The Secretary of State was asked—
Science Funding (Universities)
We have regular meetings with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform at ministerial and official level on a wide range of issues, including joint meetings with the chairs of the regional development agencies.
Scientists engaged in research at universities do not only produce good results but help to create an atmosphere that encourages economic activity in the regions. Given the reorganisation of the science budget and the Science and Technology Facilities Council and given the £80 million shortfall, will the Minister perhaps consider exploring avenues with the regional development agencies to make up that shortfall and allow scientists in my university of Lancaster, for example, to carry on with the excellent work that it does and create the right atmosphere for job creation throughout the country?
The budget for the Science and Technology Facilities Council is actually going up over the next three years. Compared with its baseline, it is going up by 13.6 per cent.; that is perhaps not as much as some in the community would like, but to suggest that there has been a cut is simply wrong. It is important, however, that the university research base talks to and deals with the regional development agencies. We already have commitments to Research Councils UK, for example, by working together with the regional development agencies and the Technology Strategy Board. That is happening as we speak in Manchester and in other universities in the north-west. Such links are important because we need to ensure that our strategy is co-ordinated.
Per capita, Wales has fewer than half the number of scientists and engineers working in world-class universities in comparison with England and about a third fewer than the comparable figure for Scotland. Will the Minister explain what is being done at a UK level to reduce that science gap between the different nations of the UK?
We continue to see sustained investment in science at a UK level. The science and research budget has doubled since 1997 and it will have tripled by 2010-11. What we have to do is invest in excellent science. At the Government level, we take strategic decisions about the overall direction of science funding—on full economic costing, for example—but it is really up to the Research Councils and the peer review process to determine what is the best research and to fund that accordingly.
I welcome the increase in research funding under the Government, but for a university to be a university, it needs to engage in research as well as teaching. The Government have adopted the policy of concentrating research on certain universities and markedly lessening the funding for research at other universities. Will my hon. Friend have another look at that policy in the hope of redistributing some of the research funding to universities such as the excellent university of Wolverhampton?
I agree with my hon. Friend that Wolverhampton is an excellent university. What is important for the Government is that we fund excellent research. I am tremendously proud of the world-class research conducted in our universities. We have to ensure that the people taking the decisions on what is the best research to fund are independent of the Government. That is why we have the Research Councils and why there is an extensive peer review process. That is the right approach for taking decisions on individual research projects.
I am sure that a great deal of importance will be attached to ensuring that businesses are involved in the bids for these new universities. I want to make the basic point that we as a Labour Government will have tripled the science budget by 2010-11—an increase way above the trend rate of growth of the UK economy. The Conservative party policy, as I understand it, is to share the proceeds of growth—
I am somewhat surprised by the gloating and boasting of the Minister about science in the UK. He will be aware of the worry and concern among university scientists, researchers and academics about their future. Given the Government’s £80 million shortfall for the STFC, the STFC has said that it will scale back the number of research grants that it provides. Will the Minister have the courage to answer this question directly, without beating about the bush: on his watch, will the number of Government-funded post-doctoral research assistants be higher or lower by 2010?
It is a bit rich for the hon. Gentleman to accuse the Government of boasting when a campaign to save British science had to take place back in 1997. He must answer whether he is prepared to meet the Government’s spending commitments—the commitment to real-terms growth by 2014. The difference between sharing the proceeds of growth and our plans amounts to hundreds of millions of pounds. The scientific community has a right to understand where the Opposition stand.
On post-doctoral research grants, the figures for astronomy and particle physics are massively up compared with 2005-06. It will be up to the STFC to take the detailed decisions on research grants. As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is going through a programmatic review process, and we will await the outcomes of that.
Our assessment is that there is a serious, but not widespread problem of support for violent extremist activity on university and college campuses. We are working with universities and colleges to build their resilience by raising awareness of the appropriate response, which must include the promotion of shared values and respect for free and open debate, as well as providing support for students who may be at risk from extremist groups.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. University staff have rightly been urged by the Government to challenge groups that promote terrorism on campuses. As a result, some universities and student unions have banned all political guest speakers. Dealing with that thorny issue prompts the question: where does legitimate free speech end and dangerous extremism begin?
