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Topical Questions

Volume 491: debated on Thursday 30 April 2009

Even in difficult times, a degree is one of the best routes to achieving a good job and a rewarding career, but recognising the current global economic climate, the Government are taking action to help ensure that graduates are able to sustain and improve their employability. Yesterday I announced the creation of the graduate talent pool, a new service matching employers with graduates, which is to be launched in the summer. Businesses such as Microsoft, Marks & Spencer and Network Rail have already signed up. We believe that the pool will support about 5,000 internships, building on the 2,000 already achieved through the Higher Education Funding Council’s economic challenge innovation fund. Graduates who have already been claiming jobseeker’s allowance for six months or more will be able to do an internship for up to 13 weeks while claiming benefit and looking for work. We anticipate that universities are likely to offer about 14,000 additional postgraduate places, supported by 30,000 professional and career development loans in the coming year.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the considerable success, by any measure, of the higher education sector in recent times has been in no small part due to its academic autonomy, and that any state interference in that area could seriously damage the very high standards of our higher education, which is the envy of the world?

I am happy to repeat a statement that I have made before at this Dispatch Box: one of the reasons why our universities are so good is that I do not run them, and I do not aspire to run them. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the autonomy of university leadership is important. What the Government need to do is set the framework within which universities operate. Most important, from our point of view, has been the massive increase in real funding of the higher education sector, both for teaching and research, over the past 10 years. I am afraid that that is in sharp contrast to the period when his party was last in power, when funding per student fell by 30 per cent. in a very short period. [Interruption.]

T2. In view of the raised voices, I am not sure that I want to take part in questions. None the less, the Government have made major progress in delivering apprenticeships and building them up to their rightful place as a mainstream option for young people. Of course, that work needs to be backed up by the right for suitably qualified young people to access apprenticeships. Regrettably, we in Scotland experienced funding difficulties, but will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating those MSPs who secured extra funding for almost 8,000 places, giving Scottish youngsters the same right to a place, after the funding had initially been cut back by the Scottish National party Administration? (271902)

I very much agree. We have had quite a lot of occasion over the past year or so to draw a sharp contrast between the Government at Westminster, and our determination to invest in apprenticeships, to build up opportunities and, indeed, to legislate for a right to an apprenticeship for a suitably qualified young person, and the situation in Scotland. I congratulate John Park MSP, in particular, and his Labour colleagues in Scotland on forcing the nationalists to concede that extra money had to be invested in apprenticeships for the sake of giving Scottish young people the same opportunities as English young people. I congratulate everybody who was involved in that campaign.

T3. Given the need to invest in upskilling and reskilling so that we are ready for the economic upturn, will the Secretary of State end the funding uncertainties at my local college, Carshalton college of further education, and other FE colleges throughout the country? Recently, the Learning and Skills Council exhorted colleges to invest in programmes to deliver more workplace-based training, but having initially said that there would be demand-led funding, the LSC now says that funding is to be capped and cut back. In those circumstances, will the Secretary of State consider more flexibility for college principals in how they use the budgets and resources that are available to them? Will he stop the LSC increasing course fees? Will he find time in his busy diary to meet me and Carshalton college principal, David Watkins, to discuss those matters? (271903)

There were a number of questions within that question, but perhaps I can deal with the central one. We have been developing, and are proud to have developed, a demand-led training system, but the hon. Gentleman will entirely understand that no Government budget is entirely unlimited. It is quite reasonable for the LSC to take action to ensure that, on the growth of adult apprenticeships in particular, the budgets that we have set, and the budgets that are available, are the budgets that are spent. The LSC was right to take action as early as possible to indicate to training providers the budget that will be available over the coming 12 months.

In so far as meeting the hon. Gentleman and the college is concerned, I am always happy to do so, wherever possible. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has quite a lot of college meetings in the diary, perhaps I will be able to meet the hon. Gentleman.

T4. The National Union of Students’ report, “Meet the Parents: The Experience of Students with Children in Further and Higher Education”, is being launched in the Terrace Pavilion at lunchtime. The report shows that students with children need more flexibility and support from institutions and support providers to access education and improve their prospects, but that no one knows how many higher education students have children. Will the Minister assure me that such statistics will be collected and collated nationally so that we have those figures? (271904)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to that important work by the National Union of Students, and I look forward to attending the reception in a few hours’ time. Although I know that there are complications with the questions that we ask of students at the application stage, the matter is important. We want a system that is flexible and supports part-time studies, in particular, and the Department is looking closely at those issues in relation to the higher education framework that we will publish in the summer.

