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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 487: debated on Thursday 29 January 2009

Innovation, Universities and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

Student Finance

Figures for England show that about 90,000 student loan borrowers defaulted on student loan repayments for a month or longer in each of the last two years. In 1998, we introduced income-contingent repayment loans. It is generally not possible to default on those loans.

Obviously, the shock is the fact that 90,000 people defaulted; I am sure that the Minister is very worried about that, too. What extra support can we provide to assist students during the current economic crisis? The reach of credit crunch does not stop; it affects everyone, and, obviously, students are facing that pressure. What extra help can we give students, so as to ensure that people still feel they can go to university and are not frightened off from doing so? That is key for the future; what can the Minister say to us about that?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for championing this issue; he has done so not only in relation to his constituency of Chorley, but by bringing it constantly to the attention of Ministers. Under the old-style loans introduced by the Conservatives in the 1990s, there can, effectively, be a default after just a month of debt, and, as my hon. Friend will understand, students often move accommodation and move in and out of jobs, so that 90,000 figure makes the problem of serious default—default for longer than six months and up to a year—appear a lot larger than it actually is. In terms of new graduates coming out of university in the autumn, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State met student recruiters and those responsible for careers in our higher education system just before Christmas, and I will meet them again this week. We are looking at an internship scheme, and at encouraging employers in the private, public and third sectors to over-recruit into it. We have also increased career development loans—

While absolutely not wanting to discourage any overseas student from coming to this country, can I have the Minister’s assurance that he will pay particular attention to the position of overseas-domiciled students who can now avail themselves of student loans, because if there is any suggestion that this country is a soft touch and that those students can come here and then will not have to repay their loans, that will run the risk of discrediting the whole show?

I know the hon. Gentleman has taken up this issue and asked questions about it, and I want to reassure him that European legislation will ensure that we are able to engage closely with the tax agencies in European countries. That will enable us to collect the right details to ensure that students coming here from Europe repay the loans they have taken out to pursue their education in this country.

While defaulting on their loan is always difficult for any student, may I advise my right hon. Friend not to go down the same route as in Scotland, where one political party promised that it would write off all student debt? It got elected and discovered that it could not do that, and that there is no such quick fix. [Hon. Members: “Which party?] It was the Scottish National party. Students voted believing it was going to deliver on that promise, but it turned out to be a mirage. Can I get the assurance that this Government will not give such false hope to students?

That was a shameless act of politicking because, in the end, it was taxpayers’ money that was involved. It was a foolish thing to do, and I can assure my hon. Friend that we will not be doing that on this side of the border.

While I accept that the income-contingent loans are better than what went before, does the Minister accept that the level of graduate debt is much higher now than it was 10 years ago, and will he further accept that it tends to hit women graduates harder because they stay in debt longer for reasons we understand?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the repayments of the loans kick in once income reaches a sufficient level, that there are repayment holidays for people if they fall on hard times, and that there are exceptions, such as for those with disabilities or mental illness. It is true that this is a loan system, but the terms of those loans are the best available in the country.

The Minister referred to his national internship scheme. Will he confirm that after I spent a Saturday afternoon chasing him round the TV studios, it became clear that there is no Government-funded national internship scheme and that the companies that he has identified as providing internships made it clear that no extra internships were intended on top of the ones already announced? Will he also confirm that the Government made a clear commitment to review the student loan regime, that the review will take place this year and that the review of student finance will look forward to ideas for the future and not simply be historical?

The first thing to say is that we are doing all we can to work with employers, careers services in universities, the National Union of Students and students themselves to ensure that students have the best choice and the best portfolio of things they can do when they graduate in the autumn. That compares very well with what was effectively the youth training scheme—YTS—when the Conservatives were in power; nothing was offered then. [Interruption.] The internship scheme was begun in a conversation that the Secretary of State had before Christmas with Microsoft, Barclays and others. I have continued those conversations—indeed, I was talking to Barnado’s just yesterday. So, there will be an increase in internships later in the year, and that will happen alongside the career development loans and all the other things that will be on offer at the end of the year. As the president of the NUS has said, this is not a time for panic; it is a time for proper information. I would ask the hon. Gentleman to bear that in mind when he is making public statements.

Students who graduate in about five months’ time will probably face an uncertain future, and many of them will never have experienced a recession before. Even those who get a job will still face a pernicious repayment regime for their student loans—a 9 per cent. flat-rate tax and a relatively unfair rate of interest. The rate of interest is meant to be subsidised by the Government, but it is at 3 per cent., and that is above the bank lending rate and above the probable expected rate of inflation, which is zero. Is it not time that we had more flexible arrangements for setting that rate of interest, to ensure that graduates are not being penalised at this uncertain economic time?

