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Higher Education (Funding)

Volume 475: debated on Thursday 15 May 2008

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.