Previous Section Index Home Page

Mr. Newmark: I have a constituent who has been accepted as homeless and is on the homeless register. At 34 weeks pregnant, she has had to drop out of university after being told that until she has the baby, she is
29 Jan 2009 : Column 431
ineligible for housing benefit. Is the Minister aware that young people are being forced out of education for that reason and will he take action to ensure that those who fall pregnant while they are in higher education are not penalised?

Mr. Lammy: I am happy to look at the hon. Gentleman’s constituent’s problem, but I would say that such assistance is dependent on Government finance and the proposals to take £610 million out of my Department will not help.

Mr. Robathan: When I went to Oxford university some 39 years ago in 1970— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Newmark: He was a bright young thing.

Mr. Robathan: A very young thing. In 1970, the proportion of undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge who were educated in state schools was higher than it is now. Given that all students at university today have had the majority of their education under this blessed Labour Government, to what does the Minister attribute that almost incredible, somewhat depressing and somewhat shameful statistic?

Mr. Lammy: I do not recognise the statistic. This year there has been a 7.4 per cent. rise in the number of students from poorer backgrounds attending our universities. That must be a good thing. I think that increase is the result of the Aimhigher programme and the Aimhigher associates programme, which brings students back into schools and into their local communities to encourage other students to go into education. It is also the result of the work that the universities are doing through summer schools and classes with parents and students, all of which are designed to ensure that we get better equity across the system in this country. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that the system is perfect or that it was perfect when he went to university. There is much that we can do and it ought to be a cross-party issue.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Would my right hon. Friend agree that many universities are performing very well in widening participation? Cambridge has done very well, as opposed to Oxford, by having the same application process as all the other universities. That helps. Will he be more aggressive with the universities? Let us change the culture in many of the leading research universities; let us make them work harder and make them more understandable for working class kids. Working class kids respond to hard work and our universities do not work hard enough at the moment.

Mr. Lammy: I know that my hon. Friend is something of an expert on that issue. I hope that he would agree that we are seeing a cultural shift, particularly among our most selective universities, and that he will welcome the group of 11 initiatives. Eleven of our most selective universities—the number is increasing—are coming together to pool and share the systems by which they widen participation, to learn from each other and to ensure that a student from a poorer background in the south of England who has benefited from one of the summer schools or classes can go to a university in the north of England. All that work will be going on over the next few months.

29 Jan 2009 : Column 432

Mr. Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): Youngsters in my constituency do not always have role models who have been to university. What is my right hon. Friend doing to increase mentoring in schools and colleges?

Mr. Lammy: I am truly grateful for the interest that my hon. Friend continues to take in his constituency, which is very similar to mine. I know that he will welcome the work that Aimhigher associates are doing; these are young people who have been to university, who come back to school to work with young people in their home communities. I hope he will also recognise that good work is going on, led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, through the reach programme, which is about encouraging young people, often from ethnic minority backgrounds, to aspire to go to university.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): I have always believed that the re-designation by the Conservative Government of polytechnics as universities blurred the distinction between vocational and academic education and was a profound mistake. Could the right hon. Gentleman assure me and the House that in these straitened times everything possible will be done to stress that vocational is not second best, and that there are many people in this country whose potential can be challenged not by pseudo-academic courses but by rigorous vocational training?

Mr. Lammy: I hope that the hon. Gentleman knows that I would absolutely agree with him on that. He is absolutely right that there has been an artificial divide in Britain, for all of the 20th century and into this one, between what we have perceived to be vocational and academic. I would encourage him to look at this year’s research assessment exercise results, which show that there is excellence to be found in our newer unversities, just as in our old ones.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the figures that he just read out, welcome though they are, have been achieved in spite of some of the approaches taken by some of the top universities? Does he agree that they could do more to encourage young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, especially early in their education, perhaps as early as primary school or middle school age, to raise their aspirations so that they might be better qualified to apply to those universities when they reach school-leaving age?

