Further and Higher Education

– in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 20th May 1991.

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Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Secretary of State for Education and Science 3:31 pm, 20th May 1991

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the Government's proposals for education for all young people over the age of 16.

More young people than ever before are taking up education and training opportunities. Six out of 10 16-year-olds stayed on in full-time education last autumn compared with four out of 10 in 1979. Three out of four 17-year-olds are in education or training today compared with two out of four 10 years ago. One in five 18 and 19-year-olds now continue into higher education compared with one in eight 10 years ago. More adults are also taking advantage of the educational opportunities available. All 16 and 17-year-olds in this country have a guarantee of a place in full-time education or training if they choose to take advantage of it. We secure places for all those who wish to go on into higher education and who are suitably qualified.

We need to build on those achievements. That means developing more vocational qualifications of a standard that will win equal esteem with the best academic qualifications. It means giving schools, colleges and universities the institutional freedom and the necessary incentives to develop and respond to the demands of young people and of employers. The Government are setting themselves the aim of achieving mass participation in higher education, further education and training, while maintaining and enhancing present high standards.

The Government's proposals are contained in three White Papers which are being published today. The necessary legislation to implement the proposals will be brought before the House in due course.

I refer first to the White Paper entitled "Education and Training for the 21st Century" which I present to Parliament with my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Employment and for Wales. That sets out new policies for education and training after compulsory school age. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Employment will describe the new training policies in a further statement to the House in a few moments, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is presenting his proposals in a separate White Paper.

The White Paper sets out in detail the Government's proposals for further education colleges and sixth-form colleges. As I announced to the House on 21 March, we intend that those colleges will become autonomous institutions outside local authority control.

The colleges will be funded by national Further Education Councils in England and in Wales. They will receive each year a core budget plus additional funds according to the actual number of students enrolled. In that way they will have a powerful incentive to recruit and retain additional students, both young people and adults. The councils will not manage the colleges. They will follow the model of the funding council that has so successfully steered the remarkable growth of the polytechnics after we freed them from the control of local government.

Vocational qualifications have for too long been misunderstood and undervalued in this country. The White Paper sets out how the introduction of a clear structure of national vocational qualifications can be accelerated. The range of qualifications will meet the needs of students of all abilities. At level 3, they will be set at a high standard equivalent to A-levels.

A-levels are successful and well-respected examinations, which are being taken by steadily increasing numbers of pupils. I am determined to see them maintained and to control their development so that their high standard is preserved. I am writing today to the School Examinations and Assessment Council, setting out my views on the principles that should govern the development of A-level and AS-level examinations. Those principles are designed to ensure consistency of standards between AS-levels and A-levels and to provide a framework for increasing numbers of young people to pursue courses of academic study that can be broadened by increasing the take-up of AS-level examinations. A copy of my letter to SEAC has been placed in the Library of the House.

A-level and AS-level courses are not the only route to excellence and to higher education. We must do more to promote understanding among students, employers and higher education institutions of the value and quality of national vocational qualifications at equivalent standard. The Government have therefore decided to introduce new diplomas at advanced and ordinary levels. The advanced diploma will be awarded to students taking AS-levels and A-levels, to students gaining vocational qualifications of the same standard, and to students taking a mixture of the two. I intend to consult on the details later this summer.

The White Paper describes two further measures that are directed at schools. First, the Government intend to legislate to adjust the school leaving date. At present some 16-year-olds are able to leave school legally at Easter, before completing key stage 4 of the national curriculum and before their GCSE examinations. We shall introduce legislation to require all pupils to complete their studies at the end of the summer term. That will ensure that all pupils will have their level of attainment at the end of their compulsory education properly assessed.

Secondly, I believe that we should allow both schools and colleges of all kinds to broaden the range of courses and opportunities that they offer. The White Paper therefore announces the intention to introduce legislation that would enable school sixth forms to admit part-time students and adults. The main work of sixth forms will continue to be for young people studying full-time, but they will have greater freedom to take on other students if they wish and if there is room.

In higher education, we need to build on the successes of recent years. The academics in our universities may sometimes grumble, I know, but they are to be congratulated on their progress in expanding access to more students in recent years while maintaining the best academic standards in the developed world. The polytechnics and colleges, freed from the control of local authorities, have also demonstrated that rapid expansion and improvements in quality can go hand in hand. The Government congratulate the polytechnics and colleges on what they have achieved, particularly in widening access to higher education and in developing vocational courses. The formal distinctions between universities on the one hand and polytechnics and colleges on the other, known as the binary line, have, in my opinion, now become an obstacle to further progress. The Government propose to abolish those distinctions and establish a single framework for higher education.

