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Innovation, Universities and Skills

Volume 467: debated on Thursday 15 November 2007

The Secretary of State was asked—

University Spin-outs

1. How many spin-outs by universities have been floated on the stock market in the last five years. (164249)

According to data collected by the University Companies Association, or Unico, in the last five years 30 university spin-outs have been floated with a flotation valuation of £1.5 billion. The number of spin-out companies formed rose from 232 in 2004-05 to 261 in 2005-06.

Universities’ approach to the issue varies. Some, such as Cambridge, are keen to encourage their staff to set up spin-outs—Nottingham also has a strong record in this respect—but others are keener to secure the proceeds of success themselves. Have the Government a view on which approach is best, and has there been any attempt to issue best-practice guidelines?

We do not yet have an approach that we advise universities to adopt as best practice, although in a speech at the Universities UK conference in September I said that we needed to discuss how universities and wider society could best capture the benefits of the intellectual property that is developed in universities. We will discuss the issue over the year, but if my hon. Friend will forgive me I will not commit myself to producing guidance until we are sure that the current diverse approach is not a better way of allowing universities to find a way forward. We will, however, continue to invest in the higher education innovation fund which has enabled many universities to exploit innovation so successfully.

Company Start-ups

2. What estimate he has made of the number of companies started up by graduates in Wales in 2006. (164250)

The higher education business community interaction survey records 159 graduate start-ups in Wales in 2005-06. That is, however, an underestimate, because it records only start-ups known to higher education institutions, and some graduates will set up companies after leaving higher education.

In north-east Wales, the North East Wales institute of higher education is concentrating on developing links with industry because we want to develop an entrepreneurial spirit in the area. Does my hon. Friend agree that the establishment of a university in north-east Wales for the first time in its history would make a huge contribution to the entrepreneurial spirit in the area, and will he do all he can to assist that step?

As my hon. Friend knows, both higher education policy and support for enterprise are matters for the Welsh Assembly Government, and the status of institutions is a matter for the relevant authorities in Wales. However, he is right to draw attention to the importance of universities working closely with business. I know that the North East Wales institute has a strong track record in working with the aerospace sector and a number of other important sectors in that part of the world. My hon. Friend will have to take the matter up with the Welsh Assembly Government directly, but I wish him and the institute every success.

Yesterday at Aberystwyth university there was a conference on the problems of female entrepreneurship and the growing disparity between the numbers of men and women establishing businesses. Notwithstanding what the Minister said about the devolved nature of these matters, may I urge him to contact those in charge of the female entrepreneurship programme at Aberystwyth university and see what lessons can be learned and applied across the United Kingdom?

The hon. Gentleman is certainly right about the fact that we want to encourage more entrepreneurship in our universities. According to a study published earlier this week by the National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship, our universities need to do more. In fact they have transformed themselves over the past 10 years, but if I were asked whether more needed to be done my answer would obviously be yes. If we are to ensure that we have a successful, competitive United Kingdom economy in the future, we need our universities to work ever more closely with business.

I should be happy to make inquiries about Aberystwyth university’s entrepreneurship programme. Although the NCGE survey suggests more or less gender-equal access, I am sure that there is more we could do.


The Government are committed to increasing the number of young people studying science, technology, engineering and maths at higher education level. The Department works closely with the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and funds STEMNET, the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Network, which promotes awareness of those subjects and engagement among young people.

I am pleased to hear that my hon. Friend is working closely with his colleagues in the sister Department. I often hear criticisms of the careers advice given to young people in schools, which is said to be not all it should be when it comes to steering people into STEM subject areas. Is my hon. Friend aware of the excellent work that some trade associations and learned societies, such as the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Chemistry, do to promote such subjects so that people are encouraged to go to university to study them?

A lot of good work on the STEM agenda has been going on for a number of years and I pay tribute to all those who have been working in the area. Progress has been made and the number of STEM qualifiers has increased by 10 per cent. since 2002-03. The situation is very patchy but a lot of people are working in this area, including the learned societies. My hon. Friend will know that I was at the recent Bill Bryson awards launch from the Royal Society of Chemistry, a terrific programme encouraging young people to take an interest in science. We want more people to be excited about science and taking science at GCSE, A-level and university. That is important for our society as a whole and for our economy.

I share the sentiment expressed so eloquently by the Minister at the end of his answer, but does he accept that getting the data right is key? Does he also accept that it is progress since 1997 that should be measured, rather than picking out what might appear to be a random year for each individual subject? Will he stick to a constant set of data on STEM entrants and base it to 1997 so we can all monitor progress effectively?