The hon. Gentleman calls for flexibility. Is that the Lib Dem approach to fees—saying one thing at the election and something else afterwards? Could he cite one bank in the country where someone could get a loan at a rate as low as the current retail prices index? He could not, but that, in effect, is what is available to students.

Motor Industry

2. If he will bring forward proposals to improve training opportunities for those employed in the motor industry. (252515)

Earlier this week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform announced a £2 billion package to support the automotive industry for the future, and skills support is an integral part of that. Train to Gain has already been developed to meet the specific needs of the automotive sector. We announced on Tuesday our willingness to boost Government investment in skills for the sector through Train to Gain from £65 million to £100 million. My officials are now working with range of companies on training packages that will help work forces be ready for the upturn.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, and I very much welcome the statement made earlier in the week. Will he just say how wide his definition of the motor industry is, because we are not just talking about the car industry, and we must ensure that there are opportunities for component suppliers and the heavy goods side of the industry? Does he understand the problem for people on short-time working, which is that although they welcome the opportunity to train and upskill themselves, they have to buy their time for training? They should not be losing out twofold: by being on short-time working and having to pay the time for their own training. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government should examine that problem and provide help?

I welcome what my hon. Friend has said. He will be aware that none of what I have been talking about would be possible if the Conservative policy to abolish Train to Gain had been implemented. [Interruption.] I think that a cut of £1 billion was the suggestion.

We have already taken up arrangements with Nissan and JCB—that gives a sense of the breadth of the approach—to provide training on down days when there is short-time working. Ensuring that we can do that is a key, flexible use of our training money, but it would be cut by the Conservative party.

Can the Secretary of State clarify what new money will be available for the motor industry in a broader context and for training, given that when the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, the hon. Member for Dudley, South (Ian Pearson), announced the package to the House earlier this week, he said that it was entirely consistent with the pre-Budget report that was announced in November?

That is absolutely right, but what we have been doing is changing the way in which the Train to Gain system operates to meet the needs of businesses in the downturn. So in addition to the money that we are making available to the automotive industry that is perhaps intended for some of the larger companies, we have also said that up to £350 million of Train to Gain money would be available in small packages for small and medium enterprises. We are keen that that should also be used by component suppliers and others in the automotive industry. The critical point is that while we are building investment in Train to Gain to £1 billion a year, following the pre-Budget report, the hon. Lady’s party has said that it would do away with that funding. That is the wrong thing to do.

I agree with my right hon. Friend that to abolish Train to Gain at this point would be absolute madness, and the principal of Stourbridge college—I was speaking to him this morning—agrees. My right hon. Friend has been to Stourbridge and seen the fantastically successful Train to Gain programme there. People are pleased that the programme has been relaxed to include redundant workers. However, especially in light of recent redundancies in the midlands, we need to remove the limit on redundant workers entirely, so that the programme can be responsive to particular local needs and help people train to gain and get back into work.

I very much enjoyed my visit with my hon. Friend to her local college in Stourbridge earlier this year and I was very impressed by the work it has done in leading the Train to Gain consortium that would be abolished by the policies of the Conservative party. The truth is that we are making the system more flexible. We are saying to colleges that they will have the option, especially with pre-level 2 skills, of being rewarded for success in getting people into work through training and not just for helping them to achieve an accredited qualification. We are always making the system look more flexible.

We also announced additional money at the beginning of the month of up to £83 million to create an extra pool of money for further education colleges to respond to the needs of those who have lost their job and been out of work for some time. That will be a flexible package of funding that colleges can tailor to the needs of the individual.

Does not the Secretary of State appreciate that the deadweight cost of Train to Gain and its failure to engage with SMEs is undermining attempts to provide meaningful training? Will he keep the Train to Gain money, but redirect it to apprenticeships and further education colleges that are better placed to respond to local needs?

May I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Opposition Front Bench and congratulate him on his appointment? We look forward to continuing the debate with him.

At the beginning of the month, the deputy director of the CBI addressed a large audience of employers on the subject of the downturn, and he said that Train to Gain is just what business needs. If that is the view of Britain’s largest employer organisation, the Conservatives’ policies and approach, with their proposals for cuts at exactly the wrong time—£610 million of cuts in my Department to start on 1 April, although they have not explained where those cuts would be made—are wrong, and they need to change.

Will my right hon. Friend agree to take a flexible approach to bids that come before him—pursuant to the observations made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew)—to ensure that both the supply chain and manufacturers obtain benefits from this scheme? Will he also, in the context of my constituency, ensure that there are no delays in developing the West Cheshire college, which will be an integral part of delivering the needs of the vehicle industry in my area?

