Gap Year Students

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 1st July 1998.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Dowd.]

Photo of Mr Nick St Aubyn Mr Nick St Aubyn Conservative, Guildford 9:34 am, 1st July 1998

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate gap year students. One of the great advantages of being a Member of Parliament is that one can occasionally highlight an issue that is not always in the public mind, and this is certainly one such issue. I congratulate those hon. Members who have survived the tribulations of last night on making it here this morning in one piece. I hope that we can score a few goals on behalf of students, but that is in the hands of the Minister.

Photo of Mr Nick St Aubyn Mr Nick St Aubyn Conservative, Guildford

That sounds ominous. Perhaps the hand of Government will be as effective as the hand of God was on another occasion.

First, I shall define gap year students. This month, if their A-level results are good enough, many students will make plans to go on to the university of their choice in the autumn. Every year, some school leavers decide to take a year out from their education programme to widen their experience and find out more about the world. Those are predominantly gap year students.

I have tried hard to get exact figures on the number of such students, but there are little data in this area. Most estimates show that 20,000 to 30,000 school leavers who intend to go to university take a gap year. However, as I shall show, a greater number may fall into that category. We should also consider students who enter university and meet students who took a gap year. They may put a gap year in their plans between leaving university and starting a full-time career.

I should declare an interest because I was a gap year student a few years ago. It was a tremendous experience, thanks to the organisation Project Trust. It was first in the field, following the decision by Voluntary Service Overseas to concentrate only on graduates. The trust started 30 years ago, and has developed programmes throughout the world specifically to enable school leavers to spend nine months to a year on structured projects that they had identified. In those 30 years, the trust has sent more than 4,000 school leavers abroad, and it has had great success. Those who go abroad for a year take on a big commitment, and the success rate says a great deal for the assessment, back-up, training and knowledge that the trust has developed.

One way in which gap year students gain experience is by self-selection. Perhaps that is why relatively few examples of poor experiences by gap year students come to light in the media. For students, it is a self-selecting experience, because the Project Trust base is on the island of Coll: applicants have to go from Glasgow to Oban to catch the island ferry early in the morning. If my memory is correct, it leaves before 7 o'clock. Anyone who faces those rigours must be willing to spend a year abroad.

The image of gap year students has perhaps limited the number who come forward. When I was applying for a project, I had in mind working on a sheep farm in Australia, on a ranch in South America with racehorses, or some such idea that one has at that stage. It was only when I was on the training and induction programme that I became interested in doing volunteer work, and I ended up as a care worker in a children's home.

In many ways, that was a life-determining opportunity for me. The striking fact—as the evidence of the Project Trust and other organisations suggests—is that that experience, if it is well structured and successful, does make a difference to the rest of volunteers' lives. Therefore, although we may be talking about only a small proportion of school leavers—the Universities and Colleges Admission Service estimates that only 6 per cent. of university applicants currently decide to take a gap year—the ones who do stand to benefit tremendously if the experience is right.

The other factor to bear in mind is that the nature of students taking gap year opportunities has changed. Seventy per cent. of the Project Trust's volunteers come from the state sector, and only 30 per cent. from the independent sector. The idea of the year off as the rich kid's luxury has gone. It is an opportunity that is and should remain open to all school leavers. However, there are problems.

The grandfather of overseas volunteering is Voluntary Service Overseas. Earlier this year, it reported that the number of its projects has had to be reduced by 10 per cent. because of a fall in applications. It sends about 2,000 people abroad on projects. That is at a time when, in the United States, with a $50 million grant from the United States Government, the number of Peace Corps volunteers—Peace Corps is a programme that was directly inspired by the example of VSO—has doubled to 10,000 a year.

There is other evidence that there has been a change in attitudes in our country, which we must do something to address. There is evidence that the number of people aged between 18 and 24 who are involved in any volunteering activity in this country has fallen in recent years. In 1991, 55 per cent. of those in that age group were involved in volunteering. Last year, that fell to 43 per cent., a drop of 1.4 million volunteers.

The new Government came to power promising the giving age, but for that age group it has become the taking age. One of the most worrying aspects of the current situation is the great increase in the burden on 18 to 24-year-olds implied by the Government's new proposals for tuition fees and for taking away the maintenance grant. I have seen correspondence between the Minister and some of the organisations in this sector making the case that those from less well-off backgrounds will not have to pay tuition fees, but, as we all know, that is only part of the package. The other part is that the maintenance grant will be abolished, so, when they leave university, those from less well-off backgrounds will find that the debt on their shoulders will be higher than the debt of those from well-off backgrounds.

Therefore, across the board, members of that important, in many ways idealistic, age group who may want to take part in community activities, will find that the burden imposed by the Government deters them. Instead of spending a year doing voluntary activity, whether in this country or abroad, they feel that they must spend that time building their savings to help them to pay for their tuition at university.

That has clear consequences. One is that, if school leavers want to enjoy the benefits of a gap year, it is now more important than ever that they do so in a structured way, through an organisation that provides a well-founded experience. Not only will that be their best chance of ensuring that they gain the most from that experience, but, when they come on to the job market, it will be a plus with their prospective employers.

A recent survey showed that more than 50 per cent. of employers are more likely to choose a candidate who has had gap year experience; I am grateful to The Guardian of 12 August for that survey. Community Service Volunteers—the domestic equivalent of VSO—which in any year has 1,200 volunteers on its programmes, has done its own survey, which found that more than 50 per cent. of human resource directors in companies it questioned would prefer to take on an employee who had been involved in voluntary work, compared with one who had just been on a backpacking holiday of their own design.