We are always happy to publish time-series of data in these areas. I was trying to indicate that there has been an increasing problem but that there are some signs that the situation is getting better. It is particularly pleasing that the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service acceptances are up by 9 per cent. for maths, 9 per cent. for chemistry and 12 per cent. for physics compared with the previous year. But there is a problem, particularly in computer science, and in that we do not have enough qualified physics teachers in our schools.

Let us not forget some of the progress that has been made, or that the level of science graduates aged between 25 and 34 in the UK work force is higher than in the United States, Germany or Japan. In fact, our figures are 50 per cent. higher than the European Union average. There are a range of further things that we as a Government need to do to encourage the STEM agenda, but we should not forget where we are today in terms of the labour market.

I praise the Minister and the Government for all they have done to promote science. Never in my lifetime have I seen a Government promote science as well as this Government have. Given that nuclear power is once again on the political agenda, I am seriously concerned that there are no undergraduate courses in nuclear engineering in this country. I urge the Minister to talk to the universities and to explore the possibility of setting up nuclear engineering courses, as there is no doubt in my mind that we will need far more nuclear engineers in the future.

There is a lot of nuclear engineering research capacity, particularly in the north-west, and we had the recent announcement of the development of a nuclear skills academy. This is an important area, not least because the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency is doing substantial work and will continue to do so over the next 20 to 30 years. The Government will have to make decisions on a new generation of nuclear power capacity. Those decisions have not been taken yet, but I would expect the academic community to want to do its bit to ensure that we have the high level of skills that will be required in the future if the Government make those decisions.

We certainly welcome the Government’s recognition that the number of students studying science at university is a key part of the overall investment package for science. Indeed, the Minister and the Government has been almost evangelical in preaching to higher education institutions and industry about the virtues of investing in scientific research and development. However, since 1997 the Government’s departmental spending on scientific research and development has been falling, both in percentage terms and in real terms, over the last few years. Why is that?

My Department has been in existence for only just over three months so it is a little difficult to refer to such figures. The simple fact of the matter is that the science budget was £1.3 billion when we came to power in 1997 and it is £3.4 billion now, so it has more than doubled—and it will have more than trebled by the end of this comprehensive spending review period. We now have 150,000 more undergraduate students studying science subjects than in 1997-98, so we are making considerable progress. There is a challenge, however. David Sainsbury’s report, which the hon. Gentleman is waving around, talks about the race to the top, and that is exactly where we need to go. That is why the Government are implementing in full the findings and recommendations of the Sainsbury review, and we are launching a debate on how we can move beyond Sainsbury. I want us to have the world’s best innovation ecosystem. We are starting from a strong position, but we can and must do better.

If we are to have enough science graduates to meet the needs of a globalised society and the challenges from China and India, we cannot leave it all to the boys; we will have to ensure that we encourage girls to take up science subjects. I am encouraged that my hon. Friend is having discussions with the Department for Children, Schools and Families. There is some evidence that teaching science in a single-sex environment encourages more girls to come forward. Will my hon. Friend please have more such discussions on that subject?

I am always happy to have discussions with my colleagues in the DCSF on the STEM agenda and how we can encourage both more young men and more young women to take science subjects. We currently fund a UK resource centre that is specifically targeted at encouraging more women to take up science subjects, but I will be happy to have the discussions my hon. Friend recommends.

Work Placements

Since 1997, we have expanded the number of apprenticeships from 75,000 to about 250,000. In 2013, we aim to introduce an entitlement to an apprenticeship place for all 16 to 19-year-olds who meet the entry criteria, and our longer-term commitment is to increase the number of apprenticeships in England to 400,000.

May I draw the Secretary of State’s attention to a survey by the excellent Building magazine which found that last year some 50,000 youngsters applied for 7,000 construction apprenticeships, and that number of placements was about 25 per cent. lower than in the previous year? Providing training places is only one part of what needs to be done; there must also be training placements in industry. Does the Secretary of State accept that that requires clients to insist on proper training on the job? What will his Department and other Departments do to insist on apprenticeship training on the jobs that they are paying for?

I must make it clear that the figure of 250,000 is for work-based apprenticeships, so it does not include the extra number of programme-led apprenticeships. My right hon. Friend raises an important point, however: in some sectors of the economy the need for apprenticeships and our capacity to fund them exceeds the number of employers willing to create them. Over the next few years we will significantly increase the resources available for apprenticeships in sectors such as construction and, possibly, some areas of engineering. We will need to engage with employers both directly ourselves and through the sector skills councils, because we as a Government do not want to be in the position of putting money on the table to fund apprenticeships without the employers being willing to match it. The offer is a substantial one, and we need to get across to employers the advantages of taking it up.

