[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to speak in Westminster Hall again, Mr Hollobone, but under your chairmanship for the first time. I hope that I will not need much calling to order during my remarks.
The Minister knows about my long-term interest in higher education and so do my colleagues. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods), truly a good friend and not just formally so, who had the original idea when she asked, “Isn’t it time that we talked about postgraduate education?” thereby inspiring me to request this debate, which I am delighted about and lucky enough to introduce.
I introduce this debate with a fair-minded point of view. Many hon. Members know that I have a long-term interest in education. I chaired the Education Committee under its different names for 10 years and particularly enjoyed my time as the Chair of the Education and Skills Committee, when I had a brief covering higher education, stolen away as it was when I became the Chair of the Children, Schools and Families Committee, which did not have the higher education remit. I have missed it.
Many years ago, I started the all-party parliamentary university group, on which my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham now has a senior position, because it was important that this vital sector in our economy had a good relationship, good conversation and good communication with Members of both Houses of Parliament.
I have a long-term interest. I am now involved in the newly formed Higher Education Commission, chaired by Lord Broers, the first inquiry of which will look at postgraduate education. It is important to discuss that part of higher education because it is a bit isolated—on its own—and we have had a pretty eventful period for undergraduate education over the past months and years. Everyone has been busy looking at student finance for undergraduates, which has led, unfortunately, to our taking our eye off the postgraduate world.
I read somewhere recently that the Minister said—I believe him—that the noble Lord Mandelson could not be persuaded to include the postgraduate sector in the Browne review of higher education. I shall give way to the Minister if he wants to correct me.
In the negotiations that happened under the previous Labour Government, when Lord Mandelson was Secretary of State and I was shadow Secretary of State, I specifically urged that the terms of reference should make it clear that postgraduates, not just undergraduates, were included. The terms of reference included postgraduates, but Lord Browne did not advance any specific proposals. Postgraduates were included in the terms of reference partly at the request of the official Opposition.
It is good to get that on the record. Of course, there is barely a page in the Browne report about the postgraduate world.
We desperately need to consider postgraduate education, because higher education can only be considered holistically. Where do we get our students from? What are the qualifications for getting into university? Who is pitching up to be taught as undergraduates in universities? How difficult is it for children of all the talents to get into university and higher education, even into elite research institutions? We have concerned ourselves with many things to do with universities and will continue to do so.
In respect of the changes under the Browne recommendations and the coalition Government’s implementation, there has been a fundamental shift and change in the situation for undergraduates. I will make my remarks today pretty much on an all-party basis, so there will be no hauling over the rights and wrongs of that. We are where we are, but to deny that the new situation for undergraduates does not have real implications for the postgraduate world would be foolish.
In a sense, we are in a bit of a policy vacuum in respect of postgraduate education. I urge the Minister and the Government to set themselves the task of filling that vacuum with something that is innovative, informative and positive. The fact is that, taking the dismal view of the situation at the moment, it might be said—in terms of economics being a dismal science—that the health of our research base could be threatened. The universities are some of this country’s greatest assets. Indeed, if universities were taken out of many of our towns and cities, they would be in a parlous state.
Any hon. Member who saw this week’s review of the health of cities will know that, although there is not entirely a correlation, a city without a university is likely to be in the lower percentile of success as a city. I am greatly concerned about our universities being threatened in any way. My wonderful university of Huddersfield is the largest employer in the town. It is a vast, expanding and developing university in the top 10 for employability and for widening participation. It is debt-free, successful and is developing and expanding, with strengths right across the arts, the sciences and design—in almost every subject that can be thought of—but with a practical bent in most departments.
Looking across the university estate, the problems faced by postgraduate education are different depending on where it sits. Universities are at the heart of our national wealth and well-being and are absolutely at the heart of the likelihood of our economy remaining diverse and successful. I shall speak about the threat to our research base, particularly in respect of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects—big science—and will come to that in a moment.
Higher education is going through a period of uncertainty and change, with the new funding arrangements coming from the Browne report and the reduction in funding for teaching—the £9,000 cap. That is the situation that we are in.
I would be happy if the Minister mentioned something that we all discussed at some length when the Government produced the White Paper, “Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System”. I told the Minister that I was a bit worried about that, because he kept saying that students had to be in the driving seat. When I worked for a living—[Interruption.] That is supposed to be an amusing aside. When I worked for a living I used to be a university teacher and I have reflected on the fact that, when students pitched up to be taught by me, I expected and thought that teaching staff were in the driving seat. Sometimes our job was to be quite nasty to undergraduates if they did not work hard enough or did not take their courses seriously enough. Part of the university experience is to get some pretty good, firm advice. I was worried that, with the White Paper, we seemed to be moving into a rather soft world, where we treated students as the consumer and the consumer could do no wrong, and we would have to dance around and provide nice soft courses and a lovely three years before students were ushered out into the wide world.
A lot about the students quite worried me, but I was waiting with anticipation for an education Bill. Suddenly, to my great surprise, shock, horror, I had to reach for my iPad and tweet. That is how serious it was. An early tweet—that method of communication provides early news—informed me that there would not be an education Bill any time soon. Today is a splendid opportunity for the Minister for Universities and Science to put us right. There have been rumours that a Bill will not be presented for two or three weeks, two or three years, or until 2013-14. There are also rumours that the Liberal Democrat part of the coalition has said, “No, no, no”, and that it will not be this side of an election. If the Minister wants to enlighten us, I will happily give way.
I think the Minister has gone as far as we can persuade him to go. Perhaps there is time for reflection, because there was almost nothing about postgraduate research in the White Paper, and perhaps this is an opportunity to cover that. If the higher education sector is not considered holistically, something is very wrong indeed. It should be considered from when students are recruited right through to PhD, doctorate and post-doctorate level.
