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House of Commons

Thursday 20 November 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)

Leeds City Council Bill ( By Order)

Nottingham City Council Bill ( By Order)

Reading Council Bill ( By Order)

Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Wednesday 26 November.

Oral Answers to Questions

Innovation, Universities and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

Further Education

1. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the contribution of further education colleges to the communities in which they are based; and if he will make a statement. [237514]

The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): Colleges play a vital role in the life of their communities, and that has been made possible by record levels of Government investment since 1997, when there was no capital budget and many FE buildings were unsuitable for modern learning. In the past 10 years, we have invested £2.4 billion and will invest a further £2.3 billion in the years to 2011. Funding for FE overall has increased by 53 per cent. in real terms between 1997 and 2008.

Ben Chapman: In publicly commenting on the petition that I presented to the House about the closure of the Carlett Park campus in my constituency, the principal questioned whether the signatories were studying or intending to study at that FE college. Will my right hon. Friend remind the principal that colleges are about communities as well as education on-site, and that he needs to look again at the hole in the community that the closure would cause? Will he ask him again to revisit the policy of locating the college on two sites in the north of the peninsula rather than the south, which is currently without facilities and beleaguered?

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Mr. Denham: I acknowledge the consistency with which my hon. Friend has pursued his constituents’ interests. He has raised this matter through petition and in an Adjournment debate, but I must tell him that Ministers are reluctant to involve ourselves in the quite detailed planning matters of individual colleges. I think that this is an issue about which he needs to maintain his campaigning and work at local level with the college and its corporation, although he is of course always welcome to discuss it further with me and other Ministers.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): I very much agree with the Secretary of State about the incredible contribution that FE colleges make to our various communities. However, what encouragement does his Department give to FE colleges to offer training packages to businesses that are directly in accordance with their needs and which sometimes might be outside regular office hours, as opposed to the traditional one-size-fits-all packages?

Mr. Denham: I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this matter. In the past couple of weeks we have announced an extension of Train to Gain, with £350 million being allocated to Train to Gain for small and medium-sized enterprises. In the new package, the rules requiring that the qualifications that people get must be both full and their first will be relaxed, so SMEs will be able to get the bite-sized chunks of training that are proven to increase productivity. This is an important matter, as the Conservative party is proposing to take £1 billion out of Train to Gain, which then would not be able to offer that very important service to SMEs.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Local colleges play a fundamental part in providing the skills base, but does my right hon. Friend agree that they will also help us to find the teams to compete in WorldSkills 2011? Will he emphasise the importance of colleges, and send a letter to every college saying that now is the time that every region must begin to train their skills teams right across the piece if we are to come in the top three at WorldSkills 2011?

Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue, and we are giving colleges every encouragement in that respect. The evidence that I have is that skills competitions are being promoted in places where they have not been promoted in recent years. I was at Leeds college of building just last week, and staff there were talking about their plans to enter students into regional and national skills competitions. Their aspiration was that some of their excellent young trainees might get into the WorldSkills team for 2011. As Ministers, we will certainly continue to push the importance of the competition as a showcase for the very best that our young people can produce.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Macclesfield possesses one of the first learning zones to be established in this country, and Macclesfield college is a major and important part of that. Its principal, Wendy Wright, and its corporation are doing a wonderful job, but will the Secretary of State confirm yet again that vocational education is essential to the success of this country and that it might help us to get out of the recession that we
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are currently experiencing? Will he therefore encourage increased co-operation and contact between colleges and business in their local communities?

Mr. Denham: I am happy to support the message that the hon. Gentleman gives. I hope that he will use his influence on his party’s Front Benchers, who regularly criticise us for having shifted resources to vocational qualifications and away from shorter courses, which are much less likely to produce the learning that employers want. I hope that he can influence his party’s Front Benchers, who are wrong on that issue.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend accept that some further education principals and staff have expressed concern that the expertise that they have developed over time may be lost now that they are to be part of the administration of the local education authorities? I ask the Secretary of State to state clearly, from the Dispatch Box, that we expect a partnership of equals to be developed. The expertise of principals and staff should lead all policy on further education.

