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The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): Government investment in research is rising to a record level of £6 billion by 2010-11. Yesterday, the Higher Education Funding Council for England set out to the sector how it will distribute research funding to universities, reflecting the approach in my grant letter to the council. I believe that in the
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current economic climate, it is vital to continue to invest in science and research. We will resist calls from others to reduce the amount of money that we spend in our Department.

John Robertson: My right hon. Friend has practically answered my next question. In the new economy, we are dealing with issues such as “Digital Britain”, renewables and nuclear. The universities in Scotland are underfunded. We are not getting the same funding as universities down south, yet we supply some of the best research and development in the whole world. Will he look into that issue and find some way to help those universities, which in the end will help the economy and this country?

Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend raises an important point. It is actually the case that the excellence of research in Scottish universities at present means that Scotland gets a disproportionately large share of the UK science budget. The problem is that for a year or two now, there has been a systematic approach to underfunding those universities. The real concern that people in Scotland should have about the universities and all of us in the UK should have about world class research is that that approach cannot go on for ever without undermining the very excellence that we will rely on for the nuclear industry, renewable energy and low-carbon manufacturing in the future. I hope my hon. Friend will continue his campaign to change those policies, which are threatening those universities.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD): On that last point about the Scottish universities, I want to follow on from the question of the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), having declared my interest as rector of Glasgow university. May I draw to the Secretary of State’s attention the comment reported in The Herald today from the principal of Strathclyde university? I am being very inclusive. The comment is a reflection on the debate—I put it no more strongly than that—within the Russell group and further afield in Scotland in particular about the perceived efforts of the Executive to shift research and its funding into their assessment of the needs of the Scottish economic situation and jobs market? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the flexibility and the independence of the universities to concentrate on their perceived research needs must remain absolutely to the fore?

Mr. Denham: I refer the right hon. Gentleman to the answer that I gave earlier about the Haldane principle, which I hope achieves the right balance between ensuring that the research councils can determine who gets which research grants and what gets funded, and that there is space for the fundamental blue-skies research that might appear today to have no future use at all, but will turn out to be the key to economic developments in 20 years’ time, within a sensible discussion about ensuring that we have sufficient capacity across disciplines in areas of great importance to us, as we are doing with the Living with Environmental Change programme. I believe that that balance is the right one. I do not believe that a directive approach from Ministers, thinking that they can second-guess the entire scientific community, would ever be the right way forward.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the funding of Welsh universities? I am sure that he is aware of the massive
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improvement in the level of world class research in Welsh universities revealed in the last research assessment exercise. It has gone up from 70 per cent. of the English level to 93 per cent. since 2001, but Wales receives disproportionately less money per head of population. Is there anything he can do to nudge the research councils into giving more money to Wales?

Mr. Denham: I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns. I have discussed higher education policy with my opposite number at the Assembly; we are keen to work collaboratively, particularly on co-operation between English and Welsh universities. As far as research councils are concerned, we have to defend the principle that the money will go where the excellence is. The research councils will not distribute money on a geographical, regional, national or sub-national basis; it has to go where the excellence is. It is, perhaps, for the Assembly to work with the universities in Wales on how money is distributed, to make sure that the places where excellence can best develop are supported. The money will follow.

Student Finance

11. Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): Whether he plans to amend the rules determining eligibility for funding for students undertaking an equivalent or lower qualification. [252525]

The Minister of State, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. David Lammy): At our request, the Higher Education Funding Council for England is reviewing the impact of the equivalent or lower qualification policy. We will consider the council’s advice when we receive it later in the year.

Jeremy Wright: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, and I hope that those who will be affected will find it encouraging. We are starting to appreciate the scale of the economic recession and he has just indicated that the Government are speaking to HEFCE about offering more help to people who become unemployed, particularly in respect of disciplines different from those in which they previously worked. I hope that he will accept that what the Government have previously said about financial support for ELQ students risks giving a very mixed message to those whom the qualification is trying to help.

Mr. Lammy: I hope that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges our announcement on increasing the amount of career development loans available to people who want to do postgraduate study. I hope that he will recognise the £148 million that HEFCE has put into employer co-funded schemes and programmes for people in work and attached to an employer who want to engage in further study. I hope he will also recognise the investment fund that HEFCE has announced for economic challenges. That fund, effectively of £50 million, is to ensure that people across the country are getting the skills to take up employment, reskill, retrain and upskill in these difficult times.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): The decision to remove funding for ELQ students was a knee-jerk reaction and a mistake. As unemployment rises in the United Kingdom and people are desperate
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to retrain, the Government are beginning to look stupid on this issue. Can the Minister simply explain why the decision was taken, and will he at least begin to review it? People are desperate to retrain, and they cannot under this system.

