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13 Jan 2010 : Column 707

That is a carefully costed, fully explained model that does not-this touches on the concerns that the hon. Gentleman expressed-involve any reduction in the unit of resource per student. Those would be extra places on top of the Government's planned number of student places. Given that we are waiting for the proposals from Lord Browne's funding review, and given the inexorable looming crisis and special circumstances facing us this summer, that is the right thing to do. Unlike Ministers, who appear to be proposing a reduction in the number of places for students just when there is a surge in applications, we are confronting a practical problem that needs addressing, because the Conservative party cares about educational opportunities for young people who wish to go to university.

When Ministers announced their latest round of cuts before Christmas, they talked about delivering more education courses for students through two-year degrees. We fully understand the case for such degrees. They are by no means a complete solution to the pressures faced by universities, but they are the kind of option that they have to consider. As so often happens with the Government, however, they proposed apparently new ideas that in reality have been around for some time and which they themselves have been undermining through their own policies. Will the Minister confirm, therefore, that in the same week that the briefing was issued saying that we should not worry about the public expenditure reductions because in future we would have so many two-year courses, the HEFCE announced a reduction in funding for foundation degrees, which are one way in which the shorter courses are delivered? Such initiatives are already in the system. The HEFCE has said that it will

So at the same time that this supposedly radical new approach to universities is being floated, the funding for the initiative that is supposed to bring it to pass is quietly being strangled. That is an example of the Government's spin running along completely detached from the reality.

We are pleased that Lord Browne's review is a funding review-something that we pressed for-and not simply a fees review. We hope that it will tackle the underlying problems and pressures facing universities. Meanwhile, we are concerned to tackle the challenge that our universities will face in 2010, because we do not believe that the Government are doing so.

While we have the Minister here in the Chamber, let me ask him about another concern, which we realise many students still face, namely the continuing operational problems of the Student Loans Company. Let me remind the House of how the Government launched the policy in July 2006 and of the expression used by the previous Higher Education Minister, the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell). For those of us on the Opposition Benches who wrestle with our constituents' problems, it is worth reminding the House that the case for the new system was that it would result in

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That is what we were promised in 2006, when the policy was launched. Since then, of course, we have had a shocking report, revealing not just the many cases of maladministration and incompetence, but problems that go back to the Department, which was endlessly chopping and changing the rules for student maintenance, creating a system that was far too complicated for the Student Loans Company to administer.

I hope that the Minister will tell the House, first, how many students are still waiting for their student grant forms to be processed and for the money to be received; secondly, how many disabled students in particular are still suffering from such problems; and thirdly, what assurance he can give us that the problems that are still hanging over from last year will not interfere with the efficient handling of new claims for 2010, which are starting now. We know, from the spirals of problems that the tax credits system, the Rural Payments Agency and the Child Support Agency have got into, that the real problems start when we do not sort out the first year's problems before the second year of cases arrive. That is why the issue is so important. We need to know that the overhang of historical problems will not affect the next round of student applications.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): Does my hon. Friend, who is making such an interesting speech, concede that there is an analogy with student numbers? Just as the grants and loans for last year have got mixed up-they might get mixed up with next year's too-so the backlog of students who might have taken gap years or otherwise will now impact on the further demand for student places in the coming year.

Mr. Willetts: My hon. Friend is absolutely right and makes an important point. That is another reason why we believe that there will be a surge in applications in 2010. Some prospective students who could not get a place last year will reapply this year.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): On student places, the 1 per cent. from the student loan book and so on, do I understand the hon. Gentleman to be saying that the 10,000 places to which the motion refers will simply be for one year, as appears to be the case, or does he expect a 1 per cent. premature pay-down from that £30 billion every year, which is the only way, on his figures, that those 10,000 extra places could continue year on year, with other cohorts going through?

Mr. Willetts: Our policy is designed for the particular problems that we will face in the summer of 2010. The places are costed for three years, so the students will be able to continue at university, and we are assuming that £300 million will be coming through. We have designed the measure specifically to tackle a crisis caused by particular reasons-because unemployment is so high and because of the surge in the birth rate-and before we have had Lord Browne's wider proposals on higher education reform. We need to do something for an immediate, pressing crisis, and that is what the policy is aimed at doing.

Kevin Brennan rose-

Mr. Willetts: I will give way to the Minister again, but let me say that we are noticing a pattern: we put forward practical proposals to solve problems and we are questioned about them by his party.

