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Mr. Simon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I must say that it is not actually my job to sort it but that of Lord Young, and he will do so. As a former apprentice and a former senior trade union official with decades of experience, he is more than well qualified to sort it. My hon. Friend may know that we have set up a review involving the construction industry, the construction
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industry unions and the sector skills council. All the stakeholders are holding a review to examine exactly these kinds of issues and everything else that has an impact on the construction industry and apprenticeships at this difficult time. My answer is the same as it was to my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Ms Barlow): any mistreatment, of any kind, including through low wages, needs to be dealt with, and is unacceptable.

Physics and Astronomy

8. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): What the Government’s policy is on the future of physics and astronomy teaching in universities. [227254]

The Minister of State, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. David Lammy): Physics has been designated as a strategically important subject and we have asked the Higher Education Funding Council to work with others to increase and sustain both the demand for and supply of physics graduates. We are pleased that the number of physics and astronomy students has increased.

Michael Fabricant: I know that the Minister will disagree, as I do, with those who say that it is engineers who create the wealth and that the scientists just spend it. We need the science to get the engineering going. In that respect, does the Minister believe we will see more science and innovation campuses, or will the current science funding settlement prevent that from happening?

Mr. Lammy: The hon. Gentleman will know that there is a planned increase of 17 per cent. in our science budget over the next three years. Fantastic world-class science is being carried out across the country, and that is against a backdrop of increases in every subject in the number of students studying science at A-level. That is something to applaud and celebrate, as we can look forward to an increase in science and, as a consequence, in engineering in coming years.

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): I add my congratulations to both Ministers and wish them well in their new posts.

The future of physics and astronomy teaching in universities could be affected by the substantial problems with Icelandic and other offshore deposits. Will the Minister update the House on that potentially serious blow to our universities? In particular, £77 million has already been identified, but is the Minister aware of any further at-risk offshore deposits?

Mr. Lammy: This is obviously a serious issue, but to put it in context I can say that the HEFC advises that front-line services and services to students will not be affected. We understand that 12 universities have placed money on deposit with Icelandic banks, and the total amount involved is £77 million. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that discussions are being held between the Treasury and Iceland on these matters.

Topical Questions

T1. [227273] Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

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The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): In these difficult economic times, we must obviously take every possible measure to assist those who may lose or worry about losing their jobs. One of the most effective things that we can do is enable them to refresh or update their skills, or to retrain. Yesterday, together with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, I announced that we are making significant new money—£100 million—available over the next three years to support retraining and the development of new skills, so that people can move quickly back into employment.

In addition to the role that Jobcentre Plus personal advisers play in offering advice and support, I will take two further measures to ensure that advice and support on skills is available. First, learndirect will be able to offer one-to-one advice on careers, skills and retraining, and I will take further measures to promote that service. Secondly, I will work with further education colleges to ensure that they make every effort to offer appropriate advice on and support for skills training to those who may worry about losing their jobs. I will announce further measures in due course.

Mr. Cunningham: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and, given the present economic climate, I am sure he appreciates the contribution that the west midlands makes to the British economy. More importantly, is he aware of the contribution made through research and development by the university of Coventry and the university of Warwick? They make a major contribution to the economy through innovation and research.

Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the important role played by universities in many different ways. The university of Warwick is one of the leading research-intensive universities, with much national and international research, and the university of Coventry has a powerful role to play in the local and regional economy. It is important that the role of both types of university is properly recognised in our higher education and innovation system.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): May I press the Secretary of State on university applications? We recognise and welcome the increase in university applications for this year, but is the Secretary of State concerned about the sharp drop in UCAS applications so far for 2009? Will he confirm that at this time last year 196,000 applications had been received, while this year applications are down by more than 50,000, at 139,000? What explanation can the Minister offer the House for that dramatic 30 per cent. fall?

Mr. Denham: The hon. Gentleman will know that the figures that might be available at this time of year are figures from very early in the application process. There is always significant variation over the months. I do not see any reason to believe that the progress we have made on admissions and acceptances in recent years will not continue.

I worry about the policy put forward recently by the hon. Gentleman’s colleague on the Front Bench, the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson), which seemed to suggest a return to the Conservative policy of encouraging unfunded university expansion on a larger
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scale. That had disastrous effects on funding for students in the 1990s and I urge the Opposition not to pursue that policy.