It is not just a matter of being flexible, because we have indicated our willingness to do that. The compact that we have with the sector skills council for the manufacturing sector makes the use of the money much more flexible. Our ideal, actually, is to create a situation where within an area such as my hon. Friend’s we can comprehensively address the whole sector—that is, the major lead manufacturer as well as the supply chain. Maintaining the supply chain is every bit as important at the moment as maintaining the main plant. That is what we are aiming to achieve.

As for west Cheshire—I know that my hon. Friend is ambitious for his college—we have been looking to ensure that the training capacity is already in place to enable us to gear up training for the car industry in the way that he describes.

Higher Education

We continue to make encouraging progress with widening participation in higher education. The latest UCAS figures show that acceptances from England for 2008 are up by 7.4 per cent. on the same point last year, and this year’s figures are the highest ever. That means that there are more students in higher education than a year ago, including a higher proportion from poorer backgrounds.

I have a constituent who has been accepted as homeless and is on the homeless register. At 34 weeks pregnant, she has had to drop out of university after being told that until she has the baby, she is ineligible for housing benefit. Is the Minister aware that young people are being forced out of education for that reason and will he take action to ensure that those who fall pregnant while they are in higher education are not penalised?

I am happy to look at the hon. Gentleman’s constituent’s problem, but I would say that such assistance is dependent on Government finance and the proposals to take £610 million out of my Department will not help.

A very young thing. In 1970, the proportion of undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge who were educated in state schools was higher than it is now. Given that all students at university today have had the majority of their education under this blessed Labour Government, to what does the Minister attribute that almost incredible, somewhat depressing and somewhat shameful statistic?

I do not recognise the statistic. This year there has been a 7.4 per cent. rise in the number of students from poorer backgrounds attending our universities. That must be a good thing. I think that increase is the result of the Aimhigher programme and the Aimhigher associates programme, which brings students back into schools and into their local communities to encourage other students to go into education. It is also the result of the work that the universities are doing through summer schools and classes with parents and students, all of which are designed to ensure that we get better equity across the system in this country. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that the system is perfect or that it was perfect when he went to university. There is much that we can do and it ought to be a cross-party issue.

Would my right hon. Friend agree that many universities are performing very well in widening participation? Cambridge has done very well, as opposed to Oxford, by having the same application process as all the other universities. That helps. Will he be more aggressive with the universities? Let us change the culture in many of the leading research universities; let us make them work harder and make them more understandable for working class kids. Working class kids respond to hard work and our universities do not work hard enough at the moment.

I know that my hon. Friend is something of an expert on that issue. I hope that he would agree that we are seeing a cultural shift, particularly among our most selective universities, and that he will welcome the group of 11 initiatives. Eleven of our most selective universities—the number is increasing—are coming together to pool and share the systems by which they widen participation, to learn from each other and to ensure that a student from a poorer background in the south of England who has benefited from one of the summer schools or classes can go to a university in the north of England. All that work will be going on over the next few months.

Youngsters in my constituency do not always have role models who have been to university. What is my right hon. Friend doing to increase mentoring in schools and colleges?

I am truly grateful for the interest that my hon. Friend continues to take in his constituency, which is very similar to mine. I know that he will welcome the work that Aimhigher associates are doing; these are young people who have been to university, who come back to school to work with young people in their home communities. I hope he will also recognise that good work is going on, led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, through the reach programme, which is about encouraging young people, often from ethnic minority backgrounds, to aspire to go to university.

I have always believed that the re-designation by the Conservative Government of polytechnics as universities blurred the distinction between vocational and academic education and was a profound mistake. Could the right hon. Gentleman assure me and the House that in these straitened times everything possible will be done to stress that vocational is not second best, and that there are many people in this country whose potential can be challenged not by pseudo-academic courses but by rigorous vocational training?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman knows that I would absolutely agree with him on that. He is absolutely right that there has been an artificial divide in Britain, for all of the 20th century and into this one, between what we have perceived to be vocational and academic. I would encourage him to look at this year’s research assessment exercise results, which show that there is excellence to be found in our newer unversities, just as in our old ones.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the figures that he just read out, welcome though they are, have been achieved in spite of some of the approaches taken by some of the top universities? Does he agree that they could do more to encourage young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, especially early in their education, perhaps as early as primary school or middle school age, to raise their aspirations so that they might be better qualified to apply to those universities when they reach school-leaving age?

We could all do more. The universities recognise that there is more to do, which is why the group of 11 universities have come together to launch initiatives to ensure fair access to the most selective universities. The work of the National Council for Educational Excellence has made it clear, however, that schools could do more. My hon. Friend will also recognise that there are schools in our constituencies where the teachers themselves need to aspire to the very best for those young people and connect up to those universities, and where educational advice and guidance needs to be better.

