students will be exempt?

Bill Rammell: The hon. Gentleman has bandied about several statistics this week. Earlier this week, he gave a fanciful figure about the financial impact on the
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Open university. The merit of his argument is not helped by exaggeration. We strongly believe that, with the protections that are in place, open institutions such as the Open university and Birkbeck are best placed to reap the rewards of the growth that we are proposing.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): Speaking as somebody who tutored in the Open university when it was first established, I believe there has always been a healthy mixture of people without academic qualifications and those seeking to adapt and improve their academic qualifications. Setting one group against the other threatens to undermine one of the few lasting achievements of that Labour Government.

Bill Rammell: If one had asked Jennie Lee in 1966 whether she thought that a founding core element of the mission of the Open university was to provide degrees for people who already have them, I do not think that she would have recognised that description of its central purpose. In the hon. Gentleman’s party, money always grows on trees, but in government one has to make choices and set priorities, and I believe that the interests of those who are not yet at first degree level come first.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): When the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Ms Clark) raised the issue of women returning to work, the Secretary of State said there were many avenues for them. The group of women who find it most difficult to get back into work after having children is that of women who have a first degree. Can the Minister go further by guaranteeing that those women will not be penalised by his proposals, and will he acknowledge their important role in the future of our economy?

Bill Rammell: I am indeed concerned about the interests of women. Of the 20 million adults within the workplace who do not have a first degree, 10 million are women. As the Secretary of State explained, women who already have a first degree will be able to take a vocational foundation degree, which is in many senses the most effective way to retrain, and to apply for one of the strategically important and vulnerable exempted subjects. They will be able to consider those avenues, and that will help them to retrain and reskill.

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