Education and Skills Training
Mr Alistair Burt (North East Bedfordshire, Conservative)
I beg your pardon, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I did not misquote the hon. Member for Newbury, who may refer to Hansard again in due course.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford focused on schools issues. He was supported by strong speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) and for Henley (Mr. Johnson). The latter's speech was especially strong on bullying in schools, an issue of which, disappointingly, Labour Members made light.
Passionate speeches were made by Labour Members, including the hon. Members for South Shields (Mr. Miliband), who did his promotion prospects no harm, for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), who made his usual sound and fair contribution, for High Peak (Mr. Levitt), who made interesting comments on mergers between higher education and further education colleges, and for Workington (Tony Cunningham), whose praise for the Government was so fulsome that even Ministers might have been embarrassed by it. The House will forgive me if I concentrate on three other issues.
Higher education is apprehensive. Ministers say little about the problems of recruiting and retaining academic staff and funding research, or about a funding gap that Universities UK suggests is now £9 billion, but they do respond to other stimuli. They are turning the unwarranted attack into an art form—indeed, it is almost a policy in itself. Universities are not encouraged in their efforts to increase access to and participation in higher education but regularly hectored and condemned for not doing enough. Ministers conveniently forget that the pool of well-qualified post-16 pupils from non-traditional university backgrounds is simply not large enough. Their cries of "elitism" uttered at every turn to deflect criticism are becoming wearing.
Students with debt problems, inspiring headlines such as "Debt grows ever bigger and even more painful", are met by the Minister for Lifelong Learning with a discussion of their drinking habits. That does not accord students, many from non-traditional backgrounds who work long hours outside their studies to fund their time at university, the support and respect that they deserve.