I am not aware—I apologise to the House if I should be—of any university campus that has banned all visiting political speakers. Clearly, I would wish to know where that has happened. The Government have made it clear, including in a lecture by my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education last autumn, that we regard academic freedom and the ability to have even controversial ideas properly examined and contested as a proper and, indeed, essential role of universities and colleges. Throughout, we have tried to draw the distinction between those who are prepared to have their ideas properly examined and criticised, in the atmosphere of a good university, and those who seek to propagate violent, dangerous and illegal ideas, often in surreptitious or underhand ways. I hope that there is no doubt about the Government’s support for academic freedom, not just as a good thing in its own right but as part of our defence of the values that we seek to protect.
I am sure that the Secretary of State is only too aware of the reported cases of terrorism that have been linked to British university campuses. A leading academic expert has called on the Government to ban universities from accepting money from Saudi or Islamic groups to fund Islamic studies, and has also called on all university donations to be made public. Will the Secretary of State explain why his Department’s recent report on preventing extremism in universities contains nothing about financial donations, even those from dangerous extremist groups?
Two important points need to be made. It is true that, in some recent terrorist cases, individuals have been involved who at some point spent part of their careers as students at a college or university. That statement is very different from assuming that they were drawn into violent extremism or organised it as part of their role or attendance at university. One of my criticisms of the academic to whom I think the hon. Gentleman refers is the assumption of an equation between universities as a base for organising activities and the fact that some people involved in terrorist cases have been students. Our guidance is intended to deal with that issue.
The hon. Gentleman seems to believe that any donation from Saudi sources is tainted with terrorism. I think he should be very careful about making such assertions. The Government would certainly be concerned about any donations that were associated with violent extremism, but I am not prepared to accept the equation between Saudi donations to higher education and the promotion of terrorism.
Foreign Languages (Universities)
There were 46,100 students studying languages at English higher education institutions in 2006-07, the latest year for which figures are available. Through the national languages strategy, the Government aim to transform England’s language capability by creating an appetite for language learning and enriching the opportunities available to learners of all ages.
The trouble is that not enough people are studying foreign languages at universities today, which means that it will be more difficult for children to learn foreign languages at school because there will be no teachers for them. I know that the Minister is a fine linguist. May I urge him to be a little less laissez-faire and a bit more dirigiste in his approach to modern languages, to encourage more youngsters to study foreign languages, and to encourage people on other university courses to add a foreign language element to them?
As a French graduate, I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s arguments. Our national language strategy focuses on important relationships between the world of higher education and the work being done in schools. The single biggest change we can make to promote the take-up of foreign languages is to ensure that, by the end of the decade, every young person in every primary school will have access to a modern foreign language.
A significant number of overseas students are studying at our universities, which is of considerable benefit to those universities. Throughout my discussions with Conservative Front Benchers, I have been led to believe that the Conservative party supports the promotion of such opportunities for overseas students—and they do speak English: there is no reputable evidence to suggest that people embarking on United Kingdom university courses do not have an English language capability and cannot benefit from such study.
Will the Minister take another close look at the curriculum in our secondary schools? We need to ensure that foreign language teaching not only helps comprehension and enables students to converse when they go abroad, but equips them with the building blocks and grammatical structures that they can use when they go to university to study foreign languages as an academic subject.
I think it is a question of balance. I think that the development of language-based courses that focus on communication produces exactly the skills that employers and others want and is also more likely to entice young people to take up the study of foreign languages. Nevertheless, we should not ignore the reality that those wishing to study a language in the longer term, at degree level, will need that grammatical base.
In view of the transformation of language teaching that the Minister has described, will he consider going beyond education to the world of work, and take account of the languages that are more important for the future in a globalised world—Mandarin, Cantonese and Arabic languages? I realise that he may not have the information to hand and may have to write to me, but will he give some idea of the number of British students learning such languages—as opposed to overseas students studying their home tongue—and also the proportionate increase in that number over the past five and 10 years?