Therefore, it is important that those programmes have a structure. There are five key issues that students and potential students should be looking for when they go on a programme. First, they should be on a programme that provides for assessment of the school leaver. That assessment will guide the school leaver into the right sort of project to suit them.

Secondly, a well-grounded programme will ensure that the projects to which the school leavers go have a correct and well-prepared specification. Thirdly, the organisation will provide sufficient training for school leavers, so that, when they go on their project, they genuinely deliver benefits to their host country and to the charity or school where they may be working, rather than becoming involved in an experience that may, for want of a better word, be nothing more than aid tourism.

Fourthly, when school leavers are on a project, that will be their first experience of being away from home for an extended period. It is important that pastoral care is available to school leavers in the country where they work. Again, the organisation should not only be able to show that it provides pastoral care, but, if the political situation becomes threatening—in many of these countries, there is often political instability—it should be aware of that and able to take school leavers out of a country as a last resort, in good time and with minimum fuss.

Lastly—in many ways, this is almost as important as all the rest—there should be proper debriefing for school leavers when they return home. There is an element of culture shock in going abroad. There is more than an element of reverse culture shock when school leavers come back to this country, particularly if they have been on a posting lasting between six months and a year.

That is why the cost of the best programmes is not cheap. Project Trust charges its volunteers £3,500 for their year's experience abroad. Gap Activity, which has been going for 25 years, is another well-established provider in the sector; it sends around 1,200 school leavers abroad a year and charges, all told, about £1,500 typically for a six-month experience abroad. Those figures sound high, but, in the case of those organisations and the other better organisations in the sector, that money is raised through sponsorship.

The organisations not only help school leavers to find sponsors, but give them some training in how to win sponsorship. The training is a part of the programmes' development of the individual, from which school leavers benefit. School leavers are successful, and achieve their sponsorship. Moreover, major British companies greatly value the results produced by the programmes, which provide volunteers with a leadership development programme as they are maturing as individuals. The required money is therefore forthcoming.

As the numbers of those going into higher education increases, and as awareness of the gap year experience and opportunity have grown, so organisations offering programmes have proliferated. It is estimated that more than 70 organisations now offer some gap year experience. However, the programmes are entirely unregulated. I shall deal with that point in more detail later.

I came across one company, for example, that employs in the United Kingdom only eight staff, who are responsible each year for almost 800 postings, lasting less than three months, for which they charge a total of about £2,000. Such programmes clearly do not provide the same value for money as those provided by the other, good organisations that I have mentioned.

The worst organisations do not provide training, or even an assessment of the school leaver and his or her suitability for a post. The image of the United Kingdom in countries where gap year students are sent will be tarnished if they show up for a few months, do not know why they are there, and perhaps return to the United Kingdom confused in their own minds, whereas people in the country involved simply think, "That's just another aid tourist who has been through our patch." That is not the image we want to project abroad.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Lifelong Learning), Department for Education and Employment

Will the hon. Gentleman do the House and the country a favour by naming that company?

Photo of Mr Nick St Aubyn Mr Nick St Aubyn Conservative, Guildford

There are several such organisations, and I shall give the Minister their details later.

Such organisations pose a problem and have to be checked out. The question is whether we should regulate or offer guidance. The case against regulation is that volunteers are, as I said, a group of school leavers who are self-selecting. They have a self-awareness, and a "get up and go" that will stand them in good stead. Moreover, if they are to go abroad, they will have to have their wits about them. The problem with regulation is that it would create an extra cost for the best organisations, without providing any better value in the experience they offer.

The United Kingdom regulates similar organisations.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

Regulation is one of the most important aspects of the hon. Gentleman's speech and of the point that he is trying to make. Does he accept that the appalling situation that developed after Louise Woodward went to the United States to take up a post without supervision, regulation or training shows that we have to include within guidelines not only traditional, university gap year students, but all young people who participate in a gap year experience?

Photo of Mr Nick St Aubyn Mr Nick St Aubyn Conservative, Guildford

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, and I shall certainly deal later with the Louise Woodward case.

The decision whether to regulate should be based on our experience in the United Kingdom. Until quite recently, expeditions in the UK were not regulated. Only the previous Government introduced the requirement that expeditions be regulated and use qualified staff. When those regulations were introduced, after a canoeing accident in Lulworth cove, there was a sharp drop in the number of applicants to all organisations, however well established and reputable, which put their futures at risk.

Senior and responsible organisations offering overseas gap year projects have serious concerns that, if regulations were to be introduced, a hiatus would be created during which they would suffer serious effects. Developing a specific project can take a very long time, and, once the project is up and running, it is important that the flow of able and committed volunteers continues. If the Government were to interrupt and jeopardise that flow by announcing the need for regulation, many organisations would have a difficult time keeping their show on the road.

Most of the most reputable and longest-standing organisations are charitable, and are consequently run on a very tight budget.

Photo of Mrs Teresa Gorman Mrs Teresa Gorman Conservative, Billericay

The points that my hon. Friend is making are extremely important, very serious and valid. However, I am sure that he will agree that parents who are releasing their children into organisations that will send them to foreign lands have a very big responsibility to check out those organisations to which their children will be consigned.

Photo of Mr Nick St Aubyn Mr Nick St Aubyn Conservative, Guildford

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, which leads on to the main point of the debate.