I am sure, Mr Hollobone, that you took part in the Royal Society’s twinning scheme between research scientists and Members of Parliament. It was one of my most enlightening activities as a Member. One realises what a precious resource it is when young people have come through university, obtained a brilliant first degree, are encouraged to go on to a master’s degree, followed by a full research doctorate, and then post-doctoral work. In my placements when I have been part of the scheme under the last Government and now, it is a worry that if there is no continuous educational progression, the research stream starts to dry up. Post-docs get to a stage when they are getting on bit, they are married, they have a couple of kids and they are finding it hard to maintain a decent standard of living, and if there are no full-time scientific research positions or academic posts that are well paid, or relatively well paid—we are not talking bankers here—the whole system starts to look very thin indeed.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate, and on his excellent work on the matter over many years. On research, does he agree that we must pay tribute to the excellent work of the seven UK research councils which, with the research charities, do a fantastic job in providing support and funding for postgraduate research in innovative areas?
I am happy to do that. The research councils are a brave body of men and women, and they are going through tough times, because they are eking out research grants to many people who need and deserve them. It is a tough time to be entering the postgraduate world. They are in the firing line for saying yes or no, and too often it is no.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way on the specific point of the research councils. Will he note the comments by Research Councils UK in 2007—the Minister laughs, but I do not think it would change its view now—when it argued:
“There is a critical need to grow postgraduate research…in the UK in order to counter the demographic ‘time bomb’ of an ageing population of academics in some disciplines”
and that without
“a strategy to address this, there will be serious implications for future retirement and replacement needs”?
There remains a concern that there is no strategy.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is why I keep pleading for higher education to be considered holistically through the career path of senior researchers and academics to retirement, and to consider the demographics of that. My hon. Friend makes the strong point that we must keep refreshing and replenishing that stock all the time. Many of our senior academics are approaching retirement age in a bunch as the demographics work.
When it is announced that one has a debate such as this, information pours in from all over the place. I pay tribute to Universities UK, the Russell group, the ’92 group and others who have furnished me with excellent background material. I was reading about some of the important things that we do in the research community: employer engagement, research, executive education, knowledge transfer, regional partnership building, and so on. But I return to teasing the Minister about the policy vacuum.
Let us look at the history. In March 2010, the Adrian Smith review, “One Step Beyond: Making the most of postgraduate education”, was published. What has happened to it? Sir Adrian has been pulled in—I am sure he did not have be pulled in, but was delighted—to talk to the Minister, who has got his team together again for at least one meeting. Will he enlighten us on whether that review is going anywhere in influencing Government policy? That would be useful.
I want to dwell on the rather dark side of the argument. Higher education and the postgraduate world are heavily dependent on a particular market, and when I was Chair of the Education Committee, I looked at the international market in higher education. The Committee learned that it is intensely competitive. Universities all over the world compete, and five years ago the main competitors were the United States, Australia and emerging countries such as India and China, sometimes in partnership with UK and US universities. It is a very competitive world, and includes Saudi Arabia, India and Germany. The Germans and the Dutch are now teaching postgraduate and undergraduate courses in English to attract a broader audience. If the income from international students were taken out of higher education, we would be in a sad state indeed.
That market is heavily dependent on taught postgraduate work—the one-year or two-year master’s degree. It is highly competitive. As a member of the court of governors of the London School of Economics, I know it very well. It is highly competitive, and there is no cap on fees, which are very competitive. At the lower end, there are some good cheap bargains in higher education in the UK. At the higher end, a business master’s degree in some of our better-known departments of management will cost a lot of money.
Growth in the number of international students, great threat from competition, and—I do not want to be partisan—a slightly clumsily organised change in the visa arrangements have had an impact on some good institutions. I am the first to say that there were some dodgy players pretending to be respectable colleges, and we could have used a little more finesse in weeding out the obvious cowboy operators without impacting on the serious players in higher education, but there is no doubt that visas have been a difficulty, as have the cuts in teaching grants. We have no tuition fee loans for postgraduates, and the research councils cannot help with that.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government made it clear that they are committed to supporting funding? They said that they are
“maintaining the annual £4.6 billion budget for science and research programmes with £150 million each year supporting university-business interaction.”—[Official Report, 8 December 2011; Vol. 537, c. 35WS.]
In these difficult economic times, the Government have made it clear that they are committed to supporting that funding.
I do not want to be very party political today, but I will be party political in the sense that I still do not think that that is good enough. There is a problem with overall cuts in funding. The view that we are all in it together and so everyone has to stay at the same point is one with which I have never agreed. Why do we have to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs? We need only look at the international competition and how much money is being put into research and development, higher education and postgraduate education worldwide. This is a time when we should be being as ambitious as anything because the payoff, the return to the community, in relatively fast terms is very large. There is a great bonus to be had from moving in that direction. I understand what the hon. Gentleman says, but I think that for higher education, every bit of investment is very worth while.
I do not know the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and community, but in mine, investment in the university is the one way in which we will get regeneration. I cannot remember his constituency, but I have been telling the Government for a long time, because people ask, “Are we in recession or aren’t we?”, that outside London and the south-east, we have been in recession for a long time, and if it was not for the universities, heaven knows where we would be, so any bit of investment in research in universities and any bit of investment that encourages participatory working with small and medium-sized enterprises in our regions is worth while. I would have thought that any Government in their right mind would be pouring money into that.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. On regeneration, is it not the case that we will not be able to grow our economy unless we invest in higher-level skills, and that is what postgraduate education is all about?
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again; he is very generous and always has been. He raises the issue of universities in different parts of the country. There are four universities in Medway, with 10,000 students, and they do a fantastic job. The point that I want to make to the hon. Gentleman was made to me by Professor John Williams from the university of Wales at Aberystwyth. He said that much of postgraduate funding comes from outside the block grant, and to increase funding, people have to go out there and get more funding from industry and benefactors coming into postgraduate education. What more does the hon. Gentleman think needs to be done to get that funding?
I will not be tempted by that question because I intend to talk about that issue at the end of my speech and I would ruin it if I did so now. It might surprise people in Westminster Hall this afternoon, but there is some shape to my speech—a little. Let me gallop through the rest of it. I will come to the hon. Gentleman’s point, I promise.
