In March I asked the Higher Education Funding Council for England to consult on implementing our new university challenge. Today I can announce that at the end of the consultation, 27 initial expressions of interest had been received, which were widely spread across the country. The expressions of interest cover schemes from those that are already advanced and capable of early implementation to initial proposals that are at the early stages of development. We anticipate that further proposals will be received. The Government's ambition is that 20 new university centres will be opened or committed to over a six-year period. All decisions on which schemes will proceed and on their funding will be taken by HEFCE. I am delighted with the early responses, which indicate widespread recognition of the value of university centres to education, economic development, regeneration and the cultural life of rural areas, towns and cities.
My right hon. Friend will know that South Thames college, which is a top grade provider of ESOL, or English for speakers of other languages, with the highest Train to Gain success rate, is completing a £68 million redevelopment in Wandsworth High street. Will he approve consultation on its merger with Merton college, so that if the proposal is approved, the new merged college can open in the new redevelopment building at the beginning of the next academic year?
I commend my hon. Friend on his interest in his local college and further education provision. I know that he is due to meet my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to discuss the matter, so I will not make any further comment on that proposal now. However, I am glad that he mentioned the £68 million development, because I understand that, at the Association of Colleges conference yesterday, Mr. Willetts, who speaks for the Opposition, was unable to promise to maintain our current level of capital spending in further education colleges. That will put at risk many similar schemes up and down the country and mean redundancies in building firms and a lack of opportunities for young people.
Unfortunately, unemployment in Wellingborough is 15 per cent. higher now than it was in 1997. Can the Secretary of State say what efforts his Department will make to give at least some hope to my constituents that the unemployment levels will return to those of 1997?
I will certainly look at the situation that the hon. Gentleman describes in Wellingborough, because it is not in line with what has happened across the country as a whole, where there are 3 million more people in work today than there were 10 years ago. However, the key thing is for the Government to take whatever action is necessary to be on the side of people and employers in this country. That means, in common with the view around the world, that we take both the monetary and the fiscal measures that are necessary to get us through the recession as quickly as possible. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman's party has set its face against those messages, which frankly means that it is promising much worse times for the people of Wellingborough.
My right hon. Friend will know that I am very supportive of apprentices, a number of whom are going through colleges at the moment. What we want to ensure is that those apprentices can finish their courses by having work-based experience. Many small companies are going out of business, so will the Minister undertake to ensure that when the Government and his Department in particular place contracts for new build, it will be a condition of those new contracts that we provide apprentices with work-based experience to finish their apprenticeships?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and, as I said earlier, we are doing exactly that. All new Building Colleges for the Future contracts require a minimum level of apprenticeships and training across the board, as do the new wave of Building Schools for the Future contracts. We are talking to colleagues throughout the Government to ensure that the same happens in every area of Government provisioning. Frankly, I can see no excuse for not doing that.
Further to earlier exchanges about student grants and the numbers affected by changes to those receiving partial grants, the Secretary of State seemed to say that he had no idea what sort of numbers would be affected. Will he confirm that, before he came up with his proposals, he at least asked how many might be affected?
As you can imagine, Mr. Speaker, I went through things in great detail. We will publish the detailed regulations for proper consideration by the House in due course. I was keen to ensure a couple of things—that two thirds of students got a full or partial grant, which is what we had set out to achieve; and that extra money was put into the system because more students than we anticipated were entitled to a full grant. I put the money in to do that. I also looked at the system—the 2007-08 system—that I sought to amend and tried to ensure that students from families earning between £18,000 and £50,000 a year will be better off under the new grants system than they were in 2007-08. I believe that that is a significant achievement, particularly given that the level of the maximum grant is a full 20 per cent. higher in real terms than was on offer when the Conservatives were in power and that it is available to a much wider range of students from a much wider range of income households.
Variable tuition fees have given universities significant additional levels of funding since their introduction. Does my right hon. Friend welcome the admission by former opponents of the scheme that their own policies advanced at the time were unsustainable?
I was in the House, as I believe was my hon. Friend, when the Opposition spokesman for the Liberal Democrats explained that he thought that their position on variable fees was "unsustainable"—going on to explain that he could not say what the current policy was. My hon. Friend is right to say that students will never trust the Liberal Democrats again on this issue. We have seen an additional £1.6 billion going to universities on account of variable fees. We were straight with students, and they will respect that. It is very disappointing that we currently have no position from the Liberal Democrats.
I listened—both on television and in the Chamber—to the earlier exchanges on admissions to universities and wondered whether the Secretary of State's responses indicated a slight change of tone in that he is no longer declaring war on the universities. Most of us feel that the responsibility for admissions lies with universities, which try extremely hard to bring in youngsters of talent from all backgrounds, and with the schools, where the teachers provide role models for those from poorer backgrounds. Does he agree that there is a shared responsibility and that easing off on blaming universities would be helpful?