Mr. Willetts: We want to see more children with the A-levels that will enable them to go to university. May I press the Secretary of State further on the leaked UCAS document, which I have in front of me? It shows that applications to university are down very dramatically at this stage. They have gone down by 30 per cent. compared with this time last year. Does the Secretary of State not recognise that that is potentially an alarming development? It was a pity that he was so complacent in dismissing that important evidence. I invite the Secretary of State to write to me with an update on the figures for applications so far and an explanation of why he believes a 30 per cent. fall is not something that he regards as a worrying trend.

Mr. Denham: We will report publicly in the proper way, as we do every year when the UCAS figures come in. There is a regular cycle of reporting and we will report on those figures. I want to see a continuation of progress in university numbers in years to come, and I believe that our policies will lead to that. We will start in the fairly near future with the launch of the student finance campaign, which emphasises the benefits of the financial support that we have extended, having reintroduced grants since they were abolished under the Conservative Government. I believe that we will make the progress that the hon. Gentleman wants to see. A leaked document at a very early stage in the process is not a point from which to draw too many firm conclusions.

T5. [227277] David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Staff and students at local colleges have contacted me about the call of the Campaigning Alliance for Lifelong Learning to restore the 1.5 million adult education course places lost by the further education sector and the communities that it serves since 2006. What do the Government plan to do about those lost places for local people and their FE colleges, given the clear social and economic benefits of adult education, in terms of universal access to basic skills, social inclusion and personal development?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. Siôn Simon): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. I have come across the CALL campaign. It is clearly well meaning, but I think that it is misconceived. The overall investment in further education has increased massively and the only thing that has changed is the way in which the places are structured. We have moved towards a smaller number of higher-quality places with more of an impact on skills and employability. Simply to count numbers of places rather than thinking about the quality of learning does not make sense.

T2. [227274] Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): Is it not the case that the university statistics show that most young people from our state schools who get the top grades are already going to our top universities? If we want to make sure that children from state schools are better represented at those top universities, is it not the case that we should fix the quality of schooling
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that they receive so that they get those top grades rather than beating up on top universities and their admissions procedures?

Mr. Denham: Nobody has been beating up on top universities. However, of course I responded when the chancellor of Oxford university launched an attack on Government policy and pretended that we were trying to turn the university into a social security office, because that is wrong. We want to make sure that schools identify and nurture talent and enable people to apply to the university that is right for them.

Any of our universities can be the right one for the right student. In the past year alone, more than 80 universities have become involved in academies and trust projects, because structural links between universities and schools are critically important. Many universities, though, recognise that they can do more, and just a couple of weeks ago nine of the most selective universities in this country told me that they wanted to find ways to guarantee that young people from schools that traditionally do not send children to selective universities have the chance to show what they can do. That will mean actively seeking out the best-performing students in some of those schools and offering them the chance to go on summer school exposure courses at the universities.

The answer is that we need all those measures: universities should look at their admissions procedures, but we also need to strengthen what is happening in some schools. I do not agree with those who want to rule out any of those options or say that it is either/or.

Mr. Speaker: May I remind the House that, with topical questions, I am looking for brief replies and short and sharp questions?

T8. [227280] Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Having slept on the forceful arguments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) in last night’s Adjournment debate, will Ministers offer support for innovative research at universities? Sunderland university was mentioned last night, but I should like to add the university of Staffordshire, which has a campus in my constituency of Stafford. They make a great contribution to knowledge and wealth locally, regionally and nationally, so will Ministers favour the suggestion that 10 per cent. of the university research budget should go on specialist research of national significance?

Mr. Denham: I recognise the valuable research role played by many universities but I have doubts about the 10 per cent. levy idea, as it would have to operate irrespective of the quality of the research. This country has a number of universities in the top 10 for research—in the league tables of which we take no notice—because of the concentration of research investment. We want to support universities of the sort that my hon. Friend refers to, but we need to be careful not to undo things that are working well at the moment.

T3. [227275] Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The downturn in the housing industry means that some construction apprentices on my patch have lost their jobs. That is obviously a tragic waste of training, but the loss of their work placement also means that they are no longer able to continue their studies at their
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further education college. That is another waste of training, and I was wondering whether the Secretary of State could talk to the FE sector about safeguarding at least the FE element of apprenticeships. Could he also talk to the relevant skills council about setting up a brokerage system for transferring apprentices who have lost their jobs to employers who might be willing to take them on? In that way, the training that has already taken place would not be lost.

