My Lords, I am grateful to be speaking as part of the debate on the gracious Speech. In the time available, I shall comment on the education proposals that were mentioned, but first I must declare an interest as chancellor of the University of East London. I was very fortunate to take up this position in January this year, and I am very proud to be associated with such a diverse university in the heart of East London. In fact, it is one of the most diverse universities in the country with over 28,000 students from more than 120 countries world wide, so I am particularly interested in the likely impact of new measures in the Government’s planned legislation affecting education.
I agree with the Government that we need to see more young people having access to quality higher education programmes, but at the same time we should be doing more to encourage students from overseas to take up places here in the UK. It is good for them, and it is good for us. It enables us to build stronger bridges with different countries and spread understanding about the opportunities and strengths of the UK economy. As our economy continues to struggle, this could not be more important.
Earlier this year, my noble friends Lord Patel of Bradford and Lord Parekh and I were asked to be part of the business delegation that accompanied the Prime Minister to India. It was the largest trade delegation ever to accompany a Prime Minister on an overseas visit. The visit clearly demonstrated the importance of India to the future prosperity of the UK. Despite us being the only three delegates from the Opposition, all the Ministers and officials treated us with the utmost courtesy and respect and our views were sought out and listened to.
One of the issues I raised while I was in India was the importance of enabling more Indian students to come to study in the UK. That is something we should welcome, and it is especially important for a university such as the University of East London. We can learn a great deal from the rich diversity in our universities, especially in the business world.
This is an area that I am passionate about, and I know that there are many challenges that students face to succeed in this area, especially those from ethnic minority backgrounds. Therefore, when I was given an opportunity last year to help establish a centre at the University of East London to provide opportunities and support for students from various ethnic backgrounds to enter into and sustain careers in the business sector, I relished the opportunity. A grant was made available by the Noon Foundation that has enabled the establishment of the Noon Centre for Equality and Diversity in Business within the Royal Docks Business School, and I am pleased to say that last week I had the pleasure of spending a whole day meeting and speaking to some of the brightest and most committed business students I have ever met who have benefitted from the work of the centre.
Although these students are doing well with the support provided, the challenges are immense and include access to higher education and high-quality courses that ensure future employment. I welcome the Government’s commitment to increasing access to a good university education. I also hope that we will see more practical measures to ensure greater diversity among those students who gain a good degree. As a businessman, I welcome the emphasis on skills and on access to training and apprenticeships. My company, Noon Products, employs more than 2,000 members of staff at my manufacturing plant in west London, where our national dish, chicken tikka masala, is produced in the thousands every day. I know at first hand how important it is to have young people starting work for the first time who are skilled and have the right aptitude for work.
One of the ways in which we can support this is by encouraging effective apprenticeships, but the challenge to achieve this is great. Last year nearly 750,000 19 to 24 year-olds were not in education, employment or training. The so-called NEETs are the young people we need to target. The numbers missing out on education and opportunities are far too high. If I have understood correctly, the apprenticeship provisions in the deregulation Bill are intended to address this. We are told that there will be greater flexibility in delivery and increasing employer involvement in the design and assessment of apprenticeships. This is to be welcomed, and as an employer I would very much like to be part of this.
The Government are currently consulting on apprenticeships. The review report is entitled, The Future of Apprenticeships in England: Next Steps from the Richard Review. As I understand it, the stated intention of the review is to ensure apprenticeships are rigorous, responsive and able to meet the changing needs of our economy. I very much hope that the review will help us to achieve this and I look forward to reading the final results when it is published in the autumn.
However, employers are employing people now, and all those young people in need of opportunities do not have time to wait. We need to do significantly better to promote and improve their life chances through apprenticeships and access to higher education. This is key to securing a lasting and robust economic recovery, and we need to act now. Our future lies with the young. Our future prosperity must be firmly rooted in theirs, so I very much hope that we will see practical and effective measures in the Bill that can be taken now. I shall watch with great interest.