Broadening access to higher education is critical to promoting the social justice that Conservatives crave, but social mobility has stalled since 1997. Although £2 million a year is spent on widening access, the participation rate of working-class children has risen by just 1 per cent. The report that the Secretary of State commissioned from Christine King, which he dismissed as provocative, says that flexible funding and learning is central to improving access. Surely we must build on the work of the Open university, Birkbeck and others who provide flexible learning; so will the Minister say whether the Government will back Professor King’s recommendations? One does not have to be Mastermind to recognise that flexible learning is the key to improving access.

But equally, one does not have to be Mastermind to know that a £610 million cut to our Department’s budget—

Order. I think that a few hundred words have been said about the Conservative party policy, and that must cease. It is for the Conservatives to let the world know about their policies, not Ministers.

Green-collar Jobs

4. What steps he is taking to encourage more people to develop the skills required for green-collar jobs through studying science, engineering and technology subjects at universities. (252517)

The Government believe that we should take a strategic approach to future skills needs. The demands of the low-carbon economy and our future economic challenges tell us that we need more high-level skills in STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—subjects. We have already invested £29 million in additional university student numbers for STEM. We have also invested £76 million for capacity building in strategically important subjects, including STEM. Last week’s grant letter to the Higher Education Funding Council set out the need for further investment in STEM and for universities to meet the needs of employers.

I thank the Minister for that response. Last Friday I visited the university of the West of England, which is keen to play its role in equipping people for green-collar jobs. However, there is a problem that many students who study humanities or arts subjects develop a real interest in environmental issues, but do not have the qualifications to go on to take postgraduate applied science courses. How can the Minister help such students to make the transition into green-collar jobs?

I am not surprised to learn that my hon. Friend was recently at her local university because she is a tireless champion of every sector of her constituency. I think that I know the answer to her question. As I understood it, she was asking how we get people who study humanities subjects into the STEM-related, green-collar jobs in which they have become interested. I have to say that the answer is that they need to do STEM-related degrees at university if they want to get STEM-related jobs. We are getting more people into STEM-related jobs, and we will need more, but the message has to go out that if people want modern, innovative, interesting green-sector jobs, they need to do STEM-related subjects at GCSE, A-level and university.

That was a most helpful comment for someone who has just done an arts degree at university, especially as equivalent level qualification funding has been totally taken away.

There is support on both sides of the House for the idea of growing the number of STEM undergraduates, because that is exactly what our economy needs. I acknowledge that, since 2004, there has been a slight reverse of the disastrous trend that occurred between 1997 and 2004. However, does the Minister agree that we need to influence what happens in schools, although he has no control over that, and that we need to influence what universities offer, although he has no control over that either? Furthermore, the Secretary of State has just issued a moratorium on additional places in our universities. How will we grow the number of STEM graduates if we stop people going to university?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, but I have to tell him that good things happen in government over which we have no control, including what goes on in the Department for Children, Schools and Families, which last year succeeded in increasing the number of applications for STEM A-levels, just as we got the number of STEM university applications up last year. Across the board, we have a commitment to getting young people to do STEM subjects through A-level and on to university.

The hon. Gentleman said that it was no use telling people who have just done an arts subject to study a STEM degree if they want a STEM-related job. However, I must tell him the hard truth that if people want a STEM-related job, they need to do a STEM-related degree.

What more can my hon. Friend do to encourage schools to work with universities, such as those in Plymouth that have international reputations in marine and environmental science, to encourage people to look to science for a career? Science is vital for green-sector development.

My hon. Friend is a tireless advocate of her constituency’s educational institutions. Earlier, the Minister of State talked about Aimhigher, which builds exactly such links, and the academies programme is building similar links. Outstanding work is being done in not just her constituency but all over the country.

Tuition Fees

5. What assessment he has made of the effects of the level of tuition fees on numbers of university applications by those from low-income families. (252518)

All the evidence shows that variable tuition fees have not deterred young people from lower-income backgrounds from applying to university. University acceptances for people aged 18 and under from lower socio-economic groups rose by more than 8 per cent. this year alone, demonstrating that we are changing the attitudes and aspirations of young people.

That sounds very encouraging, but it does not match the anecdotal evidence that I hear from young people in my constituency, who cite tuition fees and debt as reasons why they do not aspire to do a higher education course.

When we had the tuition fees debate in the House, I think that there was only one Member of Parliament who had substantial loans and fees to pay, and that was me. Of course young people assess these issues, but at this time, in our economy, they are aware that being a graduate will benefit them in the long term, and over their working life, for 45 years after graduation. I am pleased to see that this year’s figures show a rise.

