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Topical Questions

Volume 474: debated on Thursday 27 March 2008

Lest we forget, in 1997 there was no dedicated capital budget for further education colleges. Today, I can tell the House that tomorrow I shall announce further details of the record £2.3 billion investment in FE college capital projects over the next three years. I can also say that we will require all new projects to meet the highest building standard for sustainable design—the BRE environmental assessment method, or BREEAM, excellence standard—and have a taskforce in place to advise on how we can get all new buildings to be zero-carbon by 2016.

I will also be setting out—for the first time, I think—how the Government’s strategy will require the inclusion of mandatory training plans for apprenticeships and work-based learning in all contracts to develop newly planned buildings.

Following on from the Government’s nuclear energy White Paper, my right hon. Friend will be aware of the creation of the national nuclear academy, which is welcome, but is he also aware of the Dalton institute at Manchester university, which is doing so much work in this area? Can he assure me that the two institutions will be linked together and that they will be talking to each other? Will he also talk to colleagues north of the border both to look after the four nuclear power stations and the skills that will be required in the years ahead and to alleviate the problem that we have with the minority Administration—

I understand that the chief executive of the National Skills Academy already has strong links with the Dalton institute, and I appreciate my hon. Friend’s interest in the subject. We will encourage those discussions to go further.

With regard to provision north of the border, the nuclear skills academy is developing work with four Scottish colleges, but I have to say that the only public sector money to go into that development has come through the English Learning and Skills Council. As yet, there has been no public support from the Scottish Executive, which suggests that some of those projects would be in peril if the separatists got their way.

Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating all members of the Select Committee on the excellent report that they produced today on the withdrawal of funding for equivalent or lower-level qualifications? Does he accept the Committee’s conclusion that it

“cannot support the decision to cut funding to ELQ students in this way”,

and can he think of any report from either Education Select Committee that has been as critical of Government policy as this one?

Of course we respect the work of the Select Committee, and as a former Select Committee Chairman I appreciate the work that Select Committees do. In this particular case, however, although we will respond to all the detailed recommendations in due course as we properly should, we do not share the Select Committee’s judgment. Had we not made the decision on ELQs, thousands of people who for the first time have a chance to go to university would have been denied that opportunity. I am afraid that that is the hallmark of the hon. Gentleman’s party: with every word that it speaks, it closes the door on thousands of people who want to take advantage of higher education.

I remind the Secretary of State that, according to the report,

“the Government has not shown convincing evidence that the withdrawal of funding”

will achieve their objective of enabling more suitably qualified individuals to enter higher education for the first time. The Select Committee does not accept the claim that he has just made.

Will the Secretary of State clarify one crucial point? In a written answer, the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education said

“no strategic decision has been taken about whether to reallocate further ELQ funding after 2010-11.”—[Official Report, 25 February 2008; Vol. 472, c. 1304W.]

The Kremlinologists do not quite understand what that means. Does it mean that the withdrawal of ELQ funding is permanent, or does it mean that it could be reinstated in 2011?

It is on the question of unmet demand that I disagree most profoundly with the Select Committee’s judgment. If we take it at face value, the Government should abandon all efforts to expand further and higher education. In recent years there has been an enormous expansion in participation by the very students whom we want to benefit—mainly older, part-time students, who have been coming to our universities in ever-increasing numbers. I simply do not agree that, given that 6 million members of the population have the equivalent of the A-level qualifications that would enable them to participate in higher education, there is not an unmet demand.

The position is clear. We have decided to allocate £100 million of the more than £300 million that is currently allocated to ELQs. We do not plan to reverse that decision, but as yet we have made no decision on whether it should go further in the future. My own view is that we have got the balance right between redistributing opportunity for those who have not had a chance to go to university, and maintaining opportunities for those studying strategic and vulnerable subjects to acquire ELQs.

T2. Tomorrow I shall attend a Unison union learning rep event in Newcastle. Union learning reps do a tremendous job in giving second chances to people whom the education system may have failed for some reason. What further support can be given to the union learning reps programme, so that we can continue to transform the lives of the people who participate? (196504)

I am delighted by the proactive way in which my hon. Friend is responding to the promotion of educational opportunities. She is absolutely right. We estimate that in the last year, union learning reps—who are all volunteers—brought 150,000 adults into learning. We hope that the extra £3 million that we are providing for the unionlearn programme from the next financial year will increase the number of reps, and that 250,000 people will be brought into learning for the first time.

The programme works because someone at work, someone whom a person knows and trusts, has said “You could do it.” There is no better way of introducing someone to learning than the work that union learning reps do.

