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Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con):
Cutting through the Secretary of States verbiage, he must be aware that the number of publicly funded
places in adult education has fallen by a staggering 1.4 million in two years. He says that that is because money is being spent on Train to Gain and skills for life, but he must know that those cuts are disproportionately affecting the very people those programmes are designed to help. Participation in adult education by skilled manual workers has fallen by 7 per cent. in a single year, wiping out the progress of the previous decade. Can the Secretary of State tell us why, if his policies are such a success, the total number of people on Government-funded programmes, including Train to Gain, actually fell last year?
Mr. Denham: To measure the total number of courses is a very poor indicator of success in this respect. It is quite ridiculous to say that a one or two-year course, leading to a vocational qualification at level 2 or level 3, should be given the same weighting as a four or six-week short course, undertaken with great satisfaction but purely for the joy of learning. We have done exactly the right thing by emphasising spending on those parts of education that equip people with the basics to get on in society and the skills in order to participate in work. To take the total figure of funded, short, informal adult education courses, and to ignore all the other education funded by the Government, and the progress on work-based learning, is wrong.
Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): In Stockport, many older students returning to further education find the financial support provided by the adult learning grant very valuable. Can the Secretary of State tell me what more his Department is doing to advertise that grant so that more older people are aware that they will get financial support if they return to further education?
Mr. Denham: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing the adult learning grant to the attention of the House. It was developed in pilot form in previous years, and extended nationally from September, and it is now making a huge difference to peoples ability to study. We are at the stage in the year where we have just over two terms experience of the promotion of the grant, and I can assure my hon. Friend that I and the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), will be looking at the lessons learned to ensure that we achieve the maximum possible take-up of that grant.
5. Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): What recent assessment he has made of the effects of the decision to change the funding arrangements for equivalent and lower qualification students on higher education institutions. 
The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Bill Rammell): We are not cutting funding to higher education. The amount of ELQ funding being redirected between institutions from this September is just 0.1 per cent. of the total income, and after three years, no institution will have lost out from its 2007-08 baseline. Our ELQ policy puts learners first and it helps deliver an even greater expansion of the number of first degree entrants, which I believe to be the right priority.
Simon Hughes: The Minister may call that redirection; others might call it cuts. Has he spoken to the people who run Birkbeck college here in London, which, as many colleagues in the House will know, has educated adults from London, and from throughout the UK and overseas for nearly 200 years? I can testify to the success of what Birkbeck has done for many of my constituents, but the college feels that it is suffering hugely from the Governments policy on ELQ funding. Can he talk to those at Birkbeck and report back, and if the college persuades him or has an argument that is justified, will he review the policy?
Bill Rammell: I always have an open mind. I have consistently discussed such matters with Birkbeck college, but I utterly refute his claim that we are cutting the higher education budget. Over the past 11 years, we have increased it in real terms by 23 per cent. In respect of ELQs, Birkbeck colleges budget for next September has increased by 5 per cent. That is not a cut in any shape or form.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): All Prime Ministers, particularly Labour Prime Ministers, look to their legacy at some point. One of the finest achievements of the third Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, was the creation of the Open university, which is now in its fifth decade. Could my hon. Friend reassure me about the future of that institution, in which I was a student and for which I worked at one time? The changes being made to ELQs seem to be having a damaging effect on the medium-term prospects of what has been a wonderful British institution with an international reputation.
Bill Rammell: I agree with my hon. Friends sentiments about the Open university. Indeed, a couple of weeks ago I spoke at the annual conference of the Open university students associationmuch to my surprise, I got two rounds of applause. Even with the changes, it is important to make it clear that the Open universitys budget for next year is increasing, by £4 million more than this year. The real challenge is getting institutions with a fine track record, such as the Open university, Birkbeck college and others, to go out into the workplace and tackle the skills needs of the 6 million people who are educated to A-level, but who have not yet gone on to degree level education.
James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): What representations has the Department received on confusion about funding, particularly in the 16-to-18 group, following the split of the Department for Education and Skills?
Bill Rammell: We are currently in the midst of the consultation on the machinery of government changes. I have spoken at two consultation events in the past week. The representations that I have received at those events have of course been about detail, but it has not been suggested that there is confusion. We are rightly putting the commissioning process into the hands of local authorities for pre-19 provision. We will be establishing a skills funding agency to drive adult skills needs post-19.
Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD):
Reference has already been made this morning to adult learners week, which starts next week. Universities and colleges throughout the country already make a great contribution to adult learning, through the provision of short courses and
evening classes, on everything from vulcanology to foreign languages and local history. Such courses offer a great social mix, bringing together people who have already been in higher education with those who are tasting it for the first time. However, the financial viability of such courses will be completely undermined if the state funding for people who already have higher education is withdrawn as a result of the ELQ changes that have been mentioned. Ahead of adult learners week, will the Minister undertake to promise the higher education sector that the important work of engaging with communitiespart of the core mission of universitieswill be protected?
Bill Rammell: It is certainly part of the mission of universities to do that. However, now that the funding allocations are public and, for instance, Birkbeck colleges budget has increased by 5 per cent. and the Open universitys budget has increased by £4 million, it is critical that those people who have criticised the Governments policy in this areasome are sitting on the Opposition Benchesshould justify their claims about decimation of provision. Those claims are simply not borne out by the reality.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. David Lammy): My right hon. Friend has not met Martin Broughton, the president of the CBI, recently, but, on two occasions last month, he met other leaders and officials of the CBI such as Richard Lambert, the director general.
Miss McIntosh: During those meetings, did the CBI express the view that I firmly hold that whether a business is large or small, there is a big gulf between the Government, and what they are trying to do, and the businesses that are trying to offer apprenticeships? What is his Department doing to bring the two sides together to enable the best possible use to be made of the apprenticeships being offered?
Mr. Lammy: The answer is, no it did not. It welcomed the Governments review of apprenticeships and our commitment to asking big employers to overtrain. It also welcomed our commitment to direct payments for some employers and to establishing group training associations for smaller small and medium-sized enterprises. It is trying to work with the Government to increase employer engagement so that more apprentices come forward. I am pleased that, in the hon. Ladys area, where 2,300 young people have started apprenticeships, there will be an increase of 500 next year.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab):
But, in practice, even in an area such as Slough, which is one of the most productive towns in the country, young people starting apprenticeships find it hard to get the employment placements that they require. They do the college-based parts of their courses, but I regularly get desperate
letters from mums and young people saying, Although Ive written hundreds of letters to employers, I cant get a placement. What more can the Government do to ensure that ambitious young people get the chance to train?
Mr. Lammy: My hon. Friend is right to identify those profound issues. I was pleased to be in her constituency with young apprentices a few weeks ago. I hope that she and other hon. Members on both sides of the House will be pleased that, for the first time, the cohort of young people going into apprenticeships will have a matching service. Before then, there was a matching service for young people who wanted to go university, but there was no service to connect vacancies and employers with young people who wanted apprenticeships. That will make a big difference in my hon. Friends constituency.
It is important to do as much as we can to help smaller businesses to offer apprenticeships, particularly by helping with the training framework and fostering the required relationship between those businesses and further education providers. That means that we must do all we can to encourage group training associations along a hub and spoke model, with providers and bigger employers acting as a spoke into smaller employers that can provide more apprenticeships. We have had a good response to our consultation, and I hope that that will make a big difference in her constituency in coming months.
Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): I am a member of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, which is investigating the impact of shipbuilding in Scotland. I am delighted to report to the House that record numbers of apprentices have been employed in Fife and Glasgow since the days when the Conservatives were in power. Will the Minister assure me and those apprentices that we will do all we can to ensure that, when they complete their training, jobs will be available to them?
Mr. Lammy: I will continue to do all that I can by working with our colleagues across the border to ensure that we maximise potential for young people. However, Labour Members are disappointed that our colleagues in the Scottish National party continue to ration apprenticeships, and that they seem to be looking to downgrade them in Scotland.
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): It is common to think of apprentices as young school leavers, but, last Friday, when Stafford college and I jointly hosted a Train to Gain seminar for local businesses, manufacturing employers expressed a desire to engage people of different ages as apprentices. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the help that is available to young apprentices is also available to older workers who want to be apprentices?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw the Houses attention to the fact that we are also talking about adult apprentices over the age of 25, and we are committed to seeing their numbers grow. This will particularly help women returners, who often want to come into non-traditional areas and to be productive in the wider economy. I am really pleased to hear that my hon. Friend held that seminar for employers in his
constituency, and I hope that other hon. Members will take up that initiative. Train to Gain is a programme with more than £1 billion in funding up to 2010-11. That money is there for employers to subsidise training, and, alongside that, the growth of adult apprenticeships is key.
The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Bill Rammell): Increasing participation and the nations skills is key to unlocking individual talent and to long-term economic and social well-being. We are increasing learning opportunities and strengthening demand from young people and adults, through measures including better information, advice and guidance; skills accounts; an improved level of higher education student support; new courses co-funded with employers; the new university challenge; and increased capital investment in the further and higher education sectors.