The hon. Gentleman will struggle to find any statement, article or reply to a question during my time as Secretary of State that justifies his claim that I have had a war on the universities. I have responded robustly to misplaced criticism, including, sadly, from the noble Lord Patten, who implied that we thought that Oxford university should be a social security office. Of course I responded robustly to such criticism, because it was utterly misplaced. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman and it is entirely consistent with my view that widening participation and fair access to the most competitive universities is a shared responsibility.
In the last year of Conservative Government, not one penny was invested in infrastructure in the further education sector. That has now changed, as I know from visits to my local college, Ealing, Hammersmith and West London. However, there is still a need for investment in infrastructure in the sector. What more can my right hon. Friend do?
I am determined for us to be able to maintain our commitment to investment in FE colleges, and we have a £2.3 billion three-year capital programme for that purpose.
Earlier this week I visited Walsall, where I met apprentices who were being trained as part of the programme for the rebuilding and reconstruction of Walsall college. I should like to see the same thing happening throughout the country. I find it alarming that the Conservatives are unable to commit themselves to supporting anything other than college proposals that have already been approved. Many Members on both sides of the House who seek investment in their communities will know that it is now under threat.
Given the Secretary of State's responsibility for science, and given that since the Phillips report on BSE the Government have announced that they will adopt an evidence-based policy and take scientific and other expert advice, is the Secretary of State in any way embarrassed by the Government's decision to reject advice on cannabis reclassification given three times by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, whose advice has never been rejected before?
I think Ministers must show that they have listened to scientific advice and understand where it comes from, and to which questions the scientists were asked to respond, and, if necessary, should weigh that advice with other factors before making a decision.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am passionately committed to ensuring that the Government make better use of scientific evidence. I commend to him a report produced last week, at my request, by the Council for Science and Technology on how we can do that. I hope to promote the report's conclusions across government, along with my Ministers and the chief scientific adviser.
We are considering the work of Frontier Economics on discovery centres. I know that my hon. Friend is a champion of the discovery centre in his constituency, and I know of the tremendous work that such centres do in encouraging young people to engage with science in a practical way. We will consider that work carefully, and report to the House in due course.
What steps are the Government taking to encourage people over the age of 30, who may be in part-time work and have never had an opportunity to go to university, to study? As an honorary graduate of Anglia Ruskin university, may I ask whether the Secretary of State is aware of the university's joint venture with Specsavers, enabling employers to engage with students with the profile that I have described?
We were pleased to announce 5,000 new co-funded places to enable employers to work with universities on a new range of courses that meet their needs. We have had discussions with our sector skills councils—especially those that have traditionally required higher-level skills, such as Skillset—to ensure that they too engage in new partnerships with our universities. I hope that that deals with the hon. Lady's concerns. She will also have heard what the Secretary of State said about the future of the higher education debate, the changing demographics of higher education, and the examination of part-time courses that we intend to carry out in that context.
Is the Minister aware of the potential problems that changes in the definition of the term "apprenticeship" could cause charities in my constituency such as Rathbone, which does great work in encouraging children from disadvantaged backgrounds into the workplace? Will he take steps to ensure that the good work of such charities is not damaged by technicalities such as definitions?
I am aware of the issue and my hon. Friend is, like me, a great champion of Rathbone. I have a long history with Rathbone, going back to childhood. I am as keen as she is to see that the exciting and fantastic work it does is not prejudiced in any way by the Government's non-negotiable insistence that an apprenticeship is a relationship with an employer and is training that happens in a workplace. We can accommodate these two things, and that is what we will do.
We all agree that bursaries play an important part in attracting students from less well-off backgrounds to university, but does the Secretary of State accept the irony and see the problem that with bursaries coming from university fees, the universities and colleges that are doing very well in attracting people from less well-off backgrounds are the ones that have to pay out for a large number of bursaries, while those who are not doing that do not have to pay out the same number? It is not working nationally. Does he agree that the only way to address this problem would be by a fair, national bursary scheme?
I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges the importance of the bursary system. It was introduced, of course, as part of the variable fees that were introduced by the Government. I believe that the hon. Gentleman was elected by telling his constituents that he was opposed to all that. There is a bit of a flip-flop by those on the Liberal Democrat Benches, as indeed there is by those on the Conservative Benches. The point about the bursary system is that it is designed to be the responsibility of individual universities. How the bursary system has operated will be looked at in the independent review of the way in which the fee system operates. I am reluctant at this stage to say that we should go from a system of locally determined bursaries to a national bursary system, which would simply be an extension of student financial support. Sir Martin Harris judges that there is far more money in the bursary system as a result of local decisions than would have been the case had we imposed a bursary target as part of the fees legislation.