A recent report by Universities UK confirms the statement that my right hon. Friend just made—that tuition fees have not put students off. It also shows that the number of people going to university from different socio-economic groups was stable until 2007. I welcome the improvement in 2008, which was largely a result of the Government’s Aimhigher project and the introduction of new grants. Sadly, I still meet students in schools and colleges who are unaware of the new support for them. Will he work, through schools and colleges, to ensure that those 16 and 17 year olds know of the additional financial support available to them?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for her championing of those issues in Blackpool; I know that there is still much to do in that city to ensure that young people from poorer backgrounds know about the opportunities that universities can offer them. I hope that she will welcome the advertising campaign that began very recently, which is to run across the country. It reminds young people of the opportunities offered by universities, reminds those from poorer backgrounds that grants are available, and points out that people whose parents have a household income of up to £50,000 can still get a partial grant to get to university.

Science

This is an important issue, and at my request, the Council for Science and Technology recently published a report with recommendations on how to improve links between the academic community and Government. The research councils provide advice to my Department; we used their expertise in developing our “Innovation Nation” White Paper. Across Government, the chief scientific adviser, Professor John Beddington, has created a group of departmental chief scientific advisers to give a sharper focus to the contribution that scientific evidence can make on major cross-cutting issues such as climate change.

I thank the Secretary of State for his reply, but in the report to which he referred—the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills report published in December 2008—his chief scientific adviser appears to want not to promote evidence-based science in Government, but rather to defend Government policy, or explain the absence of clear Government policy. How does the Secretary of State intend to develop evidence-based science within Government if his own chief scientific adviser seems unable to do so?

There are two important points to make. First, the whole point of having a Government chief scientific adviser—he is based in my Department because he has to be based somewhere—is that he is independent of Ministers. It would be quite wrong of me to suggest at the Dispatch Box that he is accountable to me for the advice that he gives. I appreciate enormously the work that he is doing to ensure that there is a chief scientific adviser in every Government Department where it matters, and to raise the status of that scientific advice. I have said this on record many times—I said it to the Select Committee recently—but I will say it again: the Government have got much better at using scientific advice, but they are not yet as good at doing that as they could be. I see it as one of my jobs to champion the matter among Ministers.

The DIUS Committee has severely criticised the Secretary of State’s Department for its presentation of data, and partly for a lack of evidence-based policy making, so we were surprised to read this week in The Times that Lord Drayson wants to decide where Government research spending is allocated. That would be in direct contravention of the established Haldane principle. Does the Secretary of State agree with his Science Ministers changing Government policy?

I made what I hoped was a reasonably important speech about the Haldane principle earlier this year. I made it clear that we respect the Haldane principle and that it is the research councils that decide who gets research grants. I also made the point, however, that Ministers and Government have a legitimate interest in the broad shape of research; for example, Ministers have encouraged the multidisciplinary programme across the research councils on living with environmental change, because we believe that that is one of the major challenges facing our society. That is quite different from Ministers deciding which research groups on which research issues should get funding. That is how I believe the Haldane principle should be interpreted in the 21st century, and I think there is a consensus on that among most, if not all, of the scientific community.

Research and Development

9. What steps he plans to take to maintain levels of spending on science, research and development initiatives in higher education institutions during the economic downturn. (252522)

Government investment in research is rising to a record level of £6 billion by 2010-11. Yesterday, the Higher Education Funding Council for England set out to the sector how it will distribute research funding to universities, reflecting the approach in my grant letter to the council. I believe that in the current economic climate, it is vital to continue to invest in science and research. We will resist calls from others to reduce the amount of money that we spend in our Department.

My right hon. Friend has practically answered my next question. In the new economy, we are dealing with issues such as “Digital Britain”, renewables and nuclear. The universities in Scotland are underfunded. We are not getting the same funding as universities down south, yet we supply some of the best research and development in the whole world. Will he look into that issue and find some way to help those universities, which in the end will help the economy and this country?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. It is actually the case that the excellence of research in Scottish universities at present means that Scotland gets a disproportionately large share of the UK science budget. The problem is that for a year or two now, there has been a systematic approach to underfunding those universities. The real concern that people in Scotland should have about the universities and all of us in the UK should have about world class research is that that approach cannot go on for ever without undermining the very excellence that we will rely on for the nuclear industry, renewable energy and low-carbon manufacturing in the future. I hope my hon. Friend will continue his campaign to change those policies, which are threatening those universities.

