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19 Jan 2010 : Column 51WH—continued

It is important to stress that admissions authorities can operate any admission arrangements they choose, as long as they comply with admissions legislation and the school admissions code. As part of the consultation process, local admissions forums have a duty to look at admission arrangements in their area to ensure that they are fair, and that they do not affect fair access. Such a duty directly addresses the hon. Gentleman's
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concerns about out-of-borough arrangements. With the greatest respect to him, I suggest that he contact the London borough of Sutton, which is controlled by his own party, to ask it what plans it has to address the problems that have arisen from the Greenwich judgment, and how it will ensure that there is fair access and provision for his constituents' children in schools in the borough.

Tom Brake: I have a regular ongoing dialogue with my local authority. As the Minister is well aware, there are many issues over which the local authority has no control, including those arising from the Greenwich judgment and from the admissions policies operated by some schools in our borough. He has talked about the responsibility of operating a fair admissions process, so it is incumbent on him to respond to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), who said that children are being tutored, often at great expense, to ensure that they get into some of the schools. Therefore, a fair admissions process is not operating. In many cases, a process based on how much people earn is what is operating.

Mr. Wright: Like many hon. Members, I came into politics because I believe in equality of opportunity. Along with other matters with which the state should help, the provision of excellent high-quality education for all regardless of ability to pay is a core belief that should be at the very heart of education policy. Regardless of where someone lives, who their parents are, or whether they can pay, every pupil in this country should have access to world-class educational excellence. That is what the Government have been trying to do since 1997. They have achieved a lot, but much more still needs to be done. Achieving that access is, quite rightly, the aim and objective of their education policy.

The local provision of school places is the duty of the local authority as the strategic commissioner of school places. It is down to the local authority to ensure that there are sufficient school places in the area, and that that provision is related to need. The Children, Schools and Families Bill, which is currently in Committee, will introduce a new duty on local authorities requiring them to run an annual survey of parents alongside the admissions round. The hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) will be particularly interested in that provision. The survey will seek parents' views on the range and quality of secondary school provision in their area. Where there is "material parental dissatisfaction", the local authority will have to undertake a review, and publish a response plan detailing how they will address parents' concerns. The hon. Gentleman talks about dissatisfaction with the fact that out-of-borough children are coming in and taking school places. That is an issue that must be addressed by the local authority.

Tom Brake: I thank the Minister for giving away again; he is very generous. He must acknowledge that the survey may well identify the fact that parents are dissatisfied because their child cannot get into the school of their choice, but the local authority can do precisely nothing about it because of how the Greenwich judgment operates and how the admissions policy operates for some schools. What will the local authority do when that annual survey says that parents are dissatisfied?

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Mr. Wright: Let me surmise here, because I do not want to prejudge the passing of legislation in this House and the other place or what Sutton constituents might say regarding the survey. Let us examine the scenario in which there was material parental dissatisfaction. The local authority would have to publish a response, saying how it would directly address parents' concerns. If a significant proportion of parents felt that the plan did not address the issues that they had raised-it may be that they could not get their child into a school of their choice-the local authority would be required to refer the plan to the schools adjudicator for a determination. I am confident that the measures that are under scrutiny in the House, and the powers, duties and framework that have been outlined, will help to address the hon. Gentleman's concerns and show him that local authorities, and in his case, the London borough of Sutton, have considerable autonomy to consider fair access for pupils in their area.

Tom Brake: The Minister has now confirmed that if the local authority fails to satisfy parents, the matter will be referred to the schools adjudicator, but it was the schools adjudicator who found that schools should be allowed to take an increasing number of pupils from out of borough. It is unclear how they will be able to respond to parents who are complaining in large numbers that they cannot get their children into a local school because they have already said that it is fine for schools to take many more pupils from out of borough.

Mr. Wright: The difficulty is that the schools adjudicator is an independent arbiter of the situation. They will consider the situation in an open, transparent and independent way and come to a decision. It is not for me as a Minister or the hon. Gentleman as a Member of Parliament to say, "I am sorry, but I do not agree with the schools adjudicator's decision." The system has
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been put in place to have that open, transparent and independent decision about what is fair and accessible in the provision of school places in that particular London borough.

With local authorities in the driving seat, we can ensure that there is suitable, excellent provision of primary and secondary places in the borough, and which takes into account concerns or nuances of a particular area, such as the high proportion of places going to out-of-borough pupils. Working in partnership and collaboration with schools, colleges and other providers, they will ensure that there is excellent provision. If parents are unhappy or dissatisfied with the provisions that are in place, the mechanism that I have identified will allow an independent authority to look at the matter and decide what is appropriate. That is a suitable framework, and it will be further strengthened by the provisions in the Bill that is before the House. I hope-but I do not think that I am right in this-that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the plans.

I welcome the matters that the hon. Gentleman has raised. With regard to Stanley Park, I promise that I will take the issue away and look at it, and write to him shortly. The whole point of my response has been to stress that it is for local authorities and schools to decide their own admissions criteria. The hon. Gentleman quite rightly said that local people know best what is needed in their areas. Local authorities and schools, working with parents, are the experts in their local area. It is up to them to decide whether to accept pupils from other boroughs.

