I beg to move amendment No. 23, page 15, line 22, after 'England', insert 'or Wales'.
We move to one of the parts of the Bill that deals with the Principality of Wales. I see the new Under-Secretary of State for Wales on the Treasury Bench. I am sad to say that I saw off the last one, Nick Ainger, following the grilling that I gave him in Committee, but I am pleased to see that he is present and we look forward to hearing from him later, perhaps. He made a positive contribution, but despite that, now joins us in a Back-Bench capacity.
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The shadow Welsh Ministers have been in almost constant contact with me on the matter. I have taken their sagacious advice on almost every word that I am about to utter. Their interest in it has been extraordinary, as I will no doubt illustrate in my remarks to the House.
In a letter of
"for the Welsh Assembly Government Ministers to consider since education is a devolved issue."
However, the clause in question relates to the power of the Privy Council. The Welsh Assembly Government has not been devolved any powers with regard to the Privy Council. In other words, there is real doubt about whether the Welsh Assembly has the competence to allow Welsh colleges to award foundation degrees, even if the colleges were able to do so, and even if the Assembly wanted them to do so.
The issue was clarified by Lord Adonis on Report in the House of Lords on
The noble Lord Adonis said:
"The only other point on which I think I should respond now is that of Wales; having not been able to give an answer in respect of Wales earlier, I certainly do not feel that I can let it pass a second time. The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, asked whether Clause 26 would be wide enough to allow the National Assembly for Wales to pass measures similar to Clause 19. The answer is no. She is correct that Westminster would need to legislate for that to be possible, unless an Order in Council were made to give the National Assembly the measure-making power."—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 27 February 2007; Vol. 689, c. 1559.]
It seems from what Lord Adonis said that the Bill is insufficient to enable Welsh colleges, even if the Assembly wished to do so, to award foundation degrees. There is clearly an important constitutional point here. I will not—because you would not allow me to do so, Madam Deputy Speaker—wax lyrical about the wider issue relating to the way in which the Bill has been dealt with in respect of Wales, although Members in all parts of the House have profound concerns about that. However, in dealing with the amendments it is important to be clear that Welsh colleges should have at least the potential power to award foundation degrees in the same way as English colleges will enjoy after the passage of the Bill.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I was contacted on 26 or
There is a good case, made by Labour Members on Second Reading and subsequently, for the Bill to have been subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. There should have been much more discussion at a very early stage with all parties concerned about the way in which the Bill applies in Wales.
I have an admission. I like to make admissions from the Dispatch Box because politicians are often too arrogant, are they not? We all have a lot to learn, and it was not until Second Reading that I picked up on the significance of the matter that the hon. Gentleman raises, and I did so because of the contributions from Labour Members representing Welsh constituencies, who knew much more about it than I did. Once I became convinced that it was an issue because of their eloquence, I looked at it closely and raised it in some detail, following discussions with my hon. Friends who represent Welsh constituencies and speak for the Opposition on Welsh matters.
In Committee the then Minister dealt with the matter in an extremely diligent and measured way, and we had a good exchange, but I have yet to be satisfied that the matter has been brought to a satisfactory conclusion. The hon. Gentleman makes the valid point that there should have been much more discussion at an earlier stage with colleges, Members of the Welsh Assembly and all those affected in Wales and elsewhere.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generosity in letting me intervene again. He said that he had had discussions with his MP colleagues. Can he tell me the position of the Conservative group in the Welsh Assembly on this important issue?
My office has been in touch with the Conservative Members in the Assembly, and they share some of the concerns that I have described. They feel that there would have been a more satisfactory outcome, had the matter been debated in more detail at an earlier stage. I do not for a moment suggest that I know which colleges are capable, prepared or enthusiastic to award foundation degrees, but I am sure that to build an inconsistency into the system, which means that Welsh colleges will not be able to do so whereas English colleges can, does not seem like good government. I am not sure that we would have reached that destination if the matter had been handled rather more diligently at the outset.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way to someone who represents a Welsh constituency. Although I do not disagree with Chris Ruane about the delay, I point out that there were early discussions. There were discussions in the National Assembly's Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills Committee on
I have nothing useful to add, except to say that we now have an opportunity, with a new and enthusiastic Minister, to put matters right. I make no criticism of the previous Minister, as I said. He dealt with the issue diligently, but I wondered whether he was "landed in it" by the circumstances in which he found himself. I am not sure that this is not part of a bigger issue about the way in which the House operates in relation to Welsh affairs. The point was made on Second Reading by Members representing Welsh constituencies. This is not the first time, but the second or third, that the process has occurred.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a lesson to be learned from this? He may remember that on Second Reading it was revealed that the Assembly is consulting on this matter, but its report will not be completed until the autumn. Here we are, enacting legislation on an issue where we do not have a settled view. We must avoid such mishaps in future.
I made exactly that point in Committee. We have not reached a settled position on how we deal with this kind of legislative imperative. It would be extremely questionable if we were regularly to adopt the kind of process that meant that matters were transferred in a way that at least gave rise to a doubt about whether they had been scrutinised and debated as fully as required. I will not put it more strongly than that, because to do so would be an overstatement, but there are doubts about whether this is the right way to proceed, and they have not been answered satisfactorily by Ministers.
As I said, this goes beyond the Bill to wider constitutional points. We will have the opportunity to debate those points in relation to amendments in a later group. However, we need convincing answers from the Minister about whether Welsh colleges will have any power in the short term to award foundation degrees. In correspondence with Jane Davidson, previously Minister for Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills at the Welsh Assembly, Fforwm was given other arguments as to why colleges in Wales should not be given that power, including reservations about the proposal expressed by the European unit of Universities UK,
"on the grounds that there is a risk to the credibility of UK qualifications at the European level."
That is a pretty thin argument, given that those reservations could apply equally to colleges in England. Another argument put forward by the former Minister in Committee was that there is no demand from colleges in Wales. I was surprised by that but was not qualified to challenge it at that point. Subsequently I have had representations from institutions in Wales saying that that is not so, and that there may well be institutions in Wales that would like to investigate whether they should go down this road. I personally have concerns about the cross-border implications, because there is no doubt that colleges that gain this status will, over time, gather a particular esteem and appeal. Given that colleges naturally attract students from across the border, I wonder what the implications for colleges on both sides of the border are if some are unable or forbidden to gain this status and their competitors are moving ahead with alacrity and skill.
The hon. Gentleman asks whether there are colleges in Wales that would like these award-making powers. I can confirm that there are, including, in my constituency, Rhyl college, which is part of the Llandrillo college network. I believe that there are others.
That confirms what I thought. As I say, I took a keen interest in this once it became clear that it was a more significant issue than most people had recognised. My Welsh colleagues, and Welsh Labour Members, identified this early on, as one would expect, but as soon as it was drawn to my attention I realised that it was a much more significant part of the Bill than most observers would have gathered at that early stage. I, too, have learned that there are colleges that would like to pursue this opportunity.
In Committee, the then Minister said
"FE colleges in Wales are not demanding degree-awarding powers." ——[Official Report, Further Education and Training Public Bill Committee,
Yet in a letter to the Minister of State on
"This is patently not the case."
It goes on:
"Fforwm is strongly supportive of the principle that FE colleges in Wales with high numbers of HE learners which reach the rigorous quality procedures necessary for the validation of degrees and have a critical mass of students should have the power to award foundation degrees. This is the same position as in England, where most colleges will not wish to validate foundation degrees."
The Opposition understood throughout consideration of the Bill that only a small number of colleges, at least at the beginning, will take advantage of this opportunity. It is absolutely right that colleges should have the capability and the capacity to do this properly. That is important from the perspective of learners and from the perspective of the degree brand. We are advocates of rigour and excellence. However, it may well be that colleges in Wales can meet those high standards, and it would be wrong to establish two systems—a Welsh system and an English system, the former without the opportunity to grow in the way that I have described and the latter able to do so. Colleges in Wales, and their representative organisation, clearly wish clause 19 to apply to both England and Wales. Fforwm says:
"We do not consider it sensible to treat the two countries differently in this matter."
The insertion of 'and Wales' in clause 19 after 'in England' would suffice for that purpose.
Colleges in Wales feel that they have fallen between two constitutional stools—the law-making powers of Westminster and the devolved legal powers of the National Assembly for Wales. It is unfortunate that we have reached that point. I do not claim for a moment that it is the result of any ill will or malice, but it is important, even at this late stage, that Ministers recognise that this is a significant problem that needs to be addressed. I therefore hope that the Minister will, with a similar kind of alacrity and enthusiasm to that which I suggested was prevalent among Welsh educationists, adopt my amendment and so get himself out of a rather deep hole.