Mr. Lammy: Let us not get into an interpretation of “stupid”. We have explained the issue a number of times to the hon. Gentleman. Let me say this to him for probably the fifth or sixth time: in respect of people who do not have a first degree, it must be an imperative for the Government to redistribute funds—£100 million—to benefit them in these difficult times. If he chose to leave and do a second degree, it could not be right for the Government to reward him over someone who had not done a first degree.

Topical Questions

T1. [252539] Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): We know that now is the time to invest in skills and training to prepare people for the upturn. This would be the very worst time to cut public spending, as some are proposing. Since my Department’s last oral questions, we have boosted the number of apprenticeships, which will rise by a further 35,000 next year, and have allocated almost £250 million extra to provide additional training opportunities to those facing or experiencing redundancy. We are working with major employers and the third sector to encourage internships and volunteering, and we are helping people to retrain by trebling the number of professional and career development loans and supporting the Higher Education Funding Council’s new £50 million programme to help firms and individuals meet the economic challenges that they face. We have learned the lessons of the past. We will neither abandon people nor push them into incapacity benefit. We are taking action now and providing real help for families and businesses in the downturn.

Tom Brake: I thank the Secretary of State for his reply; I heard what he said in relation to apprenticeships. However, the principal of my local college, Carshalton college, which is very much in the front line as regards apprenticeships and wants to expand, says that there is a shortage of apprenticeships available. What more can the Secretary of State do to stimulate demand for apprenticeships in the public and private sectors, and what can he do to ensure that apprentices who lose their placements as a result of the company that they are working for going bust are able to complete their final qualifications?

Mr. Denham: One of the real challenges for the coming year is to ensure that the public sector plays as big a role as possible in providing apprenticeships. If all the public sector, say in local government, provided as many apprenticeships as the best local authorities, we would make a massive increase in the number of apprenticeships.

Secondly, we are working with major apprenticeship suppliers such as Rolls-Royce, which is agreeing to train additional apprentices over and above its needs for its
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own company to provide people for the local work force. As for redundancies, we have ensured that some of the rules and procedures that have prevented people from returning to college to finish the technical qualification part of their apprenticeship have been changed, and we are working with a clearing house to place as many people as possible who lose their jobs with a new employer to fully complete their apprenticeship.

T4. [252543] Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush) (Lab): Ten years of Government funding and commitment mean that apprenticeships such as those delivered by the excellent Ealing, Hammersmith and West London college are a popular mainstream option for my constituents. Does the Minister agree that the plans to cut apprenticeships, from whatever source, would be hugely damaging to businesses and to people?

Mr. Denham: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I would not wish to try your patience, Mr. Speaker, by referring to the policies of the Conservative party; but from wherever a proposal came to cut the apprenticeship programme, for example to stop all apprenticeships for those over 19 this year, it would be a real disaster. We have rescued apprenticeships, and we must not go back to where we were 10 years ago.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): The Prime Minister recently promised to bring forward our capital spending programmes, but Members in all parts of the House will have been contacted by further education colleges that are very worried that the opposite is happening, having found that their building programmes are being halted mid-stream. Will the Secretary of State tell the House how many projects have been delayed, what is the value of the projects affected, and why his Department has been so slow to act when it was first informed of this problem last autumn? If he will not take the Prime Minister’s requirements for more capital spending seriously, why should the rest of the House?

Mr. Denham: I am grateful for the opportunity to make the position on capital spending absolutely clear. It is thanks to this Government’s investment that we will spend £2.3 billion over this spending period. There is no freeze in that spending programme. There is no question but that the £110 million brought forward for this year and the £100 million brought forward for next year will be spent. The issue is that the Learning and Skills Council decided in December to defer a number of proposals awaiting approval, and there are others in the pipeline. It did so so that it could assess the likely impact of the downturn on the viability of future proposals. It does not in any way affect the more than 250 projects that are already under way. However, of course there are concerns for colleges that are in the pipeline and looking for approval. That is why the LSC is appointing Sir Andrew Foster, at my request, to undertake an independent review of how the current situation for future projects came about. I hope that by March there will be a clear way forward for colleges currently facing some uncertainty. However, I must stress that there is no question of the money that has been allocated for this spending review not being spent; indeed, the spending profile has been brought forward.

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T6. [252545] Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): Those are reassuring words from the Secretary of State, particularly for colleges such as my local college, Basford Hall in Nottingham, which has submitted its plans to the LSC and agreed a way forward, but is caught in the moratorium, which I understand is essentially caused by land deal considerations because the price of land has fallen in the downturn—something that does not affect my local college, however. Will the Secretary of State make it very clear that we will clear through all those pending applications with extreme urgency so that we are ready to take advantage of an upturn when it comes?

