Previous Section Index Home Page

"Access" is a key word there. It runs through the entire debate and through the themes of fairness that we have been speaking about all evening. As today's motion notes, an enormous contribution is made to our economy and to our civic life by universities. We all want the widest range of access to our economic, civic, educational and heritage assets because that is fair and progressive.

Having said that, I do not expect the Chancellor to speak to the First Secretary, or for him to speak to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, but if some parts of the Government are interested in cultural and historical sites of importance while another part of the Government is cutting funding to educational institutions on the same grounds, surely we are all in a pickle. I do not know why the Government are not helping us in this matter by acting in a joined-up way. I would like them to answer all three of the questions that I have posed.

9.39 pm

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): This has been an important debate, because all our futures are built on how well we educate the next generation. It was begun splendidly by my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) and we have heard the enthusiasm for higher education that permeates this House and crosses parties.

As Disraeli said:

This is also an important debate because our country faces real choices. The choice is between a Government who promised so much yet have delivered so little, and a new Conservative Government determined to deliver real opportunity and to help everyone to do their best. As youth unemployment reaches record highs and the
16 Mar 2010 : Column 831
number of people not in education, employment or work nudges the 1 million mark, we should not let this Government get away for a second with their claim-and they have repeated it tonight with extraordinary temerity-that 50 per cent. of all young people would go to university.

That is exactly what Tony Blair promised the Labour conference 10 years ago. It is also what the Labour party manifesto promised in 2001, with the claim that it would be achieved by the end of a decade. This Government encouraged all to aspire to the academic path and by that yardstick-their yardstick-they have failed. They have failed to meet their target for participation, failed to widen access to higher education, and failed to expand opportunity.

It is clear for all to see. There has been a sharp increase in applications, with a cumulative effect that was identified by the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams). So applications for HE next year are likely to go up, but in response the Government are planning cuts that are likely to lead to a reduction of 6,000 places.

The loss of those places will disappoint thousands of young people. After spinning the virtues of academic achievement for so long, the Government are pulling up the ladder of opportunity.

Christopher Fraser: On that point, does my hon. Friend agree that what the Minister said to me earlier was an insult to the 158,000 students who were refused a place at university last year? In response to my intervention, the Minister said they should return to sixth-form college. Does that not show a complete lack of understanding of the problem, and of understanding and sympathy for the problems that students face?

Mr. Hayes: I think very highly of the Minister, and I admire his long journey from Tottenham to this place. However, I thought that he was disappointing-understandably, the response that he received in this House was one of surprise, nay shock; and disappointing in the message that he broadcast to all the young people coping with disappointment themselves as a result of the Government's failure to live up to their pledge. The Government are pulling up the ladder of opportunity, and that is not a happy position for this Minister, or others, to be in.

The facts behind the Government's failure speak for themselves. Even though the figures have been recalibrated and recalculated, by last year the Government had achieved just 43 per cent. participation in HE. The House will remember all the promises of 50 per cent. participation, but the real rate is only 43 per cent., and participation by young women masks the failure to allow more young men to participate.

Participation among men stands at only 38 per cent.-just 1 per cent. higher than a decade ago. That is all the difference that the Government have made, despite all their rhetoric and spin. Under a consistent measure, the proportion of entrants overall has hardly increased over the decade. And even though the Government have spent more than £2 billion a year on programmes to widen participation-and we heard the Minister wax lyrical about them again earlier-the participation rate by working-class students has hardly improved since 1995. As my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) memorably put it, so much for so little.

16 Mar 2010 : Column 832

As though that were not bad enough, the improvement rate for working-class participation has actually declined. In the previous decade, participation by working-class students grew at a faster rate, according to the Government's own figures- [ Interruption. ] The Minister makes an intervention from a sedentary position with a degree of complacency that I think inappropriate, given the subject that we are debating. However, he will know that the latest statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that the number of undergraduates from lower socioeconomic groups is falling.

In all our key competitors, vocational education and training provide an alternative route to higher-level skills, as my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) said. Here, however, the number of people taking level 3-that is, technician-level-apprenticeships has fallen. At the beginning of the decade, 84,600 people started an advanced-level apprenticeship, but last year that number was 81,400.

Mr. Lammy indicated dissent.

Mr. Hayes: The Minister shakes his head once again, but the figures are here for him to consider, when he wishes to do so. Let us just compare our figures with those for France and Germany. In both those countries, more than 500,000 people start the equivalent of a level 3 apprenticeship every year.

John Ruskin was right:

Too often people, especially young people, do not get the advice and guidance that they need to turn their ambitions into reality. In two thirds of schools in England, careers advice is given by staff without any formal qualifications, and a recent study found that only 31 per cent. of young people feel that they are getting adequate information about going to university. That is why we so desperately need a dedicated, impartial, all-age careers service with a presence in every school and college in this country and a presence on the high street too.