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Kevin Brennan: It is because they do not add up. However, will the hon. Gentleman answer the question that I asked him earlier: what estimate has he made of the dead-weight cost of his proposal, in relation to those who already pay back early?

Mr. Willetts: We are talking about extra payments that we are bringing into the system as a result of the discount. Of course it is true that there is a modest amount of repayments. We have done the calculations, which include an allowance for the modest amount of repayments made, which will benefit the discount. That is why we can afford the policy, with the £300 million coming in. That is how the policy has been costed.

Let me now turn to a subject over which we have occasionally drawn a discreet veil. However, in the year when we are marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of the great William Gladstone, it is right that we should devote a moment's attention to the policies of the Liberal Democrats. In the 200th anniversary year of the grand old man of British politics, we are going to lavish attention on the Liberal Democrats. I enjoyed participating in a radio discussion over the Christmas break about his achievements with Lord Adonis, who was far more passionate in his defence of William Gladstone than was Lord Steel, who was also on the programme.

We are going to give some attention to the Liberal Democrats because hon. Members on both the Conservative and Labour Benches would like to get a sense of where Lib Dem policy on university fees currently lies. I am sure that the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) would like to take the opportunity to clarify that in his speech. However, as he studied history at Bristol university, perhaps we should try an historical account, just to be clear where we are.

In 2005, his party, like my party, went into the general election saying that fees should be abolished. With the financial pressures facing universities, we have recognised that that is not a sustainable policy. We have accepted that fees must stay, and we look forward to seeing whatever proposals emerge from Lord Browne's report. The Lib Dems started off in 2005 by saying that they would abolish fees. Then, when the hon. Gentleman took up his responsibilities, he looked into changing the policy. However, I have to warn him that, although it is perhaps rather sad, I keep old copies of Times Higher Education.

Rob Marris: It is very sad.

Mr. Willetts: It is, but it also means that I have records of the various statements that the hon. Member for Bristol, West has made about higher education policy over the years. There is an article in Times Higher Education in September 2008 that is headed: "Leaders of Lib Dems to ditch fees policy". It says:

In September 2008, the original policy was apparently to be abandoned. We understood that, and that is what the hon. Gentleman said to Times Higher Education.

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By 2009, there seems to have been rather a dramatic change. I have here an old Liberal Democrat press release-that is even sadder-from 17 March 2009, which is headed: "University fees should be scrapped not doubled-Williams". By March 2009, the Lib Dems were back to their election policy that university fees should be scrapped. Their policy, which had been carefully considered after a large amount of internal debate, was going, and they were back to saying that fees should go.

Then we had the excitement of the Liberal Democrats' party conference. By September 2009, we had a statement from the Liberal Democrats that was reported with the headline: "Liberal Democrats may ditch pledge to abolish tuition fees". It therefore looked as though they had once more recognised that, sadly, their policy was not feasible. It was reported that:

It looked as though the Lib Dems went into their party conference attempting once more to abandon their pledge to abolish their policy. However, after the latest set of changes-it is only because the hon. Member for Bristol, West is an historian by trade that I am taking the House through the background-we now understand that the Lib Dem leader is saying that

That is a subtle distinction. The policy cannot quite be done in one Parliament, but that extra year, taking us beyond the next election, suddenly makes it possible.

Given that we all know the kind of propaganda that the Liberal Democrats put about on the doorstep, both Conservative and Labour Members would appreciate it if the hon. Gentleman could confirm, perhaps in an intervention, that what I have described is an accurate account of the history of their internal discussions on tuition fees since the last election. We would all very much appreciate it if he could give us today's policy.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Mr. Iain Wright): This hour's policy.

Mr. Willetts: Indeed. Will the hon. Member for Bristol, West tell us that policy, so that we can tell the people who are sometimes taken in by wild and uncosted Lib Dem promises exactly what they are saying?

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for trying to extract from the Liberal Democrats their policy on tuition fees. Is he aware that the students union also wants to know where things stand with tuition fees?

Mr. Willetts: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I believe that the National Union of Students has said that the Lib Dem policy is as clear as mud. That is why it is so important to take this opportunity to find out exactly what the policy is and what the magical thing is that they will manage to do in the sixth year that they could not do in the previous five.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that even if he is fortunate enough to pin down the Liberal Democrat spokesman in the House, what the spokesman says will be academic? When
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candidates walk down streets and knock on doors, they will say anything, however contradictory, to any voter who opens the door in the hope of winning a vote.