If parents are to investigate programmes with due vigilance, and if schools are to allow organisations into their career evenings and access to children—often the point of contact is the school's careers officer—they must have guidelines on what to expect and consider. Issuing such guidelines is the role that I think should be played by the Minister and the Department for Education and Employment—not only to ensure that the best organisations thrive, and that those that do not offer a fair deal fall by the wayside, but to endorse the idea, if the Minister is prepared to do so, of the gap year experience.

Organisations such as Project Trust and Gap Action tell me that they often visit a school to find that the school's head and teachers have no concept of a gap year. Issuing guidelines to schools would raise consciousness of gap years, and broaden the group who think that the gap year experience might be for them.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

Issuing guidelines is an interesting idea. However, further to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), I should like to tell my hon. Friend of my own experience when my son wanted to go to Vietnam for his gap year. As a responsible parent, I sought to discover as much about the programme as I could, and found the Foreign Office extremely helpful. I suggest to my hon. Friend that he might include as one of his proposals to the Minister that the Foreign Office should itself investigate some of the organisations, and make its knowledge available to parents before their children go abroad.

Photo of Mr Nick St Aubyn Mr Nick St Aubyn Conservative, Guildford

My hon. Friend also makes a very good point. Perhaps I should say how much the organisations involved in sending school leavers abroad appreciate the back-up they receive from Government—not only from Foreign Office officials in the countries involved, in helping them to identify people living locally who are prepared to help; but, in extreme situations, from the Foreign Office in performing its general role of protecting all United Kingdom citizens in political hot spots. The Foreign Office has a role to play in all those circumstances.

The Department for International Development also is very much aware of the positive aspects of the organisations, and should have an input to the Minister's Department in drawing up helpful and constructive guidelines.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) mentioned the case of Louise Woodward. I am told that, when the phrase "gap year students" is mentioned to the Prime Minister, he immediately thinks of Louise Woodward. I have deferred mentioning her case until now, because I wanted to emphasise to the House that a much wider group of people is involved in the gap year experience. However, an unknown number of school leavers, who may not be going on to university, nevertheless want the gap year experience. They are being sent overseas without appropriate assessment, training or back-up, and thus run the risks which tragically led to the case involving Louise Woodward in the United States.

I am grateful to the House of Commons Library for the following figures. Although the official estimate is that about 20,000 to 30,000 school leavers take a gap year, in the current year 137,000 18-year-olds, 55,000 19-year-olds and 20,000 20-year-olds entered a university course. Clearly, a much larger group is entering university education later, perhaps having changed their minds after leaving school. They would benefit from guidelines about where they are going and with which organisation.

Photo of Mr Roy Beggs Mr Roy Beggs UUP, East Antrim

Most of the hon. Gentleman's remarks have focused on the gap year experience overseas. Does he agree that, before entering university or teacher training college, most students would benefit from a gap year even within the United Kingdom, and that steps should be taken to encourage that, because of the confidence that students gain from experience of the real world?

Photo of Mr Nick St Aubyn Mr Nick St Aubyn Conservative, Guildford

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I have deliberately focused on the experience of school leavers going overseas, because it is with them that all the factors I have outlined come into play. School leavers doing voluntary work in this country will probably stay at home and do something in their own locality. However, I agree with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's question.

The Government plan a programme involving millennium volunteers, and I believe that they hope for 100,000. Over the past six months, the Government have been asked many times—most recently in the House of Lords by Baroness Hooper—whether they will include overseas volunteers in the category of millennium volunteers. Millennium volunteers are contributing to their community, and overseas volunteers are contributing to the wider international community. I believe, as do the organisations involved, that overseas volunteers should also be allowed to wear the badge of the millennium volunteers, thus highlighting a very special opportunity for those involved.

I would not want to conclude without stressing the support that students receive for the gap year, not only from employers but from universities. I have here one of the many letters that I have received on the subject. The vice-chancellor of Loughborough university today wrote: we regard gap year experiences as very valuable not least in taking forward students' key skills in terms of informal learning from work, travel etc. This fits in very well with the Dearing recommendations on key skill development for all HE students. I represent a university town—it contains the university of Surrey—and I know that my vice-chancellor supports the idea of well-structured gap year experiences.

A year ago, the Department for Education and Employment was barely aware of gap year students. We know that, because of the hiatus caused for gap year students when the Government's plans for tuition fees were first announced. On that occasion, the Government performed a U-turn which might have done credit to a certain football team last night. They certainly performed a valuable service in recognising that there needed to be an exception for those students, but several thousands were still caught by the change in policy. I think that the Department is now much more aware of the nature of the gap year experience, the wide range of school leavers who take part, and of the importance of answering this call for them to be given guidelines.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 10:04 am, 1st July 1998

I thank the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) for raising this topic. I apologise to the House for the state of my voice, but a great deal of cheering and shouting went on last night. Having then to go into the radio studios at 11.15 pm to do a late-night phone-in was not the best of experiences, but no doubt the Minister is familiar with that, having had to respond to the drubbing that Wales took in the southern hemisphere recently, on which the whole world commiserates with him.

The gap year experience is a very important subject. The one thing we learned from last summer's fiasco involving Government policy, or the lack of Government policy, on gap year students—the hon. Member for Guildford was generous in not spending too much time on it—is that there is a need to tighten the regulations, and to put the gap year on a much more secure footing.

I shall be brief, as I do not want to relive the nightmares of 1997; nor do I want to re-run in any detail the arguments about the introduction of tuition fees. At about midnight tonight, we shall have yet another vote, after a long debate on Scottish fees, and hon. Members will be able to make their feelings known. However, the Minister must still expect to respond to last summer's fiasco concerning the gap year, particularly the way in which it was handled.