Mr. Denham: I make two points. First, on adult skills, the transition from the Learning and Skills Council to the skills funding agency will result in greater freedom and responsibility for the professional leadership of colleges in the delivery of adult skills. On the 16-to-19 group, colleges are not coming under the administration of local authorities, but they are expected, and will be encouraged, to work strategically with schools and other providers to make sure that 14 to 19-year-olds get a proper range of choices in qualifications through the education system. That is particularly important as we move towards the raising of the participation age. We also want to tackle that group of young people who currently come through education without getting qualifications that enable them to succeed in work.

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): Last Saturday, I went to the annual higher education awards ceremony at Bristol cathedral for students who have obtained foundation degrees or completed other degree programmes at the City of Bristol FE college. A great cross-section of the entire Greater Bristol community was present; all social groups and ethnicities were represented. However, unlike those students’ counterparts just 500 m up the hill who study full-time at Bristol university, the students who attended will not have had access to maintenance or fee loans, and would have had a paltry student grant. When will the Government finally act to remove all those absurd anomalies, so that we can make sure that we widen participation in higher education and get more people trained in a fast-changing economy?

Mr. Denham: The ability of young people, particularly those who have gained vocational qualifications, to continue to a higher level with foundation degrees is an important part of our education system, and one that I would like to see expanded in future, because it is a route to higher-level skills that we need to develop. As I have previously acknowledged at this Dispatch Box, there are issues to do with the funding of part-time and full-time students in higher education, and we have said that we will look into them when we consider the financing of higher education next year.

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Higher Education

2. Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): When he proposes to publish his White Paper on higher education. [237515]

The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): We have a world-class higher education system in this country, with rising student numbers and an increasing world share of citations and high-impact research papers. Government investment in higher education is 23 per cent. higher than in 1997. That is in sharp contrast to the 36 per cent. fall in funding per student in the previous 10 years. We have also doubled investment in research. I want to ensure that our university system will be world-class in the future. That is why we are currently consulting on the framework for the expansion and development of higher education for the next 10 to 15 years. I anticipate that we will put forward our conclusions by the summer of 2009.

Mr. Jones: The Secretary of State will be aware that Welsh vice-chancellors have expressed concern that any proposals in the White Paper for the expansion of the English higher education sector will have the potential to impact, perhaps adversely, on Welsh universities. To what extent is he liaising with the Welsh Assembly Government, preparatory to the publication of the White Paper?

Mr. Denham: Higher education policy in Wales is the responsibility of the Assembly, but in the past couple of weeks I spoke to Jane Hutt, the Minister with responsibility for these issues in Wales. We discussed issues of common interest. Clearly, I have UK-wide responsibilities for the research councils, and therefore for the investment of research funds in Welsh universities. Although devolution may provide divergence on some areas of policy, we work together to make sure that we can create coherence where that is achievable.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State think that it is remotely conceivable that our leading research-intensive universities can remain internationally competitive without a lifting of the current cap on fees? Does he agree that the real issue is not the raising of the cap, but the provision of the right mix of grants and scholarships to ensure that the brightest young people, whatever their family background, can always secure a place in our leading research-intensive universities?

Mr. Denham: The Government will consider the issue of fees through the review that will start next year. That is in line with the commitment, made by my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State when fees were last discussed, that it should be looked at after three years’ experience of how the system operates. I share my hon. Friend’s concern that able students from all backgrounds should be able to enter our most selective universities, which is why I am working with a group of 11 universities, including some of the most selective in the country, to look at how they can take further steps to widen admissions to able young people from a wider range of backgrounds.

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Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): What steps has the Secretary of State taken to broaden access to university for part-time and mature students—an area in which we need to advance access?

Mr. Denham: The number of part-time students has increased significantly under this Government. Some 300,000 more students are in higher education now than 10 years ago, and that trend will continue. I recently published a review of part-time education, which I invited Professor Christine King, vice-chancellor of Staffordshire university, to produce. I commend that document to the hon. Gentleman as a provocative and interesting review of the issues involved in further expanding part-time education, including for mature students.