I share the assumption behind the hon. Gentleman’s question. We need to promote the uptake of a wide range of languages. A welcome development in recent years is the significant increase, albeit from a low base, in the number of students studying Mandarin. The Higher Education Funding Council and the Research Councils are working together on a well-funded initiative to create a world-class cadre of researchers who will enhance this country’s understanding of the Arab world, China and Japan, eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. However, although we need to encourage more study of languages, the fact remains that someone who has studied one language is much more likely to study a second.
Citizenship and English Language Courses
The quality of ESOL teaching for Learning and Skills Council-funded courses is monitored through regular inspection by Ofsted. Inspectorate reviews have reported steady improvement since 2001, and Ofsted will publish a thematic review this summer. Citizenship materials are developed to meet Home Office criteria for naturalisation. They are not a separate curriculum and are not formally assessed, but are often used within ESOL courses. Successful learners receive a qualification from awarding bodies who are assessed and accredited by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.
I thank the Secretary of State for that response. There are some excellent organisations in Bristol offering ESOL and citizenship courses funded through, and supported by, the City of Bristol college, but given the plethora of organisations that are springing up across the country, particularly in areas of high ethnic diversity such as mine, how can we be sure that people wanting to take those courses are directed towards reputable organisations and do not waste their money on organisations that do not offer a proper standard of teaching and might not even be properly accredited to offer the qualifications?
My hon. Friend raises an important issue. While any college providing a course needs to register, that does not of itself provide an assurance of the quality of the education on offer. I strongly advise her constituents to look for those providers who offer properly accredited awards from the recognised awarding bodies regulated by the QCA, and to look for qualifications that are LSC-funded. There are people who are willing to exploit those who want to learn English, perhaps for citizenship and naturalisation purposes. It should not be difficult to find a properly accredited provider offering the right qualifications. However, if this is an issue of widespread concern, we should discuss how we might make the choices more easily explainable to people.
Our consultation on further education providers’ role in promoting community cohesion, fostering shared values and preventing violent extremism closed on 6 May. We have established a network of “champion principals” to work with us on the way forward. We will revise our guidance and work with the new Learning and Skills Improvement Service and other Government Departments to create resources and support that respond to the needs expressed in the consultation and reinforce partnership working.
My hon. Friend makes an exceedingly important point, and the arguments the Secretary of State just outlined apply to both further and higher education. In academic freedom and free and open debate, we have one of the most powerful tools at our disposal to isolate and challenge the very small minority who advocate violent extremism. We must look for every opportunity within further education colleges to promote that. One initiative that I am very pleased we are taking forward is the allocation of £2 million in each of the next three years to develop materials to promote the citizenship education within our FE colleges that will help such debate take place.
As the House will be aware, the Government are today publishing for consultation plans to take the UK towards a low-carbon future. Research Councils UK expenditure on energy research and training has more than doubled since 2003 and, over the period 2008-09 to 2010-11, that will approach £300 million. The Energy Technologies Institute will invest up to £1 billion over the next 10 years, and the Technology Strategy Board is expanding its portfolio of activities through a range of initiatives, including innovation platforms that are low carbon.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I would like to help him to invest the money wisely. Although the document referred to in the question has been led by another Department—the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—does he agree that it is an excellent ambition for this Government to lead the world both in the transition from high carbon to low carbon and in being successful in the future low-carbon economy? The document shows that the route to get there is through innovative technologies and world-class skills. Does he agree that it is important to make sure that we are preparing people now with the skills for then? In that context, is he aware of my proposal for a network of what I call “sea change colleges” around the country, where we could train people in those skills—and, naturally, I have suggested a location in my constituency for one of them?
I understand that the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education met my hon. Friend to discuss the “sea change colleges” proposals. The DEFRA document is excellent, as is the consultation document being launched today, which refers to the potential for creating 160,000 new jobs as a result of making the transition that we need to make towards a greener, low-carbon economy. The “World Class Skills” document sets out how we want to embed sustainability and address environmental skills as a key issue for the future. We had a major conference in Windsor last week, involving the sector skills councils, expert bodies and all those involved in the environmental industries, to help us chart a way forward as we look to implement the “World Class Skills” document.
I welcome the research programme that the Minister has mentioned. He will be aware that the Climate Change Bill is being considered upstairs in Committee and, in that context, the CBI has asked for interim targets and rolling budgets. Will he commission research to come forward with precisely that in the context of the Climate Change Bill programme?
