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Innovation, Universities and Skills

Volume 475: debated on Thursday 15 May 2008

The Secretary of State was asked—

New University Towns

We want to give everyone who has the talent the chance to go to university whether they are about to leave school or already in work. Students should have access to local provision offering flexible courses to suit their needs. Our new university challenge initiative gives the chance for 20 towns or areas to develop new university centres or campuses by 2014. We are delighted by the interest that exciting initiative has generated.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. I understand that the Higher Education Funding Council will lead debate on the initiative. Through the Secretary of State, may I suggest that the council considers the Alsager campus? It was formerly part of Manchester Metropolitan university, and is one of the foremost sports science and physical education colleges and is right next to Alsager school, which is a business and enterprise college. Bearing in mind the difficulties that may arise in the economy it makes sense to me—does it to the right hon. Gentleman?—that an existing facility should be used for one of those splendid new universities.

The hon. Lady is perfectly correct. The Higher Education Funding Council, rather than Ministers, will both set out the details about how the new university challenge will work and, ultimately, take decisions about where developments take place. I am sure that the council will note the hon. Lady’s remarks. Because the area is very close to her, I am sure, too, that she will welcome the £70 million investment by Manchester Metropolitan university in the university development in Crewe.

I agree with the Secretary of State about the importance of more people going into higher education. I admired the commitment of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) in pressing for a proposal that has much to commend it. We want better links between further and higher education, and more higher education across the country.

Will the Secretary of State clear up the widespread confusion about what the Government are actually proposing? His Department recently briefed one paper that he was committed to 20 new universities and the Prime Minister was so carried away on the “Andrew Marr Show” the other day that he promised

“a university…in every town and city”,

but the £150 million that the Secretary of State has set aside for his programme is not enough to pay for even one new university. What is it? Is it a university in every town? Is it 20 universities? How many new universities does he want to see?

First, I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place. He features so regularly in the list of shadow Cabinet members most likely to be sacked that those of us who are his admirers are always delighted to see him on the Front Bench again.

In February, we said that over the next six years—the current comprehensive spending review and the next—we wished to be in a position either to open or to commit to open 20 new centres. As we made perfectly clear in the document, most of them are likely—often but not always—to be developed on the basis of existing college investment, such as further education colleges, in association with an existing university. For example, at the universities of Medway, where three existing universities have come together to develop a campus of 10,000 student places, such a development can bring university education to people who otherwise would not have it. That is the whole point of the policy.

Higher Education (Employers)

I recently launched our high level skills consultation document, which sets out our proposals to increase employer engagement in higher education. We have announced new funding rising to at least £50 million by the end of the decade for courses funded with employers. Already, more than 30 universities are developing co-funding proposals with employers, and I expect the consultation to stimulate further interest.

The Government are rightly widening access to higher education for young people, but what about people like me who left school and did not have the privilege of going to university? Many people already in the work force would benefit from higher education, so does my hon. Friend agree that we should encourage them to widen and broaden their education and skills?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. Seventy-four per cent. of the 2020 work force are already in work at present, and unless universities can work with those people to take them to the highest level of skills and education we will not compete internationally. Substantial numbers of people are prepared to take up those opportunities; 6 million adults in the work force have A-level equivalent qualifications, but are not yet at degree level. I remind those who say that such initiatives will not succeed that although 31 per cent. of our adult work force are currently educated to degree level, in countries such as Japan, the United States and Canada the figure is already 40 per cent. We need to take things forward with real alacrity.

I suspect that many employers reckon that they pay quite enough in their taxes for full-time education for 13, and increasingly for 15 years. Will the Minister therefore ensure that insofar as there are any co-funding arrangements along the lines suggested by the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson), they co-fund vocational and further educational courses that would perhaps be of direct relevance to employers in developing their businesses in the decades to come?

The key point is that we need people to be educated and trained in those kinds of courses not only at further education but higher education levels. The hon. Gentleman can take cheap shots at employer commitment, but if we are to achieve the required skills levels in the adult work force, we can do so only on the basis of a significant contribution from the Government—we are committing to that—together with contributions made not only by individuals but by employers stepping up to the plate. Only by that combination of efforts will we succeed.

My hon. Friend will know that some of the biggest employers in the country are supermarkets such as Tesco, which currently put very little into higher education. Could not steps be taken about that? These are the people who suck the wealth out of our towns and cities and take it out of communities—is it not about time that they were made to put something back through higher education and lifelong learning?

I have no particular brief for Tesco, but it is a big supporter of the apprenticeship programme. Indeed, it has recently been taking a lead on the development of the retail foundation degree, which it and other retailers are adopting as part of their commitment to upskilling people within their work force. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that employers need to work with us across the board to meet that high-level skills challenge.