Mr. Lammy: We could all do more. The universities recognise that there is more to do, which is why the group of 11 universities have come together to launch initiatives to ensure fair access to the most selective universities. The work of the National Council for Educational Excellence has made it clear, however, that schools could do more. My hon. Friend will also recognise that there are schools in our constituencies where the teachers themselves need to aspire to the very best for those young people and connect up to those universities, and where educational advice and guidance needs to be better.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): Broadening access to higher education is critical to promoting the social justice that Conservatives crave, but social mobility has stalled since 1997. Although
29 Jan 2009 : Column 433
£2 million a year is spent on widening access, the participation rate of working-class children has risen by just 1 per cent. The report that the Secretary of State commissioned from Christine King, which he dismissed as provocative, says that flexible funding and learning is central to improving access. Surely we must build on the work of the Open university, Birkbeck and others who provide flexible learning; so will the Minister say whether the Government will back Professor King’s recommendations? One does not have to be Mastermind to recognise that flexible learning is the key to improving access.

Mr. Lammy: But equally, one does not have to be Mastermind to know that a £610 million cut to our Department’s budget—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think that a few hundred words have been said about the Conservative party policy, and that must cease. It is for the Conservatives to let the world know about their policies, not Ministers.

Green-collar Jobs

4. Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): What steps he is taking to encourage more people to develop the skills required for green-collar jobs through studying science, engineering and technology subjects at universities. [252517]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. Siôn Simon): The Government believe that we should take a strategic approach to future skills needs. The demands of the low-carbon economy and our future economic challenges tell us that we need more high-level skills in STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—subjects. We have already invested £29 million in additional university student numbers for STEM. We have also invested £76 million for capacity building in strategically important subjects, including STEM. Last week’s grant letter to the Higher Education Funding Council set out the need for further investment in STEM and for universities to meet the needs of employers.

Kerry McCarthy: I thank the Minister for that response. Last Friday I visited the university of the West of England, which is keen to play its role in equipping people for green-collar jobs. However, there is a problem that many students who study humanities or arts subjects develop a real interest in environmental issues, but do not have the qualifications to go on to take postgraduate applied science courses. How can the Minister help such students to make the transition into green-collar jobs?

Mr. Simon: I am not surprised to learn that my hon. Friend was recently at her local university because she is a tireless champion of every sector of her constituency. I think that I know the answer to her question. As I understood it, she was asking how we get people who study humanities subjects into the STEM-related, green-collar jobs in which they have become interested. I have to say that the answer is that they need to do STEM-related degrees at university if they want to get STEM-related jobs. We are getting more people into STEM-related jobs, and we will need more, but the message has to go out that if people want modern, innovative, interesting green-sector jobs, they need to do STEM-related subjects at GCSE, A-level and university.

29 Jan 2009 : Column 434

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): That was a most helpful comment for someone who has just done an arts degree at university, especially as equivalent level qualification funding has been totally taken away.

There is support on both sides of the House for the idea of growing the number of STEM undergraduates, because that is exactly what our economy needs. I acknowledge that, since 2004, there has been a slight reverse of the disastrous trend that occurred between 1997 and 2004. However, does the Minister agree that we need to influence what happens in schools, although he has no control over that, and that we need to influence what universities offer, although he has no control over that either? Furthermore, the Secretary of State has just issued a moratorium on additional places in our universities. How will we grow the number of STEM graduates if we stop people going to university?

Mr. Simon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, but I have to tell him that good things happen in government over which we have no control, including what goes on in the Department for Children, Schools and Families, which last year succeeded in increasing the number of applications for STEM A-levels, just as we got the number of STEM university applications up last year. Across the board, we have a commitment to getting young people to do STEM subjects through A-level and on to university.

The hon. Gentleman said that it was no use telling people who have just done an arts subject to study a STEM degree if they want a STEM-related job. However, I must tell him the hard truth that if people want a STEM-related job, they need to do a STEM-related degree.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): What more can my hon. Friend do to encourage schools to work with universities, such as those in Plymouth that have international reputations in marine and environmental science, to encourage people to look to science for a career? Science is vital for green-sector development.

Mr. Simon: My hon. Friend is a tireless advocate of her constituency’s educational institutions. Earlier, the Minister of State talked about Aimhigher, which builds exactly such links, and the academies programme is building similar links. Outstanding work is being done in not just her constituency but all over the country.

Tuition Fees

5. Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): What assessment he has made of the effects of the level of tuition fees on numbers of university applications by those from low-income families. [252518]

The Minister of State, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. David Lammy): All the evidence shows that variable tuition fees have not deterred young people from lower-income backgrounds from applying to university. University acceptances for people aged 18 and under from lower socio-economic groups rose by more than 8 per cent. this year alone, demonstrating that we are changing the attitudes and aspirations of young people.

