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Topical Questions

Volume 472: debated on Thursday 21 February 2008

I have today given further information about the development of the new advancement and careers service in London. Getting from a job with few prospects to a good job can be as tough as getting off benefit and into work. People who want to get on need support in improving their skills and often in sorting out child care, tax credit, housing and other issues. The new joined-up approach to providing advice and support is crucial to overcoming those barriers. Two pilot services will open in London later this year. The first will serve Southwark, Lambeth and Wandsworth; the second will be developed in partnership with the Mayor and will have a particular focus on those who already have a job but want to develop further skills, take more responsibility and earn higher wages.

We talk about social inclusion and social mobility, yet the 50 per cent. of the population in the lowest three socio-economic groups obtain fewer than 10 per cent. of Oxbridge places. More than 50 per cent. of those places go to the less than 10 per cent. of the population who are educated in private schools. What urgent action is planned to tackle that scandalous social stasis, whereby many thousands of able, working-class students are being pushed out by the sharp elbows and deep pockets of the well-to-do?

As my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education acknowledged earlier, this is an important issue. Let me say this to the House. There are things that can be done directly by universities in their admissions processes. It is significant that this week Cambridge university has announced that it will drop the requirement to have a separate application form and is falling in line with UCAS. Equally, if children are educated in schools where teachers say to them, “Oxbridge is not for somebody like you,” it is not surprising that Oxbridge does not recruit those students. We also have to work with schools to ensure that young people of high ability from working class backgrounds get every support and encouragement to fulfil their full potential. That must start in the school, which cannot expect everything to be done at the moment of admission to university.

T8. The Secretary of State will be aware that the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh is one of this country’s centres of excellence for astronomical research. What assurances can he give to staff there that the actions of the Science and Technology Facilities Council will not rob the country of that first-class facility? (187400)

I acknowledge the valuable work that is done in astronomy departments right across the United Kingdom. The point that needs to be made is twofold. As with all research councils, the STFC will, over time, make decisions about changing priorities in research. The fundamental point to accept is that, as my hon. Friend the Minister for Science and Innovation said, total funding going into university research for astronomy will next year be 63 per cent. higher than it was in 2005. This is not a Government who are cutting science budgets, and that needs to be accepted. There will always be difficult decisions to be taken about where scientific research should be concentrated, but without those difficult decisions things would never move forward, and that would not be right either.

T2. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Durham university and its partners on bidding to sponsor three academies in Durham? Does he agree that, if successful, that could be a very positive step forward in terms of raising aspirations further in this country and securing more opportunities for our young people? (187394)

I absolutely join my hon. Friend in congratulating Durham university. The structural link that needs to be built between universities and schools, whether in the form of academies, trusts or in other ways, is critical to raising aspirations and improving social equity and access to university in the way that Members of this House want. I hope that all universities will look at the opportunities that exist in their local communities and regions to see how they can build those strong and deep structural links in the way that Durham is trying to do.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that his student support regulations are seriously defective? Ministers say that students in families on between £21,000 and £38,000 should receive a partial maintenance grant based on a sliding scale, but the regulations say that they should all receive the maximum £1,230. Does he agree with the National Union of Students that students should claim whatever financial support they are entitled to?

First, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in giving me notice of his intention to raise this question. I assure him, and the House, that I am advised that the intention of the regulations is clear and that their drafting would not give rise to a claim for higher payments in the way that he suggests. Local authorities and the Student Loans Company use the accompanying guidance when they assess applications for student support. No money has been paid out incorrectly, and no local authority has raised any concerns. None the less, given that he has raised the issue, we are reprinting the regulations with the correction made.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for acknowledging that I gave him advance notice of the question. It sounds as though we are going to get the regulations amended in the light of the points that I made to him. Let us be clear about this. In the past month, he has admitted that prisoners have received hundreds of thousands of pounds in student maintenance because of what he called an unjustifiable provision in his regulations, and this morning he has said that he is going to change the regulations again because of another mistake in the rules of access to maintenance grant. So prisoners have been getting money that they should not and students can claim money that they are not supposed to get. Why is his Department so incapable of getting the right money to the right students under these regulations?

Of course, that is not what has happened. On the question that the hon. Gentleman raised yesterday, clear guidance was made available by my Department on that issue in December. We are not amending the regulations. We are not coming back to the House to seek its permission to change the regulations. They are being reprinted—

Yes; we are reprinting them to make the intentions of the regulations absolutely clear, as I told the House. The hon. Gentleman is fundamentally wrong when he says that the drafting of the regulations gives rise to a higher claim. He is simply wrong about that. However, I am grateful to him for the way in which he raised that point.