I do not want to give any specific commitments today, but I can say to the hon. Lady that the Government are funding some major research programmes. “Living with environmental change” is a major cross-council programme that is looking at a range of areas. Through the Committee on Climate Change, a lot of research is also going on into setting targets, and work is being done on frameworks. There are tremendous opportunities here for the UK not only to do the right thing by making that transition to a low-carbon economy, but to make sure at the same time that sustainable new jobs can be created in our economy. Research and development and support to enable that to happen are in Britain’s best interests.
The Minister will be well aware that there is wide support for a low-carbon economy, but we are facing energy challenges that mean that we probably need to build some more coal-fired power stations. That will largely depend on carbon capture and storage. Can the Minister give a status report on where we are with the grant going into research into carbon capture and storage in this country, and the challenges faced?
I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a deep interest in these issues, and he will be aware of my personal very strong commitment to carbon capture and storage as a new technology that needs to be deployed, at scale, worldwide if we are to be successful in tackling climate change issues. The Government will shortly be publishing further proposals on carbon capture and storage, and I will make sure that he sees those. If I can provide him with any further information, I would be delighted to do so.
I met the Minister for Europe recently and discussed this issue. Officials in my Department and in the Foreign Office have followed up this meeting by meeting representatives of Universities UK and the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission. As a result, the FCO, UUK and my Department are working together with other Government Departments and representatives of British business to look at ways of maximising the impact of scholarships, including exploring the potential for alternative funding of doctoral awards for developed Commonwealth countries.
I think that I am a little encouraged by that answer. The Minister will know that there has been great distress in many organisations in this country and around the Commonwealth at the FCO’s cutting off of the funding for postgraduate scholarships from developed Commonwealth countries. May I ask Ministers to continue those discussions and if necessary to work out a new way of providing funding from the Government if it cannot come from the old FCO source? Will they also try to have as an objective our continuing to have the best and brightest of scholars from all over the Commonwealth who could not themselves afford to come here, so that we build for the future not just the academic links but the international friendships that are fundamental to our foreign policy, as well as to international education and skill development?
The hon. Gentleman’s underlying point about the importance of the globalisation of higher education and the benefit of overseas students coming to this country and building long-lasting relationships is important. However, it is important to make it clear that, overall, Government funding for the Commonwealth scholarships is not being cut. The Foreign Office is reducing its funding, but the Department for International Development is significantly increasing its. Overall, by the end of this spending review period, funding for the Commonwealth scholarships will be £2.7 million higher than it was in 2007-08. There is an increase, but we need to get the balance right, and discussions to ensure that we manage the change effectively are ongoing.
Government plans to allocate £927 million in the next financial year to expand and improve apprenticeships were published in the Learning and Skills Council grant letter issued on 16 November 2007.
Notwithstanding the Minister’s answer, for which I am grateful, the construction sector has serious difficulties, as next month’s Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians’ report is likely to show. What is the Minister doing to tackle a position in which the industry needs 90,000 new recruits each year, but employers take on just 7,000 apprentices, which is many fewer than further education colleges produce? Surely this reservoir of untapped talent has to be tapped as a national priority, because apprenticeships are a firm foundation for our future success.
My hon. Friend is right. Throughout the country, cranes are up in our cities for programmes such as house building, the Olympics in London, Building Schools for the Future and new hospitals. We need construction workers for those projects and we want to see an increase in apprenticeships. I am pleased that the number of apprenticeships has increased by a third in the last year with 21,000 people starting apprenticeships in the construction industry, and yesterday we were able to announce a three-year deal with the sector skills council for the construction sector, with a £135 million investment in training and 2,000 specialist apprenticeships to increase the number further.
The Minister knows that the average number of apprentices in training overall has declined as more emphasis has been placed on other forms of workplace training, such as Train to Gain. The Government are banking on Train to Gain, even though it has emerged that the basic contract does not pay for much beyond assessing employees’ existing skills. What a contrast with the best of apprenticeships of the kind that you completed, Mr. Speaker. The Government must know that the failure to support apprenticeships and emphasise Train to Gain is in stark contrast with the LSC survey that found that the majority of employers who have signed up to Train to Gain have seen
“no financial benefit from taking part.”
