I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Everyone has a different reason for being passionate about education, but most of us can point to that time in our lives which changed our lives: the excitement when maths began to make sense, the thrill when we found a subject that we really loved and were good at, or the pride that came when a life-changing teacher showed that he or she believed in us. I have spoken in this place before about my first moment of that kind, when my teacher, Mr Ashcroft, stayed late after school to help me take extra O-levels in engineering and technical drawing, which he continued to do for two years. His belief in me changed my life. Thanks to Mr Ashcroft, I was able to be accepted for an apprenticeship in a car factory, which was the golden ticket to a different life. But I have spoken less here about the second moment, and the third, and the fourth. I was lucky in that my education started there, but did not end there.
I have been lucky enough to benefit from truly lifetime learning throughout my jobs. I was able to go back and study in both my 30s and my 40s. From that, I have learnt a simple truth: offer people a hand up, and they will take it. However, while we excel at educating people in their younger years, too often we do not offer the same support once they are off the beaten track. Education is an opportunity—it is the ultimate levelling-up tool, the closest thing that we have to a silver bullet when it comes to improving lives—and it is always good to have more than one shot, as many things will change throughout our working lives. We have pledged to level up the country so that everyone gets the education that will enable them to seize the opportunities that come their way. I take that pledge extremely seriously, and that is why I am so proud to present this Bill to Parliament today.
I applaud the Secretary of State for presenting a Bill which I think everyone in the House will welcome as a positive move. The Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, Robert Halfon—who is sitting beside the Secretary of State—has often promoted young people whom I would describe as white Protestant males who do not achieve educational standards. He has frequently said that it is his purpose to make a difference. Is that also the purpose of the Secretary of State?
Absolutely. I can assure the hon. Gentleman of that, as someone who went to a comprehensive school in Knowsley, a deprived white working-class area. Most of my schoolmates did leave school without many qualifications, and this is exactly the kind of opportunity that will be there for them many years later. They will be given that helping hand and, hopefully, take it.
I, too, applaud my right hon. Friend’s educational support for people throughout their adult lives, but does she agree that it should also apply to those who are neurodiverse? People do not stop being neurodiverse when they leave school, which is why this support is needed throughout their adulthood.
Absolutely. It is important that lifelong learning continues to be accessible to many people. Sadly, we have heard of cases where people are not diagnosed during their time in school, and it is even more important that those opportunities are always there for them.
The Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill is one step further in our mission to revolutionise access to higher and further education with the introduction of a lifelong loan entitlement, otherwise known as the LLE. As the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, my right hon. Friend Robert Halfon, says, the LLE will ensure that everybody has a flexible travel card to jump on and off their learning journey, as opposed to being confined to a single ticket. It is hard to overestimate the transformative effect that this legislation could have. Through the Government’s wider skills agenda, we have built the engine to help to transform our technical education system. We are doing this by expanding the number and quality of apprenticeships, by growing technical routes into work and by creating innovations such as boot camps. These reforms mean that the engine is ready, but it needs accelerator fuel and that is what the LLE is. It is the way we will deliver on a simple promise: if you back yourself, we will back you.
The Bill will adapt the student finance framework, making different types of study more accessible and more flexible. This is chiefly because it will enable meaningful fee limits to be set on periods of study shorter than a year. It will no longer be the case that the only ticket to further or higher education is through a three-year degree. Money talks, and there is often talk about parity of esteem. This system delivers parity of esteem. What this means in practice is that modules and short courses, as well as traditional degree courses, will be priced according to the amount of learning they contain. This will create a fair, more flexible system and go a long way to encourage more people into post-18 education.
My right hon. Friend was just talking about a fair price and a new method for calculating a maximum level for tuition fees. Does she agree that some people have been receiving higher education that has not been value for money over the past 20 years or so, and that this reform will make sure that people get what they pay for and get value out of their education?
Yes, there have been occasions when some people may have felt that the value of the course they were on did not match the aspirations or expectations they had on their way into it. Obviously it can help if courses are shorter in length and there are more options to get to the career routes that many people are seeking.
As someone who studied part-time at college and at university I really appreciated the flexibility, but too often the system today tries to fit people into a box rather than adapting to their needs. That is why this legislation and the flexibility it brings will be of special benefit to students who need flexible study options—for example, those from disadvantaged groups or those who have caring responsibilities. Let me give some extremely practical examples. Take Alice, who is ambitious and wants to move into management but has not yet got the skills to do so. By using the lifelong loan entitlement, Alice can fund a module of learning to take that important next step, studying part-time so that she can stay in her job, earning while she is learning.
What about Ed? He has worked for the same company for 20 years and feels as though he is stuck in a rut and going nowhere. Luckily, Ed can use his LLE to enrol on a course that focuses on a growth area of the company he works for. He hops in and out of the training when he can and he is eventually able to break out of his rut and get himself promoted. Finally, Amy uses her LLE to study for a three-year degree to build a career in engineering, but because after 10 years in work, new technologies mean that she is not as skilled as she needs to be, she uses her remaining LLE entitlement to do a module that refreshes her skillset. She is then able to get a better job that makes use of that.
I am afraid my hon. Friend is a little ahead of me. This is a subject of the consultation, to which we will respond before Report.
Our education system should have this kind of flexibility at its heart, and through the LLE it will. The fee limits for all courses are currently set per academic year of a full course. Without action, the fees for modules or short courses could be set too high, which would put anyone who wants to study flexibly at a disadvantage, wasting our golden opportunity. It is the polar opposite of what the LLE should be trying to encourage.
This Bill addresses the lack of fairness in how learners choose to study, by introducing a new method for calculating fee limits. This Bill will do three key things. First, it will enable tuition fee limits to be based on credits, which are already a popular measure of learner time and will enable fee limits for all types of courses to be set consistently and appropriately.
Secondly, this Bill will introduce the concept of a course year, rather than an academic year. This will allow charges for short courses and modules to be set with greater accuracy. Finally, this Bill will allow the Secretary of State to set a cap on the total number of credits that can be charged for each type of course. This will prevent modules from being premium-priced.
Ultimately, this Bill will help to ensure that everyone, no matter their background or career stage, will have access to life-changing skills and training. The LLE will transform access to post-18 education and skills, and it will provide learners with a loan entitlement equivalent to four years of post-18 education, which is £37,000 in today’s fees. Learners will be able to use the LLE over their working lives. It will be available for both modules and full courses in colleges, universities and institutes of technology.
I welcome the commitment to four years because, to follow up on my earlier intervention, some people may feel that their three-year course did not set them up for the world of work as well as they would have liked. Does this mean such people will be entitled to one further year, with a loan, to reskill themselves to get the job they want?
Yes, absolutely. That is why we sometimes see people take a level 4 or 5 apprenticeship course after completing their degree to get the skills that are useful in the workplace. Both full-time and modular options will be available.
The LLE will help people to get the skills they need for the jobs of the future, to build the energy resources, to lay the broadband fibre, to deliver the high-quality social care and to train the teachers and nurses we need. Some of us were fortunate enough to have the right opportunities at the right time, but others were not so lucky. That is what I want to change, because everyone should get that opportunity, regardless of where they are from, the decisions they have taken or even the courses they have chosen in the past.
We believe that the LLE will create a more streamlined lifelong funding system that benefits everyone—learners, employers and the economy. It is estimated that at least 80% of the workforce of 2030 are already in work today. They will need the opportunity to upskill and reskill over their career to progress and adapt to changing skills, needs and employment patterns. The LLE presents everyone with life-changing opportunities to get the skills training they need to retrain, upskill and progress.
I assure my hon. and right hon. Friends that we have consulted widely on how the LLE will work, who is eligible and how to support them. We are considering the contributions to this consultation, and we intend to publish a full response ahead of Report on the wider policy and design of the LLE. My hon. Friend Mrs Drummond has a great interest in this, I am sure.
As we move forward to delivery from 2025, we will continue to talk to representatives from across the education sector, as well as key delivery bodies, such as the Student Loans Company, to create a flexible and streamlined system that responds to the needs of the economy.
Too many businesses are struggling to find people with the right skills for their job vacancies, while school leavers and learners are often baffled by a skills system that is complex and bureaucratic. That means that companies cannot find the workers they need, people cannot progress and the country is stuck in a productivity quagmire. We have people who want to work and companies that want to hire them, but we need the LLE to ensure that the workers of today have the skills for tomorrow. We need learners to be able to upskill and retrain flexibly throughout their working lives as their circumstances and needs change. By offering funding for shorter periods of study, the LLE will help those who may have been put off studying because they thought the fees were too high or the living costs would be too expensive.
This legislation supports the Government’s pledge to introduce the LLE from 2025, building on the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022. It also furthers Sir Philip Augar’s independent review of post-18 education in 2019, which included the recommendation that the Government introduce a lifelong learning allowance. Through the LLE, we aim to introduce a more streamlined, efficient and flexible learning system that is fit for the future and brings further and higher education providers closer together. The LLE will transform access to post-18 education, presenting opportunities to retrain, progress and excel throughout an individual’s working life.
This Bill may seem small and technical, but its impact will be far-reaching. We need more coders, doctors, nurses, teachers, technicians and builders—more of most things—and I am certain the British people will answer the call, if only we give them the tools and training to do so. Establishing the LLE may be one small piece of legislation, but it is one great step for life chances and social justice. I am a Conservative because I believe in equality of opportunity—because I believe that what matters is where someone is going, not where they have come from. For that reason, I commend this Bill to the House.
It is a pleasure to follow the Secretary of State. I share a lot of her view on the importance of lifelong learning and how it transform lives, and the passion with which she spoke about that. The policy areas that unite us in this House are few and far between, but as she demonstrated in her remarks, the principle of lifelong learning elicits widespread support across the House. That is because we all recognise the transformational potential of education and the fact that it should not be capped simply by virtue of a person’s age or life stage. My view, and that of the Opposition, is very much that education is an investment not just in the individual, but in human capital and society, and, de facto, in our economy. We all probably know a Mr Ashcroft, as the Secretary of State was describing; we have all been touched by someone who felt that they should perhaps be widening their skillset through their lives or careers.
The world is clearly changing fast. With the fourth industrial revolution, net zero and changing demographics on the horizon, the need for a flexible multi-skilled workforce is more important than ever before. The CBI estimates that nine in 10 workers will have to retain and reskill by 2030 as result of the digital changes seen in the world of work. Likewise, the Climate Change Committee estimates that 300,000 additional jobs will be created if we are to meet our decarbonisation targets by 2030. Many of those jobs will require skills not yet being taught—or skills that perhaps should have been taught in recent years—if we are to catch up on achieving our objectives .
For too long now, the drive for more widespread adult education—lifelong learning and reskilling—has been, at best, lacklustre. The Government have sat on the sidelines and overseen a decade of decline in skills. On adult learning, for example, a survey by the Learning and Work Institute revealed that only one in three adults self-reports any participation in learning—that is the lowest in 22 years. Between 2009 and 2019, Government spending on adult education fell by 47% and, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, adult education and adult apprenticeships will still be 25% lower in 2024-25 compared with 2010-11.
We often talk about the lost decade of wage growth, and that is a fact, but it is pretty hard not to see it as a lost decade of skills growth as well. Indeed, the Learning and Work Institute quantifies that loss as up to 4 million learners, which is a pretty damning indictment of the Government’s skills agenda for these past 13 years. Indeed, part of the problem in recent years has been the lack of priority and focus in the Department, as deckchairs have been shuffled, reshuffled and shuffled again. The figures are well known. We have had five Education Secretaries in the past year, a succession of Ministers responsible for higher education and a seemingly constant shifting set of responsibilities between Ministers. There has been a fatal lack of consistency at the heart of the Department. It must be particularly challenging for the Secretary of State to be witnessing that at first hand. That may well explain why there is a widespread lack of awareness among employers of the Government’s skills reform programme. Four in five employers said that they were unaware of the Government’s plan to introduce lifelong learning entitlement.
