Welbeck Defence Sixth Form College

Part of Petition - Public Confidence in the Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 4:05 pm on 30th April 2019.

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Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence 4:05 pm, 30th April 2019

I congratulate my right hon. Friend Nicky Morgan on securing the debate, and, indeed, on all her contributions and support for the college over many years. I also acknowledge the presence of the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Edward Argar, to whom my right hon. Friend referred. I should perhaps add, by way of explanation to the general public, that he is unable to speak today because of his role as a Minister. However, his very presence on the Front Bench alongside me today highlights the fact that he has been a champion for Welbeck during his tenure as the local Member of Parliament.

As I listened to my right hon. Friend, it was impossible not to recognise and appreciate the affection that is felt for the current Welbeck Defence Sixth Form College—as well as its predecessor establishment, Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire—and the disappointment that some will feel at the decision to close it as part of the MOD’s move to a new scheme for recruiting science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates to careers in defence. It is, perhaps, most important for me to acknowledge the high-quality education that Welbeck has been providing, and to pay tribute to its excellent staff and the talented young graduates who have gone on to forge successful careers in defence.

Let me say at the outset that the MOD remains firmly committed to attracting high-quality STEM graduates into the armed forces and the civil service, which, in turn, will contribute to support for the wider UK STEM agenda. In an increasingly complex and technologically driven world, we need talented individuals with a diverse range of STEM skills to ensure that we keep pace with our competitors and are fully prepared to meet the challenges and threats that we face today and, especially, in the future.

Welbeck has undoubtedly played its part in producing excellent STEM graduates. I should explain that attendance there forms the first stage of a two-part scheme, the defence technical officer and engineer entry scheme—or DTOEES, another fantastic abbreviation that only the MOD could come up with. I shall refer to it simply as “the old scheme”, if I may. Following two years at the college and successful completion of A-levels, students have gone to selected universities to study for STEM degrees and joined one of four defence technical undergraduate scheme squadrons. On graduation, they have entered initial officer training with one of the services or become defence civil servants. Under the old scheme, they could go to only 11 universities in the United Kingdom, including just one in Scotland; under the new scheme, that range will be widened. The courses available under the old scheme were traditional STEM courses, rather than—at this point I should declare my interest as the deputy commander of the 77th brigade—courses involving information advantage, cyber, and other 21st-century skill sets that are now required in the military.

Unfortunately, the fact is that the scheme as it stands has consistently failed to deliver the required number of engineers and technical officers to Defence since its establishment in 2005. Despite efforts to improve its output, on average only 53% of entrants have completed it successfully, and a proportion of those have not achieved STEM degrees. While this is not about money, it should be noted that the scheme has cost the MOD and the taxpayer some £200,000 per student who has become a STEM graduate.

My right hon. Friend touched on social mobility, which has been an important part of the scheme. She may be interested to know that just 15% of Welbeck graduates have had a general household income of up to £20,000—perhaps those at the lower end of that bracket—while 60% have had a household income of over £60,000. We are also interested in that area in trying to improve the social mobility aspect of the new scheme.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the review, and we did have a review. In effect, 11 different options were considered, which were broken down into three broad categories: do nothing—retain the current scheme as it is; do better—identify a number of sub-options that would all retain Welbeck; or do something differently—identify a number of sub-options that would involve the closure of Welbeck. There really was a genuine effort to look at a vast range of options.

My right hon. Friend also mentioned consultation with staff and governors before the decision was made. A cross-section of both Welbeck staff and governors were engaged during the course of the study by the review team. Equally, prior to the announcement, Defence Academy staff formally engaged with contractors, and the review was a standing agenda item for the board of governors. There were also two “town hall” meetings with staff in June and November last year.

The reasons why some individuals have not completed the old scheme, leaving it early at either Welbeck or university, are varied and complex, but they include medical, academic and voluntary withdrawals. Ultimately, asking young people to make life-determining decisions at age 14 or 15 has, in some cases, been one factor that may have impacted on both recruitment and retention. Another downside of the previous scheme was its relative inflexibility, which I have already touched on, principally because of the fixed costs of Welbeck. This really has meant that the Ministry of Defence could not respond effectively or quickly enough to changes in requirement, or target spending where it would be most effective.

Looking to the future, as I set out in my statement to the House on 11 March, a review of STEM officer recruiting concluded that an alternative method of recruiting STEM graduates was needed to improve the numbers entering a career in defence. The STEM graduate inflow scheme has been designed significantly to increase the number of STEM graduates brought into Defence and the variety of STEM disciplines they are from. Unlike the old scheme, it will be open to undergraduates across all UK universities, studying a wider range of STEM subjects that will include cyber and other new technologies.

The scheme will be supported by an attractive financial package, whereby undergraduates may receive a mix of bursary, tuition fee payment and other targeted payments that are significantly higher than the current bursary of up to £4,000 per annum. This will attract and support a wider range of applicants who are already academically proven, having passed A-levels or being already in the undergraduate pipeline. Importantly, this will provide a greater opportunity to improve both social mobility and diversity. The new scheme, with its focus on supporting individuals through university, will enable more students from a wider range of backgrounds to receive financial support. Indeed, we hope and anticipate that we will double the number of students who receive support.

The financial package has been benchmarked against industry offerings for their own STEM graduate schemes, and it will be competitive. Even with this financial package, however, it will be better value for money—estimated at about a third of the cost per student of the old scheme. The new scheme will also be inherently flexible, allowing the Ministry of Defence more easily to adjust its requirements should the demand for STEM graduates change—for example, due to an increase in requirement or, indeed, a need for specific skills.

Full transition to the new scheme will take place incrementally over the next five years, during which, as my right hon. Friend has said, the current intake of students will be fully supported. The MOD and the single services will develop their specific schemes over this period according to their own requirements, and that is where the flexibility will come in. These are likely to be built around their existing officer recruitment schemes. It may still include some sponsorship of those at school, depending on individual service need, but personnel and funding from the old scheme will be transferred to these schemes to enable them to undertake this work.