Previous Section Index Home Page

The third and final concern that I am going to mention is part-time and mature students. That is unfinished business. In its final report, the old Select Committee on Education and Skills recommended that the artificial divide between full and part-time undergraduates be removed, as is the case in many other countries. Of
10 Dec 2009 : Column 563
course, many full-time undergraduates, because of financial constraints, do paid work throughout their full-time studies, so all students are to some extent part time.

None the less, there is a financial divide between full and part-time students and it ought to be removed. The Liberal Democrats and the Government disagree about the fairness of tuition fees, but I do not understand why they cling to the distinction. Part-time students must pay tuition fees up front, in cash, while they are studying, whereas full-time students can borrow and pay back the fee debt over the years of their future careers. I hope the review of Lord Browne of Madingley will recommend that that divide is bridged.

Finally, we agree that the contribution of British higher education is going to be absolutely crucial in ensuring that this country prospers beyond the recession. We know that it is world class, but there is absolutely no room for complacency. The rest of the world is catching us up. In the context of the current recession, all other G20 countries are investing in higher education rather than proposing budgetary cuts. We need to ensure that whatever happens during this recession, we have a strong English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish higher education system beyond it, and that this country prospers into the future.

3.7 pm

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): We have had a wide-ranging debate on a wide-ranging report. It is a valuable report and I congratulate the Chairman and members of the Committee who have contributed to the debate.

We approach this subject sharing a belief in some very important principles. First, we recognise that British higher education is excellent, of a very high standard, and well regarded internationally, and we can all take pride in it. Nobody wishes to denigrate the achievements of our universities or their students and staff.

The second principle was put very well by my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), who rightly challenged the statement that more means worse, and said that rather, more means more diverse. I completely agree with him. That captured the direction of our higher education sector very well indeed: it is becoming more diverse and we should all understand that the term "university" covers a wide range of institutions with distinct missions and characters, but-we hope-they all display the academic rigour that comes with higher education.

The third principle, which was enunciated by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson), is that the distinctive strength of universities in this country-our universities have this asset when those in other countries, including on continental Europe, do not-is the degree of autonomy that they still enjoy. We may sometimes suspect that they enjoy it despite the best efforts of Ministers, but they nevertheless still enjoy it. If the Conservatives were in government, we would do our best to try to enhance that autonomy. It is a very good principle.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): Is not the English language another great asset for our universities? The current review of immigration rules, which may impact on universities, is very serious, because a big section of their income comes from foreign students.

10 Dec 2009 : Column 564

Mr. Willetts: My hon. Friend makes a very important point that needs to be borne in mind.

If we start with those three principles and an understanding of the excellence, diversity and autonomy in the system, we can understand some of the controversy that surrounded the Committee, and particularly its Chairman, when the report was published.

I have been in this House for a long time with the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) and have always found him to be a mild-mannered and courteous Member, but he clearly got up one morning and thought, "No more Mr. Nice Guy", as he managed to say some extraordinarily inflammatory things that perhaps upset the sector more than he expected. He followed that up by summoning a range of vice-chancellors to his study, expecting them to "tell on" each other. He was waiting for the first one to break and criticise the others, and he was clearly amazed when, despite his prolonged interrogation, the Wellington square of those assembled vice-chancellors held and none of them 'fessed up and criticised the others. It was a bizarre few months with some of his investigations and the publication of the report.

I suggest to the Chairman of the Committee that perhaps the difficulties that he got into are reflected in the frustration that he clearly still feels. The very first page of his report states:

The problem is that he was trying to treat university degrees as if they were A-levels. These are diverse institutions with diverse missions. There is much in the report that I welcome, but if I had a criticism of it, it is that it does not fully understand the autonomy and diversity of the sector.

Dr. Iddon: If that is the case, how does the hon. Gentleman expect employers to distinguish them?

Mr. Willetts: Employers do distinguish, and one reason why we attach so much importance to better information for students and prospective students is that they need to understand the distinctive roles of different universities. In fact, one of my frustrations is that sometimes I think that employers do not fully understand the distinctive strengths of, for example, regional universities, which can be excellent, but they are not the same as those institutions that are rivals to US ivy league colleges as global institutions. They have different roles.