Having listened to the Secretary of State’s opening speech, however, I note her determination finally to kickstart the lifelong learning agenda, and I commend her for the work that she is doing. I commend, too, the work of the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, both from the Back Benches and as Chair of the Education Committee. It was my former colleague, Gordon Marsden who, as MP for Blackpool South, really started this agenda, recognising the need for lifelong learning in the form of Labour’s Lifelong Learning Commission report in November 2019. Labour is fully committed to supporting the Government in delivering lifelong learning, continuing the important work that Gordon Marsden put together.
None the less, there remain some significant questions over the Government’s stated policy. In a slightly unusual way, what we have before us is merely a frame with no content—an exoskeleton without a body, as it were. The Government launched a consultation 12 months ago on how the lifelong learning policy should be framed, which included who should be eligible; whether maintenance should be provided; what courses should be covered; what courses should be exempt; what changes to the regulatory framework are required; what incentives, support and guidance are needed to encourage prospective students; how students can stack up their credits or modules; and how course quality assurance is monitored. However, despite that, the Government have failed to publish their consultation response ahead of introducing this legislation, denying Parliament the full picture when scrutinising the Bill—and that consultation closed 10 months ago, in May last year.
The Cabinet Office regulation rules, published in 2018, state:
“Government responses to consultations should be published in a timely fashion.”
Ideally, that is within 12 weeks—I guess that is three months—of the consultation. If not, they should
“provide an explanation why this is not possible.”
I ask the Minister this: why has the response to the lifelong learning consultation not yet been published? When does he expect to publish it, and what explanation can he give for the delay?
This is important, because this skeletal Bill’s skeletal impact assessment states:
“A full and detailed quantitative assessment of impacts on learners, providers, employers, the Exchequer and the wider economy and society is…not possible because of two key sources of uncertainty”— namely, broader lifelong learning entitlement policy and behavioural uncertainty. The impact assessment goes on to say:
“As some aspects of the broader LLE policy are still in development, it is not yet possible to accurately estimate these familiarisation costs.”
As a cherry on top, we are promised that an enactment impact assessment will be published after the Bill receives Royal Assent. One would have thought that the two sources of uncertainty—broader LLE policy and behavioural uncertainty—would have been addressed by the consultative process and the learnings from the pilot programme. But no, for some reason those are being kept from this House. That may have something to do with the fact that only 33 applications for student finance were made for the Office for Students short course trial, which is widely considered to be a failure.
Call me old-fashioned—I have only been in this place for six years—but I prefer to debate the policy underpinning parliamentary Bills and their potential impact while we still have a chance to get it right. It is incumbent on all of us to try to deliver the best legislation. That is in all our interests, particularly given the unanimous support for the principle behind this Bill. Instead, we, the sector and prospective students are waiting on tenterhooks for the final publication of the consultation response before we can make any well-informed assessment of the Bill and how it will interact with the broader lifelong learning policy offer.
In anticipation of the Minister delivering the much-awaited consultation response in the coming days, I will move on to our concerns about the principles of the Bill as drafted and about lifelong learning policy. Given the importance of getting the lifelong learning policy right for boosting the UK’s economic growth, productivity and workforce potential, there remain significant questions related to the deliverability of this reform. The Minister is committed to delivering lifelong learning by the 2025 academic year. However, as he well knows, it takes a considerable amount of time to make changes to the student finance system, the admissions system and the design of new courses. As a fellow pragmatist, does he genuinely believe that it will be delivered by the start of the 2025 academic year, or will it be delivered in a limited form?
Delivering that could prove groundbreaking in changing the post-16 education landscape, and Labour would continue to tailor it if in government. To borrow a sporting metaphor, the pitch needs to be rolled. That includes the need for more clarity on who will be eligible. Universities UK, the representative group of 140 universities, has called for broad and consistent eligibility criteria to ensure that as many future learners as possible can upskill and retrain in the future. Given this Government’s previous form on proposals to limit access to higher education, whether directly or indirectly, what plans does the Minister have to extend this policy offer to as many people as possible, including those who are most hard to reach? Ultimately, as I have said, education is an investment in people. Therefore, the lifelong learning entitlement should be viewed through the lens of educational empowerment, rather than restrictively controlled and micromanaged. Many of us have concerns about how this is going to be managed and delivered, particularly through the OFS.
Given the scale of the challenge and the reforms to the student finance system, it is also important that the Student Loans Company is adequately prepared to deal with this new funding model. I, and indeed the sector, have noted that there is little to no information on the financial cost for the Government in the event that the Student Loans Company requires a redesign in any document attached to the Bill. That could be significant, surely. Given that the SLC funnels £10 billion-worth of public money into supporting students undertaking higher education courses, what assurances can the Minister give the House that adequate preparation has been carried out to ensure that the SLC is prepared for the coming change?
The Bill gives a surprising amount of power to the Secretary of State to decide what fee method applies, the type of courses and activities it applies to, and the maximum amount of funding available for each module or course. Understandably, that has raised eyebrows. With so much power in the hands of the Secretary of State, depriving Parliament of the ability to hold the Government to account adequately, there are few brakes to prevent them from unilaterally deciding to redefine the nature of a credit or a module, and to make compliance with that change contingent on future funding. I am sure that the sector would therefore warmly welcome greater clarity in the Bill on key concepts such as credits and modules. That would go a long way to assuage such concerns, whether or not they are well founded.
It is also widely recognised among providers that running modular provision is more expensive, not least because of the need to provide additional wraparound support, including onboarding, mental health support and academic writing support. Clearly, it is important that a minimum fee level is set to prevent students from being unfairly charged more for modular study than for a traditional academic year of study. However, in the light of the financial pressures on institutions, what plans does the Minister have, if any, to address the cost burden for providers delivering those courses? Failure to understand how that will work on the ground runs the risk of providers shying away from running such courses because of their prohibitive expense. The Government’s own impact assessment stresses as much, stating:
“Some providers could receive less tuition fee income per student if some types of learners that are currently studying longer courses instead choose to study in a modular fashion”.
It would be deeply concerning if the policy behind the Bill further eroded the financial sustainability of the sector, and damaging to the UK’s economic outlook if providers ended up opting out of modular study. It is therefore vital that sustainable and adequate funding be available to providers, and that fees be proportionate to a full qualification with support to deliver wraparound support and high-cost modules. That is also why consultation and dialogue with the sector are so important during the setting of fee limits. In that vein, what plans does the Minister have to ensure that, when setting those limits, the Secretary of State has properly consulted those in the sector charged with delivering this model of teaching?
Finally, let me touch on how the policy underpinning the Bill will engage with the current regulatory landscape. Sector bodies and universities are clear about the need to minimise additional burden. As a result, it is important that the Bill builds on existing regulatory and quality-assurance mechanisms. That is important for employer and student confidence in the system. It is somewhat ironic therefore that the Government are currently validating the de-designation of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education from the Office for Students. That could leave a quality assurance black hole when we most need an experienced quality assurance body. I would be grateful if the Minister set out what plans he has to ensure that regulatory burden is kept to a minimum during the implementation of LLE, and how modular-based courses will be assessed for quality harmoniously across the sector.
Although the Bill is the flimsiest piece of legislation, we will not oppose it. We will wait for the Government’s response to the consultation. I urge the Government to publish the consultation document way before Committee stage, so that we have access to it and can properly scrutinise the legislation in the context of the consultation and the Government’s response. On that basis, we will not oppose the legislation.
I very much welcome the Second Reading of this important legislation and the broad principle of extending the Government’s support for further and higher education to more people through a lifelong learning entitlement. It is a pleasure to follow the thoughtful and constructive contribution from Matt Western, who raised some genuinely valid questions. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education for the briefing he provided ahead of the debate to members of the Education Committee, which I chair.
The Bill is an important step in the journey to create what my right hon. Friend has often described as the ladder of opportunity, and it should benefit people across our country and at every stage in life. Making level 4, 5 and 6 qualifications more widely available, and encouraging HE institutions to offer greater flexibility to those pursuing them, are both worthwhile aims. This legislation, if done right, should stimulate greater competition and innovation in the market for lifelong learning. It has been welcomed by the Open University, which has been a pioneer in this space, and it has long-term potential to transform the skills landscape for learning through life.
I generally make it a rule not to bang on too much in this House about my predecessor but two as Member for Worcester—my late father—but I will make an exception in this debate. My late father, who never had the opportunity to pursue his studies beyond what we would now describe as level 2, set out an ambition in his Macmillan lecture about 40 years ago for people to be able to pursue education through their lifetimes. He envisaged a society in which people would be freed by the technological revolution then getting under way to pursue opportunities for education and advancement at any stage in their career. He summarised that opportunity under the heading “Athens without the slaves”—a piece of hyperbole that was much ridiculed at the time and that is commemorated in a lovely Times cartoon we have in the downstairs loo at my mother’s house—which I think recognises the intrinsic value of pursuing education.
My father’s was a generation in which higher education was a luxury withheld from the vast majority of the population.
I am very much enjoying hearing about my hon. Friend’s father’s views, and I look forward to reading his lecture. Does my hon. Friend agree that many people just do not appreciate education when they go through it the first time round, in the years to 16 or 18? They might have bad teachers, or they might have other things going on in their lives, and they cannot see the relevance of what they are doing in the classroom. Many people would like another opportunity at education later in life, which is why this Bill is so important.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: there are those who perhaps did not relish being in the classroom at the time. There are also those who go through their whole lives regretting not having had the opportunity to pursue further studies and feeling that they have somehow missed out on something. This Bill should provide a solution for both groups.
As I was saying, in my father’s generation, higher education was available to the few; it was a luxury withheld from the vast majority of the population. However, his generation also recognised that there should be no limits to where aspiration and hard work could take an individual. In his case, they took the lad who left school at 16 and who took his insurance exams while doing his national service to success in finance, politics, the Cabinet and eventually the House of Lords. However, he always recognised that, in missing out on the higher studies and university education that so many of his peers had enjoyed, he and many of his generation lost out on something of real value. He wanted to create the opportunity for people to study later in life, and to keep open the offer of vocational and academic study to adults throughout their lives.
Like my hon. Friend David Johnston, I am very interested in my hon. Friend’s father’s reflections in his Macmillan lecture. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as we stand on the cusp of another scientific and technological revolution, with artificial intelligence, green jobs and so on, the need for lifelong learning is more urgent than ever?
I do, and I think that that point has been well made from both sides of the House. With the fourth industrial revolution, there are opportunities for people to reskill—something that the Bill can well support.
The Bill has the potential to be an important step in recognising the vision my late father set out, ensuring that people like him in future generations have educational opportunities that were simply not available in previous generations. Allowing universities to spread the cost of a degree over more units and to have more flexible start dates should allow more people to pursue high-level studies flexibly and on a part-time basis. That, in turn, will help to meet the clearly expressed requirement from employers for more qualified people at level 4 and above.
Making the low-interest loans that are currently available to undergraduates accessible to more people in later life, and for a greater range of courses, should ensure that many more people have the opportunity to pursue studies at a stage in their career that might suit them. That would help people wanting to skill up in order to return to work, and also those for whom the only option for higher study is part time alongside continuing to work. Allowing units of progress on qualifications to be retained and transferred should allow more people to achieve higher qualifications over time than has been the case, and enable learners for the first time to lock in progress with their studies, in a way that was not possible under an all-or-nothing approach. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s analogy of a travelcard, rather than a one-way ticket, is a very good one in that regard.
I recognise the broader range of skills challenges that we face—I perhaps expected to hear more from the Opposition on that topic. My Committee will shortly be publishing our report on post-16 qualifications, and I am also looking forward to supporting the work of the all-party parliamentary group for students on the cost of living for students, which is undoubtedly a matter of significant concern. However, I am strongly in support of what this legislation sets out to do, and of the drivers behind it. I do have a few queries, though, which I hope the Minister can answer fully in his closing remarks.