I agree with a great deal of what Mr. Hayes said. In fact, I think that I agree with all of it. I hope that the Under- Secretary of State for Wales, in what I guess is his first speaking role from the Front Bench, will address some of the comments made.
Briefly, I want to touch on two points, the first of which is a point of process. The hon. Gentleman said that this is a matter for the Privy Council. Indeed, it is. When I was Secretary of State for Wales, I was regarded, as is the present holder of that post, as being the Privy Councillor for Wales, and it seems to me that the present Secretary of State for Wales should have been involved much more closely with this matter than he has been.
There is no doubt that this has been a pretty messy development. We shall refer later, when discussing amendments Nos. 8 and 9, tabled by my right hon. Friend Mr. Touhig, to the constitutional aspects of the Bill. However, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings was right to point to the procedure that was put in place after the enactment of the Government of Wales Act 2006, which ensures that there should be a proper legislative Order in Council to deal with these matters. Why? Because all of the detail we have just heard from the hon. Gentleman would have been discussed at much greater length. There would have been much greater co-ordination between the National Assembly for Wales and our Government, and that would have been done, if I may say so, in a particularly Welsh way. We could have discussed why it is that further education colleges in Wales will not be given the same opportunities as those in England.
My second point concerns precisely that. I spent 17 years of my life teaching in further education in Wales, and since that time there have been enormous developments in the sector. All of us who represent Welsh constituencies can point to tremendous co-ordination and co-operation between higher and further education in Wales, which is to be commended. However, this legislation goes beyond that. I cannot understand why it is that the National Assembly for Wales—one assumes—and the Welsh Assembly Government are opposed in principle to giving the power to further education colleges to award degrees when in England such colleges have exactly such powers, particularly given that the body representing further education in Wales has clearly said that the principle of colleges having such powers should be accepted. Perhaps it is an example of seeing a chance to be different for the sake of being different. If that is the case, that is wrong. I look forward to hearing the Under-Secretary say that that is not the case and that there is good reason why the Government's proposals for England are not good enough for the people of Wales.
I also raised that point in Committee and I thought it odd that we were neither giving the power to Welsh colleges to award degrees nor giving the permissive power to the Welsh Assembly to confer such powers on colleges. When I raised that point with the then Minister, Nick Ainger, he said that FE colleges were not demanding degree-awarding powers. It is now clear that that appears not to be the case. The briefing I have from Fforwm says that it believes that the door should not be shut so formally on the opportunity for colleges in Wales to award their own foundation degrees. The former Minister said that when Fforwm does its review of FE and HE in Wales it can bring forward proposals, and if there is a clear recommendation that Welsh colleges should be given that power, there will be an option to bring forward an Order in Council, which would be a time-consuming solution to the problem.
It is frustrating to realise that part of the reason why there appears not to have been a clamour from Welsh colleges, or even representatives, is the confusion about what powers the Bill confers on the Welsh Assembly. As my hon. Friend Mark Williams said a few moments ago, when the matter was discussed in the National Assembly's Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills Committee, the Minister there said that while she felt there was little need or demand for the provision, the Assembly had carte blanche under clause 27 to introduce provision for the awarding of foundation degrees at a later date. Initial legal advice taken during the Committee seemed to confirm that view. However, following the meeting, written advice suggested that clause 27 did not allow the Assembly to confer those functions on the Privy Council. That certainly seemed to be the understanding of the former Minister when we discussed the matter in Committee.
We have an odd situation in that the Bill confers almost all the provisions for England on Wales, except the only interesting bit—the only bit that has got anyone excited. It is remiss that poor legislative scrutiny has led to Welsh colleges missing out on something that the Government believe to be very important for English colleges.
There has been a lack of consultation, especially with Welsh Back-Bench Labour Members of Parliament, by higher education and further education in Wales and by the National Assembly. I look to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for reassurance that, even at this late stage, we will have some input as legislators into the final outcome of the Bill.
I welcome the measures that have been announced. I am pleased that FE colleges in England can issue foundation degrees. I hope that that will shortly happen in Wales, too. It is an important stepping stone towards achieving the Labour Government's goal of ensuring that 50 per cent. of our young people have degrees. It is welcome, and I give credit to the previous Conservative Government, who allowed the polytechnics to become universities and award degrees. That, too, was an important step.
Further education colleges play an important role in education, especially in working class areas. I look to my constituency of the Vale of Clwyd and my home town of Rhyl, which has a college for the first time in its history. Denbigh, too, has a college for the first time. That is genuine progress. I can recall my days at university, but coming from a large council estate of 3,000 people, I could probably count those who went to university on the fingers of one hand. Degrees are becoming more accessible.
I am concerned about all of Wales, but especially north-east Wales and, specifically, Wrexham, Flintshire and Denbighshire—scouse Wales, as I prefer to call it. We need to consider the way in which the provisions will affect those communities. Let me cite some statistics, which I have already given to the Under-Secretary, on educational achievement in those areas and the number of people going into higher education.
There are 22 local authorities in Wales. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's league table, in which 22 is best and 1 is worst, Wrexham is sixth for key stage 2 achievement, fifth for those achieving five or more GCSEs and seventh for numbers going to university. Neighbouring Flintshire does well for primary and secondary education, achieving 12th and 20th positions respectively, but falls way down to eighth on numbers going to university. My county of Denbighshire is eighth for achievement at the age of 11, seventh for achievement at the age of 16 and 11th for numbers going to university. We need better access to degrees in north-east Wales and the Bill could help to achieve that.
I urge my hon. Friend to convey the results of the soundings that he has taken from all parties to the National Assembly and the HE institutions in Wales, to ensure that access continues—especially in north-east Wales—at a pace that is at least equivalent to the Welsh average and, indeed, the national average. If not, we will be left behind.
As a council house boy and the first in my family to go to university, I appreciate many of the hon. Gentleman's observations and share his determination to ensure that we widen participation by improving access. Does he realise that, unless the amendment is accepted, we may end up with colleges in Wales that cannot offer the same sort of courses as English colleges, and that that would result in an exodus of students from Wales to England to take advantage of the access that he describes?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is a chance of that, but I hope that the messages that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary takes back to Cardiff will avert it. I look to him for reassurances on the amendment at the end of the debate.
There is a political dimension to the statistics that I cited—I would not like to leave out politics. Denbighshire is Tory and Independent controlled and Wrexham is Liberal and Tory controlled. The same investment has not occurred in those two counties as has happened in Labour-controlled Flintshire. That is why the statistics show that Flintshire does well educationally for 11-year-olds and 16-year-olds. However, it fails for 18-year-olds. Hon. Members cited the letter from Fforwm—an establishment in Wales that has displayed a high-handed attitude. We have a term in Wales for the establishment and the great and good that often control institutions such as the BBC, other cultural institutions and the legal profession. It is "the crachach". It would disturb me greatly if the crachach in the HE sector held back and issued instructions to politicians to hold back because they wanted to preserve what they perceive as excellence in Welsh higher education.
We have excellence in the HE sector in Wales. I went to Aberystwyth university, which is an excellent institution, while Cardiff university has the eighth best research department in the country. We have excellent institutions and it is not my aim to lessen that excellence. We also have excellence in FE institutions in Wales. I referred earlier to Llandrillo college, which is the largest educational institution in north Wales and one of the largest in the whole of Wales, with 23,000 students. It also has outreach colleges in Abergele, Rhyl, Denbigh and other locations, quite often in the poorest communities in the whole of Wales, including one located 100 yd away from the council estate where I grew up.
We have excellence in our colleges. Llandrillo college received a grade 1 for each of the seven things on which it was inspected, the first college in the whole of Wales to achieve that. It is high-handed of HE in Wales to look down its nose at colleges such as Llandrillo. Indeed, if it looked at how that college is run, it could learn a lot. I do not accept the argument from the National Assembly or HE in Wales that excellence will be lessened. We have to knock that one on the head.
The second argument from Fforwm to which Opposition Members have referred was that there was an insufficient groundswell of opinion in the FE sector. Fforwm represents each and every FE institution in Wales and it has spoken, although too late as far as I am concerned—it should have told us what the issues were months ago. Fforwm speaks on behalf of the FE sector in the whole of Wales and it deserves to be listened to. I gave the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings the example of Llandrillo college, which has expressed an interest. I was on the phone this morning to the principal of that college, Huw Evans OBE, who was given his OBE because of his contribution to FE education. He definitely wants the award-making powers, and I believe that Coleg Menai in north Wales would like them, too.
