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10 Dec 2009 : Column 527

Points of Order

12.46 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In response to a freedom of information request for papers relating to Cabinet Committees dealing with devolution to Scotland and Wales, the Information Commissioner determined that those papers should be released. Today, Sir, the Lord Chancellor has laid a written ministerial statement indicating that he has used the veto that Ministers possess to prevent the release of those papers. In nine years, that veto was not used; it has now been used twice in one year. In this instance, it has been used before the matter has gone to an information tribunal, and the Lord Chancellor has not, as he did previously, come to the House to explain his decision in an oral statement.

I understand, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the Information Commissioner is likely to undertake a special report to Parliament. May I seek your guidance-perhaps if you cannot give immediate guidance, you might ask Mr. Speaker-as to how this special report, which is obviously of crucial importance, can be placed before the House for debate, because it is clearly inappropriate that such a report, which criticises the action of a Cabinet Minister, should be in the hands of the same Cabinet Minister in determining whether it should be placed before the House?

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The papers referred to, which date from 1997, relate to devolution to Scotland and Wales, and also to the English regions. I have in my hand a certificate that the Secretary of State placed in the Journal Office today in which he takes the view that the public interest favours the continued non-disclosure of all the information concerned. Bearing that in mind, could we, as my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) requested, have some clarification as to the procedure for ensuring that any report that the Information Commissioner makes is not withheld by the Secretary of State but is made available to the House, because so far it does not appear to be accessible?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I have no prior knowledge of the point that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) and the hon.
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Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) have raised. Clearly, it is a very serious matter. It is not something that I can rule on now, but the House has certainly heard what they said, and it is clearly on the record. I am sure that those on the Treasury Bench, and Mr. Speaker too, will want to look at the matter very carefully and decide precisely what course of action to take.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Have you heard whether there is to be a Statutory Instrument Committee meeting today to scrutinise the Flood Risk Regulations 2009, which are due to come into force today? Is it the Government's wish for us to scrutinise them in the normal way?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I have to say the same thing to the hon. Lady. I have no knowledge that any statement of that kind will be made today, but again, the point that she has made is firmly on the record and I am sure that those responsible for these matters will take note of it.

Miss McIntosh: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can you give me guidance on what the legal position is if a statutory instrument is not properly laid before Parliament, has not been properly consulted on with outside bodies and has not been properly scrutinised by both Houses of Parliament? Is that legal? Can such an instrument come into effect?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I think the hon. Lady is tempting me into all sorts of hypotheticals that I would be well advised to avoid. She has made the point, and as I said, I am sure that those who respond to these matters will look at it.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Concern has been expressed in various quarters of the House today and earlier about the treatment of private Members' Bills and the time available for them to be discussed and processed in this Session. Can you do anything to ensure that they are properly debated and that proper time will be made available to deal with them?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I understand that the Leader of the House is looking very carefully at that situation to see precisely how it can be resolved. It is a very important matter, and it needs to be cleared up without delay.

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Estimates Day

[1st Allotted Day]

Vote on Account, 2010-11

Department for Business, Innovation and Skills

Students and Universities

[Relevant Documents: The Eleventh Report from the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, HC 170, Session 2008-09, on Students and universities, and the Government's response, HC 991.]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD) rose-

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con) rose-

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I call Mr. Phil Willis.

12.51 pm

Mr. Willis: What an august start to a debate-I am very grateful to you for making the historic decision to call me, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I welcome this estimates debate on the report on students and universities that the then Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills published on 2 August. Although I recognise that many Members may wish to broaden the issue, I wish to keep my remarks to the report.

Far too often, the work of our universities is discussed in isolation from the very people who are the principal recipients, the students themselves. We often talk about research, institutions and organisations without mentioning the students, yet the quality of the experience that they get often not only determines their life chances but is critical to our nation's future. At this time, it behoves all political parties to take the issue of quality and standards in our universities to heart.

The taxpayer contributes something in the region of £15 billion to our universities, and there are currently about 2.3 million students of different sorts in them. They make a significant contribution too, through the money that they pay universities. The question that my Committee asked was whether the taxpayer and the students got good value for money and whether it was a quality product. We strongly welcomed the initiative by the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), when he was Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, of posing the question, "What do we want the higher education system to look like in 15 years' time?" That was exactly the right question, and I compliment him for beginning that debate.

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I wish to put on record that over the past 10 years, the higher education system has received a significant investment of resources, both in revenue and particularly capital. On the matter that the Select Committee on Science and Technology, as it now is, is particularly interested in, there has been huge investment in laboratory infrastructure and so on. I have started on a positive note, and I hope that the Minister has noted it.

We considered whether the student experience is truly world-class, as it is often portrayed. Although fees and funding frequently came into our deliberations, they were not part of our brief, so I shall not comment on variable fees. The Committee looks forward to the report of the review by Lord Browne of Madingley, which should inform the debate after the general election.

I pay tribute to the four members of the Select Committee who are present for the debate. I have to say that our inquiry and our final report have not been without controversy, and it is fair to say that our mailbag was not only large but contained extremely diverse responses to our recommendations. That is exactly what a Select Committee report should do-it should be able to create debate and, to some extent, controversy. I thank all those who contributed to the report, including vice-chancellors, academics and representatives of professional bodies. In particular, I wish to single out students. We met a great number who were an absolute pleasure to deal with, and I wish to put on record our appreciation to the National Union of Students, which constantly provided the Committee with high-quality evidence and was prepared to take on board a number of the criticisms that we made.