First, my Committee has recently heard from a range of organisations across the university sector with concerns about the burden of regulation they face from the OfS. I hope the Minister can reassure us that the requirements of the Bill will not be overly onerous and that, rather than increasing the burden of regulation, it will set out to create new freedoms for an independent sector to innovate and compete. Secondly, given that the scope of the legislation covers qualifications at levels 4, 5 and 6, what roles do Ministers envisage for the FE sector, and for partnerships between higher education and FE, as providers for lifelong learning under the new arrangements?
Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, given that the Government have consulted on the details of their proposals but have not yet responded to their own consultation, when can we expect to see the Government’s full response? I join the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington in urging Ministers to bring that response forward before Committee stage, if at all possible. It would be very helpful for the House’s scrutiny of the Bill if it were able to see the details of that response and how the Bill will operate, rather than the framework itself.
However, the legislation is very welcome in its intent, and I look forward to the Minister’s responses to my questions. As Chair of the cross-party Education Select Committee, I welcome the Government’s intention to support lifelong learning by extending the benefits of student finance to more people. I look forward to supporting the Bill’s Second Reading.
Mr Deputy Speaker,
“adult education must not be regarded as a luxury for a few exceptional persons here and there, nor as a thing which concerns only a short span of early manhood, but that adult education is a permanent national necessity, an inseparable aspect of citizenship, and therefore should be both universal and lifelong”.
That is not a quote from one of the many briefings that was sent to me ahead of the debate. It comes from Arthur Smith, who was the master of Balliol College, Oxford, in his foreword to a report commissioned by David Lloyd George’s Government in 1919. This Bill is trying to fulfil an ambition outlined more than a century ago by a Liberal Prime Minister—one that, sadly, successive Governments of all colours have failed to deliver.
As we have already heard, there is consensus on all sides of the House about the need for a revolution in adult education. That cannot be understated, given the pace of economic and societal change before us. Research from the Confederation of British Industry predicts that, as a result of changes in the world of work driven by digitalisation and the transition to a green economy, 25 million workers will need to upskill by 2030, and 5 million will need to retrain completely. The 2022 business barometer, which was put together by the Open University with the British Chambers of Commerce, found that 78% of UK organisations suffered a decline in output, profitability and growth as a consequence of the lack of available skills.
Liberal Democrats see investment in education and skills not only as an investment in our country’s future, but much more than that. It is about helping people to maximise their potential, nurture their creativity and develop their interests and talents, so I share the Secretary of State’s ambition that, no matter a person’s background or what path they have trodden, we all deserve equality of opportunity. That is the reason I am a Liberal. The Secretary of State says that it is the reason she is a Conservative. Maybe we can hammer it out over a drink sometime, and I might persuade her to cross the Floor, because as we have seen, it was a Liberal Prime Minister who originally set out that ambition.
However, I fear that the Government’s investment in lifelong learning over recent years does not meet the scale of the ambition that the Secretary of State has outlined. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, total adult skills spending in 2024-2025 will still be 22% below 2009-10 levels. The number of students taking non-degree undergraduate courses at higher education providers fell from 330,000 in 2007-08 to 110,000 in 2021-22, most of whom were part-time learners. We are promised that the lifelong learning entitlement will change that, and that it will be flexible, unified and high-quality, with parity between technical and academic routes. We are promised that this Bill will underpin the LLE scheme by providing a credit-based method for calculating the fee limit for whole courses and individual modules. While I commend the Minister and the Secretary of State for their commitment to the cause, I agree with many of the comments made by the shadow Minister, Matt Western, that it is plain to see that this Bill is not the century-in-the-making panacea we have all been waiting for.
Many questions remain unanswered in what the shadow Minister described as a skeletal Bill. First, we are debating the Bill in reverse. Parliament is meant to debate and approve the policy framework and then let the regulations deal with the technical details. This Bill does the opposite—it sets out the mechanism through which an LLE will be delivered without setting out any of the major policy decisions about how it will work. As we have already heard, the LLE consultation was published more than a year ago, but we are yet to see the Government response. Mrs Drummond, who is no longer in her place, asked the Secretary of State how old someone would have to be to access the loan entitlement. How will maintenance support work? There are no details in the consultation. Will the repayment terms for these loans be the same as for 18-year-olds going to university when many of these learners will have only 20, 15 or 10 years left in their working lives? Will the equivalent and lower qualifications rule be abolished?
Those are basic questions about the nature and structure of the LLE that the Government do not seem to be any closer to answering as yet, but they will make huge differences to the effectiveness of the programme. The lack of any detail on how to support students with living costs, particularly during a cost of living crisis, seems to me a significant oversight, which is made even more unforgivable by the fact that the Department is increasing undergraduate maintenance loans by just 2.8% next year, when inflation is running at more than triple that rate.
I question whether the Government have correctly identified the major problem they are attempting to address through this Bill, because I am not sure they have made the case that the LLE is something that aspiring learners actually want. The Department for Education sought to prove its concept by making student finance available for 104 courses, yet according to Wonkhe, just 26 of those courses are advertising a future start date and just 33 students have applied for student finance as part of that trial. That was backed up by a survey last year by Public First, which found that telling people about the LLE made no statistically significant difference to whether people would retrain. I do not believe that reveals a lack of demand for lifelong learning, but it does show a considerable lack of interest from the public in this mechanism for financing it.
The most commonly cited reason for not showing an interest in the scheme is not wanting to take on debt. Seeing as talking about our predecessors is in vogue, I will say that was the conclusion my predecessor, the former Member of Parliament for Twickenham, Sir Vince Cable, came to in 2019 when he commissioned an expert panel of university, college and adult education leaders to explore alternatives for financing lifelong learning. They found that most mature students have work, a mortgage or family responsibilities, and so are unlikely to be attracted to a scheme requiring them in effect to pay a higher rate of tax for the rest of their working life to participate in further study.
The commission recommended giving every adult a personal education and skills account—what the Liberal Democrats have nicknamed a skills wallet. The skills wallet is not about just bolting modular learning on to the existing higher education fees system, as this Bill proposes, but would offer central Government grants throughout life to incentivise learning at all levels and would leverage private and public investment from employers, local government and learners themselves.
The Government’s consultation says that a learner’s account will show their learning balance “like a bank account”, so why not operate it like a bank account with tax breaks to incentivise individuals to save for retraining? Many short courses are being paid for by employers, so why not make employers’ contributions as commonplace as a workplace pension? Local, regional and central Government could also incentivise retraining during a downturn or following the collapse of a large local employer by topping up the accounts of affected workers.
Tom Bewick, the chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies said:
“The LLE Bill has the potential to be the most radical entitlement to adult education, skills…and retraining…ever introduced.”
But he goes on to say:
“Grants and maintenance support will also be required.”
I fear that the ambition of Education Ministers for the Bill and its scope have been shackled by the Treasury.
The hon. Lady is making an interesting case, but does she accept that some people do not want further or higher education and will not benefit from it? People talk about the archetypal bus driver who has not done such courses—of course, sometimes they will have—and ask why he should have to pay for other people to do them. I can see that the measure could be important for low-income families, but does she accept the principle that people who want to do the course should have to contribute themselves?
I see where the hon. Gentleman is coming from, but equally, we are ambitious about making sure that the whole population, or many parts of it, are reskilling and are ready for the jobs of the future, and for people from low-income backgrounds, loans are a real barrier to putting themselves forward for additional courses. The skills wallet, as in our 2019 proposal, would be a grant given at various points of someone’s lifetime between the age of 25 and 55, with top-ups from local or national Government or employers and some tax breaks to go with it. That is an innovative and pluralistic way of funding that ambition, particularly given the challenges that we face as a country to fulfil the skills that we need for us to thrive and grow, which seems to be a cross-party ambition.
I fear that the narrow scope of the Bill will prevent amendments that probe the big policy choices that await the Government before LLEs are rolled out in 2025, but I hope that Ministers will answer the following questions as the Bill progresses. Will the Secretary of State consider putting the notional hourly value of a credit in the Bill so that modules cannot be devalued by a future Government looking to save money? Universities UK and other stakeholders have raised concerns that clause 2 may allow the Secretary of State to set differential fees based on subject of the course. Ministers should bring forward amendments in Committee to ensure that that is not possible and protect universities’ institutional autonomy.
How will Ministers ensure that learners have access to high-quality careers advice before they get their loan entitlement? David Cameron promised Islamic-compliant student finance in 2013. It is unacceptable that, 10 years later, it has still not been introduced. Will the LLE also be blocked off to Muslim students? Will the equivalent or lower qualification rule be abolished to give learners more flexibility in what they study? Will the Government support the Liberal Democrats’ plan to restore maintenance grants so that university graduates from low-income backgrounds are not punished by having to pay back more of their loans for longer?
This is a pivotal opportunity to shape lifelong learning in this country, and it is desperately important given the digital and green revolutions that are already under way. If we want to ensure that we as a country are at the forefront of capitalising on these opportunities, we need to equip people with the right skills, so these plans need further thought and further detail. We will rue the day if, in another 100 years, Arthur Smith’s ambitions have still not been fulfilled.
It is a great pleasure to be able to participate in this Second Reading debate. I should begin by congratulating the Secretary of State on her excellent speech, and on her passion for opportunity and excellence. I would also like to congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Walker on his speech, including his memories of his father. As someone who knew his father very well, and who went to some of his lunches when we had discussions about these sort of things, it brought back happy memories. [Interruption.] Ah, the Secretary of State is still here. I just wanted to say congratulations to her on bringing forward this Bill. I know she is passionate about opportunity, excellence and the fact that everyone should have a chance to develop themselves.
Many of us on these Benches have, over many years, been persistent in campaigning for lifelong learning and greater educational opportunities, irrespective of people’s backgrounds or situation. We have also praised our further education sector—the colleges—and I know the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, who is his place, has been a champion for the colleges. I believe that inspirational teachers, parents, role models, friends and school facilities are very important in encouraging young people, teenagers and people in their early 20s at college or university to go on and make something of themselves, but that is not enough. They need additional opportunities later on in life.
As someone who was a schoolteacher and subsequently, and more importantly in respect of this Bill, a college lecturer, I know from personal experience, as well as from constituency involvement, of the many students who, for many and various reasons, have not had the opportunity to continue in training, education or college courses. Their ambitions and their careers were stymied because they did not have that opportunity. When I was out of Parliament between 1997 and 2005, I was privileged to meet and to teach students at Bexley College, which at the time was led by the inspirational principal Dr Jim Healey. I taught women returners, the unemployed, those who wanted qualifications, those who needed qualifications to advance in their jobs and those who wanted to change careers. In particular, I was dealing with Institute of Management and Institute of Personnel Management courses. They were good opportunities, but they were limited in scope—they did not go far enough—and now we are addressing that situation.
I would like to praise the Open University. I think we should do that, because it has done fantastic work in offering modules, degrees, courses and education at a high level with greater flexibility for students in relation to both age and time. However, this is not enough, and that is why we need other ways of ensuring that people obtain qualifications below degree level.
In today’s rapidly changing world, it is essential that we have a skilled, educated and motivated workforce to meet the challenges of modern Britain. We must never forget that we never stop learning—all of us, throughout life, are continuing to learn—particularly in the technological age we are in. When I left Parliament in 1997, we were still using electronic typewriters. We did not have computers or mobile phones, and it was a bit of a shock when I came back in 2005. Fortunately, however, I had been at a college, Bexley College, where I was able to do some courses, so I therefore understood and could do the basics. I still cannot type very well, but that is a different matter.
I am learning a lot about my right hon. Friend’s history, which I am finding very interesting. On Friday in the Chamber, we discussed the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill, which Yasmin Qureshi brought in. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that these measures encouraging more mature students back into education go hand-in-hand with the reforms the Government are making to flexible working, which mean that people can continue to learn while they are earning and broadening their skills?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend, who makes a very important point.