Two arguments have been put forward—the first about lessening excellence and the second that there is no groundswell of opinion—but I do not accept either of them. We have excellent colleges such as Llandrillo and Coleg Menai, as well as Deeside college, Northop horticultural college, Llysfasi agricultural college, Yale college, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend Ian Lucas, and others. Every one of them should be allowed the opportunity. The process is not easy—they have to go through screening to ensure that they have the quality to make such awards—but I support the stance of those institutions to get those powers.
In conclusion, what reassurances can my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary give me that our voices will be listened to in Cardiff? He should take back the point that the process needs to be speeded up. If we leave it until September we might miss the boat for this year, and I would certainly like those award-making powers to be given to FE colleges in Wales within the next year to 18 months.
I rise briefly to support much of what my hon. Friend Chris Ruane said and to add two further points from the perspective of someone who represents an ambitious further and higher education town, Wrexham, where Yale college is making great progress and the North-East Wales institute is making progress towards university status. The further and higher education environment in Wrexham—and, indeed, in west Cheshire—is very competitive. I am reluctant to support measures that would make Welsh colleges less competitive in relation to English colleges, and I hope that that point will be relayed back to the National Assembly for Wales.
The process of securing degree-awarding powers is long and arduous. It is not something that can happen overnight in further education colleges. I speak from experience, having seen the long process that the North East Wales institute has gone through to secure such powers. It was an arduous process. The Opposition made a suggestion, which was in some respects appealing, that there would be an immediate disadvantage to Welsh colleges if the amendment were not accepted. That is not the case, however. A process of consultation is going on in the Assembly, and this debate will inform that process. I hope that it does and that it highlights the concern in areas such as north-east Wales about educational attainment and progress through to university. We need more avenues to degree status through foundation degrees, and I am reluctant to rule out the further education route that is being offered in the Bill. I have concerns about the present form of the Bill, but that can be remedied. I hope, however, that in future we will be listened to earlier in the process.
As my former role as a Minister has been referred to by at least two Members in this short debate, I thought that I had better say a few words.
The debate has highlighted that we are on new ground when dealing with these matters. The Assembly wants to assume new powers, and Parliament is rightly insisting that there should be proper scrutiny of the role and responsibilities that the Assembly wants to take on. This particular case is a model example of how not to do it. I was involved as a Minister, but I did not realise until I was no longer a Minister how great the difference was between the briefings that I was receiving and the strong views that were being represented by Fforwm. That is not a criticism of any individual or of the civil service. However, when I saw the briefing that was sent to all Members of Parliament at the end of June from Fforwm, I immediately phoned John Graystone to find out what had happened. Clearly, that information had not been available on Second Reading or to members of the Committee, and it did not appear to have been made available to Members in another place when they were debating this Bill.
Mr. Graystone went through all the contacts that he had made, as chief executive of Fforwm, with the Welsh Assembly Government and outlined the various representations that had been made to officials, to the Minister and to members of the Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills Committee, which I attended on
The fact is that we could have addressed this matter much earlier. If Fforwm had understood the way in which our scrutiny works in this place, rather than just—quite rightly—writing to officials and the Minister, it could have circulated its concerns to Members of Parliament at an early stage. I, as Minister, could have responded on the key issues even before we got into the scrutiny process. That would have been a much better way of doing things, but we are where we are.
Mr. Hayes raised an issue that I hope the Minister will be able to clarify. He implied that, even if there was the will in the Assembly to get an Order in Council promulgated to take the matter through this place, if we do not carry this out now it will be extremely difficult in the future. He argued that it would be difficult to ensure that the Privy Council would, through the Order in Council, allow degree-awarding powers to FE colleges in Wales. I understand that to be the hon. Gentleman's main point. However, the assurances that I received as Minister showed that there was no doubt that an Order in Council could, if the Assembly wished it, achieve that object relatively quickly. We could and can have the pre-legislative scrutiny and debate that hon. Members want. That is my understanding of the position and I would be grateful if my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary would confirm it.
The hon. Gentleman spoke in Committee and speaks again today with great integrity, and I take his point about the advice that he was given and the position that he was in. I was drawing attention specifically to the debate in the other place, where the noble Lord Adonis, when questioned on exactly the point raised by Baroness Morris, said:
"The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, asked whether Clause 26 would be wide enough to allow the National Assembly for Wales to pass measures similar to Clause 19. The answer is no."—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 27 February 2007; Vol. 689, c. 1559.]
Either Lord Adonis was wrong then and the Minister is going to tell us so, or we have a real problem.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right, which is why I am seeking an assurance that the Order in Council process can actually deliver degree-awarding powers to FE colleges in Wales. It is a very important point and, as I say, I really hope that the Under-Secretary will come up with the same assurances that I sought to give to the Committee last month.
I conclude by saying that we need to recognise that we are to some extent feeling our way in these matters when dealing with the new powers requested by the Assembly. What we should learn from the experience is that we need to participate actively in the scrutiny. I was the only Welsh member of the Committee, but I am sure that it would have been different if, before the Committee stage, Members had been aware of the concerns that they have expressed today. The message needs to go back to Wales and to organisations that represent Welsh interests that this place is still a very important part of law-making that directly affects Wales. They need to engage with us in the same way that they engage with Members of the Assembly.
There is a wide consensus in the House that the idea of foundation degrees in further education is an important and progressive step. It does what Ian Lucas said, helping to create better, wider and stronger progression routes through further and on to higher education. It is particularly important among many of our most disadvantaged communities, where participation rates in further and higher education are nowhere near as high as they should be. The idea of creating intermediate steps to engage people more fully in further and higher education will be warmly welcomed by all of us.
As the Minister said yesterday in a different context, the settlement for Wales is very complicated. Sometimes even Members of Parliament find it difficult to get our heads around the process with which we must engage. As many Members have said, the process by which we have arrived at this afternoon's discussion has been far from ideal. I am sure that those lessons will be taken back for consideration.
Will the Minister tell us a little about the specific issue in relation to the Privy Council? While it is right and proper that elected Members of Parliament should debate here all matters that are of interest and importance to our constituents, the proper place for a decision on the shape, structure and future of further education policy in Wales lies in Wales. It is perfectly proper to hold the web review to which Nick Ainger referred, and for a decision to be made in that context, but we should enable the Assembly to decide whether foundation degrees are the way forward. My party believes that there is a strong case for their introduction, but that is ultimately a decision for the National Assembly.
Is the constitutional hurdle that the National Assembly in no circumstances has the power to confer functions, issue instructions or whatever the polite terminology is with regard to the Privy Council? Is that the case for the Scottish Parliament too? Alternatively, could we provide the enabling power to them through an amendment to the Bill? I hope that the new Welsh Assembly Government will allow that minority of colleges in Wales that currently wish to proceed with foundation degrees to do so. It should be possible for us to enable the Welsh Assembly Government to make that decision. The last thing that Plaid Cymru Members would want is to prevent the Welsh Assembly Government from conferring that power on further education colleges in Wales that wish to go down that route.
Many Members who have contributed to the debate speak about Welsh affairs with more knowledge than I do. It seems to me, however, that the issue is the methodology or process. Is it appropriate to use primary legislation to extend the powers of the Welsh Assembly when a parallel process is in place to do that? The Welsh Affairs Committee considered that in some detail, and expressed considerable doubt. We might want Welsh colleges to have the same powers—I do, because I moved the amendment—but we need to address the issue of the process, because a big constitutional point is at stake.
Obviously, as a Plaid Cymru Member, I take a maximalist position in relation to conferring powers on the Welsh Assembly Government. The hon. Gentleman is right that there are parallel procedures—the Order in Council process. Depending on the Minister's discussions, that might be the most appropriate mechanism now for conferring an enabling power on the Welsh Assembly Government so that it can confer the power to award such degrees in turn on further education colleges in Wales. In that regard, it appears that a settled view has not yet been reached, to which Mr. Murphy referred.
The general mood is that, because of the nature of the devolution settlement, an important role for the House remains. Welsh representative bodies in all sectors need to be mindful of that. We should not have this debate in this way at the tail-end of a process; we should have a better, more fully informed process, involving all sections of the appropriate interest groups in Wales.
As I rise to address the House for the first time outside Wales questions, I recall a slogan used by the Welsh Assembly Government—"The Learning Country". We are experiencing a learning process now. Certainly I am learning, but we are also learning how this system works. I hope that I shall be able to reassure Opposition Members and my colleagues about the way in which we expect it to work, and also to convey the view of the Welsh Assembly Government.
