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Further and Higher Education

Volume 475: debated on Thursday 15 May 2008

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.