The economy of north Oxfordshire is almost entirely made up of vibrant small and medium-sized businesses. At a recent business breakfast in Bicester, I conducted a straw poll and found that not a single employer had yet heard of diplomas or what would be expected of them in terms of their involvement. The same point applies to apprenticeships. I have a simple question for the Secretary of State: who is meant to be going out and talking to employers, and signing them up and getting them involved in both apprenticeships and diplomas? If that does not happen, there will be a complete disconnect.

That is a very important question. At the moment, responsibility for that matter is led by the sector skills councils, as well as my Department, and we have enormous support from the private sector, particularly through the apprenticeship ambassadors network of senior employers. However, the hon. Gentleman has put his finger on a really important question—whether the apprenticeship programme as a whole needs a clearer focus and leadership. That issue was raised by the House of Lords report on apprenticeships, and we are looking at it and a number of other issues. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced a couple of weeks ago that we want to reform the programme so that a young person who qualifies for an apprenticeship effectively has a credit—the value that we are prepared to pay to them to fund the apprenticeship—so it becomes clear to an employer that the value of taking on an apprenticeship might be £3,000, £5,000 or even £15,000. That will really encourage the small businesses that the hon. Gentleman is talking about.

When Stafford college and I make joint presentations to employers about the “train to gain” initiative and apprenticeships, we find that we can stimulate greater interest among employers in providing places for apprentices. Will my right hon. Friend consider what more he can do personally to approach employers at a national level, and how he can make the best use of Members in approaching employers at a constituency level?

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend who, like a number of other Members, is very active at a local level in pushing training. My ministerial team has already committed itself to meeting representatives of every CBI region. We are about halfway through that programme, and we hope to undertake a similar exercise with the British Chambers of Commerce later this year and next. So at a personal level, we are trying to get out there to talk about “train to gain”, the skills pledge and apprenticeships in particular. However, my hon. Friend is right—an enormous amount of work can be done by Members at local level, and I shall certainly give consideration to writing to them setting out the practical actions that can be taken at local level to promote these important issues.

In answer to my parliamentary questions, the right hon. Gentleman has acknowledged that the number of advanced apprenticeships has fallen, but he has admitted that he does not know how many are provided by employers directly. He talks about the House of Lords report, which said that of the 130,000 businesses that the Prime Minister claims are providing apprenticeships, many are in fact private training providers. Yet in 2002, the Government agreed with their own advisory committee that apprenticeships should be employer-led, with training providers acting as agents providing support for work-based schemes, rather than providing the bulk of training. Five years on, the Government have failed to honour that agreement. Is that not because on apprenticeships, as with so much else, this Government are just bluff, bluster and blunder?

Let us just recall that some years ago—around the time, I think, that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) was a senior economic adviser to the then Government—not a penny of public money went into apprenticeships and there were just a few tens of thousands of them. When we became the Government, there were just 75,000 apprenticeships; now there are 250,000 and, what is more, we are achieving higher completion rates than ever before, so I am happy to defend the Government’s record on apprenticeships. However, I want to ensure that apprentices receive uniformly high-quality training, based with employers, that provides a proper combination of work-based learning and the additional skills that a fully fledged apprenticeship needs to bring with it. If there are any parts of the system in which that is not so, we need to deal with that as we expand the programme.

Vocational Courses

I and my Ministers regularly meet a number of representatives of the small firms sector, such as the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce and the Engineering Employers Federation. As I said a few moments ago, we are embarking on a programme of meetings with representatives of the CBI regions to push “train to gain”, the skills pledge and apprenticeships in particular.

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman recognises the role of small businesses; incidentally, I am very glad that he has been appointed Secretary of State, because he will do an absolutely first-class job. However, can he confirm that figures from his own Department reveal that the number of 16 to 18-year-olds not in education, employment or training—the so-called NEETs—has gone up from 154,000 in 1997 to a staggering 206,000 in 2006? Is that figure not an absolute disgrace and an indictment of his Government?

Everyone recognises the challenge of those young people who are not in education, employment or training; the most recent figures for 16 and 17-year-olds are actually down, which is welcome. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families set out a number of measures on 5 November to strengthen our current work. In particular, we will ensure, through Connexions and other means, that we do not lose track of young people who drop out of the system and that there are no artificial barriers, time delays and so on to bringing young people back into training when we can encourage them back.