It is now a matter of record that the Secretary of State's statement on 25 July gave the clear impression that there would be no leeway for gap year students going off in 1997, and deferring their higher education places until 1998. The Government then performed a number of U-turns, which we welcome, as did the hon. Member for Guildford. However, it was clear from what the Government did that they did not understand the nature of the gap year, and were not familiar with the reasons why students took a gap year, or what an integral part it is of the higher education system.

On 14 August, Baroness Blackstone issued the famous press release which made the Government's position clear. However, it was not until about 24 September that universities were given hard information on what the Government's policy was. By that time, students who had not got offers of a place and had not taken up gap placements by 1 August were left out in the cold.

The Government failed to recognise that many students do not make their gap year arrangements as early or precisely as some would like, but wait until their A-level results come out. Only then do they make their decisions. It is important that they have that leeway, and can make their decisions as late as possible. The higher education system should be flexible enough to enable them to do so.

When they made their decision last year, the Government gave no hint to potential gap year students that there would be any change in the regulations. Students who expected to wait until their A-level results came out before making a decision had no indication that there was to be a change. The Government made a retrospective decision, which was applied arbitrarily to the 1997 student cohort. That was wrong. The way in which it was communicated to students was absolutely deplorable. At every stage, it was revealed in the press—through a leak to The Times on 11 August and a press release by Baroness Blackstone on 14 August. Individuals or institutions were obliged to monitor the press in order to find out what was happening in respect of Government policy. In his response to the debate, will the Minister assure us that future policy changes will not be announced only in press releases, but that the data will be sent to the relevant organisations and institutions involved, so that the information is available to everyone at the same time?

My purpose in making that point is to draw attention to the fact that many students who had not decided to take a gap year by 1 August have been disadvantaged. That is an inequity that could be redressed, even at this late stage, if the Government extended to students who took a gap year but had not applied by 1 August the same facilities as were available to those who had applied earlier.

Many hon. Members will have received correspondence from parents, and from individuals who decided to take a gap year, who feel disadvantaged by the fact that they will go to university this year on different terms and conditions from those affecting students who had applied by 1 August. I know that the Minister, who is an honourable and decent man, will accept that the deadline of 1 August was an arbitrary decision. I should like to think that, even at this late stage, the Government will acknowledge that it was an arbitrary decision, and change their mind.

We are concerned about the future of the gap year, and the hon. Member for Guildford made some extremely interesting and detailed points about its extent and nature. However, he did not refer to the statement by Baroness Blackstone on 14 August: The Government recognises the numerous advantages that taking a year out can bring. The Government is particularly keen to encourage volunteering and we will be examining ways of how we can encourage it in the future. I may have missed something, but yesterday I searched the web pages of the Department for Education and Employment, and found absolutely no reference to any Government plans regarding gap years. The Minister may be able to give us a detailed résumé of the Government's plans. We would certainly like to see the noble Baroness's words put into action.

No doubt others will extol the virtues of students working as volunteers or travelling. Many are obliged to take a gap year in order to earn the money to enable them to go to university, either to pay their tuition fees or to help defray the costs. I am sure that the Minister and hon. Members accept that most students who take a gap year will not be going off to East Timor or Borneo, but working on building sites or doing manual work to earn enough money to pay their way through university; and that is honourable, too. I do not believe that there are two categories of gap year—one that is good for a certain type of student and one that should be regarded as less worthy.

The Government should recognise all students who take a gap year, irrespective of whether they work as volunteers or to raise the money to pay their way through university. One small concession that they could make is to allow students who take a gap year to have their fees paid at the level at which they would have entered higher education in the first place. It would not cost a great deal, but it would represent the Government's recognition that a gap year is important for students.

Photo of Mr Nick St Aubyn Mr Nick St Aubyn Conservative, Guildford

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be helpful if the Minister would mention the Government's plans for post-qualification entry, which will also affect the organisations involved, and explain how he proposes to involve the best of those organisations in his discussions on the introduction of post-qualification entry to universities?

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, which relates to the answer that I am trying to get from the Government in respect of the noble Baroness's statement. She made a powerful statement, and the Secretary of State has made similar ones. It is only right that the Minister is given an opportunity this morning to explain to the House what plans the Government have, so we look forward to his reply to the debate.

Finally, I strongly support the point that the hon. Member for Guildford made about guidelines and registration of organisations offering facilities to gap year students or any students who are taking time out. There is no doubt that the Louise Woodward case has highlighted some of the problems faced by young people who go abroad without being properly prepared, and the fact that there is no proper regulation or the necessary support mechanisms to help them. A register and clear Government guidelines would be welcomed by the organisations involved, but regulations certainly would not.

Photo of Mrs Teresa Gorman Mrs Teresa Gorman Conservative, Billericay

The hon. Gentleman has twice mentioned the Louise Woodward case. Surely that is a different issue, as she obtained employment through an employment agency, which is a different animal from the voluntary organisations to which my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) referred.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention, but I think that the two issues overlap. Many gap year students find work abroad or at home through employment agencies. More and more young people, particularly those travelling to the United States, Australia or the Pacific rim countries, are being encouraged to find work through employment agencies. Although I accept the hon. Lady's point that there is a difference between the two, it is important that the Government do not turn a blind eye, but seek the same guidelines for all relevant organisations, irrespective of whether they deal with undergraduates or others seeking work experience abroad.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Guildford for initiating this morning's debate, and look forward to the Minister's response.