I note what the Minister has said. It is obviously good to encourage employers to invest in higher education, but how will he ensure that the plans announced in the consultation do not blur the distinction between education and training and lose sight of the purpose of a university?

This is an age-old debate that centres on a rather artificial distinction. When we talk about the distinction between vocational and purely academic studies, we need to remember that some of the most highly reputed degree courses in the country, such as law and medicine, are directly vocational. We need to ensure that people are properly educated and trained to increase not only their intellectual capability but their skills capacity.

Many publicly funded regeneration projects are taking place across the country. In London alone, we have Crossrail, the Thames Gateway, 2012, and the Kidbrooke regeneration in my part of London. Many companies are making a great deal of money out of that investment of public funds, but they need people with vocational skills in engineering, construction and so on. May I urge my hon. Friend to enter into discussions with the companies involved in those projects with a view to supporting not only higher education but further education courses?

I can certainly give that commitment because it is what we are doing already. For example, we are looking to use the procurement process to ensure that there is an increasing commitment to apprenticeships and high-level skills contributions on the part of employers who gain contracts.

I am sure that my colleagues on the Front Bench strongly support the principles that the Minister has laid out. However, the reality is that the skills sets that are desperately needed in industry require STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—subjects. Will the Minister consider new learning and teaching styles, particularly using the games industry? We are world-beaters in that industry, particularly at the university of Abertay in Dundee. Those skills could enable young people at schools, colleges and universities to be taught STEM subjects, to which they currently do not get access because we do not have the teaching force to be able to deliver them.

Significant improvements are taking place in the STEM teaching work force. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important to use the games industry as a means to engage young people and adults in STEM subjects. I take heart from the fact that, although we undoubtedly need to do more, recent applications to study STEM subjects at university are increasing.

Basford Hall

3. What assessment he has made of the effects of the retention of Basford hall, New college, Nottingham on higher and further educational provision in the area; and if he will make a statement. (205662)

The Learning and Skills Council has been working with the college to develop plans to rebuild the Basford hall site. The rebuilding will ensure an enhanced service and the extension of the provision of further and higher education in Nottingham.

My constituency sends the fewest people to further and higher education of any constituency in the United Kingdom. Last year, our local community, with the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, worked hard to retain our only further education college. Will the Under-Secretary now examine how fast the proposal to retain and revamp that site has progressed? Will he agree to meet me to ensure that no machinery of government changes, no problems about land swaps and mergers will stand in the way of one of the most educationally deprived communities in the UK retaining and enhancing its further education college?

My hon. Friend knows, because we have had such discussions in the past, that my constituency is just beneath his in terms of the number of young people who make their way to university. There are plans in his constituency for a merger, especially across the FE sector. Of course, I or my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education will be happy to meet him to ensure adequate and appropriate provision for some of the most vulnerable young people in the country.

I am delighted that the Under-Secretary is aware of the possible merger of New college with two other colleges in the Greater Nottingham conurbation to create a super-college. Will he take steps to ensure that small campuses such as Basford and neighbouring Hucknall, where there is genuine disadvantage, are maintained and receive further investment?

The intention is to revamp and rebuild Basford precisely because it is in such a deprived neighbourhood and such work is necessary. I was pleased when I learned from the Learning and Skills Council that that would happen. Such decisions will come to Ministers in due course, but I hope that he senses sympathy from the Dispatch Box to the issues that Nottingham Members of Parliament continue to raise about the need for adequate provision for their constituents.

Adult Learners

4. How many adult learners were enrolled on courses in England at the latest date for which figures are available. (205663)

In 2006-07, around 3.2 million learners aged 19 plus were on Learning and Skills Council-funded further education, Train to Gain, work-based learning courses and former adult and community learning courses. Since 1997, our investment in the further education skills sector has increased by 52 per cent. in real terms. That means that, since 2001, more than 1.75 million adults have gained a literacy and numeracy qualification and, in the last full year, the number of adults participating in skills for life courses increased by nearly 50,000 to more than 350,000. Those participating in level 2 courses increased by nearly 40,000 to 470,000.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response. He knows that the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education published a survey that revealed that the number of adults participating in education is falling. My local college, Sutton College of Liberal Arts—SCOLA—has experienced a 10 per cent. drop in the past 12 months. Adult learners week, which starts on Saturday, will reveal the wide range of exciting and interesting courses that are available in the UK. Does the Secretary of State accept that Government policies for getting adults to participate in education are not working? Is not it time for a rethink?

No, I do not accept that. For the reasons that I have given, there has been a massive expansion in the number of adults doing the things that transform people’s lives—learning to read, being able to handle basic numeracy, having the qualifications that enable them to get a job and progress in their work. We have been right to concentrate our efforts on that.

