Skip to main content

Innovation, Universities and Skills

Volume 470: debated on Thursday 10 January 2008

The Secretary of State was asked—

Second Degrees

1. What Government policy is on the provision of funding for those seeking to gain second degrees; and if he will make a statement. (177246)

We have asked the funding council to redeploy, by 2010-11, £100 million of the £329 million that currently goes to support students studying for equivalent and lower qualifications. This will provide an opportunity for some 20,000 full-time equivalent students to enter higher education for the first time or to progress to a higher level who would otherwise have been turned away.

My right hon. Friend is aware that many of those seeking to obtain second degrees are women intending to return to work after taking time off to look after children, people who have lost employment and are seeking to retrain, or those who have a first degree that is not relevant to the employment that they need to acquire. Does he accept in principle that the Government should provide support to such groups?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Although the Government have made clear their desire to reprioritise some of the funding to those who have never had the chance to go to university, we are also protecting for equivalent or lower qualification funding foundation degrees, which are a major route of vocational retraining, and a list of exempt, strategic and vulnerable subjects that are important to the economy and are, therefore, most likely to provide employment opportunities to a woman who is retraining. Even when the changes have been implemented, there will be many routes available to the women whom my hon. Friend describes who need to re-educate at a higher education level.

The three universities nearest my constituency, Keele, Birmingham and Wolverhampton, have real concerns about the proposals. Unless the Government do a U-turn—there is no shame in that; they have done many before—there will be a detrimental impact on all the students, all the staff and, in particular, the budgets of those universities. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) rightly pointed out the other night that the impact on Wolverhampton university’s budget would be equivalent to £2.5 million worth of cuts. Is that acceptable?

I do not accept the figures that have been presented as a realistic prediction. Even if one set aside the transitional protection, which means that no institution will lose in cash terms over three years, the figures ignore the fundamental point that no money is being lost to higher education. The £100 million that is being reprioritised will be available for students who have not otherwise had the chance to go to university, so the universities that say they will lose money are effectively saying that they do not believe that they can recruit a single additional student from the vast pool of people who have never been in higher education. In reality, all those institutions are already recruiting such students successfully. They simply need to build on the efforts that they have already made. We are clear that we need to provide the transitional protection that enables those institutions to adjust the ways in which they work to make sure that that happens.

Since the Open university is a UK-wide institution, does the Government’s policy have implications for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland? Has the Secretary of State discussed the matter with his counterparts in the devolved Administrations?

The proposals that we make affect the funding of English students. With reference to the interest that exists in the devolved Administrations, the most important answer is the one that I gave in response to the previous question. We are making sure that we have put in place the transitional protection and the support for relevant courses to ensure that important universities such as the Open university are able to recruit additional students, change their way of working, come through strongly and deliver the education that is needed. There is no reason why any student who might be planning to go from Scotland in the future should fear that the open university that they wish to attend will be damaged by our proposals.

May I congratulate the Secretary of State on his powers of persuasion with the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Ms Clark), who was one of the 63 Labour MPs who signed the original motion criticising the Government’s policy but voted against the very motion that she had signed. She is a Member for a Scottish constituency, where the policy that she now supports—

Order. The hon. Gentleman should ask a supplementary question, not question the motives of another hon. Member: put the question to the Minister.

May I follow the Secretary of State’s previous response and invite him to use his excellent powers of persuasion to argue that his policy should apply in Scotland as well?

I, unlike the hon. Gentleman, respect the devolution settlement and believe that it is important. It is not my job to persuade another devolved Administration to adopt particular policies. However, as reference has been made to the debate earlier this week, I point out that it has not escaped the attention of many people—including, I am sure, many members of the Open University Students Association—that the Opposition motion did not oppose the principle behind our proposals. A number of my hon. Friends signed the early-day motion, but Tuesday’s debate was about securing the interests of the institutions that would be affected by the change. The measures that I have set out secure the future of those institutions, and my right hon. and hon. Friends who supported the Government on Tuesday were right to do so.

That was a very complacent answer. I invite the Secretary of State to confirm that Universities UK, the Open university, Birkbeck, the university heads of pharmacy, Million Plus, the National Union of Students, the University and College Union and the CBI criticise his policy. Will he confirm that he has even united The Guardian and the Church of England in opposition to his policy? I applaud him for creating such a broad coalition, but I thought that the new Prime Minister wanted to create broad coalitions in favour of his policies, not against them. Can he identify a single serious body in the world of higher education that supports his policy?