The hon. Gentleman will perhaps share my disappointment that his party is opposed to the aim of raising the participation age for these young people so that each of these 16 and 17-year-olds is either in work with training or in education. Given his concern about these issues, I hope that he will speak to his Front-Bench team and persuade them to change their policy.

Given the Secretary of State’s previous answer, I think that he has missed the point. Under the previous Conservative Government, when I was in business we took on young people and trained them on the job. They went away for academic education once a week and obtained a qualification at the end. That is because they wanted to be there, rather than because they were forced to be there. Was not the Conservative Government’s approach better?

No, because what went hand in hand with the Conservative Government’s approach was huge numbers of long-term young unemployed people who were out of work year after year. The new deal has achieved an end to that long-term youth unemployment. There is an issue to address concerning young people who are in and out of work. Too many young people are not engaged in education, work or training, but what we are doing, both in the short term and by raising the participation age, is the best way of ensuring that that group of young people does not slip through the system. Because we will introduce diplomas and strengthen the apprenticeship system, the offer in place for young people will be of higher quality than we have been able to provide in the past. That is the attraction that will keep them in the system.


6. What assessment he has made of the effect of the university bursary system on the number of university students from disadvantaged backgrounds. (164258)

The university bursary system is an integral part of the wider student finance package that ensures access to higher education. The system is working. Applications have increased this year by more than 6 per cent., the proportion of applicants from the lowest four socio-economic groups has increased too, and universities are committed to paying more than £300 million in bursaries to students.

I thank the Minister for that encouraging response. However, in my constituency, potential university applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds still have concerns about the financial cost of going to university. When the Government raised the upper limit for top-up fees last year, they said that they wanted each institution to prove that it was widening access. What more can the Government do to encourage and reassure potential students that they will get the necessary support from bursaries or whatever if they come from disadvantaged backgrounds where their families have no history of going to university?

I think the challenge of ensuring that we get people from all backgrounds to fulfil their potential and to access higher education is one of the most significant that we face. We have done more to bring in our fairest and most progressive system of student financial support, but we are going even further with a series of changes for next year. We are significantly increasing the proportion of students who will get non-repayable grants and, crucially, we are guaranteeing to young people who get the education maintenance allowance at 16 the amount of money that they will get when they go to university at 18. That is a positive and important step forward, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman welcomes it.

I agree with my hon. Friend on that last point, in that a much earlier intervention in the individual’s aspiration to go to university is required. What steps is he taking to work with other Departments to ensure that university remains an option to children earlier on in their schooling, not just because of the financial background but because of an aspiration that university is part of their education and a gateway to a much better life in terms of training and their ability to earn as they go on?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Student finance is important, but I think that aspiration is the most critical challenge that we face. That is why the Aimhigher programme, for example, which runs taster weekends and taster schools to encourage students from non-traditional backgrounds to go to university, is so important. We also need a much better relationship between universities and the school system, with universities taking responsibility for widening access. The recent announcement from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the importance of more partnerships between universities and schools is particularly important.

Further to that question, could the Minister expand on the success of the Aimhigher programme so far in reaching those groups who do not have a tradition in their families of going to university?

I think that the Aimhigher programme is particularly important, and we have recently announced the continuation of the funding of that programme for the next three years. The evidence shows that the scheme is working, but we also need to ensure that it is targeted as effectively as possible. That is why last year we asked the Higher Education Funding Council to ensure that that is happening and we will bring forward proposals to make it happen.

Maintenance Grants

7. How many additional students entering higher education in 2008 he estimates will be eligible for maintenance grants under the new arrangement. (164259)

From September 2008, the income thresholds for the full maintenance grant will be increased from £17,500 to £25,000 a year, with a partial grant available for incomes up to £60,000. We estimate that an additional 100,000 students will ultimately be eligible for a maintenance grant. Around one third of all students will be entitled to a full grant and a further third to a partial grant.

I thank the Minister for that response. I welcome the answer given by the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education in response to the previous question about the fact that pupils receiving educational maintenance allowances will get confirmation at 16 that they will be entitled to a grant. Could the Secretary of State tell me what is being done to reach out to people who leave education but then want to re-enter it slightly later, and to educate them and inform them about their right to grants?

For those who would be eligible for the same financial assistance for their first degree, I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the DVD that I have recently advertised to all Members. It is available to Members from my Department in suitable numbers to communicate with all constituents; or the simpler way is to provide a link to the new website created for our advertising campaign. We are keen to get the message across to as many people as possible.

If my hon. Friend is talking about people who are later on in life and would not come under the same financial provision, perhaps because they are working, she is right. There will be a need to encourage older people back into university, often to study part time, as well as those young and first-time undergraduates whom we are encouraging through the current financial system.