I welcome this opportunity, and will attempt to live up to the reputation for "alacrity and enthusiasm" bestowed on me by Mr. Hayes. I pay tribute to the work of my predecessor, my hon. Friend Nick Ainger, who not only brought this Bill to its current stage but dealt with the Government of Wales Act 1998. He is due great credit for the role that he played over many months and years. I also note the interest in these matters shown by a number of Welsh Members. The Chamber is quite crowded today, particularly with Welsh and Labour Members.
As has been said, amendment No. 23 would confer on the Privy Council power to specify further education institutions in Wales as competent to grant foundation degrees. Let me try to explain the rationale behind post-16 education in Wales, and explain why it is considered appropriate at this time. As the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings will know, "Reaching Higher" is the Welsh Assembly Government's strategy for higher education, which recognises that Wales has a disproportionately larger number of small higher education institutions than England. The most effective way in which to meet learning need, achieve critical mass sufficient to reduce overhead costs and increase access for low-participation groups—mentioned by a number of Members—was for Wales to develop integrated networks and clusters of colleges, including both higher education and further education institutions with shared missions to deliver higher education.
That focus on networked planning and collaborative delivery is far more than mere partnership delivery. "Reaching Higher" emphasised the importance of establishing geographical or function-based clusters of colleges with shared missions. That approach is intended to open up a wider range of opportunities for learners through the sharing of resources such as staff, equipment and infrastructure. As "Reaching Higher" pointed out, Wales is too small a country for any institution to work purely in isolation.
In 2003 a KPMG report on relations between higher and further education institutions, commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, drew attention to the significant costs that would be faced by further education colleges in Wales that sought independently to set up the infrastructure associated with the provision of higher education on a directly funded basis. England has a large mixed economy of further education colleges; Wales, at this moment, does not. The KPMG report concluded:
"Any expansion of higher education in further education provision in Wales should be undertaken through the franchising route."
Such an approach offered cost-effectiveness and economies of scale in areas such as curriculum development. Its success in meeting the needs of Wales has been highlighted by the findings of a further recent independent study of the delivery of foundation degrees in Wales. In a report produced in March this year, the independent consultants SQW pointed out that there was limited support from Welsh higher education and further education institutions for the possibility of granting FE colleges power to award their own foundation degrees.
The representation of Fforwm is relevant here. I will deal with some of the comments about that later, but I will say now that we are aware of certainly two, perhaps three, further education colleges in Wales that are keen on such a possibility. We are not sure of the exact number—it may be one, two or three—but the vast majority are not clamouring for it. I appreciate the role that Fforwm plays in representing the views of the FE sector, but there is not an overwhelming clamour from FE colleges to provide such a power.
There is no overall clamour from colleges in England either. No one expects there to be a plethora of colleges in the first wave that grant foundation degrees and, just as in England, it is likely that a small number of colleges in Wales would be willing and able to do so. The Minister uses the terms HE and FE as if they were interchangeable when he describes the enthusiasm to pursue this opportunity. I suspect that the views of the sectors might be rather different.
The hon. Gentleman might find that he is not correct in terms of HE and FE sectors in Wales because of the networking and collaborative approach that I have mentioned. I say this as a former lecturer at Swansea college, an FE institution, and at Swansea institute, an HE institution with its own degree-awarding powers under the University of Wales. There is extremely good collaboration, which is the pattern across most of Wales and the strategy that the Welsh Assembly Government have pursued. The hon. Gentleman pre-empts some of my later comments on what we do from here and on the independent inquiry. Fforwm has stated:
"Most colleges in Wales would not wish to award foundation degrees as they are content with the excellent partnerships they currently have with HEIs."
I have referred to the unique needs of Welsh institutions detailed in "Reaching Higher". In response to the issue of the disproportionately large number of small higher education institutions in Wales, the SQW report emphasised the need for a dynamic and fluid system of interaction between providers, with shared missions and shared planning. Importantly, HE strategy in Wales has not yet focused strongly on foundation degree growth but has targeted under-represented groups through the "Reaching Wider" programme. "Reaching Wider" aims to increase higher education participation from groups and communities in Wales by raising aspirations and by creating new study opportunities and learning pathways to higher education. All higher and further education institutions in Wales are members of the "Reaching Wider" consortiums, along with local authorities, schools and the voluntary sector. Mention was made of the Welsh way, and this is certainly the Welsh way. Wales has been at the forefront in the UK in increasing participation from under-represented groups.
No one would disagree with anything that my hon. Friend is saying; the co-operation between higher and further education is superb and ought to continue. In most cases in Wales, that co-operation will provide the sort of higher education that we need. Why on earth would the denial of the principle of the right to foundation degrees in any way cut across what he has said?
I hope to be able to assuage some of my right hon. Friend's concerns as I respond to a detailed debate in which good points have been made.
The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings, among others, referred to Privy Council powers and whether the Welsh Assembly Government had the power, in essence, to award foundation degrees. Fforwm queried whether foundation degree-awarding powers were a matter for Welsh Ministers, as the Welsh Assembly Government have not been devolved any powers with regard to the Privy Council. Yet clause 19 amends section 76 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, which makes provision for degree-awarding powers for institutions in England and Wales.
There has not been a formal transfer of functions of section 76 to the Welsh Assembly Government, but the First Minister will advise the Privy Council on the exercise of its functions under that section. The First Minister advises the Privy Council by virtue of his role as a Privy Councillor and of the fact that HE and FE in Wales are devolved matters. Therefore, this is a matter for the Welsh Assembly Government, but the First Minister has a direct role as a Privy Councillor.
Let me illustrate how that would work in practice. If a higher education institution wished to secure degree-awarding powers, it would ask the Privy Council, which would ask the First Minister—a Privy Councillor himself—for advice. Taking advice from the First Minister, the Privy Council would then decide whether to grant the HEI degree-awarding powers. There is a direct link, and a mechanism does exist.
In the light of the hon. Gentleman's most recent remarks, will he deal with the point made by Mr. Murphy about the involvement so far in these matters of the Secretary of State in his Privy Council capacity? I ask that because it seems to me that if that involvement had been profound we might not have had some of our recent difficulties.
I understand the hon. Gentleman's question. I have tried to clarify several points about the Privy Councillor issue and to make it clear that a mechanism exists.
My hon. Friend is now saying that, in terms of the matters under discussion, the Privy Councillor for Wales is now the First Minister for Wales. I have no objection to that, but I simply ask whether the situation has changed, because in my time the Secretary of State for Wales was the Privy Councillor for Wales.
I ask my right hon. Friend to give me some latitude by allowing me to return to that query later. I do not wish to make excuses, but I have only recently taken up my present post so my knowledge of the detailed chronology of these matters is limited. I hope that I might be touched by some inspiration and return to that point before I conclude my remarks.
I understand the Minister's point about the Privy Council, but what about the process? If, following Sir Adrian Webb's report, the Assembly decides that it wishes in principle to allow FE colleges to award foundation degrees, will the process be that an Order in Council will be requested from this place to give the power to the Assembly to do that, and that the power that the First Minister has as a Privy Councillor will also be used?
My hon. Friend is correct. We should not assume that the matter under discussion would preclude an Order in Council being brought forward at some point—and the mechanism involving the Privy Council, which we have mentioned, would then come into play in that process. It would be possible—with proper scrutiny from this place, I should add—for an Order in Council to be brought forward. My hon. Friend Dr. Francis, who chairs the Welsh Affairs Committee, has been closely involved in setting the procedure by which Orders in Council come forward, and I am sure that he will make sure that the scrutiny will be adequate at that stage.
I understand that the hon. Gentleman is new to his post, but he is not answering the question that was asked. What Nick Ainger wanted to know is not whether the matter under discussion could preclude an Order in Council, but whether an Order in Council would be a necessary prerequisite of the Assembly's exercising its competence in respect of granting degree-awarding powers. We need to know that, because if we do not know it the Minister's description of the process is of less value than it might be—I will not say that it is valueless.
I will seek to provide clarification on that point later.