Lifelong learning is important; learning is not just for the young. Opportunities should be there for people to re-enter the world of learning and training throughout their individual working life. It is good news, therefore, that the Bill creates the flexibility for individuals to decide what and when they wish to study over their working life in order to progress their life, increase their skills and make something more of themselves. I particularly welcome the lifelong loan entitlement, as it will improve access to education and certainly accelerate the Government’s levelling-up agenda. Everyone should be afforded the opportunity to reach their full potential irrespective of their background or the lack of opportunity they had at school or college. People in established careers should also have an equal opportunity to pursue further studies. As a product of social mobility—like many colleagues on both sides of the Chamber—I am a firm believer that access to education should be fair and available to all who choose to look for and pursue it. The loan will enable those trapped in unemployment or low-paid jobs to undertake further study. That will improve their skills and employability, and their opportunities throughout life.
Research by Universities UK suggests that 35% of those who considered part-time education in the past 10 years did not enrol because of their personal life or their employment situation. We have to change that in modern Britain, and that is what the Minister, the Secretary of State and the Department are doing. My constituents in Bexleyheath and Crayford will be delighted to know that they can pursue further studies to suit their own pace, time and opportunities, without paying a premium for doing so.
I am keen for the simplification of the higher education system to enable wider and easier access. Research by the Department for Education suggests that the complexity of the student finance system and the difficulty in obtaining information for mature students are major factors that deter people from going back into study. The lifelong loan entitlement will offer a system that is easier to understand—my goodness, in today’s society, don’t we need things that are easier to understand, because of the complexities of life? [Interruption.] I see Mr Deputy Speaker is agreeing with me, and he is young by comparison. Things such as clearer detail on financial entitlements will no doubt encourage more people to study. I hope the Secretary of State will agree that to get the full benefit of the scheme, we must embark on an education and information campaign, targeting those who will find it of particular interest and benefit. It is no good thinking they will just find out; we have to go out there and sell it.
I am concerned, of course, by the skills gap that is plaguing our economy, particularly in this time of considerable economic challenge for our nation. In August 2022, the Federation of Small Businesses reported that 80% of small firms were facing difficulties recruiting applicants with suitable skills. As I go round my borough and constituency of Bexleyheath and Crayford, a number of businesses say that they cannot get staff who have the necessary levels of training or education. People do not have the opportunity to obtain further qualifications, and therefore those businesses cannot get the necessary skilled workforce.
We must endeavour to ensure that the UK remains an attractive investment proposition, with its skilled and talented workforce. I believe we have the people in this country, but they need the opportunity, training and skills development. We can then be No. 1 again in so many fields and be competitive across the world. We cannot afford to fall behind our counterparts, which is what we seem to have been doing. The lifelong loan entitlement will address that skills gap by enabling employees to continue to upskill as they progress through their careers.
For many, it may be more sensible to learn over a period of years because they have other commitments—families or other interests—in their lives. They may wish to develop practical experience first, and there is nothing wrong with that. People do not necessarily want to go on a three-year university course. They may not be ready for it or feel that the time is right. As our economy continues to shift towards greater automation, it will be crucial for employees to develop more technical skills. Low-skilled jobs will be those most at threat from automation, so we must equip those currently working in such jobs with the skills to ensure that they can thrive in an increasingly technological economy and society.
The Bill will be of huge benefit to all our constituents and all the countries in our United Kingdom, bringing the skills that employers want and that employees need. The result, hopefully, will be the happier and better paid workforce that we are looking for.
I believe, in all honesty, that the Government have done a considerable amount over the past decade or so and have a good record on education. I listened to the Opposition spokesman, Matt Western, whom I respect. I always listen to him with great interest because he is measured and reasonable—though usually wrong. But he is a nice chap, and he put forward some thought-provoking ideas for us today. That is why the Bill needs cross-party support, including from Munira Wilson of the Liberal Democrats. I am not going to get party political—the Liberal Democrats always like to do that. We are trying to be constructive.
On technical education, over the last few years we have introduced T-levels, so that all people can access a world-class education. I did the old traditional A-levels. I enjoyed them and they suited me. As we have heard, I am not very good at technology. I do not think my hon. Friend Aaron Bell will let me forget it. Nevertheless, young people can gain skills via the revamped T-levels. High quality is the key. Everything we do in education has to be high quality, not substandard. I therefore passionately support what the Government have done with T-levels, practical learning and industry placement. It is the best of both worlds.
On high quality, does my right hon. Friend recognise, from the independent Wolf review, that at least 350,000 young people were let down by courses that had little or no labour market value? That is what we need to change. As well as bringing forward lifelong learning, we need to ensure that all courses, whether for undergraduates of traditional age or older, offer value for money.
Absolutely. I would also highlight the £490 million in extra funding that the Government are delivering to boost training and upgrade colleges and universities across the country. I must praise my own college, Bexley College, which has now merged into London South East Colleges under the successful and inspirational leadership of Dr Sam Parrett CBE. She is a brilliant and dynamic woman who is driving the agenda we desperately need. The Government’s extra funds will boost colleges’ training and upgrade colleges. This particular college is very good. It is an amalgam of several colleges in south-east London. There is a buzz and it is looking to the future. The traditional old-fashioned FE colleges were good in their day, but their day was yesterday, or even before that, when the father of my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester was in government in the 1980s. The Government are also investing £350 million to renovate further education colleges, which is welcome.
My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. I could not resist the opportunity to welcome the progress being made on new science and tech labs at Worcester Sixth Form College, which I visited just the other day. The college has been transformed by successive small investments under this Government, while under the Labour Government it got the promise of a complete rebuild under Building Colleges for the Future, which then got cancelled when they ran out of money for their programme. Is that not an example of how we can invest more effectively and productively for our college estate?
My hon. Friend makes a brilliant point. I think we would all agree that what we need is upgrading and progress, rather than pie-in-the-sky ideas. We must get practical.
The other thing I want to highlight is that colleges in local areas should provide for local needs, boosting the skills that are necessary in that area. The skills needed in my area of south-east London are probably different from those needed in Worcester or in other parts of the country. The Bill creates a new duty for further education colleges, sixth-form colleges and designated institutions to ensure that the provision of further education is fully aligned with local needs and requirements. This is another way to ensure we have the employment and opportunities for young people and not so young people to make a real contribution to their community, and to strengthen the accountability and performance of local colleges and the businesses involved in helping the programme forward.
There is a lot to be pleased about in this small Bill, and I look forward to debating it in Committee if I am privileged enough to be put on it by the Whips, though I do not usually blot my copybook. We will discuss certain bits of the Bill and we will all have ideas for how to tweak it, but we must be grateful to the Government for putting forward an excellent, necessary and most welcome Bill that will support the introduction of a lifelong loan entitlement from 2025 and promote a culture of upskilling and retraining.
The Bill will help to open up higher and further education by introducing new methods and limiting the fees that can be charged based on credits. That is really positive, good news. Students will therefore be charged a proportionate amount depending on the number of credits studied, encouraging more people to study by taking advantage of the flexibility that the scheme will offer. We have seen flexibility in work because of covid and changing work patterns. Many people have found that to their liking, and many businesses have as well. Flexibility must be the word for our era, because it gives opportunity to so many more people.
I obviously welcome that the fees charged will be limited, but I presume that the colleges will be able to choose the packages that they offer, so is there a danger that they will be less inclined to offer modules if they cannot charge extremely exorbitant rates for them?
I know that my right hon. Friend has a touch of cynicism. I am an optimist, and I believe that the colleges will want to take up the opportunity, because that will show the success of what they are doing. They are part of the local community, so they need to get real. We will have to discuss that point further. I encourage my right hon. Friend to beat the drum in the colleges in his constituency and to tell them that it is their civic or local duty—whatever we want to call it—to do these kinds of things. But we should be wary of what he says.
The Bill is the key to the Government’s skills revolution and it will support our businesses, long-term productivity and job creation. That is particularly important as we deal with the difficult times of the cost of living crisis and other things we will face in the future. We need to make the most of our opportunities. I welcome the Bill; I look forward to it passing into law and to the opportunities it will give so many people across our country for more studying, more career development, more skills and, hopefully, a more successful career.
I am grateful for being called to speak in this important debate. The Bill is somewhat technical in nature, but its objectives are to be welcomed and applauded. We need to ensure that its provisions are implemented as soon as practically possible and that, thereafter, they deliver the desired outcome. The Bill is vital to address the skills crisis that this country faces. Moreover, we need to ensure that people from all backgrounds and of all ages have every opportunity to realise their dreams and to pursue their chosen careers; that businesses of all sizes can recruit and retain staff with the necessary skills and expertise; and that the stubborn productivity gap that has plagued the UK economy for so long is at last vanquished and eliminated.
In East Anglia, there are exciting opportunities emerging in a wide range of new industries: zero-carbon energy production, life sciences, and food and agriscience. However, a skills mismatch is holding back those sectors, and if we do not address it, businesses will go elsewhere and we will have lost a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity not only to revolutionise the local economy for the benefit of local businesses, local people and local communities in East Anglia, but to benefit the whole of the UK, not least the Treasury.
I will not go into detail on the provisions of the Bill, because the Secretary of State has already done so. I shall focus instead on why the Bill is needed, why it is welcome and what more needs to be done if it is to have the desired impact. It is first necessary to put the Bill in context. In February 2018, the then Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend Mrs May, announced a post-18 education and funding review. Sir Philip Augar’s report, which was published in May 2019, described post-18 education in England as
“a story of both care and”—
I am afraid—
The Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022 subsequently provided the framework for embedding lifelong learning in our tertiary education system.
The Government have quite rightly recognised the problem and the need for action. They are to be commended for introducing a comprehensive framework that can deliver much-needed reform, but I do feel a sense of frustration that the challenges are not being tackled more quickly. At times, I feel we need to be more radical and send a clear message to communities, people and businesses that wholesale change for the better is on the way.
Why is the Bill necessary? It is part of a drive to embed lifelong learning in our education and training system. The need for a lifelong learning culture is clear. Given the ageing population and the lack of people with the technical skills needed by employers, as well as technological change and the need to move rapidly to a net zero economy, we need every adult to have the capacity, motivation and opportunity to carry on learning throughout their life.
We have an ageing population. By 2030, the population aged 60 is projected to have increased by 42%, while the population aged 14 to 64 is forecast to have grown by just 3%. That has critical implications. First, people living longer might choose to work longer and must therefore be able to upskill and reskill. Secondly, those who are out of work might well benefit from accessing education and training to support them to be healthy and active in retirement. Thirdly, the pressure on public finances that an ageing population brings requires us to ensure that people of working age who are out of work or underemployed can upskill and retrain as quickly as possible.
We must address the challenge of climate change, which will lead to dramatic changes in the world of work. New and emerging sectors, jobs and working practices will require upskilling and retraining a very large number of people. The target of net zero by 2050 requires a radical shift in the response from our skills system—a challenge that I am afraid is not currently being met.
A fourth industrial revolution is taking place in information and communication technologies. Artificial intelligence, virtual reality and robotics are profoundly changing how people work, learn, communicate and live. That will require smarter and more agile ways of living and working. People will need higher, more specialised and socialised skills. As a result of the changes in the world of work driven by digitalisation, by the fourth industrial revolution and by the transition to a green economy, CBI research predicts:
“Nine in ten workers will need some form of reskilling by 2030”.
The Bill should not be considered in a vacuum or in isolation. If it is to be a success, it must form part of a comprehensive package of measures. Let me briefly list five of them. First, there is the need to ramp up participation in adult education. Since 2004 participation rates have almost halved, from 29% to just below 15%, which means that millions of people are missing out on opportunities to retrain and upskill for a new job or career and employers are unable to fill key vacancies. Secondly, there is a need to address the consequent low levels of employer investment in work for skills. While much recent reform has rightly focused on the role of employers in the skills system, there has at the same time been a decline in the amount of investment on the part of employers themselves.