At present, there is one great danger—well, there is more than one, but let us start with this one that I have picked up over the years. I want as many UK-based students as possible to come through as postgraduates, as the researchers of the future, but too often, I am looking at departments—even the big science departments of the big science universities—that rely too much on overseas students. In science and engineering, students come particularly from China and India. In other subjects, the students are very often from the United States. People can see the statistics on that. UK students are increasingly coming through with high levels of debt—EU students are also pretty stretched in the present economic climate—and I worry that those high levels of debt may be putting them off further study. There is the belief that debt levels will be much higher in the future. Whether they are right or wrong, they are thinking, “Can I afford to go on into postgraduate education and then the commitment of a doctorate and all the rest?”
I become very worried when I look at the statistics and I hope that the Minister will come back to us on the matter. Is he content with the number of UK-based students, particularly in the challenging subjects to which I am referring? We have to have a high density of scientists and clusters of scientists in our country. In particular, is he confident that we will be breeding the postgraduates that we need—tomorrow’s researchers?
We want to keep up the research dynamic in our country. We want to keep up its international excellence. We still have it. We find it very easy to do ourselves down in this country. We say, “Oh, it’s all terrible.” It is not all terrible. We still have fantastic universities that have the top ratings in the world. However, it is possible to become a little complacent and then suddenly our institutions become less attractive, not just to overseas students but to the high-level, high-calibre scientists who we want to come and work in them as part of the teams there. We must keep up the research dynamic if we are to have international excellence.
I am also worried about access to postgraduate education. As Alan Milburn said in his report on social mobility, are we getting into a situation in which only kids from very wealthy backgrounds can contemplate staying on in education long enough to push their talent to its furthest potential? That really worries me. Will we be in a situation in which many bright young people from less well-off backgrounds are put off staying with a science or a social science? Will they be put off staying in education long enough to be part of a successful research future?
Let me return to the point made by the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti). I am totally in favour of partnership between researchers and industry. I think that it is fantastic. People can see that I am in my best suit today. This is real Huddersfield cloth. Not many people could afford it, but I am the Member for Huddersfield and am in a privileged position. I should not drop names, but the reason why I am wearing it is not that I am in your company, Mr Hollobone, but that I am having dinner this evening with Lord Bhattacharyya. He is one of the great exponents of partnership across universities. He built Warwick as a partnership university and has had great success.
I believe in partnership, but I also believe in free science. I believe in academics having the freedom to conduct science that has nothing to do with likely commercialisation. That is what I call free science—science for its own sake, or the subject for its own sake. It could be social science; I am a social scientist by training. It should be able to go somewhere where it does not have to be sponsored and does not have to have a tag saying that it might be useful to some institution, lobby group or whatever. The fact is that we will be a poorer nation and will cease to be a high-science nation if we do not have what I call free science. Free science research must be at the heart of what we do. That is not to gainsay at all the wonderful relationships that do other kinds of more applied science.
This is an important debate. I am sure that the other hon. Members present will say much more profound things than I have said, but there is a policy vacuum that needs to be filled. We need a sense of direction for the future of postgraduate education and research in this country. We also need to know that our research universities have a healthy future and that anyone in our country who has talent and the potential to contribute to that will be able to do so.
The hon. Gentleman may be wearing a suit made of cloth from his constituency. I am wearing shoes made by Cheaney’s in Desborough in my constituency. I am sure that we both appreciate each other’s attire.
Mr Speaker has received a very nice handwritten note from Paul Blomfield, so I call him to speak next.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. I appreciate Mr Speaker’s recognition of my efforts to be called today. It is a delight to contribute to the debate under your chairmanship.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on securing this debate. There is concern across the sector, which, I think, has been shared by the Minister, over the lack of attention that has been given to postgraduate education in the whole debate about the future of our universities and our higher education system and in the higher education reforms. I am not sure where those reforms stand now in the light of the announcement in The Daily Telegraph yesterday of the Government’s new position, to which the Minister has not added much clarity, but I am sure that he will come back to it later in the debate.
Postgraduate education issues and the failure of the Browne review to look at them were matters that I raised with Lord Browne when he appeared before the Business, Innovations and Skills Committee. It was clear that he did not have the inclination to examine postgraduate study, despite recognising in his earlier evidence that what happened in one area of the sector was important to the other areas. In one of those bizarre moments in our fairly long discussion with Lord Browne, he said that we had to understand the interdependence in the sector. What we do in one part of the sector has an impact on another part, he said. He told the Select Committee that he did not look at postgraduate education in anything other than in the most cursory way. Instead, he pointed to the postgraduate review chaired by Sir Adrian Smith and said that it would tackle the issues, and indeed it did in many ways.
When the Smith panel published its report in March 2010, it identified four significant challenges: promoting the value of postgraduate study to both potential students and employers; ensuring that sufficient emphasis is placed on skills, development and employability; crucially, considering barriers to the access and availability of financial support; and, finally, providing key information better to inform student choice, which has been at the heart of the Government’s narrative.
Not unreasonably, there was an expectation that those issues would be addressed in the White Paper on higher education. Surprisingly, though, they were not addressed, and the White Paper declares an intention to revisit postgraduate funding as the new system of undergraduate funding beds in. Universities UK said that that approach
“does not address some of the challenges the sector faces in maintaining postgraduate provision in the meantime, not least because of the withdrawal of elements of HEFCE teaching funding from as early as 2012/13.”
My hon. Friend has convincingly made the case for postgraduate education. It is an important part of the higher education sector. We have some of the top universities in the world, and our postgraduate education has an international reputation. It makes a vital contribution to the economy and is a major foreign export earner.
Over the past decade, the number of taught postgraduate students has grown significantly—around 40% since 1999. Taught postgraduate students now make up around 20% of the total student population, rising from 17% a decade ago. Much of that growth is attributable to international student recruitment—it certainly was before the visa changes—and to a growing number of young, under 25-year-old, UK students. There was nearly a 16% increase in the number of under-25-year-olds going on to postgraduate taught study between 2008-09 and 2009-10. One of the key reasons for that, which was confirmed by the postgraduate taught experience survey in 2010, was that they wanted to distinguish themselves in an increasingly competitive employment market and to improve their employment prospects.