However, I can now offer further clarification on the matter raised by my right hon. Friend Mr. Murphy. The Secretary of State for Wales retains their position as Privy Councillor on non-devolved issues—it is vital to put that on record—but the First Minister is Privy Councillor on devolved issues. Although not many people will have paid attention to the procedures in schedule 7 to the Government of Wales Act 2006—it was discussed yesterday in Committee—that delineate those roles, it is very important to understand the two different Privy Councillor roles.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for drawing attention to the role of the Welsh Affairs Committee in this matter. In the light of this afternoon's debate, will he assure us that he will convey directly, through the Secretary of State, obviously, to the Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning the nature of this debate and the strength of opinion throughout the House—the progressive consensus that was referred to earlier—in order to ensure that, if an Order in Council is forthcoming, it comes sooner, rather than later?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, particularly regarding the progressive consensus. Yes, I can assure him that today's deliberations will be conveyed strongly and clearly to the First Minister and to Welsh Assembly colleagues.
I will give way one more time, and then I will try to make some progress in dealing with the many points that have been raised.
My hon. Friend is being extremely generous in giving way. I cannot quite get my head around this. Is he saying that if Sir Adrian Webb's report finally recommends that FE colleges should have the power to award degrees, an Order in Council will be forthcoming to allow that? What is the difference between doing that and the Government agreeing to this amendment?
Yes, an Order in Council would indeed be necessary. Section 76 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 needs to be amended, and it would be amended by a National Assembly for Wales measure, followed by an Order in Council, which would be fully scrutinised here. My right hon. Friend asks what the difference is between that and accepting the amendment. In my concluding remarks, I will draw attention to the consultation that is taking place, and how this debate and Members can feed into that directly. If he will bear with me, I hope to deal with his question as I proceed, along with many of the other concerns that were raised.
On the cross-border implications of the current provision and the question raised by the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings, I can confirm that Welsh colleges will still be able to offer foundation degrees through current collaborative work with HE. He also asked when English colleges are likely to be given foundation degree-awarding powers. We understand that it might be a couple of years before they are given such powers. Importantly, that gives the Assembly time to consider the review and to make legislative changes, if necessary.
As I said in my opening remarks, there is a clear and overt policy in "Reaching Higher" on degree-awarding powers, which was reiterated in "The Learning Country" in 2006. That policy makes it clear that Welsh FE colleges should not currently have degree-awarding powers, but should instead work in collaboration. The policy has been evaluated by independent research, and the SQW study to which I referred has shown how well it is working. The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings also asked what our plans are for foundation degrees in Wales over the next year. The independent review of FE reviewed their role in a wide context, including in the delivery of HE.
Numerous other issues were raised. On the demand for degree-awarding powers, we anticipate that between one and three colleges will want such powers—but who knows? As the hon. Gentleman said, more might want such powers in time to come; however, they can work through the collaborative process. Sarah Teather asked about the discussion of foundation degrees with external stakeholders. Welsh Assembly Government Ministers have, and always have had, regular meetings with Fforwm and Higher Education Wales. Additionally, Welsh Assembly Government officers meet regularly to brief Fforwm, Higher Education Wales and others.
My hon. Friend Chris Ruane, supported by my hon. Friend Ian Lucas, drew attention to the importance of the FE sector but to the disadvantages to Wrexham, Denbighshire, Flintshire and other parts of Wales—what he referred to as scouse Wales. He was absolutely right. He also drew attention to the excellence of the FE sector in Wales—quite right—which gives us a good basis for moving forward. Before the debate, he was kind enough to provide me with the statistics to which he referred. They show how much ground we have to cover, but, as he will acknowledge, they also show just how far we have travelled in meeting our aspirations for higher and further education in places such as Vale of Glamorgan, Ceredigion, Pembrokeshire, Conwy and Gwynedd.
Questions were asked about consultation with Welsh MPs. In terms of the overall outcomes sought in the debate—widening participation, excellence and economic input—Welsh policy goals are closely aligned with those of the UK. However, due to the currently fragmented institutional structure of HE in Wales, the focus of implementation has been on collaboration between institutions, including HE and FE consortiums. That allows further and higher education colleges to exploit economies of scope and scale to deliver those benefits.
Members have expressed concern about the possible future use of degree-awarding powers and about particular geographic areas in Wales. One of the terms of reference of the independent review of further education in Wales is the role of the FE sector in the delivery of HE. The review will consult widely on that topic. The reference group includes strong FE representation to ensure that the sector can gather evidence to inform and direct the review, and the principals of Coleg Menai and Coleg Llandrillo sit on the group. Additionally, Fforwm has already formally met the review panel, carried out research and produced a large number of papers.
How can our debate inform the review? Point 11 of the terms of reference of the review relates to the role of the sector in the delivery of higher education, including the establishment of schools, FE and HE consortiums. I can assure all my colleagues and Opposition Members who have contributed to the debate that following a discussion this morning with Sir Adrian Webb, who is leading the independent review, I will undertake to make sure that MPs can directly feed into the review so that the outcomes in the autumn are informed not only by consultation in Wales but by the input of Members in this place. I give that undertaking to Members on both sides of the House.
I congratulate the Welsh Assembly on its full and thorough approach to policy development. The independent review is a good example of how it is engaging stakeholders. On that basis, and the offer I have made to Members to feed into the consultation, I urge the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings to withdraw the amendment.
I am sure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you, like me, have travelled to a destination that you have not previously visited, without a map, and have desperately tried to find the right route. I have wound down the window of my car and sought advice from a local, but having received it I was more lost than when I began. So it has been with the Minister. He was like the man giving advice.
We are no clearer than we were 10 minutes ago about precisely how things are likely to proceed. We are no clearer about whether the Welsh Assembly requires an Order in Council in this place to grant the degree-awarding powers that many Welsh colleges want.
I hope that I have clarified all those issues, including the use of Orders in Council, but I would be more than happy to write to the hon. Gentleman and all hon. Members to set out exactly how things will work if it is still not clear.
The hon. Gentleman says that he has clarified the issues. He was asked by one of his hon. Friends—no less a personage than a former Secretary of State for Wales, Mr. Murphy—whether an Order in Council was necessary, and he said that the measure would not preclude an Order in Council. We learn later in his remarks that an Order in Council is indeed a prerequisite of the National Assembly for Wales granting degree-awarding powers. We heard from the Minister in Committee that colleges in Wales did not seek the capacity to award foundation degrees, yet we heard from various Members who contributed to the debate not only that they do indeed seek that power, but that they warrant it and deserve it.
We heard from the former Secretary of State and other Welsh Members, including the Minister's immediate predecessor, that this matter has not been handled well. Indeed, I would go further and say that it has not been handled properly. We heard the former Minister—Nick Ainger—say that he was now somewhat embarrassed with what he was obliged to say in Committee, because he was not aware of the views of Welsh colleges or their representative organisations when he gave that advice. He has behaved with great honesty in revealing that to the House today. Yet the Minister stands by his argument that we should not accept these amendments.
As the hon. Gentleman said, much the easiest way to deal with this matter simply and straightforwardly would be for the Government to accept these amendments. However, they remain dogged and stubborn in their determination to stand on ground that is looking increasingly shaky. The Minister has given extremely poor advice to those who seek a destination that, as I have said, Welsh colleges warrant, want and deserve: equivalent status to English colleges and the capacity to award foundation degrees if they wish to do so and can meet strict criteria. It is quite wrong that we should treat Welsh colleges in such a way. It is quite wrong that we should set up two standards—one for Wales and one for England—and it is quite wrong that we should leave teachers and learners disadvantaged. Therefore I will seek to press the amendment to a Division to test the House's opinion, to find out whether the House agrees with those Welsh colleges and those hon. Members who have spoken bravely, honourably and persuasively on their behalf.
I beg to move amendment No. 24, page 15, line 37, leave out from beginning to end of line 2 on page 16 and insert—
'(a) the institution—
(i) gives the Privy Council a statement setting out the arrangements for partnership working between relevant institutions,
(ii) arranges for progression to one or more courses of more advanced study which have been confirmed in writing by at least one institution mentioned in subsection (1)(a) or one body awarding advanced professional qualifications, and
(iii) places a duty on parties to the agreement to advertise courses and qualifications detailed therein;
(b) the institution as a condition of that order continues to secure guaranteed arrangements for progression to one or more courses of advanced study which have been confirmed in writing by at least one institution mentioned in subsection (1)(a) or body awarding advanced professional qualifications;
(c) the Privy Council considers that the arrangements are satisfactory and are likely to be carried out.'.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:
No. 6, page 16, leave out lines 18 to 22 and insert—
'"(5A) Any institution specified as competent to grant only the kind of award mentioned in subsection (2A) shall not have conferred upon it the power mentioned in subsection (5)(a)."'.
