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House of Commons

Thursday 27 March 2008

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Private Business

Broads Authority Bill ( By Order )

Order for Third Reading read.

To be read the Third time on Thursday 3 April.

Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Canterbury City Council Bill (By Order)

Leeds City Council Bill (By Order)

London Local Authorities (Shopping Bags) Bill (By Order)

Manchester City Council Bill [ Lords ] (By Order)

Nottingham City Council Bill (By Order)

Reading Borough Council Bill (By Order)

Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 3 April.

Oral Answers to Questions

Innovation, Universities and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

Higher Education (Access)

1. Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): What steps he is taking to assist universities in attracting the best students irrespective of background. [196478]

The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): We support a range of policies to ensure that talented people from all backgrounds are able and willing to develop their potential through higher education. They include the Aimhigher programme and the gifted and talented education programme, which run alongside universities’ own outreach activities and the continuing development of better links between schools and higher education. We are also improving the level of student financial support, so that from September, at least two thirds of all students will receive a full or partial grant.

Clive Efford: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer, but may I draw to his attention some of my concerns about the number of young people from state schools going to Oxford or Cambridge? I hear reports from pupils who go to open events at those
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universities that the impression given to them is that they will not be given any preferential treatment just because they come from a state school. That might be the right thing to say, but the way it is said can put people off applying and working towards the goal that they may have set themselves of going to those universities. What can my right hon. Friend do to deal with that issue, to address the fact that the number of state school pupils going to those universities has stalled, and to encourage pupils to reach their full potential?

Mr. Denham: We continually stress to all universities, but particularly the most selective, the importance of continuing to make progress on widening participation. It would be wrong to suggest that no efforts are being made; I visited Cambridge university a few weeks ago and met a group of students from Leicestershire, none of whose parents have been to university. They were part of the outreach programme. We have to not only work on the universities’ admissions programmes, but look at the links between universities and the skills held at a much younger age, because it is at that younger age that people are likely to form the attitude, “This institution is not for me.” On Cambridge, the House will welcome yesterday’s announcement—although I have to say that it is nothing to do with the Government—that Mr. Harvey McGrath has made a £4 million endowment to Cambridge university specifically to help with its programme to widen participation.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Would the Secretary of State kindly agree to meet a delegation from the borough of Kettering to discuss how students from all backgrounds in the borough might be able to attract a new university to the town?

Mr. Denham: I suspect that I will do very little else for the next six months but meet the delegations of a number of right hon. and hon. Members who aspire to have a new university campus in their area. I would be delighted if the hon. Gentleman was one of them. It is clear that the new university challenge has inspired many communities across the country to realise what an important contribution a higher education institution can make to participation in higher education, economic development and economic regeneration. I am pleased to see how many areas and towns are now developing university plans.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the recommendation of the former Select Committee on Education and Skills that Oxford and Cambridge change their application system so that it marries into the overall university application system would, at one stroke, encourage far more able young people from non-traditional backgrounds to apply to Oxford and Cambridge?

Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend makes an important point. As I am sure he knows, just a few weeks ago, Cambridge university, at least, announced that it was doing precisely what the Select Committee recommended. It is bringing its application procedure and application forms into line with the rest of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service system. Following on from the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), it is important that universities that are
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highly sought after look at every aspect of their process to make sure that there is nothing in it that puts off, even inadvertently, talented students from backgrounds where people would not normally be sent to a higher education institution.

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): The Secretary of State often boasts about the Government’s efforts to widen participation, but is it not the case that widening participation funds for a majority of Russell group universities have recently been cut? For example, Cambridge has been cut by 39 per cent., Oxford by 37 per cent., Bristol by 23 per cent., University college London by 13 per cent., and so on. Is that how the Government plan to help the poorest students get to our best universities?