In advance of today’s debate, I talked to academic and student leaders at the two fine universities in my constituency—the university of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam university. I spoke to the vice-chancellor of Sheffield, Professor Keith Burnett, who the Minister knows and, like me, respects as one of our outstanding academic leaders. I asked him, “What would be the key points that you would want us to focus on in our discussions this afternoon?” He said that his concerns were twofold, and that they were both about access. First, professions that require postgraduate work, such as law and architecture, will have an increasingly more biased social mix, as the effect of undergraduate loans bears down on applicants from a widening participation background. Secondly, many areas in arts and humanities rely on self-funded students for department income and for training future university teachers. He said that that will lead to universities being staffed by those from more privileged backgrounds.
Professor Keith Burnett’s concerns were echoed by Thom Arnold, student president at Sheffield university. He said that his main concern relating to postgraduate education
“is funding and widening participation, in particular related to the impact of rising prices for postgraduate courses without a funding system in place”—
I hope the Minister will talk about that issue—
“and what impact this will have, particularly on people from lower socio-economic backgrounds. We are concerned that people will be priced out of postgraduate study, and as a result will also be unable to access professions where a masters is a prerequisite. We see a clear need for a review of funding and support arrangements for postgraduates with a view that this review will lead to the development of income contingent loans for postgraduates.”
Reflecting on a point in the Smith review, which I hope the Minister will also address, he said:
“Another area is access to information and guidance. The White Paper aims to put students at the heart of the system by providing more information to undergraduates with the key information sets. However, potential postgraduate students still remain largely in the dark when applying. Despite the limitations of key information sets, an attempt to roll out a KIS style for postgraduate taught students would be positive.”
Jake Kitchener is student president at Sheffield Hallam university and represents students drawn from a different demographic. He had the same concerns but raised an additional point. He said:
“We think it’s disgraceful that there is still no financial provision for those wishing to take up postgraduate study. I have spoken with students who have saved in excess of £10,000 just so that they can afford to go to university. The alternative is a graduate development loan, but it isn’t available to prospective students with a low credit rating, and when the student finishes it is a huge burden.”
Importantly, he said that mature students, who are a significant component of Hallam’s demographic mix, are not taken into account. He said:
“Those returning to study may have families, mortgages to pay and a reduction in income as they dedicate time to their studies. However, currently there are no systems in place to aid postgraduate study. Returning to education is a positive, but currently there is no student funding support to anyone that wants it. It’s a regressive system and our postgraduate students feel disregarded and hard done by.”
Those views are confirmed by a survey undertaken by the National Union of Students, which said that 60% of those whom it surveyed—a large sample—claimed that accessibility of finance or funding was a major factor on deciding whether to undertake postgraduate study. Some 67% of those whom it spoke to were entirely self-funded through a combination of savings, earnings, family loans and, in 15% of cases, overdrafts or credit cards. It also found out that self-funded students, who had often made the greatest effort to undertake that programme, were more likely than funded students to consider leaving or suspending their studies because of the financial pressures.
There is a crisis in postgraduate education funding. If it is not effectively addressed, we can expect to see mounting costs leading to decreased demand, closure of courses and increased reliance on international postgraduate income, which, however welcome in itself, should not be a substitute for the opportunities for UK students. Crucially, the UK population’s skill levels could decline, when we need higher-level skills to support growth and the knowledge economy, as the Minister will agree.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield said, the crisis that we face in postgraduate education funding is due to two key factors: the impact of undergraduate higher education funding reforms, with which the Minister will not necessarily agree, but on which I would welcome his comments; and the impact of international student visa changes, with which I guess that he would agree, although he probably will not admit it. It is certainly true, as my hon. Friend said, that those changes were pushed through clumsily, and they could have been finessed better. We should have sought to deal with the issue not on the demand side, by discouraging applications, but on the supply side, by cracking down on the bogus colleges that have been mentioned.
The debate is not, however, just about postgraduate taught-course funding. Postgraduate taught courses, in particular, are a critical route to undertaking research programmes. As the million+ group of modern universities points out, students undertaking postgraduate qualifications not only provide future staff potential, but add significant value to our universities and the academic communities of which they are a part. As I said in an intervention, we need to recognise the concern that Research Councils UK has expressed about the demographic time bomb in our ageing academic population. If our universities are to play the role that my hon. Friend rightly talked about, that issue must be addressed.
Like my hon. Friend, I feel passionately about the role our universities can play in our economic future. Sheffield is a city with a fine industrial and manufacturing history, but it is seeking to identify a new way forward in a changing economy. The critical way that it can do that is by combining the innovation and research expertise of our universities with the traditional manufacturing skills in our city. As the Minister will agree, there is no finer example of that than the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre at Waverley. That initiative was the work of the university of Sheffield and its key partners, Boeing and Rolls-Royce, and it has led to extraordinary innovation in manufacturing, but it came about only because of the sort of research capacity that we need to cherish.
In conclusion, I hope the Minister will spell out how the Government plan to address the four issues identified by the Smith review: promoting the value of postgraduate study; emphasising skills development and employability; critically, overcoming the barriers to financial support; and providing key information to enable student choice.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. It was very kind of you to make those comments. May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on securing this timely debate and on his excellent speech. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), who gave such an excellent speech that I am going to repeat some of it.
Postgraduate education is important in a number of different ways. It is important for the individuals who undertake study, because they can improve their employment opportunities, become the innovators of tomorrow and contribute to business development and to solving some of the economic and social challenges facing our country and others.
Postgraduate education is therefore important for individuals, but it is also important for universities, as my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield mentioned. Universities obviously benefit from the strengthening of the academic community that results from having postgraduate students. Indeed, I regularly see postgraduate students at Durham university bringing forward ideas, linking them into the work of academic programmes and teams and really taking those ideas in a new direction. That is very exciting for universities.
Increasingly, however, postgraduate education is also a marker of Britain’s academic standing in the world. I see a lot of postgraduate students in Durham from overseas, and they contribute to not only its international community, but its international research teams. Increasingly, that is how research develops in this country, although we mostly see it in science and engineering subjects. Those students are critical to not only securing economic growth, but helping to deal with some of our challenges.
