Students and Universities

Part of Estimates Day — [1st Allotted Day] — Vote on Account, 2010-11 — Department for Business, Innovation and Skills – in the House of Commons at 3:07 pm on 10th December 2009.

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Photo of David Willetts David Willetts Shadow Minister (Education) 3:07 pm, 10th December 2009

Employers do distinguish, and one reason why we attach so much importance to better information for students and prospective students is that they need to understand the distinctive roles of different universities. In fact, one of my frustrations is that sometimes I think that employers do not fully understand the distinctive strengths of, for example, regional universities, which can be excellent, but they are not the same as those institutions that are rivals to US ivy league colleges as global institutions. They have different roles.

Of course we expect every first class degree in any university to have been achieved with high standards and rigour, but they are different institutions that often measure different things. When it comes to academic rigour, a part of our system that is already a distinctive strength-the external examiner system-needs further strengthening. As several hon. Members on both sides of the House have already said, the big increase in the number of people getting first class honours degrees causes concern. We need to be confident that we will not face the grade inflation debate that has been such an issue for GCSEs and A-levels over the years. It would be a terrible pity if that debate took off for universities.

I also agreed with the report on the importance of the student experience and information about it. We have ended up with a system that has sharp incentives to reward high-quality research, but still has inadequate incentives to reward high-quality teaching. Many students want to talk about their academic experience. They ask about the high-profile professor who was advertised in the university prospectus and whom they have never seen in their two or three years there. He or she is writing great research texts or appears regularly in the media, but has not delivered any lectures or attended any of their seminars. Those are the types of concerns that we are picking up, and when communicating with universities, we all try to convey it to them that they need to address such concerns if they are to maintain the good will of students and parents.

As an Opposition Member, I welcomed the report's very effective dissection of the Government's announcement of the 10,000 extra places, about which we pursued Ministers at the time. The report reaches a powerful but measured conclusion. It states that, after "Mr. Denham", as he was called in the report, presented the original 10,000 places, in October 2008, the

"reasonable construction that an observer would put on his statement was that there would be 10,000 places for new entrants to university, whereas the new places announced at that time boil down to 3,000 extra places for full-time new entrants."

That captures the Opposition's experience, month after month, year after year, in dealing with some of these Government announcements. It is useful to have such a clear and authoritative analysis of what was actually meant compared with what actually happened, and of course we took the analysis to heart when I, at the Conservative party conference, announced our 10,000 extra, properly funded and properly costed university places for new students.

The discussion of student numbers leads on to a question to which I hope the Minister will respond. Some universities have recruited additional students beyond the number agreed by the Higher Education Funding Council. We are intrigued to know whether he will fine the universities for this terrible offence against his planning system. A game of bluff is going on here. We have a crisis in which Ministers are deciding whether to fine universities and universities are trying to work out whether it is a bluff. It reminds me awfully of the early stages of the Cuban missile crisis when people were trying to work out who was going to blink first.

I was assured today by a vice-chancellor that he did not believe that the Government would impose any fines. We would be interested to know whether they will. They have a dilemma: if they do not impose fines, their entire structure for planning and financing higher education will be thrown into question, but if they do impose fines on universities for taking on the extra students, they will be in the unusual position of fining universities for taking steps towards meeting the Government's own public service target of 50 per cent. participation in higher education. Fining universities for moving closer to the 50 per cent. target that Ministers are willing to finance would put the Government in a very odd position. We look forward to hearing exactly what the Minister plans to do.

The report contains interesting material on part-time students. A recent HEFC study made a devastating point of which I had not previously been aware. It showed that only 39 per cent. of part-time students who began a first degree programme in 1996-97 at a higher education institution in the UK completed their degree within 11 academic years. That is a very worrying statistic and leads me on to something about which I hope to hear more from the Minister. Members on both sides of the House have been talking about the case for more part-time students, and clearly such evidence needs to be considered.

We read yesterday, however, in the pre-Budget report document about a £600 million cut in the higher education and science and research budgets. We, and many people in higher education and science and research, hope that the Minister will indicate what that means. When one looks at the components, one can see several angles on which we need more information. I shall take this slowly, because the brief four-line entry on page 110 of the report contains so many different points. It states that the cuts will come

"from a combination of changes to student support within existing arrangements".

What are these changes to student support? Will there be yet more changes in the rules for access to maintenance grants and maintenance loans? Is that what the report means? Or does it mean something else? We need to know.

The pre-Budget report also talks about

"efficiency savings and prioritisation across universities, science and research"-

I would be interested to know what those efficiency savings are-and

"some switching of modes of study in higher education".

As Stephen Williams said-we heard this on "Newsnight" last night too-the Chief Secretary to the Treasury says that that means a shift towards part-time students. How do the Government intend to achieve that shift? What changes in the financing rules will they propose? Given the evidence from the Select Committee's report, what support will the Government give to part-time students so that they do not suffer from the very high drop-out rates that we are debating today? It is a sad irony that we should have had an autumn statement yesterday that apparently proposed a cut, in a move towards having more part-time students, when we have also had a report showing that part-time students need extra support if they are to achieve the participation and completion rates for which we would all hope.

The list also mentions

"reductions in budgets that do not support student participation".

We want to know what that is. From the scientists' point of view, when the Minister talks about efficiency savings and prioritisation across universities and science and research, what will happen to the Government's previous pledge on the ring-fencing of the science budget? We would like to know whether that statement still stands. There is a lot of important information that we need to hear to have those four key lines in the PBR explained.

Finally, and very briefly, the Minister will know how devastating the report on the performance of the Student Loans Company that was released earlier this week was. Personally, I think that the report merited an oral statement. Indeed, it was regrettable that the report was available only at about 4 o'clock in the afternoon, despite the fact that the written statement said that it would be placed in the Library and made available. However, the report was not available when the written statement came out, and that statement was a rather anodyne account of what is a very powerful report indeed.

Some other hon. Members have made these points, but it is shocking that there were times when only 5 per cent. of phone calls to the Student Loans Company were answered. It is shocking that 100,000 items of evidence that were supposed to be electronically scanned could not be scanned. It is also shocking that, alongside the gross incompetence of the Student Loans Company, some responsibility clearly lay with the Department and Ministers. We should not forget that, as the report says:

"The new service, originally intended to be operational from September 2008 to coincide with the UCAS annual cycle for applications was delayed because of decisions by the then Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills to alter the regulations governing student financial support," which postponed it until February 2009. Part of the "terminal 5" problem of the service, which was re-launched in a rush and without proper testing, was caused because five months were lost owing to Ministers chopping and changing the maintenance rules. I would very much like to hear what steps the Minister will take in response to the comments in the report that are addressed to the Department and to Ministers. I would also like to know whether he understands that the problems have caused enormous distress to students. I hope that he will take this opportunity to apologise to students and their families for what they have gone through.

Above all-this is my final point, Mr. Deputy Speaker-I would like to hear what will happen in future. We need to know when students who make applications in the coming year will be able to access advice and support from the Student Loans Company and when the backlog of cases that have still not been resolved will finally be clarified, resolved and sorted out by this grossly incompetent organisation. The Minister owes the House and students an explanation of that.

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