Bill Rammell: This is a critically important area. We have made huge progress educationally in the past 11 years, but I acknowledge that one of the areas in which we have the most to do is advice and guidance. An initiative that we announced recently, the Aimhigher Associates programme, is critically important in this regard. It will involve 5,500 undergraduates going into schools, working alongside young people and helping them with their UCAS applications. We still hear too often of instances of young people in schools not getting the appropriate advice and guidance. We need to look at providing incentives to schools to make this more of a priority, and I am discussing that matter with my colleagues in the Department for Children, Schools and Families.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The Minister will know that Jodrell Bank is in my constituency and partly in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton). Its important and innovative e-Merlin project is under threat because its funding is likely to be removed. Is this the way to encourage young people who are interested in science and technology to go forward into higher education? Will the Minister or the Secretary of State meet me to discuss this concern?
From a sedentary position, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has just assured me that he will meet the hon. Gentleman. The Government are committed to astronomy, but this matter is rightly being taken forward by the Science and Technology Facilities Council, and a consultation is taking place. I have to say that, if the Government had stepped in and
established this project from the beginning, we would have been criticised for intervening in matters that were properly matters for the funding council.
Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): Can the Minister explain the finding in the latest report from the Learning and Skills Council on further education that safeguarded provision, far from being safeguarded, has collapsed by 42 per cent., affecting 185,000 adults over the past three years?
Bill Rammell: I do not recognise the figure that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. We are certainly committed to maintaining the level of funding to informal adult education, for example. We have also maintained as a priority learning for learners with learning difficulties and disabilities. We need to ensure that this central direction is implemented on the ground, and I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the matter.
Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): Last week, I met the principal of the excellent Leicester college and was again reminded of the work that the Government have done to make available allowances and grants to enable students to participate in further and higher education. However, I was disturbed to hear that, in some sections, there was still a low level of awareness of the availability of such grants. Will the Minister assure me that steps will be taken to ensure that all students who could benefit from such allowances and grants are made aware of their availability and enabled to take them up?
Bill Rammell: In both further and higher education, we are committing a significant amount of resource and effort to getting that message across. There is radio, TV and online advertising, and we have gone out of our way to do this not only from a Government perspective but through working with the Association of Colleges, with universities and with the National Union of Students to get the message across. If there is one person who is unaware of the provision, that is a challenge for us, but we will keep on trying to get the facts across.
Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): Despite the Governments huge spending to encourage the participation rates of people from lower socio-economic backgrounds in higher education, those rates remain little changed since 1999. Government policy and numerous initiatives have failed, so what does the Minister think went wrong and what does he plan to do differently in the two years he has left?
Bill Rammell: The hon. Gentleman really does need to check the figures on this matter. If we look at university applications [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman will find this if he looks carefully. University applications for last year were up by more than 6 per cent. and they are up again by more than 6 per cent. this year. Among students from lower socio-economic groups, the proportions are increasing, albeit not at the rate that I would wish. That is why we are committing significant resources as a Government to make further improvement.
Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab):
To continue on the theme of widening participation, the Minister will know that only three out of the 20 Russell
group of universities are actually meeting their benchmark figure for recruiting students from low-participation neighbourhoods. What more can he do to push the Russell group to widen participation rates further?
Bill Rammell: I know that my hon. Friend takes a real interest in these issues. If he looks at the Russell group figures on state school entrants and young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds and lower-participation neighbourhoods, he will find that the proportions have gone up since 1997-98, but every vice-chancellor I speak to acknowledges that we need to do more. That is why we strongly pushed for greater structural links between schools, colleges and universities and also why we need better advice and guidance in schools to encourage young people to gain access to the most appropriate institution that best suits their talents. Sometimes that advice is not forthcoming; we need to ensure that it is.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Can I give my hon. Friend some advice about what went wrong? I will tell him what went wrong when they shut the pits. Higher education used to be sponsored in every area of the National Union of Mineworkers, in collaboration with the National Coal Board, enabling miners at every single pit to engage in higher education if they wanted to. Some went on to university, Ruskin college and all the rest. But the Government of that lot opposite smashed all that at a stroke when they closed all the pits in those dark, dismal years of the 80s and 90s. The electorate out there should never forget it.
Bill Rammell: May I say that I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend? It may be 11 years since we came to office, but people can and should have long memories about what the last Conservative Government did. My hon. Friend also highlights the commitment within the mining industry to pushing people up to the highest skill levels, which provides an example for every business.
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