Young People in the Recession
Opposition Day — [15th Allotted Day]
John Hayes (Shadow Minister, Universities and Skills; South Holland and The Deepings, Conservative)
I beg to move,
That this House
deeply regrets that young people are amongst the principal victims of the recession;
is profoundly concerned that limits on entry to higher education mean tens of thousands of suitably qualified young people will be left without a university or college place in autumn 2009;
is concerned by reports that graduates face the worst job prospects for decades;
regrets that the number of young people starting an apprenticeship is falling and that the number of young people not in any kind of education, employment or training has risen to nearly one million;
regrets that Ministers did not support proposals to fund 25,000 new Masters degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects in this year's Budget;
and calls on Ministers to refocus Train to Gain provision to provide 100,000 extra training places and support the thousands of apprentices who risk losing their training places during this recession.
Youth is bound to hope. Benjamin Disraeli wrote that
"the Youth of a Nation are the trustees of Posterity."
As the recession bites, young Britons are being bitten hard; their hopes torn apart, their futures damaged. I move this motion, in my name and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends, in sorrow. We are sorrowful for the school leavers who hoped to go to university but will not; sorrowful for the graduates who hoped to find good jobs but cannot; sorrowful for the forgotten army of 1 million youths not in education, employment or training, who once dared to dream but now do not. Every Member of the House should share my sorrow that Britain in 2009 has come to this, and share my anger at a Government who could have done more and should do better.
As the economy shrinks, unemployment grows. The number of NEETs went up even in the good times. As the economy grew, we failed to give opportunities to young people, so what hope for them now? I hope that the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property, who I know is a man of good faith and cares about these things, will apologise for the fact that we failed to provide opportunity for so many young Britons in constituencies such as his and mine. He knows that, as the economy grew and jobs were created, three out of four went to people coming into Britain rather than to people already here. As the demand for skills grows, the number of learners in further education plummets, advanced apprenticeship places fall and adult learning has all but disappeared from communities throughout the country.
As Britain's chance to compete becomes ever more dependent on a highly skilled, educated work force, the number of people with level 3 skills and above remains less than that in France and in Germany. According to the OECD, Britain is ranked 17th out of 30 nations for the number of people with above low skills. The UK suffers from a burning skills shortage; throughout industry, companies are firefighting that disaster and need a swift and effective response to the crisis. Almost two thirds of companies need skilled workers to satisfy demand, with shortages particularly keenly felt in the energy, water, engineering and construction sectors, according to the training provider, Empower Training Services Ltd.
I want to put it on record that I value the work of trade union learning representatives—I know that that applies to those on the Treasury Bench and hon. Members of all parties. They will therefore be as interested as I am to consider the TUC's most recent report on Britain's skills gap. It states that throughout Europe, between 40 and 45 per cent. of young people between the ages of 20 and 24 are in education or training—nearly double the UK rate. It states that 40 per cent. of adults aged 25 to 59 in work in the UK have no education beyond the age of 16, compared with 32 per cent. in France and only 13 per cent. in Germany. It also states that in France and Germany, between 60 and 65 per cent. of the population have qualifications equivalent to NVQ level 2 or above compared with only 40 per cent. in the UK.
I hope that Ministers will not go into denial today. I hope for a refreshing bout of honesty when they speak in the debate. If that happens, it will be clear that the number of those not in education, employment or training has grown by approximately 50,000 under Labour. The Government themselves class one in six 18-year-olds as NEETs, the highest figure since records kept under the current method began in 1994. We are failing those youngsters—failing to give them hope, opportunity and a chance to be the best they can. Failing them means failing us all; it is not right that Britain's hopes should be dashed in that way. The Government know that it is not right, and we know that they are not right for Britain.
Let us consider details that some on the Treasury Bench will find difficult. I do not want to be unnecessarily unkind; none the less, the House and the people we represent have a right to explore those details. First, let us consider university entrants. University clearing places are expected to fall by two thirds—that is why we highlighted university entrants in the motion. An estimated 16,000 new course places will be available on A-level results day, compared with some 43,000 in 2008. Despite that staggering fall, research suggests that demand for degree courses increased by almost 65,000. The Government have effectively put a hold on the number of university places in September, due to growing pressure on public finances. There are expected to be around 650,000 undergraduate courses this year. Any chance that the Government ever had of reaching their 50 per cent. target now looks remote.
The Million Plus group of universities says that that cap will leave thousands of bright teenagers on benefits. It states:
"Young people who might have gone to university face the real prospect of being relegated to the ranks of the long-term unemployed, with all the personal, family and health... consequences which this brings."
Interestingly, unlike in earlier recessions, a wide range of social groups will be affected. The group argues that everyone will be affected, from working-class school leavers to middle-class students. Some research suggests that students from the least advantaged backgrounds who, typically, tend to apply later for university, may be worst hit. That is certainly the view of the National Union of Students. Indeed, NUS president Wes Streeting has said:
"I have no doubt that those worst affected will be from the very backgrounds this government has sought to attract."
So much for widening participation.
It has been reported in The Times that
"when the Government cut 5,000 places for this autumn, just as the recession was prompting record numbers of applications, a serious squeeze became inevitable."
The Higher Education Funding Council has warned universities that they will suffer a cut in funding if they try to increase numbers. What does that mean in practice? The Minister knows the answer, so I hope that he will endorse, if not every word I say, then much of the sentiment. As a result of the changes,
"popular universities will stick rigidly to their offers so as not to exceed their quotas, rather than allowing some flexibility for promising candidates who don't quite make their grades. And there will be far fewer places in clearing".
That is what all the reports from the universities and elsewhere are telling us.