My Lords, I join others in welcoming the timely introduction of this debate, and I congratulate my noble friend Lord Forsyth of Drumlean.
I will briefly address a few prescriptions of the Economic Affairs Committee report: the need for greater encouragement of post-school options other than full-time university courses; the case within employment for building up apprenticeships in a steady and proportionate way; the need to improve financial support for students from poorer families; and—aside from the report, yet central to our theme—the imperative of adjusting present arrangements in the United Kingdom for international students.
On bridging the divide between full-time university courses and other options, the Government will tell us that this year, for the first time, maintenance loans are available to part-time university students; and that under their current review, they want to come up with new ways to promote flexible and part-time routes of study for all age groups. Laudable though these intentions be, it has to be cautioned that, without adopting certain recommendations before us, any government package runs the risk of not amounting to very much. For example, to enhance flexible learning—to which my noble friend Lady Harding of Winscombe drew our attention—the report is in favour of a credit-based, modular system allowing people to choose their own pace. Thereby, as instanced, credits attained by those studying a level 4 qualification would thus contribute towards, as well as lower the cost of, a full degree. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that such interventions would significantly reduce the current level of unfairness between the two separate post-school education groups?
Then there is the associated objective of a more even provision of loan and grant funding across higher education. The Government claim that they will decrease funding differences, assist transparency and remove barriers to choice, but will their plans really go any further than simply tinkering at the edges? That apart, to what extent is my noble friend prepared to adopt the proposed expedients of this report, already mentioned by my noble friend Lord Forsyth, such as a single regulator for all level 4 and above higher education and a single regulator for other post-school education of level 3 and below? The purpose of that would be a better distribution of funding to all forms of post-school learning, regardless of where and how it takes place.
On apprenticeships, the Government comment in their response to this report that,
“for too long apprentices have not received the quality of training we would expect”.
That is true, yet unfortunately it is also an understatement. For over a generation, and under both Labour and Conservative Administrations, our record of engagement —to which my noble friend Lord Baker referred—has consistently lagged behind that of other national competitors, to the deprivation of young people and to the detriment of our economy. Therefore, to catch up now, if that is our resolve, all the more so must we beware of soothing, half-hearted or even quick-fix offerings; and instead grasp the nettle along the lines of this report.
Ironically, one of the report’s concerns is that we may now, too much and too rashly, be approaching the opposite extreme. As the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, reminded us, the Government’s target of 3 million apprenticeships rushes into putting quantity above quality. The report warns also against a fresh level of incompetence likely to be caused by lack of clarity over the delivery and quality of apprenticeships. Does the Minister accept these strictures? In addition, does he concur that the Government must, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, suggested, have the courage to follow the report’s advice that institutions should, where necessary, be abolished—in this case, the Institute of Apprenticeships, with level 2 and level 3 participants to be supervised by a new further education regulator and those at level 4 by the Office for Students?
The report advocates reforms to student loans and a widening of maintenance support, including, as stressed by the noble Lords, Lord Sharkey and Lord Kerr, reinstatement of pre-2016 means testing for loans and grants. Maintenance grants replacing maintenance loans causes poorer students to graduate with the largest debt, as the noble Lords, Lord Burns and Lord Bilimoria, have already pointed out. Does my noble friend, therefore, acknowledge that to switch back would be both fairer and more realistic—not least taking into account the extent of loans outlay being written off—given that most students do not fully settle their liabilities over the 30-year period?
It goes without saying that international students who stay in the United Kingdom benefit our economy considerably. However, in recent years, we have failed to sustain numbers against our national competitors, even in non-English-speaking countries that nevertheless and increasingly offer good courses in English. Does my noble friend believe that we should no longer classify international students as migrants and that to do so is as misguided as it is paradoxical in three main respects: first, they are not migrants; secondly, being so called often puts them off from applying to come in the first place; and thirdly, any political party eager to earn points for reduced immigration thereby adds to its own burden irrationally and unnecessarily?
For the United Kingdom and elsewhere, clearly there is an urgency for less inconsistent and greatly improved education opportunities and standards. Key to success is equitable treatment between national and international students, the steady building up of apprenticeships and, as guided by this useful report, robust adaptations of organisation and delivery.