With regard to payments of maintenance grants and maintenance loans to prisoners, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that as the Secretary of State who found out about that, I am the Secretary of State who took action to stop it.

T3. My right hon. Friend will be aware of the recent projections that suggest that it will take woman graduates on average 16 years to repay their student debt, while it will take male graduates only 11 years. Will he confirm that that will be taken into account in the development of student financial support policy? (187395)

The issue is that repayment of student loans is income contingent. In other words, it is related to how much people earn. I believe that my hon. Friend is right in principle in what she says. However, the issue that needs to be addressed is not the structure of the repayment of student loans, but the many other reasons why women earn less than men in our society. The Government are addressing that matter through the women and work commission, and in other ways. That is where we should focus our attention.

When the A-level courses beginning in September are reduced from six modules to four, is it the intention of Ministers that students should study the four modules more rigorously, or simply compensate by doing additional A-levels? Will that disadvantage students who are now in the lower sixth form year, who go on a gap year, and find themselves competing for university entry against fellows with more A-levels?

The move from six modules to four has been widely welcomed, along with the greater use of synoptic questions and the extended project. All the indications are that universities greatly welcome those changes as a means of improving what is already a very good qualification.

T4. I salute the Government’s support for pure research in science, including physics. Last summer, I visited the impressive and worthwhile particle accelerator at CERN in Geneva. Can the Minister tell me how much support the Government has given to CERN, and when the facility will reopen following a rebuild? (187396)

The Government have provided a substantial amount of money to CERN—from memory, I think it is something like £700 million during the past four years. I can confirm that according to current plans, CERN will be open for business, with its new large hadron collider, in July this year. It is a tremendously exciting project—the biggest physics project ever—and it will provide great opportunities for the four experiment types planned at CERN.

Will the Secretary of State use his Department’s influence with the Learning and Skills Council to see whether it can provide funding for projects such as “Mentoring for U” at Chelmsford prison? The project does fantastic work in helping dyslexic prisoners to improve their literacy skills, which helps with their rehabilitation and gives them a better start once they leave prison.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. I met the LSC leadership on offender learning this week, and I will be happy to ask the council to look at the scheme he described. He will be aware that in our test-bed regions in the east of England, Bedford and the west midlands, much pioneering work is going on in relation to offender learning. I shall ask the LSC to consider the issue.

T6. Does my right hon. Friend realise that apprenticeships are the lifeblood of the west midlands, which has always been noted for its manufacturing base? What is he doing about the quality of apprenticeships? (187398)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. He knows that, in the past few years, the Government, through the Learning and Skills Council, have rigorously raised standards in apprenticeships and withdrawn support from training providers that were not seen to deliver. We will go further through the apprenticeships review. First, it will be clear that an apprenticeship that does not involve work-based training with an employer is not an apprenticeship. Secondly, in the draft apprenticeship Bill, which we will publish later this year, we will set out the basis for clearly defining the rights and responsibilities of apprentices, employers and the training system to ensure that, nationally, across the sector and across occupations, the apprenticeship is universally regarded as a high quality training qualification.

T9. Will my right hon. Friend impress on his European counterparts the importance of the work to reskill and upskill the employees of Vauxhall Motors in partnership with our further education sector? Will he stress that that is the way in which Europe will win the race to the top and stand a chance of competing in the global economy? (187401)

I would be happy to discuss the details of the issue that my hon. Friend raises with him. In general, he is right that this country, contrary to what is often said, has a strong manufacturing base. We are still the sixth largest manufacturer in the world. However, our future lies in high value added manufacturing, which depends on having the research capability and the skills in the work force to do the best engineering and manufacturing. Skills are at the heart of that, and I would be pleased to discuss with my hon. Friend the work at Vauxhall Motors.

T10. Further education colleges work best when they are allowed maximum flexibility on the sort of courses that they can put together and the partners with whom they can work. What more can we do to reduce the ring-fencing of budgets in the FE sector to promote better educational partnerships with not only other educational institutions but workplaces? (187402)

May I say to my hon. Friend, who takes a keen interest in the activities of his local FE college, that there is a genuine balance to be struck between the central direction that we need to achieve our skills targets and giving sufficient flexibility beyond those targets? The current system of funding is moving in that direction, and I hope that that answers his concerns.