Let me thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing the matter to the House and reassure him that the Government will continue to place fair access at the very heart of our education system, and put in place provisions to ensure that local authorities act in accordance with the framework that has been set down by Parliament.

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Universities (Urban Regeneration)

12.59 pm

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Thank you for calling me to open this debate, Miss Begg. I also thank the Speaker for seeing fit to allow this debate on the topic of universities and their role in the regeneration of towns and cities.

Miss Begg, I am sure that, like me, you know very well how important universities have become to all the cities and towns where they have a presence. If I may recount briefly, when I first became the Member of Parliament for Huddersfield 30 years ago-in fact, my constituency was Huddersfield, East in those days-manufacturing employment was at a very high level. In my part of Yorkshire-west Yorkshire and particularly Huddersfield-such employment was very strong, ranging from the engineering sector, including light engineering, for example in David Brown Gear Systems, David Brown Tractors and so much else, through to textiles. Huddersfield still is a centre for the finest worsteds in the world, but in those days the textile sector employed many, many people. There was also a chemical industry associated with textiles-dyestuffs and much else-and again the companies in that sector were very large employers. At one stage, 6,000 people worked on the Imperial Chemical Industries, or ICI, site on the Leeds road in Huddersfield.

There has been a dreadful decline in manufacturing employment in the years since I was first elected to Parliament. It has been a dreadful decline not because manufacturing jobs are not there-manufacturing has become leaner, meaner, more effective and more efficient. Yes, every time we had a global takeover of a company in west Yorkshire, the rest of Yorkshire and, I suspect, the whole country, we were told that it would lead to no real change in jobs and would not really affect the economic climate of our country, but time and again-I fear it will happen again with today's Cadbury takeover-we in west Yorkshire found that every time there was a major takeover of a company by a global company, it meant fewer jobs, relocation of the manufacturing capacity to other parts of the world, and sometimes only a small design and marketing presence left in the town where the company was originally sited.

We were very dependent on manufacturing jobs in west Yorkshire and in Huddersfield. Over the past 30 years, we have become dependent on what is now the largest employer in my constituency: Huddersfield university. It has 24,000 students and employs a large number of staff-the average figure for jobs at the university in 2008-09 was 1,820. The estimated value of its impact on the local economy is £300 million. The university is also a major supplier of teachers, health workers and other graduates to the Leeds city region. Miss Begg, I am sure that you will be impressed to hear that, six months after graduation, 72 per cent. of our graduates from Huddersfield university are still working in Yorkshire and the Humber area; I am also sure that there is a similar statistic for your part of the world. We retain our graduates, who work in the locality and the region. Those new graduates earn £54 million in total in west Yorkshire in their first year of employment. Huddersfield university is the very heart of my constituency and of Kirklees council, the local authority that covers four and a half constituencies, including my own.

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I wanted to talk about the power of universities to regenerate towns and cities because, as we all know, as a result of the international financial meltdown and the various problems that we have all faced in the world as a result, including recession and new levels of public debt, there will be cuts across a large number of Departments. As Lord Mandelson mentioned in his statement to the House of Lords and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property repeated in the House of Commons, those cuts will include quite profound cuts to university budgets in the coming years.

Let me sum up the essence of my argument. We all realise that we will have to find ways to cut back public expenditure in the coming years-most reasonable people realise that. As Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee, I suspect that, even in that sector, although we have certain guarantees that there will not be cuts, cuts will eventually be made. However, some cuts would be so deleterious to other aspects of our life that I ask the Minister to reassure us today that the cuts made will not harm the power of our universities, which extends beyond regeneration. Miss Begg, I think you know that the Royal Society of Arts, under the stewardship of Matthew Taylor and partly under the influence of Lord Giddens, who was the director of the London School of Economics for a substantial period, has been talking about how we regenerate local democracy. Today's debate is not just about university expenditure, university employment or wealth creation by universities, nor is it just about having large numbers of students, paying members of staff well and creating that atmosphere of competition and success that we know university towns and cities have. It is also about that greater reach that universities have in what the vice-chancellor of Newcastle university, writing in a very impressive recent article, called the re-establishment of the civic university. The civic university reaches out.

Some years ago, the RSA published a report called "Tomorrow's Company". It had a simple message that if a company wanted to be a company of the future-a forward-looking company-it had to look at five of its stakeholders. It had to look not only at the shareholder, the customer, the supplier and the supply chain, but at the community in which it was situated; that community mattered to the future success of that company. "Community" could be interpreted locally, regionally and nationally. So there were broader aspirations for companies, and that is how I want people to see the role of universities.

Some universities play that role exceptionally well. My constituents and I have been lucky that, although Huddersfield university briefly went through a series of problems, Sir William Taylor took hold of its governance and turned it around. Then, John Tarrant did good work for 11 years to make Huddersfield university one of the fastest growing universities in the country. By the time he retired, he had tripled the size of the student body, which, as I have said, is now 24,000 students. He also increased the number of staff. Bob Cryan, our current vice-chancellor, is carrying on that excellent work.