On that last point about the Scottish universities, I want to follow on from the question of the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), having declared my interest as rector of Glasgow university. May I draw to the Secretary of State’s attention the comment reported in The Herald today from the principal of Strathclyde university? I am being very inclusive. The comment is a reflection on the debate—I put it no more strongly than that—within the Russell group and further afield in Scotland in particular about the perceived efforts of the Executive to shift research and its funding into their assessment of the needs of the Scottish economic situation and jobs market? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the flexibility and the independence of the universities to concentrate on their perceived research needs must remain absolutely to the fore?

I refer the right hon. Gentleman to the answer that I gave earlier about the Haldane principle, which I hope achieves the right balance between ensuring that the research councils can determine who gets which research grants and what gets funded, and that there is space for the fundamental blue-skies research that might appear today to have no future use at all, but will turn out to be the key to economic developments in 20 years’ time, within a sensible discussion about ensuring that we have sufficient capacity across disciplines in areas of great importance to us, as we are doing with the Living with Environmental Change programme. I believe that that balance is the right one. I do not believe that a directive approach from Ministers, thinking that they can second-guess the entire scientific community, would ever be the right way forward.

May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the funding of Welsh universities? I am sure that he is aware of the massive improvement in the level of world class research in Welsh universities revealed in the last research assessment exercise. It has gone up from 70 per cent. of the English level to 93 per cent. since 2001, but Wales receives disproportionately less money per head of population. Is there anything he can do to nudge the research councils into giving more money to Wales?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns. I have discussed higher education policy with my opposite number at the Assembly; we are keen to work collaboratively, particularly on co-operation between English and Welsh universities. As far as research councils are concerned, we have to defend the principle that the money will go where the excellence is. The research councils will not distribute money on a geographical, regional, national or sub-national basis; it has to go where the excellence is. It is, perhaps, for the Assembly to work with the universities in Wales on how money is distributed, to make sure that the places where excellence can best develop are supported. The money will follow.

Student Finance

11. Whether he plans to amend the rules determining eligibility for funding for students undertaking an equivalent or lower qualification. (252525)

At our request, the Higher Education Funding Council for England is reviewing the impact of the equivalent or lower qualification policy. We will consider the council’s advice when we receive it later in the year.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, and I hope that those who will be affected will find it encouraging. We are starting to appreciate the scale of the economic recession and he has just indicated that the Government are speaking to HEFCE about offering more help to people who become unemployed, particularly in respect of disciplines different from those in which they previously worked. I hope that he will accept that what the Government have previously said about financial support for ELQ students risks giving a very mixed message to those whom the qualification is trying to help.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges our announcement on increasing the amount of career development loans available to people who want to do postgraduate study. I hope that he will recognise the £148 million that HEFCE has put into employer co-funded schemes and programmes for people in work and attached to an employer who want to engage in further study. I hope he will also recognise the investment fund that HEFCE has announced for economic challenges. That fund, effectively of £50 million, is to ensure that people across the country are getting the skills to take up employment, reskill, retrain and upskill in these difficult times.

The decision to remove funding for ELQ students was a knee-jerk reaction and a mistake. As unemployment rises in the United Kingdom and people are desperate to retrain, the Government are beginning to look stupid on this issue. Can the Minister simply explain why the decision was taken, and will he at least begin to review it? People are desperate to retrain, and they cannot under this system.

Let us not get into an interpretation of “stupid”. We have explained the issue a number of times to the hon. Gentleman. Let me say this to him for probably the fifth or sixth time: in respect of people who do not have a first degree, it must be an imperative for the Government to redistribute funds—£100 million—to benefit them in these difficult times. If he chose to leave and do a second degree, it could not be right for the Government to reward him over someone who had not done a first degree.

Topical Questions

We know that now is the time to invest in skills and training to prepare people for the upturn. This would be the very worst time to cut public spending, as some are proposing. Since my Department’s last oral questions, we have boosted the number of apprenticeships, which will rise by a further 35,000 next year, and have allocated almost £250 million extra to provide additional training opportunities to those facing or experiencing redundancy. We are working with major employers and the third sector to encourage internships and volunteering, and we are helping people to retrain by trebling the number of professional and career development loans and supporting the Higher Education Funding Council’s new £50 million programme to help firms and individuals meet the economic challenges that they face. We have learned the lessons of the past. We will neither abandon people nor push them into incapacity benefit. We are taking action now and providing real help for families and businesses in the downturn.

I thank the Secretary of State for his reply; I heard what he said in relation to apprenticeships. However, the principal of my local college, Carshalton college, which is very much in the front line as regards apprenticeships and wants to expand, says that there is a shortage of apprenticeships available. What more can the Secretary of State do to stimulate demand for apprenticeships in the public and private sectors, and what can he do to ensure that apprentices who lose their placements as a result of the company that they are working for going bust are able to complete their final qualifications?