Photo of Mrs Teresa Gorman Mrs Teresa Gorman Conservative, Billericay 10:17 am, 1st July 1998

I have listened with great interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn), and congratulate him on raising an important subject that obviously has ramifications outside the orthodox type of gap year. In my constituency, students have expressed the hope that they will be able to take a gap year, and employers have told me how much they value that experience for students.

We have been told that, whereas in the past increasing numbers of students have taken a gap year, this year there has been a fall in the numbers. I put it to the Minister that that is not unconnected with the fact that the Government have now decided to raise the cost of higher education for better-off students, who will have to pay their tuition fees, and for less well-off ones, who will face higher accommodation and maintenance costs. As a result, as the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) pointed out, many more students will have to work in order to pay the expenses that the Government have increased for people in pursuit of higher education.

The Minister must accept that the Government's policies are having a detrimental effect on what we all agree has given a valuable dimension to many people's higher education experience. The majority of universities support the idea and go to great lengths to praise it, because the students who go to university after a gap year have more mature and focused views on why they are in higher education.

Many of us have had vast experience around the world as students and adults. We can all agree that there is no substitute for that contact with a variety of cultures and other people's way of life, as part of what would once have been called the university of life. That facility is undervalued. The Government's policies of increasing the cost of higher education are likely to deter many of our young people from gaining such experiences.

Photo of Mr Nick St Aubyn Mr Nick St Aubyn Conservative, Guildford

Does my hon. Friend agree that that highlights the Government's mistake in ignoring the recommendation of the Dearing report not to abolish the maintenance grant? The fact that they flew in the face of that recommendation is at the heart of the problems we are discussing.

Photo of Mrs Teresa Gorman Mrs Teresa Gorman Conservative, Billericay

I agree with my hon. Friend. We are discussing a very important issue. The gap year is not a frivolous extra in the pattern of education that has evolved in this country, but an integral and very important way to help those entering higher education to broaden their knowledge and develop a sympathetic view of the life style of what we choose to call ordinary working people and those overseas who are so much less fortunate than people in this country.

We sometimes take for granted the tremendous advantages of being a British citizen and having the opportunities of higher education offered by the taxpayer, which the previous Government, like all Conservative Governments, sought to expand. The proportion of young people going into higher education has risen from, I think, one in eight to one in three. That is a massive increase. It is important that those young, and to some extent privileged, people go out into the world and learn how the other half lives.

I urge the Minister not to neglect the damage that his party is doing by making higher education more expensive. Those who decide when they leave school that they cannot afford to go to university may be lost to higher education for ever. They may go off into the world of work and find that the cost of severing that connection to go back into higher education is too great. We can take credit for the fact that so many mature students joined our universities under Conservative Governments. Such students have already achieved what might be called gap years by having worked. They now realise the value of education, and have gone back for it.

I left school at 16 and went for what would now be called a gap year, although I did a Louise Woodward and got a job abroad, which was quite poorly paid, but was a wonderful experience—and one that I would not have had if there had been a minimum wage and the employers had had to pay me more than they thought I was worth. That experience was worth a great deal more than money. We should emphasise that point.

The Minister should not just encourage such schemes, but should review again the Government's detrimental move that has made it more difficult and more expensive for people on lower incomes to take those opportunities. There is a fine balance for people coming from what we call a working-class background between choosing higher education and going into work, which they may never come out of to return to higher education. Pushing people in one direction—I think that it is the wrong direction—is one of the many downsides of the Government's policy.

I hope that the Minister will take that criticism on board. It is meant to be constructive, and is based on my experience. I am sure that many other hon. Members have a similar background. Many of those who have come up the hard way to sit on the Labour Benches would, if they were here—I understand that they are busy elsewhere—undoubtedly support the idea of not just keeping but extending the possibilities of the gap year, and making it financially possible.

For all the grandiose talk about the value of such schemes, we shall not achieve an increase in the university of life year unless we make it financially viable. I hope that the Minister will give us a constructive answer, not a lot of political propaganda trumpeting Labour's changes to education. He should admit that there are downsides to his policies, which he should ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment to review carefully.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 10:25 am, 1st July 1998

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) on securing this debate on such an important and topical subject. He should be given credit for the work he did in his gap year, which he described as having taken place a few years ago. As he and I were contemporaries at university, I have inside knowledge on how few those years are. It is probably better for both of us if I draw a veil over the number.

My hon. Friend made a powerful case based on his experience. Being a social worker in Soweto in those days would have been radically different from any experience that he had had before or has had since. It will have been important for his personal growth, and for those for whom he did useful work. It certainly sounds more useful than my gap year, which I spent as a journalist. I am not sure that that improved my social and moral growth, and it may not have been as useful for the community.

I also thank the other two hon. Members who have spoken. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) gave a learned and thoughtful dissection of the chaos that fell on the Government when they made their tuition fees announcement last summer. My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) made a characteristically pungent and thoughtful contribution on the wider benefits of the gap year.

It is regrettable that more hon. Members did not feel impelled to join the debate. The last time that I looked, the parliamentary Labour party had five ex-presidents of the National Union of Students, and their specialist knowledge might have been useful. I can assume only that, like much of the rest of the country, they are spending the morning sticking pins into wax models of David Beckham. That will be my last reference to that national disaster.