One of the responsibilities of government, which I accept, is that sometimes one takes difficult decisions that are widely criticised. It is true that not everyone accepted our decision to prioritise opportunities for people who never had the chance to go to university. In Tuesday’s debate, not a single voice among Conservative Members was raised on behalf on people who have never had a chance to go to university, which tells hon. Members everything they need to know about the Conservative party.

Of those studying at the Open university, 25 per cent. are doing science, maths or technology courses. The Prime Minister recently said that science, innovation and technology are crucial to any advanced industrial economy. Why is the Minister planning to make it harder for undergraduates to study those very subjects?

The answer is that those STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—subjects are among the list of protected courses in the proposals on which the Higher Education Funding Council for England has consulted. We have yet formally to receive HEFCE’s advice on its consultation and to respond to it, but I entirely share the point that has been made. We need to ensure that individuals have the opportunity to study the disciplines that are important to the economy.

I, too, congratulate the Secretary of State on persuading 63 of his colleagues to vote with him on Tuesday night. Meanwhile, back in the real world, the higher education sector remains unconvinced that this is a sensible policy, particularly in its impact on certain students whom the Government want to attract into higher education. Will he belatedly now undertake a full equalities impact study on the impact on women, older students and poorer students, and, to allow room for that study, delay implementation until 2009 when the wide-ranging review of higher education is scheduled to take place?

It was not my powers of persuasion on Tuesday but the fact that the hon. Gentleman, whom I welcome again to his post today, spent most of his speech reading out the briefing for Labour Members of Parliament that—

That was the turning point. That was what they found persuasive.

The Department intends to conduct a full equalities impact assessment of the entire system of higher education funding when the relevant decisions have been taken. That is the right way to handle that important matter.

Academic Freedom

Academic freedom is a fundamental principle of our higher education system. It is vital that academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and voice controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy. A definition of academic freedom setting out this principle is included in the model articles of government for higher education institutions. We expect all institutions to include such a provision, protecting academic freedom, in their governing documents.

How could such a definition be used to help combat the growth, such as it is, of extremism on university campuses, where surely, of all places, intolerance of any kind, particularly intellectual intolerance, should not be allowed to flourish?

I very much agree with the thrust of my hon. Friend’s question. I recently gave a major lecture on the importance of academic freedom; I argued that within such freedom lies one of the most powerful means at our disposal to refute violent extremist views on campus and promote a cohesive community. I strongly believe that academics must use the tools of their trade to expose the faulty logic and flawed arguments of those in favour of violent, extremist solutions.

The Minister will be aware from Adjournment debates of my interest in this subject, and he will know that there is statutory protection for freedom of speech on university campuses. If a lawful meeting, approved by university authorities and the police, takes place and there is a demonstration against it, does he agree that the police have a duty to ensure that the lawful meeting can go ahead, rather than be disrupted by demonstrators? Demonstrators would have the right to demonstrate, but not to prevent a meeting’s right to freedom of speech.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman; he and I have discussed such issues in the House before. He, I or other people might find a whole range of views objectionable and disagree fundamentally with them, but individuals have the right to express such views at a higher education institution as long as they are within the law. That is why the Government do not support a blanket no-platform policy. The most effective way to counter and challenge views with which we fundamentally disagree is by open, rational argument.

The House is well aware of the danger of extremism on university campuses, and we understand that the Government are shortly to publish guidelines on the monitoring of extremist activity at our universities. What obligations and duties over and above those required of an ordinary UK citizen will be imposed on academics to report the activities of students?

The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not pre-empt guidance that we will shortly publish. Nevertheless, we published guidance last year on helping institutions to secure the safety of their students. Clearly, if illegal activities are taking place, it is incumbent on any responsible citizen to deal with them and report them.

Lifelong Learning

3. What assessment he has made of the effect that withdrawal of funding for equivalent or lower qualifications will have on lifelong learning. (177248)

7. What assessment he has made of the effect that withdrawal of funding for equivalent or lower qualifications will have on lifelong learning. (177254)

We are not cutting funding to higher education; in fact, funding has been and is increasing significantly. Our decision is the right one for lifelong learning. It directs funds to those who most need them and is a fairer way to spend public money. It is the best way of making progress towards the target that 40 per cent. of the working-age population should have a higher-level qualification.