No. 7, page 16, leave out lines 26 to 31 and insert—
'"(6A) Any institution specified as competent to grant only the kind of award mentioned in subsection (2A) shall not grant such an award to a person unless he was enrolled at the institution at the time he completed the course of study for which the award is granted."'.
I am pleased to address the House from the Front Bench for the first time. Having come to the Front Bench in the past few days and to the amendment in the past few hours, I look forward to your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and will try to behave myself under your watchful eye.
In principle, we fully support further education institutions being given the power to award degrees. Having read through the Hansard reports of the proceedings in the Lords and in Committee, it seems to me that this is perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of the Bill. Amendment No. 24 seeks to clarify the award-making criteria and secure progression from foundation degrees to advanced professional qualifications. In addition, it seeks to embed the advertising of courses and qualification progress in the new arrangements.
There is no doubt that colleges throughout the country do good work for students and for the economy. The dedication of principals, heads, senior managers and teachers is to be commended and should be recognised. With foundation degrees and through further education institutions, a door has been opened to educational and career achievement which was once firmly closed. Our amendment seeks to build on those opportunities by securing partnerships with the higher education institutions, securing the quality of progression, and ensuring that the information is available to students and to businesses to enable them to make clear choices about the courses in which they invest.
Let us be clear. Further education is important to widen access, to broaden the choices available to students, and to deepen the level of vocational skills in the economy and available to employers. The 20-year history of further education is a proud one. With potentially 60,000 certificated graduates this year, we must not jeopardise foundation degree status by failing to define clearly the requirements for further education institutions to achieve award-granting powers, especially if we wish to increase the number of students graduating to 100,000 or more in the next few years, which is the aim of Ministers.
There are about 300 providers of foundation degree courses delivering about 1,600 courses. They are each unique, distinctive and have a well established character and culture of their own. That is good. Variety of provision gives choice to students and a wide range of specific qualifications and skills for employers to draw upon. I hope that the vocational aspects of further education and foundation degrees will be cherished and valued as highly as academic degrees.
However, if the progression from further education degree courses is not secure, and if the awareness of course connections or qualification progression is not clear, that goal may not be achieved—hence our tabling of amendment No. 24. We want a further education sector that is dynamic and flexible and responds to employers' needs. Foundation degrees are both a staging post for more advanced qualifications—not necessarily just university degrees but other professional qualifications—and a final destination in their own right for people entering vocational careers. In a way, that is the beauty of the foundation degree and of this sector—a beauty that requires maintenance in the form of our amendment.
Clause 19 amends section 76 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992. It enables the Privy Council to give foundation degree-awarding powers to further education institutions. At present, it merely requires the Privy Council to see a statement of intent from a further education institution in order to grant the power to award degrees. That is perhaps a missed opportunity to secure the confidence of students and employers in these newly granted foundation degrees. We are not sure why the opportunity has been missed to make the criteria more stringent, more overt and clearer. As many concessions have been made in the Lords, and as Ministers have listened carefully to the arguments and changed the Bill accordingly, we are not sure why they are not listening as regards tightening the criteria for award-granting powers.
I am sure that the last thing any hon. Member wants to do is unnecessarily to risk the confidence that people have in the status of foundation degrees. Yet surprisingly, on this most important and controversial clause, there appears to have been a lack of consultation. The proposal did not appear in the White Paper or in the Leitch report, nor did it appear with any clarity in Foster. It seemed to spring up at the last minute as if by magic. That is why it needs amendment. Course progression may be jeopardised through a failure to consult and to shift, if only marginally, the Government's position.
Today's further education colleges provide their graduates with foundation degrees from well recognised universities and other institutions. If there is a shift to further education institutions awarding foundation degrees, there is a risk that the status of the award, as perceived by students and employers, may go down. Foundation degrees have pulling power with employers, certainly with Rover, KLM, the Department of Health and one or two others. They are almost foundational, as it were, to their recruitment process and to people's career progression. Nevertheless, it appears from what I have read in the Hansard reports of Committee and other debates that the Government are unwilling to bend or concede at all on this particular point.
Although I and all hon. Members know that it is not the intention that the quality of the foundation degree should be undermined in any way, I fear that without a little more attention to this point, that may well be the case. In the same vein, paragraph (a)(iii), which our amendment would add to proposed new subsection 2B, would place a duty on institutions to "advertise courses and qualifications". It does not prescribe exactly how it should be done; it merely places a duty on them to do so. That would be good all round because it would increase the awareness of the benefit of foundation degrees.
The relative value of qualifications is already difficult to assess and we must not make it ever more difficult by having a plethora of different awarding bodies, creating uncertainty about the robustness of the award being made. We want to create an environment in which students and employers have a clear understanding of the relative value of qualifications. The Minister may say in response to our amendment that some of its provisions will be incorporated in the articulation agreements. It may be said that it does not need to be included in the Bill because it is implicit that in the advertising of courses the quality of the awarding body would be upheld. I have neither heard from the Minister, nor read in the transcripts of the previous debates, a clear case from the Government as to why it is not necessary to ensure the advertising of career progression through qualifications, and the Government do not appear to have made it clear why it is necessary to avoid placing a responsibility on institutions to secure in writing details of career progression from the foundation degree that they offer.
Amendments Nos. 24, 6 and 7 deal with two things we discussed extensively in Committee: progression arrangements from foundation degrees and franchising. I acknowledge that the Government have moved considerably on both those points, through changes made in the other place, amendments introduced by the Government in Committee and reassurances we got from the Minister during that process. Amendment No. 24 appears to be a helpful addition, and I would be interested to hear the Government's response to it. They moved considerably on this point, recognising the concerns that were shared by hon. Members throughout the House that foundation degrees ought to provide enough flexibility for students to progress to higher education or professional qualifications, and enough flexibility to ensure that they are not boxed in and forced to do one or the other—it can be a stand-alone qualification. The amendment would appear to include a number of things that the Government seem willing to concede, according to guidance and comments on the record. If the Minister wishes to reject it, I shall be interested to know why.
It is helpful to have something written from institutions to state that they have ongoing progression routes between FE and whatever professional bodies or, according to the course, HE institutions they are working with. One of the things we debated at some length in Committee was the tendency for those arrangements to be quite fluid, and for them to break down. The concern for a student going through the foundation degree stage is that they do not want to end up in a situation where those arrangements have broken down, and the safeguards do not come into play for a year or two. After that, students will certainly have left that institution. The safeguards are there for a particular individual and not the system as a whole. I await the Minister's response on that before deciding how we shall respond.
Dr. Blackman-Woods has tabled two amendments on franchising. Again, we debated that at length in Committee. The power to award foundation degrees is substantially different from that to franchise. In Committee, I asked why the Government wanted colleges to be allowed to franchise, and I was never entirely satisfied with the answer. I understand all the arguments about awarding foundation degrees but I never felt confident about the Government's response to the question of why we needed to allow colleges to franchise. The Minister said that it was because he did not want a two-tier system but we already have a multiple-tier system. Higher education institutions franchise the power to award foundation degrees. Further education institutions can now award such powers. We will end up with a system of three or four tiers if we include the proposed new power.
However, in Committee, the Minister reassured me that he would change the guidance on foundation degrees so that, after the probation period, the decision about whether colleges will be allowed to confer foundation degrees will be separated from the decision about whether they can franchise other colleges to use the same power. I was greatly reassured by that, especially when the Minister then wrote to all members of the Committee to repeat the assurance. I look forward to reading the revised guidance because that assurance dealt with most of my concerns. He never quite answered the question about why he wanted franchising in the first place. I hope that will be clear when he replies to the hon. Member for City of Durham. However, the decision to separate franchising from that to award foundation degrees assuaged most of my concerns.
I tabled amendments Nos. 6 and 7 to obtain clarification of two specific matters. I appreciate that we had a detailed discussion on the subject in Committee and I do not want to detain the House unduly. First, I simply wish to check whether the process involved in a specific FE college being able to award foundation degrees is separate from the process for franchising.
Secondly, I want to consider the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education review of transnational programmes because it should include foundation degrees and it may have implications for franchising. I wondered how the Department would take that on board and apply it to new franchising arrangements.
I understand that the amendments as they are currently drafted would prevent FE colleges from franchising foundation degrees. That would thus significantly strengthen the amendment that was passed in the other place. However, I tabled the amendments because the higher education sector remains concerned that, unless the Government adopt a cautious approach and are rigorous about the circumstances in which FE colleges can franchise courses, some—probably only a few—FE colleges could franchise and take on the role that the whole higher education institution sector currently fulfils, thus taking HE out of foundation degrees. I am not sure whether that was the Government's intention or whether it is assumed that a few colleges will be allowed to franchise in limited areas, leaving a significant role for higher education institutions in foundation degree programming and delivery.