The UK is second only to the United States in attracting international students, so it is important that we ask the Minister some serious questions about whether we will be able to maintain that international standing and whether new procedures or policies will need to be put in place to keep our standing as high as it is. Concern has been expressed in the academic community about whether we will be able to do that.
I thank the Minister again for attending the recent meeting of the all-party university group, when we looked at the White Paper. We really appreciated the time he spent talking to us about it. I hope that the session was not a complete and utter waste of time and that something from the White Paper will emerge in a Bill at some stage for us to consider. As the Minister will know from that session, a number of vice-chancellors have expressed concern about postgraduate study and wanted to hear more from the Government about how it would be strengthened. Indeed, million+ has said that there is a real risk that we will move into a period of decline, particularly in terms of UK-domiciled postgraduate students. Does the Minister share that concern?
There are two big issues with regard to postgraduate education. One is access, which several people have mentioned, and the other is financing. The Milburn report, which was called “Unleashing Aspiration”, addressed access and said that postgraduate qualifications
“have increasingly become an important route into many professional careers—in the law, creative industries, the Civil Service, management professions and others. But these courses are substantially more expensive than undergraduate degrees—often costing up to £12,000 per year—and there is no student support framework equivalent to the framework for undergraduate. New proposals need to be formulated to establish a clear, transparent and fair system of student financial support for postgraduate learners.”
That throws a real challenge out to the Government. If they are really serious about higher education contributing to social mobility, it should not stop at undergraduate level, and we need to look at postgraduate level.
While I am on my feet, I would not like to miss the opportunity to say that I am glad that the Milburn report did not think about widening access to higher education just in terms of getting some—a few—bright students from lower-income backgrounds into Oxford and Cambridge. It considered the wider issue of making higher education available across the piece to low-income students and, importantly, put the issue of postgraduate education on the agenda. I hope that the shadow Minister as well as the Minister will speak about that issue.
There is growing concern about access. I come from a low-income background and did several years of postgraduate study, but I am not sure whether that would be possible now for someone of my background. That is of concern to us. In researching the issue we could not find any study with up-to-date figures about the diversity or lack of it in postgraduate education, or about the current barriers, and we could not discover whether under-represented groups have been considered specifically. Perhaps the Minister would comment on that.
Before the Labour Government left office in March 2010 the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills put forward a series of recommendations on improving postgraduate education, in “One Step Beyond: Making the most of postgraduate education”. To be fair to the Minister, that report and its recommendations did not just fall off a precipice, which has happened in other contexts. They were brought back in the Government’s response to the postgraduate review, and the recommendations are almost identical. Obviously, those are excellent recommendations. One, for example, states:
“Universities UK and Research Councils UK should do more to identify and promote the economic and social value of postgraduate study.”
The response also states that attention needs to be given to funding. Some specific proposals are mentioned about getting research councils to work with other bodies
“to offer longer periods of postgraduate research”
so that perhaps students can earn income as well. I am sure that hon. Members will be pleased that I am not going to go through the list, as there is not time; but are those proposals being addressed? They seem to offer at least a partial way forward for improving access to higher education and the funding regime.
I also want to ask whether the Department has thought about what recent changes in undergraduate student finance and funding would mean for postgraduate education. The withdrawal of about 80% of teaching funding in England is affecting postgraduate courses, and possibly making them more expensive. In addition, students will finish undergraduate courses with a level of debt that may make them less likely to take up career development loans, in particular, or additional debt to undertake postgraduate study. The National Union of Students says that that is a real worry; in its view the average postgraduate taught fee will rise by about 24% by 2012-13. That could obviously add a disincentive.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central also pointed out valuable work by the NUS in surveying current postgraduate students about their financial circumstances. It is worth repeating a few of the points that were made. The survey, carried out in October 2010, was a large one, and 60% said that accessibility of finance or funding was a major factor in deciding whether to undertake postgraduate study. That figure rose to 70% among respondents studying full-time. The 67% who were entirely self-funded were very concerned about debt, overdrafts and credit cards. Self-funded students were also more likely than funded students to consider leaving or suspending their studies, owing to financial concerns. I want to raise that with the Minister, because the more we rely on self-funding, the more students may drop out, as they are just unable to carry on with their studies and raise the necessary income. Fifty-two per cent. of those in receipt of financial support said that postgraduate study would not have been an option for them without it. From my experience I would also make that point.
There are two big challenges: access and funding. Addressing those issues is important, because, as hon. Members have said, not only is postgraduate education important for individuals and universities; it is essential for the country to invest in it, if we are to grow our way out of the economic crisis. If the Minister needs evidence for that he need only read the Centre for Cities report produced a few days ago. It made clear the link between growing a knowledge-based, higher-level-skilled economy and being able to ride out economic downturns. We need that to happen here: beyond the five cities that were identified in the report as potentially doing well, we need universities and research to be at the heart of economic regeneration. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how he will ensure that that happens.
I am particularly grateful, Mr Hollobone, to serve under your chairmanship, and also that you have taken out the bulk of my speech by mentioning those historic victories by the Hatters over Kettering.
Many of my colleagues in the Opposition have raised pertinent points, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on obtaining the debate. I want particularly to focus on a couple of areas linked to my experience. I am grateful that I do not have to declare an interest. I am not a postgraduate graduate—or rather, I suppose I should say I am not a postgraduate. If I had been to university for postgraduate education I might have known the exact way to say that. I was born in Luton and went to Cambridge to attend one of the finest universities in the country. [Interruption.] Indeed—I will not repeat the remark made from a sedentary position. I really enjoyed my time at Cambridge, but chose to move back to Luton. When I left, the university of Luton was established; today it is the university of Bedfordshire. Alongside the other modern universities in this country, the university of Bedfordshire is doing incredible work in the postgraduate field. I think that sometimes a lazy shorthand is employed by people who perhaps are not as engaged in the debate as the hon. Members present today, who assume that the bulk of postgraduate education goes on in Russell group universities. The role of modern universities today is hugely interesting. My wife, Lucie, who would want me to point out that she is much smarter than I am, has spent most of the past decade in postgraduate education, and is now a research fellow at the university of Bedfordshire. I met her at the university of Cambridge, and I have witnessed at first hand the work done by the funding councils. I am grateful for it, having been a penniless student myself for most of my twenties.
