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Topical Questions

Volume 470: debated on Thursday 10 January 2008

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.