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House of Commons

Thursday 21 February 2008

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Broads Authority Bill (By Order)

Order for Third Reading read.

To be read the Third time on Thursday 28 February.

Oral Answers to Questions

Innovation, Universities and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

Higher Education (Internationalisation)

1. Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for International Development on the globalisation of higher education. [187368]

The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): I regularly speak to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Our higher education sector plays an important role in international development. Our universities attract students from more than 200 countries, helping them to acquire skills and knowledge that are of benefit to their home countries. Universities collaborate extensively with their counterparts overseas to deliver courses, to exchange staff and students, and to conduct world-class research. My Department's bilateral programmes with India, China and African countries complement DFID’s work.

Laura Moffatt: I thank my right hon. Friend for that positive response. In Crawley we are working hard to acquire a university campus. Does my right hon. Friend agree that while universities benefit students at home, enabling students overseas to learn together and share experiences is a very good way of promoting education in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Denham: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I am well aware of her ambition to establish a university campus in Crawley. It is true that the internationalisation of higher education brings numerous benefits to our own students and also to students who come here to study, and who take their
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knowledge of education back to their countries along with, hopefully, a good impression of our country and our education system.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Will the Minister take this opportunity to praise the work of the dedicated staff of the British Council who operate in a number of developing countries throughout the world, not only advertising our universities but helping to establish campuses in those countries? Will he also take the opportunity to praise the work of British Chevening Scholarships, a body that provides scholarships for people who might not otherwise be able to afford education in this country?

Mr. Denham: I am delighted to do so. I have met Chevening scholars in Bournemouth in the recent past. In my present post I have worked with the British Council in China, and have observed its role in helping British universities to offer British higher education in that country. In an earlier role I met British Council staff in Pakistan, where they were doing much to promote awareness of further and higher education in this country and to deliver English language courses in that country.

Small Businesses

2. Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): What steps the Government are taking to assist the development of leadership and management skills in small businesses. [187369]

The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): We have increased our commitment to our leadership and management programme through Train to Gain from £4 million this year to £30 million per year from next year. We aim to develop the capacity of small business managers to understand the skills needs of their businesses, and to use the publicly funded Train to Gain programme. We expect around 42,000 companies with between 10 and 250 employees and some 60,000 individual managers to participate in the leadership programme over the next three years, and we expect that to result in about 150,000 learners from those companies using Train to Gain.

Mr. Flello: There are many small and medium-sized enterprises in my constituency and, indeed, in the wider Stoke-on-Trent area. Although I would love to mention them all, I suspect that that would both be unfair to those that I missed out and would incur your displeasure, Mr. Speaker.

Will my right hon. Friend outline the practical steps that could enable the measures he has described to help small businesses and starter businesses, not just in my constituency but in the wider Potteries area?

Mr. Denham: I hope that a number of steps can be taken to promote the scheme, in addition, of course, to the steps that my hon. Friend himself might take. We hope that small and medium-sized enterprises will be approached by skills brokers operating at regional level to promote awareness of the scheme. In fact, we know that that is already happening. It will also be possible for training providers to approach companies directly.

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The offer is a good one. Public investment in developing the skills and management experience of businesses will enable managers to understand how they can use Train to Gain funds to secure further public funding to raise the skill levels of their staff. This is a very good proposition for small businesses. It is tried and tested, we have expanded it dramatically, and I hope that all Members will help to promote it in their areas.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will know of the considerable growth in small businesses in my constituency, but there are crucial problems. People lack confidence in their ability to develop small firms, and in particular to cope with the volume of regulation. How can we devise courses that will teach them that they have the talent to deliver, and also that they are able to cope with all that regulation?

Mr. Denham: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is actively dealing with the issue of regulation and the environment for small businesses by means of deregulation and other mechanisms, and that is an important part of the picture. My Department, meanwhile, has recognised that for business managers, understanding the skills needs of their businesses and the way in which investing in skills can improve productivity and profit is not simple or straightforward. We believe that, by investing public money in improving that understanding and those skills, we can help managers to run their businesses while also enabling them to unlock further public investment in their staff.

Skills Pledge

3. Mrs. Linda Riordan (Halifax) (Lab/Co-op): How many employees have participated in the skills pledge scheme to date. [187370]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. David Lammy): By December 2007, more than 950 companies covering almost 2.7 million employees had made a skills pledge to develop the skills of their employees, including basic skills such as literacy and numeracy and work towards relevant valuable qualifications to at least NVQ level 2, which is equivalent to five good GCSEs.

