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Volume 467: debated on Thursday 15 November 2007

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.