Mr. Denham: It is important to understand that there have been no changes to the formula that determines how money to widen participation is allocated to universities. Part of the formula rewards universities that are successful in attracting students from a wider range of backgrounds. Many other funds are available to universities, including those that go into bursaries and other means of attracting students from such backgrounds, and it is clearly a responsibility on the universities that are making least progress to do better.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend feel that universities are doing enough by way of going into schools, even primary schools, to encourage children to aim higher? In my constituency there are many children who have no family members who have been to university. They have no knowledge of what university is about, and they need encouraging. I even have in my constituency many children who have one parent who has never been to school. Those children are disadvantaged because they are not aspiring to the level of education that they could aspire to, and they need encouragement. The universities could help so much by going in and explaining to the children what they would be able to derive from a university education.

Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. There is a high volume of activity by universities. A recent report produced by the vice-chancellor of Exeter university, Professor Steve Smith, collated examples of activities by every university involved with schools. We need to do a number of things. First, we need to determine which of those activities are most effective at promoting participation, out of the many different activities that currently take place. Secondly, we need better structural links between universities and schools, whereby schools become involved not just in one-off projects with universities, but through deep lasting links dealing with the curriculum, aspirations and all those issues. We also need to build on the work that has begun as part of the “Aimhigher” programme, which involves working directly with parents and grandparents, particularly in communities where aspirations are low. We are beginning to understand that trying to inspire young people is more difficult if the messages are not reinforced by other family members.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the problems that we have in the House—we have heard
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about it already from the Opposition Benches—is the talk about “the best universities”? What we want to do is get the best students into our universities. Will the Secretary of State do all he can to make sure that every university in the country is valued for what it does as an institution, instead of having the absurd notion of a league table to which people should aspire?

Mr. Denham: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I have made a series of speeches over the past few months stressing the importance of mutual respect for the different types of universities. We should not pretend that all universities are the same, because they are not, or that all universities are suitable for each individual student, because they are not. It is important that each university is seen to be excellent at what it chooses to do, and that the right students can get to the right university for their particular abilities and aptitudes. Like the hon. Gentleman, I do not like the language that suggests that some places are good and some are not very good, when in fact they are doing different types of education for different types of students, but very often doing it equally well.

Science and Innovation Campuses

2. Helen Southworth (Warrington, South) (Lab): What his policy is on the development of science and innovation campuses. [196479]

The Minister for Science and Innovation (Ian Pearson): The Government are fully committed to developing Daresbury and Harwell as world class science and innovation campuses. As we say in our White Paper “Innovation Nation”, published two weeks ago, the vision is that they should be places where new collaborative approaches to research, innovation and learning are developed. They will be environments where scientists from a wide range of disciplines can work together in a mutually supportive manner. The campuses will be prime locations for the international research and development sector, and will contribute to developing the UK’s internationally renowned scientific and high technology skills base. Public sector organisations will work alongside businesses exploiting research to develop and profit from innovative products and services. Small, medium and large public and private organisations can also co-locate to their mutual benefit.

Helen Southworth: I hope my hon. Friend will soon visit Daresbury science and innovation campus so that he can see for himself the success that is being achieved there in bringing science, innovation and technology companies into the UK. The quality of science at Daresbury laboratory is crucial to that success, so will he ensure that the Science and Technology Facilities Council retains and expands key scientific skills at Daresbury laboratory and ensures future success there?

Ian Pearson: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. In direct reply, I should say that I hope to be able to visit Daresbury next week; I am sure that I will see world class science being conducted there. I want to stress that as a Government we have a vision for the development of Daresbury as a science and innovation campus that conducts world class research and innovation. Over the next few years, we anticipate the development of critical
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areas of expertise. Through its project manager, Daresbury will be leading on the new light source project. Over the next few years, we hope to see the build-up of the Cockcroft institute, a detector systems centre and a centre for computational science.