With my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland, for Wales and for Northern Ireland, I am presenting to Parliament today a White Paper setting out the main features of our proposals for higher education.

First, we shall establish a single funding structure for universities, polytechnics and colleges of higher education. In order to reflect particular needs in Scotland and Wales, there will be separate Higher Education Funding Councils in England, Scotland and Wales to distribute public funds for both teaching and research. New links will be established to continue the present close relationship with Northern Ireland's existing unitary structure.

Secondly, the Council for National Academic Awards has successfully brought the polytechnics and other major institutions to a position where they can offer degrees under their own quality control arrangements equal in standard to those offered by the universities. We propose therefore to extend degree-awarding powers to polytechnics and major institutions and to wind up the Council for National Academic Awards. We shall, however, look to universities, polytechnics and colleges to develop their own new quality audit arrangements on a United Kingdom-wide basis. We shall also require the Higher Education Funding Councils to establish quality assessment units to advise the councils on the relative quality of teaching and learning across institutions so that those judgments of quality can inform the distribution of public funding.

Thirdly, we shall extend the title of university to those polytechnics that wish to use it. It is our firm intention, nevertheless, that the present distinctive features of the polytechnics, with their particular emphasis on links with industry, vocational degree and sub-degree courses, and applied research, should be retained.

The Government believe that this new framework will provide for an expanding, thriving and diverse system of higher education in the United Kingdom. Our policies are designed to ensure that higher education continues to expand efficiently alongside improvements in quality. When we came into office only one in eight of the relevant age group went into higher education. Now it is one in five. By the end of this decade, we confidently expect one in three of all our young people to benefit from higher education of our traditional high quality.

I feel privileged to present these two White Papers to the House this afternoon. They will transform post-school education and training. They will enhance the esteem of vocational education. They will benefit ever-larger numbers of students, from all backgrounds and at all levels. Our policies pave the way for a better society and greater economic success. I commend them to the House.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Secretary of State for Education

Despite all the public relations hype surrounding the publication of these White Papers, close examination of the statements will show that the Government are running out of ideas as quickly as they are running out of time.[Laughter.]

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. We have a great deal of work lo do today.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Secretary of State for Education

We welcome the change in the school-leaving dates, for which we called in 1980, the change to allow part-time sixth formers to continue their education in sixth forms and, particularly, the establishment of a single funding council for higher education, which has been Labour policy for years and which Ministers voted down three years ago.

The Secretary of State has just confirmed the removal from local control of the 557 further education, tertiary and sixth-form colleges of England and Wales and their enforced transfer to centralised control from Whitehall. Is the Secretary of State aware of the enormous opposition that those plans have aroused within his own party? What is his response to the views of many local authority Conservative leaders, including Mr. Tim MacNamara, the leader of Hampshire county council, who said on Friday that the Secretary of State was hell bent on destroying local education authorities without any idea of what to put in its place"; who complained of the Secretary of State's "government by denigration", and who said these changes were blighting all planning of 16 to 19 education? Was not the same Mr. MacNamara correct to accuse the Secretary of State of acting "for wholly doctrinal reasons"? Is not the Secretary of State showing the same doctrinal prejudice that so infected his stewardship of the national health service and has so damaged the Conservative party's electoral chances?

Is the Secretary of State aware that only three years ago, by section 120 of the Education Reform Act 1988, the Government imposed new duties on local education authorities in respect of further education? Ministers then expressed great confidence that local authorities will fulfil their duty to promote further education."—[Official Report, 24 March 1988; Vol. 130, c. 55–52.] They spoke of the need for strategic planning for further education by LEAs. What has happened since then to justify these changes? With 60 per cent. of 16-plus provision transferred to central control, leaving 40 per cent. in local authority sixth forms, who will now plan the system—or is it all to be left to some kind of bogus market?

The Secretary of State said that he was setting some aim for improvement in higher education. Where are the targets against which the seriousness of the Government's commitment can be judged? The Labour party has set clear targets for improving the system. Where are the Conservatives' targets?

The central problem of 16-plus education and training is the academic and vocational divide, with outdated A-levels on one side and a jungle of vocational qualifications on the other. By his statement the Secretary of State has conceded our argument, but produced a wholly incoherent solution to the problem. Is he not aware of the weight of opinion against unreformed A-levels, from the Confederation of British Industry, from the Institute of Physics, from the vice-chancellors and from the Government's own Advisory Council on Science and Technology, and of the overwhelming weight of opinion in favour of Labour's alternative—an integrated advanced certificate of education and training?