We know that a university should reach out to the community and involve that community, not only so that it is seen to have good public relations but so that it puts its tentacles out, as it were, and reaches out to help
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the future of our towns and cities. In Huddersfield, the university reaches out to new enterprises, including small start-ups, however small they are. Its business department does that, as do other departments, including those dealing with social enterprise. They ensure that that partnership with the community really helps to make small and medium-sized enterprises to grow.

I do not want to be too parochial, but let me return to the impact of the possible funding cuts. I understand that trade associations have a role. My use of the term "trade associations" will upset some universities, but there are a lot of trade associations in the university world. They seem to be breeding very quickly. It used to be mainly the Higher Education Funding Council. Now HEFC writes to five different trade associations within the university sector. However, the recent HEFC grant letter setting out its spending priorities for the next year, increased the proposed cuts set out in the pre-Budget report to £915 million. It is estimated that those cuts, which are only the ones that have been announced so far, will have an increased effect upon the north of England, given that 42 per cent. of the region's research and development spending is channelled through universities. That R and D spending is crucial to the north of England and to Yorkshire in particular. I suggest that those cuts will have a devastating effect not only on students and staff, but on our international competitiveness and our regional and local economies, as well as the national economy.

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Sheerman: I am happy to give way to a former member of my Select Committee.

Tim Farron: I am happy to be given way to by my former Chairman.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in my constituency, the Ambleside campus of the university of Cumbria is threatened with effective closure from this July, despite having exceeded its recruitment targets for the past three years? Ambleside is a community with just 2,000 houses, 600 students and 150 staff, and the university contributes £6 million to the economy every year. Does he agree that, given the devastating effect on the community if that closure proceeds, everything should be done to avoid it?

Mr. Sheerman: I am sure that if I studied the Ambleside situation, about which I know little, I would find similarities, albeit on a micro scale, to what we face at the university of Huddersfield. I take it seriously. The hon. Gentleman will remember that when he was a member of the Select Committee on Education and Skills, we spent a lot of time covering higher education. I see my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) nodding from behind the Minister; she was also a member of that Committee. We covered higher education, so we knew quite a bit about it. You might see a plot here, Miss Begg, and think that it was out of frustration at the fact that my Committee no longer covers higher education that I asked for this debate. That is partly the case.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Universities play a crucial part in regional and urban economic regeneration. Directly, universities provide approximately
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1.2 per cent. of UK employment and generate nearly £60 billion in output. That is a lot of money, and cutbacks will hurt.

Let us talk about fairness. As Chairman of the Select Committee, every year I examine the finances of our education spend. I am proud that this Government have spent so much money at every level of education. I am particularly pleased by how much we have invested in pre-school and early education. I am proud of Building Schools for the Future and how much money we have put into schools. The fact is that when the Labour Government came to power in 1997, they said, rightly, "All the research shows that early intervention is absolutely the highest priority if we are to give children from deprived backgrounds a chance in life that they wouldn't otherwise get." For that reason, they spent a high percentage of resources on it. However, when we look across the piece, going back 10 years, we find that overall spend on the early years sector has increased by 57 per cent. since 1999, compared with only 39 per cent. for HE. Higher education has done well, but it has not had the same priority as other parts of the education system.

It might be said that higher education has done well, so what is the problem? I was one of the Members who campaigned vigorously for what we call variable fees and others call top-up fees. An investigation conducted by the Education and Skills Committee concluded in favour of variable fees, largely because we did not think that, because early years and school years were spending priorities, we would have enough in the kitty to invest sufficiently in higher education. On reflection, looking back at what has happened in the years since we introduced variable fees, I am proud that when the University and College Union came before my Committee just before it changed its focus to children, schools and families, the leader of UCU admitted that almost exactly the amount of money raised from variable fees had gone into university salaries, which have undergone a healthy increase. I looked at university salary levels recently: they have increased, so we can now retain some of the best talent of our country in teaching and research.

University funding has improved, but I think we should invest more, not less, in our higher education system because, increasingly, universities are deeply involved in communities, regeneration and new employment and enterprise initiatives. That is different, and it must be prioritised. If the Minister, in a frank moment, asked me to choose between increasing the budget for Building Schools for the Future or putting more money into universities, I would not be against spreading out the years over which we deliver BSF and giving some of the money to universities, especially if it is for specific purposes.

I have gone on long enough, but I will say two things on the Government's side. Extremely good improvements have been made in universities. What would happen if the university were removed from your nearest city, Miss Begg? If the universities were removed from Manchester-there used to be five, but there are now four, due to amalgamation-it would be devastating. Removing the 34 London universities would be devastating. Almost every town and city with a healthy university or cluster of universities would be devastated by their loss. Yes, there is high employment in local authorities and the health service, but university employment is critical to our success as a nation and our future.

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