The broader context of the debate is hugely important. The first thing to say is that there is a growing requirement for graduate qualifications, and Labour colleagues have raised that issue already. We need to compete with the world and that requires us to expand graduate qualifications in this country.
There is high graduate unemployment and underemployment. We know that this crisis is particularly affecting young people in the economic situation that we are in. Upskilling and obtaining graduate qualifications can be a good route through which to ensure that we—as an economy and as individuals—are able to pull out of the nosedive that we are in.
However, the 80% cut in teaching funding has also knocked on to affect postgraduate teaching, even though it was directly aimed at undergraduate teaching. In a sense, there are no Chinese walls. Many of the teachers at postgraduate level are also working in the undergraduate field. When we lose a teacher, or a teaching place, that loss is felt right across the university sector.
Of course, it is worth pointing out that the Government draw from the pool of postgraduate education and, in many cases, directly fund postgraduate education. I do not know if it is in order, Mr Hollobone, to speculate on the number of doctorates held by people in Westminster Hall today, including the civil servants and Clerks, but I will. I know that there are certainly MPs in Westminster Hall who are “doctors”, but I also know how little help they would be if I stubbed my toe on the way out. I am sure that there are people with doctorates and other postgraduate qualifications present right here in Westminster Hall, who feed directly into the machinery of Government.
Let us also look, for example, at the Department for Education, which directly funds the postgraduate certificate in education. We are already seeing that there are changes being made in that system, for instance the reduction in bursaries. Similarly, the Health and Social Care Bill will take away the requirement to train and develop doctors, nurses and others from the strategic health authorities, and it will pass that requirement to GPs.
In the broader context, therefore, a lot is changing in the postgraduate world. There is not only the reduction in funding to consider but the direct action that the Government can take to fund postgraduate qualifications.
Much of the training for those qualifications takes place in our modern-day universities. My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield made a very good point when he said that even if there is not a policy vacuum right now—perhaps there is a series of ideas that are being worked through to an ultimate conclusion, which we will hear about in time—it seems that there has been much focus on undergraduate education and much less focus on postgraduate education.
I spoke about modern universities right at the start of my contribution. What do they do? They support a large number of postgraduates; about two in five postgraduate qualifications are gained in our modern universities. They also provide much greater support to part-time graduate students than older universities; they are the ideal place for part-time students to be working in the postgraduate field, so that they can put their skills back into business and learn on the job, as it were. One in two of the postgraduate qualifications obtained by part-time students is obtained at a modern university. And modern universities also support older students, more so than, say, Russell group universities, which are at the other end of the scale for teaching older students. About 40% of the postgraduate students that modern universities teach are over 35.
In addition, modern universities are more likely to reach students from minority ethnic backgrounds and communities; I see that in my own local university, the university of Bedfordshire. Modern universities have also been proven to do very well in identifying new markets, such as creative industries. Postgraduate qualifications can add something to those sectors and to the economy more broadly.
There are a number of things that can be done, and I hope that the Minister will respond in detail to my points when he winds up. At the moment, however, the situation feels a bit shapeless and baggy. Nevertheless, there is one idea that has a lot of traction—it is the idea of bringing in more funding directly from industry and enterprise.
That idea—of bringing private funding into the system—was made earlier in the debate, and it is a brilliant idea. In fact, I am very disappointed that the Browne review did not pick it up and run with it much more on the undergraduate side; I think that we have been quite vocal about that during the last 18 months.
Whatever system we come up with to ensure that our postgraduate education is among the best in the world—that it is adequately funded and that it reaches the students that we want it to, and not only those people who can feel they can afford postgraduate education or who feel a great expectation on them to study at postgraduate level, but a whole range of demographics—it is really important that the Government play a role in ensuring that the funding for that system is available to all students, regardless of where they choose to study and how they study.
My own preference is quite clear—there are obvious economic benefits in ensuring that funding is protected and enhanced. Where there is private funding, however, it should be the role of Government to ensure that it is available to all, regardless of where they choose to study. For example, a postgraduate student support and loan scheme might be a way forward, but we do not want banks simply shifting towards cherry-picking those students they believe have the best chance of earning significant sums in the future, based on the university that students attend or their background.
A loan scheme should be available to all postgraduate students, regardless of whether they are full-time or part-time students, regardless of their income and regardless of their credit rating or background. If the Government choose to go down the route of having a loan scheme, they should consider making it available to all students across the field.
In summary, I have three “asks” for the Minister and I wonder whether he might briefly comment on them. The first “ask” is quite simple; it is about improving the quality of the data that we collect about postgraduate students. Even in the time that I spent researching postgraduate education for this debate, I clearly noticed how little data we have on the types of students who are coming through. With the big funding changes at undergraduate level, it is all the more important that we start looking at the income, background, ethnicity, student profile and level of debt that people are coming into the sector with, so that we can see whether any changes being made by this Government are working well.
My second “ask” of the Minister is to ask him simply to acknowledge both the interdependency between the postgraduate world and the undergraduate world, and the fact that the 80% cut in the teaching budget will have an effect on postgraduate education as well as on undergraduate education. Indeed, I also ask him to acknowledge the point made by Labour colleagues that the cost of postgraduate education may also go up, just as the cost of undergraduate education has.
My third “ask” of the Minister is to ask him to commit to delivering an equitable scheme that is accessible to all postgraduate students—even if is privately funded or supported—to ensure that all of our universities have the chance, the role, the ability and the privilege of providing postgraduate education and qualifications, regardless of where they are located or the courses they run.
