Higher Education: Part-time Students

– in the House of Lords at 3:08 pm on 8th February 2006.

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Photo of Baroness Lockwood Baroness Lockwood Labour 3:08 pm, 8th February 2006

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress has been made towards increasing financial support for part-time students in higher education institutions.

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

My Lords, we are increasing the maximum fee grant for part-time students by 27 per cent next year, from £885 to £1,125, while maintaining the new course grant at £250. We are also raising the income thresholds to qualify for support, and the Access to Learning Fund allocation for part-time students will increase from £3 million to £12 million. That is the best deal ever offered to part-time students in England. Devolved administrations make their own arrangements.

Photo of Baroness Lockwood Baroness Lockwood Labour

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that welcome information. However, can he confirm that, after variable fees become operable and their effects have been monitored, there will be no delay in implementing all the HEFCE proposals, including the teaching element, for part-time students in our universities?

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

My Lords, as my noble friend will be aware, last November my honourable friend the higher education Minister announced an extra £40 million of support over the next two years in respect of under-represented groups in part-time higher education. The consultation undertaken by HEFCE on the new funding methodology has now been completed. HEFCE is considering its final recommendations, and we intend to make those available in due course.

Photo of Lord Barnett Lord Barnett Labour

My Lords, I declare an interest as an honorary fellow of Birkbeck College, which concentrates on part-time students. Everybody will welcome what the Government are doing directly for part-time students. Ministers have given specific assurances that help will be provided for the institutions themselves, such as Birkbeck, the Open University and other universities. As my noble friend has said, some other universities are seeking to delay the introduction of HEFCE's recommendations. Will my noble friend ignore those other universities—perhaps telling us who they are—and give us a clear assurance that the Government will not delay the introduction recommended by HEFCE of increased grants?

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

My Lords, as my noble friend is aware, the £40 million that we announced last November will proceed to be allocated in any event. It is probably best to draw his other comments to the attention of my honourable friend the Minister responsible for universities.

Photo of Baroness Boothroyd Baroness Boothroyd Crossbench

My Lords, I declare an interest as Chancellor of the Open University, the largest university in the country with part-time students. Will the Minister press the funding council to complete the review of the teaching funding methodology in accordance with the commitments given by the Government at Report stage of the Higher Education Bill on 14 June 2004? My concern and that of many of my colleagues is that earlier commitments may not be adhered to or may well be delayed, for reasons that are not known to me but may be known to the Minister. The part-time sector needs to know the date on which the review will be completed and those promises fulfilled.

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness for her work as Chancellor of the Open University. I know that the whole House is strongly supportive of the Open University, which is one of the greatest creations of Labour governments past. The consultation for the review has been completed. HEFCE is considering its recommendations, and Ministers will take full account of them soon.

Photo of Baroness Buscombe Baroness Buscombe Shadow Minister, Education, Shadow Minister (Education)

My Lords, we welcome what the Minister has said about financial support for part-time students, but does he agree that there is in practice a decrease in spending, as the opportunities for lifelong learning are diminishing daily and all over the country the number of part-time courses for students in higher education is being cut? Will he comment?

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

My Lords, the facts speak for themselves. Nationally, part-time undergraduate student numbers rose by 45 per cent between 1997 and 2004, thanks to the support that this Labour Government give to the universities.

Photo of Lord Pearson of Rannoch Lord Pearson of Rannoch Conservative Independent

My Lords, does the Minister agree that a lot more money would be available for part-time students in higher education if enough of the poor quality courses, particularly in the non-technic departments of the former polytechnics and in the minor universities, were simply closed down?

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

My Lords, we believe in the market when it comes to such matters, and these are courses that students choose to attend. They are also subject to inspection, and I do not think that the noble Lord can make statements about whole institutions being of poor quality.

Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Spokesperson in the Lords, Education & Skills

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the proposals put forward by HEFCE for the new teaching fund allocations work very much to the advantage of part-time institutions and are part of the mechanism to which the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, referred, of offsetting the advantage of top-up fees for full-time institutions? Will he make sure that pressure is put on HEFCE to bring the new proposals forward now rather than delaying them for three years, as has been proposed?

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

My Lords, I stress that HEFCE is considering those matters very seriously. The noble Baroness and other noble Lords should not read anything into the fact that it is considering them properly.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative

My Lords, does the Minister think that the undertakings given during the passage of the Higher Education Bill to deal with the disadvantage that institutions with large numbers of part-time students would suffer as a result of the introduction of top-up fees have now been met?

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

My Lords, I believe that we are in the process of meeting them, including by the measures I set out in answer to the original Question.

Photo of Lord Rix Lord Rix Crossbench

My Lords, I must declare an interest as Chancellor of the University of East London. Thanks to the additional funds that have been promised by the Government we have a record number of enrolments for our part-time courses. However, details of the process by which students will be able to claim help in September this year remain unclear. When will the forms and the necessary guidance notes to apply for help be printed and published?

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

My Lords, I will respond to the noble Lord without delay on that matter. However, he is right about the increase in enrolments. Enrolments for undergraduate courses in the Open University have increased by 32 per cent since 1997, which is a great tribute to the work of the OU.

Photo of Baroness Thomas of Walliswood Baroness Thomas of Walliswood Women & Older People, Non-Departmental & Cross Departmental Responsibilities

My Lords, what benefit, if any, will students who are above the normal university age range get from the new proposals from HEFCE?

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

My Lords, part-time students tend to be older—I am told that the average age of part-time students is 36—so they will gain considerably from the new arrangements that I have set out.