Let me begin by thanking Mr. Willis for this opportunity to discuss higher education and his Committee's report. Many of us in the Chamber have had successive discussions on these matters recently-it feels like week by week. I have been a Minister for either skills or higher education for some three years now, and it is my feeling that the standard of the debate this afternoon was among the very highest. That is a reflection of the work of the hon. Gentleman's Committee, and of the real contribution that Back Benchers have made. It is also a reflection of the contributions by my hon. Friend Mr. Martlew, Mr. Boswell, my hon. Friend Dr. Iddon and Mr. Wilson. I hope I shall be able to deal with some of the points they raised in the moments I have at the Dispatch Box, although I recognise that we have another debate this afternoon.
It is important to put this debate in context, and I think the whole House will agree that there is never an excuse for being complacent about our public services. We can count the number of lives that are changed as a result of them, and we particularly commend the professionalism of the staff, students and management in the higher education sector.
When we consider the backdrop against which the Committee reported, we can see that we now have more students in our universities than at any time in our history. We have more students from state schools in our universities than ever before, and we have more black students from less well-off families, more black and ethnic minority students, and more students expressing satisfaction with their courses, than at any time in our history. It is also right to say that British universities have achieved a higher ranking in the international league tables than ever before. All this is underpinned by a 25 per cent. real-terms rise in public spending. I genuinely hope that hon. Members recognise that investing in higher education underpins the success of all those students. We heard my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East speak movingly about the nature of that investment, and, in particular, what it means for facilities in the sciences.
The report was wide-ranging and substantial. I welcome the spirit in which the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough made his remarks, although I detected a slight difference in tone in the Chamber this afternoon from when the report was initially announced. I hope he recognises that since the Committee published its report, the Government have published their own framework for the development of higher education over the next 10 years, which is called "Higher Ambitions". I hope he will also acknowledge that we have taken on board some of his Committee's proposals, especially in relation to the student experience, about which much has been said today.
The student experience is not about driving students to be solely consumers of education. That is not the right fit; education is far more than just a consumer interest. But against a backdrop of widening participation and of seeking a student contribution to ensure that students are centre stage for that experience, the thrust of the report was spot-on and we sought to reflect that in "Higher Ambitions."
I did not fully recognise the bleak picture regarding quality that was presented in the report, and obviously there was tremendous concern across the sector-and some incredulity-at the way in which the report was reflected in other parts of the world, with items turning up in China, Malaysia and other places. The breadth of experience for students in higher education-the fact that it is not just about the end grade, but the range of experiences that students have-is reflected in the thrust that the sector is placing on the higher education achievement record. That is important for employers who want to understand fully the soft skills that students have, but it is also a virtue of our system. Many countries in the world recognise that the undergraduate experience in the UK is part of the cultural circumstances that surround the student and what the student engages in; it is not just about the end achievement.
The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said much about the proportion of firsts and 2:1s that appear in the system. With widening participation and more students in the system than ever before, is it not right to look at that as a percentage rather than pure numbers? If he does that, he will see that the proportional increase is not as large as it first appears. The proportion of 2:1s has increased from 45.5 per cent. to 48.1 per cent. over the last period. That is not as significant a rise as has been suggested. The proportion of firsts has gone up from 8.2 per cent. to 13.3 per cent.; a larger rise but, measured against the success that we are seeing at A-levels, not an overly significant one.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the importance of the QAA in ensuring standards. The QAA-under the new leadership of Anthony McClaran, to whom I spoke this week-is conducting an extensive review of how it quality assures and, in doing so, has already sought to put students at the centre of that process. We will have student auditors for the first time from January. A student is on the board of the QAA now as a result of concerns about the student voice. I hope the hon. Gentleman is pleased also that the QAA, in that public-facing role-it is more than public relations-is seeking to make its work student-friendly and is revising much of its literature, using YouTube and other places where students go. I hope that that meets much of the concern raised by the hon. Gentleman.
There needs to be a further firming up of the external examiner system. I thought that the work done by Professor Colin Riordan was very good and I was pleased to be at his presentation to the HEFCE board. That work is being taken forward by UUK over the next year under the leadership of Dame Janet Finch. It is hugely important that we ensure that the external examiner is the voice of that standards agenda within the system-that they are not isolated by working in a particular institution, but can join up in a more collective and cohesive way to communicate the importance of standards. It is right to say that the Select Committee's work has contributed to that progress.
Members have raised the issue of the pre-Budget report and it is important that I put the following comments on the record. The economic downturn that followed the banking crisis has been the most severe since the second world war. The Chancellor's main task is to put the public finances on to a sound footing, while at the same time continuing to promote economic growth. The PBR is not a spending review, but it does set out where efficiency savings will be needed by 2012-13. The savings will amount to 4 to 5 per cent. of the total Government spend on higher education, science and research. When Members reflect on how hard families are finding this downturn and the sorts of savings they are having to make, I hope we will recognise that 4 to 5 per cent. is reasonable. When the Government have received the report following Lord Browne's review of higher education funding and student finance in the summer of 2010, we will make the necessary decisions about where and how these savings can best be met, and, as always, we will do so in close liaison with the relevant funding council.
The Government remain committed to our higher education system and to continuing to pay a significant share of the costs of educating each student, but the current economic situation is difficult, and as higher education institutions have benefited significantly over the last period, with some receiving funding increases of almost 50 per cent. over the last decade, it is right that they should make their contribution now.
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