29 Jan 2009 : Column 435

Mr. Sanders: That sounds very encouraging, but it does not match the anecdotal evidence that I hear from young people in my constituency, who cite tuition fees and debt as reasons why they do not aspire to do a higher education course.

Mr. Lammy: When we had the tuition fees debate in the House, I think that there was only one Member of Parliament who had substantial loans and fees to pay, and that was me. Of course young people assess these issues, but at this time, in our economy, they are aware that being a graduate will benefit them in the long term, and over their working life, for 45 years after graduation. I am pleased to see that this year’s figures show a rise.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): A recent report by Universities UK confirms the statement that my right hon. Friend just made—that tuition fees have not put students off. It also shows that the number of people going to university from different socio-economic groups was stable until 2007. I welcome the improvement in 2008, which was largely a result of the Government’s Aimhigher project and the introduction of new grants. Sadly, I still meet students in schools and colleges who are unaware of the new support for them. Will he work, through schools and colleges, to ensure that those 16 and 17 year olds know of the additional financial support available to them?

Mr. Lammy: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for her championing of those issues in Blackpool; I know that there is still much to do in that city to ensure that young people from poorer backgrounds know about the opportunities that universities can offer them. I hope that she will welcome the advertising campaign that began very recently, which is to run across the country. It reminds young people of the opportunities offered by universities, reminds those from poorer backgrounds that grants are available, and points out that people whose parents have a household income of up to £50,000 can still get a partial grant to get to university.


8. Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): What steps his Department is taking to support evidence-based policy in scientific matters. [252521]

The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): This is an important issue, and at my request, the Council for Science and Technology recently published a report with recommendations on how to improve links between the academic community and Government. The research councils provide advice to my Department; we used their expertise in developing our “Innovation Nation” White Paper. Across Government, the chief scientific adviser, Professor John Beddington, has created a group of departmental chief scientific advisers to give a sharper focus to the contribution that scientific evidence can make on major cross-cutting issues such as climate change.

Angela Watkinson: I thank the Secretary of State for his reply, but in the report to which he referred—the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills report
29 Jan 2009 : Column 436
published in December 2008—his chief scientific adviser appears to want not to promote evidence-based science in Government, but rather to defend Government policy, or explain the absence of clear Government policy. How does the Secretary of State intend to develop evidence-based science within Government if his own chief scientific adviser seems unable to do so?

Mr. Denham: There are two important points to make. First, the whole point of having a Government chief scientific adviser—he is based in my Department because he has to be based somewhere—is that he is independent of Ministers. It would be quite wrong of me to suggest at the Dispatch Box that he is accountable to me for the advice that he gives. I appreciate enormously the work that he is doing to ensure that there is a chief scientific adviser in every Government Department where it matters, and to raise the status of that scientific advice. I have said this on record many times—I said it to the Select Committee recently—but I will say it again: the Government have got much better at using scientific advice, but they are not yet as good at doing that as they could be. I see it as one of my jobs to champion the matter among Ministers.

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): The DIUS Committee has severely criticised the Secretary of State’s Department for its presentation of data, and partly for a lack of evidence-based policy making, so we were surprised to read this week in The Times that Lord Drayson wants to decide where Government research spending is allocated. That would be in direct contravention of the established Haldane principle. Does the Secretary of State agree with his Science Ministers changing Government policy?

Mr. Denham: I made what I hoped was a reasonably important speech about the Haldane principle earlier this year. I made it clear that we respect the Haldane principle and that it is the research councils that decide who gets research grants. I also made the point, however, that Ministers and Government have a legitimate interest in the broad shape of research; for example, Ministers have encouraged the multidisciplinary programme across the research councils on living with environmental change, because we believe that that is one of the major challenges facing our society. That is quite different from Ministers deciding which research groups on which research issues should get funding. That is how I believe the Haldane principle should be interpreted in the 21st century, and I think there is a consensus on that among most, if not all, of the scientific community.

Research and Development

9. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What steps he plans to take to maintain levels of spending on science, research and development initiatives in higher education institutions during the economic downturn. [252522]

Next Section Index Home Page