However, we also acknowledge that there is clearly an intrinsic value in learning for its own sake. Part of that is funded through our budget and the ring-fenced budget for adult and community learning. Much of it is funded through other Departments, such as free access to museums, galleries and archives. Much of it is developed informally and in the voluntary sector, with major organisations such as the National Trust or Government bodies such as English Nature being big providers of adult education.

In the consultation on informal adult learning, we are looking at the range of activities that, during the past 10 or 15 years, have transformed the ways in which adults learn. We will introduce proposals to strengthen that process in the future, not weaken it, and to engage not just my Department, but the whole of government in promoting that type of learning.

Will my right hon. Friend look at the anomaly whereby the non-European Union spouse of a UK citizen who settles in the UK has to wait one year before being eligible for home tuition fees when enrolling on a college course to learn English? That runs counter to the Government’s commendable encouragement of new immigrants to learn our language.

I think that I take a different view from my hon. Friend on that subject. People should be free to marry whom they wish to marry, but I believe that someone who brings a spouse to this country who does not speak English has a responsibility to their partner and the rest of the community to assist in their learning of English. I do not take my hon. Friend’s view that that is a matter for the state to subsidise. We should say to people, “Bring your spouse here, but you should ensure that they have adequate English to participate fully before they come, and from the day they arrive.”

Cutting through the Secretary of State’s verbiage, he must be aware that the number of publicly funded places in adult education has fallen by a staggering 1.4 million in two years. He says that that is because money is being spent on Train to Gain and skills for life, but he must know that those cuts are disproportionately affecting the very people those programmes are designed to help. Participation in adult education by skilled manual workers has fallen by 7 per cent. in a single year, wiping out the progress of the previous decade. Can the Secretary of State tell us why, if his policies are such a success, the total number of people on Government-funded programmes, including Train to Gain, actually fell last year?

To measure the total number of courses is a very poor indicator of success in this respect. It is quite ridiculous to say that a one or two-year course, leading to a vocational qualification at level 2 or level 3, should be given the same weighting as a four or six-week short course, undertaken with great satisfaction but purely for the joy of learning. We have done exactly the right thing by emphasising spending on those parts of education that equip people with the basics to get on in society and the skills in order to participate in work. To take the total figure of funded, short, informal adult education courses, and to ignore all the other education funded by the Government, and the progress on work-based learning, is wrong.

In Stockport, many older students returning to further education find the financial support provided by the adult learning grant very valuable. Can the Secretary of State tell me what more his Department is doing to advertise that grant so that more older people are aware that they will get financial support if they return to further education?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing the adult learning grant to the attention of the House. It was developed in pilot form in previous years, and extended nationally from September, and it is now making a huge difference to people’s ability to study. We are at the stage in the year where we have just over two terms’ experience of the promotion of the grant, and I can assure my hon. Friend that I and the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), will be looking at the lessons learned to ensure that we achieve the maximum possible take-up of that grant.

Higher Education (Funding)

5. What recent assessment he has made of the effects of the decision to change the funding arrangements for equivalent and lower qualification students on higher education institutions. (205664)

We are not cutting funding to higher education. The amount of ELQ funding being redirected between institutions from this September is just 0.1 per cent. of the total income, and after three years, no institution will have lost out from its 2007-08 baseline. Our ELQ policy puts learners first and it helps deliver an even greater expansion of the number of first degree entrants, which I believe to be the right priority.

The Minister may call that redirection; others might call it cuts. Has he spoken to the people who run Birkbeck college here in London, which, as many colleagues in the House will know, has educated adults from London, and from throughout the UK and overseas for nearly 200 years? I can testify to the success of what Birkbeck has done for many of my constituents, but the college feels that it is suffering hugely from the Government’s policy on ELQ funding. Can he talk to those at Birkbeck and report back, and if the college persuades him or has an argument that is justified, will he review the policy?

I always have an open mind. I have consistently discussed such matters with Birkbeck college, but I utterly refute his claim that we are cutting the higher education budget. Over the past 11 years, we have increased it in real terms by 23 per cent. In respect of ELQs, Birkbeck college’s budget for next September has increased by 5 per cent. That is not a cut in any shape or form.

All Prime Ministers, particularly Labour Prime Ministers, look to their legacy at some point. One of the finest achievements of the third Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, was the creation of the Open university, which is now in its fifth decade. Could my hon. Friend reassure me about the future of that institution, in which I was a student and for which I worked at one time? The changes being made to ELQs seem to be having a damaging effect on the medium-term prospects of what has been a wonderful British institution with an international reputation.

I agree with my hon. Friend’s sentiments about the Open university. Indeed, a couple of weeks ago I spoke at the annual conference of the Open university students association—much to my surprise, I got two rounds of applause. Even with the changes, it is important to make it clear that the Open university’s budget for next year is increasing, by £4 million more than this year. The real challenge is getting institutions with a fine track record, such as the Open university, Birkbeck college and others, to go out into the workplace and tackle the skills needs of the 6 million people who are educated to A-level, but who have not yet gone on to degree level education.