Why does the Minister think that is?
I just wish that before the hon. Gentleman stood up he would check his facts. If he looked properly at what is happening in Train to Gain, he would see that the vast majority, 77 per cent., of those pursuing Train to Gain, are in the higher bracket. That includes training, new qualifications, and an increase in productivity for employers. That is why there is an 80 per cent. satisfaction rate with Train to Gain among employers. The hon. Gentleman needs to do better and might think about going on a course himself.
The Government have made huge progress in increasing the number of apprenticeships in the last decade and improving completion rates. But is it not the case that one of the reasons that young people give for not completing is the lack of portability of the apprenticeship? Will the Minister say something about the Government’s efforts to improve the transferability of apprenticeships?
My hon. Friend is right. We want to see progression, so that it is clear that the apprenticeship is about quality, and we will introduce an apprenticeship Bill to underline that. Part of that quality is progression to a foundation degree, and the clear indication is that that is linked to higher skills. We are working with the Higher Education Funding Council on matching data sets so that we can show properly how many apprenticeships are taking that route and progressing.
Our review said that we want more group training associations. With a hub and spoke model, that allows apprentices the opportunity to move across organisations, which is especially relevant for small and medium-sized enterprises.
I am sure that I speak for my hon. Friends when I say that we welcome the huge increase in the number of young people involved in apprenticeships, and I compliment the Government on that. However, it is a real problem that, in the pursuit of those ambitious targets, there are far more programme-led apprenticeships in our colleges, with no employer involved. The danger is that that will tarnish the brand of apprenticeships and short-change our young people. Will the Minister respond to that point and give the House some indication of how many apprenticeships will be programme led, as opposed to employer led, this year?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the spirit in which he put his question. I reassure him that all the 250,000 apprenticeships in the expansion since 1997 are proper apprenticeships: they are not programme-led apprenticeships. However, he is right that there are many programme-led apprenticeships in our FE colleges. As we all know, there is a problem with young people not in education or training. Many young people may not be ready to take an apprenticeship at 16 but, with the initial training in college of a programme-led apprenticeship, they may be ready by 17 or 18. When we scrutinised the Learning and Skills Act 2000, organisations such as the Prince’s Trust supported programme-led apprenticeships because they saw the benefits that they bring. This year’s increase of 22,000 extra learners on apprenticeships is in proper apprenticeships with a work-based element.
Aimhigher is making an important contribution to widening participation in higher education. After just 18 months, evaluation shows that Excellence Challenge—Aimhigher’s predecessor—was having a significant impact on young people’s attainment and aspirations. The proportion of university entrants from lower social classes is increasing, and the number of entrants from Ipswich has gone up from 285 in 1997 to 460 in 2006—almost 63 per cent. higher.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does he draw the same encouragement as I do from surveys showing that more than 50 per cent. of pupils from all social classes now aspire to go to university, and does he agree that our job is now to turn that aspiration into achievement?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We are making progress. Applications to university are up by more than 6 per cent. for next year, acceptances were up by 6 per cent. this year and the lower socio-economic group classification is also increasing. However, there is a gap between aspiration and fulfilment, which is why we are investing substantially in student grants. Two thirds of students will be eligible from this September. We have also made, for the first time, a radical commitment to guarantee that any young person receiving the education maintenance allowance will have a minimum financial entitlement when they go to university. All of us know that the big hurdle to overcome in young people staying on and progressing in further and higher education is the decision that is taken at 16, not at 18, so that is one of the best changes that we can make to drive the process forward.
Is not the real gap between the Government’s rhetoric and reality? This week, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education said that degrees are being dumbed down: instead of a third of degrees being first or upper second class, as they were in 1996, two thirds are. Degrees are being dumbed down. People no longer expect to fail—they just go to university and pass. The Government’s rhetoric is that we should bring lots of disadvantaged people into university education, but we have learned this week that that is not true—the numbers have hardly changed in the past 10 years. Let us address that gap. Can the Government tell us what they will do to address it?