T5. As this deep recession is particularly difficult for young people wondering about their future, I am sure that the Secretary of State must be concerned that the number of young people who will not get a place at university this year is higher than normal, particularly as this was supposed to be the year when 50 per cent. of all young people would go on to higher education. Does he have a proper answer to that? (271905)

More people will start undergraduate full-time education this September than ever before. The number of new university places that are available has increased by 40,000 in just two years. That reflects this Government’s commitment to expanding higher education. We want to make the largest possible number of opportunities available to young people, whatever their aspirations. We have expanded higher education, we are funding more places this September, we are investing hugely in ensuring that young people who are long-term unemployed are guaranteed training or a job, and we are investing extra money in apprenticeships. I do not wish to be partisan about this—

T6. Niche engineering and light manufacturing play a significant part in the local economy of Erewash, and will offer future employment for young people with the appropriate skills. In the past four years, the number of apprenticeships completed has risen from 190 to 310, and that trend will continue with the investment that has been announced. However, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) made a reasonable point about the importance of highlighting how employers and employers’ representatives can access the funding and support for these apprenticeships following that announcement. (271906)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. The reason the Department has been running, with the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the advertising campaign fronted by Sir Alan Sugar is to raise awareness of the opportunities of apprenticeships with small employers up and down the country. The regional forums that we have had with Sir Alan have been very effective at raising awareness and interest. I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the recent announcement of the possibility of new funding for group trading associations, which, as we have found around the country, are often the best way of reaching the small employer who might assume that it is too difficult or time-consuming to have an apprenticeship. A group trading association can reassure people and make apprentices available to a wider range of employers.

T7. Is the Minister aware that Chelmsford college wishes to rebuild on a new site to get away from the problem of antiquated and not-fit-for-purpose buildings, but as a result of constant changes and uncertainty it has recently incurred expenses in excess of £500,000 to cope with that? Does he agree with its principal, David Law, that it would be sensible to have a 10-year rolling programme for colleges so that they know where they stand and have the certainty of knowing when their time in the procedures will come, thereby taking away all the uncertainty, problems and excess expenditure? (271907)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. He will have heard me say that we now have, at least to a modest level, an ability to plan into the next spending review in a way that has not previously been possible. That does not give us a 10-year programme, but it does at least give us a five-year programme, which we have never had previously. That will help to bring as much certainty and clarity as possible to as many colleges as possible.

The Government have brought forward substantial sums of money in order to stimulate growth in the economy. If my right hon. Friend has not already done so, can I urge him to contact the construction industry and other Departments that are involved in such projects to ensure that we maximise the opportunities for training for young people and others who want to learn new skills so that they can benefit in future from that stimulation of the economy?

In our discussions with the construction industry training board, it has urged us to do what we have now done, which is to produce Office of Government Commerce guidance about how public sector construction contracts can include a requirement to train young people as apprentices in construction. It is already the case that in the substantial capital programme in my Department, we are expecting apprentices to be provided as part of contracts. The Building Schools for the Future programme has now introduced a similar requirement. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we should maximise the impact of public procurement by ensuring that construction contracts include the requirement to provide apprenticeships whenever possible.

T10. A London School of Economics report out this year shows that for older men, the chance of finding work after being laid off declines by a quarter for each year that they are out of the labour market. Can Ministers tell us what plans they have for targeted support for older men and women workers to deal with unemployment among that category in the recession? (271910)

That is a very important point. In addition to the investment that we announced in the Budget, which is focused on guaranteeing young people work or training, my Department has already secured funding for more than 100,000 additional training courses for those just losing their jobs or who have been out of work for six months, to ensure that people can gain new skills. In the last recession, the people about whom the hon. Gentleman talks were written off. Nothing was done about them, and they were shovelled on to incapacity benefit and forgotten about. We are determined to ensure that that does not happen this time.

May I ask the Secretary of State, with regards to the further education capital programme, to look at Shipley college, which has been finalising its in principle application? The uniqueness and urgency of that case relates to the fact that the college leases the buildings in which it operates, and the leases are due for renewal. It therefore needs to know where it stands with regard to the capital programme. I know that the Under-Secretary has been very generous in this regard. Will he consider meeting me and the college principal of Shipley college, so that he understands the urgency of the situation there?

As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary made clear, he has already made substantial provision in his diary to meet colleges, so I am sure that he can add another one to the list. It is important to do so. We are working as hard as we can, with the additional investment that we have from the Budget, to bring as much certainty and clarity to colleges as we possibly can. That is what the LSC has been charged with doing, and it will be the LSC rather than Ministers that ultimately decides the priority programme.

I make the point that 10 years ago there was no FE capital budget. The hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) told the Association of Colleges that it could not rely on the Conservatives even to commit to the current level of spending on capital. Although the current situation is very difficult, let us not forget that more than 330 colleges have already benefited from capital investment under this Government, and the programme already included 253 active projects. Just yesterday I was able to go to Northampton college with my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) and cut the first sod on the £80 million project that is taking place there. A great deal of very valuable investment is taking place in the FE estate thanks to this Government.

T9. Is my right hon. Friend aware that in Yorkshire and the Humber, we are currently trying to establish the world’s biggest carbon capture and storage project, which will hopefully be up and running in Yorkshire by 2013-14? On that note, may I tell him that all the Yorkshire universities are currently working together to provide as much research and assistance as possible to that well-designed project? Will he join me in congratulating all the Yorkshire universities on working together on this magnificent project? (271909)

I am not only happy to do so, but I add that I am sure that my hon. Friend will welcome the renewed commitment to carbon capture and storage announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change just after the Budget. From my point of view, we will be very keen to work with his Department to ensure that, with the universities, we develop the research, technology and skills that are necessary to make Britain a world leader in that technology.