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House of Commons

Thursday 26 June 2008

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Private Business

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

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 3 July.

Manchester City Council Bill [ Lords] (By Order):

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Second Reading (12 June).

Debate to be resumed on Thursday 3 July.

Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Canterbury City Council Bill (By Order)

Leeds City Council Bill (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 July.

Oral Answers to Questions

Innovation, Universities and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

Science Funding (Universities)

1. Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform on regional development agency funding for science in universities. [213860]

The Minister for Science and Innovation (Ian Pearson): We have regular meetings with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform at ministerial and official level on a wide range of issues, including joint meetings with the chairs of the regional development agencies.

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Mr. Wallace: Scientists engaged in research at universities do not only produce good results but help to create an atmosphere that encourages economic activity in the regions. Given the reorganisation of the science budget and the Science and Technology Facilities Council and given the £80 million shortfall, will the Minister perhaps consider exploring avenues with the regional development agencies to make up that shortfall and allow scientists in my university of Lancaster, for example, to carry on with the excellent work that it does and create the right atmosphere for job creation throughout the country?

Ian Pearson: The budget for the Science and Technology Facilities Council is actually going up over the next three years. Compared with its baseline, it is going up by 13.6 per cent.; that is perhaps not as much as some in the community would like, but to suggest that there has been a cut is simply wrong. It is important, however, that the university research base talks to and deals with the regional development agencies. We already have commitments to Research Councils UK, for example, by working together with the regional development agencies and the Technology Strategy Board. That is happening as we speak in Manchester and in other universities in the north-west. Such links are important because we need to ensure that our strategy is co-ordinated.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): Per capita, Wales has fewer than half the number of scientists and engineers working in world-class universities in comparison with England and about a third fewer than the comparable figure for Scotland. Will the Minister explain what is being done at a UK level to reduce that science gap between the different nations of the UK?

Ian Pearson: We continue to see sustained investment in science at a UK level. The science and research budget has doubled since 1997 and it will have tripled by 2010-11. What we have to do is invest in excellent science. At the Government level, we take strategic decisions about the overall direction of science funding—on full economic costing, for example—but it is really up to the Research Councils and the peer review process to determine what is the best research and to fund that accordingly.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): I welcome the increase in research funding under the Government, but for a university to be a university, it needs to engage in research as well as teaching. The Government have adopted the policy of concentrating research on certain universities and markedly lessening the funding for research at other universities. Will my hon. Friend have another look at that policy in the hope of redistributing some of the research funding to universities such as the excellent university of Wolverhampton?

Ian Pearson: I agree with my hon. Friend that Wolverhampton is an excellent university. What is important for the Government is that we fund excellent research. I am tremendously proud of the world-class research conducted in our universities. We have to ensure that the people taking the decisions on what is the best research to fund are independent of the Government. That is why we have the Research Councils and why
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there is an extensive peer review process. That is the right approach for taking decisions on individual research projects.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): In the Government’s proposals for 20 new universities or higher education establishments, how much importance is attached to getting the support of the local business community in making the bids successful?

Ian Pearson: I am sure that a great deal of importance will be attached to ensuring that businesses are involved in the bids for these new universities. I want to make the basic point that we as a Labour Government will have tripled the science budget by 2010-11—an increase way above the trend rate of growth of the UK economy. The Conservative party policy, as I understand it, is to share the proceeds of growth—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I do not want to hear about Conservative party policy—at least not on the Floor of the House at the moment.

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): I am somewhat surprised by the gloating and boasting of the Minister about science in the UK. He will be aware of the worry and concern among university scientists, researchers and academics about their future. Given the Government’s £80 million shortfall for the STFC, the STFC has said that it will scale back the number of research grants that it provides. Will the Minister have the courage to answer this question directly, without beating about the bush: on his watch, will the number of Government-funded post-doctoral research assistants be higher or lower by 2010?

Ian Pearson: It is a bit rich for the hon. Gentleman to accuse the Government of boasting when a campaign to save British science had to take place back in 1997. He must answer whether he is prepared to meet the Government’s spending commitments—the commitment to real-terms growth by 2014. The difference between sharing the proceeds of growth and our plans amounts to hundreds of millions of pounds. The scientific community has a right to understand where the Opposition stand.

On post-doctoral research grants, the figures for astronomy and particle physics are massively up compared with 2005-06. It will be up to the STFC to take the detailed decisions on research grants. As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is going through a programmatic review process, and we will await the outcomes of that.

Political Extremism

2. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of levels of political extremism at universities and colleges. [213861]

The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): Our assessment is that there is a serious, but not widespread problem of support for violent extremist activity on university and college campuses. We are working with universities and colleges to build their resilience by raising awareness of the appropriate response, which must include the promotion
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of shared values and respect for free and open debate, as well as providing support for students who may be at risk from extremist groups.

Ann Winterton: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. University staff have rightly been urged by the Government to challenge groups that promote terrorism on campuses. As a result, some universities and student unions have banned all political guest speakers. Dealing with that thorny issue prompts the question: where does legitimate free speech end and dangerous extremism begin?

Mr. Denham: I am not aware—I apologise to the House if I should be—of any university campus that has banned all visiting political speakers. Clearly, I would wish to know where that has happened. The Government have made it clear, including in a lecture by my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education last autumn, that we regard academic freedom and the ability to have even controversial ideas properly examined and contested as a proper and, indeed, essential role of universities and colleges. Throughout, we have tried to draw the distinction between those who are prepared to have their ideas properly examined and criticised, in the atmosphere of a good university, and those who seek to propagate violent, dangerous and illegal ideas, often in surreptitious or underhand ways. I hope that there is no doubt about the Government’s support for academic freedom, not just as a good thing in its own right but as part of our defence of the values that we seek to protect.