Thirdly, we need to address the situation whereby the least advantaged suffer the most and have the least opportunity to advance. At a time when more jobs require education at level 3 and above, only 60% of young people reach that level by the age of 19, while 15% fail to reach level 2. The number of people taking higher and intermediate and technical college courses is lower than it should be, given both the current skills shortages and those that can be predicted owing to retirements and economic change in the coming years. Those who do participate are far more likely to be well educated and better off. The poorest adults, with the lowest qualification levels, are the least likely to access adult training, despite being the group that will benefit most. They must not be left behind.
Fourthly, there is poor co-ordination across the education system. Further education, higher education and apprenticeships are currently treated as distinct systems in their own silos, which makes it hard for employers and others to access the overall system. There is insufficient alignment across welfare, skills and economic strategies, and that needs to change. Fifthly and finally, there has been a neglect of level 4 and level 5 provision. Sir Philip Augar’s review notes that the small number of level 4 and level 5 students translates into persistent skills gaps at technician level. That gap, I am afraid, makes England an international outlier, with our numbers declining.
What else do we need to do? As I have said, the Bill is to be welcomed, for it has a vital role to play, but it is only one piece of the jigsaw. We need more detail on the lifelong loan entitlement ahead of its introduction in 2025. It has the clear potential to be a game-changer, introducing a stronger lifelong learning culture in England. However, there are issues of detail that need to be addressed, as well as wider issues relating to how it fits into the whole tertiary education offer, including further education and apprenticeships.
As the Bill progresses through Parliament, three big systems issues need to be borne in mind. First, there is a need to instil a new lifelong learning culture. Arguably, the biggest hurdle when it comes to the success of the lifelong learning entitlement will be the issue of how quickly a new culture of lifelong learning can be developed. Secondly, there needs to be clarity on the role of employers and how the lifelong learning entitlement will work with the apprenticeship levy. Employers are central to the working of the new system being developed as part of the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022, and it is important that they are fully involved in the development of the lifelong learning entitlement. Thirdly, there is a need for changes in regulations to develop a coherent post- 16 education and skills strategy that is properly aligned to wider Government policies, redressing the inefficient competition that exists across the system and setting out a co-ordinated approach to an expanded lifelong education service. This should include legislation to introduce a new tertiary post-16 commission.
In addition, I have two concerns that must be addressed when the Government publish their response to the consultation carried out last year that we have heard about. First, there remain questions about eligibility and who will be entitled to access the lifelong learning entitlement. This includes rules around equivalent or lower qualifications. Secondly, the matter of maintenance support needs to be addressed. The Government are still considering how maintenance support will be adapted for the lifelong learning entitlement. This will be crucial for mature learners, who often have family commitments and caring responsibilities.
As I have mentioned, there is a danger that the lifelong learning entitlement becomes something used by well-educated people to add a year after a degree rather than by people who do not yet have a level 3 education. The pathways from lower levels need to be strengthened with better funding and maintenance support at level 3 and below, with universal credit recipients being given every opportunity to access training without loss of benefits. It is important that the provisions of the Bill are accompanied by the necessary careers advice and guidance, so that those who need it most can take full advantage of the opportunities that will become available. A strategy is needed that sets out how the lifelong learning entitlement will fit into the careers advice and guidance for individuals to access throughout their lives.
If the Bill is to be successful, it must be accompanied by systemic change, and if the House will bear with me for a few minutes I will briefly outline what the ingredients of this change might be. They could include: a 10-year education and skills strategy; a new tertiary education system with a joined-up approach to regulation and oversight; the creation of a maintenance support system that enables everyone to have a fair and reasonable standard of living while studying training at college, across both further and higher education; the reform of the benefit entitlement system so that people who would benefit from attending college while unemployed do not lose out; and ensuring that the whole education and skills system is sustainably funded. For too long, the college system has been the Cinderella service of the education system. Significant improvements have been made, but more work is still required. Finally, we should have a support fund for providers branching into new resource-intensive areas at levels 4 and 5.
In conclusion—I think you will be pleased that I have come to this point, Mr Deputy Speaker—this Bill is to be welcomed, but it is only one part of a wide range of policies and initiatives that must be provided so that all people, whatever their backgrounds, are able to realise their full potential. If we do this, it will in turn enable businesses to prosper and allow the economy at last to move into top gear, eliminating that stubborn productivity gap. This is what is needed if we are to deliver sustained economic growth and meaningful levelling up. As the Bill moves forward, I would urge the Government to consider reasoned amendments—I know my right hon. Friend the Minister will do so—to quickly bring forward any necessary enabling and secondary legislation, and to work collaboratively, not only across this House but with universities, colleges, employers and, most of all, those people that we represent, to whom this Bill gives the opportunity to realise their full potential.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Peter Aldous and to speak in what has been a very good debate. I thank the Secretary of State for her opening remarks. It is a shame that there are not more Opposition Members here, but it would be churlish of me not to acknowledge the speeches from the Opposition spokespeople, the hon. Members for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) and for Twickenham (Munira Wilson), who are no longer in their places. They both raised thoughtful points, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney, and I am sure the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education and the Secretary of State will have heard them and will consider what more we can do in Committee.
I also pay tribute to the speeches of the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend Mr Walker, and my right hon. Friend Sir David Evennett. I look forward to hearing from my hon. Friends the Members for Wantage (David Johnston) and for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) in due course.
As I said in my maiden speech, if I can remember back that far, education is
“the greatest tool of social mobility that we have.”—[Official Report,
To echo the Secretary of State, I am a Conservative because I believe in equality of opportunity and in the famous ladder of opportunity that I am sure the Minister will mention in his closing remarks.
In my maiden speech, for which I believe you were in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker, I went on to talk about young people making the very best of themselves. In truth, I should have widened it out because it is not just about young people; everyone should have the opportunity to educate themselves. I understand that we cannot offer the LLE to, say, 70 or 75-year-olds because there would be no return on the investment, but I hope that 55-year-olds, or even 60-year-olds, might benefit from lifelong learning, because they still have so much to offer.
I spoke on Friday about an 82-year-old in Chesterton in my constituency who wanted to know whether there are opportunities for flexible working in Newcastle-under-Lyme, and I am sure plenty of older people are looking for opportunities not only for flexible working but to go back to college to get themselves more skills, perhaps while they are working. This Bill will go some way towards that.
I also said in my maiden speech that levelling up is about education, and not simply funding for local areas, although the funding I have secured for Newcastle-under-Lyme—more than £50 million for the borough from the future high streets funds and through the town deal—is incredibly welcome. I am glad the vice-chancellor of Keele University chairs our town deal board.
As I always say to schools, colleges, universities and businesses alike, levelling up is not simply about throwing in money, knocking down buildings, building new buildings and applying a lick of paint; true levelling up comes from the investment our businesses make, the investment we make in our public services and, most of all, the investment we make in our people.
That starts before school in the first 1,001 days that my right hon. Friend Dame Andrea Leadsom talks about and continues through nursery, primary school and secondary school and into further and higher education, which is the point at which it often seems to stop. If people do not have the opportunity of a forward-thinking employer that pays for training, they often do not continue to grow their skills. They obviously gain experience, but they do not have the opportunity to go out and learn new skills that might allow them to take their career in a new direction. I particularly welcome the fact that the Bill offers the opportunity of lifelong learning to people who may have studied to some degree or who may have dropped out of university, so that they are able to go back and put right what they perhaps once got wrong, or once did not value as much. They will then be able to redirect their career and perhaps their and their family’s entire future.
For too long, young people have been encouraged towards unsustainable degrees. We have a fixed model, pushed under the Blair Government, of three-year courses that all charge the same fees. When that Government introduced tuition fees, the original idea was that different institutions would charge different amounts, but that is not how the free market resolved the problem. It was apparent that if a provider charged less than the maximum —originally £1,000, and later £3,000 or £9,000—it would be advertising itself as inferior, and no provider wants to do that because they all want to have the badge.
In practice, of course, there are inferior courses and universities that are not as good as others, yet people are paying the same for every course at every university. There is no proper market signal to young people as to what is valued in the marketplace and the world of work. The Bill introduces a new method to make sure that students access courses at a fair price, and pricing modules and short courses proportionately will go a long way towards getting the market signal out to our young people, and to older people who take advantage of lifelong learning, as to what is valued.
I recall some of these debates and it was predicted at the time that the universities, in particular, would behave in precisely the way my hon. Friend has described. I am a little bit concerned about the people who did a course that was not really viable in terms of qualifying them for a practical career. How, if at all, will they benefit from this legislation, given that, presumably, they may have used up their three years’ worth of learning allocation?
I am not sure whether my right hon. Friend was in the Chamber earlier when I intervened on the Secretary of State on precisely that point. This comes with a four-year entitlement. It is not perfect and people will have used up entitlement; I discussed this last week in the Tea Room with the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, who is in his place. The flexible loan is worth £37,000 at today’s prices—four lots of £9,250. Those who did a three-year course and found it did not do much for them may have the opportunity to do a one-year course now. When people are a bit older and wiser, they can often get as much out of a one-year course when they really want to do it as they did in three years when they were at university and perhaps were too busy in the bar, on the football pitch and so on. I take the point made by my right hon. Friend Sir Julian Lewis and thank him for sharing his experience of those debates from back in the early days of the Blair Government. However, I do think that the Minister and the team in the Department for Education have considered this point, and I think it is one reason why they have set this at four years rather than three.
I also welcome the investment we are making in skills training more generally, and I will talk a little more about that in a moment, because I want to speak about the further and higher education institutions in my constituency. I am lucky, as it is blessed with both a fine further education establishment, Newcastle and Staffordshire Colleges Group and, specifically, Newcastle College, and a higher education institution, Keele University. It is genuinely positive for the area, if not for my re-election prospects, that we have a university in my constituency. If we could make sure the next election takes place during the holidays, I would be extraordinarily grateful, although I know that is not in your gift, Mr Deputy Speaker. I always enjoy going to Keele University and speaking to the students, even if they do not always vote the right way at the ballot box. [Interruption.] I see the Opposition Whip, Chris Elmore, heckling me from a sedentary position.
Keele University is very integrated now into Newcastle-under-Lyme, in a way that it has not always been, partly because of the involvement in the town deal that I spoke about earlier, with the vice-chancellor as the chair. As part of that, Keele University is going to be opening a digital society centre in the centre of Newcastle-under-Lyme. The science and innovation park at Keele is also a huge benefit to the constituency. We manufactured the vaccine on that park; the AstraZeneca vaccine was manufactured by Cobra Biologics, which has since been taken over. A number of small businesses are also going on there, through the Denise Coates Foundation, which has funded a school of management there. All of that is essential to levelling up, having more money in our local economy and more wealth generated locally and spent locally, supporting our high street and helping us to get the growth we want in our local economy.
I will speak a little more about Keele in a moment, but first let me speak about the Newcastle and Staffordshire Colleges Group. I am delighted to say that it is becoming an institute of technology—sadly, it is in Stafford, not Newcastle-under-Lyme, but that is by the by because it will be open to people from both areas, which are very much connected. Ours was the first FE college anywhere in the country to be rated outstanding across the board by Ofsted. I wish briefly to raise a point about T-levels with the Minister. I know that the college welcomed them, and it currently has 2,259 learners studying level 3s, mostly in applied general things, mostly on BTECs. That cohort is considerably disadvantaged compared with the one doing A-levels at the college; they are eight times more likely to have education, health and care plans, twice as likely to have a learning difficulty or a disability, and 33% more likely to be economically disadvantaged and in receipt of a bursary. The college has written to me as it has concerns about the transition to T-levels and the speed with which it is occurring, and I think there are a number of practical concerns. The college is very much in favour of what the Government are doing but it has a number of practical concerns. If the Minister would be willing to meet people from the college, either on a visit, which I know he would be keen to do, or virtually in the meantime, that would be welcomed by the excellent principal, Craig Hodgson, who has written to me about those concerns. I am very blessed to have that further education establishment in my constituency, as it is changing the life chances of many of my constituents. It is also well engaged with local businesses, as it offers apprenticeships as well. Having such a good further education provider in my constituency is a fundamental part of what will help to level up Newcastle.
