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House of Commons

Thursday 15 May 2008

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

private business

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 22 May.

Oral Answers to Questions

Innovation, Universities and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

New University Towns

1. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): If he will make a statement on his plan to establish new university towns. [205660]

The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): We want to give everyone who has the talent the chance to go to university whether they are about to leave school or already in work. Students should have access to local provision offering flexible courses to suit their needs. Our new university challenge initiative gives the chance for 20 towns or areas to develop new university centres or campuses by 2014. We are delighted by the interest that exciting initiative has generated.

Ann Winterton: I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. I understand that the Higher Education Funding Council will lead debate on the initiative. Through the Secretary of State, may I suggest that the council considers the Alsager campus? It was formerly part of Manchester Metropolitan university, and is one of the foremost sports science and physical education colleges and is right next to Alsager school, which is a business and enterprise college. Bearing in mind the difficulties that may arise in the economy it makes sense to me—does it to the right hon. Gentleman?—that an existing facility should be used for one of those splendid new universities.

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Mr. Denham: The hon. Lady is perfectly correct. The Higher Education Funding Council, rather than Ministers, will both set out the details about how the new university challenge will work and, ultimately, take decisions about where developments take place. I am sure that the council will note the hon. Lady’s remarks. Because the area is very close to her, I am sure, too, that she will welcome the £70 million investment by Manchester Metropolitan university in the university development in Crewe.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): I agree with the Secretary of State about the importance of more people going into higher education. I admired the commitment of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) in pressing for a proposal that has much to commend it. We want better links between further and higher education, and more higher education across the country.

Will the Secretary of State clear up the widespread confusion about what the Government are actually proposing? His Department recently briefed one paper that he was committed to 20 new universities and the Prime Minister was so carried away on the “Andrew Marr Show” the other day that he promised

but the £150 million that the Secretary of State has set aside for his programme is not enough to pay for even one new university. What is it? Is it a university in every town? Is it 20 universities? How many new universities does he want to see?

Mr. Denham: First, I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place. He features so regularly in the list of shadow Cabinet members most likely to be sacked that those of us who are his admirers are always delighted to see him on the Front Bench again.

In February, we said that over the next six years—the current comprehensive spending review and the next—we wished to be in a position either to open or to commit to open 20 new centres. As we made perfectly clear in the document, most of them are likely—often but not always—to be developed on the basis of existing college investment, such as further education colleges, in association with an existing university. For example, at the universities of Medway, where three existing universities have come together to develop a campus of 10,000 student places, such a development can bring university education to people who otherwise would not have it. That is the whole point of the policy.

Higher Education (Employers)

2. Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): What steps he is taking to encourage employers to co-fund higher education; and if he will make a statement. [205661]

The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Bill Rammell): I recently launched our high level skills consultation document, which sets out our proposals to increase employer engagement in higher education. We have announced new funding rising to at least £50 million by the end of the decade for courses funded with employers. Already, more than
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30 universities are developing co-funding proposals with employers, and I expect the consultation to stimulate further interest.

Mrs. Hodgson: The Government are rightly widening access to higher education for young people, but what about people like me who left school and did not have the privilege of going to university? Many people already in the work force would benefit from higher education, so does my hon. Friend agree that we should encourage them to widen and broaden their education and skills?

Bill Rammell: I very much agree with my hon. Friend. Seventy-four per cent. of the 2020 work force are already in work at present, and unless universities can work with those people to take them to the highest level of skills and education we will not compete internationally. Substantial numbers of people are prepared to take up those opportunities; 6 million adults in the work force have A-level equivalent qualifications, but are not yet at degree level. I remind those who say that such initiatives will not succeed that although 31 per cent. of our adult work force are currently educated to degree level, in countries such as Japan, the United States and Canada the figure is already 40 per cent. We need to take things forward with real alacrity.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I suspect that many employers reckon that they pay quite enough in their taxes for full-time education for 13, and increasingly for 15 years. Will the Minister therefore ensure that insofar as there are any co-funding arrangements along the lines suggested by the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson), they co-fund vocational and further educational courses that would perhaps be of direct relevance to employers in developing their businesses in the decades to come?

Bill Rammell: The key point is that we need people to be educated and trained in those kinds of courses not only at further education but higher education levels. The hon. Gentleman can take cheap shots at employer commitment, but if we are to achieve the required skills levels in the adult work force, we can do so only on the basis of a significant contribution from the Government—we are committing to that—together with contributions made not only by individuals but by employers stepping up to the plate. Only by that combination of efforts will we succeed.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend will know that some of the biggest employers in the country are supermarkets such as Tesco, which currently put very little into higher education. Could not steps be taken about that? These are the people who suck the wealth out of our towns and cities and take it out of communities—is it not about time that they were made to put something back through higher education and lifelong learning?

Bill Rammell: I have no particular brief for Tesco, but it is a big supporter of the apprenticeship programme. Indeed, it has recently been taking a lead on the development of the retail foundation degree, which it and other retailers are adopting as part of their commitment to upskilling people within their work force. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that employers need to work with us across the board to meet that high-level skills challenge.

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Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): I note what the Minister has said. It is obviously good to encourage employers to invest in higher education, but how will he ensure that the plans announced in the consultation do not blur the distinction between education and training and lose sight of the purpose of a university?

Bill Rammell: This is an age-old debate that centres on a rather artificial distinction. When we talk about the distinction between vocational and purely academic studies, we need to remember that some of the most highly reputed degree courses in the country, such as law and medicine, are directly vocational. We need to ensure that people are properly educated and trained to increase not only their intellectual capability but their skills capacity.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): Many publicly funded regeneration projects are taking place across the country. In London alone, we have Crossrail, the Thames Gateway, 2012, and the Kidbrooke regeneration in my part of London. Many companies are making a great deal of money out of that investment of public funds, but they need people with vocational skills in engineering, construction and so on. May I urge my hon. Friend to enter into discussions with the companies involved in those projects with a view to supporting not only higher education but further education courses?