Mr. Denham: All hon. Members champion their local colleges, but I do not think that anybody has championed theirs as enthusiastically as my hon. Friend. Land is one of the issues that the LSC is looking at, because a number of both current and future schemes depend on land sales. Should that be affected by the downturn, we will need to see where we stand. It is important for the LSC to take a comprehensive approach to the programme rather than single out individual items. I am afraid that my hon. Friend will need to wait until we have worked through the current process with the LSC.

T2. [252541] Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The Federation of Master Builders has stated that some 50 per cent. of its companies will declare redundancies in the next three months. The Construction Products Association has likewise stated that the industry is shedding jobs at an unprecedented rate. Although the Government have announced that they will make more apprenticeships available and that they will bring forward major infrastructure projects, which I warmly welcome, what are they doing to prevent existing apprentices who are currently in post from losing their jobs?

Mr. Denham: The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. It reinforces the point that I made earlier about why we are anxious to ensure that when possible, the public sector construction projects that are proceeding include a training agreement for the provision of apprenticeships and other workplace-based learning. Our college programme has already created about 500 apprenticeships through that approach.

In case people lose their jobs, we are working with the construction industry training board and have established a clearing house so that whenever possible, we can relocate apprentices in another job or enable them to continue their training in college. We are continuing to develop that process and will extend it to other areas of apprenticeships.

T7. [252546] Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): On research funds, does my right hon. Friend recognise the outstanding work undertaken by the newer universities, particularly Northampton, both in levering in private sector funds to support their research funding and in undertaking research that is directly related to the local jobs situation? That research might be in science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related subjects, but it is also in other subjects, particularly the creative industries and public service development.

Mr. Denham: I recognise the wide range of very useful and sometimes excellent research carried out in universities such as Northampton, which I believe the
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Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), will be visiting in the near future.

There has been pressure in the past for us to apply an arithmetical approach to distributing research funding, perhaps particularly to the newer universities. Actually, the research assessment exercise that was published recently showed that those universities can win four-star grades for international-quality research purely on the merits of their research, without taking an artificial approach to distributing funding. We have asked the Higher Education Funding Council to recognise that when it comes to distribute research funding in March.

T3. [252542] Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): On apprenticeships, and given that nearly 50 per cent. of those being laid off are under 25, will the Government consider giving each area’s local authority, local college and local chamber of commerce regular information about what opportunities there are, so that it is available for everybody in an agreed place? Will they consider having in each local council area one private sector and one public sector champion of apprenticeships who, by their records, are well placed to take on that role?

The Minister of State, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. David Lammy): The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The London apprenticeship taskforce, which met again this week, is discussing that very issue. Rob Whiteman, the chief executive of the London borough of Barking and Dagenham, is co-ordinating that activity across London councils with the LSC, to ensure that we can increase the number of apprenticeships in constituencies such as the hon. Gentleman’s. They will ensure that local authorities and the NHS can do more, along with the many companies in London that, notwithstanding the economic downturn, want to recruit young Londoners to ensure that they benefit from the apprenticeship scheme.

T9. [252548] Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): Swindon needs a university now more than ever to help regeneration and recovery from recession, but if we are successful in our bid, will my right hon. Friend help us work with the university of the West of England to establish a university in the town centre instead of using the Coate Water site, which most people oppose?

Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend has been a considerable champion of Swindon’s case for a university. I have visited the town and I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State is going there.

It is not for Ministers in London to intervene in complex planning issues. However, I stress to my hon. Friend and all hon. Members who support new university developments that getting together an agreed local priority is critical to the process. I know that she will do everything she can with the local authority and others to bring people together and get a consensus about the way forward, because that is essential.

T5. [252544] Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): An agreed local bid has been put forward for a new university in north Northamptonshire and I am pleased that it has made the shortlist of 27. It has huge
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potential for job creation and boosting the local economy. What weight will the Higher Education Funding Council give the redevelopment potential of new university applications?

Mr. Denham: As the hon. Gentleman knows from my meeting with him and my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope), who supports the same proposal, it is for the Higher Education Funding Council to determine the successful areas. We hope that it takes into account fundamentally the need locally for higher education but also, when possible, the ability to maximise economic development and regeneration and to bring in partners such as local businesses and the regional development agency. We suspect that those places will receive priority.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): I listened to what the Secretary of State said about the capital funding programme for colleges. It affects my own college—so much so that demolition work has already started on it and the funding has been withdrawn. Although the Secretary of State says that there is a review of funding, that the funding is in place and that decisions have been deferred, representatives of Barnsley college went to a meeting with the Learning and Skills Council on 9 January, and they were told that the LSC was reviewing its priorities for all capital programmes, and that no assurance could be given that any individual project would be funded or, if funding was agreed, on when it might be released. It looks as though the LSC is saying one thing and the Secretary of State is saying another. Will he look again at the project? Barnsley college has been left in a difficult position.

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