The way in which the package of measures for maintenance grants and tuition fees available to students in England and Wales is arranged means that there is a financial incentive for Welsh students to go only to Welsh universities. Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be profoundly depressing if we had reached a situation where youngsters in the Rhondda, one of the most disadvantaged areas in the country, went only to Welsh universities? Will he engage in conversations with his counterpart in the Welsh Assembly to ensure that youngsters in my constituency have a full range of possibilities when they go to university?

I am responsible for the financial arrangements in England; the devolved Assemblies have to make their own arrangements. Although we discuss these matters with the devolved Administrations at an official and ministerial level where necessary, it is for those Administrations to take their own decisions on them.


8. What steps he is taking to ensure that higher education is able to meet the skills needs of employers and their staff. (164260)

We are already working to address employers’ higher-level skill needs. The Higher Education Funding Council’s three regional higher-level skills pathfinders linked to “train to gain”, the 13 higher educational institutional employer engagement pilots that are developing new approaches to co-funding by employers, and the growing number of foundation degree enrolments all exploit close links with business. Our forthcoming higher-level skills strategy will boost that activity further.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply and for his forthcoming visit next Wednesday to Keele university in Newcastle-under-Lyme, where he will find Labour well and truly alive and kicking. Keele Labour club has record membership and is busy seeking student views on the lifting of the £3,000 tuition fees cap. I am sure the Minister agrees that the best way to meet employers’ and the country’s needs is to encourage as many students as possible from all backgrounds into higher education. Where does the review process on the cap now stand? Will he ensure that the process is not monopolised by vice-chancellors, and encourage students in higher education, further education and schools to send in their views?

I am very much looking forward to my visit to Keele next week. Our position on the cap has not changed one iota. We want to see the first full three years of operation of the new system, and then we will have an independent commission that will report to Parliament. That is the right stance. It would be wrong to rush to premature judgment. It is a pity that the Conservative party does not take that view. We have recently heard from the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) that he wants to see the cap lifted, and we have heard from the hon. Member for—

Two months ago the Department announced that it would withdraw funding for students in higher education studying equivalent level qualifications. Will that not have a disproportionate impact on institutions such as the university of Northampton, which have been successful in attracting students from disadvantaged groups? Does it not go against all the principles that the Government espouse about people being able to retrain for better career opportunities?

I respect the hon. Gentleman’s point of view, but I profoundly disagree with it. Spending public money to give people who already have a degree a second degree, while 70 per cent. of adults in the working age population do not have even their first degree, is not the right priority. One could argue that we should choose to focus more on those with existing qualifications and less on those without them. I would disagree with that proposition, but it is at least a coherent view. However, one cannot legitimately argue that the choice is not there to be made.

The Secretary of State spoke earlier about encouraging adults back into the education system. Does he not appreciate that institutions such as the Open university, which have such a major contribution to make to educating adults, expect that they will lose up to £32 million of funding? Does he value the contribution made by such institutions, and how can he equate what is happening with his other statements about wanting a flexible work force that embraces retraining?

It is simply not the case that the Open university will lose that amount of money. I and the Secretary of State have met people from the Open university to make that clear. We have also made it clear that no institution will lose in cash terms, and the Higher Education Funding Council for England is currently consulting on the issue. We are not cutting funding from higher education. We are saying that £100 million over three years ought to be reprioritised from those people who already have undergraduate qualifications to those who do not have even their first degree. I believe that that is the right priority in public policy terms.

If the Government are serious about improving skills, why have they cut £100 million from institutions devoted to part-time and mature students? The funding change was sneaked out over the summer by the Secretary of State, probably because it contradicts the Leitch report. It appears that the Government do not wish to support graduates who need to retrain.

Following on from what my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) said, can the Minister explain how ripping £8 million out of Birkbeck college’s budget and £30 million from the Open university’s budget increases opportunities and improves skills? Does that not send out the message that the Government have abandoned—

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Front Bench; I think that this is his first appearance there at Question Time. May I politely urge him on future occasions to listen to the previous answer before he commits himself? I made it abundantly clear that we were not cutting £100 million from the higher education budget. We are seeking to reprioritise the budget from people who already have a degree to those who are not even at first base. If the Conservative party’s position is credible, it must go to adults in the workplace and tell them that they are not a priority for public funding.