I listened carefully to the Minister’s answer and the Secretary of State’s at the beginning. The Secretary of State referred to the full assessment that will be made as part of the review of higher education funding. Would it not be more sensible to delay the decision on the withdrawal of funding until that assessment had taken place? However persuasive Ministers were to their colleagues, they have not managed to persuade any of the institutions, including the university of Gloucestershire, which has written to me expressing great concern about the issue. If the Ministers’ case was so sound, surely they would be able to use rational argument to persuade their colleagues in higher education?

I do not believe that there is a case for delay. Were we to delay, the alternative critique would be that we were not allowing institutions sufficient time to plan for the new system. Interestingly, as the Secretary of State said earlier, the Conservative party did not oppose our policy in our debates earlier this week. It offered principled opposition for just one year—until the 2009 commission. With respect, that is not really principled opposition, but opportunism.

Notwithstanding the Secretary of State’s characteristic good humour, we still do not know why the 63 Labour MPs who signed early-day motion 317 voted against an identical motion on Tuesday evening. Will the Minister explain? Does he agree that it adds to public cynicism?

I do not believe that that is the case at all. [Laughter.] Forgive me—perhaps it is not a surprise, but I do not agree with that. There was a request for reassurance that institutions will be able to cope with this pace of change, and we have set out very clearly, in detailed terms, the protections that will be available to enable them to do so. That is why people are being, and will be, reassured.

Was it not the case on Tuesday night that neither of the conservative parties defending the status quo opposed the principle of this, nor did they make any constructive alternative proposals on the way forward? In my constituency, 82 per cent. of constituents have never been to university, some have never been anywhere near a university, and some do not even know what a university is. If their children and grandchildren are to have a better chance in life than they did, this transfer of funds is an essential first step.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It was he who pointed out in the debate earlier this week that we heard not one word from the Opposition about the importance of targeting people in our communities who are not yet at first degree level. Six million adults in the workplace have the equivalent of A-level qualifications but have not yet progressed to degree level. I believe that they are our first priority in public expenditure.

Doubtless one of the tools in the tool box that the Secretary of State used magically to convert the 86 Labour Members who signed my early-day motion was to convince them about all the exemptions regarding students currently studying for ELQ qualifications. Will he acknowledge that those exemptions account for just 4.8 per cent. of students currently studying for ELQs at the Open university? If he does not acknowledge that, will he, as he has clearly considered the matter, tell me exactly what percentage of students will be exempt?

The hon. Gentleman has bandied about several statistics this week. Earlier this week, he gave a fanciful figure about the financial impact on the Open university. The merit of his argument is not helped by exaggeration. We strongly believe that, with the protections that are in place, open institutions such as the Open university and Birkbeck are best placed to reap the rewards of the growth that we are proposing.

Speaking as somebody who tutored in the Open university when it was first established, I believe there has always been a healthy mixture of people without academic qualifications and those seeking to adapt and improve their academic qualifications. Setting one group against the other threatens to undermine one of the few lasting achievements of that Labour Government.

If one had asked Jennie Lee in 1966 whether she thought that a founding core element of the mission of the Open university was to provide degrees for people who already have them, I do not think that she would have recognised that description of its central purpose. In the hon. Gentleman’s party, money always grows on trees, but in government one has to make choices and set priorities, and I believe that the interests of those who are not yet at first degree level come first.

When the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Ms Clark) raised the issue of women returning to work, the Secretary of State said there were many avenues for them. The group of women who find it most difficult to get back into work after having children is that of women who have a first degree. Can the Minister go further by guaranteeing that those women will not be penalised by his proposals, and will he acknowledge their important role in the future of our economy?

I am indeed concerned about the interests of women. Of the 20 million adults within the workplace who do not have a first degree, 10 million are women. As the Secretary of State explained, women who already have a first degree will be able to take a vocational foundation degree, which is in many senses the most effective way to retrain, and to apply for one of the strategically important and vulnerable exempted subjects. They will be able to consider those avenues, and that will help them to retrain and reskill.

Science

4. If he will increase financial support for science in the north-west and if he will make a statement. (177249)

The science budget is not allocated on a regional basis. However, it will grow over the next three years from £3.4 billion this year to £4 billion in 2010-11. Universities in the north-west are well placed to share in that growth.

