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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:38 pm on 16th January 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 5:38 pm, 16th January 2019

The noble Lord can say that; obviously I could not possibly comment, not being Scottish.

There is so much in this report to applaud and support. The noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, referred to the runaway train of universities. I shall turn to further education, of which we have already heard much. I note that the National Union of Students has declared that the FE sector has become starved of requisite funding, and it strongly supports the recommendation that the Government explore restoring teaching funding for further education colleges so that they can cover costs and stimulate demand for courses at Levels 4 and 5. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Layard, in his remarks on FE. I was hosting an FE event at lunchtime with scores of staff and learners, including those from specialist colleges. It was a stark reminder of the breadth of provision that colleges serve and the dedication of the staff.

What about vocational skills—which we now have to call “technical”, although craft skills are vitally important too? They have nothing like the support and status that they deserve. I was taken with the quotation:

“There’s an oversupply of history graduates and an undersupply of geeks”.

Let’s hear it for the geeks of this world. I was also glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, brought up social skills and volunteering and organisations such as City Year, which are such an important part of education.

We certainly share the concerns over part-time and adult education, which have been raised all around the House and which, as the report highlights, have seen a drastic and enormously damaging decline. I should declare an interest as having worked for City & Guilds for 20 years, and I am a vice-president of the institute. I have also recently had the honour of being awarded a fellowship by Birkbeck. Birkbeck is one of the great pioneers of part-time, adult degree-level education. Like the Open University, it has been transformative for so many people who may have missed going to university from school or who simply wished to continue learning.

Surely continuing to learn after school should be something that any Government should support and encourage, yet we have seen drastic reductions; the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, quoted a figure of 200,000 fewer part-time students in higher education in 2016 than in 2010. Both Birkbeck and the OU are facing difficulties and adult learners are facing a loss of opportunity. We have heard from my noble friend Lord Sharkey about the loss of continuing education departments in universities, and the noble Lord, Lord Burns, talked about the decline in part-time education. This surely has to be a bad thing for our country.

The noble Lord, Lord Willetts, who has been so influential in this area, spoke about all the areas that he knows well. My noble friend Lord Sharkey quoted his evidence, and I shall quote from it further. He said:

“The evidence is that the loans for part-time students have not worked. There has been low take-up and people have been put off. We need new mechanisms for helping adults to study part-time”.

We do indeed. There is plenty of evidence that adults are going to be risk-averse when taking out loans.

Part-time distance learning has flexibility at its core. It supports those in work to earn and learn, gives life-changing study choices to people of all ages and backgrounds and is a key driver of social mobility. The Government must recognise that part-time study in higher education is an essential part of the educational landscape and critical to adult reskilling. We know that there are not enough young people coming into the workforce to fill the alarming skills gap and as we lose EU workers, who feel increasingly unwelcome in the current climate, the shortages will become more acute and reskilling adults will become ever more essential. Yet what are the Government doing to encourage this? Precious little.

Fee loans should be made available to enable adults to achieve a second Level 4, 5 or 6 when that second qualification is part of a career plan. There should be greater availability of fee and maintenance grants, as we heard from various sides, to ensure that those who have less resource are not prevented from accessing education. We cannot afford to exclude those who may have the skills and aptitude to learn, but not the funds. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, spoke vividly about the difficulties of those with few means, as did the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, who spoke of the unfairness of the system.

We welcome the widening maintenance provision for 16 to 18 year-old learners, especially where their preferred provision does not exist in their locality. If T-levels are to be made available to adult learners, which was the original policy intention, then appropriate maintenance provision should be available to support them on the programme. I have to say we have some real concerns about T-levels, particularly in rural areas where access to the compulsory work experience may not be available.

We have long advocated a return to the individual learning account, which would create a learner-led, post-18 funding system. Both these and the subsequent individual training accounts have been withdrawn, yet there is great merit in a system which incorporates commitment from learner, government and employer to ensure that people can progress. Maladministration meant that ILAs went wrong when introduced, but the system is sound and should be further explored. Do the Government have any intention of looking again at ILAs? They should create a learner-led, post-18 funding system that invests in all adults equally and puts learners and future learners in the driving seat through an equal lifetime entitlement.

The noble Lords, Lord Kerr and Lord Forsyth, and the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, all talked about apprenticeships. These should be viewed by young people as just as valid an option as the academic route of sixth form and university. For this to happen, we need a change to school ratings, where the pressure on GCSEs and A-levels is intense. As long as schools are measured—and, indeed, funded—on academic criteria alone, they will inevitably strive to achieve in those areas, to the detriment of work-based achievement. A recent IPPR report shows evidence that the amendment introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Baker, to the Technical and Further Education Act 2017 is not being respected by schools; fewer than two-fifths find time to allow colleges, UTCs or alternative providers to explain to teenagers the varied options which might suit their skills and interests better than university.

Schools Ministers must take long, hard looks at the incentives which encourage schools to meet not the needs of students but the needs of largely university-educated Ministers and officials, who have little understanding or respect for academic alternatives. I urged those with FE backgrounds to go into politics and the Civil Service so that we can attempt to redress that balance. In coalition Government, I tried to persuade Michael Gove that schools should be encouraged to celebrate their apprenticeship leavers as much as their university entrants, but he could not be persuaded. In his ministerial team, I was also struck that I was the only person around the table who had ever been a teacher and who had any first-hand experience of vocational and further educational colleges. We need a change in government and we need the Government to end the anomalies in funding between FE and HE.

If this report can address the generations-old inequality of standing between academic and vocational education, it would be of immense advantage to individuals, the workforce and the country. In these uncertain Brexit days, we cannot afford to ignore measures to generate skills and knowledge that are vital for the UK.

I once again thank the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, and the committee for such a valuable report and I look forward to the Minister’s reply, although I am sadly conscious that his remarks are likely to refer us to the review.