Low-income Families

9. What recent submissions he has received on the number of students from low-income families in higher education. (164261)

The submissions that I have received tell me that there has been a steady increase in the number of young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds entering higher education. The proportion of young people from the bottom four socio-economic groups entering higher education increased from 17.6 per cent. to 19.9 per cent. between 2002-03 and 2005-06. The new package of financial support that I announced in July will help to remove any financial barriers to going to university, but we also expect universities to become more active in helping to spot and nurture talent in schools at an earlier age, which is why Lord Adonis and I published a prospectus on encouraging university, trust and academy links.

Distribution of educational quality at primary and secondary levels along class lines lies at the heart of a situation in which the 7 per cent. of those who are privately educated bag 40 per cent. of the places at the top 20 universities. That is not only a national scandal, but damages economic competitiveness and impedes social mobility. Despite what the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph might say, will the Secretary of State try even harder to get a broader spread of people into higher education, especially into the Russell group, which has such a chronic and dismal record in that regard?

I assure my hon. Friend that we shall continue to work with universities to ensure that they operate fair admissions procedures, unlike the Opposition, who recently announced that they would abolish the Office for Fair Access. My hon. Friend pointed out that educational disadvantage can happen at an earlier age. We want to get more universities engaging deeply with schools so that young people as young as 12, 13 or 14 are identified and encouraged to apply to all universities. That is why we are so keen to see universities working with schools to establish trusts and academies.

Career Development Loans

Career development loans are a successful programme administered by the Learning and Skills Council to help individuals invest in improving their skills. Loan capital is provided by three high street banks at commercial rates. The Learning and Skills Council meets interest costs on loans while individuals are participating in their chosen course. Since 1997, 160,000 loans have been lent by the banks, with a total value of £689 million.

I welcome the scheme, but I should like to bring to my hon. Friend’s attention a case involving one of my constituents and his son, who took out an £8,000 loan, which was paid to a training provider who then disappeared with the money, leaving my constituent with debt. Will my hon. Friend look into the issue to ensure that there is not a wider problem with the vetting of training providers? And what will happen to my constituent and his son, who still have to pay back the £8,000?

I am genuinely sympathetic to anyone who has been affected as my hon. Friend’s constituents have. In general, career development loans work. Of those who take them out, 85 per cent. have said that they would recommend the scheme to a family member or friend. That would not be happening if there was systematic failure. In the small number of cases where a provider has ceased training, the Learning and Skills Council has taken steps to allow individuals with loans to delay the repayments, extend their loans to complete training elsewhere and protect their credit rating. I understand that my hon. Friend’s constituents were written to to that effect. However, given the concerns that she has expressed, I would be more than happy to meet her and discuss the issue in detail.


We have raised the proportion of young people completing their apprenticeships from 24 per cent. in 2001-02 to 63 per cent. in 2006-07. That has been achieved while the number of apprenticeships has trebled since 1997, standing now at 250,000. We are on track to achieve within the next few years completion rates similar to those of the best of our competitors in Europe.

I hear what the Minister says, but a number of my constituents regularly tell me that they would like shorter and more intensive apprenticeships and similar training courses. Does he not agree that for people on low incomes, or perhaps even no income at all, that could be a useful solution? Can he give me any encouragement on that subject?

There is a balance between the length of a course and its quality. Nevertheless, we will shortly be making some announcements about how we can ensure that there is greater flexibility for people coming forward with qualifications below level 2—the equivalent of five GCSEs. We need to do more to expand the number of apprenticeships, and we are committed to doing that—but there are already three times as many apprenticeships as there were 10 years ago. That represents real and significant progress.

Topical Questions

In a rapidly changing world, Britain can succeed economically and be socially inclusive only if we develop the skills of all our people to the fullest possible extent, carry out world-class research and scholarship and apply knowledge and skills in order to create an innovative and competitive economy. My responsibility is to lead my Department in working to meet those challenges.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his response. Will he comment on his Department’s responsibility for the provision of English for speakers of other languages—ESOL—for people who need English and citizenship in order to acquire indefinite leave to remain? I am hearing some unfortunate stories about dodgy characters setting up organisations that simply charge £200 for a certificate that states that a person has attained a certain level of English. There are other organisations, such as the English Speaking Board Ltd, which are apparently perfectly all right. They charge, but the people who use them do not end up with no English; they are tested, and the courses are very useful. We need to get through to our communities the importance of knowing English. This is not just about getting a certificate; it is about actually using English.

My hon. Friend has made two points. She is absolutely right to identify the importance of ESOL, and I am determined that my Department’s budget for the teaching of English—which has trebled over the past few years—should be used to support the broader Government agenda on integration and community cohesion. I believe that the vast majority of ESOL courses that we fund are of a very high quality—the reports from organisations such as Ofsted support that view—but I invite my hon. Friend to contact me if she has concerns about particular providers, as I would be happy to have my officials investigate them.