Mrs. Riordan: I thank the Minister for that reply. In Halifax, thousands of my constituents work in small and medium-sized businesses, which are vital to the economy. Can the Minister tell me how many people in Halifax have participated in the scheme, and what skills and benefits they have developed through that?

Mr. Lammy: Thirty-nine organisations in the Yorkshire and Humber region have participated in the skills pledge, but my hon. Friend will be aware that large companies such as Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Royal Mail have also signed up to the pledge. The most essential programme in her constituency, as in others, is Train to Gain, with its more than £1 billion of investment over this comprehensive spending review period. That engagement of employers with a broker
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and local colleges in skilling up their work forces is what will produce results in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): Does the Minister agree that, although it is fine for larger and leading organisations to commit to the skills pledge, it is equally important and yet a great deal more difficult to encourage small and medium-sized enterprises to participate actively? Will he ensure that the minimum of bureaucracy is required, and does he acknowledge that the maximum of encouragement is expected from Government to ensure their participation, both in apprenticeships and other structured training programmes?

Mr. Lammy: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The first thing to say is that this endeavour cannot be just a national one; it has to be a local one, and there is certainly a role for local chambers of commerce across the country to pursue skills agendas in their areas. Secondly, we have ensured through the Train to Gain programme that the absolute priority is hard-to-reach companies, and that includes companies that have not invested in skills in the previous period. Through that, and our plan for growth where we recognised and introduced changes to make this as simple as possible, we can ensure that small companies are able to access the relevant money to upskill their work force.

Mr. Denis Murphy (Wansbeck) (Lab): As someone who went through a craft apprenticeship training scheme where education and training were available up to and including degree level, I am aware that this is very costly for smaller employers. Has my hon. Friend any plans to extend finance to SMEs in particular?

Mr. Lammy: My hon. Friend raises a good point, and he will be pleased to know that in our recently published apprenticeship review we discussed piloting direct payments to ensure that small businesses are able to engage in the apprenticeship programme.

University Applications

4. Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): What discussions he has had with representatives of universities on encouraging applications from students from all backgrounds. [187371]

The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Bill Rammell): This Government remain fully committed to increasing and widening participation in higher education. To remain competitive, our economy needs more graduates, and it is right that those benefiting from higher education should come from all walks of life. I have had many discussions on this important matter, which in essence is about ensuring that talent does not go to waste and our nation does not lose out as a result.

Rosie Cooper: Is the Minister aware that parts of West Lancashire are among the most deprived in the country? Public transport links are not good throughout the constituency and are particularly poor from places such as Skelmersdale. That disadvantages young people who want to attend either the university within the constituency or those on our borders. Given
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that the odds can be stacked against young people from low-income families, does the Minister not agree that we must provide as much support as possible to improve young people’s access to higher education and the career opportunities that that will give them in later life?

Bill Rammell: I strongly agree with my hon. Friend, and I congratulate her on the work that she does on this issue. I believe that we should provide as much support as possible for the potential students in her constituency to whom she refers. That is why we brought back non-repayable grants and why, from this September, we are significantly expanding the proportion of students who will be eligible for such grants. Even with the mechanisms already in place, I hope that she would join me in welcoming the fact that in her constituency entry to part-time and full-time undergraduate courses has increased by 40 per cent. in the past 10 years.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): We are all glad about the Government’s commitment to higher education for all. Will the Minister pay particular attention to one group of people—the sons and daughters of Gurkha soldiers? Last year, Gurkha soldiers were given equal status to British soldiers in every respect—pay and conditions, home leave and so forth—save for the fact that their children are not yet given home-student status. I understand that the Department is working on this matter with the Ministry of Defence. Will the Minister commit himself to giving home-student status to Gurkha soldiers’ children, and will he tell us how the negotiations with the Ministry of Defence are progressing?

Bill Rammell: I am highly aware of this issue. The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not make a cast-iron commitment on the Floor of the House today, but I have discussed the matter in detail with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence. We are examining the issue and I hope that we will be able to say something about it shortly.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): My hon. Friend will know that the university of Bolton has a fine record of attracting people from all walks of life. However, he also knows that there is a high drop-out rate across the country—the university of Bolton is included in that. What more can we do to help to retain students who are attracted to universities and help them to stay in the courses that they have opted to study?