What representations has the Department received on confusion about funding, particularly in the 16-to-18 group, following the split of the Department for Education and Skills?

We are currently in the midst of the consultation on the machinery of government changes. I have spoken at two consultation events in the past week. The representations that I have received at those events have of course been about detail, but it has not been suggested that there is confusion. We are rightly putting the commissioning process into the hands of local authorities for pre-19 provision. We will be establishing a skills funding agency to drive adult skills needs post-19.

Reference has already been made this morning to adult learners week, which starts next week. Universities and colleges throughout the country already make a great contribution to adult learning, through the provision of short courses and evening classes, on everything from vulcanology to foreign languages and local history. Such courses offer a great social mix, bringing together people who have already been in higher education with those who are tasting it for the first time. However, the financial viability of such courses will be completely undermined if the state funding for people who already have higher education is withdrawn as a result of the ELQ changes that have been mentioned. Ahead of adult learners week, will the Minister undertake to promise the higher education sector that the important work of engaging with communities—part of the core mission of universities—will be protected?

It is certainly part of the mission of universities to do that. However, now that the funding allocations are public and, for instance, Birkbeck college’s budget has increased by 5 per cent. and the Open university’s budget has increased by £4 million, it is critical that those people who have criticised the Government’s policy in this area—some are sitting on the Opposition Benches—should justify their claims about decimation of provision. Those claims are simply not borne out by the reality.


6. What recent discussions he has had with the president of the Confederation of British Industry on apprenticeships. (205665)

My right hon. Friend has not met Martin Broughton, the president of the CBI, recently, but, on two occasions last month, he met other leaders and officials of the CBI such as Richard Lambert, the director general.

During those meetings, did the CBI express the view that I firmly hold that whether a business is large or small, there is a big gulf between the Government, and what they are trying to do, and the businesses that are trying to offer apprenticeships? What is his Department doing to bring the two sides together to enable the best possible use to be made of the apprenticeships being offered?

The answer is, no it did not. It welcomed the Government’s review of apprenticeships and our commitment to asking big employers to overtrain. It also welcomed our commitment to direct payments for some employers and to establishing group training associations for smaller small and medium-sized enterprises. It is trying to work with the Government to increase employer engagement so that more apprentices come forward. I am pleased that, in the hon. Lady’s area, where 2,300 young people have started apprenticeships, there will be an increase of 500 next year.

But, in practice, even in an area such as Slough, which is one of the most productive towns in the country, young people starting apprenticeships find it hard to get the employment placements that they require. They do the college-based parts of their courses, but I regularly get desperate letters from mums and young people saying, “Although I’ve written hundreds of letters to employers, I can’t get a placement.” What more can the Government do to ensure that ambitious young people get the chance to train?

My hon. Friend is right to identify those profound issues. I was pleased to be in her constituency with young apprentices a few weeks ago. I hope that she and other hon. Members on both sides of the House will be pleased that, for the first time, the cohort of young people going into apprenticeships will have a matching service. Before then, there was a matching service for young people who wanted to go university, but there was no service to connect vacancies and employers with young people who wanted apprenticeships. That will make a big difference in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

It is important to do as much as we can to help smaller businesses to offer apprenticeships, particularly by helping with the training framework and fostering the required relationship between those businesses and further education providers. That means that we must do all we can to encourage group training associations along a hub and spoke model, with providers and bigger employers acting as a spoke into smaller employers that can provide more apprenticeships. We have had a good response to our consultation, and I hope that that will make a big difference in her constituency in coming months.

I am a member of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, which is investigating the impact of shipbuilding in Scotland. I am delighted to report to the House that record numbers of apprentices have been employed in Fife and Glasgow since the days when the Conservatives were in power. Will the Minister assure me and those apprentices that we will do all we can to ensure that, when they complete their training, jobs will be available to them?

I will continue to do all that I can by working with our colleagues across the border to ensure that we maximise potential for young people. However, Labour Members are disappointed that our colleagues in the Scottish National party continue to ration apprenticeships, and that they seem to be looking to downgrade them in Scotland.

It is common to think of apprentices as young school leavers, but, last Friday, when Stafford college and I jointly hosted a Train to Gain seminar for local businesses, manufacturing employers expressed a desire to engage people of different ages as apprentices. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the help that is available to young apprentices is also available to older workers who want to be apprentices?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw the House’s attention to the fact that we are also talking about adult apprentices over the age of 25, and we are committed to seeing their numbers grow. This will particularly help women returners, who often want to come into non-traditional areas and to be productive in the wider economy. I am really pleased to hear that my hon. Friend held that seminar for employers in his constituency, and I hope that other hon. Members will take up that initiative. Train to Gain is a programme with more than £1 billion in funding up to 2010-11. That money is there for employers to subsidise training, and, alongside that, the growth of adult apprenticeships is key.