Let me speak a little more about Keele University, which, as I have said, is also in my constituency. A total of 31% of home undergraduates are in receipt of financial support due to low household income. That places the university 27th out of 122 English higher education institutions, according to the Office for Students. It does very well on non-continuation—keeping disadvantaged people in university—but it acknowledges that it has more to do on attainment. According to the most recent figures that I have available, in 2017-18, only 14% were mature students, and the university wants to do more about that. I am sure that the Bill will encourage more people to study at what is an excellent university in Keele. It is so excellent, in fact, that it was voted Britain’s best university, as ranked by students. It has 96% graduate employability, which is very encouraging.
I will, if I may, briefly mention Staffordshire University, which, although it is in neighbouring Stoke-on-Trent, is attended by a number of my constituents. It has a different profile: some 24.5% of its students are in quintile 1of the income deprivation affecting children index; and 50.5% of its students are mature, of whom 35.5% are full-time—that compares with 21% nationally. The university is incredibly well set up to deal with lifelong learning. There are a number of disadvantaged people in Stoke-on-Trent who did not even get GCSEs, let alone A-levels or go to university, and I hope that some of them will take advantage of the opportunities that this Bill presents.
Let me cite some figures that were provided by UCAS, for which I am grateful, to give the overall picture in my constituency. In the last cycle, there were 730 applications to higher education institutions, 600 of which were accepted. Of that, 135 were studying locally, which I think is mostly at Keele. Those numbers are lower than average. I would like to see them higher, again, to see us do better, but 28.1% of those were aged 21 plus, which is above the latest national average of 23.8%. That is encouraging, as it shows that mature students in Newcastle-under-Lyme are already taking advantage of the opportunities through UCAS.
The Bill also sits alongside our record in education in general, and how we are using education to improve people’s life chances to help level up their opportunities and outcomes. I welcome T-levels, despite the aside from the college that I mentioned, because they are a technical qualification that will help people. They provide practical learning for those who do not necessarily want to study A-levels. We have also delivered lots of money on different fronts—£490 million to boost skills training and upgrade our colleges and university, £432 million of which will fund state-of-the-art university and college facilities at 100 providers, and a further £57 million will support 20 specialist higher education providers to deliver a wider range of specialist courses of the highest quality. We have invested £350 million in renovations for further education colleges across the UK. We have brought forward £200 million of that to renovate 180 providers. That means that colleges have started immediate work in repairing and refurbishing their buildings.
Importantly, given the context of Putin’s war in Ukraine, we have provided £500 million for energy efficiency upgrades for schools and colleges, which will help them to save on their bills. A primary school will receive, on average, £16,000, a secondary school, £42,000, and further education groups approximately £290,000 each, which is very welcome and will help to make sure that we have energy efficient buildings, saving ourselves and the providers money in the long run.
We have £3 billion in the National Skills Fund that we have established. That helps individuals and small and medium-sized enterprises to access high quality education and training. Although that is not completely in the scope of the Bill, it is important that we engage with businesses at every stage on what they want. I had representatives from businesses down here just last week to attend a roundtable meeting, and they told me that their two challenges are land and planning and then skills in the local population. Therefore, everything that we can do—whether it is through apprenticeships, through training on the job or through the opportunities that the Bill will provide for people to acquire new skills, possibly taking a year out and possibly while working part time—will be welcomed by businesses in Newcastle-under-Lyme.
It is not just money that we need. We are also requiring further education establishments to provide for local needs. The Bill creates a new duty on further education colleges, sixth-form colleges and other designated institutions to ensure that the provision of further education is fully aligned with local needs. That will be considered on an annual basis to strengthen accountability and performance, so if an area is falling behind, there will be scope for it to catch up. Finally, we need to reform initial teacher training in further education, which is part of the cycle that I spoke about earlier. We need the best quality teachers. At the moment the system is a bit too fragmented, so we need to make it easier to navigate and it needs to have high-quality, clear standards throughout. We need to ensure that public funding for teacher training goes only to high-quality providers following the standards that we and employers want to see.
In conclusion—I know that a couple of other Members wish to speak—as I said at the start, I believe in equality of opportunity and in giving people the tools they need to make more of themselves. My people in Newcastle are ambitious; indeed, all of our constituents are ambitious. They want to stretch themselves, learn new skills and make a better life for themselves and, above all, their families. As I have said, education is at the core of that. It gives people and their children the opportunity to make more of themselves, and this Bill is all about expanding that opportunity and making it available to more people—more than I considered in my maiden speech, to be honest. It will ensure that opportunities are available, with Government support and the help of teachers, lecturers and everyone else who works in the sector. I pay tribute to them, because they have been through a very tough time with covid and have had to work very hard to get back on track. This Bill will be a shot in the arm, giving them more keen students who have actively chosen to go back into learning. That is exactly what teachers and lecturers want—those are the people they want to work with. This Bill is about expanding opportunity, regardless of people’s background, previous educational history and age, and I commend it to the House.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friends the Members for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) and for Waveney (Peter Aldous). There have been a number of good speeches, but I was struck in particular by a couple of things said by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney, who is no longer in his place. First, he spoke of FE having been a Cinderella service for a long time, and secondly, he addressed the risk of affluent people using the Bill’s provisions to get a qualification additional to those they already have. I will talk about the issue of access, which I think chimes well with my hon. Friend’s comments.
Before I entered this place in 2019, I ran charities for disadvantaged young people. Those charities pretty much worked with young people aged 16 to 25—a couple of them went all the way down to age 10, but the bulk of young people I worked with in the 16 years before becoming an MP were aged 16 to 25. I am therefore quite familiar with how the system pushes people to do three-year university courses at the age of 18. Indeed, they are set on that path before they even get to that point, because at 16 they have to choose the courses that will set them up for their desired university course. For example, if someone is not studying chemistry at A-level, they will not be admitted to a medical course. We put people on a narrow track at a very early age.
There are all sorts of debates about the international baccalaureate and whether we should study a broader range of subjects. If students are to follow the university track at 18, however, they have to pick subjects at 16, and school visits will often be to universities rather than to colleges and employers. The UCAS system—I am really glad that we are changing this—makes it incredibly easy for people in year 12 and moving into year 13 to apply to university. There is one form, on which they list five universities. The process could not be much simpler, although there are difficult things to do to put the form together. Everything says to young people, and to adults, “There is a slip road at this point, but if you miss your junction”—to mix metaphors slightly—“that is it. You will be set on an incredibly long road without the opportunity to come off at the next junction or go back and find that junction again.” That is what our whole system has done for a long time, and it has been quite instructive.
I do not say this as a criticism, but the two big influencers of young people—parents and teachers—reinforce that message. That is not a criticism, as I say, because we all have to do better in that regard. Parents often want their children to go to university, even if they did not go themselves. My parents wanted me to go to university, but I was the first generation in my family to do so. For many people, going to university is held up as the aspirational thing to do, and the alternatives are not seen in the same aspirational way, which they should be.
Most teachers did exactly what we are talking about: they got to 18, went to university, did a teacher training qualification, and joined the profession. So it is the thing that they are most familiar with, too.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the influencers —be they teachers or parents—who inspire individuals to go to university. A point that needs to be considered relates to the initial teacher training market review that the Department for Education has just carried out, affecting teacher recruitment. Twelve universities—including Greenwich University, which covers Universities at Medway, and the University of Durham—have been removed from teacher training opportunities, affecting more than 4,492 future teachers. If we are to inspire the younger generation to go to university, we need outstanding teachers and a spectrum of universities from across the country providing that training. Does he agree that it is absolutely right not only that we get the right teachers, but that such reviews take into account the excellent work already being carried out by teachers across those institutions?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I do not know enough about why those universities have been removed, so I will not comment on that, but a point to which I will come later is the importance of outcomes for young people and adults. Whatever the qualification that they are studying, we have to judge the outcome that they go on to, rather than just saying, “Well, you have to go to university or you will have to do this sort of thing instead.”
Apprenticeships, as well as higher technical qualifications, which I know the Bill will enable people to do through the lifelong learning entitlement, do things that teachers and parents are not familiar with, which is quite important. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney and others have talked about the importance of careers advice. The truth is that there are very few examples of good careers advice anywhere—be it in the state sector or the private sector, for the young or the old. A lot of our decisions are based on anecdote, or being told what not to do rather than what to do, without understanding the full range of available options. One thing that we have to do is to help parents and teachers understand the range of options that are available to young people. If they knew about them, they would probably be more open to promoting them.
My hon. Friend speaks with great authority on these matters. I completely agree with his point about careers advice. Does he agree that what is perhaps needed at the ages of 16 to 18 is better advice about what courses to take and what will open up the most doors? A lot of people aged 16 to 18 have no idea what career they want to take up. I know that I, for one, did not.
My hon. Friend makes another important point, and it leads me incredibly nicely to the point that I was just about to make.
I understand the motive behind the Labour party’s desire for 50% of young people to go to university. It was not a malign motive. Labour believed that that was aspirational and that it would help us compete, but it has clearly had a number of negative consequences. One of the most important—this goes to my hon. Friend’s point—is that we have told people, “The most important thing you can do is go to university at 18. It doesn’t particularly matter where you go to university or what you study. The most important thing is that you go to university, because we want all young people to go to university.” Thanks to a whole range of organisations, including the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which has done great work on this issue, we now know that people who graduate from a number of institutions will earn less than they would have done had they just got a job. In 2020, the IFS found that about 20% of people who go to university—one in five—earn less than people with similar grades who just get a job.
We might dislike that that is the case—we might wish that every university or subject gave people the same earnings outcome—but when I worked in this field, people could choose from 60,000 university courses, which of course do not all give the same outcomes. Certain universities—particularly Russell Group ones—give people higher earnings, as do particular courses, such as medicine, engineering and maths. The charities I worked with overwhelmingly supported disadvantaged young people, and the truth is that it is usually those people who do not get the advice they need and who pay large amounts for courses that do not add to their employability outcomes. They do not get good information, advice and guidance at a young age from school or from parents, in the way that a middle-class child might. That is one big way in which the 50% target has prioritised quantity over quality.
I thoroughly endorse the direction of my hon. Friend’s thoughtful argument. Does he agree that, even at the Russell Group university end of the spectrum, there has been a serious issue with grade inflation? So many people—a large majority, I think—are now awarded first and upper second-class honours in institutions where, 20 years ago, one in 10 might, if they were lucky, have got a first-class degree, that it becomes difficult for employers to pick out people for the right reasons and for the right jobs.
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend. Part of the reason why that has happened is that young people feel, “I’m making an investment here. I’m paying £9,000 a year. I’m not doing that for you to give me a 2:2 or a third at the end of it.” There has therefore been this pressure on universities—often, unfortunately, with the threat of legal action from parents who can afford it—to inflate the grades people are given. This is another unintended consequence.
People will say, “Look, it’s not just about the money you can earn after your degree,” and that is the case, but because we as individuals are making that investment at that age, we understandably want to see an impact on our earnings. However, another problem is that lots of people will never pay back the money they have borrowed, and that is a huge liability for the taxpayer. Some taxpayers have been to university themselves, and some have not, but they will all incur this cost. We lend money to people to go to university, but if they do not earn enough to be able to pay it back, the taxpayer will not get a return on that investment. At the moment, we are on course for only a quarter of people to fully pay back their student loans. That is a huge amount that the taxpayer is investing unnecessarily in something that I hope we will change through this Bill.