Bill Rammell: I can certainly give that commitment because it is what we are doing already. For example, we are looking to use the procurement process to ensure that there is an increasing commitment to apprenticeships and high-level skills contributions on the part of employers who gain contracts.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): I am sure that my colleagues on the Front Bench strongly support the principles that the Minister has laid out. However, the reality is that the skills sets that are desperately needed in industry require STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—subjects. Will the Minister consider new learning and teaching styles, particularly using the games industry? We are world-beaters in that industry, particularly at the university of Abertay in Dundee. Those skills could enable young people at schools, colleges and universities to be taught STEM subjects, to which they currently do not get access because we do not have the teaching force to be able to deliver them.

Bill Rammell: Significant improvements are taking place in the STEM teaching work force. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important to use the games industry as a means to engage young people and adults in STEM subjects. I take heart from the fact that, although we undoubtedly need to do more, recent applications to study STEM subjects at university are increasing.

Basford Hall

3. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the effects of the retention of Basford hall, New college, Nottingham on higher and further educational provision in the area; and if he will make a statement. [205662]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. David Lammy): The Learning and Skills Council has been working with the college to develop plans to rebuild the Basford hall site. The rebuilding will ensure an enhanced service and the extension of the provision of further and higher education in Nottingham.

Mr. Allen: My constituency sends the fewest people to further and higher education of any constituency in the United Kingdom. Last year, our local community, with the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, worked hard to retain our only further education college. Will the Under-Secretary now examine how fast the proposal to retain and revamp that site has progressed? Will he agree to meet me to ensure that no machinery of government changes, no problems about land swaps and mergers will stand in the way of one of the most educationally deprived communities in the UK retaining and enhancing its further education college?

Mr. Lammy: My hon. Friend knows, because we have had such discussions in the past, that my constituency is just beneath his in terms of the number of young people who make their way to university. There are plans in his constituency for a merger, especially across the FE sector. Of course, I or my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education will be happy to meet him to ensure adequate and appropriate provision for some of the most vulnerable young people in the country.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): I am delighted that the Under-Secretary is aware of the possible merger of New college with two other colleges in the Greater Nottingham conurbation to create a super-college. Will he take steps to ensure that small campuses such as Basford and neighbouring Hucknall, where there is genuine disadvantage, are maintained and receive further investment?

Mr. Lammy: The intention is to revamp and rebuild Basford precisely because it is in such a deprived neighbourhood and such work is necessary. I was pleased when I learned from the Learning and Skills Council that that would happen. Such decisions will come to Ministers in due course, but I hope that he senses sympathy from the Dispatch Box to the issues that Nottingham Members of Parliament continue to raise about the need for adequate provision for their constituents.

Adult Learners

4. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): How many adult learners were enrolled on courses in England at the latest date for which figures are available. [205663]

The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): In 2006-07, around 3.2 million learners aged 19 plus were on Learning and Skills Council-funded further education, Train to Gain, work-based learning courses and former adult and community learning courses. Since 1997, our investment in the further education skills sector has increased by 52 per cent. in real terms. That means that, since 2001,
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more than 1.75 million adults have gained a literacy and numeracy qualification and, in the last full year, the number of adults participating in skills for life courses increased by nearly 50,000 to more than 350,000. Those participating in level 2 courses increased by nearly 40,000 to 470,000.

Tom Brake: I thank the Secretary of State for that response. He knows that the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education published a survey that revealed that the number of adults participating in education is falling. My local college, Sutton College of Liberal Arts—SCOLA—has experienced a 10 per cent. drop in the past 12 months. Adult learners week, which starts on Saturday, will reveal the wide range of exciting and interesting courses that are available in the UK. Does the Secretary of State accept that Government policies for getting adults to participate in education are not working? Is not it time for a rethink?

Mr. Denham: No, I do not accept that. For the reasons that I have given, there has been a massive expansion in the number of adults doing the things that transform people’s lives—learning to read, being able to handle basic numeracy, having the qualifications that enable them to get a job and progress in their work. We have been right to concentrate our efforts on that.

However, we also acknowledge that there is clearly an intrinsic value in learning for its own sake. Part of that is funded through our budget and the ring-fenced budget for adult and community learning. Much of it is funded through other Departments, such as free access to museums, galleries and archives. Much of it is developed informally and in the voluntary sector, with major organisations such as the National Trust or Government bodies such as English Nature being big providers of adult education.

In the consultation on informal adult learning, we are looking at the range of activities that, during the past 10 or 15 years, have transformed the ways in which adults learn. We will introduce proposals to strengthen that process in the future, not weaken it, and to engage not just my Department, but the whole of government in promoting that type of learning.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend look at the anomaly whereby the non-European Union spouse of a UK citizen who settles in the UK has to wait one year before being eligible for home tuition fees when enrolling on a college course to learn English? That runs counter to the Government’s commendable encouragement of new immigrants to learn our language.

Mr. Denham: I think that I take a different view from my hon. Friend on that subject. People should be free to marry whom they wish to marry, but I believe that someone who brings a spouse to this country who does not speak English has a responsibility to their partner and the rest of the community to assist in their learning of English. I do not take my hon. Friend’s view that that is a matter for the state to subsidise. We should say to people, “Bring your spouse here, but you should ensure that they have adequate English to participate fully before they come, and from the day they arrive.”

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