Is the Minister aware of the potential damage that will be caused by the Government’s reduction in support for academic research in science and its impact on Manchester university’s school of physics and astronomy, including Jodrell Bank observatory, one of the world’s leading astronomical centres, which last year celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Lovell telescope? Will he review urgently the £80 million shortfall in research funding to prevent damage to the United Kingdom’s research capacity and effectiveness in physical science, and to its international reputation?

It might help the House if I put a couple of facts on record. The budget of the Science and Technology Facilities Council is going up over the next three years by 13.6 per cent.—an increase of £185 million over the budgetary period. The STFC will spend £1.9 billion during that three-year period, a significant proportion of which will be spent in the north-west. Like other research councils, the STFC has to make some difficult decisions, and it has to decide what its priorities should be. The Government are concerned about the health of all the disciplines, which is one of the reasons we have asked Research Councils UK to undertake a series of reviews of the health of the disciplines, starting with physics. Bill Wakeham will lead that review, and its terms and references have been scoped out.

The noble Lord Sainsbury of Turville created three important science sites in Britain at Harwell, near Oxford, where the diamond synchrotron project is now operating, and one at Daresbury in Cheshire, which serves all the northern universities. Is my hon. Friend aware that 300 to 400 jobs—three quarters of the staff at the Daresbury site—are at risk due to the £80 million shortfall in the STFC budget? I recognise what my hon. Friend says about significant increases in the STFC budget, but it appears to have been badly handled in this financial year.

The Government remain absolutely committed to developing Daresbury and Harwell as sites and innovation campuses. Figures have been quoted in some of the press in the north-west about potential job losses, and I say in response that for a number of years there have been plans to close the second generation light source, or SRS, and some redundancies will be associated with that. Because of the difficult decisions the STFC has had to make, it has announced a voluntary redundancy programme for all its sites, not just Harwell, but Daresbury and in Scotland as well. It will be some time before the pattern of voluntary redundancies becomes clear. I do not think that it is right to say that there is a definite figure for job losses at Daresbury or anywhere else. The Government will, of course, continue to monitor the situation closely.

Dr. Brian Cox of Manchester university’s school of physics and astronomy has said:

“Scientific research is not a luxury, it is a necessity”.

I am concerned that most of the cuts that will occur as a result of the £80 million shortfall will not be to major facilities, but to small grants going to physics and astrophysics departments, not only in the north-west, but throughout the country. What assurances can the Minister give that that bedrock of blue skies research in physics and astrophysics, which brought us things such as the MRI scanner, will be protected?

I agree with Dr. Brian Cox that scientific research is not a luxury, but an absolute necessity, and in the north-west a great deal of world-class scientific research is conducted. During the past few weeks, the university of Liverpool have been developing a model that can predict the risk of any person developing lung cancer in a five-year period. The university of Manchester, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, has discovered a key process that may be involved in the spread of cancer, which could lead to new treatments to stop 80 to 90 per cent. of cancers in their tracks. A great deal of research into other matters, too, is being undertaken at north-west universities. As I said earlier, the budgets of all research councils have grown—for example, the STFC budget has increased by 13.6 per cent. and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s budget has increased significantly. However, it is up to research councils to determine their priorities, based on their best assessment of the science. There will be change because we live in a changing world and difficult decisions have to be taken, but it is best if those best placed to make the judgments are allowed to do so.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) and other hon. Members have demonstrated the effects around the country of the £80 million deficit in the science budget. The problems are also manifesting themselves internationally through our potential withdrawal from the linear collider project among others. The Minister, given his responsibility, must have some interest in our embarrassing withdrawal. Doubtless, he shares some of the embarrassment, but does he accept any responsibility for the problems that are affecting our international reputation?

I have a deep and abiding interest in science and the ability of our science base to contribute to our economic prosperity and social well-being in future. I passionately believe that it is vital to continue to invest in science. That is one of the reasons for the Government’s doubling the science budget in the past 10 years. It will triple by 2010-11.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to look at some of the facts: the STFC’s budget is increasing by 13.6 per cent. and the overall science budget is increasing from £3.4 billion to £4 billion. Yes, difficult decisions must be made. On particle physics, the STFC says that its priority is CERN—I believe that that is right and that it will be recognised as such by the scientific community.