The Secretary of State has talked about expanding the numbers in the apprenticeship programme, but how many of the extra apprenticeships are likely to be in London? Is he talking to the Home Office about ensuring that his strategy for expansion works alongside the economic migration strategy? As a London MP, I am aware that many economic migrants are working in precisely the kinds of industries in which he would like to see the apprenticeships being established. Is he having discussions with the Home Office on this issue?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. The distribution of apprenticeship opportunities is uneven across the country, and it does not always match where one might think that the greatest demand is. That is certainly an issue that we want to address. Indeed, I met the Mayor of London only yesterday evening to discuss the work that we can do with him to increase the number of apprenticeships in the city. The hon. Lady is also right to say that expanding the number of apprenticeships, and the opportunities in general for young people and adults to acquire higher skills, offer the best chance for those people to get the available jobs, thereby reducing the pressures that some employers feel to bring in migrants to fill them.

Does the Minister agree that in order to be globally competitive, we need strong regions across the whole UK? Will he join me in praising the Harraton skills centre in Washington in my constituency, which is doing innovative partnership work with all the high schools across Sunderland and giving vital skills to young people to enable them to go out and play their part in the world?

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I congratulate her on the work that she does in her constituency to champion these issues. We need more training providers—whether colleges or independent providers—to work proactively with schools in their area to ensure that we have continuity, that we raise aspirations and that we drive skills up to the highest levels. This will be critical in enabling us to meet the economic challenge that we face, on both a regional and a national basis.

T2. The Minister will be aware of the target to raise 2.5 per cent. of gross domestic product from research and development by 2010. The vice-chancellor of Southampton university recently expressed concern that the target would be difficult to achieve because children are not taking the right GCSEs. Does the Minister accept that a reason for that might be related to another target—the school league tables? They mean that teachers often persuade children to take subjects in which they are more likely to achieve a higher grade, rather than the science subjects that children often regard as difficult. What is the Minister’s solution? (164275)

No, I do not agree. Actually, the target for the United Kingdom is not for 2010 but for 2014. In fact, a target of 2.5 per cent. of research and development at aggregate level does not make a lot of sense; it is a crude input measure. Yes, we want increased R and D, and on Monday the Government published the 2007 R and D scorecard, which shows that our top-performing companies are increasingly investing in R and D; the top 850 are up 9 per cent. this year, which is welcome progress.

The hon. Lady raised the issue of hard or easy school subjects. We talked earlier about the STEM agenda. The Government are doing a lot of work to encourage people to take science, technology, engineering and mathematics and we are seeing some real progress, but that is due to the hard work of many individuals over several years.

I am just trying to master the finer points of the new topical questions procedure, Mr. Speaker. I hope that the Secretary of State is the person to whom my question is addressed, but I am not quite sure.

I hope that the Secretary of State will confirm that the number of young people aged 18 to 24 not in education, employment or training has increased by more than 100,000 since 1997. I am sure he agrees that those are wasted opportunities and blighted lives. He would have been outraged if 10 years ago we had forecast that under a Labour Government that number would deteriorate. What is his explanation of the deterioration?

The hon. Gentleman knows very well that he greatly overstates the situation. The figures that he is using include, for example, young women who are not in work because they are having a child, and university students who are taking a year out before they go to university or before they start work after university. I do not at all diminish proper concern about anybody who is not engaged gainfully in employment, education or training, but the hon. Gentleman does his case no good by overstating it and including a significant number of people who are undertaking perfectly legitimate and proper activities.

But the definition has not changed in the past 10 years—and in some of the groups the Secretary of State identified, such as young mothers, the number has fallen over the past 10 years. The problem seems to be serious, so will he confirm that the number has gone up from 910,000 to 1,050,000? I observe that he did not suggest that compulsion was the answer for the 18 to 24 age group. Will he confirm that he does not believe that compulsion is the answer, and that the right answer is better education, better training and better opportunities?

