Higher Education

Oral Answers to Questions — Innovation, Universities and Skills – in the House of Commons at 10:30 am on 20th November 2008.

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Photo of David Jones David Jones Shadow Minister (Wales) 10:30 am, 20th November 2008

When he proposes to publish his White Paper on higher education.

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Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

We have a world-class higher education system in this country, with rising student numbers and an increasing world share of citations and high-impact research papers. Government investment in higher education is 23 per cent. higher than in 1997. That is in sharp contrast to the 36 per cent. fall in funding per student in the previous 10 years. We have also doubled investment in research. I want to ensure that our university system will be world-class in the future. That is why we are currently consulting on the framework for the expansion and development of higher education for the next 10 to 15 years. I anticipate that we will put forward our conclusions by the summer of 2009.

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Photo of David Jones David Jones Shadow Minister (Wales)

The Secretary of State will be aware that Welsh vice-chancellors have expressed concern that any proposals in the White Paper for the expansion of the English higher education sector will have the potential to impact, perhaps adversely, on Welsh universities. To what extent is he liaising with the Welsh Assembly Government, preparatory to the publication of the White Paper?

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Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

Higher education policy in Wales is the responsibility of the Assembly, but in the past couple of weeks I spoke to Jane Hutt, the Minister with responsibility for these issues in Wales. We discussed issues of common interest. Clearly, I have UK-wide responsibilities for the research councils, and therefore for the investment of research funds in Welsh universities. Although devolution may provide divergence on some areas of policy, we work together to make sure that we can create coherence where that is achievable.

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Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

Does the Secretary of State think that it is remotely conceivable that our leading research-intensive universities can remain internationally competitive without a lifting of the current cap on fees? Does he agree that the real issue is not the raising of the cap, but the provision of the right mix of grants and scholarships to ensure that the brightest young people, whatever their family background, can always secure a place in our leading research-intensive universities?

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Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

The Government will consider the issue of fees through the review that will start next year. That is in line with the commitment, made by my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State when fees were last discussed, that it should be looked at after three years' experience of how the system operates. I share my hon. Friend's concern that able students from all backgrounds should be able to enter our most selective universities, which is why I am working with a group of 11 universities, including some of the most selective in the country, to look at how they can take further steps to widen admissions to able young people from a wider range of backgrounds.

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Photo of David Evennett David Evennett Opposition Whip (Commons)

What steps has the Secretary of State taken to broaden access to university for part-time and mature students—an area in which we need to advance access?

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Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

The number of part-time students has increased significantly under this Government. Some 300,000 more students are in higher education now than 10 years ago, and that trend will continue. I recently published a review of part-time education, which I invited Professor Christine King, vice-chancellor of Staffordshire university, to produce. I commend that document to the hon. Gentleman as a provocative and interesting review of the issues involved in further expanding part-time education, including for mature students.

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Photo of Ann Coffey Ann Coffey PPS (Rt Hon Alistair Darling, Chancellor of the Exchequer), HM Treasury

Many young people in my constituency do not expect or aspire to go to university, but we have an excellent college of further education. What more can my right hon. Friend do to encourage links between the college and neighbouring universities in Manchester, so that young people in my constituency can apply for degree-level university courses?

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Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

As I have previously discussed with my hon. Friend, under our new university challenge proposals, we have asked the Higher Education Funding Council to look at how we can extend the opportunity to provide new university centres, which are often based on FE colleges, to 20 more locations over the next six years. My hon. Friend knows that Stockport is one of the areas that has expressed an interest at this early stage in taking part in that process, and I wish Stockport and all the other applicants well.

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Photo of Rob Wilson Rob Wilson Shadow Minister (Education)

Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the forthcoming White Paper will address reskilling? Last week, the CBI said that unemployment will reach 3 million in 2009. This week, thousands of job losses were announced by businesses across the UK economy from the financial giant Citygate to the trade firm Wolseley and the car rental company Avis. Given the need for millions of Britons to reskill before re-entering the work force, on reflection does the Secretary of State think that cutting funding for equivalent or lower qualifications was, in the circumstances that we now face, the right thing to do?

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Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

The hon. Gentleman still does not understand the issue. The ELQ policy change, which affects part but not all of the funding for second degrees, creates new opportunities for adults and part-time students who need to raise their skills. The Government set out to direct resources to those who did not have the chance to obtain the higher education skills that they need in the current labour market. He needs to pay more attention to what the Government are trying to do.

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