We all agree on the importance of this subject. The gap year is important for students. It needs to become more important, but it is in danger of becoming less important for a variety of reasons relating to the attitude of young people and the Government's policies on student funding. It is widely agreed across political divides that promoting lifelong learning is one of the most important steps forward we can take to educate our people and provide a more competitive economy. However, we might be about to take a step backwards on this issue, in which the interaction of real life and academic life has been encouraged for many years. It seems perverse—just when, as a society, we are encouraging people beyond the traditional student age to go into education—to discourage people of the traditional student age from gaining experience in the real world.

The Minister will be aware that several extremely good organisations have for many years been trying to promote gap year activities. Indeed, one, which is neatly called GAP—the Gap Activities Project, an educational charity— has the Government's specific endorsement. Its most recent brochure contained a message from the Foreign Secretary, celebrating the project's 25th anniversary.

The best quotation in that brochure is from the chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, who makes the point that gap year activities benefit not only students and society as a whole but universities: most universities and colleges are now very much in favour of a constructive gap year"— one would emphasise "constructive"— some are even beginning to insist on it. GAP volunteers take on social responsibilities and learn the hard way to manage their lives. This means they bring a more mature and broader approach to their studies. That is clearly true, as I am sure the Minister would agree. GAP is just one of the relevant organisations. My hon. Friend the Member for Guildford mentioned others, and I shall say a word about Voluntary Service Overseas in a minute.

The points made by GAP were emphasised by one of its trustees, Baroness Hooper, who told another place earlier this year that the organisation currently sends 1,300 young people overseas, and that, on her recent visit to the Falkland Islands, she found eight GAP students working in various ways on farms or in local museums. The organisation also brings volunteers from overseas to this country.

Baroness Hooper asked the Government for assurances on three points; I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us on them in this debate. She said that the Government need to encourage broader educational experience and young people should play a more active part in citizenship. All of us must have such an important general aim; we must not let young people drift away from their wider responsibilities.

Baroness Hooper's second point, which I hope the Minister will address, concerned post-qualification applications to university. That fits the wider theme of lifelong learning, about which I am sure the Minister will want to talk. Baroness Hooper suggested that the Government should move to a system of post-qualification applications that would provide those in the GAP organisation"— and no doubt other organisations that promote such useful activity— with a clear means of communication to the Department for Education and Employment in terms of being able to provide information from their experience and being able to explain clearly their needs."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 4 March 1998; Vol. 586, c. 1264.] Baroness Hooper's third issue—my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford also raised it—concerns the millennium volunteers initiative, which has been widely welcomed. It would be impossible to say that all millennium-related activities are uncontroversial. I am sure that the Minister is grateful that the one with which he has most contact—the millennium volunteers programme—is one of the least controversial ideas on the subject that the Government and others have come up with. I congratulate him on that. Nevertheless, I echo my hon. Friend's words, and hope that the Minister will clarify the status of overseas volunteers in the programme. That would clearly give the programme some imprimatur, some badge of approval, which would help to raise its profile and status.

That brings me to VSO, with which, I suppose, most people would associate gap year activities. VSO springs to mind most readily; everyone has heard of it, and everyone has some image of it, which might be wrong. As it is one of the pioneering organisations in its field, the news to which my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford alluded is rather disturbing. VSO has 2,000 volunteers working in 59 developing countries. This year, for the first time, it has seen a fall in the number of its recruits. I am sure that the Minister will have read, as I have, comment inspired by that fall and the possible reasons for it.

The first suggested reason is that many 15 to 25-year-olds simply have not heard of VSO. That is a problem for the organisation. The 10 per cent. drop in the number of volunteers that it will send abroad, which is reflected by a 22 per cent. fall in applications and a 50 per cent. fall in applications for teaching posts, deserves wider consideration. VSO identifies as a potential problem the fact that the word "volunteering" puts people off. As one representative of another voluntary organisation said, Volunteering doesn't have a cool image. I am happy that, almost officially, the phrase "Cool Britannia" has been buried. It was always a terrible idea. By its very nature, something that is cool today is bound not to be cool tomorrow. Attempting to brand an entire country as cool was an extremely short-term and foolish idea. Behind the slightly flip phrase, however, lies a genuine problem. If it is not considered attractive to young people, the good work—concerning both the people involved and the projects—will suffer. This is one issue on which, for once, the Government's warm words would be useful. I hope that the Minister will consider that.

There appears to be a difference between the attitude of young people to volunteering overseas and to volunteering in this country. The number of volunteers who want to do community service in this country is still rising.

That gives the lie to the general point that has been made in much coverage of VSO's problems that we are entering a "me" generation, in which young people are much less altruistic. My experience is that that is simply untrue. I suspect that the level of altruism in young people does not shift very much from generation to generation. A certain number will be inclined to volunteer, and a certain number will not. The idea that the morality available in any cohort changes radically is slightly short-sighted.

Photo of Mrs Teresa Gorman Mrs Teresa Gorman Conservative, Billericay

My hon. Friend has raised an important point about altruism and participation in voluntary activity. Is not the Labour party's continual harping on the claim that unpaid or lowly paid work is invalid, and its insistence on minimum wages for people over the age of 19—an age at which we still expect people to volunteer—a factor in the changing attitude of young people? The issue is becoming political. Constant harping about slave wages and people being ground into the dust by wicked employers is undermining the spirit of altruism, which once encouraged young people voluntarily to give up their time.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

My hon. Friend tempts me on to the interesting subject of the interaction between voluntary work and the minimum wage, but, as time is short, I shall resist that temptation.

