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Second Degrees

Volume 470: debated on Thursday 10 January 2008

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.