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David Willetts calls funding of further education an "unfolding disaster"

David_willetts_mpThe 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."

Shadow Minister Adam Afriyie wanted to know why there are so few women in engineering:

"This week marks international women’s day and national science and engineering week. The Government talk a lot about equality and rightly so, but after 11 years of this Labour Government, only 2.6 per cent. of engineering apprentices are women, a figure that is virtually unchanged. It is also sobering to note that 15 per cent. of UK engineering students are women, yet in Chile the figure is 21 per cent. The Minister should not be complacent; he should be embarrassed by our progress. What is Chile doing that we are not doing?

Mr. Lammy: There is certainly no complacency on this issue. That is why it is important to have critical mass pilots and positive action—something opposed by the Opposition—to ensure that women have those opportunities. It is also why we are putting money into women-led projects, such as the women in science, engineering and construction initiative, to ensure that young women in schools have the right resources and that we challenge gender stereotypes and make progress in this respect. However, until the hon. Gentlemen’s party recommends positive action—akin to the positive action that has given us women on the Labour Back Benches—I do not need a lecture from him on equality."

John Hayes - for whom the term Great Man could have been invented - is Shadow Minister for Lifelong, Learning, Further and Higher Education. He asserted the Conservatives' support for apprenticeships:

"Contrary to the Minister’s rather intemperate suggestions, he knows that the Conservatives support apprenticeships because we know that growing skills spreads opportunity, feeds social mobility and boosts our economy. That is why we will create 100,000 more apprenticeships, as we outlined in our green paper. Those will be genuinely new places, not the result of

    “converting government-supported programmes of work-based learning into apprenticeships”,

which the House of Lords Select Committee recognised as the principal reason for the growth in the number of apprenticeships that the Minister described. Will he now give the House an absolute assurance that all of the future expansion of public sector apprenticeships that the Government promise will be new training for new staff and not just the result of converting existing training into apprenticeships and existing staff into apprentices?

Mr. Simon: I can absolutely give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that the investment that we plan—which he plans to cut, but which will rise over the next two years—of an extra £1 billion in apprenticeships will carry on. The 21,000 new apprenticeships in the public sector, each and every one of them, will be new training—of course they will."

Wells MP David Heathcoat-Amory drew attention to an anomaly on student loans:

"Is there not a developing scandal in that UK-based students are repaying their loans through the tax system and are often having great difficulty doing so, while an increasing number of overseas students are not making their repayments, cannot be contacted or are falling into arrears? Will the Minister confirm that the figure in 2007 was 70 per cent. of such overseas students? Will he tell the House what legal action is being taken by the Student Loans Company or his Department to recover the money?

Mr. Lammy: On this occasion, the right hon. Gentleman is a little premature. When the system began in 2006, 7,100 students from the EU were entitled to loans. He will understand that those students do not graduate until this summer, and will be eligible to repay from the spring of 2010. Some students dropped out while on courses, and many of them are on other courses and below the threshold. Many of them are back in their European countries on other courses and below the threshold. That leaves a small number of students, and I can confirm that nine are being chased through the courts."

Shadow Minister David Evennett picked up the theme:

"As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) highlighted, the fact that 70 per cent. failed to start repaying student loans that they took out while studying in UK universities is rather disappointing. A spokesman for the Student Loans Company has said that it does not write routinely to addresses provided. That is surprising. I believe that it is a warning of a much bigger problem to come when more EU students graduate. Does the Minister not think that the problem was predictable and avoidable? Will he promise to take action sooner rather than later, because fewer repayments from yesterday’s students means less money for tomorrow’s students?

Mr. Lammy: The soundbite at the end was okay, but— [Interruption.] I just remind the hon. Gentleman that 10,000 UK students are studying in European countries, and many of those UK students are entitled to loans and grants in foreign jurisdictions, so the suggestion that somehow EU students are more dishonest than UK ones is not right. As I have said, the 70 per cent. figure is plain wrong. Most of that 70 per cent. is made up of students who have changed their courses, dropped out of courses, are still in education and are certainly beneath the threshold. Most of those students do not graduate until the summer of this year and, as he would expect, the Student Loans Company is putting in place everything it can to ensure that we chase down those students when they graduate."

Banbury's Tony Baldry came back on the issue of further education funding:

"What can we all do to help the Secretary of State extract further funding for further education in his discussions with the Chief Secretary? Earlier this week, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions made it clear to the House that he had found an extra £2.2 billion from the Treasury, and I am sure that, if we all came together with the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, we could, with a charm offensive, persuade the Chief Secretary that skills and training are a very good investment in a recession and that there are very good capital projects in that regard that will create much-needed employment in the construction industry. If so, projects such as those for Oxford and Cherwell Valley college could go ahead, all of which would be extremely good news. We want to help the Secretary of State.

Mr. Denham: All help gratefully received, but the truth is that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has already enabled me to bring well over £100 million of extra investment in FE colleges forward to this and the next financial year. We have also brought forward more than £100 million of investment in higher education for the coming years, and we have had new investment for apprenticeships and for training and skills for those who may lose their job. The Chief Secretary has been very good at recognising the case we have made for extra investment, but, as I have said, I will never turn down help from any quarter because we are always willing to invest more."

Opposition Whip Rob Wilson suggested we may have things to learn from the American experience:

"Has the Secretary of State looked at the tremendous success of the United States community college system in attracting students from non-traditional backgrounds into higher education? They are local, flexible institutions that are properly integrated into the US system. Can we learn anything from the US?

Mr. Denham: Although I do not think that the structure of community colleges could be easily imported into our system without enormous disruption and relocation, there are elements of the community college system that we could build into it effectively, particularly—although not only—the ability to progress from vocational qualifications to vocational education at a higher level. In a recent speech to university vice-chancellors, I made it clear that we need to do more of that in the future. From what I have seen of US community colleges, they have strengths in that area."

All in all a good session.

Tom Greeves


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