Mr. Willetts: My hon. Friend is so right, but at least we are trying to find out. I have been trying to put on the record what we know about their policies so that we have an opportunity to ensure that we can authoritatively explain the position.

I have talked about higher education, and I want briefly to ask the Minister about where we are with skills and apprenticeships. There are ambitious targets on apprenticeships that are not being delivered. That is a similar story to what happened with the ambitious targets for participation in higher education. Will the Minister confirm that the latest quarterly figures for apprenticeship starts show that in the past three months, just 39,500 young people started a new apprenticeship? That is 26 per cent. fewer than in the same period last year. Will he confirm that those figures, sadly, show a decline in trend? That is despite the fact that they include apprenticeships at level 2, which is equivalent to GCSE level, whereas the Conservatives believe that apprenticeships should stand for what they have always stood for historically-qualifications at level 3, which is equivalent to A-levels. We would like to hear from the Minister about what is happening on his record on apprenticeship numbers. We are committed to shifting money from the Train to Gain budget to ensure that there are more opportunities for people to take up apprenticeships. Doing that, and having more places at further education colleges, is the right way to tackle the problems that young people face in this recession.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The first line of my hon. Friend's motion refers to those

which is a growing number. One difficulty for those not in education, employment or training is where on earth they should go for advice. Jobcentre Plus cannot give them advice, because it does not know where the jobs, education or training opportunities are, and Connexions seems to have disappeared for anyone who has left school. Will he confirm that when we come into government, the work clubs that we propose-some voluntary job clubs already exist-will be able to give advice to those who are not in education, employment or training about how they can get back into the world of work, or back into education or training? If that does not happen, those people will be lost for ever.

Mr. Willetts: What my hon. Friend says is so true. One of the real challenges and real problems that young people face is the disappearance of the careers adviser and the shocking weakness of information, advice and guidance. The Government produce report after report identifying that problem-indeed, it was powerfully expressed in the Milburn report on social mobility-but do nothing about it. They have an increasingly fragmented system. As my hon. Friend has said, Connexions appears not to be functioning as intended. That is why we believe in having a straightforward, all-age, independent careers service. It should be armed with the latest information available on the web, and more information
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should be collected than is currently available, so that young people will at least be guided through the maze that the Government have created of so many different vocational qualifications and training routes. That is very important.

Finally, the Conservatives have committed in our proposals to working together to ensure that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will work with the Department for Work and Pensions to tackle the problems that young unemployed people face. I welcome the presence of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) beside me on the Front Bench, because we are very aware of current criticisms about the Government's approach. The DWP welfare-to-work budget means jobs without training, and the fact that the Learning and Skills Council is paying FE colleges to churn out paper qualifications means training without jobs. The Conservatives are committed to ensuring that those two programmes are delivered in a coherent and complementary way, so that the work of FE colleges is focused on ensuring that young people are employable, and, equally, so that welfare-to-work providers focus on providing the training that young people need. We propose having incentives to reward them for long-term performance.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): My hon. Friend has mentioned FE colleges. He will remember the fiasco earlier this year when colleges such as the former Dunstable college, now Central Bedfordshire college, in my constituency were out of pocket. That college was left £700,000 out of pocket because of the situation regarding plans that it had proposed and money that it could not get back. Will he touch on what he foresees for the future of such FE colleges, after the way that they have been treated, in relation to their future capital budget?

Mr. Willetts: That is a widespread problem concerning FE colleges, about which there is a lot of unhappiness. What happened was that the colleges had become too dependent on LSC grants to pay for their capital projects, and so, as was shown by some figures that I obtained in a parliamentary answer, the proportion of the total capital spend that was coming out of the LSC capital grant was getting higher and higher. That meant that every £100 million was buying less capital than it used to. We believe that it is possible, with some ingenuity, to increase the effectiveness of the public budget to secure more FE capital.

The Conservatives are committed to tackling the problems that young people face and to ensuring that they have extra places at university next year. We are committed to ensuring that FE colleges can thrive without the level of bureaucracy and red tape that they face under this Government. We are committed to ensuring that further education and training will work alongside welfare to work. For those reasons, I commend our motion to the House.

1.37 pm

The Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property (Mr. David Lammy): I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and add:

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