The central question that the Minister must answer is whether the Government are taking action to encourage young people to take gap years and widen their experience. Considering objectively the Government's actions over the past 15 or 16 months since they came into office, they are not improving the situation; they are making it worse.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough pointed out last year's funding arrangements fiasco. We have to put that in the wider context of the Government having rejected the Dearing committee recommendations on the preservation of the maintenance grant, which has had a series of deleterious effects on student funding—one of which we shall debate this evening, with, I suspect, rather more hon. Members present on both sides. I shall not use this debate to rehearse my arguments on that subject.

The gap year problem is simply one of a range of problems into which the Government have stumbled because of their proposals for funding arrangements. I am sure that they regard it as a relatively minor problem, but they have sent an important signal about how they regard the gap year.

The lack of maintenance grants will, for many students, mean larger debts when they leave university. Those of us who are involved in the minutiae of that subject have argued about it at great length, and will continue to do so, but the one fact that students thinking about their time at university have grasped about the new funding arrangements is that many of them will leave with large debts. The net effect is that fewer will consider taking a gap year, and more of those who want to do so will feel impelled to take a paying job rather than do any low-paid or unpaid voluntary activity.

Far fewer students are likely to take gap years after they have finished their main university course, because they will have a large debt and the bank manager will be breathing down their neck. Perhaps most importantly, they will have noted the Government's attitude when it was discovered that the introduction of tuition fees would cause a specific problem for gap year students. As the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough has pointed out, weeks passed before the Government dealt with the problem, because, although it was a serious and immediate problem for those involved, the Government clearly did not regard it as such. They simply had not thought about guidance for gap year students in that case, or at all.

That sent gap year students the clear message: "Forget about the warm words, and the Foreign Secretary making nice comments in brochures for organisations that promote gap years. Look at our deeds. The Government do not care all that much about gap year students and the activities they promote." I hope that the Government have learnt from that lesson, and that the fiasco will not be repeated. I hope that the Minister can reassure us that the Government have changed their deeds, and words, on gap years.

Moving on to what I should like to hear from the Minister, the first action the Government could take is to change their message and take practical action, or gap years will become unfashionable. I am indebted to The Guardian—not a phrase one often hears at this Dispatch Box—for summing up many people's thoughts on gap years in an article last year. It said: The convention wisdom is that it's best to do something `worthwhile', whether that's working in a shelter for homeless people or backpacking in the Punjab with nothing but a bottle of diarrhoea medicine and a Kula Shaker album for company. That may well be the traditional, popular view of a gap year, but in this age, students who are thinking of taking a gap year will think that it is impractical, and will be put off. The first practical action the Government could take, for example, is to give us more information on the millennium volunteers.

Secondly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford said, the Government could produce guidelines for gap courses that are available. I shall not ask for registration or detailed regulation—that would be inappropriate and wrong. However, the Government could issue guidelines so that students know that they are taking reliable, decent courses, and that they are not simply spending a year doing something life-enhancing while listening to Kula Shaker or anyone else. They would then know that they will benefit from their gap year activities, and so will other people.

Thirdly, the Government could collect some decent figures. My hon. Friend the Member for Guildford has pointed out that even the unparalleled resources of the House of Commons Library cannot find any accurate figures about the numbers of people taking gap year courses or what they are doing. I take it as read that, if the Library cannot find those figures, they do not exist. Clearly, policy would be better informed if there were decent figures. For example, do the Government have a target for numbers of students taking a gap year? If not, do they think that more students should take gap years? If so, what will they do about it?

The overall message is that the pressures on students are increasing, and it is possible that gap years will disappear altogether. That would be extremely damaging for the health of the education system, the personal growth of the students involved, and Britain's image around the world, where many gap year students have done much good over the past few decades. That would be a step back from the idea of lifelong learning, and I hope that the Minister will provide reassurance on all those points.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Lifelong Learning), Department for Education and Employment 10:45 am, 1st July 1998

I add my thanks to the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) for bringing this important subject to the attention of the House, and for his thoughtful speech.

On statistics, the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) knows that I too am very concerned about how we collect statistics in this country. We are not very good at it; we spend a lot of money on it, but do not get very good value. We prepared some calculations for the debate, which show that currently just over 19,000 students have been offered a deferred place. The hon. Member for Guildford mentioned between 20,000 and 30,000 students, and I suspect that he is not far off the correct figure. They are students who said that they were interested in taking a gap year or a year off.

Photo of Mr Nick St Aubyn Mr Nick St Aubyn Conservative, Guildford

One has to distinguish between those who had a gap year lined up by the time they left school and those who made a conscious decision to apply to university after they knew their A-level results. They are certainly in addition to the 19,000, and they are the several thousand students who, last year, sadly still suffered because of the way in which the Government dealt with the problem induced by their new rules on student funding.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Lifelong Learning), Department for Education and Employment

I am sure that those statistics are not far wrong, and I would not argue with them. I hope that the hon. Gentleman appreciates my giving the figure of 19,000 so that he has a baseline from which to work, because I know that he is interested in pursuing the matter.

On volunteering, I was interested in what the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) said—I am always interested in what she says, although she has lost her radical edge these days. I used to love listening to her old philosophical stance, but I fear that it has mellowed somewhat.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

Sweet reason, but not on Europe.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Lifelong Learning), Department for Education and Employment

Yes, sweet reason.

Volunteering is not exclusive to would-be students. I know many volunteers who are in their 50s, 60s and 70s. We are all sure of the virtues of volunteering, and know that we must encourage it in every way, but we must pay tribute to everyone who volunteers. It is not only the student cohort, but many other people who volunteer—indeed, society depends on volunteering in many different ways.

