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Lifelong Learning

Volume 470: debated on Thursday 10 January 2008

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.