It is a pleasure to serve under your lively chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to respond on behalf of the Opposition to what has been an excellent debate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on securing this important and timely debate. He delivered his speech with passion and conviction, and he has a deep commitment to this area of policy. Indeed, he bought additional expertise to the debate, given his involvement in the Higher Education Commission, which is currently conducting an inquiry into postgraduate education. I am sure that all Members of the House look forward to the commission’s report, which will be produced once that inquiry is complete. However, having congratulated my hon. Friend on securing the debate, I must also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods), who initiated the form-filling that helped to secure the debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield spoke very powerfully about the importance of postgraduate education and the fact that it has been somewhat isolated in the context of the current debate about university education. He also made the important point that higher education should be looked at holistically, and he is absolutely right about that. In addition, he spoke about the impact that the presence of a university has on the city and region in which it is located, and I too can relate to the experience of having a university in my constituency, given that Aston university is in my constituency and both Birmingham university and Birmingham City university are just outside my constituency boundary.
My hon. Friend spoke at length about postgraduate research, which I will discuss later. We also had excellent contributions from the other Members who spoke. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) addressed the issues in relation to taught postgraduate courses. He spoke powerfully about issues of access and the effect that widening participation in education can have, especially in improving access to the professions. Having been a barrister before I became an MP, I can absolutely attest to the fact that the professions often feel like middle-class enclaves, and when someone is from an immigrant working-class background—as I am—that is an entirely different kind of world.
My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham spoke about the role of postgraduate education in strengthening both the academic community as a whole and international research teams, which is a very important point. She also talked about how that speaks to both our role and our reputation in the world. We have always punched above our weight, and we should treasure that. My hon. Friend returned to the important challenge of funding, which I will address later, and my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker) rightly praised the role of modern universities. We are very lucky in this country to have a diverse higher education ecosystem, and we should cherish that diversity of mission, intake and teaching and research strengths.
This has been an important, constructive and necessary debate. Members have already made the point that discussion of higher education in Parliament often focuses on undergraduates, especially on an 18-year-old undergraduate’s journey through the system. That is, of course, extremely important, but it sometimes prevents both recognition of the importance of part-time and mature students at undergraduate level, and adequate discourse about postgraduate education as a whole, which is deeply unsatisfactory. Quite apart from the fact that postgraduate education generates something like £1.5 billion in output, we must, as other Members have said, take a holistic view of the sector if the policies we then formulate are to encourage quality, competitiveness, growth and social mobility.
We very much welcome any expansion of postgraduate education, especially that which took place between 2005 and 2010, as it clearly has benefits for the individual and for society as a whole. Taught postgraduate degrees, particularly when accessed by mature students, can help an individual improve their career prospects or change career entirely, especially with part-time study. Given the tough economic climate we face, coupled with the sheer terror of potential unemployment and what that does to life chances, particularly those of young people, students taking up postgraduate education immediately on completion of undergraduate courses do so increasingly because of the growing belief that we need more than one degree to be competitive.
However postgraduate education is accessed, and for whatever reasons, taught postgraduate education creates an increase in the national skills base and in earning capacity, and in that way benefits the economy and growth. Also essential to innovation and economic growth is research-based postgraduate education, through which we have the best chance of stimulating the kind of innovation we need to effect the rebalancing of our economy and get back to long-term growth, and we believe that the Government can and should play an active role in that. The UK’s delivery of global research output is second only to that of the United States, which demonstrates the health of our sector and the fact that, as I said earlier, we punch above our weight in the world, but with increasing competition from across the globe the Government must ensure that we keep pace with our competitor countries. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central made an important point about the ageing demographic make-up of the research community, and such issues highlight the need for the Government to bring forward a strategy that maintains the strength and diversity of our research base, especially given the reliance in some parts of the sector on international students, welcome though their contribution is.
One of the biggest areas of concern, as we have heard today, is funding. Funding concerns have been amplified by the Government’s decision to treble undergraduate tuition fees to £9,000. We are concerned not only about the impact that that will have on access to and participation in undergraduate education, but about what higher levels of undergraduate debt will mean for postgraduate education. With cuts in the teaching grant and higher fees, the debt burden gets ever higher, and so too does the prospect that students from deprived backgrounds, who are more likely to be debt-averse, and mature students with family commitments will be locked out of postgraduate education, thereby cementing the dominance of the middle classes. Particularly telling is the situation of those who would have become mature students but are deciding not to bother with postgraduate education because of the higher fees and the associated debt burden. Their aspirations are being blocked because they have come to the view that financially it simply is not worth the risk. That will also have an impact on social mobility, especially when we consider, as other Members have said, that postgraduate education is an important route into professions such as law and the civil service, which are rightly and regularly criticised for the lack of diversity among their intake. That scenario will only get further entrenched in the present situation.
It is in that context that we have argued that the Government should have changed course, to bring the cap on undergraduate tuition fees down to £6,000, a measure paid for by not going ahead with a corporation tax cut for the banks, and by asking the top 10% of graduates to pay a bit more.
The important point is about the headline level of debt, which I was coming on to make. Our proposal takes into account, and does not change, the Government’s decisions on the overall budgets. It clearly shows that it was still possible for them to do more to bring down the headline level of undergraduate fees by one third, thereby reducing the overall debt burden, which in turn would have had less impact on the numbers of people going into postgraduate education.
We welcome the attention being given to future funding options for postgraduate education by various bodies, such as the Higher Education Commission. I also note the report by CentreForum and its proposal for a £10,000 state-backed loan scheme for people taking one-year taught postgraduate courses, and that the National Union of Students and others are considering possible packages. We welcome the work being done to develop models for the sustainable funding of postgraduate education, and while alternative models are being developed and their viability assessed the Government can and should consider what more they can do to encourage the availability of professional career development loans, and to ensure that they work with banks to get the best possible deal for postgraduate students.
The Government’s White Paper on higher education unfortunately barely mentioned postgraduate education. It certainly did not create any legislative space for the discussion of issues affecting postgraduate education, or of how those issues might be dealt with. That was a mistake, and a missed opportunity. I note that the Minister reconvened the Smith review last year, and that additional work will now be done by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, so perhaps the Minister will take the opportunity today to update us on that funding consultation exercise being undertaken by HEFCE, and the participation review.