Of course we expect every first class degree in any university to have been achieved with high standards and rigour, but they are different institutions that often measure different things. When it comes to academic rigour, a part of our system that is already a distinctive strength-the external examiner system-needs further strengthening. As several hon. Members on both sides of the House have already said, the big increase in the number of people getting first class honours degrees causes concern. We need to be confident that we will not face the grade inflation debate that has been such an issue for GCSEs and A-levels over the years. It would be a terrible pity if that debate took off for universities.

10 Dec 2009 : Column 565

I also agreed with the report on the importance of the student experience and information about it. We have ended up with a system that has sharp incentives to reward high-quality research, but still has inadequate incentives to reward high-quality teaching. Many students want to talk about their academic experience. They ask about the high-profile professor who was advertised in the university prospectus and whom they have never seen in their two or three years there. He or she is writing great research texts or appears regularly in the media, but has not delivered any lectures or attended any of their seminars. Those are the types of concerns that we are picking up, and when communicating with universities, we all try to convey it to them that they need to address such concerns if they are to maintain the good will of students and parents.

As an Opposition Member, I welcomed the report's very effective dissection of the Government's announcement of the 10,000 extra places, about which we pursued Ministers at the time. The report reaches a powerful but measured conclusion. It states that, after "Mr. Denham", as he was called in the report, presented the original 10,000 places, in October 2008, the

That captures the Opposition's experience, month after month, year after year, in dealing with some of these Government announcements. It is useful to have such a clear and authoritative analysis of what was actually meant compared with what actually happened, and of course we took the analysis to heart when I, at the Conservative party conference, announced our 10,000 extra, properly funded and properly costed university places for new students.

The discussion of student numbers leads on to a question to which I hope the Minister will respond. Some universities have recruited additional students beyond the number agreed by the Higher Education Funding Council. We are intrigued to know whether he will fine the universities for this terrible offence against his planning system. A game of bluff is going on here. We have a crisis in which Ministers are deciding whether to fine universities and universities are trying to work out whether it is a bluff. It reminds me awfully of the early stages of the Cuban missile crisis when people were trying to work out who was going to blink first.

I was assured today by a vice-chancellor that he did not believe that the Government would impose any fines. We would be interested to know whether they will. They have a dilemma: if they do not impose fines, their entire structure for planning and financing higher education will be thrown into question, but if they do impose fines on universities for taking on the extra students, they will be in the unusual position of fining universities for taking steps towards meeting the Government's own public service target of 50 per cent. participation in higher education. Fining universities for moving closer to the 50 per cent. target that Ministers are willing to finance would put the Government in a very odd position. We look forward to hearing exactly what the Minister plans to do.

10 Dec 2009 : Column 566

The report contains interesting material on part-time students. A recent HEFC study made a devastating point of which I had not previously been aware. It showed that only 39 per cent. of part-time students who began a first degree programme in 1996-97 at a higher education institution in the UK completed their degree within 11 academic years. That is a very worrying statistic and leads me on to something about which I hope to hear more from the Minister. Members on both sides of the House have been talking about the case for more part-time students, and clearly such evidence needs to be considered.

We read yesterday, however, in the pre-Budget report document about a £600 million cut in the higher education and science and research budgets. We, and many people in higher education and science and research, hope that the Minister will indicate what that means. When one looks at the components, one can see several angles on which we need more information. I shall take this slowly, because the brief four-line entry on page 110 of the report contains so many different points. It states that the cuts will come

What are these changes to student support? Will there be yet more changes in the rules for access to maintenance grants and maintenance loans? Is that what the report means? Or does it mean something else? We need to know.

The pre-Budget report also talks about

I would be interested to know what those efficiency savings are-and

As the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) said-we heard this on "Newsnight" last night too-the Chief Secretary to the Treasury says that that means a shift towards part-time students. How do the Government intend to achieve that shift? What changes in the financing rules will they propose? Given the evidence from the Select Committee's report, what support will the Government give to part-time students so that they do not suffer from the very high drop-out rates that we are debating today? It is a sad irony that we should have had an autumn statement yesterday that apparently proposed a cut, in a move towards having more part-time students, when we have also had a report showing that part-time students need extra support if they are to achieve the participation and completion rates for which we would all hope.