It is not true. The hon. Gentleman inaccurately describes the views of the QAA, and it is regrettable when comments are taken out of context and misused. We are making greater progress, but we need to do more. It is about a combination of aspiration and support. The fundamental difference between our two parties is that we agree with expanding opportunity and the Conservatives still believe that higher education is the preserve of the elite.
The first advanced diplomas will be awarded in 2010. Entry requirements for specific courses will not be available until March 2009, so it is not possible at this stage to indicate how many institutions will accept diplomas for entry to their courses. However, UCAS is collecting statements covering the general acceptability of diplomas that are available on the UCAS website. Almost 150 higher education institutions have made statements, the vast majority of which are very positive about acceptances on to higher education courses.
I thank my hon. Friend for that very encouraging answer. He will know of my constituency’s proud tradition of engineering. Employers say to me that part of the problem with young people’s approach to engineering is that they do not know what it is to be a modern engineer. Their view of engineering is stuck in the past. They also do not understand the route to engineering. What measures is my hon. Friend putting in place to ensure that when the higher education institutions want to accept those qualifications and offer pathways into engineering young people are aware of it as an option and to ensure that they take it?
I agree with my right hon. Friend. Whenever I talk to engineering employers I find that they are keen to work with the Government and the funding agencies to present a modern, up-to-date image of engineering that entices young people to take on those courses. We can do that in a number of ways, but one of the most effective is to point out to young people the higher graduate earnings premium from undertaking a science, technology, engineering or mathematics degree compared with that from a non-STEM degree. We certainly need to do more of that, but I believe that the diplomas, which target young people at the age of 14 who have talent and potential but are switched off by an exclusively academic route to educational success, can help us to make progress.
Through the Train to Gain service, employers can access support to help them identify and address their skills needs at all levels, including Government funding to sit alongside their own investment. Employers with fewer than 50 employees can access compensation to help them meet the wage costs of their employees while they train.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Some 57,000 people across the county borough of Bridgend are employed in micro, small and medium-sized enterprises with a work force of between one and nine. Does my hon. Friend agree that not only apprentices and the youth but the older work force need ongoing education and skills training? Does he agree that providing that skills training for the older work force will allow small companies in my constituency to stay ahead in the global economy?
My hon. Friend is completely right, and she cuts to the heart of the matter. That was the basis of the Leitch review. We have done a number of things since then. First, we have ensured that small and micro businesses can access an increase in budget from £4 million to £30 million of leadership and management money to ensure that the owners of small businesses can match-fund and get access to courses. The union learning fund is making a huge difference, of course, providing skills for life and basic literacy and numeracy for many people who did not receive that training before. Indeed, it is important that the compensation is there to incentivise those with very small businesses to engage in Train to Gain. That suite of measures will help older employees in her constituency. I must say, too, that even though we tend to talk about apprenticeships in relation to young people, we have seen increases in adult apprenticeships over the past few years, and we are set to see more.
The Commission has not yet published its proposal. We will consider the detail of the proposal fully once it is published.
Is the Minister aware that it was the unanimous recommendation of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport that performers would benefit enormously from an extension of the copyright term to the same length as exists outside Europe? It is not just about a few big-name artists but about thousands of session musicians and small performers who rely on royalties for their income. Will he seriously consider supporting the very encouraging recommendation of Commissioner McCreevy that Europe should come into line with the rest of the world?
I am certainly aware of the views that the Select Committee expressed, although I have to say that they were not the same as those expressed in the Gowers review. We have not seen the European Commission’s proposal yet, and we will obviously want to consider it fully once it is published.
The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills was formed a year ago tomorrow. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister asked me to bring together three areas of work that are, together, critical to the future prosperity and success of this country and to the chance of each person sharing in that prosperity. We have to make the most of the talent and ability of each individual, we have to sustain our world-class research and scholarship and we have to bring skills and knowledge together to create innovative businesses and public services.
I should like to take this opportunity to place on record my thanks to all the staff at DIUS and its associated agencies, who have worked so hard, through office moves, new IT systems and new ways of working with new colleagues, to give the new Department a successful first year.
In Bristol, we need to do much more to encourage young people to stay on in education post 16, but, equally important, we need to do more to give people a chance to return to education if they dropped out at 16. What are the Government doing to encourage young people and to give them that second chance, so that they can get the qualifications and skills that they need to equip them for the world of work?
