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Higher Education (Employers)

Volume 475: debated on Thursday 15 May 2008

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.