As the hon. Member for Ashford said, VSO has been of enormous importance to the image of this country. In addition, it has touched many families: my brother was a VSO volunteer in New Guinea, although he did not have a Kula Shaker album with him, and his anti-diarrhoea medicine did not do much good; after spending about four years abroad, he returned to this country with some awful bacterial disease.

As the hon. Member for Billericay says, guidelines and safety are key issues. The Government recognise the advantages to society and to individuals of young people undertaking enriching activities such as voluntary work, cultural exchanges, educational visits and work experience. We are keen to encourage volunteering by students, especially before they take up courses in higher education, if that is what they intend to do.

Our manifesto commitment to develop proposals for a national programme of citizen's service for young people is being fulfilled through the millennium volunteers programme. That programme's aim is to support young people between the ages of 16 and 25, and encourage them to make a sustained commitment to volunteering in a way that benefits the community; £15 million has been made available for the programme in this country. Decisions on the availability of future funding for millennium volunteers will be taken after this month's announcement of the outcome of the comprehensive spending review.

A consultation document was issued last October. We received 500 responses to the separate consultation exercises in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There was strong support for millennium volunteers, and widespread recognition of the fact that volunteering helps young people to develop as responsible citizens. We have made the criteria for the programme as flexible as possible, without losing the requirement of a sustained personal commitment from the young person, which is the key to making millennium volunteers distinctive.

We recognise that the investment of time alone is not a measure of quality—that point lay at the heart of the speech of the hon. Member for Guildford. We have developed the idea, proposed in our consultation exercise, of a volunteer plan, which sets out the voluntary activity and the learning opportunities for the young person. I was glad that the hon. Gentleman emphasised the importance of having such a plan, and of knowing that quality training will be offered and that the experience will be of value; and that the young person will not be exploited to enrich the sponsoring organisation, or, in a more barefaced way, used as cheap labour.

National delivery of the programme will not be carried out by the Government; instead, a new organisation will be set up in England to deliver millennium volunteers. We are currently advertising in the national and voluntary press for the chairperson of that organisation. On 24 June, voluntary sector partners hosted a national conference to discuss the implementation of the programme in England, and to publish the document "Setting the Framework". Several demonstration projects in England are being set up over the next few weeks, and the Department intends to publish a millennium volunteers guide, which invites organisations to apply for funding, after the summer.

The consultation document expressed explicitly an expectation that activities undertaken by participants should offer the prospect of value to the wider community". We are not yet convinced that volunteering overseas can achieve that result on its own. We have to widen the consultation to take into account some of the arguments that have been advanced, not least by the hon. Member for Guildford today.

Photo of Mr Nick St Aubyn Mr Nick St Aubyn Conservative, Guildford

Will the Minister consider the suggestion that, if he is going to draw on 100,000 volunteers without endorsing the concept of overseas volunteering, he might draw into his programme those who would derive greater benefit from overseas projects and jeopardise the viability of some of the valuable projects that they would otherwise have undertaken?

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Lifelong Learning), Department for Education and Employment

I could not agree more, and I shall certainly take that important point into consideration. I am determined to ensure that we do not jeopardise organisations that plan properly and offer volunteers who go overseas real training, valuable experience and education.

We are fully aware of the valuable work done by volunteers working abroad. I agree entirely that voluntary work overseas offers young people opportunities for personal development. I can give the hon. Gentleman the undertaking that the Government are sympathetic to the idea of encouraging volunteering overseas, and that we are considering how that might be recognised within the millennium volunteers programme. My officials recently met key organisations involved in volunteering overseas, and agreed to consult them further. A final decision on recognising volunteering overseas as part of the millennium volunteers initiative will be made when the consultation process is complete.

Voluntary work can be challenging for the individual concerned—that is part of the reward—but I accept that working overseas has its own particular challenges and difficulties. I have therefore listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman's comments about the activities of certain organisations, and I hope that, at some stage, he will see fit to name those organisations, either in the House or outside. I was shocked by some of the figures he quoted—everyone should be concerned about the examples he gave of eight staff arranging 800 placements a year, each costing £2,000, with inadequate guarantees about the conditions awaiting the volunteers; and of the 70 organisations offering gap year experience entirely unregulated.

The hon. Member for Ashford will be relieved to hear that we do not believe that the Government should act as big brother, and try to regulate every single activity. That would impose a straitjacket in an area in which organisations need to be flexible in providing volunteering opportunities. The way forward lies in a voluntary code of self-regulation for organisations involved in arranging gap year projects, but that has to be a genuine exercise in drawing up a code that has some teeth and that can be effective when organisations step out of line. I am conscious of the fact that, occasionally, gap year arrangements do not work smoothly, so organisations need to ensure that adequate controls are in place.

Most students who take a year off have a rewarding experience. As the hon. Member for Guildford made clear, Guildford and many other universities and institutions of higher education appreciate the beneficial effects of the gap year.

There is now a Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges, which receives a grant of £5 million. It facilitates gap year placements and produces an advice booklet that covers health and safety issues. I give an undertaking that the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that departmental guidelines should be issued will be given careful consideration, especially in relation to our deliberations on extending the millennium volunteers programme to overseas placements. I shall ask the appropriate officials from my Department to meet the main voluntary organisations to discuss the question of guidelines.

Therefore, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that we have achieved some progress. I cannot give him a parallel or simile for last night's match, as he wanted. I am afraid that, as a rugby fan, I have not yet got over the 96:13 defeat of some of my constituents by South Africa. I hope that he will take that as an answer.