T3. The business start-up rate in my constituency is just above the Scottish national average. What is my right hon. Friend doing to help small and medium-sized companies to innovate, and can he convey any of that to the Scottish Executive? (196506)

There are national UK programmes that are directly relevant to my hon. Friend’s constituency. I would urge innovative businesses to work with the Technology Strategy Board and with higher education to take advantage of the knowledge transfer partnerships, two of which are operating in or near his constituency. My hon. Friend will be aware of R and D tax credits and, in England we are developing innovation vouchers, a way of providing small companies with, essentially, consultancy from higher education. As far as I am aware, the programme is not currently available north of the border, an issue on which he might like to press the Scottish Executive, who should be following our lead on this.

T4. The Secretary of State will be aware that the power industry has reduced its work force significantly since privatisation in 1990 and that there is now a skills crisis in the power engineering profession. With universities offering few suitable courses, will he agree to meet a delegation from British Power International, a company based in my constituency, to see how we can tackle that crisis? (196507)

I would be delighted to have such a meeting, at which we could discuss a number of ways forward, such as the way that companies can work with a higher education institution to develop foundation degrees, or ways that the money that we have made available for co-funded courses—part employer-funded, part higher education or publicly funded—could be made available to workers already in the industry who need to raise their skill levels. There are many things that the Government are doing to try to tackle strategic challenges in the economy and I would be more than happy to discuss those further.

T5. Does the Minister share my concern at the very large numbers of people given indefinite leave to remain and British citizenship in recent years who are unable to speak English? What can we do about this? (196508)

It is critical that those people here for the longer term learn English, and get opportunities to do so, to help them to integrate into our society. That is why we are currently consulting on how we can better target the current significant expenditure on English for speakers of other languages to ensure that it actually contributes to genuine community cohesion.

T6. I am very pleased that in Stockport we have 1,572 young people aged 16 to 18 in apprenticeships involving employers across a wide sector. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that, if we are to achieve our objectives, extra effort has to be made by providers to involve in apprenticeships those young people who are not in education or training? (196509)

I welcome the question and would make one or two points in response. The first is that the Government are prepared, and believe it is right, to raise to 18 the participation age in education. That will create an environment in which some young people who are dropping out, certainly, of education and, often, of work will get a work-based education in the future, which could well be as an apprentice. It is a shame that the Conservative party does not understand the importance—

T7. Will the Secretary of State respond to the report launched here a few hours ago from the UK Youth Parliament, the result of almost 6,000 returned surveys of 15 to 18-year-olds in England? The good news is that 60 per cent. wanted to go into higher education. The less good news is that one in three of that 60 per cent.—i.e. 20 per cent.—felt that they would not be able to afford it. In view of that, does the Secretary of State feel that we are on target to get 50 per cent. of 18-year-olds into higher education by 2010, as we said we would in 1997? (196510)

I met members of the UK Youth Parliament yesterday to discuss that very report. I am never complacent but, for this academic year, acceptances are up by over 6 per cent., applications for next year are up by over 7 per cent. and the proportions applying from lower socio-economic groups are continuing to increase year on year. That is happening for a range of reasons, one of which is the significant expansion of non-repayable student grants that the Government are introducing from this September.

A week today, the new Windmill avenue campus of the Tresham institute in Kettering will be officially opened. Would the Secretary of State like to congratulate all those involved in the project, especially the students and staff, and confirm his commitment to continuing investment in education in Kettering?

The hon. Gentleman will have heard my earlier reply when I said that whereas in 1997 there was a zero capital budget for further education, there is now a £2.3 billion budget over the next three years. A few months ago, I visited another site of that college, in Corby, at an event to mark the signing of the skills pledge. I have seen the excellent work it does. I congratulate everybody involved in extending the work of the college, and I hope it continues to be successful in future.

T9. As a result of a very welcome tranche of Learning and Skills Council funding in my constituency, one of the campuses of the further education college is under threat because the college is being required to site on two premises, rather than three. Will the Minister take an interest in that issue—although it is now subject to consultation—and in the fullness of time take account of the college’s place in the community, and of its culture and history? (196512)

I am aware of the proposals from Wirral metropolitan college, and I will be happy to discuss the issue with my hon. Friend. The consultation is at an early stage. Genuine consultation will be required, and there will be a need to demonstrate that there is a genuine provision of increased further education opportunities. Nevertheless, whatever the proposal coming forward, it is manifestly the case that such colleges have a better opportunity to expand their provision because of the significant increase in investment in capital funding that this Government have delivered.