As has been touched on, it is also the case that the three-year, full-time model for people aged 18 does not suit every young person. Lots of the young people I used to work with at the charities I ran had caring responsibilities, either for younger siblings or ill relatives. Perhaps a member of their family had unfortunately died, and those young people therefore had greater responsibilities, or they needed to work alongside study in order to supplement the family income. As such, again, we need greater flexibility, and that is before we come on to the technological change that we are expecting. We will see some of the most radical technological change that the country has ever known, and lots of the jobs that we train people for today will become obsolete. A person might make a decision at 18 about the particular course they want to study for a particular job, and in 20 years find that that job is obsolete and that they need to retrain for something else. That is why the Bill will be so important.
As an aside, lots of jobs should not need a degree anyway—we have slipped with the 50% target, I am afraid. In order to make the lives of employers easier, we have applied a higher and higher degree threshold to weed out people when we make selection decisions. If everybody has a degree, we end up starting to ask for master’s degrees, so we have entry inflation, not just grade inflation. Above all, that target has contributed to the disparity of esteem between academic and vocational courses. As has been touched on, this is a limited, smallish Bill, so giving people the equivalent of £37,000 in today’s money to enable them to train themselves across their lifetime, at some point in the future when they decide that they need to study for qualifications that they do not yet have, is so important for what we are trying to do: create that parity of esteem.
The Bill will promote lifelong and modular learning, and set limits on course and module fees based on credits. It will also achieve subtle things. Going back to the point about the whole system being geared towards one particular model, changing from an academic year to a course year is hugely important, because when everything is geared towards academics, we are continually reinforcing the message that the academic model is the only one for people.
We know that lifelong learning has a huge number of benefits. We know it will help with earnings; for some considerable time only about one in eight of the people who are in low pay have escaped that low pay a decade later. That has been true for decades, and part of that is about progression. By the way, that is partly the job of employers —they need to have good strategies for progression —but it is also about allowing adults to train in things they are not able to do, so that they can get more skills and therefore get more money.
I came into the Chamber after the hon. Gentleman had started his very good speech, so I hope he will forgive me. Is he trying to reinvent the individual learning accounts, which were an early attempt by Tony Blair’s Government to create that lifelong pattern of learning and open up opportunities? I was Chair of the Education Committee at the time, and unfortunately that Government found out very quickly that that scheme could be scammed, and it collapsed. Everyone said that the Government should have brought it back, even Mr Deputy Speaker, who used to be one of my students. Even he believed in that scheme, but it has never been resurrected.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am a politician, so I would never try to reinvent the wheel, but I think what we are trying to do in this Bill is learn from some of the problems that the Government at the time had with that situation, because lifelong learning is so important and people will need to retrain. People cycle in and out of work, and we will need to train people for jobs that none of us has even considered. Developed economies such as ours are historically bad at retraining people for new technology—it is not just a UK problem; it is a US problem too. All the developed economies find that difficult, so the Bill is an important way in which we can help people. That is before we consider the health and wellbeing advantages of lifelong learning, which are also well documented.
The Bill is set in the context of a couple of problems with which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education is familiar. One is access. It is still the case that access to certain universities is not what it should be. Disadvantaged young people find it difficult to get into certain universities, and we have to make better progress on that—some universities are still dominated by those from private schools, and that matters for everything we are training people for—and ditto the situation with international students. Some universities have made much better progress on getting international students rather than low-income students. They do that because it gives them a lot more money, but universities need to be making a good contribution to social mobility at home.
With this lifelong learning entitlement, I hope the Minister will, as with everything else, be applying two tests. First, what are the outcomes for people who undertake certain courses? I am agnostic about whether it is level 4 or level 8 and whether it is academic or vocational; the thing I care about most is whether the course helps someone get a better outcome than they otherwise would have had if they had not done that qualification. That unfortunately has not been the case with lots of the university courses that people have done at 18. The second test is simply this: do disadvantaged young people or older people who have been disadvantaged get their fair share of the courses that will really help them to have those better outcomes? Across degrees and apprenticeships, too often it is the most affluent and the most privileged who take most of the spaces on the things that will give the best outcomes. All that being said, this is an important Bill that is trying to get us to that parity of esteem, and I am very pleased to support it.
It is an absolute pleasure to follow my hon. Friend David Johnston, who I genuinely believe could speak for an entire day on this subject and still enthral the entire Chamber. I completely love this focus on lifelong learning. Whether short courses, long courses or life-enhancing learning, it is hugely important not only to the individual, but to the country. I am pleased that we finally have a Government who are committed to all forms of learning, jobs and sectors. I give credit to the Department for Education and all the officials in the Box as well, because I know how hard they have been working.
I did not go to university; I left home at 15 and did not do particularly well at school. I got a job as a legal secretary, and then I worked my way up. I went to night school, carried on and qualified as a solicitor. I was quite embarrassed about all that. I did not tell anybody. I remember going out with barristers and their saying, “Just give this up. It is hard work. You are going to work all day and studying at night. You are teaching aerobics as well in the evening to pay for all the law school fees. That looks like hard graft, why don’t you just go to uni?” I used to fumble around and stumble in my explanation as to why I was learning in the way I was. That was because the entire country and the Labour party for a long time had focused very much on getting 50% of youngsters into university, and there was not a lot of chat about the rest of us.
We know that a lot of parents are often very supportive of further education colleges, but mainly for other people’s children, because many families, many schools and many quarters still consider that university is the only way forward. Let us fast-forward to me as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed candidate in Stroud. I got chatting to those at the amazing further education college, South Gloucestershire and Stroud College. I spoke to people at all our secondary schools, and I met bright and ambitious young people. On the doorsteps, I kept meeting people who had qualified through further education colleges, and I was learning all the time about these great careers. Often they were running great big departments or leading the way in their individual industries, but they tended not to talk about how they had qualified, often because they had been written off by the time they had got into colleges. We drop that part of our lives.
I started bothering Education Ministers about further education and skills, and I started a campaign called #FEFriday. I basically bang on about further education every single Friday on all my social media. What I have learned from all that is just how valuable everything that goes on in our colleges is and how important our lifelong learning programmes are. I remind everybody that during the pandemic the professions that people missed the most were the chefs, hairdressers, childminders, those in beauty and those in construction. We should remember when we were not allowed plumbers in our houses, and how much trouble that caused. I absolutely welcome this Bill, the focus on lifelong learning and finding a way to support that financially.
Similar to other Members, I have questions for the Minister that I know he will deal with about the funding behind the Bill for our colleges and how much that will help them. They have a real crisis in recruitment. They are seeing other colleges and other sectors providing golden hellos and cash to recruit and retain staff, which FE colleges cannot offer. Similar to my hon. Friend Peter Aldous, I am interested to see how this Bill works alongside the apprenticeship levy, which we could have another very long debate on, and how we are ensuring that we are seeing reforms.
I want to hear—not necessarily today—a little more about the polling and work that the Department has done to look into the perception of taking on more debt, because when I was growing up I did not want to get into debt. That is the reality for lots of people in my communities. That is why I worked to learn, and it is why I made sure I was teaching those aerobics classes to pay my fees.
Does my hon. Friend agree that some of the contributions about debt, particularly, I regret to say, from Opposition Members, have been very unhelpful? I have found that the best advice has often come from Martin Lewis, who is very widely trusted on these things. Going to university or taking on any course, as people could under the Bill, should not be seen as a debt in the traditional sense of the term; it operates for UK-based people much more like a graduate tax than actual debt, and that framing is far more important, because that will encourage people into learning, rather than discourage them.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When we look into how these things work, we see that it is not a debt, but very much an enabler. However, we know that many people feel that it is a debt. I want to understand how the Department has looked at this issue and how we deal with those concerns going forward.
In the final minutes I have, I want to make two separate points: first on green skills, then on employability. I wrote an article some time ago that set out and argued that net zero cannot happen without know-how, but we have effectively got a green skills emergency. There is a challenge to reskill those who work in existing industries that will be affected by the transition. Fossil fuel production in the North sea, for example, created skilled and well-paid workers who are sorely needed to make the transition successful, but they need to have a skills bridge to make sure they are being retrained for future industries. I am interested to know how the lifelong learning entitlement can help that.
The second issue with the skills emergency is educating our young people. We have a huge skills gap for our future workforce, which urgently needs closing. I did some work with the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend Mr Walker to create a nature GCSE and engage people. My main message to young people when I go into schools is, “Do not lie down on motorways or glue yourselves to stuff. Do your STEM subjects and make sure you are learning well, because if you become scientists, you will be fixing the environmental challenges that we have today, and you will be the saviours of our future.”
I encourage people to look at the Onward report, “Green Jobs, Red Wall”. I work closely with the Onward think-tank, and it is excellent. I will run out of time if I go through that report, but alongside the Bill, it is important that the Department for Education works with other Departments to ensure that the landscape is set up so that we educate, encourage people to gain skills and encourage people to take on more courses. However, unless we get the factories up and motoring and unless we get the seed investment into some areas of tech, the jobs will not be there, so I ask the Department for Education please to work with other Departments.
On employability, I started the all-party parliamentary group on the future of employability in direct response to the calls of employers in Stroud, which are echoed around the country, about recruitment issues; the calls of potential employees who are feeling burnt out post pandemic; the high number of people with mental health issues; and the millions of people on welfare. I have also been fighting the good fight on childcare, because we have a huge group of economically inactive people—mainly mothers—who are not working at full tilt.
I had been looking at the issue and I spoke to a good friend, Ronel Lehmann, who started an employment company called Finito. It is his job to get people work ready, so we put our heads together and started the APPG, because I passionately believe in the power of work doing good. I can see that thousands of people are no longer work ready, that many millions are not working at full tilt, and that people do not feel that they have a place in the workforce because they do not feel that they can engage.
All the evidence tells us that work is the fastest route out of poverty. It gives us a reason to get out of bed and it is good for mental health and for relationships. It is also good for children to see their parents have a routine and a sense of purpose. We do not always have to like our jobs—there are days, even though it is a great privilege to be here, when we do not like our jobs—but we have to send a strong message to the country that, “Work is good for you. Work will help not only you and your family, but the country.”
Having a focus on lifelong learning, on employability and on ensuring that we are getting people work ready and into a job—and that once they are in a job, they can transition into a more responsible part of that job or to a new job—is the quickest way for people to feel sustained and fulfilled. I look forward to working with the Minister, and I believe passionately in what he and the Secretary of State, who is now in her place, are trying to do. I am genuinely ambitious for every single person I meet, and I think the Front-Bench team from the Department for Education feel exactly the same, so I wish the Bill Godspeed and I look forward to making sure that it happens.
I have benefited from training courses and adult education throughout my career, as I am sure many hon. Members have. Although some of the skills that I developed may not have been directly relevant to my employment at the time, they proved incredibly useful later in life. Like the Minister and the Secretary of State, I am therefore a deeply committed believer in the power of lifelong learning.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who participated in the debate, although perhaps I will not refer to them all in my summing up. I was particularly interested to hear some of the historical perspectives from a century ago, or perhaps 40 years ago—certainly I remember Peter Walker from my youth. They give context to the fact that some of these challenges have been around for some time, and show how important it is that we address them collectively.
Peter Aldous, who is not back in his place, rightly raised the issue of productivity. I am particularly concerned about that and about how the performance of the UK economy has fallen back. As far as I am concerned, it is not a puzzle and there are easy ways to resolve it. The fact is, however, that our relative productivity is 20% behind that of France. He also raised questions about eligibility and maintenance support, especially for carers, which are concerns that the Opposition share.
I was interested to hear the discussion between the hon. Members for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) and for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) about debt. Of course, we have to put that in the context of debt for students being raised to £9,250, and the impact of that. We are now in a situation where maintenance loans are relatively frozen, which is frustrating, because it reduces the breadth and opportunity for people and reduces young people’s access to education.
Mr Walker had certain queries and asked about the burden that might fall on the sector, which is a real concern that I also picked up on. Munira Wilson echoed my concerns about the mechanism of the Bill and the fact that there was no actual policy within it. She asked whether the Government would now abolish the ELQ rule, which is one of the many questions that we will put to the Government in Committee. I thank my hon. Friend Mr Sheerman for raising individual learning accounts. They were put forward by the Labour Government, but there were concerns and difficulties with them when they were introduced, because of some of the fraud that they led to.