The list also mentions

We want to know what that is. From the scientists' point of view, when the Minister talks about efficiency savings and prioritisation across universities and science and research, what will happen to the Government's previous pledge on the ring-fencing of the science budget? We would like to know whether that statement still stands. There is a lot of important information that we need to hear to have those four key lines in the PBR explained.

Finally, and very briefly, the Minister will know how devastating the report on the performance of the Student Loans Company that was released earlier this week was. Personally, I think that the report merited an oral
10 Dec 2009 : Column 567
statement. Indeed, it was regrettable that the report was available only at about 4 o'clock in the afternoon, despite the fact that the written statement said that it would be placed in the Library and made available. However, the report was not available when the written statement came out, and that statement was a rather anodyne account of what is a very powerful report indeed.

Some other hon. Members have made these points, but it is shocking that there were times when only 5 per cent. of phone calls to the Student Loans Company were answered. It is shocking that 100,000 items of evidence that were supposed to be electronically scanned could not be scanned. It is also shocking that, alongside the gross incompetence of the Student Loans Company, some responsibility clearly lay with the Department and Ministers. We should not forget that, as the report says:

which postponed it until February 2009. Part of the "terminal 5" problem of the service, which was re-launched in a rush and without proper testing, was caused because five months were lost owing to Ministers chopping and changing the maintenance rules. I would very much like to hear what steps the Minister will take in response to the comments in the report that are addressed to the Department and to Ministers. I would also like to know whether he understands that the problems have caused enormous distress to students. I hope that he will take this opportunity to apologise to students and their families for what they have gone through.

Above all-this is my final point, Mr. Deputy Speaker-I would like to hear what will happen in future. We need to know when students who make applications in the coming year will be able to access advice and support from the Student Loans Company and when the backlog of cases that have still not been resolved will finally be clarified, resolved and sorted out by this grossly incompetent organisation. The Minister owes the House and students an explanation of that.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There has just been an extraordinary statement in the upper House concerning the eligibility of Members of the upper House to sit there. It has come to light that, as a consequence of the Electoral Administration Act 2006, there is now some doubt about whether Commonwealth and Republic of Ireland citizens are eligible for membership of the House of Lords. There are also implications for certain other offices under the Crown, as well as for membership of the Privy Council and judicial office holders. The eligibility of Commonwealth citizens to be employees of the civil service is also in some doubt.

We have just had the most recent business statement of the Session, yet no reference was made to that announcement. May I ask you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, whether you have had any indication from the Leader of the House that she plans to share with the House the Government's proposals to legislate in the current Session, in order to clarify the position and avoid any doubt about the eligibility of those citizens to be members of the upper House and to continue to hold certain other offices?

10 Dec 2009 : Column 568

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): In specific answer to the right hon. Gentleman's question, no, I have not received any message from the Leader of the House that a statement or further action is intended. By virtue of his raising this obviously serious matter on a point of order, however, note will be taken, and I hope that the House will be informed at the earliest possible date.

3.25 pm

The Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property (Mr. David Lammy): Let me begin by thanking the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) for this opportunity to discuss higher education and his Committee's report. Many of us in the Chamber have had successive discussions on these matters recently-it feels like week by week. I have been a Minister for either skills or higher education for some three years now, and it is my feeling that the standard of the debate this afternoon was among the very highest. That is a reflection of the work of the hon. Gentleman's Committee, and of the real contribution that Back Benchers have made. It is also a reflection of the contributions by my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) and the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson). I hope I shall be able to deal with some of the points they raised in the moments I have at the Dispatch Box, although I recognise that we have another debate this afternoon.

It is important to put this debate in context, and I think the whole House will agree that there is never an excuse for being complacent about our public services. We can count the number of lives that are changed as a result of them, and we particularly commend the professionalism of the staff, students and management in the higher education sector.

When we consider the backdrop against which the Committee reported, we can see that we now have more students in our universities than at any time in our history. We have more students from state schools in our universities than ever before, and we have more black students from less well-off families, more black and ethnic minority students, and more students expressing satisfaction with their courses, than at any time in our history. It is also right to say that British universities have achieved a higher ranking in the international league tables than ever before. All this is underpinned by a 25 per cent. real-terms rise in public spending. I genuinely hope that hon. Members recognise that investing in higher education underpins the success of all those students. We heard my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East speak movingly about the nature of that investment, and, in particular, what it means for facilities in the sciences.

Next Section Index Home Page