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Higher and Further Education: Rural and Coastal Areas

Volume 802: debated on Wednesday 18 March 2020


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what support they plan to put in place to assist universities and further education colleges to address issues with higher education provision in rural and coastal areas.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question on the Order Paper in the name of my noble friend Lord Bassam of Brighton, who is in precautionary self-isolation.

My Lords, we want everyone to benefit from a fair chance, and no part of the country should be left behind. Anyone with the potential to succeed should have the opportunity to benefit from high-quality university education, regardless of their age, background or, importantly, the part of the country they grew up in. We plan to expand technical and vocational provision at higher levels through the institutes of technology, of which there will be 20 spread across all regions of England.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response, because there are a significant number of further and higher education cold spots in England, including coastal regions in the east and north and rural areas of the south-west. According to the Social Mobility Commission, those areas have little or no sixth-form provision within a commutable distance, which—predictably—means they have significantly lower percentages of pupils than the national average going on to higher education. That is leading to a poorer qualified, less well-trained, lower aspiration workforce in these areas. Will she explain what additional sustainable support the Government will provide for further and higher education institutions in the seaside towns and other left-behind parts of the country, to redress the education inequalities they experience?

My Lords, the Social Mobility Commission made mention of the Government’s opportunity areas. That programme has been extended; there will now be a total of £90 million. Many of those areas, including Blackpool, Hastings and Whitby, are part of that programme. We are pleased to know that that programme is also in Opportunity North East, where there is specific funding. A number of factors affect access to the best education provision, and we are particularly looking at the transport offer. A discounted rail ticket has been introduced for 16 and 17 year-olds. From 2021, apprentices and jobseekers will benefit from discounted bus travel as well.

Might the Minister look into coastal towns provision for disabled students? It may not be a question of the provision from the Government; universities may not be implementing the law. I give the example of Anglia Ruskin University, which has superlative education provision access for disabled students—compared with Hull University, which is more than inadequate; I believe it is actually breaking the law. Might the Minister be willing to have a word with me sometime on this?

My Lords, my noble friend is correct that universities are bound by the Equalities Act and should make provision for students with special education needs and disabilities. Funding is available for them to do that, but I am happy to meet her at an appropriate time.

My Lords, while I applaud the Government for doing all they can for further and higher education in coastal and rural areas, we are seeing a mass exodus of young people from those areas because, even if they get the education, there are no jobs. Are there any initiatives under which we are incentivising businesses to establish themselves in those areas? Could Civil Service relocation plans look at coastal and rural areas as well?

To ensure job opportunities for young people, skills advisory panels have now been set up that bring together the HE and FE provision in the area with an employer, specifically to make sure that the training is there for young people to remain and to keep the supply of relevant skills in the local area.

My Lords, following on from the previous question, can the Minister say what provision the Government are making to ensure that disadvantaged students from rural and coastal areas have access to the work experience that is a key part of the untried and untested T-levels?

The first three T-levels will be introduced later this year. There has been specific investment of capital to ensure that these will be basically 80% classroom and 20% work placements. Providers have been given the money to establish good-quality work placements, which are an essential part of T-levels.

My Lords, I wonder whether the House will indulge me. Will the Minister have discussions with her Secretary of State and perhaps come back to the House in relation to the survival of these further and higher education institutions across the country, which may be affected detrimentally in the months ahead by the final incremental payments of fees, leaving them with a considerable shortage of funds? Can she also find out whether the Secretary of State will discuss with the Office for Students the way in which it approaches this as a supportive mechanism, not as a critic?

My Lords, I understand that matters to do with education are being addressed. The issue of early years providers and further education colleges—they are similarly funded, by the activity through the door—is keenly on the department’s radar at the moment.

My Lords, ed tech and the new systems and opportunities provided by distance learning, without the need for major infrastructure projects, are obviously an important way forward. In addition to the advantages that my noble friend the Minister has already outlined, would she not say that ed tech gave a valuable opportunity for international co-operation between institutions in other countries? I declare an interest as the honorary president of BESA, the British Educational Suppliers Association.

Ed tech is literally just beginning to show us what is possible in relation to education—in international collaboration, yes, but particularly in flexible and distance learning, which can help students from disadvantaged backgrounds to access education further away from home, if they have caring responsibilities, and particularly in relation to special educational needs. We are having a rapid evidence assessment, because teachers need to understand fully the technology now available to best apply it to the students they are trying to teach.

My Lords, transport costs are often a barrier to students living some distance away, especially from FE colleges. It was gratifying to hear that some consideration is being given to support students with transport costs. Can the Minister say a little more about that, particularly in relation to students over the age of 19, and whether part-time students will be included in any support planned?

Yes, what I have outlined covers both bus and rail, but the noble Baroness will be aware that the bursary funding given to institutions can also be given to disadvantaged students. I will have to come back to her about the part-time comment.