The Committee actively sought out innovative ways to engage with students. We visited universities, and at Oxford we even had the equivalent of a speed-dating session, at which we spoke to a number of students in different formats. We also held a major consultation for three months as part and parcel of our work. We were rigorous in taking evidence, but it was controversial. I therefore wish initially to remove some misunderstandings.

We had no intention of undermining what I and my Committee believe to be a world-class higher education system. Our criticisms are to try to improve it rather than undermine it. Given the rapid changes in the sector, which are likely to accelerate in future months and years, we wanted to add to the debate about the future of the sector. We were therefore somewhat surprised by the reaction of the Government and the higher education sector to our report. When it was published last August Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, was quoted in the press as saying that he did not "recognise the committee's description" of universities. The Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property, who is in his place, was equally scathing about the fact that we had produced a report during the summer recess, which I found quite strange.

The Government echoed that line in their response to the report, stating at paragraph 1:

Universities UK was equally hostile to the report. Indeed, many parts of the higher education establishment appeared largely defensive and reluctant to engage in many of the issues. They gave the impression that Parliament somehow had no right to interfere in the product being delivered,
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and that we should just let them get on with it. Given the fact that we have put in £15 billion of taxpayers' money, that attitude is frankly unacceptable.

Over the past few months the Government and the higher education sector, having dismissed many of our concerns, have quietly been getting on with implementing most of the key recommendations in the report. Perhaps that is the way things are and how the system works. I hope that the Minister will explain why there has been a change of heart-perhaps the Government were planning it in the first place. [Interruption.] I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) does not have swine flu just before Christmas.

I wish to deal with four matters, the first of which is the information available to prospective students, which is absolutely essential if they are to make informed choices about institutions and courses of study. We found that although universities' prospectuses competed on their public relations appeal, they did not present information in a consistent format to allow easy comparison. We concluded that the sector should develop a code of practice on information for prospective students, which should cover the time a typical undergraduate student should expect to spend attending lectures and tutorials, in personal study and, for science courses, in laboratories during a week, and a clear indication of who would be teaching them.

The need for that information was brought home to us by a mature student doing a nursing degree, who pointed out:

The sector has seen a huge growth in the number of mature students-post 21-year-olds-and part-time students, and those who study specific modules at a variety of different sites, and they need to be able to plan with certainty.

We did not recommend the standardisation of either courses or curricula. To do so would be to undermine university autonomy and academic freedom, and the core strength of our university system. To be fair, the Government responded fairly positively and agreed that it would be helpful for prospective students to have access to information concerning work loads. They have asked the Higher Education Funding Council England to examine the issues, in consultation with the sector.

By contrast, Universities UK appeared to see little need for change, stating:

That is true, but they said that the problem was students' failure to navigate the information that was already there. We were therefore pleasantly surprised to see in HEFCE's statutory responsibility for quality assurance report, which was published in October this year, that its teaching, quality and student experience sub-committee considered that:

That is exactly what we had recommended in the report that was dismissed, so hallelujah! The Government, in their plan for the future of higher education, "Higher
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Ambitions", which was published in November, on which I compliment the Minister, state:

We warmly welcome that.

The second area our report covers is the treatment of part-time and mature students. The failure of the current system to treat part-time students on the same basis as full-time students is, in effect, a form of discrimination. That is not only wrong, but it hinders the achievement of the Government's objective of 40 per cent. of all adults in England gaining a higher education qualification by 2020.

Although we did not take extensive evidence from part-time students, there was a strong feeling that although some universities actively welcome them and make appropriate curriculum provisions, many do not. In the latter, students have to take what are effectively full-time courses in part, rather than appropriately designed modules.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): Is not the real issue that as each year goes by, the distinction between full-time and part-time courses in terms of hours taught becomes increasingly irrelevant? In many universities and for many courses, it would be very difficult to distinguish clearly between a student attending a part-time course and a student attending full time? Many students on full-time courses will attend for fewer hours than students notionally on part-time courses.

Mr. Willis: I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman. That is why it is it is absolutely imperative for the review that is taking place to look at how we deliver higher education in totality and does not simply say, "Some students work part time and some work full time." We certainly need to consider that. I hope the Minister will tell us in his winding-up speech that that, and not simply funding, will be addressed in the review.

We were disappointed that Universities UK did not address the matter in its response. To go back to what the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) said, one area we looked at in the inquiry was the delivery of modularised curricula, which means people can dip in and out over a longer period, accumulate credits and transfer them between universities. There were some very hostile reactions, particular from some in the Russell group of universities, which frankly did not participate in that more universal response.

We were pleased, however, that in "Higher Ambitions", the Government stated:

I think we are making progress-I put that on the record in a spirit of co-operation.

The quality of teaching should be a core aspect of the undergraduate experience. It did not surprise us that the views of the students to whom we spoke ran the full gamut between complimentary and downright critical, but we were stunned by one constant criticism that came up time after time. One student said that

that is a compliment-

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