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): I am sure that the Secretary of State is only too aware of the reported cases of terrorism that have been linked to British university campuses. A leading academic expert has called on the Government to ban universities from accepting money from Saudi or Islamic groups to fund Islamic studies, and has also called on all university donations to be made public. Will the Secretary of State explain why his Department’s recent report on preventing extremism in universities contains nothing about financial donations, even those from dangerous extremist groups?

Mr. Denham: Two important points need to be made. It is true that, in some recent terrorist cases, individuals have been involved who at some point spent part of their careers as students at a college or university. That statement is very different from assuming that they were drawn into violent extremism or organised it as part of their role or attendance at university. One of my criticisms of the academic to whom I think the hon. Gentleman refers is the assumption of an equation between universities as a base for organising activities and the fact that some people involved in terrorist cases have been students. Our guidance is intended to deal with that issue.

The hon. Gentleman seems to believe that any donation from Saudi sources is tainted with terrorism. I think he should be very careful about making such assertions. The Government would certainly be concerned about any donations that were associated with violent extremism, but I am not prepared to accept the equation between Saudi donations to higher education and the promotion of terrorism.

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Foreign Languages (Universities)

3. Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): How many students are studying foreign languages at universities in England. [213862]

The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Bill Rammell): There were 46,100 students studying languages at English higher education institutions in 2006-07, the latest year for which figures are available. Through the national languages strategy, the Government aim to transform England’s language capability by creating an appetite for language learning and enriching the opportunities available to learners of all ages.

Chris Bryant: The trouble is that not enough people are studying foreign languages at universities today, which means that it will be more difficult for children to learn foreign languages at school because there will be no teachers for them. I know that the Minister is a fine linguist. May I urge him to be a little less laissez-faire and a bit more dirigiste in his approach to modern languages, to encourage more youngsters to study foreign languages, and to encourage people on other university courses to add a foreign language element to them?

Bill Rammell: As a French graduate, I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s arguments. Our national language strategy focuses on important relationships between the world of higher education and the work being done in schools. The single biggest change we can make to promote the take-up of foreign languages is to ensure that, by the end of the decade, every young person in every primary school will have access to a modern foreign language.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): But how many foreign students are studying English in our universities?

Bill Rammell: A significant number of overseas students are studying at our universities, which is of considerable benefit to those universities. Throughout my discussions with Conservative Front Benchers, I have been led to believe that the Conservative party supports the promotion of such opportunities for overseas students—and they do speak English: there is no reputable evidence to suggest that people embarking on United Kingdom university courses do not have an English language capability and cannot benefit from such study.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Will the Minister take another close look at the curriculum in our secondary schools? We need to ensure that foreign language teaching not only helps comprehension and enables students to converse when they go abroad, but equips them with the building blocks and grammatical structures that they can use when they go to university to study foreign languages as an academic subject.

Bill Rammell: I think it is a question of balance. I think that the development of language-based courses that focus on communication produces exactly the skills that employers and others want and is also more likely to entice young people to take up the study of foreign languages. Nevertheless, we should not ignore the reality
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that those wishing to study a language in the longer term, at degree level, will need that grammatical base.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): In view of the transformation of language teaching that the Minister has described, will he consider going beyond education to the world of work, and take account of the languages that are more important for the future in a globalised world—Mandarin, Cantonese and Arabic languages? I realise that he may not have the information to hand and may have to write to me, but will he give some idea of the number of British students learning such languages—as opposed to overseas students studying their home tongue—and also the proportionate increase in that number over the past five and 10 years?

Bill Rammell: I share the assumption behind the hon. Gentleman’s question. We need to promote the uptake of a wide range of languages. A welcome development in recent years is the significant increase, albeit from a low base, in the number of students studying Mandarin. The Higher Education Funding Council and the Research Councils are working together on a well-funded initiative to create a world-class cadre of researchers who will enhance this country’s understanding of the Arab world, China and Japan, eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. However, although we need to encourage more study of languages, the fact remains that someone who has studied one language is much more likely to study a second.

Citizenship and English Language Courses

4. Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): How his Department monitors the quality of teaching and qualifications provided by colleges offering courses in citizenship and in English for speakers of other languages. [213864]

The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): The quality of ESOL teaching for Learning and Skills Council-funded courses is monitored through regular inspection by Ofsted. Inspectorate reviews have reported steady improvement since 2001, and Ofsted will publish a thematic review this summer. Citizenship materials are developed to meet Home Office criteria for naturalisation. They are not a separate curriculum and are not formally assessed, but are often used within ESOL courses. Successful learners receive a qualification from awarding bodies who are assessed and accredited by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

Kerry McCarthy: I thank the Secretary of State for that response. There are some excellent organisations in Bristol offering ESOL and citizenship courses funded through, and supported by, the City of Bristol college, but given the plethora of organisations that are springing up across the country, particularly in areas of high ethnic diversity such as mine, how can we be sure that people wanting to take those courses are directed towards reputable organisations and do not waste their money on organisations that do not offer a proper standard of teaching and might not even be properly accredited to offer the qualifications?

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Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend raises an important issue. While any college providing a course needs to register, that does not of itself provide an assurance of the quality of the education on offer. I strongly advise her constituents to look for those providers who offer properly accredited awards from the recognised awarding bodies regulated by the QCA, and to look for qualifications that are LSC-funded. There are people who are willing to exploit those who want to learn English, perhaps for citizenship and naturalisation purposes. It should not be difficult to find a properly accredited provider offering the right qualifications. However, if this is an issue of widespread concern, we should discuss how we might make the choices more easily explainable to people.

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