I certainly do not believe that compulsion is the right answer with that group, but I do believe that compulsory participation up to 18 is the right answer and that the hon. Gentleman is wrong, because it is important that as a society we organise ourselves to give maximum opportunities to ensure that at 18 people are equipped to enter the world of work successfully. Beyond that, there is certainly a major challenge for my Department, with the Department for Work and Pensions, to join up Jobcentre Plus services with the training that we offer to ensure that that group of young people—the ones we should be worried about—not only get into work quickly, as a great majority of them do, but also that they stay in work, gain qualifications and remain in employment. Doing that over the next few years is a major challenge for the Government, and one that I shall be undertaking with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

T7. One of our nation’s greatest institutions was created by the nation’s greatest post-war Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. I speak of the Open university, of which I am a graduate and for which I used to work. Would the Minister care to elaborate on the rather blasé reply given to the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) a few moments ago about the future of the Open university, which will, despite transitional funding, lose £40 million a year, thus imperilling 25 per cent. of its enrolled student numbers—30,000 people. That cannot have been the intention of our Government on their election in 1997, can it? (164282)

I entirely endorse the position of principle set out earlier by my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, but transitional protection will be put in place by HEFCE for the Open university and for other institutions that might otherwise be hard hit by a sudden transition. More importantly, I cannot think of an institution better able to offer new forms of higher education to the millions of people in the adult work force who have never been to university and never had the chance of higher education, but will need to do so in the years to come. We will, with HEFCE, willingly work with the Open university and every other institution to make it clear how the advantages offered by the rising number of people who we want to come into higher education can be taken by such institutions. So I think that the future can be enormously positive.

T3. How would the Secretary of State answer the most difficult supplementary question that his officials anticipated that I might have asked if we had reached Question 13 on the Order Paper, about the division of responsibilities for further education between his Department and the Department for Children, Schools and Families? (164277)

The answer to that challenging supplementary question is that the reorganisation of the Government into a Department focused on skills, research and innovation—my Department—and a Department focused on children and families is radical but entirely logical. It poses some serious issues that we need to deal with—for example, the funding of further education colleges that have both 16-to-19 and adult provision—but none of those problems is impossible to solve. I am working very closely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, and we will consult on the way that we intend to handle these issues in the spring. It was not quite so difficult as the hon. Gentleman thought.

T4. I wonder whether the Secretary of State could now answer the question that he was asked by my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State: can he confirm that the number of 18 to 24-year-olds currently described as NEETs—not in education, employment or training—has gone up by approximately 15 per cent. between 1997 and 2007, judged by essentially the same criteria as were used in 1997? (164279)

The latest figures clearly demonstrate that the numbers are coming down. However, I would be the first to admit that this is an exceedingly challenging area. That is why, for example, we have local authorities, the Connexions service and others looking at the hot-spot areas in the county, to learn, from best practice, what works to target that challenging group. It is also why—I agree with the Secretary of State about this—the raising of the compulsory education and training age has a role to play. When I heard the Leader of the Opposition say yesterday that he could not give an answer on that issue because the Conservative party’s position was in flux—

T8. Stourbridge college in my constituency is delivering 40 per cent. above its original “train to gain” contract target, and it will deliver 100 per cent. next year. It is about to establish Stourbridge Training to respond to employer-led demands. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to visit Stourbridge to see what a can-do college is doing to reinforce the message that we need a relentless focus on and investment in skills and training, not just for those in colleges and schools, but for those already in work? (164283)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the close working relationship she has with her local college and the support that she gives it. Her college is doing exactly the right thing. The system of funding for adult skills is changing and will be led much more by employer demand. Colleges that succeed will be the ones that organise themselves to make the greatest contribution to “train to gain”. I am pleased to hear about what she is doing locally. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Science and Innovation is already planning to visit the college, and I hope that I may have the opportunity to do so in the future.

T5. By Ministers’ own admission, 40 per cent. of apprenticeships are not completed. Does the Secretary of State undertake to perform a skills audit to ensure that apprenticeships will marry up to the skills required by employers? (164280)

Apprenticeship places are created by employers, who do that because they believe that it will help them to meet their skills needs. By introducing the credit that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced a few weeks ago, we hope to make the financial support available to employers much clearer. With that, and the further reforms that we will produce later this year with our draft apprenticeship reform Bill, we can make sure that apprenticeships are of a uniformly high quality. We inherited a situation in which less than 30 per cent. of apprenticeships were completed. We have done far better than the Conservative Government, with far more apprenticeships.

T6. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating and wishing the best of luck to all the British entrants in this week’s world skills competition in Japan, which opened yesterday? I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy) is there at the moment, and my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State is to go shortly. In particular, I wish good luck to my constituent Miss Donna Leach, from the Cutting Edge hair salon in Cinderford, who is representing her country in the skill of hairdressing. (164281)

Absolutely—I give my best wishes to all the team members in the world skills competition, and we all look forward to the world skills competition coming to this country in four years’ time. I am grateful that Members on both sides of the House have supported the local, regional and national competitions that helped to select the team, and I hope that they will continue to offer that support in the future.