It is clear from the contributions to this debate and from the concerns highlighted by the higher education sector that a comprehensive strategy for postgraduate education is needed. We have, as other Members have mentioned, heard rumours in the past couple of days that the Government have U-turned on their policy of expanding the presence of for-profit providers in higher education, and so will not now introduce their planned higher education Bill this summer. The Minister might, therefore, have a bit more time on his hands, and could have even more if he heeded our call not to make any further changes to the core and margin model in 2013-14, allowing the sector to enjoy a year of stability. I wonder if the Minister might take this opportunity to redirect his energies into preparing the comprehensive postgraduate education strategy that is being called for by so many.
Thank you very much, Mr Hollobone, for chairing this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on his opening speech. I have always had a soft spot for him; I remember his chairmanship of the Education Committee, and he was also a student of Michael Oakeshott, so all we Tories have great respect for him. We then heard a series of speeches, which I welcome, from the hon. Members for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) and for Luton South (Gavin Shuker), and then from the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood). There was a theme, which I am happy to join in the support of, that postgraduate education is very important for a lot of reasons. It is very important for the economy, and for the individuals.
I can tell the hon. Member for Sheffield Central that I was talking to senior managers from Boeing about their overall strategy for research and development. They said that when they were planning an investment in the US, they were taking some leading figures from American universities close to where they were investing to Sheffield, to see at first hand how business-university collaboration could be done successfully. We can get it right, and we should celebrate those examples. Clearly, great achievements have been made at the university of Sheffield and elsewhere.
We have an important and valuable postgraduate education experience. I realise that there are a range of concerns in the sector, expressed by Members in this debate, about the future funding of postgraduate study. Let me make several things clear. First, it is unhelpful to think of it as a problem caused by a pile of undergraduate student debt. The more one looks at the issue, the more it is clear that the idea of a debt mountain that is a burden on people’s shoulders is misleading. It should be thought of not as a debt but as a flow of payments. The model, which we took in many ways from the previous Labour Government, has the best features of a graduate tax. It is essentially 9% of any earnings above £21,000 a year until the cost of the university education is paid for. If a child of mine were leaving university with £25,000 in debt on his or her credit card, I would be worried, recognising that it would threaten their ability to borrow, for example, to pay for postgraduate education if necessary. However, that is not a fair analogy with our student finance proposals.
Does the Minister not accept that he is trying to appropriate the language of a graduate tax to describe a system that is actually nothing but an income-contingent loan? He mentioned the central principle of graduate tax. Graduate tax is a system whereby people pay back according to what they can afford, as opposed to what they had to borrow to go to university.
The total amount to pay back is determined by the cost of the higher education, and it keeps the connection with the university. That is where I part company with the graduate tax. The point that I am trying to make is that graduates will experience only a slightly higher deduction from their pay packet by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and if their income ever falls to less than £21,000, no payments whatever will be made. That matters to the debate about postgraduate education. I am not simply trying to reopen the debate on our undergraduate proposals.
The idea seems to be that it will be harder for postgraduates to finance themselves, because they will suddenly have an enormous amount of debt. In all the conversations that we have had with lenders about, for example, graduates’ ability to access a mortgage, they have said that what lenders look at is fixed monthly repayments. We have increased the threshold for repayments from £15,000 to £21,000, so the monthly repayments under our system have fallen compared with the system that we inherited from Labour. That matters to postgraduates’ ability to fund themselves. That is the source of Opposition Members’ anxiety: a misunderstanding of the implications of the reforms.
Nevertheless, I accept that there is concern about postgraduate issues. We recognise the need to monitor closely what is happening, investigate if problems arise and be absolutely clear what they are and what will need to be done about them. Today, we published the letter that we sent to the Higher Education Funding Council for England with the grant statement for the coming year. A paragraph in that letter specifically discusses postgraduates:
“We are pleased that the Council is taking the lead on gathering evidence to improve our understanding of the purpose and characteristics of, and outcomes from, postgraduate study, with the intention of reviewing postgraduate participation following the changes to undergraduate funding.”
We accept that it must be monitored.
“We also note the progress the Council is making, with its HE Public Information Steering Group”
on better information for postgraduate students. Also, of course, we refer to continuing
“work on strategically important and vulnerable subjects”.
That in turn gives the hon. Gentleman an opportunity to educate the junior Milibands. The letter was published today on the website of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
We have asked HEFCE to monitor the situation. I accept that one finds when one digs into the matter that we need better access to data. Some data are collected by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, and some by HEFCE. The hon. Member for Luton South, in particular, discussed that. We need to do better at making those data accessible.
I have asked officials to continue to consider all the policy issues on postgraduates. This is a coincidence, I think, but this very afternoon—probably as we speak—a round table discussion on postgraduate education is being held with BIS, HEFCE, the research councils, the learned societies, mission groups and other interested parties. We recognise the importance of watching for any effect on behaviour and seeing whether any policy proposals are called for. However, we must not forget that at the moment, postgraduate education is a mixed economy.
Of course there will be a lot of interesting ideas. People have referred to Tim Leunig’s paper for CentreForum, one of the few policy ideas proposed so far. I would welcome a more wide-ranging debate, but good for Tim Leunig for setting it going.
I do not think that there is scope under any political party for the creation of a new public spending programme. We would have to be very careful. We already support postgraduate education and research through a range of expenditure programmes, not just through HEFCE, although that alone contributes to the cost of supervision to the tune of £200 million. We also support postgraduate work through the research councils, and the proportion of PhD students training in cohorts through centres for doctoral training is increasing. Those centres have been shown to have value for students. They develop people who are internationally competitive and more productive and have a high impact.
Only yesterday, at the university of Reading—again, this is a coincidence—I announced a £67 million new investment in postgraduate training and development in the biosciences. Over the next three years, the doctoral training partnerships that I launched yesterday will support 660 four-year PhD students, as well as 70 other postgraduate studentships from this autumn. Those programmes aim to ensure that postgraduate study and research in the UK continue to have strength and depth.
The coalition recognises the value of the postgraduate experience to both the individual and the economy. We recognise that it is a key part of our universities’ role, and that it has grown more rapidly than the undergraduate experience. It is a source of important revenue, notably external revenue, for our universities. We will collect more data on participation than previously. We are continuing to see what policy options are available if they should be necessary, but we must work within a framework. We do not wish to create a new public expenditure programme when, historically, the mixed economy has worked successfully.