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): Many young people in my constituency do not expect or aspire to go to university, but we have an excellent college of further education. What more can my right hon. Friend do to encourage links between the college and neighbouring universities in Manchester, so that young people in my constituency can apply for degree-level university courses?

Mr. Denham: As I have previously discussed with my hon. Friend, under our new university challenge proposals, we have asked the Higher Education Funding Council to look at how we can extend the opportunity to provide new university centres, which are often based on FE colleges, to 20 more locations over the next six years. My hon. Friend knows that Stockport is one of the areas that has expressed an interest at this early stage in taking part in that process, and I wish Stockport and all the other applicants well.

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the forthcoming White Paper will address reskilling? Last week, the CBI said that unemployment will reach 3 million in 2009. This week, thousands of job losses were announced by businesses across the UK economy from the financial giant Citygate to the trade firm Wolseley and the car rental company Avis. Given the need for millions of Britons to reskill before re-entering the work force, on reflection does the Secretary of State think that cutting funding for equivalent or lower qualifications was, in the circumstances that we now face, the right thing to do?

Mr. Denham: The hon. Gentleman still does not understand the issue. The ELQ policy change, which affects part but not all of the funding for second degrees, creates new opportunities for adults and part-time students who need to raise their skills. The Government set out to direct resources to those who did not have the chance to obtain the higher education skills that they need in the current labour market. He needs to pay more attention to what the Government are trying to do.

Construction Industry

3. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): When he next expects to meet representatives of the construction industry to discuss the industry’s skills base. [237516]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. Siôn Simon): On 11 November, I visited the construction site for Laing O’Rourke’s new concrete factory in Steetley, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), where I had interesting discussions about skills. We are working closely with that company and the industry on supporting apprenticeships and on the longer-term skills challenges that the industry faces, which include the need to meet our ambitious house building targets.

Mr. Bellingham: I welcome the Minister to his post. Given that construction faces a major downturn, does he agree that this could be an opportunity for extra training and that it is important that firms keep apprentices on their books? What is happening to his apprentice task force? As Her Majesty’s Government are a best practice client and have a huge role in procurement, what will he do to ensure that their tender documents stimulate training opportunities? Finally, will he visit the world-class National Construction college at Bircham in west Norfolk?

Mr. Simon: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his gracious welcome. He asked a lot of questions, and I think that the answer to almost all of them is yes. He will forgive me if I do not necessarily remember them all, but, yes, I should love to visit the construction industry training body’s national construction centre in his constituency; and, yes, on the ability of Governments to be counter-cyclical in a recession, he is absolutely right that we, as a Government, need to use our purchasing power, particularly in the downturn. That is exactly what we are doing in the Building Colleges for the Future programme, and in the Building Schools for the Future programme. Through their commissioning documents, apprenticeships and training places have been built in as an absolutely central part of both programmes.

More generally, on the question of construction in the downturn, we should remember that, although there is a lot of pressure on the house building sector, many parts of the commercial construction sector have resisted recession quite well so far, so we must be careful, as not all Opposition Members are at all times, not to talk down the sector and the economy.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The construction industry certainly has enjoyed a long boom period, but it is coming to an end. During that period, any skills shortages were often taken up and absorbed by workers from European Union accession countries. However, one chronic area of shortage, which was never bridged and will remain an area of shortage that my hon. Friend the Minister ought to discuss when he reviews the skills base, is project management, because our ability to deliver major projects to specification, on time and on budget has not been the most sparkling of our successes in this area.

Mr. Simon: Although I take my hon. Friend’s point, I counsel him, too, to be careful not to talk the sector down at a time when we should talk it up. From his considerable experience and wisdom, he makes a very interesting point, but, on the other hand, when I was in Bassetlaw last week, I encountered and talked about some outstanding pieces of project management. He is
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right, however, that construction means not only level 2 and level 3 skills, but management skills, level 4 skills and sophisticated skills. We need to be good at them, just as we need to be good at the nuts and bolts skills.

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