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Student Loans

Volume 764: debated on Monday 20 July 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact on the part-time higher education sector in England of extending loans to students with Equivalent or Lower Qualifications in certain subjects.

The UK is a world leader in science and innovation, having the most productive science base in the G7. To continue to support this investment we announced a relaxation of the student support rules for those taking a second degree in part-time engineering, technology and computer science courses. This comes into force in the 2015-16 academic year, so it is too early to assess the impact of the policy.

My Lords, while that is some good news, the UK’s current skills shortage can be met only if adults reskill and retrain to meet that shortage. On the advice of the CBI and in the interests of productivity, will the Government consider reviewing the whole policy introduced by Labour in 2008-09 and reinstating loans for ELQ students? If not, what other support are they offering in the other sectors?

I agree with the noble Baroness that providing opportunities for adults to reskill is important. However, university alone is not the only route to do this or to help us meet the productivity challenges ahead. She will be aware, for instance, that apprenticeships are not just for young people. In fact, last year, more than half of higher apprentices were over the age of 25. This Government have ambitious plans to deliver more than 3 million apprenticeships, including at degree level, over this Parliament. Just last week, the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre announced a pioneering new education route for successful apprentices to study advanced vocational university degrees as part of their training.

My Lords, part-time students are more likely to come from groups underrepresented in higher education and therefore need to be supported. However, there were almost 55,000 fewer part-time higher education students in the UK in 2013-14, and that has been a continuous reduction of more than 40% since part-time fees were allowed to rocket. Now, the Chancellor proposes to axe maintenance grants. What is the forecast for HE part-time students in 2015-16 and beyond?

As I said to the noble Baroness, there is a range of ways in which students can engage in higher education, including the 43% increase in the number of higher and degree apprenticeships compared to 2013. In 2013, 12.3 million people held a higher education qualification compared to 2.6 million in 2006. Of course one of the key impacts on people deciding what they want to do is the fact that the economy is improving. Almost 2 million jobs have been created since 2010, so people have security in their job and therefore may be deciding not to study.

Will the Minister acknowledge that part-time study for a full degree, done by people who already have jobs, does not allow the flexibility that she suggests is available generally? The fall in the number of students doing part-time higher degree courses is critical because the future of education may well lie in the willingness of people to take further degrees, to further their careers, while they are holding a full-time job.

As I said, we are keen to continue to support part-time students. The higher and degree apprenticeships are widening access to a broad range of professions, including the automotive, aerospace and digital industries, and to occupations as diverse as solicitors, dental technicians and accountants. These apprenticeships are helping people to develop the high-level technical skills that they need, but which are also needed for the UK economy.

Can the Minister give us some idea how the Government decide what degree courses are selected for this kind of support? It seems that this is not an equal issue for many of the arts and humanities.

As I have said, the Government have announced a relaxation for a number of professions. I am sure that they will continue to do so to ensure that that as many people, both the young and the more experienced, have access to education and further training if that is what they wish to undertake.

My Lords, to be successful the Government’s productivity plan has to deal with skills shortages and the recent decline of part-time higher education. Do the Government have the ambition to link the shortages of skills identified by the Migration Advisory Committee with extending the exemption for loans for part-time higher education attendees?

In some sectors there has been a relaxation of the rules, which has also been driven by some of the needs of the economy. We are very keen to ensure that as many people have access to higher education as possible. We will continue to look at this but, as I have said, we have seen a 43% increase in the number of higher and degree apprenticeships compared to 2013—and, crucially, we are now seeing a growing economy. Since 2010, 2.4 million private sector jobs have been created. What people really want is job security; that is what we are providing.

My Lords, do the Government plan to take forward the recommendation in the House of Lords Digital Skills Committee report that we should involve the Tech Partnership in reviving and modernising IT qualifications, particularly for the benefit of adults who wish to change career?

I am sure that the Government are considering the conclusions of that report. I am happy to follow up on that with the noble Lord.

My Lords, it is music to my ears and, I am sure, to those of the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, who has obviously been very involved in apprenticeships, to hear the Minister say how important they are. How does the Minister feel about the progress that is not being made in attracting women to take some of the STEM subjects apprenticeships? Many of us have been working hard to achieve that.

I entirely agree with the noble Baroness that it is critical that women have access to these jobs and, in fact, to whatever career they so desire. Another obviously important thing is making sure that our schools are providing high-quality education for all students of all backgrounds, male and female, so that they have every opportunity they can in life to do what they so desire.

My Lords, from the Cross Benches, is the Minister aware of the importance of offering basic numeracy and literacy courses to parents who may never have done very well at school? That is for their own opportunities in employment but also because of the huge advantage to children if their parents start learning, as highlighted by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education’s report, chaired by my noble friend Lady Howarth of Breckland.

The noble Earl makes a very good point. In fact, under the previous Government the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds starting at university rose to its highest level ever. This Government want to double the rate of disadvantaged young people entering university by 2020 but in order to access university, young people have to have a high-quality schooling education. That is why we are delighted that more than 1 million more students are being taught in good and outstanding schools now than in 2010.