One of the real challenges for the coming year is to ensure that the public sector plays as big a role as possible in providing apprenticeships. If all the public sector, say in local government, provided as many apprenticeships as the best local authorities, we would make a massive increase in the number of apprenticeships.

Secondly, we are working with major apprenticeship suppliers such as Rolls-Royce, which is agreeing to train additional apprentices over and above its needs for its own company to provide people for the local work force. As for redundancies, we have ensured that some of the rules and procedures that have prevented people from returning to college to finish the technical qualification part of their apprenticeship have been changed, and we are working with a clearing house to place as many people as possible who lose their jobs with a new employer to fully complete their apprenticeship.

T4. Ten years of Government funding and commitment mean that apprenticeships such as those delivered by the excellent Ealing, Hammersmith and West London college are a popular mainstream option for my constituents. Does the Minister agree that the plans to cut apprenticeships, from whatever source, would be hugely damaging to businesses and to people? (252543)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I would not wish to try your patience, Mr. Speaker, by referring to the policies of the Conservative party; but from wherever a proposal came to cut the apprenticeship programme, for example to stop all apprenticeships for those over 19 this year, it would be a real disaster. We have rescued apprenticeships, and we must not go back to where we were 10 years ago.

The Prime Minister recently promised to bring forward our capital spending programmes, but Members in all parts of the House will have been contacted by further education colleges that are very worried that the opposite is happening, having found that their building programmes are being halted mid-stream. Will the Secretary of State tell the House how many projects have been delayed, what is the value of the projects affected, and why his Department has been so slow to act when it was first informed of this problem last autumn? If he will not take the Prime Minister’s requirements for more capital spending seriously, why should the rest of the House?

I am grateful for the opportunity to make the position on capital spending absolutely clear. It is thanks to this Government’s investment that we will spend £2.3 billion over this spending period. There is no freeze in that spending programme. There is no question but that the £110 million brought forward for this year and the £100 million brought forward for next year will be spent. The issue is that the Learning and Skills Council decided in December to defer a number of proposals awaiting approval, and there are others in the pipeline. It did so so that it could assess the likely impact of the downturn on the viability of future proposals. It does not in any way affect the more than 250 projects that are already under way. However, of course there are concerns for colleges that are in the pipeline and looking for approval. That is why the LSC is appointing Sir Andrew Foster, at my request, to undertake an independent review of how the current situation for future projects came about. I hope that by March there will be a clear way forward for colleges currently facing some uncertainty. However, I must stress that there is no question of the money that has been allocated for this spending review not being spent; indeed, the spending profile has been brought forward.

T6. Those are reassuring words from the Secretary of State, particularly for colleges such as my local college, Basford Hall in Nottingham, which has submitted its plans to the LSC and agreed a way forward, but is caught in the moratorium, which I understand is essentially caused by land deal considerations because the price of land has fallen in the downturn—something that does not affect my local college, however. Will the Secretary of State make it very clear that we will clear through all those pending applications with extreme urgency so that we are ready to take advantage of an upturn when it comes? (252545)

All hon. Members champion their local colleges, but I do not think that anybody has championed theirs as enthusiastically as my hon. Friend. Land is one of the issues that the LSC is looking at, because a number of both current and future schemes depend on land sales. Should that be affected by the downturn, we will need to see where we stand. It is important for the LSC to take a comprehensive approach to the programme rather than single out individual items. I am afraid that my hon. Friend will need to wait until we have worked through the current process with the LSC.

T2. The Federation of Master Builders has stated that some 50 per cent. of its companies will declare redundancies in the next three months. The Construction Products Association has likewise stated that the industry is shedding jobs at an unprecedented rate. Although the Government have announced that they will make more apprenticeships available and that they will bring forward major infrastructure projects, which I warmly welcome, what are they doing to prevent existing apprentices who are currently in post from losing their jobs? (252541)

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. It reinforces the point that I made earlier about why we are anxious to ensure that when possible, the public sector construction projects that are proceeding include a training agreement for the provision of apprenticeships and other workplace-based learning. Our college programme has already created about 500 apprenticeships through that approach.

In case people lose their jobs, we are working with the construction industry training board and have established a clearing house so that whenever possible, we can relocate apprentices in another job or enable them to continue their training in college. We are continuing to develop that process and will extend it to other areas of apprenticeships.

T7. On research funds, does my right hon. Friend recognise the outstanding work undertaken by the newer universities, particularly Northampton, both in levering in private sector funds to support their research funding and in undertaking research that is directly related to the local jobs situation? That research might be in science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related subjects, but it is also in other subjects, particularly the creative industries and public service development. (252546)

I recognise the wide range of very useful and sometimes excellent research carried out in universities such as Northampton, which I believe the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), will be visiting in the near future.