Does the Secretary of State understand that he is reinforcing and perpetuating a divided system? Because A-levels and the new vocational qualifications will have different content, structure and assessment, young people can continue to be trapped in either a vocational or an academic route.

How is the new diploma to work? What will it cover? Will it be instead of A-levels or will it run parallel to them?

As I said, we welcome the Government's belated recognition of the strength of the case that the Labour party has advocated for years: to end the binary divide, to have a joint funding council for higher education and to achieve parity of esteem between universities and polytechnics, which were a creation of the Labour Government in 1967. However, the Secretary of State ducks key issues. Will access to higher education depend, as Labour believes that it should, on the ability to benefit or will the Government make it further dependent on the ability to pay?

Will the Secretary of State scrap the discredited student loans scheme or does he expect students to go deeper and deeper into debt? Does he have any plans to review the operation of the scheme? Will he categorically rule out top-up fees as a means of financing expansion?

Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman give an assurance that the proposed quality body will be controlled neither by the Government nor by a cartel of institutions, but will be genuinely independent so as most effectively to safeguard quality and academic freedom?

The Secretary of State sought to pretend that Britain's record on education and training is far better than it is. Has he forgotten that just seven weeks ago, in this House, at that Dispatch Box, he admitted that we still lag behind our competitors in the participation of our school leavers in further education and training, and their achievement of useful qualifications"?—[Official Report, 21 March 1991; Vol. 188, c. 432.] Has he forgotten that the former Secretary of State for Employment, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), said at a Carlton club seminar that the low stay-on rate in full-time education and training showed Britain to be lagging dramatically behind other advanced countries"? This failure has been built upon a lack of commitment, a lack of funding and a lack of clarity of thinking by the Government. The policies announced today are the product of a Government lacking imagination and ambition for our young people, and motivated by prejudice. In no way can the causes of Britain's failures over the past 12 years suddenly become the midwives of success.

Three years ago the Government told us that they had new policies for education. Now they have come back for another start, but the only fresh start for the nation will be a Labour Government who know what they want for our young people and who have the policies and ambitions to put Britain back into the first division of highly trained and highly educated nations.

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Secretary of State for Education and Science

I am genuinely disappointed that the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) could not think of better questions in response to a package of measures that will completely change the framework of vocational and academic qualifications for our 16 to 19-year-olds. We propose a whole new structure for vocational and academic education in further education and sixth-form colleges, and our proposals will change the institutional arrangements for higher education.

The hon. Member for Blackburn says that the Government have run out of ideas. His response to my statement shows that his party has no ideas at all on education or on any of the other public services. The hon. Gentleman touched on what I had already announced— the establishment of autonomous further education and sixth-form colleges that will be independent of local government—and he was reduced to quoting Mr. MacNamara of Hampshire to justify his party's present position. He says that there is widespread opposition in my party to that proposal. There is not even very much opposition in his party to my proposal. When I first announced to the House our change in policy the hon. Gentleman did not know whether he was in favour or against, just as he did not know and still does not know whether he is in favour or against the pay review body settling the pay of teachers.

The hon. Member for Blackburn asked why we are determined to pursue this new autonomous status for further education colleges and sixth-form colleges. He should look to the experience of the polytechnics for which we took the same step three or four years ago. It was a deserved success. The hon. Gentleman is not against that and should not be against this proposal either. That was all that the hon. Gentleman had to say about further education colleges and sixth-form colleges.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about qualifications for people aged from 16 to 18, and again advanced Labour's proposals for an integrated alternative to what we suggest. Labour's approach to increased participation by 16 to 19-year-olds is to produce one broad pattern of qualification for every person and then to set the achievement at such a low level that most people appear to reach it. That is no basis for entering higher education or for raising the standards of eduction or the training of our young people for future employment. We are similarly aiming for much wider participation, while preserving what is best in the existing A-level structure and allowing it to evolve within the principles that I have recommended to SEAC. We are also putting alongside it vocational qualifications of the same quality that will deserve equal esteem.

We are aiming for mass participation in higher education and training, but we shall preserve the important standards that Labour would destroy. People have a clear choice and Labour's alternative should be rejected. I see that the hon. Gentleman's junior shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong), nods in agreement when I say that everybody to the age of 16 should take exactly the same basic qualification within whatever they are able to attain.