As I alluded to in my opening speech, the need for lifelong learning is greater than ever. We have been on a slippery slope of economic decline for too long, with UK GDP per capita growing at an average annual rate of 0.5% in real terms between 2010 and 2021, according to the World Bank. The Labour party is resolute in its determination to reverse that trend, so much so that it is one of our guiding national missions. In that vein, we are prepared to support the Minister throughout the Bill’s passage, assuming that we see fuller detail in due course.
As I said in my opening remarks, however, there remain far too many gaps, questions and uncertainties at this critical stage. We have a frame, but the real work is yet to be done. In essence, it is a promise—not an empty promise, but a promise that needs substantiating. Many questions have been asked in this debate, such as about the fee setting for modules and courses; the quality and how the Government plan for that to be determined; and, in particular, the role that the OfS will have.
Many of those questions would be resolved if the Minister were prepared to finally publish the LLE consultation response. I raised many questions in my opening remarks that I very much look forward to hearing from the Minister about shortly, but my lasting message is to please publish the response to the consultation as a matter of urgency. I look forward to working with the Minister to flesh out this most skeletal of Bills, and I hope that we can work constructively in future.
I thank the shadow spokesman for the Labour party, Matt Western, for the constructive way in which he has approached the Bill, and the shadow spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, Munira Wilson. I knew Gordon Marsden well—he was my opposite number when I last held this post a few years ago. He is a good man and he knows the subject inside out.
The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington asked about the consultation response. We have said that we will publish it before Report stage. He will know that it is not specifically aligned to the measures in the Bill, but about the wider policy of the LLE. He wants us to introduce the LLE at speed, which is exactly what we are trying to do, but we want to do it carefully and to make sure that we respond to the consultation following all the submissions that we had. As I say, it will be published by Report stage, if not before.
I repeat that the consultation will definitely be ready by Report stage, if not before; I guarantee to the hon. Gentleman that it will be ready by Report.
The hon. Gentleman asked about fee limits. He will know that the Secretary of State can set fee limits as a result of the Higher Education Act 2004. The Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022 built on that and allowed for flexible and modular learning. That legislation has long roots in the Augar report as well, so the Government have clearly set the direction of travel.
We will be having regular consultation with stakeholders as well. The hon. Members for Warwick and Leamington and for Twickenham asked about the hourly value of credits in the Bill. The Government feel that the number of learning hours in a credit is an area that should continue to be governed from a quality standards perspective, rather than from a fee limits perspective, and we have legislated accordingly. In the Bill, the credits are used to signify the total amount of learning time that a student would ordinarily be expected to spend to complete a particular course or part of a course. However, I can assure both spokespeople that further details on the number of learning hours associated with credits will be set out in the regulations. Where providers choose not to use credits in this way for certain courses, these courses will have the fee limit determined using a default credit value, but they will face no penalty or reduction overall as a result.
To turn to my successor as Chair of the Education Committee, my hon. Friend Mr Walker spoke quite interestingly about his father. I have read a book about his father, who was a very good man. My hon. Friend talked about the burden of regulation, and our intention is to simplify regulation, not to add to it. Of course, those institutions that offer the LLE will be registered with the OfS. He talked about partnerships between further education and higher education. I absolutely agree, and I think this policy will rocket-boost that. There are already examples, and I can give him the great example of Nottingham Trent University and the college in Mansfield. I repeat that the consultation will be ready by Report.
I have answered some of the questions of the hon. Member for Twickenham, but on the point about the equivalent learner qualification, I can only say that we will be able to tell her when the consultation has been published. However, I hope she will not be unhappy with that, and I appreciate her support. Again, on maintenance, I envisage a similar system to what exists now for the current student loan system, but the full details will be in the consultation on that.
My hon. Friend Peter Aldous made a very important speech, and he is passionate about further education and about championing it. He is absolutely right about employer investment. That is why we introduced the apprenticeship levy—it is not part of the Bill and it is separate, but it is very important—so that we would have business investment in skills. He talked about the disadvantaged, and he is absolutely right. They will be able to do modules and flexible learning, and they will have more access to courses they want to do than they otherwise would have had. One of the reasons for the decline in part-time learning is the three-year loan, and they will be able to do short courses or modules of courses. [Interruption.] Of course, I will give way. Sorry, I thought somebody was asking me to give way, but it was just my hon. Friend Michael Fabricant being very noisy, as usual. I used to work for him many years ago, so I can say that. This will be published in the consultation, but the LLE, as has been highlighted, will concentrate on levels 4 to 6 and it will have a phased approach.
My hon. Friend Aaron Bell talked powerfully and spoke about good outcomes for students. Of course I will meet his new college group. On local business involvement in qualifications, that is entirely why we have the local skills improvement plans.
My hon. Friend David Johnston made a brilliant speech, as is his wont. He will know that we have introduced UCAS for apprenticeships and hope to expand that over the coming months and years. He is right that we should not just have been saying, “University, university, university”, but “Skills, skills, skills”.
I am delighted, as I say, by the positive response to the Bill. Universities UK has said that it is a welcome step with a more flexible system of opportunity at its heart, and I thank all Members who have spoken. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned, the Bill is a major step forward in our mission to revolutionise access to post-18 education and skills through the introduction of the lifelong loan entitlement.
I want to respond to an additional point about the number of adult learners. That number has increased by 4.3% from 2021-22 to 2022-23, and the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington will know that many adults are now doing apprenticeships and different kinds of adult learning skills.
The Bill has just three clauses, but in supporting the LLE it will transform lives. It will transform the lives of working people on low incomes, it will transform the lives of carers who need to balance their commitments alongside study, and it will transform the lives of anyone who wants to upskill in their existing career or propel themselves into a new one. The LLE will enable access to modules and courses in a way that has not been possible before. It will provide individuals with a loan entitlement equivalent to four years of post-18 education to use over their working life. Regardless of background, income or circumstance, people will have access to a flexi-travelcard to jump on and off their learning as opposed to being confined to a single advance ticket. This is not just a train journey; it is a life journey.
The Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill brings in the next piece of legislation to support delivery of the LLE from 2025. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out, the Bill has three core elements. First, it will enable limits for tuition fees to be based on credits. Currently, tuition fees are set for complete years of full courses only. This change means that short courses and modules will be priced appropriately in comparison with and alongside longer courses—for example, degree programmes.
Secondly, as was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage, this Bill introduces the concept of a course year. Currently, tuition fee limits are based on academic years of study. This change will allow fee limits to be applied more accurately to courses that are not aligned with traditional academic years.
Finally, this Bill allows for an overall maximum chargeable number of credits for each type of course. Currently, a maximum can only be set in relation to an academic year. This will prevent students being charged excessively for their studies. In sum, the Bill will lay the groundwork to ensure that fee limits are the same for a learner who completes a qualification by studying each individual module at their own pace as it would be for them to study a typical full-time course across three academic years.
Does the Minister agree that the Bill will be transformational? By enabling people to change careers, change skills and develop talents throughout their working lives, it will make people’s lives better and their opportunities much greater?
My right hon. Friend, who made a brilliant speech, is absolutely right. We will also be resourcing this in the way that my hon. Friend Siobhan Baillie wanted with our extra spending on skills and further education colleges. I also thank her for her important speech.
I just want to answer some other questions that the Labour spokesman asked first.
To be clear, as part of the pathway towards the LLE, the Government will stimulate the provision of high-quality technical education at levels 4 and 5 through the HE short-course trial that he talked about, with 22 providers. [Interruption.]
Order. Could I ask Members to be quiet, because we cannot hear what the Minister is saying and he is not able to hear where interventions are coming from?
We will keep the student finance system under review to ensure it is delivering value for money both for students and the taxpayer. The forecast costs for the LLE, which the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington asked about, will be outlined in a future spending review. He also asked about the QAA. It released a public statement in July 2022 requesting to step down from its position as the designated quality body. We are currently consulting on the de-designation of the QAA as required by the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. That consultation closes on
I am hugely grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. Clearly, this is a devolved area of policy in the nations of the UK, but what discussions has he had with the devolved Administrations? Students from all parts of the UK clearly cross borders quite frequently, and there will be implications—not only for funding, but for a whole range of issues affecting those impacted by this Bill.
My right hon. Friend will know that the difference between the Report and Committee stages can often be a few days. Sometimes in this House it can even be a few hours. I am sure he will recognise that it would benefit the House enormously in its scrutiny if Members could have sight of the Government’s response to the consultation ahead of Committee, when we will debate the detail of the Bill. I know he cannot make that commitment right now, and I appreciate the commitment he has made to bring it forward before Report, but will he give every consideration to whether that response could be brought forward any faster in the passage of the Bill, so that the House can give the most effective and positive scrutiny to what, as we have heard today, is a good idea in principle? [Interruption.]
Order. Once again, there are clearly important interventions being made. I am sure right hon. and hon. Members want to hear those interventions, and the answers as well. I urge all colleagues to listen to the remaining part of the debate. Even though there is an important statement coming, we want to hear the interventions and answers.
Of course I will consider the representations made by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester and others across the House. We will try to get the consultation out speedily, but it will be published by Report.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that as we look to educate people perhaps in middle age into new skills and to improve their higher education for the future, it would be good to ensure that we get the sort of skills we need as a country, and to have a form of workforce planning? As we know, we are short of doctors and nurses, but there are others areas such as welders, life sciences and so on where we have great hopes and needs for future industry. Does he think there is a way of directing that sort of effort in a more planned way?
That is exactly what the Government’s programme is doing. We are investing in employer-led qualifications—that is exactly what this is about—and the LLE will enable many millions more people to have access to get on the skills ladder of opportunity.
As people look to retrain in later life, can we ensure that our armed forces have the support they need after serving their King, Queen and country, if they need to retrain after they leave the armed forces?
Order. Once again it is getting very noisy, and we are not able to hear the Minister’s answers. I urge colleagues to listen to the answers that the Minister is giving.
I think the situation would be helped—I can still hear a lot of noise, even when I am speaking—[Interruption.] Perfect. I urge colleagues to keep the level of noise down, and then we will be able to hear what the Minister is saying.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend Gary Sambrook. He has hit the nail on the head. On the point of order, it is never quiet when my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield is in the House.
Finally, let me respond to one of the questions from the hon. Member for Twickenham regarding how the student loan repayment mechanism will work compared with now. We are building the LLE on a proven system, consciously designed both to support students pursuing higher education, and share the cost fairly with the taxpayer. Like the current student loan system, repayments will be linked to income not interest rates or the amount borrowed.
I am grateful to hon. Members for their contributions today, and I hope to have addressed as many points as possible. I reiterate the significance of this Bill. It is a further piece of the jigsaw of the transformative reforms that will improve our skills system and revolutionise how and when people can and do access study. That sentiment is echoed by the sector. Professor Tom Bewick of the Federation of Awarding Bodies emphasised the Bill’s
“potential to be the most radical entitlement to adult education, skills training and retraining (delivered at the point of need), ever introduced.”
The reforms are a step forward, providing everyone with a ladder of opportunity to get the skills, security and prosperity they need.
The Government are not only expanding high-quality opportunities, the rungs of the ladder, which encompass careers, quality qualifications, skills and lifelong learning, but through the Bill and the LLE we are building the top rung of the ladder—social justice—by expanding access to quality lifelong educational opportunities that for the most disadvantaged pupils will mean levelling up productivity and employment, improving the skills pipeline and supporting people into fulfilling and lasting careers. I know hon. Members will join me in supporting that greater flexibility in our post-18 education and skills system, removing barriers to ensure that everyone is empowered to access further and higher education when and how it suits them. The Bill will promote equality and access to education, whether students are undertaking a degree or a module of a degree, and I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.