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Higher Education and Research Bill - Committee (6th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:00 pm on 25th January 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 6:00 pm, 25th January 2017

I thank the noble Baroness for her intervention. I fully accept that the express text may not have intended that—but we have to look at what the consequences of this new independent committee would be, and infer from that what effect it might have on the broader sector.

At the moment we have a university sector that needs to do more to support its students and the wider economy: it has built up over time to serve only parts of the country; it is not providing employers with enough of the right type of graduate, especially STEM graduates; it can do more to offer more flexible study options to meet students’ diverse needs; and it can to do more to support social mobility. It is not enough simply to ensure that all young people with the potential to benefit have a theoretical opportunity to go to university and secure a good job when they graduate.

Alternative providers are already supporting greater diversity in the sector: 56% of students at alternative providers are aged 25 or over, compared with 23% of students at publicly funded institutions. They also have more BME students: 59% of undergraduate students at alternative providers are from BME groups, compared with 21% at HEIs.

The Government are determined to build a country that works for everyone. That is why we have announced a number of opportunity areas that will focus their energy, ideas and resources on allowing children and young people to fulfil their potential. That, in conjunction with what the Act sets out to achieve—the broad vision that I think universities accept as positive for the sector—holds out hope that we are proceeding on a journey in which we can have a lot of optimism and confidence.

I note the references to skills and would stress that we are carrying out reform programmes in higher education and in technical and vocational education at the same time. This gives us the opportunity to ensure that these programmes of reform are complementary. The Government’s recently published Green Paper on an industrial strategy outlines further our vision for skills and a system that can drive increases in productivity and improvements in social mobility. We are committed to reforms that will improve basic skills, create a proper system of technical education, address regional skills imbalances and shortages in STEM skills, and make it easier for adults to retrain and upskill in later life.

One of the 10 pillars of the industrial strategy is that we will create the right structures and institutions to support specific places and sectors. In some cases, this will mean strengthening existing educational institutions or creating new ones. We recognise the need for accurate information to identify and address current and future skills shortages, and we will work towards a single authoritative source of this information. To ensure a joined-up approach, the OfS’s ability to co-operate with a range of other bodies, including the Skills Funding Agency and the Institute for Apprenticeships, will be important. Clause 58 enables that.

The important issue of part-time education was raised. The Government agree that part-time education, distance learning and adult education bring enormous benefits to individuals, the economy and employers. Our reforms to part-time learning, advanced learner loans and degree apprenticeships are opening significant opportunities for mature students to learn. The OfS must—it is not a question of should, or if it feels like it—have regard to the need to promote greater choice and opportunities for students, and to the need to encourage competition between providers where that competition is in the interests of students and employers. That is alongside the other practical support that the Government are already giving for part-time students, including providing tuition fee loans where previously they were not available. We have also recently completed a consultation on providing, for the first time ever, part-time maintenance loans. We are now considering options. The Bill already provides for the mechanisms to enable the kind of information referenced here to be gathered effectively. I hope my remarks have reassured the noble Baroness, and I therefore ask her to withdraw her amendment.