I think that most people recognise that, to a minor extent from the age of 14, and certainly from the age of 16, people have different aptitudes, abilities and interests in careers. All those abilities must be harnessed. The hundreds of thousands taking A-levels at the moment are good-quality entrants to any university system. We want a wider range of opportunities for other young people so that they can aspire to the same standards and have the same career opportunities and access to higher education.

When the hon. Member for Blackburn dropped his voice he seemed to agree with all my proposals on higher education, despite the fact that it is a fairly dramatic, I dare say radical, change to the institutional arrangements for universities and polytechnics.

The hon. Gentleman then tried to bring in a red herring about ability to pay. I hope that he will not lower the debate on this public service to the level to which it has been lowered on others. My right hon. Friends and I are committed to open access to higher education for everyone who has the ability and willingness to take advantage of it.

We shall not put financial obstacles in their way. The new loan system, coupled with the grant, gives this year's students access to 25 per cent. more support than they had a year ago.

We are opening up access to higher education to people of all backgrounds who are willing to take advantage of it. That we have succeeded in doing so is shown by the increase from the one in eight participation of a decade ago to the one in five now. Our target is that one in three of our young people will go into higher education by the end of the decade. Their admission will be determined by their ability, and by their aptitude in applying themselves to their work, not in any way by their means. We have the ideas for making that expansion in quality. The hon. Gentleman should have the nerve whole-heartedly to support it, because he has no alternative proposals of his own.

Several Hon. Members:


Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. The House knows that there is another important statement after this one, and I have to balance the right and the desire of hon. Members to participate in questions on the statements with those of the 13 hon. Members who have already shown that they wish to speak in the debate on next steps in the civil service. I shall allow questions on this statement to continue until 4.20 pm, and we shall then move on to the next statement. It would only be fair to move on to the debate by 5 pm.

Photo of Mr Anthony Beaumont-Dark Mr Anthony Beaumont-Dark , Birmingham, Selly Oak

Is not one of the most important and significant issues in my right hon. and learned Friend's statement the fact that we are drawing together the blue and the white-collar workers, as polytechnics will now, quite rightly, have the same status as universities so that those who go to polytechnics will be able to gain real qualifications that will allow them to have real jobs and take a real and lasting place in society? Is not this one of the best things that we can do?

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Secretary of State for Education and Science

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and with his instinct that, in the past, the division that we have drawn between the blue-collar engineer and the white-collar lawyers was one of the great weaknesses of our education system and, to some extent, of our society as well. Our proposals put under one umbrella of the new diploma those qualifications for young people that are academic and those that are vocational. It puts under the same institutional arrangements the sixth-form colleges, which tend to be academic, and further education colleges, which tend to be vocational. It puts under the same arrangements the polytechnics, which have vocational links, and the universities, which have academic links. Our intention is not to make one homogeneous whole, ending all differences of approach and of admission, but to enable all people to choose between these various paths as they so wish. I hope that our best and brightest young people will take a mixture of vocational and academic courses and choose a combination of academic and career-oriented studies to get themselves to whatever career they wish to aspire to.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education), Chair of Communications, Liberal Democrat Party

In so far as much of what the Secretary of State announced today has long been Liberal Democrat policy, I welcome that. Much that he has announced is important and valuable. In so far as his proposals fall behind ours, we shall press for more. That includes reform of A-levels and local and democratic control. Every time that we have proposed policies that are closely in line with those that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has set out, the response from the Conservative Benches has been, "How do you pay for it? Where will the money come from? How much will it cost?" Let me ask the Secretary of State, "How will he pay for it? Where is the money coming from? How much will it cost? What has been put aside?" When will he be telling the House?

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Secretary of State for Education and Science

I do not know what has come over the House today. Opposition parties seem not to want to oppose any more when we come forward with packages of this sort. I welcome the Liberal Democrats' endorsement of what I propose. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Employment will shortly be dealing with other aspects of training policy, which are also part of the package, but we already have universities and polytechnics on a funding regime that responds to growth in student numbers. So the more successful the policy is, the more expensive it becomes to the taxpayer. Over the past two years, for example, there has been an increase of over 10 per cent. in the funds going into higher education. The increase in funding is largely in response to a successful expansion of the system. We propose to have a similar arrangement for the Further Education Councils. Part of the funding—basic funding—will be part linked to student numbers. As I have said, there is direct linkage between the funding that goes into the system and growth.

Photo of Mr Bob Cryer Mr Bob Cryer , Bradford South

There is no Treasury approval for a blank cheque.