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): Despite the Minister’s warm words, there is clearly a crisis with science funding overall. On the “Today” programme of 11 December, he was asked whether he would help with the £80 million science budget deficit. He replied that

On three separate occasions during the interview, he led us to believe that the Wakeham review would look at science budgets. Yet in February we discovered that it will not look at science budgets at all. The question is: does the Minister intend to renege on his commitment to review the science budget? A simple yes or no will do.

Ian Pearson: I have made the position on the science budget very clear. We have more than doubled that budget in the past 10 years; it will have tripled by 2010-11, approaching £6 billion per annum. There is a situation with regard to the Science and Technology Facilities Council; that is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State asked Bill Wakeham to conduct a review of the health of physics as a discipline. I do not know what the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) does, but when we have a review, we wait for its findings and then consider what it says.

Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale) (Lab): My hon. Friend will be aware that Daresbury laboratory has been at the forefront of innovative scientific research for the past 40 years. I am delighted that he has committed himself and the Department to ensuring that it plays a full part in the generation of the new light source. I believe that that new light source will be the future for the laboratory and I would like somebody on the Science and Technology Facilities Council to advocate specifically on behalf of Daresbury; that is where there is a gap at the moment. I press my hon. Friend to ensure that the council has a voice for Daresbury.

Ian Pearson: I thank my hon. Friend for all his work promoting Daresbury as a science and innovation campus. As he will be aware, the new light source project is headed by Professor Jon Marangos from Imperial college. Dr. Frances Quinn is the project manager at Daresbury. The STFC estimates that 19 of the 25 to 28 staff years to be devoted to the project will come from Daresbury. There will be further oversight by the STFC through a new light source board, to be chaired by Professor Tim Wess of Cardiff university. He is also the chair of the STFC’s physical and life sciences committee. This is an exciting new project. The people who understand the detail of new light source projects advise me that a robust business case can be prepared for such a project. We look forward to the consultations that will take place in the coming months.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): New universities with science and innovation campuses, such as the one that we hope to have very shortly in Wrexham, often have
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the closest relationships with industry. What can my hon. Friend do to ensure that such universities have equal access to research funding, which should not be allocated on a purely historical basis?

Ian Pearson: One of the great things that we have seen over the last 10 years is increased and sustained investment in the science budget, with greater business interaction between the university research base and companies in particular areas. Research funding is provided on the basis of peer review proposals through the research councils, so it is not based on historical performance at all. It will be up to universities to submit good quality applications to be considered by the research councils. One of the exciting things that has happened as a result of the new spending round is that, for the first time, there are big cross-council research programmes that address some of the biggest challenges facing the world today, such as living with environmental change, energy and so on. There are opportunities for researchers to put forward project proposals to work in those exciting areas, which could be hugely important for the UK and globally.

Apprenticeships

4. Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): What recent estimate he has made of the number of people taking level 3 advanced apprenticeships. [196481]

The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Bill Rammell): Over the past decade, we have more than doubled the number of people starting apprenticeships overall, from 65,000 in 1996-97 to an estimated 180,000 in 2006-07. The number of people starting an advanced apprenticeship in 2006-07, the last full year for which figures are available, was 57,000 at level 3—5,000 more than the previous year.

Tony Baldry: Is not the reality that the UK is training fewer people at level 3 than we were 10 years ago and that the number of apprentices in training is actually falling? Do we not need a system of apprenticeships that is much more responsive to the needs of employers and does much more to engage employers in wanting to take on apprentices?

Bill Rammell: The numbers of young people studying at level 3 are most certainly not falling, and I have to say that the figures speak for themselves. Eleven years ago there were 65,000 apprentices; today there are 180,000. Yes, we need to do more to engage employers, which is why we set up the apprenticeship review, and I urge the hon. Gentleman to work with us in engaging with employers on that. However, 11 years ago there was not much of a debate about how much apprenticeships had expanded, because they had been allowed to die, as the Conservative party did not care how many people started or completed an apprenticeship, and there was absolutely no focus on quality.


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