Adult Apprenticeships

We have announced that, for the first time, funding will be targeted specifically at expanding apprenticeships for adults aged over 25. That will mean 30,000 additional such apprenticeships costing £90 million over the next three years.

Unemployment among the over-25s—the very group at which adult apprenticeships are targeted—is double the national average in large areas of the north-east of England. Does my hon. Friend take that into consideration when allocating resources?

The north-east was the first area that I visited to look at apprenticeships. My hon. Friend is right that unemployment remains a problem in the north-east, certainly in his constituency. I want to reassure him that one of the criteria for ensuring that we get extra adult apprenticeships is linking them to the unemployed as a priority group.

Ministers have said that impartial advice on adult apprenticeships is available from learndirect and the next steps agency, which are both operated by the Learning and Skills Council. The difficulty is that the LSC is almost invisible in constituencies such as mine. What qualitative research is the Department undertaking to ascertain the LSC’s success at engaging with employers, especially small and medium-sized employers? All the Department’s laudable schemes will be as nothing if there is no connection between the LSC and local employers.

We must recognise that there has been an increase in apprenticeships, led by the Learning and Skills Council. However, we should also acknowledge that we set up the apprenticeship review precisely to consider issues about the national leadership and profile of apprenticeships and their relevance to medium-sized and smaller employers.

Ministerial questions and answers are often characterised by spin and bombast. I therefore hope that the Under-Secretary will answer a straightforward and short question. A few weeks ago, on 21 November, the Prime Minister said that there were 250,000 apprentices. Just before Christmas, as the Under-Secretary knows, official figures were released detailing whether apprenticeship figures had gone up or down. Do they show that the number of apprentices at level 2 and level 3 is greater or less than the number that the Prime Minister cited in November? I have the figures here, in case the Under-Secretary does not.

And the hon. Gentleman talks about bombast and spin! He knows that when we talk about apprentices, what is important as a statement of fact is the number of apprentices starting and then completing. Apprenticeships last for different periods across the country. They are not like university courses; they do not start in September and end three years later in June. They start at different times. I can confirm that the average number over the past three years is 250,000. I have to say that when we inherited apprenticeships in 1997, there was no inspection and the completion rate was less than 25 per cent. We therefore make no apology for ensuring quality and ensuring that some employers and providers are not in the system, which accounts for the drop most recently.

Learning and Skills Council

I last met Mark Haysom, the chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council, on 12 December. Ministers in my Department regularly meet the LSC chief executive as part of the overall accountability and performance framework.

I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s reply. As he will know, the predecessor of the Learning and Skills Council was the training and enterprise council. In North Yorkshire there were good relations between businesses and the local TEC. I now find that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) mentioned, the Learning and Skills Council tends to be invisible to local businesses. What plans does the Secretary of State have to encourage the LSC to engage positively with local businesses to sell the skills and business training that it offers?

A number of different measures are being taken forward. First, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State announced over the Christmas recess that LSC funding for small and medium-sized enterprises for management training and training to understand their skills needs will increase from £4 million to £30 million. That gives the LSC a vastly increased budget with which to offer a practical and useful service to those businesses that want to understand their skills needs.

Secondly, as our response to the Leitch report made clear, we are keen to encourage the development of local employment and skills boards, as is the LSC, which will bring together training providers and employers locally to create a forum in which to discuss with the LSC how its funding is used in that area. We want that bottom-up influence on the use of LSC funding to grow in the years to come, because I acknowledge that, in the process of driving up standards in education—for example, through the improvement in the completion of apprenticeships, which is one of the LSC’s real achievements—the LSC has at times been felt to be insensitive to local needs. We recognise that, and so does the chief executive of the LSC. I hope that in the years ahead the hon. Lady will see the sort of flexibility that she is looking for.

The answer is that the Government need a mechanism to distribute the record sums of funding to deliver adult education. The amount of funding going to adult skills over the next three years will increase by 17 per cent. That will cover everything from basic numeracy and literacy to level 2 and level 3 qualifications and Train to Gain. The question for the Government is always whether every one of those decisions should be taken directly by Ministers or somebody working directly for them.

Well, my hon. Friend expresses the view that that should always be the case, but I think that there are strong advantages in keeping some distance between the practical day-to-day decisions taken locally and Ministers. Two Opposition Members have today talked about the need to ensure that funding is available locally. Some degree of separation between Ministers and those funding decisions is desirable. That separation should not be total, nor should the arrangements always be exactly the same as they are today; however, I am not sure that we would be better served by simply having such a huge sum of money administered by Departments and Ministers.