Some people say that we should respond to the difficult international economy by cutting investment in young people and giving tax cuts to the rich. I do not agree. I believe that investing in our young people is the best way to secure prosperity for the future. As a result of extra money given to my Department in the Budget and of decisions that I have taken, this autumn, for the first time, every 18-year-old will know that they can get public funding for qualifications whether they choose to go to university, be an apprentice or study for their first level 2 or 3 qualification until the age of 25. That means that this Government are supporting young people whether they choose to go to university, study at college or train at work.
Further to the answer given to the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), will the discussions extend to countries that, hopefully temporarily, are not members of the British Commonwealth, such as Zimbabwe? Can we do our best to help students from there, too?
I think that I am right in saying that such Commonwealth grants are not currently available, and I do not anticipate a change at the moment. I do not think that that would send out the right incentive. The situation in Zimbabwe is deplorable, as Members are aware, and we need to co-ordinate international pressure effectively. Within that context, we will undoubtedly keep the Commonwealth grants under review.
It is important to recognise that raising the participation age ensures that the most disadvantaged young people and those least likely to stay in education and training will be able to do so, in most cases while they are at work. The Opposition refuse to offer that support, and say that young people who get into trouble should be put into boot camp. Our approach, which is to equip people for future lives at work, is the right one.
No one else has done so, but may I begin by congratulating the Secretary of State on his year in charge of his new Department? I welcome him back to the Front Bench after his time chairing a Select Committee.
We are about to hear about equality, so I hope that the Secretary of State will explain why such a big gender gap has opened up at our universities. Forty five per cent. of young women now go to university, but only 35 per cent. of young men. Why is there still a social class gap of almost record size in the number of people going to our universities? I invite him to agree that one of the most disadvantaged groups in Britain today is that consisting of young, single, white and working-class men. What is he going to do to spread equal opportunities to them?
First, because we have invested in higher education, far more people go to university today than were able to under the previous Conservative Government. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is a marked gender gap in universities, and that is why we are developing the Aimhigher scheme and Aimhigher Associates, the young people who go back into schools to promote the opportunities of higher education, as well as forging links between schools and universities. All that effort is aimed at making sure that young people who have the ability to go to university but who do not aspire to that—or, more importantly, apply—will do so in future.
As for the gender gap, university admissions are in line with young people’s prior attainment records—the qualifications that they get at school. To deal with the gap in performance, we must make sure that schools are able to identify, spot and nurture talent among young people, and that is what we will do.
Gaps exist in relation to both gender and social class, but increasingly there is a new ethnic gap, with some white, working-class men doing especially badly. Does the Secretary of State agree that the reasons for that are clear when we look at his record? There has been a decline in the number of people enrolling at FE colleges, while the Government have clearly failed to meet their target for university expansion. Moreover, the numbers of advanced apprenticeships—the ones that really spread opportunities to move on in life—are falling. Are not those the real reasons why we are facing the gaps that I have described, and is not the right hon. Gentleman worried that he might be prosecuted by the Minister for Women and Equality for such a failure to spread equality of opportunity?
The hon. Gentleman confuses a whole series of factors, and I shall deal with each in turn. The number of advanced apprenticeships being successfully completed is far higher than when the previous Government were in power. The previous Government put people in advanced apprenticeships, but none of them completed their courses. That was pointless. Advanced apprenticeships make up 30 per cent. of a growing programme—a proportion that has remained pretty much the same—but we are investing more money in new opportunities for apprenticeships.
The latest available figures show that the number of young people from the lower socio-economic groups who have been accepted for university was the highest ever. We are the first to say that there are things that remain to be done, but the previous Government cut the amount spent on students and made no serious effort to promote opportunity. Given their record, I am proud of what we have done, and I am convinced that the Labour party is the one that can tackle these problems in future.
We are promoting the benefits of using procurement positively in our own Department and trying to spread that message across the Government. The capital programme that we announced a few months ago for further education colleges is clear on two points. The first is that we will expect new projects to meet the new Building Research Establishment environmental assessment method, or BREEAM, excellence standard, which will be published in July. It is the highest standard available to public sector buildings in this sector, which means that taxpayers’ money is being used not only to provide better buildings but to help safeguard the future for our young people and future generations.