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Secretary of State for Education and Science

Well, if we achieve the growth that we are aiming at, funding will increase roughly in line with that growth. We are set on a course considerably to increase real-terms funding in these areas. If our policies are as successful as I believe that they will be in stimulating greater access to further education and higher education, further demands on public funding will follow directly, really, from the arrangements that we are proposing.

Photo of Mr James Pawsey Mr James Pawsey , Rugby and Kenilworth

Will my right hon. and learned Friend ignore the ill-founded whingeing of Opposition Members? How the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) could describe my right hon. and learned Friend's statement as unimaginative and lacking new ideas beggars the imagination. My right hon. and learned Friend has presented one of the most comprehensive education statements that we have ever listened to in this place.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that what he has said about sixth forms, training places and the maintenance of quality of A-levels will be richly applauded in the House and outside? His statement on the abolition of the binary line that separates universities and polytechnics will similarly be warmly welcomed. All in all, the statement builds on the success of the past 12 years.

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Secretary of State for Education and Science

Of course I agree with my hon. Friend. The hon. Member for Blackburn accused me of educational vandalism this morning before he knew what I was going to announce. He rather toned down his remarks when he heard my pronouncements; we should be grateful for small mercies.

I agree with my hon. Friend that the announcements that I have made on behalf of the Government will be widely welcomed by all those, whom he knows so well, in further education colleges, in the sixth-form world and in higher education. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South and Morley

May I welcome the underlying assumption that there will be an expansion of tertiary education? My Conservative opponent fought the 1987 general election on the basis that to set up tertiary colleges in the borough in my constituency was a grave mistake and that tertiary colleges were a mistake. The part of south Leeds that I represent needs a sixth-form college, and it very much needs a tertiary college. Whom do I go to? I cannot go to Leeds city council, because it does not have tertiary institutions. It has normal sixth forms that remain under its control. I cannot go to a funding council, because it will be some time before one is established. Will I be able to press the claims of south Leeds on the Secretary of State? We need money for a sixth-form college. It is vital that we have such a college, and I ask the Secretary of State whether he is now the responsible person.

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Secretary of State for Education and Science

I dare say that the controversy in Leeds in 1987 was centred on whether to close school sixth forms and go for tertiary colleges. Some local authorities did that, while others kept all their sixth forms. Other local authorities had a mixture. That follows from local authority control. At present, the right hon. Gentleman must pursue Leeds city council, which is responsible for the schools and colleges in its area. If the hon. Member for Blackburn had his way, that would continue to be so for all time. That would mean that everyone in the part of south Leeds that the right hon. Gentleman represents would have to take whatever Leeds city council thought was right for him by way of a structure. I should prefer to see an arrangement whereby individual pupils and parents had the chance of access to a further education college, a sixth-form college, a tertiary college, which combines the two, or a school sixth form. Such a system would respond much more to demands and would ensure that the widest possible range of options was open to pupils.

The existing institutions will be given autonomy. The new Further Education Councils will be responsible for responding to demand and ensuring that there is an adequate provision of places for all young people wanting access to further education throughout the country. We must legislate before we can set up the councils, and no doubt the Labour party will oppose their establishment if it follows the line taken today by the hon. Member for Blackburn. In the meantime, I can only advise the right hon. Gentleman to continue to put his views to Leeds city council.

Photo of Mr David Madel Mr David Madel , South West Bedfordshire

I strongly support my right hon. and learned Friend in restating the Robbins principle that everyone who is capable of benefiting from higher education should have access to it. As to the changes affecting colleges of further education, will local education authorities have any role to play in the future development of those colleges' curriculums?

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Secretary of State for Education and Science

We are restating the Robbins principle, and I am glad that my hon. Friend thinks that we are right to do so. Experience since those proposals were made all those years ago shows that access to higher education can be expanded at a considerable rate without damaging the academic standards that institutions achieve. Our policy reaffirms the Robbins principle by encouraging expansion, to provide higher education for the maximum number of young people while maintaining standards. Labour's policy is to expand but never mind the standards, because it might be too difficult to go in that direction.

Until we establish the new councils, local authorities will remain wholly responsible for further and sixth-form education in their areas. Thereafter, they can make their contribution, along with all other interested bodies, to the debate that will no doubt continue about the evolution of the contents of our new diploma and the nature of A-levels and national vocational qualifications—NVQs. However, those will largely be determined by the School Examinations and Assessment Council, in respect of examinations and assessments, and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, which will be answerable to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Employment, in respect of NVQs.