I emphasise that it is one thing to validate one's own programmes for delivery and quite another to validate programmes for franchising. The QAA acknowledges that in its guidance when it states that franchising is much more complex. It has different rules and procedures for franchising arrangements. External examining and drawing up programmes for external examiners is new to the FE sector. I recognise that there is a six-year rule in place, but the Government will have to be careful to ensure that FE colleges have those procedures in place when they eventually get to franchising and that they have shown, through the experience of operationalising their own foundation degrees, that they are able to check what is available in other colleges that are delivering the programmes for them.
I should like the Government to reassure me that they will adopt a rigorous approach. I accept that they demonstrated that in Committee, but I return to the general question that has perhaps not been answered: why are we flagging up the potential to franchise now, before we have even had FE colleges validating their own programmes and delivering them? Perhaps that should be kept under review as we have the experience of FE colleges validating their own programmes in practice, which would obviously mean that the six-year rule would also be kept under review.
I begin by commending my hon. Friend Adam Afriyie on his maiden appearance at the Dispatch Box. It would be fair to say on that form that he has undoubtedly already acquired a foundation degree, and we look forward to progression to even greater things.
I make that point, flippantly but I hope graciously, to underline the serious point behind amendment No. 24, which I warmly endorse to the House. That point is that a foundation degree has two purposes. It needs to be a valid freestanding qualification in itself. If a foundation degree involves the active participation and enthusiasm of the vocational student and has been properly specified through the business framework, its fitness for purpose and the involvement of employers, it is likely to be successful. At the same time, a foundation degree is not simply a useful qualification, but a platform and springboard to progression. That is understood by everyone who has participated in these debates. The question is how we secure that outcome and the precise degree of specification that we require.
When I read the amendment, I saw that it was fairly prescriptive, but it is of course no more a departure of principle than the Government have already conceded in the Bill as drafted. The amendment is simply a refinement and intensification of those tests. That is right in the circumstances, because the exceptional factor about degree-awarding powers is that once awarded they are, for all practical purposes, broadly non-recoverable. It is very difficult to recall them by removing them. One can mediate them—indeed, one must mediate them—through the review period, which we have now agreed, and through the continuing attention of the quality assurance mechanism, which is also important. However, it is reasonable to say that we have to get over a high hurdle and then reach assurances.
One important aspect of that is that people should be able to move on, as well as to benefit in employment from the qualifications that they have received. Those two tests must be met continuously in relation to foundation degrees. My hon. Friend is therefore right on his general principle and I like the wording that he has come up with to offer assurances.
Then there is the admittedly separate issue of franchising. There is no doubt that in the past the concept has covered a multitude of sins—they might have been peccadilloes and in certain cases they might have been more than that. Franchising has always been a little bit less certain for a higher education degree-awarding institution than direct provision has, whether it is conducted in another country or through the medium of a further education college, for example. The process is less certain. If we are serious about quality assurance, we need to ensure that the process is just as certain, whether it is secured through franchising or through direct provision.
As somebody who is not averse in principle to outsourcing, I have no conceptual objection to the process being carried out through a variety of partnership arrangements, which is a perfectly sensible thing to do. Understandably, there has been some confusion between doubts about the quality assurance, which we must get right, and some kind of prescription of the level at which franchising should be exercised. That is perhaps behind the amendment tabled by Dr. Blackman-Woods. I am not happy with the amendment in its present form, although I appreciate the hon. Lady's motives. We should give the Minister an opportunity to reply to the House on these serious concerns about delivery, which we are all worried about.
If a college—an FE college or an HE college, it matters not—has met the qualifications, as improved by the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Mr. Hayes in terms of progression, and if it is prepared to operate to the required quality standards, it should make no difference whether that is secured through a franchise. If there were doubt about whether the quality standards were being met because of the existence of a franchise, that would logically be a separate issue, but it would be unacceptable. It is right to expose this issue and to look to the Minister for an answer.
We have edged through a series of Government concessions, and had some rather good debates on this matter. Conceptually, I had some scepticism about the issue when I first came to it, because the idea was rather bounced on us. However, I have come to an understanding that it is right and proper, in certain defined circumstances and with the right assurances, to offer the opportunity for further education colleges to have the ability to award foundation degrees. I think that we have almost reached consensus on that. We now need to receive assurances from the Minister that we have really got this right, because the worst possible outcome would be to do this on the basis of misplaced generosity or of some slogan, without being able to deliver something that was genuinely fit for purpose and that met the needs and aspirations of our students and their future employers.
I want to pick up where my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry left off, with a point about the assurances that I hope the Minister will be able to give us. I agree with Sarah Teather that what commends amendment No. 24 is its ability to deliver substantial reassurance to students who wish to take foundation degrees at institutions that have newly been given the power to award them. I accept that not every student taking a foundation degree will wish to go on and complete a further course of study, but a great many will. If this experiment—for that is what it is—is to work, it is vital that every student who receives a foundation degree from one of these institutions and wishes to go on to further study should have the maximum reassurance that they will be able to do so when the time comes.
I hope that the Minister will accept that there is a world of difference between an institution setting out what it proposes to do to arrange for the continuation of study, and actually making those arrangements. Those are two very different things, and they would have a very different effect on the reassurances that could be made available to students. Amendment No. 24 seeks to ensure that those arrangements will be made. My hon. Friend Mr. Hayes is proposing to strengthen the Government's noble intentions in order to ensure that foundation degrees newly awarded by further education institutions will be successful and command the support and confidence of the students who take them. For that reason, I fully support what he has said.
I welcome Adam Afriyie to the Front Bench and congratulate him on the measured and articulate way in which he advanced his arguments. Having said that, however, I fear that I shall not be able to agree with them quite as much as he might hope.
I should like to deal first with amendments Nos. 6 and 7, which, when taken together, seek to prevent the practice commonly known as franchising. My hon. Friend Dr. Blackman-Woods raised this issue in Committee and she has acknowledged that I gave her a number of assurances during that debate. I reiterate today that the Government are certainly being cautious—and will be cautious—and that the process of quality accreditation is extremely rigorous. It is every bit as rigorous as the process for higher education institutions that award their own foundation degrees. I would also say that I bow to no one in my regard for the quality of universities and higher education institutions in this country. However, the higher education interest is not always synonymous with the overall education and public interest. That is at the heart of some of our debates.
As I said in Committee, we want to strike a balance between rightly wanting to encourage innovation, flexibility and responsiveness in the delivery of foundation degrees and ensuring that the highest quality standards are maintained. The proposed powers are enabling and it would be counter-productive to place permanent and inflexible restrictions on how they could be exercised. When my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham spoke on Second Reading, she pointed out the importance of avoiding a two-tier system in the awarding of foundation degrees. Placing permanent restrictions on the exercise of foundation degree-awarding powers would, in my view, create precisely that hierarchy, which is why we are right to avoid it. The implication of placing only limited trust in FE institutions that are granted these new powers would unquestionably lead to the branding of the qualifications that they award as second class. I hope that we all agree that that would be regrettable.
I still do not really understand the Minister's point about the degrees being second class, particularly if we get rid of franchising. We discussed the issue in Committee, where I tried to explain that there were already a number of different classes of foundation degree. For example, there are foundation degrees that are validated by and delivered in HE institutions; foundation degrees that are validated by higher education institutions but delivered in further education institutions; and we now have further education validated courses delivered by FE institutions. Why, then, do we need further education validated courses delivered by another institution? It is not a matter of being second class: we already have three classes, so why do we need a fourth?
There are two responses to that. First, we genuinely want as much innovation and flexibility as possible in order to respond to the needs of students. Saying as an article of faith that it would be wrong in all circumstances for a very high-quality performing FE institution to allow franchising at whatever stage might restrict the dispersal of quality foundation degrees. That would be one cause for concern. Secondly, students might well perceive a diminution in the long-term credibility of their FE institutions if they were told that all the other institutions in all the other sets of circumstances were able to award their own degrees and to franchise, but that that did not apply to theirs. That would create a two-tier structure, which would not be to anyone's benefit.
