asked Her Majesty's Government:
What steps they are taking to ensure that graduates are equipped with the requisite skills to enter the workplace.
My Lords, we are proud of the performance of British graduates in making a significant contribution to the country's economic growth. The skills strategy White Paper, Getting on in business, getting on at work sets an ambitious agenda to meet the skills needs of the economy and employers and the employability needs of learners.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply, but does she share with Sir David Normington, the newly ex-Permanent Secretary at the DfES, sympathy for the frustration of employers and the CBI who are fed up with graduates lacking basic literacy and numeracy skills? Whatever the Government have told us about their investment in literacy and numeracy in our primary schools, will the Minister confirm that our graduates of the future will not be better equipped for the workplace? Thanks to a Tory researcher asking the right questions about figures the Government clearly did not want to publish, we now know that nearly half of all children do not even have a basic grasp of reading, writing and arithmetic when they leave primary school? Will the Minister accept that we want to support all efforts that genuinely deliver skills, not just more warm words and empty promises?
My Lords, I do not accept the figures that the noble Baroness has put in front of us today. Of course, many organisations will have challenges in respect of skills and standards, and government departments are not immune. However, the point that Sir David was making—the noble Baroness quoted Sir David—is that standards are improving. The Government are working to make sure that that improvement continues. I will offer the example of key stage 2: since 1998, there has been a 14 per cent improvement in the number of pupils achieving their target levels in English and a 16 per cent improvement in those achieving their target levels in mathematics. If that is systematic failure, my name is Rumpelstiltskin.
My Lords, will my noble friend address the nature of the Question, which is about equipping graduates with the requisite skills? I do not want to get into a discussion about primary school literacy, although I do not agree with the speaker from the Opposition Benches. When people go to university, they should be learning skills that equip them for industrial activity. That should be what is happening. However, it seems to me—I hope that the Minister will agree—that our problem is not with graduates but with the lack of apprentices in industry to do the job that is required.
My Lords, I agree with a great deal of what my noble friend said. I think that I can assure him that, when it comes to getting the match right between what graduates are offering and what employers require, a great deal of work is being done. Engagement between employers and universities is very high on our agenda at the moment. My noble friend will know about foundation degrees where employers get involved in the composition of the degree. Those are very important. The number of foundation degrees has increased from 4,000 a few years ago to 38,000 today and will continue. Those are very important points when we look at these skills gap and how we are approaching it.
My Lords, will the Minister agree that it is not the function of the Government to micromanage the universities and tell them what they should be doing? Will she also agree that, in so far as there are failures in basic skills, that is a matter for the primary and secondary school sectors which perhaps the Government have sought to micromanage, not always successfully?
My Lords, I very much agree with the noble Baroness's point about progression. It is obviously important that we tackle it not only at higher education level but right from the early years upwards. That is going on, as I said in my supplementary answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe. However, the evidence is clear. After three years, 80 per cent of our graduates are in employment. That is the evidence, so something must be going right.
My Lords, would the Minister accept that less is going right than may appear to those who are too trusting in scores of points at A-level and A-C passes at GCSE? Will she also accept that much opportunity has been lost by staying with an option-based secondary school curriculum, which allows game playing and permits pupils and schools to avoid some of the skill-based subjects that would improve graduate skill levels?
My Lords, I listened very carefully to what the noble Baroness had to say. She has an enormous amount of experience, and I shall certainly consider her concerns and perhaps I could write to her.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that in the real world what is happening is that many people are emerging from universities as graduates, unable to get jobs because the courses that they have done and the standards that they have achieved are frankly not in line with what is available in the market place, and that those youngsters have been cheated because they should have been encouraged to go into vocational education and not university education? The root of the problem is that this Government have set a target for the number of people whom they wish to be graduates, whereas they should set a target for the number of people who are best equipped with the skills to meet their abilities.
My Lords, does my noble friend accept that of course it is important that graduates have the skills requisite to enter the labour force but that also universities are about much more than being simply annexes to the economic production line?
My Lords, I am very pleased to say that we have one of the lowest drop-out rates from universities of any country in Europe.