If we are to help more people to access higher education, we have to move away from the Government's narrow view that the only form of study that counts is full-time degree courses taken at 18. According to a recent report written for the Government,

I believe that institutions must be given more flexibility to deliver greater opportunity in practice, and that means that, as a nation, we cannot afford to fall behind other countries in the provision of e-learning and other forms of distance learning. We need to look again at part-time study, flexible learning, credit-based learning and modular learning.

It is extraordinary that institutions are not encouraged by the Government to learn from the Open university, which has led the way in developing innovative ways to study online. Many new universities, first as polytechnics and since, have developed strong links with local industry over many decades. They have pioneered sandwich courses and part-time day release courses in which students can combine work and study. But the Government's expectation that universities should all be alike has often undermined
16 Mar 2010 : Column 833
those links. [Interruption.] The Minister is chuntering again, but he must know that sandwich courses have declined, according to Universities UK and CBI research. He knows, too, that the number of students participating part-time has declined too.

Lord Mandelson talks about a two-year degree course. We already have a two-year degree course: it is called a foundation degree, often developed in collaboration with FE. My hon. Friend the Member for Havant made it clear that alongside HNDs and other traditional vocational educational routes, we value foundation degrees. They make possible flexible study and are a route to a full degree. But the danger is that under the Government's plans, in future many more students will be denied the chance to take up foundation degrees, as universities claw back these places from colleges. That is what the Association of Colleges warns and we are hearing from colleges up and down the country that their provision of HE in further education, with all the advantages it offers in terms of widening participation, is now jeopardised.

Rob Marris: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hayes: I will not, because I want to make progress. I do apologise. There is limited time.

When I meet students up and down the country, I am struck by just how many work part time, even though they study for a full-time degree course. The fact is that many now need to combine study with work, even if they are registered as full-time students. Condensing studies into two years may be a barrier to some potential students. Instead of prescribing to universities how to deliver new forms of provision, we should be giving institutions the freedom that they need to develop programmes that best meet the needs of their students and their communities. We should be encouraging greater collaboration between FE and HE. We should be more imaginative and innovative about what is taught, where it is taught and how it is taught. That is the best way of widening participation, not dictating to universities from the centre in the micro-managed, target-driven way so favoured by this Administration.

I know, of course, that these Ministers are not despicable, and I know they are distressed because they are distrusted and now disdained. I know too that they are disappointed, disabled by their own incapacity to put right what they have done wrong, because they carry the bitter legacy of their Labour predecessors' failure. Ministers, however well meaning, will not concede; they do not prepare because they cannot pretend to be capable of making the change that we need. Instead we have the obfuscation, exaggeration and self-congratulation of the amendment they have tabled tonight. It is all about the past, not the future. Spin, not substance, is given undeserved attention by that misleading amendment to our modest motion. Only a fresh start can bring the change we need: change and hope, change for the better and hope for the future.

As Ezra Pound said:

I know that Ministers are civilised people. They are marked not by malevolence but by mistakes and misadventure. They are drowning, not waving.

16 Mar 2010 : Column 834

Whatever Ministers' motives, they have done for Britain what Philip Larkin said our parents do to us all. Strangely, they have let down the parents as much as their children. All those ambitions frustrated by a cut in the number of university places-more than a quarter of a million will miss out this year. For that reason alone, it is time to change.

It is time to dare to dream again of a change for the better: a better Government who will create 100,000 new apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeship places; a better Government who will provide 50,000 more FE college places a year; and a better Government who will fund 10,000 extra student places and so make people's dreams come true. There is a chance to change and a chance to hope for a better Government-a Conservative Government.

9.50 pm

The Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs (Kevin Brennan): By putting that third poet in, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) took more time than he was allocated, Mr. Speaker, but he is a literate man and we are always delighted when he does that.

I congratulate hon. Members on an excellent debate, despite the knockabout at the end from the hon. Gentleman. We have had some great Back-Bench contributions, including from my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins), who expounded higher education policy on behalf of himself. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) made a fine contribution, and on the Labour side there was an extremely thoughtful and thought-provoking speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt), who described himself as a recovering academic, unless I misheard him. He rightly pointed out that the success rate for students getting into universities has increased in the past 10 years from 64 to 68 per cent. One would not think so from listening to Opposition Members, but that is a fact. He rightly paid tribute to Ioan Morgan from his constituency, who is a native of Tredegar in the county I come from in south Wales. He made an interesting proposal on education trust funds that I think bears further examination.

We heard from the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon). My hon. Friend spoke with great authority, as ever, about science and science teaching and rightly pointed out the investment that this Government have made in further education in the past 10 years. Hon. Members did not mention, but could have, that in 1997 not a single penny was spent by the Conservative party on capital in our further education system.