The second thing that we have made clear is that every single one of these projects—this will apply to my hon. Friend’s local project—must include a training plan, so that those who are building the training facilities of the future are trained while they are building them.
One of the major policy initiatives that the new Department has launched in the past 12 months, jointly with the other education Department, has been the increase in the learning and training age to 18. Is the Secretary of State concerned by the latest statistical release from his Department which came out on 19 June? It shows that for 16, 17 and 18-year-olds there has been no real growth in the number of apprenticeships and advanced apprenticeships. What steps is he going to take to ensure greater employer engagement and demand for apprenticeships?
We have made it clear that by 2013 young people with the aptitude for an apprenticeship should be able to have one; we are making that a legal right. We want to get to a position in which one in five young people are able to do an apprenticeship. The figures to which the hon. Gentleman refers simply reflect a pretty small shift in the age at which young people start their apprenticeships. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said a few moments ago, there has been an increase of 22,000 in the number of apprenticeships available.
I am confident that we will continue to make the extra places available. In doing that, we are talking to major employers about training over and above their own requirements for apprenticeships and about developing group training associations to develop new initiatives. Furthermore, we are having a major drive to get public sector apprenticeships. The apprenticeship model works not only in the traditional industries, but in the public sector and for white-collar jobs and service jobs. There is the huge, and largely untapped, potential for the number of apprenticeships that we need in the future.
My hon. Friend raises an important point; I know that when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland answered a similar question a few weeks ago, he estimated that 55,000 students would be affected by the change. It is also the case that raising what council tax in Scotland currently brings in would require the imposition of a 5p local income tax. That comes against a background in which the separatists promised to get rid of student debt, but turned back on their commitment. The track record is not good.
I thank the Secretary of State and the Minister for Science and Innovation for meeting me and my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) to discuss the e-MERLIN project at Jodrell Bank. Does he not accept that the project, which is critical to the organisation, has received very high ratings and assessments from technical assessment panels and that it is critical that the United Kingdom should remain in the vanguard of astronomy research and development?
The hon. Gentleman will know from our meeting that we are keen to ensure that scientists in the UK, particularly those working at Manchester university, maintain their international leadership in astronomy, particularly with things moving towards the square kilometre array and analysis of that data. The peer review process carried out by the Science and Technology Facilities Council has given e-MERLIN a higher rating. The hon. Gentleman will know that that is good news from his point of view. I reject the comments of those who say, as the shadow Chancellor has said on behalf of the Conservative party, that Ministers should intervene to take the detailed decisions on which areas of science should be funded. That happens in other countries, and it means that scientists spend all their time lobbying Ministers to get funding instead of having it decided by peer group research. While I have every sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says about e-MERLIN, neither I nor my Ministers will intervene to take those decisions, which should properly be taken after peer review by the scientists in the research councils.
I had the opportunity to visit South Thames college with my hon. Friend earlier this year. It is doing an excellent job for the local community. I do not accept that this year’s allocation was four months late, but it was later than we would have wished given that this is the first year of the new system. The vast majority of colleges are benefiting from an increased allocation of funding, but we undoubtedly want to ensure that next year’s allocations come out earlier than they did this year.
My hon. Friend is aware that we have met and discussed his concerns in detail. The college is committed to a consultation exercise. Following our meeting, I wrote to the college principal making it clear that taking this forward is his decision and responsibility, but urging as effective a consultation process as possible. In respect of the options analysis, we will bear in mind the elements for which there is a need for confidentiality, nevertheless sharing as much of it as possible with my hon. Friend.
My hon. Friend is right to raise the importance of apprenticeships. This Government rescued apprenticeships from their collapse and near demise under the previous Government and have rebuilt them to a stage where more people are completing apprenticeships today than for many years. In his own county of County Durham, there were 2,408 apprenticeship starts in 2006-07, which is one of the largest numbers in England. However, we are going further. For example, Nissan is working closely with Gateshead college to meet its growing skills needs, and the college is delivering 500 adult engineering apprenticeships to new recruits.