Further and Higher Education

7. What recent steps the Government have taken to increase the numbers of students participating in further and higher education. (205666)

Increasing participation and the nation’s skills is key to unlocking individual talent and to long-term economic and social well-being. We are increasing learning opportunities and strengthening demand from young people and adults, through measures including better information, advice and guidance; skills accounts; an improved level of higher education student support; new courses co-funded with employers; the new university challenge; and increased capital investment in the further and higher education sectors.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but will he tell me what he is doing to improve the provision of information for young people who want to become students?

This is a critically important area. We have made huge progress educationally in the past 11 years, but I acknowledge that one of the areas in which we have the most to do is advice and guidance. An initiative that we announced recently, the Aimhigher Associates programme, is critically important in this regard. It will involve 5,500 undergraduates going into schools, working alongside young people and helping them with their UCAS applications. We still hear too often of instances of young people in schools not getting the appropriate advice and guidance. We need to look at providing incentives to schools to make this more of a priority, and I am discussing that matter with my colleagues in the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

The Minister will know that Jodrell Bank is in my constituency and partly in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton). Its important and innovative e-Merlin project is under threat because its funding is likely to be removed. Is this the way to encourage young people who are interested in science and technology to go forward into higher education? Will the Minister or the Secretary of State meet me to discuss this concern?

From a sedentary position, my right hon. Friend has just assured me that he will meet the hon. Gentleman. The Government are committed to astronomy, but this matter is rightly being taken forward by the Science and Technology Facilities Council, and a consultation is taking place. I have to say that, if the Government had stepped in and established this project from the beginning, we would have been criticised for intervening in matters that were properly matters for the funding council.

Can the Minister explain the finding in the latest report from the Learning and Skills Council on further education that safeguarded provision, far from being safeguarded, has collapsed by 42 per cent., affecting 185,000 adults over the past three years?

I do not recognise the figure that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. We are certainly committed to maintaining the level of funding to informal adult education, for example. We have also maintained as a priority learning for learners with learning difficulties and disabilities. We need to ensure that this central direction is implemented on the ground, and I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the matter.

Last week, I met the principal of the excellent Leicester college and was again reminded of the work that the Government have done to make available allowances and grants to enable students to participate in further and higher education. However, I was disturbed to hear that, in some sections, there was still a low level of awareness of the availability of such grants. Will the Minister assure me that steps will be taken to ensure that all students who could benefit from such allowances and grants are made aware of their availability and enabled to take them up?

In both further and higher education, we are committing a significant amount of resource and effort to getting that message across. There is radio, TV and online advertising, and we have gone out of our way to do this not only from a Government perspective but through working with the Association of Colleges, with universities and with the National Union of Students to get the message across. If there is one person who is unaware of the provision, that is a challenge for us, but we will keep on trying to get the facts across.

Despite the Government’s huge spending to encourage the participation rates of people from lower socio-economic backgrounds in higher education, those rates remain little changed since 1999. Government policy and numerous initiatives have failed, so what does the Minister think went wrong and what does he plan to do differently in the two years he has left?

The hon. Gentleman really does need to check the figures on this matter. If we look at university applications—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman will find this if he looks carefully. University applications for last year were up by more than 6 per cent. and they are up again by more than 6 per cent. this year. Among students from lower socio-economic groups, the proportions are increasing, albeit not at the rate that I would wish. That is why we are committing significant resources as a Government to make further improvement.

To continue on the theme of widening participation, the Minister will know that only three out of the 20 Russell group of universities are actually meeting their benchmark figure for recruiting students from low-participation neighbourhoods. What more can he do to push the Russell group to widen participation rates further?

I know that my hon. Friend takes a real interest in these issues. If he looks at the Russell group figures on state school entrants and young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds and lower-participation neighbourhoods, he will find that the proportions have gone up since 1997-98, but every vice-chancellor I speak to acknowledges that we need to do more. That is why we strongly pushed for greater structural links between schools, colleges and universities and also why we need better advice and guidance in schools to encourage young people to gain access to the most appropriate institution that best suits their talents. Sometimes that advice is not forthcoming; we need to ensure that it is.

Can I give my hon. Friend some advice about what went wrong? I will tell him what went wrong when they shut the pits. Higher education used to be sponsored in every area of the National Union of Mineworkers, in collaboration with the National Coal Board, enabling miners at every single pit to engage in higher education if they wanted to. Some went on to university, Ruskin college and all the rest. But the Government of that lot opposite smashed all that at a stroke when they closed all the pits in those dark, dismal years of the ‘80s and ‘90s. The electorate out there should never forget it.

