Education: Treating Students Fairly (Economic Affairs Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:59 pm on 16th January 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Harding of Winscombe Baroness Harding of Winscombe Conservative 4:59 pm, 16th January 2019

My Lords, as a member of the Economic Affairs Committee, I congratulate our excellent chairman, my noble friend Lord Forsyth. I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that none of us has been told what to say. I may be a relatively new Member of your Lordships’ House and a very new Member of the Economic Affairs Committee, but I do not think it is the committee’s style to take direction.

This is the first Select Committee inquiry I have served on, and I do not profess to have any specialist knowledge or experience, other than as a student long ago. Therefore, I have approached this from the perspective of a businesswoman. As a businesswoman, I started the inquiry—perhaps naively—with two assumptions. The first was that our education system was gearing up for the changes that everyone in the world of work can see are coming, even if none of us knows the timing or can predict accurately what they will mean, as the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, has just set out. There will be huge changes in job mix as the digital revolution gathers pace, and all of us will live longer and healthier lives, having multiple careers in our—we hope—upwards of 100 years. Therefore, there will be for everyone a need for lifelong learning. Two-thirds of the 2030 workforce has already left full-time employment—that is taken from Matthew Taylor’s review into the world of work. We know that the jobs available will be very different, and that people will have multiple careers in their lifetime.

My second assumption was that the critical issues would be those which I saw being debated in this House, in the other place and in the media—namely, the student loan financing arrangements for those studying at universities. It was quite a shock to me as a new committee member to discover quite quickly that neither of my two assumptions was true. Skills shortages are generally not about graduates. We are lacking technical skills, as we heard earlier. We have graduates doing non-graduate jobs, and our education system is totally geared up to training 18 year-olds for three years in full-time degree courses, rather than preparing for the world of lifelong learning.

The decline in part-time education is massive and terrifying, with 200,000 fewer part-time students than in 2010, an 88% reduction in enrolments at the Open University over that same period for qualifications at Levels 4 and 5, fewer adults doing Level 3 qualifications and a huge imbalance in funding into further education and flexible education versus full-time university education. All of this is at a time when we should be gearing up lifelong learning, and developing the technical skills that it is clear the digital revolution will require of us as a society. It is hard not to conclude that this is a slow-running train crash, where, politically, we are debating the wrong issue and the system is geared up to solve the wrong problem.

As a number of speakers have already recognised, our committee is clearly not the first group of people to have noticed this over the course of maybe 100 years. There are today various initiatives attempting to address this: T-levels, the apprenticeship levy and maintenance grants for part-time students that will kick in during the coming year. I am sure my noble friend the Minister will point to all of these things, as the Government have in their response to the report.

Unfortunately, as our committee report sets out, these well-intentioned actions are not actually working. We heard some very troubling evidence during our inquiry about the lack of funding and the extraordinarily complex oversight and different funding models for FE. We were dismayed to hear that, since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, many employers have been rebadging existing training schemes as apprenticeships in order to reclaim their levy contributions. One employer openly admitted it to the committee at a round-table event.

We also heard that employers were using the levy to send employees on MBAs—I have an interest here, as I have an MBA. When we challenged the civil servant in charge of the National Apprenticeship Service about this, she replied that she was an apprentice herself—she was doing a chartered management apprenticeship. This seems a long way from what I think we all believe to be the spirit of apprenticeships.

Hearing the advice on timing, I will not repeat the specific recommendations that other speakers have listed. There are a number of things that we believe can be done now to make it easier for adults to study for further qualifications. Specifically, we need a proper, credit-based system that enables people to dip into and out of training and develop their education career through their whole life. That would make it easier to study later in life. We also need the right fee structure and support structure for part-time adult learners, and we need to equalise the routes for part-time as well as full-time learning.

However, there is something bigger. As the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said, we need to establish a parity of esteem between part-time, flexible, lifelong learning and full-time learning in a university, doing a first degree when you leave school. It is possible to do that. Over the course of the last 15 years, we have meaningfully shifted the dial in people’s expectations about university education. I urge the Government and the Minister to set out how the Government will champion the shift. It is partly about funding, partly about different incentives, but also about our attitude in society. We want all mothers—I say this as a mother who went to her 13 year-old daughter’s careers fair last night—to aspire either to a further technical education route or a university education. I do not want what I saw at the London school my daughter attends: a whole room full of stands for different universities and one rather sad stand about apprenticeships by the coffee machine. We need to reinstate that balance and parity of esteem, and if we can do that, the future will be exciting. We should learn from how we shifted the dial on perceptions of university education and apply that to further education as well.