There has been pressure in the past for us to apply an arithmetical approach to distributing research funding, perhaps particularly to the newer universities. Actually, the research assessment exercise that was published recently showed that those universities can win four-star grades for international-quality research purely on the merits of their research, without taking an artificial approach to distributing funding. We have asked the Higher Education Funding Council to recognise that when it comes to distribute research funding in March.

T3. On apprenticeships, and given that nearly 50 per cent. of those being laid off are under 25, will the Government consider giving each area’s local authority, local college and local chamber of commerce regular information about what opportunities there are, so that it is available for everybody in an agreed place? Will they consider having in each local council area one private sector and one public sector champion of apprenticeships who, by their records, are well placed to take on that role? (252542)

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The London apprenticeship taskforce, which met again this week, is discussing that very issue. Rob Whiteman, the chief executive of the London borough of Barking and Dagenham, is co-ordinating that activity across London councils with the LSC, to ensure that we can increase the number of apprenticeships in constituencies such as the hon. Gentleman’s. They will ensure that local authorities and the NHS can do more, along with the many companies in London that, notwithstanding the economic downturn, want to recruit young Londoners to ensure that they benefit from the apprenticeship scheme.

T9. Swindon needs a university now more than ever to help regeneration and recovery from recession, but if we are successful in our bid, will my right hon. Friend help us work with the university of the West of England to establish a university in the town centre instead of using the Coate Water site, which most people oppose? (252548)

My hon. Friend has been a considerable champion of Swindon’s case for a university. I have visited the town and I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State is going there.

It is not for Ministers in London to intervene in complex planning issues. However, I stress to my hon. Friend and all hon. Members who support new university developments that getting together an agreed local priority is critical to the process. I know that she will do everything she can with the local authority and others to bring people together and get a consensus about the way forward, because that is essential.

T5. An agreed local bid has been put forward for a new university in north Northamptonshire and I am pleased that it has made the shortlist of 27. It has huge potential for job creation and boosting the local economy. What weight will the Higher Education Funding Council give the redevelopment potential of new university applications? (252544)

As the hon. Gentleman knows from my meeting with him and my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope), who supports the same proposal, it is for the Higher Education Funding Council to determine the successful areas. We hope that it takes into account fundamentally the need locally for higher education but also, when possible, the ability to maximise economic development and regeneration and to bring in partners such as local businesses and the regional development agency. We suspect that those places will receive priority.

I listened to what the Secretary of State said about the capital funding programme for colleges. It affects my own college—so much so that demolition work has already started on it and the funding has been withdrawn. Although the Secretary of State says that there is a review of funding, that the funding is in place and that decisions have been deferred, representatives of Barnsley college went to a meeting with the Learning and Skills Council on 9 January, and they were told that the LSC was reviewing its priorities for all capital programmes, and that no assurance could be given that any individual project would be funded or, if funding was agreed, on when it might be released. It looks as though the LSC is saying one thing and the Secretary of State is saying another. Will he look again at the project? Barnsley college has been left in a difficult position.

I need to make it clear that no funding has been withdrawn from any college that has been given final approval to go ahead. [Interruption.] Yes, the final decision. Until a college has been told that it has approval to proceed, it does not have that approval. It is critical to emphasise that there is no question of our not spending all the money that we said we would spend on the FE capital programme. However, colleges in the pipeline that have not yet had approval in detail are affected, and the LSC is addressing that. As I said earlier, I understand the position of colleges that anticipated approval at a specific time and now must wait till March to see what the situation is. That is why I have said to the LSC that I want it to appoint Sir Andrew Foster to undertake an independent review of how the situation has been allowed to develop, but that must not cloud the fact that we will spend the money that we have been given and introduce the capital programme, as promised.

T8. Staff at Yorkshire Coast college in Scarborough have noticed an increase in recently unemployed people coming for training to get back into work as quickly as possible. However, some have had to be turned away because the available funding is for in-work training, such as Train to Gain. Is there a need to rebalance the budgets in the FE sector to take account of the change in the economy? (252547)

We are deliberately increasing the Train to Gain budget, but the greater part of our resources do not go through that scheme, but go through colleges’ adult responsive budget at level 2, level 3 and pre-level 2. We are introducing greater flexibility in those colleges to meet the needs of newly unemployed people and we have recently announced additional money from our resources and the European social fund to provide that flexibility. I therefore hope that we will make a significant move towards tackling the problem that the hon. Gentleman identified.