May I say that I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend? It may be 11 years since we came to office, but people can and should have long memories about what the last Conservative Government did. My hon. Friend also highlights the commitment within the mining industry to pushing people up to the highest skill levels, which provides an example for every business.


8. What progress his Department has made towards achieving its public service agreement targets on innovation. (205667)

We have just entered the period covered by the new public service agreement. Past trends indicate that good progress is being made. For instance, the latest UK innovation survey reports that 64 per cent. of UK businesses were active in innovation over the period between 2004 and 2006 and that there was a 19 percentage point like for like improvement over the six years before that. University interaction with business and other users has been increasing across a range of indicators, with support from Government programmes such as the Higher Education Innovation Fund. Our White Paper, “Innovation Nation”, sets out further policy commitments to help innovation flourish right across our economy and public services.

There must have been some reason why the Department started out being called the “Department for Innovation” apart from the fact that a Department called “DUS”—Department for Universities and Skills—would have sounded a bit dismal. I suppose “DIUS” has pretensions to sounding like a Greek god-like Department. I remain intrigued to know what Ministers are doing in practical terms to encourage inventiveness, ingenuity and innovation in constituencies like mine? What difference do the people of Banbury and Bicester see as a result of this Department being called one for “Innovation”?

We are indeed the Department for Innovation, and Dius is a minor Roman god for oaths—or, as someone once said, for swearing! As a Government Department, we are doing a great deal to encourage innovation across our economy. If the hon. Gentleman looked at “Innovation Nation”, our White Paper launched in March, he would see that, in addition to our new policy commitments, a range of activities are already under way. There is funding for the Technology Strategy Board, which will spend £1 billion over the next three years in collaboration with industry to stimulate innovation. We are doubling the number of knowledge transfer partnerships, enabling university researchers to work with companies on practical projects. There are new commitments in “Innovation Nation” to annual innovation procurement plans that every Department will produce, so that we can harness some of the £150 billion that we spend every year on encouraging innovation and developing more growth-oriented small businesses.

The Sainsbury review is a stinging indictment of Government failure when it comes to innovation. It contains about 100 criticisms. I am sure that the Minister has read it. As for the Government’s response—the White Paper “Innovation Nation”—it appears to me to be an admission of guilt.

After talking for 10 years about public procurement innovation, the Minister said last week that we haven’t cracked it yet. On page 3 of the Sainsbury review, Lord Sainsbury says:

“Demand-side factors, such as procurement and regulation, which can play a role in encouraging innovation, have received too little Government focus”.

Does the Minister agree with his well-respected predecessor?

When I met David Sainsbury yesterday, he was very satisfied indeed with the progress that we are making in implementing the review’s recommendations. One of the things that we have done as a Government is establish a science and innovation framework from 2004 to 2014. We have made a policy commitment to funding the science budget at least in relation to the level of growth of the economy, which is why it will grow by 2.7 per cent. in real terms over the next three years.

The hon. Gentleman’s policy, as I understand it from the shadow Chancellor, is to share the benefits of growth. When the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), rises to ask his question, perhaps he will tell us either that he agrees with the shadow Chancellor, or by how much he wants to cut the science budget.

Topical Questions

Despite all the progress that we have made in the past decade, too many adults struggle with low or out-of-date skills. A third of employers do not train their staff, and 8 million workers go without training each year. We must tackle those skills challenges to secure a prosperous and fair Britain. Yesterday we signalled our intention to consult on a statutory new right to request time to train, which will allow millions of employees to start a conversation with their employers about how they can become more productive members of staff and enjoy better career prospects. We also believe that that will encourage employers to take up the increasing Government support for training programmes that is available to them.

The Secretary of State will know that for decades Cumbrian Labour Members have sought to establish a higher education institution in the county. Thanks to the Government, we now have the university of Cumbria, Britain’s newest university, which is being funded with more than £100 million. How can the Secretary of State help me to ensure that it meets the needs of local employers?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing the attention of the House to yet another example of the Government’s commitment to investment in higher education. We have all been delighted with the establishment of the university of Cumbria. I suggest that my hon. Friend sit down with university staff to examine the document on higher-level skills that was produced a few weeks ago by my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education. It sets out all the different ways in which universities can work with local employers to develop foundation degrees, short courses and many other ways of working—full-time and part-time—which can ensure both that the university meets the needs of employers and, equally important, that my hon. Friend’s constituents who want to go to university have the chance to do so close to home, and to study a course that will make a real difference to their lives.