We also heard from the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Chloe Smith), who mentioned the historic buildings proposal, which I understand comes from the funding council. We were not looking perplexed; that is the case. Interestingly, she pointed out to the House that she is still paying off her student loan, so reminding us of exactly the kind of person who would benefit from the discount that the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) proposes. It would be Members of Parliament and people of that ilk who would get the 10 per cent. discount that he wants to offer. I noted that the hon.
16 Mar 2010 : Column 835
Lady did not declare an interest, but that is, perhaps, understandable: she knows that the hon. Gentleman has no intention of introducing the policy, because he knows that it is completely unworkable.

The Conservative Front-Bench contribution perfectly embodied the values and playbook of the Cameroonian Conservative party-a series of assertions, positionings and manoeuvrings designed to suggest a feint to the left on the political field, while all the time the ball is being shoved up the jumper, hidden and moved carefully to the right wing, where we know it really is. Any good coach would tell you, Mr. Speaker, that when such tactics are used you should look at the big picture. Despite all the hullabaloo, distraction and nods by the Tories in this debate to more being done on FE and HE, they plan to cut public spending quickly and deeply this year if they get anywhere near to power. In the meantime, however, they want to pretend that they would like to do more.

To sustain the illusion, the hon. Member for Havant is peddling a bogus policy based on Mickey Mouse maths. On his student loan refund scheme, he thinks that if he repeats often enough in the House, with sufficient swivel-eyed conviction, that two and two make five, eventually people will start believe that two and two make five. I have to point out, as Labour Members have already pointed out several times, that his refund scheme simply does not add up. He does not have to listen to us-he can listen to people outside, because he might think that I am a little biased. He would be right, because I am, but there are other voices he could listen to. Perhaps he should listen to million+, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East mentioned, and which says some interesting things about the proposal. It points out that the immediate likely impact would be an increase in the uptake of student loans by people who do not need to take out a student loan, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) rightly pointed out.

An early discount repayment scheme would incentivise students who can afford to pay to take out a loan. If tuition fees were £10,000, by taking out a loan with a 10 per cent. discount for early repayment, they could pay back £9,000, rather than £10,000. On that, million+ says:

So much for the progressive policies of the Opposition-their proposal is a giveaway for those who least need it. Where have we heard that before?

At least the Opposition are consistent. Whether it is inheritance tax or student finance, they make sure that their minted mates are looked after first. It is worse than that, because the amount that the proposal would raise in revenue would fall pitifully short of what would be required to fund the 10,000 student places that they bogusly say they are going to fund-more Mickey Mouse maths. The policy of the hon. Member for Havant costs him £30 million before he has funded a single extra place, because £300 million is already repaid by graduates every year without a discount operating. If they receive his 10 per cent. discount-and he cannot prevent them from doing so-it will cost him a cool £30 million in exchange for precisely nothing. More Mickey Mouse maths.

16 Mar 2010 : Column 836

In any case, the hon. Gentleman's assumption that he will get big money from his scheme flies in the face of the evidence from Australia, which tried double the discount rate that he is offering. The take-up was tiny, so nowhere near the amount of money that he thinks will be raised, in his carefully considered wild guesstimate, could be raised. More Mickey Mouse maths. They like giving it out, but they do not like it up 'em. The money that the hon. Gentleman hopes to get back from his scheme, although it is much smaller than he thinks, is money that is already owed to the banks, so in reality, there is no new money in the proposal at all. It is disguised borrowing. What is more, it is expensive, bureaucratic and convoluted borrowing for one cohort of students, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West pointed out.

If the hon. Member for Havant wants to commit to borrowing to fund more student places, he should do it openly and in the most efficient manner for the public purse, but he will not do so, because he wants a buy now, pay later, something-for-nothing policy, the true cost of which he does not have to admit to the country and the House-Mickey Mouse maths. No wonder the president of the NUS in Australia has described this kind of discount scheme as a con, a good deal for the wealthiest and a poor deal for everyone else. She has a very good point.

That is not the end of it, because the Opposition motion calls for more training places-another apparent move to the left, but actually just more Mickey Mouse maths, because the Opposition's policy is to abolish Train to Gain. They say that they have several uses for the money, but as far as I can see, they have spent it several times over. However, I will give them the benefit of the doubt, despite their Mickey Mouse maths. One thing that would be certain if they abolished Train to Gain-one thing on which we can depend as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, and as sure as the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) will quote poetry in his speech-is that there would be fewer training places.

We have had 1.4 million people training through Train to Gain. Just this month I shared a stage with the millionth learner to get a qualification through Train to Gain, and he had his boss, the managing director of William Blythe Ltd of Accrington, with him-

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con) claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).

Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.

Question agreed to.

Question put accordingly (Standing Order No. 31(2), That the original words stand part of the Question.

The House proceeded to a Division.

Mr. Speaker: I ask the Serjeant at Arms to investigate the delay in the No Lobby.

Next Section Index Home Page