Subsections (5A) and (6A) were added by the Government amendment in response to the debate in the other place in order to allow the Privy Council to restrict franchising. It is expected that when an FE institution is granted powers for the first time, the Privy Council will make an order that specifies two restrictions, preventing the FE institution from authorising other institutions to grant awards on its own behalf and preventing the institution from granting a foundation degree to any student who was not enrolled at the institution at the time of completing the course of study for which the award is made. That represents a significant departure from precedent in respect of degree-awarding powers, but it is appropriate to offer such a safeguard. Those restrictions will be particularly appropriate when foundation degree-awarding powers are first granted. As I said earlier, however, I do not agree that it is either appropriate or necessary to impose such restrictions automatically and for all time.
The independent report of foundation degree-awarding powers will also be published within four years and it will also look into the issue of franchising. It is also the case that any FE institution granted foundation degree-awarding powers will be subject to regular monitoring under the Quality Assurance Agency's ongoing quality assurance cycle. Failure by an FE institution to guarantee quality standards for its foundation degrees, irrespective of where the provision is delivered, could lead to intervention by the QAA, which is a serious sanction.
With these proposals, we are not saying that the ability of an FE institution to franchise its foundation degrees should definitely be ruled in at any particular stage; equally, however, the power to franchise should not, in my view, be ruled out for ever. That is the key point at issue here. We have struck the right balance between flexibility and quality control in our proposals. On that basis, I hope that my hon. Friend will not press her amendment.
Amendment No. 24, tabled by the hon. Members for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) and for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), addresses the issues around progression from a foundation degree to a course of more advanced study. Although I rightly welcomed the hon. Member for Windsor to the Front Bench, I recognise that he has come to these deliberations late. If he looks at the Committee Hansard, he will see that the criteria have been made clear and explicit. He cannot credibly claim that progression is put at risk by the safeguards that have been put in place, and he certainly cannot claim that the Government have been reluctant or are dragging their feet. He asked why, if progression was so important, it was not on the face of the Bill. I must inform him that a provision was inserted in Committee, at clause 19(5)(2B)(a), which gives significant reassurance on the issues that he raises.
Amendment No. 24, as crafted, is similar to the Government amendment made to the clause in Committee, except that it seeks to place certain additional requirements on institutions entering into progression agreements. In that respect, it is too prescriptive. In Committee, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings and I argued that colleges that are performing well should be given the freedom to fulfil their potential free from the constraints of over-regulation and excessive bureaucracy. I am confident that the amendment already made to address the issue of progression, working together with the non-statutory guidance and criteria, achieves the balance that all Members want. Under the Government amendment made in Committee, in order to grant foundation degree-awarding powers to an FE institution, the Privy Council must first have received a statement from that institution setting out how it proposes to secure opportunities for progression to at least one course of more advanced study for any person awarded one of its foundation degrees. The Privy Council will also need to consider that the proposals are satisfactory and likely to be carried out before it can grant foundation degree-awarding powers.
I am listening closely to the Minister's points. Does he accept, however, that there is a fundamental difference between requesting a written plan and having written confirmation of progression to a further course of some description?
I shall address that in respect of the quality assurance intervention powers that are in place, which should give the hon. Gentleman the reassurance that he seeks.
The non-statutory guidance and criteria for foundation degree-awarding powers also make clear and emphatic statements about the establishment and maintenance of suitable progression routes for foundation degree students. The guidance and criteria have been developed in close dialogue with the QAA, which will assess all applications for foundation degree-awarding powers. It will be helpful if I say a few words about what the guidance and criteria document covers.
To determine whether an applicant institution's statement of its proposals about progression arrangements are satisfactory, the Privy Council could consider such factors as whether the institution's academic management is sufficiently robust to ensure that progression routes are and will be established, both now and in the future, and whether the institution can be relied on to renew progression arrangements or seek new ones if the old ones lapse, with the help of a third-party organisation, such as Foundation Degree Forward, if necessary. To be satisfied that the proposals are likely to be carried out, one of the matters that the Privy Council could consider is the action already taken by an institution with regard to making arrangements for progression from foundation degree courses that are in preparation. The ability of the QAA to intervene not only at the start of the process but once the course is under way, to ensure that progression arrangements are still in place, should give the hon. Gentleman the reassurance that he seeks.
Clearly, it is in institutions' interests to market the programmes and progression routes that they are offering, to attract and retain students. However, I do not agree that we need to legislate for that. The Government are committed to freeing up front-line providers from unnecessarily prescriptive directions on how exactly they should do their jobs—something that the Conservative party constantly urges on us—especially when they are already doing those jobs well. Placing a duty on institutions—that would implicitly require a contractual relationship—to continue the good practice that they are already demonstrating, seems unnecessarily interventionist, and could be counter-productive.
I understand the Minister's point about the duty and contractual arrangements. I can see that that might be perceived as over-regulation. However, I am sure the Minister agrees that it is very much in the Government's interests to ensure that students progress, and know what arrangements are available for them to move from foundation degrees to professional qualifications or higher education. Including that information in guidance might deal with the point raised by Adam Afriyie.
I believe that the guidance is already satisfactory, but I will look at it again and ensure that the arrangements are made clearer if necessary. After the debate, I will write to members of the Committee making that plain.
When it comes to contractual relations—what exactly they are, and with whom—I think the Minister and I must defer to the lawyers, but does the Minister envisage the contract being merely between the Department and the Privy Council and the Quality Assurance Agency? Would there not also be a contractual arrangement with the student? If it is implied that progression is available via certain routes, and if—as Sarah Teather suggested—there is a possibility that it will be withdrawn, the student may well wish to sue the institution because the implied contractual arrangement has broken down. There is a whole complex of extremely important undertakings here, affecting a great many people.
There is, but if the hon. Gentleman looks at the history of the development of higher education he will see that there has been no such undertaking thus far on an explicitly contractual basis. We can debate the extent to which that should happen, but I think that to embark on a different path now in respect of foundation degrees in further education colleges would set a precedent. If we want to move in that direction, let us debate the issue across the board rather than singling out further education institutions. In any event, I am not convinced that it is the right direction in which to move.
The amendment made by the Government in Committee is robust, and addresses the issue of progression in the most appropriate way. In addition, the draft guidance and criteria—including the QAA's foundation degree qualification benchmark—are transparent, published documents. I will look at them again to ensure that they contain the clarity sought by Sarah Teather, but I hope that following those reassurances, the hon. Member for Windsor will withdraw the amendment.
There is no doubt that during the Bill's passage the Minister and other members of the Government have listened, have been reasonable, have conceded several points, and have promoted amendments that have improved the Bill. There is no ideological difference between the two sides of the House. There is no difference between the Liberal Democrat Front Bench and the Government; there is no difference between the comments of my hon. Friend Mr. Boswell and those of my hon. Friend Jeremy Wright. This is a noble Bill which heads in the right direction, and we strongly support its overall aim.
I listened carefully to the Minister's explanation of why he had not addressed this issue earlier. It seems that, to a certain degree, he and the Government were dragged kicking and screaming into changing the level of scrutiny given to bodies being granted foundation degree-awarding status by the Privy Council. I thank Sarah Teather for encouraging the Minister to take this route, but it strikes me as rather bizarre that all of a sudden, at the eleventh hour, the Minister is going to take a look at the guidance. I do not find that reassuring. There have been plenty of opportunities before now to guarantee progression from foundation courses to further qualifications.
It was remiss of me not to welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new post. I apologise for that.
I have the impression that the hon. Gentleman intends to press the amendment to a vote. On this occasion, I am reassured by what the Minister has said. There is only one difference between the hon. Gentleman's amendment and the Government amendment, which involves marketing. I should prefer that to be dealt with in guidance, but if the Minister gives me an undertaking—on the record—to look at the guidance again, we will not support the Conservatives if they press the amendment to a vote, although I am very sympathetic to the point that the hon. Gentleman has made.
I thank the hon. Lady for making her position clear, if not entirely acceptable to the Conservative party.
The Minister will now, at the last moment, take a look at the guidance but this really is the last moment. I wish to mention two other points within the amendment, one of which is very simple: to have written confirmation from a further education college offering a foundation degree that there is another professional body or higher education institution that would accept the person from that course on to further study on qualification. That seems to be a very small change to make. It does not place any onerous duties upon the further education institution and I am surprised that the Government have not taken the opportunity earlier to address that point.
The second point is that we would seek to enable foundation degrees to become access routes to other forms of professional qualification and not just to university degree courses. That important point has not been picked up. Clause 19 has turned up at the last moment and is a helpful addition; some of the changes made are perfectly acceptable, but they do not go far enough to secure the opportunities for students that we would like to see. On that basis, I wish to divide the House and put the matter to a vote.