Apprenticeships

8. What recent discussions his Department has had on the availability of apprenticeships; and if he will make a statement. (177255)

Alongside announcing investment of more than £1 billion in apprenticeships, we are introducing a new national online matching service. We will publish the outcomes of our review of apprenticeships early this year.

I thank my hon. Friend for that response and I welcome the expansion in the number of apprenticeships. Along with that review will come further development. My constituents in Gillingham and Rainham will undoubtedly benefit from apprenticeships. I am worried, however. As this is a regeneration area where much work has been done on identifying shortfalls in skills opportunities and where we need to attract different business sectors, will the Minister ensure that his work matches the provision of services with the expectations identified through other work in other Departments and through local partnerships?

My hon. Friend is right. His area is a growth area requiring substantial housing development over the forthcoming period and the Olympics are not far away, so we need to ensure that our sector skills councils work in tandem with the apprenticeships scheme to produce growth in sectors such as construction across the piece. In respect of big national schemes such as housing, it is important for local adults and young people to come in, secure apprenticeships and benefit the local area.

In answer to the main question and in the earlier exchange on adult apprenticeships, the Minister made much of the quantity of apprenticeships put in place by the Government. Will he give more emphasis to considerations of quality—not just having an inspection regime, but, more importantly, ensuring that our current apprenticeships are relevant for the global skills that will be required for the decades ahead?

Yes. Key to ensuring quality is inspection, which I have to tell the hon. Gentleman did not exist before. It is also key to ensure completion of apprenticeships, which has increased from below 25 per cent. to 63 per cent.—another achievement. It is also important that employers are confident in our apprenticeships, so I was pleased to hear Sir Terry Leahy, chief executive of Tesco, saying:

“I am a huge fan of apprenticeships because of the benefits they bring to the individual and business”.

Being an apprentice does not mean only learning a trade in a certain discipline; it provides good discipline in many things that affect people’s livelihoods. I would like the Minister to recognise the status of the time-served apprentice, whether female or male. Once that is established, people in this country will be as attracted to apprenticeships as people are in such countries as Germany.

My hon. Friend puts the case brilliantly. It is important to ensure that this group of young people has the same status in our society, frankly, as graduates. That is what we are seeking to achieve in the apprenticeship review, as we understand that, in the end, an apprentice is mentored and assisted in routine, discipline and dedication, which are skills that parents across the country want for their young people. We must ensure that we celebrate the success of these young people, which is exactly what we will seek to achieve in the months ahead.

Open University

10. If he will make a statement on his Department’s proposals for funding for the Open university in 2008-09. (177257)

Funding for individual universities is for the Higher Education Funding Council to determine on the basis of the grant letter that we expect to issue in the near future. We have already announced that for higher education as a whole, there will be a funding increase of 2.5 per cent. in real terms in each of the next three years. The Government’s priorities, including employer engagement, widening participation and more opportunities for mature learners who have so far missed out on higher education, will create excellent opportunities for the Open university over the coming years.

Notwithstanding his answer, the Secretary of State knows that his proposals for equivalent or lower qualifications will deprive the Open university of a stream of funding. I have read the report of the debate on this subject, but could he enlighten me as to where I can find the body of evidence that justifies the changes that he has proposed and that shows new students are being deprived by the current arrangements? When will there be proper consultation on a proposal that appears to have been introduced without any discussion with colleges such as Birkbeck, or with the Open university?

The evidence can be found in the Leitch report, which clearly described the need to increase the number of graduates in the work force by 2020. That means that people who would not otherwise have the chance to go to university can do so. The evidence is based on international comparisons—comparisons with what our major competitors are doing—and tells us where we need to be in terms of the skills of our work force in order to be able to compete internationally. Certainly there is evidence of the potential for that, as was mentioned earlier in respect of the number of people who are already qualified to level 3—those who have reached the normal level for entry to university, but have not had the chance to go there. The challenge—and I do not shy away from it—is to encourage higher education institutions to reach out to that group of students, and I believe that they will succeed in doing that.

Topical Questions

Last week, in pursuit of my departmental responsibilities, I launched a consultation on how the provision of English for speakers of other languages can make the biggest possible contribution to community cohesion and integration by prioritising assistance to those with a long-term commitment to building their lives in this country.

