By Joseph Willits
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Tory MP Nick de Bois has disputed claims that Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, blamed the X Factor, amongst other things, for causing the summer's nationwide riots. Speaking on Sky News yesterday, Enfield MP de Bois, said that Duncan Smith was not "trying to say the X-Factor is the cause of the riots" but that the country does not "pay enough recognition ... to the routes that people take which are hard work".
De Bois said that "the point about X-Factor is effectively about celebrity cultures, where there's this idea that you can have a bit of luck, and instant fame, instant celebrity status". This idea, he said, had been perpetuated by the media, often at the expense of "the route most people succeed by, in improving their life circumstances, which is effectively hard work and being rewarded for that.”
In an interview with yesterday's Guardian, with the headline, "X Factor culture fuelled the UK riots, says Iain Duncan Smith", the Work and Pensions Secretary said:
"If you look at the footballers, you look at our celebrity culture, we seem to be saying, 'This is the way you want to be'. We seem to be a society that celebrates all the wrong people ... Kids are meant to believe that their stepping stone to massive money is The X Factor. Luck is great, but most of life is hard work. We do not celebrate people who have made success out of serious hard work."
John Denham, Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, tabled an urgent question yesterday evening, following news about off-quota university places. It allowed the Minister, David Willetts to make his position clear (emphasis added):
Mr John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills if he will make a statement on the proposals for students to buy off-quota university places.
The Minister for Universities and Science (Mr David Willetts): Fair access to university is crucial for achieving equality of opportunity, and there is a clear issue of principle here. Access to a university must be based on ability to learn, not on ability to pay. There is absolutely no question of wealthy students being able to buy their way into university.
As the coalition prepares its White Paper on higher education, we are considering possible ways to allow universities to recruit extra students in addition to their student number allocation. Any such arrangement would have to comply with the principle that access to university must be based on ability to learn, not on ability to pay. That is why, in the Secretary of State’s speech to the Higher Education Funding Council on 6 April, he said:
“Another measure for the longer term could be to remove student number controls which inhibit universities’ ability to recruit students who represent no burden to the public purse. For example, I don't believe that universities should be prevented from expanding courses where employers cover students’ costs”.
We are considering two options: first, making it easier for employers to sponsor students at university; and secondly, making it easier for charities to sponsor students at university. Any such scheme would need to comply with the following conditions: the principles of fair access must apply; there would need to be genuine additional places; there would be no reduction in entrance standards; and, of course, rich individuals should not be able to buy their way into university.
Everything this coalition does is guided by our belief in the need to improve social mobility after it stagnated under the Labour party. We will set out our proposals in the White Paper, which will be published shortly.
Some Labour members' subsequent questions were notable for their "class war" rhetoric:
The Department for Innovation, Skills and Universities was up for questions yesterday.
Shadow Secretary of State David Willetts asked about the role of about further education in the recession:
"I want to ask the Secretary of State about something that I hope he will agree is very important in ensuring that people have training and skills in the recession, which is the role of further education colleges. What does he say to a college that had moved out of its old buildings having been promised capital for a rebuild, but will now find itself operating out of temporary classrooms because of his Department’s incompetence in its management of the capital programme? How does that contribute to investing in skills in a recession?
Mr. Denham: As the hon. Gentleman knows very well from my having made a written ministerial statement last Wednesday as promised, we will spend the £2.3 billion that we have been allocated in this spending review period on capital investment in FE colleges. That is in sharp contrast to the position 10 years ago and comes on top of many hundreds of millions of pounds of investment in recent years. His own constituency has benefited from no fewer than 11 different FE capital projects in recent years. He did not say anything about that, surprisingly.
The Learning and Skills Council informed me about 10 days ago that it had given approval in principle to another 79 colleges, with more in the pipeline. It is clear that we cannot fund all those in the next two years, which is why we have done two things. We have asked the LSC to consult the Association of Colleges and others on ways to prioritise those that are in the pipeline, to give colleges some certainty. Secondly, the LSC has agreed to my request that it appoint Sir Andrew Foster to provide a report to me on how this situation could have arisen.
Mr. Willetts: Havant college is actually one of the many colleges affected by the moratorium. We calculate, on the basis of the Secretary of State’s own statement, that 144 will be affected. He said that he had invited Sir Andrew Foster to explain to him what went wrong. Will he confirm the details in the LSC’s minutes, which we have obtained with a freedom of information request, that senior officials from his Department attended every meeting of the LSC when the capital moratorium was discussed, and that it was specifically concluded at the end of the meeting when the moratorium was first imposed that he should immediately be informed? Why is he now saying that he needs a review, given that his Department was kept in touch throughout this unfolding disaster?
Mr. Denham: The position is clear. Ministers were first alerted to a potential problem with the capital programme at the end of November—I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with the date. We received the next information just before the December meeting, at which the decision was made not to approve any further colleges in detail. Ministers were not given the picture that I was able to put in the written ministerial statement last week until the week before last—I think, but I will give him the date—as a result of the review that we asked the LSC to conduct. The numbers of colleges that the hon. Gentleman has calculated that were promised approval in detail, and the numbers in the pipeline—that is significant, because not only colleges that have had approval in principle are waiting for funding clearance—did not become available to Ministers with any clarity until that date. We shared the information with the House within the most reasonable timetable possible—after the LSC met last week to consider which colleges could be approved and the shape of the rest of the programme."
Questions were put yesterday to ministers from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.
Shadow Secretary of State David Willetts expressed doubt that Labour is delivering on its promise of boosting internships. As so often, the minister - in this case David Lammy, Minister of State for Higher Education and Intellectual Property - played an old trick. He accused an Opposition spokesman of scaremongering when in fact he was doing his job: holding the Government to account.
"The Minister referred to his national internship scheme. Will he confirm that after I spent a Saturday afternoon chasing him round the TV studios, it became clear that there is no Government-funded national internship scheme and that the companies that he has identified as providing internships made it clear that no extra internships were intended on top of the ones already announced? Will he also confirm that the Government made a clear commitment to review the student loan regime, that the review will take place this year and that the review of student finance will look forward to ideas for the future and not simply be historical?
Mr. Lammy: The first thing to say is that we are doing all we can to work with employers, careers services in universities, the National Union of Students and students themselves to ensure that students have the best choice and the best portfolio of things they can do when they graduate in the autumn. That compares very well with what was effectively the youth training scheme—YTS—when the Conservatives were in power; nothing was offered then. [Interruption.] The internship scheme was begun in a conversation that the Secretary of State had before Christmas with Microsoft, Barclays and others. I have continued those conversations—indeed, I was talking to Barnado’s just yesterday. So, there will be an increase in internships later in the year, and that will happen alongside the career development loans and all the other things that will be on offer at the end of the year. As the president of the NUS has said, this is not a time for panic; it is a time for proper information. I would ask the hon. Gentleman to bear that in mind when he is making public statements."