T2. Given that the national student survey is endorsed by the Government and funded by the taxpayer, what action will the Minister be taking to investigate the recent claims that records have been falsified? (205651)

I take those allegations very seriously. The evidence—such as it is—is that this is an isolated example of students apparently being encouraged to rate their institution more highly than they might have done unprompted, and I utterly condemn it. I know that the Higher Education Funding Council will take this matter very seriously. It is very important, not least to universities and students, that people can have full confidence in the national student survey, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that Ministers will want to make sure that action is taken should there be any breaches of the protocol.

T3. In presenting the Government’s draft Queen’s Speech yesterday, the Prime Minister spoke about the importance of those who live in this country being able to speak English. I understood the point that the Secretary of State made earlier about it not being appropriate to provide English language tuition to everybody who happens to live in the UK, but there is real concern about the level of fees for ESOL—English for speakers of other languages—courses and the potential of that to discourage and disadvantage those who are established in the UK. Will the Secretary of State keep the effect of these fees under review, and will he make sure that they do not have an adverse impact on such individuals and on community cohesion? (205652)

Of course we will keep the level of those fees under review and look at what happens. It is important to say, however, that the ESOL budget has trebled since 2001, and we expect it to rise in real terms over the course of the comprehensive spending review. This whole exercise is about making sure that ESOL reaches those who need it most. A further consultation is currently under way on the suggested principle that, where areas have to set priorities, they should prioritise long-term residents with a commitment to this country who make the biggest impact on community cohesion, rather than transitory migrant workers who may not be here in a year or two.

I am sure that the Secretary of State will be aware of the recent Foreign Office decision to cut massively the support that it offers students from other countries through Chevening and Commonwealth scholarships. Was the Secretary of State consulted in advance on that Foreign Office proposal, does he accept that it has caused widespread concern among our universities, and will he urge the Foreign Office to reopen this decision, which is harming the international links of our universities?

We are discussing this matter with the Foreign Office. It is part of the Foreign Office’s process of focusing on its key strategic priorities, such as climate change, security and counter-terrorism. Notwithstanding that, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is maintaining a global programme with a particular focus on countries such as China and India that are of real long-term importance to the UK, and the FCO expects more than 900 Chevening scholarships by 2008-09, so this is still a substantial programme. Nevertheless, I am talking to the Foreign Office about this matter.

T4. The chemical industry in Teesside is booming, thanks to the policies pursued by this Government, and there are many major investments and new projects in the pipeline. When I met industry representatives recently, they expressed concern about a shortage of engineers, certainly in the northern region. They estimated that we needed 13,000 engineers by 2015. What are the Government doing to tackle this shortage and to meet this demand in the future? (205653)

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. The Government are doing a number of things already. We have reformed the training system through Train to Gain, so it should be easier for employers to influence the provision in local colleges to meet the needs of these industries. We have developed a national skills academy with the process industries, to make sure that we have the right infrastructure of training. Also, as we have discussed, it is now much easier for companies to work with universities to develop appropriate courses and degrees. Having said all that, we recognise that there are industries that are vital to the future of this country and that can project a clear need for skills in the future, and we must look at those key sectors and make sure that the training system is organised to meet their needs. I will be coming to Teesside in, from memory, early June, and perhaps I will have an opportunity to discuss some of these issues locally with the industry and my hon. Friend.

The Secretary of State welcomed the establishment of the university of Cumbria, which means that the administrative county of Somerset is the last in the country not to have a university. Somerset has some university courses, which are administered by Yeovil college and others, but no university. In the light of what he said to the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed), does he believe that there is a strong case for a university in Somerset?

There may well be, but I would encourage the hon. Gentleman to take a leading role in responding to the new university challenge because the new university centres will go to the places that can put the best case locally to show that they have the capacity to deliver higher education, that it will contribute to the local economy and that it will open up opportunities for participation in higher education that would not otherwise exist. Ultimately, it will not be for me to say that Somerset should have a university, but I encourage people such as him, who think that the potential is there, to get working with partners at local level and be ready to put the case forward when the Higher Education Funding Council opens the process later this year.

T5. Do Ministers accept the urgency of the need for us all to live our lives more sustainably? What are they doing to ensure that higher education and further education institutions help to raise levels of awareness and application of sustainable development? (205654)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I shall point out three things. The further education capital programme of £2.3 billion, which I announced a few weeks ago, will be for new projects. They will all have to meet the new higher green standards that will be published in July, which will give us as high a standard of sustainability as any part of the public sector building programme. HEFC, too, is agreeing to ensure that its capital programme contributes to meeting the reduction in its carbon footprint necessary for the Government to meet their expected carbon budgets.

We are actively discussing with the Association of Colleges, Universities UK and others how we can work with them and with students to ensure that we achieve the reduction in carbon emissions right across the further and higher education estate that will be needed. My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue, but we are very active on it and I look forward to his support.