Given that learning in retirement has been shown to have health benefits—prolonging life and as a consequence reducing the burdens on our national health service and social service care budgets—will the Secretary of State or his ministerial team look again at the redefinition of the vocational courses currently provided by institutions such as the Sutton college of liberal arts and lifelong learning in my constituency? The narrowing of the definition has meant that courses that many older people have come to love, rely on and enjoy over a number of years are being priced out of their pockets, and that is having knock-on effects on costs in the health service and elsewhere.

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. I will continue to defend the way in which the Government have concentrated resources on building up the skills and qualifications of people of working age for reasons set out in the Leitch report, but education that is undertaken purely for fulfilment, enlightenment and general personal development—another purpose of education, which is important throughout life—matters to the Government as well. Next week I shall launch a consultation on how informal adult education of that sort can be developed in the years to come. Yesterday I consulted the University of The Third Age, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, the BBC, Help the Aged and the association representing museums and galleries—a wide variety of organisations. I think that this is an important challenge for the Government and for society as a whole, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will participate in the consultation when it is under way.

At the end of November, our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister launched a multi-million pound plan for the regeneration area of the Thames Gateway. An integral part of that plan was the skills, training and opportunities sector. What progress has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made with the commitment to deliver three new campuses throughout the gateway area? Will he accept an invitation to visit—

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue because the plans for new campuses are not only exciting, but some elements of them are unique, particularly the proposal that all students who gain a level 3 qualification be given the chance to progress to higher education. Progress is being made: the university of Essex in Southend had its first intake of undergraduates in September 2007, and further developments are in the pipeline. However, I would very much like to take up my hon. Friend’s invitation to visit the campuses that are in, or that serve, his area to see for myself the progress that is being made.

To follow on from the question of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), does the Secretary of State agree that colleges have an increasing role to play in the provision of vocational education? Many millions of pounds have been spent on the college in Macclesfield; it is part of the new learning zone, and it is very welcome and is doing a wonderful job. What increased support can the Secretary of State give to colleges, which exist to provide the skilled people this country needs for the future?

Part of the support is obviously the Government’s spending, which is increasing as I mentioned earlier: there will be a 17 per cent. increase in spending on adult skills over the next three years. Secondly, there is a major capital programme—more than £2 billion will be invested in the further education and training estate colleges, improving them to world-class standards to develop specialisation over the next three years. The hon. Gentleman did not ask his question in a partisan spirit, but I will point out that there was no capital programme for further education in 1997; we have already spent more than £2 billion on further education colleges, with another £2 billion to come in the years ahead.

T3. Will the Secretary of State outline what plans he has to advertise and promote the Government’s new and exciting package of student support, so that especially young people from families from which nobody has ever been to university respond, and do so before the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service deadline of just next week and therefore have an opportunity to access university education from September? (177273)

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. We have been running a major TV, radio and DVD advertising campaign to get across the benefits of the new system of student financial support. Indeed, last week we launched the First to Go campaign, targeting that one-third of young people from families from which nobody has previously gone to university. We must get across the fact that under the new system two-thirds of students will be eligible for non-repayable grants, which is in stark contrast to the system we inherited from the last Government.

T4. In the light of revelations that almost half the colleges on the Department’s list of approved providers for overseas students are bogus, what action will the Secretary of State take to deal with that, and does he agree that it is a very serious problem that adds to illegal immigration? (177274)

We need to get the balance right. Overseas students are a significant benefit to our universities and to the country; they are worth about £5 billion to the UK economy. However, we have to tackle illegal immigration. That is why we established the education and training register three years ago. Since then—I regard this as a virtue of the system—124 colleges have been removed from that register. We now conduct unannounced visits to institutions that wish to go on to the register, and I believe that the introduction of the new Australian points-based immigration system will give us greater powers to identify bogus colleges and remove them from the list.