Mr. Denham: We set up a clearing house in August with precisely that purpose. To date, 400 young people have either been found new work placements with employers or been enabled to continue at college. I shall contact the hon. Gentleman to tell him how the system is operating, as it is designed to do precisely what he is quite rightly urging.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): The Secretary of State is aware that discussions are taking place about the role of the expansion of higher education as a key driver in the regeneration of Blackpool. Will he therefore continue his discussions with colleagues in other Departments to ensure that that expansion takes place, as Blackpool needs the new students to boost both its economy and its skills base and to take the task force reports further?

Mr. Lammy: My hon. Friend continues to champion the new university in Blackpool and sets it in the important context of regeneration in the area. I am pleased that the Department has been able to make some money available through the HEFC. I do know that the discussions to which she refers are continuing, and that they involve our colleagues in the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): I welcome the Secretary of State’s new ministerial colleagues to their positions. I look forward to constructive dialogue with them during the remainder of the Parliament.

In these difficult economic circumstances, employers will undoubtedly be seeking to trim their costs. Does the Secretary of State agree that one false economy would be to cut employer investment in education and training? What will the Government do to make it easier for employees to study part time, especially in higher education?

Mr. Denham: The hon. Gentleman will know that last year we made funding available through the HEFC for many thousands of co-funded part-time places. The number of courses has now exceeded the number that we planned for because the demand from universities has been so strong. So there is a real interest in universities and in business in funding part-time degrees on a new basis. That and other measures will help to sustain the investment that the hon. Gentleman rightly says is needed.

T4. [227276] Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Total student debt in this country is now about £22 billion. The average real student debt is about £33,000 after a three-year degree. One third of all students who have ever taken out a loan have not yet reached the threshold for repaying it. In the context of the current economic crisis and the fact that almost
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inevitably graduate unemployment will go up, what assessment has the Secretary of State made of the future of those figures, and what contingencies does he have in place?

Mr. Denham: I remind the hon. Gentleman of two things. These are not like bank debts; they are income-contingent so if students do not achieve a level of earnings, they do not pay anything back. Secondly, the figures that he quotes take no account of the two-year time lag before the information gets on to the data system. More important, although people may start below the threshold for repayment in their first year of employment, typically the increase in earnings in the next two or three years is 37 per cent. So people do get jobs that repay the value of the degree for which they have studied.

I have noted that, although the hon. Gentleman and many of his colleagues fought the last election on a policy of opposing university fees, we have now been told by the Front-Bench spokesman that that policy is to be changed. So I—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): While Loughborough university is rightly recognised for its sporting excellence—I congratulate many of those who are at Loughborough in the parade today—does the Minister recognise that Loughborough is at the heart of the energy technology institutes? This will bring jobs to the UK but also meet many of the demands that we shall hear later in the climate change statement. Will he ensure that the private-public sector partnership, which will spend more than £1 billion on research in this area is not lost in the current climate, in which research and development may be one of the first things that the private sector cuts? It is absolutely vital not just for the country but for Loughborough.

Mr. Lammy: My hon. Friend is right. It is vital for the country; it will give us far more evidence on the benefits of energy renewables and help us to tackle climate
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change over the coming years. I congratulate Loughborough on being awarded the contracts. My hon. Friend should be reassured that that work will continue in the coming years.

T6. [227278] Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): To return to the vexed problem of university deposits in Icelandic banks, can the Secretary of State answer two quick questions? What financial advice did his Department give to universities on their investments? Will he place in the Library a list of other dodgy offshore investments so that we can see the extent of the problem?

Mr. Denham: I will write to the right hon. Gentleman. I would be surprised if my Department had given any advice to universities on where to invest their money. Universities are autonomous bodies responsible for the management of their own affairs, including their investment policies. Nor is it for me as Secretary of State to produce a personal list of investments I would not like to put my money into; I think that that would cause something of a stir that would be unnecessary.

T7. [227279] Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Will the Secretary of State reconsider his approach to quality-related research funding? Although it is right that the most excellent research should receive a disproportionate share of that funding, surely a far more equitable distribution is possible so that institutions such as the university of Northampton benefit from the seedcorn investment.

Mr. Denham: It seems to me that the distribution of funding has to be determined by the quality of the research. The allocation system has changed to some extent to make sure that good research is not captured, but I am resistant to the idea of a simple, arbitrary, top-slicing of the distribution. The strength of our university system is built on rewarding quality, and I would hate to see that principle changed. That does not mean that we are not interested in how we support those universities that make a key contribution to their local and regional economy through different types of research and innovation activities.

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