Photo of Mr Dafydd Elis Thomas Mr Dafydd Elis Thomas , Meirionnydd Nant Conwy

Will the Secretary of State accept the congratulations of my hon. Friends on these Benches on the Government's decision to establish the Higher Education Funding Councils? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman acknowledge that some members of the Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts advanced such a proposal in the early 1980s? It is good to see the Government at last taking their advice.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the budget for the university of Wales will in future form part of the Welsh Office budget and will be distributed by the Higher Education Funding Council in Wales?

We welcome also the right hon. and learned Gentleman's proposal to open up the sixth form as part of adult continuing education. Will the Secretary of State expand on those parts of the White Paper that refer specifically to adult education and comment also on the status of the Open university? Does the fact that it will in future be part of the funding mechanism for England mean that its remit will be in any way reduced in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland?

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Secretary of State for Education and Science

When I announced the teachers' pay review body, the only unqualified support that I received, without any mealy-mouthed words, came from the Welsh nationalist spokesman. I am grateful that we again appear to be in total agreement. That has made me so sympathetic towards Welsh aspirations for individualism that I can confirm that the funding of Welsh higher education and further education will in future be wholly the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales. As I said, there will be a separate council for funding in Wales.

I have announced that the Open university will come within the proposed funding arrangements for universities and polytechnics as a whole. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that that will not reduce the Open university's commitment in either Wales or Scotland—and it is extremely important that it should not do so.

Photo of Mr George Walden Mr George Walden , Buckingham

Will my right hon. and learned Friend and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister accept my congratulations on grasping the nettle of post-16 education and on extending vocational opportunities in, a way that does not downgrade academic values? Is my right hon. and learned Friend struck, as I am, by the fact that while the Government have in the past few weeks been giving teachers a better pay deal and extending opportunities for those aged over 16, the Opposition have been calling for the demolition of A-levels and of grant-maintained schools, to be replaced by an anti-intellectual, egalitarian mush?

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Secretary of State for Education and Science

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support of a package of measures that has indeed been driven on by the commitment of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to educational policy. I am not surprised at Labour's attitude, because the only ideas it appears to have are to impose an egalitarian mush in respect of qualifications and to defend local government bureaucracy and control of every aspect of the education system, and the teachers' right to strike. That seems to me to be the sum total of Labour's education policies.

Photo of Gavin Strang Gavin Strang , Edinburgh East

Is the Secretary of State aware that his cantankerous reference to grumbling university lecturers is reminiscent of a briefing that the Department issued before Christmas, which claimed that there was no need to increase university lecturers' salaries by very much because there is no shortage of applicants for university posts? When will the Government recognise that our education system needs universities that house departments which are centres of excellence, and that that can be achieved only if they are able to recruit and retain some of the most gifted people in our society? Is it not clear that those changes in administration will fail until the Government recognise that they have to spend more money per student as well as increasing the number of students, which requires a lot more money to be spent on higher education?

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Secretary of State for Education and Science

I deliberately included in my statement a sentence that congratulated university academics on what they have achieved in recent years, in expanding the number of students, maintaining quality and keeping down unit costs. Because I realised that some university academics might wince at my saying that straightforwardly, I conceded that they have some grumbles. If the hon. Gentleman reads my statement, he will realise that I was congratulating the universities on what they have achieved. This year, the finance of universities has increased by about 10 per cent. Of course they have other non-pay matters to settle, but I am satisfied that, with reasonable discussions, they can make proper provision for their staff this year. It is up to them to negotiate with the Association of University Teachers and perhaps to face up to the fact that some universities are quite well placed and will make a reasonable pay award this year, whereas others are in difficulties and might need to be more restrained. That is a matter for them and not for me. I accept that there are obviously resource implications and we have been putting in the resources as universities have expanded. I do not accept that unit costs should increase, as the hon. Gentleman said. The need for efficiency in the use of public money, to deliver the policy objectives that I have outlined, is as important in higher education as it is in every other aspect of education.

Photo of Dr Rhodes Boyson Dr Rhodes Boyson , Brent North

Is the Secretary of State aware that this statement will be welcomed widely because we are preserving academic excellence in A-levels, which give us the shortest university degree course of a legitimate standard in the world, while expanding vocational education, where we have been behind our competitors? There is no doubt that the balance of those two will be fruitful for the future of this country.