T5. Men who live in Slough earn about £450 a week, yet men who work in Slough earn £550 a week on average. That is a reflection of the low skills levels of the residents I represent. They are working with local business to try to tackle that. A striking finding from the research we did with local businesses is that they want soft skills—they want people with a determination to learn. What can the Government do to help to promote soft skills, and enable ordinary people to get the kind of work that is available in Slough, which my constituents cannot access because of their lack of skills? (177275)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. She rightly says that such skills are what employers are identifying—indeed, that was the first thing on the agenda of the new business council that the Prime Minister set up. We have asked the new Commission for Employment and Skills, led by Sir Mike Rake, to examine how we can improve on this issue. More than £1 million of funds within Train to Gain will be available for businesses and small and medium-sized enterprises in particular. Part of those funds will be able to be used by small businesses in particular, where managers and owners recognise a problem and want to deal with it. We are taking this matter seriously, and I suspect that the new commission will make proposals later this year.

T6. May I ask the Minister for Science and Innovation whether he has visited the survey ship James Cook? If he has not, will he make efforts to do so in order to lend his authority to the work that it does, using tools such as the remote submersible Isis, in exploring the under-sea ecology, and which through international co-operation is adding hugely to mankind’s knowledge of those environments? (177276)

I have not been on the James Cook, but I would be delighted to do so in the future. I am aware of some of the wonderful research work that it does. Obtaining a greater understanding of our oceans and of how climatic conditions are changing, as they are at the moment, is important in supporting the overall picture that we have on climate change. Ensuring that we get a better understanding and better predictive models is one of our important priorities.

Ministers have a job to do to explain away the decline in the number of apprenticeships. Perhaps less controversially, may I ask the Minister whether he agrees that it is essential that future employers will want to take on the apprentices who have qualified? Can he give us the assurance that he will pay particular attention to the destinations of qualified apprentices and to their being able to obtain long-term employment, rather than merely being able to complete the course?

It is obviously important that apprenticeships lead to secure employment. Of course, the crucial part of an apprenticeship is that an employer knows that the individual has a solid grounding in the world of work, as well as the particular technical and vocational skills that go with it. The apprenticeship review that I hope we will publish in the fairly near future will set out how we strengthen the leadership of the apprenticeship programme. I hope that it will find ways of demonstrating more clearly that the programme is delivering what we want, which is an increase in the number of people both going on to apprenticeships and successfully completing them. Those are clearly the real-world outcomes that we need to be able to measure and report on.

T8. Can my right hon. Friend tell us about the progress that has been made in respect of diplomas as a means of entry to universities? Specifically, what is the attitude of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service to diplomas? What discussions has he had with the Russell group of universities about their attitude to diplomas? (177278)

My hon. Friend raises an exceedingly important point. If diplomas are to work, as we strongly believe they can and will, we must ensure that they are seen as a legitimate entry means to university. The recent decision by UCAS on the tariff for the diploma is an encouraging example. The participation of the higher education sector in the development of the diplomas is crucial, and we need to ensure that people who take the diplomas can see them as a means of progressing right the way through the education system to university.

T9. I know that my hon. Friend is aware of the concern in the science community, in particular the physics sector, about the allocation of science funding, not least from the volume of questions asked by hon. Members this morning. I am sure that many will welcome the review of science funding announced by the Secretary of State. I am not certain that institutions that have invested heavily in physics, such as Durham university in my constituency, will be comforted by simply referring the matter to the research councils. Is there more that the Government could do to protect physics research in those excellent institutions, so that they remain economically competitive in terms of international research? (177280)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. It is important to make a big statement of principle on this issue. The Haldane principle, established many years ago, says that Ministers should not intervene directly in the funding decisions of research councils. That is to protect the autonomy of research councils in deciding where research should take place. When the Science and Technology Facilities Council made its proposals, despite its above-inflation increase in grant, to reduce certain areas of physics expenditure, it would not have been appropriate to breach the Haldane principle, to step in and to take money away from the Medical Research Council and give it to the STFC. However, because of the concerns, I did my job by asking Professor Bill Wakeham, the vice-chancellor of Southampton university, to produce a report on the health of physics as a discipline, which will consider our overall funding of physics, including those areas that have attracted controversy. As the Secretary of State, I have done what it is right for me to do and—

In the light of an earlier answer, do the cases of Frank Ellis and David Coleman not show the extent to which academic freedom is under threat, and how fragile it is in this country? Does the Secretary of State agree that academics should have the freedom to explore unpopular and unconventional views in universities of all places, and not be put off by the intolerant, illiberal and politically correct bullies?

When we compare academic freedom in this country to that in many other countries, we find it is very robust and at the heart of a successful university system. I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman that academic freedom is a key tool in tackling violent, extremist ideology, and we need to push that forward strongly.