Bill Rammell: This is extremely important, although it is necessary to put it into context. We have some of the lowest drop-out rates in the advanced world. The recent Public Accounts Committee report included two tables. If we look at the one that includes both those students who transfer to another university and those who achieve a different higher education qualification, we get a more realistic picture. It shows that non-completion rates have reduced consistently since 1998.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): The Higher Education Minister must accept that the proportion of students from poorer backgrounds accepted to universities has not increased as he would
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have wanted. Does he accept that debt aversion is a problem? Whether or not he accepts that, does he agree that there is a need for proper research into the reasons why there are not more applications from students from poorer backgrounds? Will he commission that proper research so that we can have evidence-based policy?

Bill Rammell: We have discussed this in the Select Committee on Innovation, Universities and Skills, and we regularly conduct research into these issues. There has been an increase in the proportion of students from lower socio-economic groups applying to and being accepted by universities. I want that to be higher, which is why we have a host of policies in train to achieve that. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in celebrating last week’s figures on applications to study at university next year. They show a significant overall increase of more than 7 per cent. and an increase in the proportion of applications from lower socio-economic groups.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): Is the Minister aware that both Oxford and Cambridge still take one third of their students from 100 so-called elite schools—80 per cent. in the private school sector and just 20 per cent. in the state school sector? Both those universities are failing to meet their abysmally low widening participation rate targets of 9 per cent. What more can he do to drag those two universities kicking and screaming into the 21st century by widening their participation rates?

Bill Rammell: I understand the genuine concern on the issue. It is acknowledged by the vice-chancellors and senior management teams at both institutions. Those institutions have made progress in broadening their access, but, as with all institutions, there is much more to do. One of the most effective ways of achieving that progress is by having much stronger school-university partnerships, involving institutions across the country, including Oxford and Cambridge.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton) (Con): Members of Universities UK are well aware of the need to broaden access to universities and they are making every effort, but does the Minister accept that one of the best ways to encourage all people from all backgrounds to go to university is to teach the proper subjects in schools to give children a chance to do so? The number of 18-year-olds with a decent A-level is some 25 per cent., so the target of 50 per cent. is heroic. Why are more students not taught the individual sciences of maths, physics, biology and chemistry, rather than a general science that eliminates them from our best universities?

Bill Rammell: I know from many discussions with the hon. Gentleman and from his background that he takes these issues very seriously. One key change being made by the Department for Children, Schools and Families is to ensure that triple science is more widely available from the coming academic year. That will help with the issues that he raises. We have made progress, but we need to do more.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that in towns such as Keighley a growing number of young women from the Asian community are doing
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really well at A-level and going on to university every year? I am so proud of that and I hope that it will continue. However, is he also aware that once they get to university they are often bullied by young men about their style of dress and their general conduct? Can he ask vice-chancellors to be protectors of those women, so that they can conduct their lives as they wish?

Bill Rammell: My hon. Friend raises an important issue and I know that she has taken a particular interest from a constituency perspective. It is critical that all students from all backgrounds, faiths and nationalities come together on campus. The institution then has a responsibility not only to ensure that all students are protected, but that they are integrated within the student community.

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): We discovered last week that the Government are spending some £211,000 for every disadvantaged student they get into university. We now know that at least a fifth of those students are leaving within a year, despite the Government spending a further £800 million to tackle drop-out rates. We also know that student debt will shortly reach £21 billion. Can the Minister tell me which one of those financial failures gives the taxpayer best value for money?

Bill Rammell: The hon. Gentleman is wrong in his claim that a fifth of students leave university within a year and I ask him to go back to the figures and look at what he is saying. The figures can be made to add up for the claim that £200,000 is spent for every widening-participation student, but only if the total money spent on widening access for all less well-off and disabled students is divided by the total number of additional full-time students from lower socio-economic groups. However, that excludes part-timers, mature students and those students from better-off backgrounds whom we nevertheless want to encourage to apply to all universities, especially the selective universities. The hon. Gentleman needs to address that point.

As for so-called student debt, I understand that the Conservatives are still committed to a real rate of interest for repayments on student loans. We should have a comment from them on whether that is still the case, because it would do nothing to help students.

Mr. Speaker: We are not going to have that comment this morning.

Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton) (Lab): I know that my hon. Friend visited the very good North Warwickshire and Hinckley technical college in Nuneaton recently. When he has talks with the professors at universities, will he ask them to recognise fully the wonderful diplomas that will be rolled out in the tertiary sector? Very good work is being done, but if it does not create a route to university for some students, it will have failed.

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