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Secretary of State for Education and Science

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, with all his expertise on this subject. I agree that our higher education system is one of the best in the world and that a higher proportion of our young people obtain good degrees under that system than in almost any other country in the developed world, and that we must maintain that. We must get right the balance that he has described. Our proposals get that balance right and those of our opponents' would destroy it.

Photo of Mr Jim Sillars Mr Jim Sillars , Glasgow Govan

May I give not a grudging but a warm welcome to the decision to set up a separate Higher Education Funding Council for Scotland and to place the Scottish universities under the responsibility of the Scottish Office, which represents a significant conversion by the Conservative party to policies that some of us have argued for more than 20 years? May I raise with him paragraph 48 of the higher education White Paper which seems to recognise the different structure of education in Scotland? Does that mean that the Secretary of State for Scotland will be able to vary or abolish the student loans system, which is having an adverse effect on the four-year honours degree course in Scotland?

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Secretary of State for Education and Science

I always say to those on the nationalist Benches, whether I am disowning responsibility on questions on Welsh or Scottish schools or whatever, that we have a devolved system of government in this country. It is true that we have taken a further step, because my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland will have separate funding arrangements for higher education, as he already has for further education. Nevertheless, the student loan scheme is a United Kingdom system. The Student Loans Company has its headquarters in Glasgow and I recently visited the city to see it. It would not be open to my right hon. Friend to depart from that system, unless he introduced separate legislation. We both believe that the student loan scheme is a big improvement on financial support for students in this country and we have no intention of going back on it.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst , Saffron Walden

Is it not self-evident that any large-scale expansion of higher education has to be based on plurality, and is not a degree of co-ordination needed, which has been lacking before? Is not the approach that my right hon. and learned Friend has announced today much more sensible than trying to force people down one particular path which is simply a mish-mash of everything?

Is my right hon. and learned Friend satisfied that under the system that he has announced, which I applaud, there are sufficient arrangements for people who want to change courses in mid-stream?

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Secretary of State for Education and Science

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that important point. As we design the components of the new advanced diploma—A-levels and AS-levels, or NVQs, or a mixture of the two—we should leave room for those who, after 16, decide that they have made a mistake and want to change courses. In my letter to SEAC, and in our proposals, we have encouraged credit transfer, credit accumulation and modular approaches to courses if they can sensibly be developed without compromising the essential qualities of A-levels or a distinctive NVQ. In my letter, I have asked SEAC to do further work on that matter. We need to make room for 16 or 17-year-olds who decide to change courses because they made a mistaken choice after statutory school age.

Photo of Mr Peter Hardy Mr Peter Hardy , Wentworth

No hon. Member would deny that the more controversial parts of the Secretary of State's statement are imaginative. However, does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that, although they may be imaginative, the real test will come in a few years when we ascertain whether they are intelligent? Does he think it intelligent that a common thread of criticism of the role of education authorities ran through his statement? Whether they are Labour or Conservative controlled is immaterial.

Does the Secretary of State think that his hon. Friends' echoes of derision for the role of local authorities—even those with Conservative leaders—are reasonable? Does he accept that his policies will still depend on the co-operation of local authorities, which he clearly despises?

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Secretary of State for Education and Science

I was accused by the hon. Member for Blackburn of failing to introduce imaginative proposals. What matters is not attitudes but that the policies are practical and sensible and will expand opportunities for many young people.

My remarks about local authority control are not pointless criticisms of local government but build on our experience of removing polytechnics from local government control. In many areas, local government is changing to an enabling role and away from the day-to-day, detailed management of countless different services. That is a wider issue, but there is no doubt that, in further and higher education, the governing bodies of each polytechnic—most of which will become universities—further education colleges and sixth-form colleges, as autonomous bodies, can make a better job of judging priorities, managing the institutions and expanding in response to local demands than local government did in the past.

We are moving to a new system whereby we shall turn our backs on bureaucracy and rely more on local initiatives and enthusiasm in the management of individual institutions. We believe that that delivers better and more responsive public services.

Photo of Mr Bob Dunn Mr Bob Dunn , Dartford

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that the standards of A-levels will be maintained and, where necessary, strengthened? Conservative Members do not want to fall into the same trap as the Labour party, which condemns excellence, supports the erosion of the A-level system and promotes its total abolition.

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Secretary of State for Education and Science

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. To those who say that the course of study at A-level should be broadened, we reaffirm that we shall continue, as we are successfully doing now, to encourage more AS-levels—subjects that are taken to the same standard as A-level, but cover half the range. Two A-levels and two AS-levels can be taken by someone who might find three A-levels too narrow. In that way, we shall maintain standards and achieve the same high-quality entry to our universities, as I am sure the young men and women now sitting their A-levels will provide when they go to university next year.