May I reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) about the e-Merlin project at Jodrell Bank in our respective constituencies? While accepting the point about the funding councils, will the Government acknowledge that this is not only a national but an international centre of excellence for astrophysics? It is vital that its valuable work, which greatly benefits the science and technology base in this country, is encouraged to continue and to expand.

The hon. Lady is right to highlight the internationally recognised experience at the university of Manchester, which owns Jodrell Bank. As has been said, decisions on the e-Merlin project are very much a matter for the Science and Technology Facilities Council. In accordance with the Haldane principles, it would be wrong for Ministers to interfere with that process. That body will probably be making decisions in early July. It has already indicated that the e-Merlin project is part of its future strategy for radio astronomy, which involves exciting projects such as the square kilometre array and, potentially, the extremely large telescope. Radio astronomy has a very bright future in the United Kingdom, and the Government are committed to continuing to support it.

Tomorrow, the Bishop of London will celebrate 100 years of the Bishop Creighton House settlement in Fulham, which was founded by his distinguished predecessor. Bishop Creighton House, which is led by Rory Gillert, and Hammersmith and Fulham volunteer centre, led by Marion Schumann, are two of the most successful volunteer agencies in London, but volunteering requires money for infrastructure, training and development. Given the appalling cuts in voluntary sector funding by Tory-run Hammersmith and Fulham council, what more can the Government do to support these outstanding institutions?

I think that all in London are disappointed and astounded by some of the cuts that are being made in my hon. Friend’s constituency, but I am pleased that my Department has been able to extend the Train to Gain programme, which is £1 billion-worth of investment, to volunteers. We have done so to ensure that volunteers with the right skills are able to play an active role in their communities, and I hope that those who wish to do so will be able to move on to jobs. I am also pleased that the Learning and Skills Council supports programmes for volunteers in his constituency, including the Torch project at the Lyric theatre. We will continue to do all we can against the backdrop of cuts that he describes.

T6. Can my right hon. Friend make a statement on the proposed motion from some university and college unions calling for an academic boycott of Israel? (205655)

The Government are completely opposed to such a boycott, which will harm rather than help moves towards peace and reconciliation in the middle east. It is significant that the motion before this year’s University and College Union falls well short of calls for an outright boycott. I think that that is because the proposers of the motion know that there is no widespread support for that among UCU members. Both Israel and the occupied territories contain both progressives and reactionaries, and the problem with boycotts is that they make the job of progressives much more difficult and entrench the position of the reactionaries.

T7. The young apprentice programme run by Jo Heavens at New college in Swindon has been a stunning success and changed the lives of many young people, as my right hon. Friend saw for himself a few weeks ago. Does his Department have any plans to expand young apprenticeship schemes, given yesterday’s announcements, as well as 18-plus and adult apprenticeships? (205656)

Yes, we do. I was delighted to go to Swindon and meet the young apprentices. There are remarkable success stories around the country of young people who have started an apprenticeship programme at 14 or 15 before they leave school, doing three days a week at school, a day in the workplace and a day at college. If such schemes are well run, they are hugely motivating for the young people. We want to see that provision expanded, and a significant expansion in apprenticeship starts for those over 16 and older workers. Our aspiration is that in a few years’ time, one in five young people—far more than today—will have a chance to do an apprenticeship. I hope that many of those will have the chance to get their first exposure to a young apprenticeship—as my hon. Friend’s constituents do in Swindon—as it is highly motivating.

T8. Stockport college of further education has received £69 million of Government cash to build a new state-of-the-art town centre campus, and the college and its leadership were rated as outstanding in a recent Ofsted report. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Peter Roberts, the principal, the staff and students on achieving such excellent results? (205657)

I am delighted to offer my congratulations to everybody at the college who has been involved in the building programme and in achieving such excellent educational outcomes. There are some fantastic things going on in further education. My hon. Friend’s college has benefited by £60 million, but 10 years ago the national budget for FE college capital programmes was zero. Earlier this week I was able to visit another part of the country, Crewe and Nantwich—[Hon. Members: “Oh.”]—where an FE college is being built, at the expense of £60 million, so that area too will benefit.

T9. We heard earlier about apprenticeships. Some 150,000 new apprenticeships will be created, with Government support, and that has to be welcomed. However, we also heard disappointment about the Scottish Executive rationing apprenticeships—they have slashed modern adult apprenticeships by 80 per cent. Does the Minister share my concern that unless the Scottish Executive act now, Scotland will lack appropriately skilled people to fill the gaps left by 1 million people leaving the Scottish labour market in the next 10 years? (205658)

My hon. Friend is right. In 1997, there were only 75,000 apprenticeships on this side of the border, and many of us looked to Scotland, which still had an apprenticeship base. It is deeply worrying to see SNP colleagues now rationing and downgrading apprenticeships and, potentially, jeopardising the prospects of young people in Scotland. This is a devolved matter, but we take apprenticeships very seriously—