It would be a disaster to approach that system in a way that damaged academic standards. Few higher education establishments in the world would not envy the intake from our sixth forms and colleges. Those students achieve good-quality A-levels after two years of rigorous study.

Photo of Robert Wareing Robert Wareing , Liverpool, West Derby

Does not the Secretary of State understand that the biggest barriers to young people and adults attending full-time or, especially, part-time courses for A-levels or similar qualifications necessary for university entrance are the lack of funds provided to local education authorities, the disparity between different parts of the country in the payment of discretionary grants and the inability of young people to obtain income support from the Department of Social Security? They are the biggest barriers to expanding further education for academically qualified youngsters, capable though they may be. What will the proposals in the statement do about that?

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Secretary of State for Education and Science

The argument that growth is being restrained by the Government's lack of funding is best answered by the figures. I have already mentioned that one in five 18 and 19-year-olds are in higher education compared with one in eight 10 years ago. Six out of 10 16-year-olds now stay on at school compared with four out of 10 when the Government came into office, and three out of four 17-year-olds receive education and training compared with two out of four when we came to office.

The hon. Gentleman must bear it in mind that the background is already one of sustained expansion of academic, educational and training opportunities. The evidence belies his claim that the Government are starving the system of funds so that access is restrained. By our deeds, one should judge us. We have expanded opportunities rapidly and we shall do so yet further.

Photo of Mr Donald Thompson Mr Donald Thompson , Calder Valley

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that my constituents will welcome the statement? Does he recall that the Labour-controlled council tried to abolish sixth forms in my constituency, which led directly to a 6 per cent. swing to the Conservatives in the most recent local elections? Will my right hon. and learned Friend find a way of short-circuiting money to those sixth forms and especially around those councils that have used their financial mismanagement to starve them of funds?

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Secretary of State for Education and Science

I am delighted that my hon. Friend defends the popular sixth forms in his constituency. Already, under the arrangements that we tend to approve, sixth forms are treated attractively. We aim to ensure that good sixth forms in schools are protected and will continue to flourish provided that they respond to a real need in the local community. New ones should open when the local community so desires. I share my hon. Friend's opinion on the contrast that can be drawn between our approach of encouraging individual choice and allowing sixth forms to continue and that of those in the Labour party who sometimes wish a local bureaucracy to impose a pattern on the local community as it thinks best.

Photo of Mr Derek Fatchett Mr Derek Fatchett , Leeds Central

The Secretary of State will recognise the wide agreement on the need to improve the parity of esteem between academic: and vocational subjects to break down the status divide that has bedevilled the English and Welsh education system.

Does the Secretary of State also understand that his response today will be seen as a lost opportunity, particularly on the qualification system he has proposed? All the evidence from the Government's Higginson report, the CBI, teachers' organisations and a wide range of institutions representing higher education demands changes in 18-plus education, but the Government have resisted the opportunity and missed the boat on this occasion. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has come up not with the radical change that is needed, but with an approach that will exacerbate the divide between the academic and the vocational. When the small print of the statement is understood by Consdervative hon. Members, they will fully realise that the new diploma is spatchcocked on to the existing jungle of qualifications.

The Government have let down a generation of young people. At the next election the Government will not have the opportunity of implementing their proposals but the Labour party will implement its proposals, which are in line with the qualification system's needs and will break down the divide by giving that system the radical approach it so desperately needs.

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Secretary of State for Education and Science

The hon. Gentleman cannot seriously argue that what we have announced today does not bridge the divide between academic qualifications and vocational qualifications. He and his hon. Friends think that that job cannot be done properly without scrapping A-levels. What we have announced certainly bridges the divide. The hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends believe that A-levels must be scrapped. They make the case that A-levels are elitist, that only 30 per cent. of pupils can do them. The Labour party and others suggest that there should be a much broader approach. But it is an approach that would take all pupils to a much lower standard. In the education world, there are people who say that, in those circumstances, a four-year degree course would be necessary to make up for the lack of attainment before entry to higher education. We are retaining the best of A-levels, and combining them with good-quality vocational qualifications, within one framework that will give them equal esteem. That is a very superior approach. The Labour party is driven by old shibboleths and by a continuing desire to get rid of anything that it regards as elitist, as marking out high ability in the education system.

Several Hon. Members:


Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. On the next statement, I will try to give some priority to those hon. Members who have not been called on this one.