I beg to move amendment No. 122, in
clause 11, page 5, line 10, leave out paragraph (d).
This is a probing amendment to enable us to discuss the Government's intentions on the scope of the qualifying institutions. We have moved from part 1 to part 2 and it is important to have an early discussion about the Government's provisions relating to a new system for reviewing student complaints. The starting point, as with so much else in the Bill, is the White Paper published a little more than a year ago, which, at paragraph 4.11, states:
''Reforms to give students a greater voice must include providing them with a fair, open, and transparent means of redress when things go wrong''.
We would all agree with that unexceptional statement. It continues:
''Last Autumn''— that was autumn 2002—
''the sector was consulted on the establishment of an independent review of student complaints. The consultation revealed that there was substantial support from HEIs for an independent adjudicator to hear student complaints, and recognition that ultimately legislation would be needed to underpin whatever arrangements were put in place.''
That was the origin of this part of the Bill. The purpose of my amendment, which would delete paragraph (d), is to obtain some clarification from the Under-Secretary on the Government's intentions relating to scope. In a moment we will debate a Liberal Democrat amendment that would cover further education. However, paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) cover universities and constituent colleges, schools or halls in universities, and
''an institution conducted by a higher education corporation''.
We seek clarification from the Under-Secretary about whether the Government wish that provision to relate to higher education and all higher education students, including those who are pursuing HE courses in FE colleges, or whether they are sympathetic, in a way that will become clearer on debating the later amendment, to those who argue for a spread to cover FE more generally. It is important that we are clear about our terms. Early in the White Paper—on the second page—it says:
''The word 'University' is frequently used, for reading ease, as a substitute for 'Higher Education Institution'.''
I am sure that the Under-Secretary does not need to be reminded that many higher education institutions are not universities. It is important that students should be
clear about whether they have access to this new complaints procedure. I am sure that he will want to address that as and when the measures reach the statute book. However, it would be helpful if, in dealing with our amendment, he could say a word or two about the measures that the Government propose to take—assuming that this part of the Bill reaches the statute book—to publicise the new complaints arrangements and to do so in a way that will enable clarity among students and practitioners of higher education about who is and is not to be covered by the new arrangement.
The Under-Secretary will recognise that it is important, given that complaints can arise in distressing and urgent circumstances, that there is a great deal of clarity about who under the new arrangement will be the person or institution to whom a student in difficulties should turn. It would be helpful if he commented on whether the Government believe that they will have the full-hearted co-operation of all parts of the higher education sector in setting up the new structure.
The Under-Secretary will know that the phraseology used in the White Paper was carefully chosen, because there is a reference to ''substantial support'' from higher education institutions for an independent adjudicator. I read ''substantial'' as rather less than ''universal.'' Since the clause addresses the coverage of these new institutions, and if there are several institutions, as I suspect there are, that have suggested they are not initially persuaded of the merits of the new proposal, now is an opportunity for the Under-Secretary to explain whether he believes that those institutions will none the less seek to implement with enthusiasm and alacrity both the spirit and the letter of any legislation that Parliament chooses to pass.
In tabling the amendment, we seek clarification from the Under-Secretary on exactly which institutions and students he expects to be covered by the measures. What steps does he intend to take to ensure that all those concerned know where the borderlines are and who is are covered by the new institution as and when it is established?
First, may I say that this is the first time I have served under your chairmanship, Mr. Hood, and how pleasant it is? From those sittings that I have been able to attend, the debate has been thoroughly constructive, and I do not intend to spoil that now. I will be speaking very much within the terms of the inquiries of my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale.
On this rather narrow amendment, it would probably be inappropriate to stray too far into the overall scope and remit of the adjudicator. I have already indicated my respect for Dame Ruth Deech, whom I know personally as well as professionally. She is an immensely able person. My worries about the clause are not conceptual but relate to the fact that
there should be adequate resources to meet the work load, especially bearing in mind the fact that everyone must bed down with the system to start with. The office should not bite off more than it can chew. I have some reservations about scope if we are moving into further education colleges.
There are interesting definitional issues, which the Under-Secretary will need to clarify, about which students are covered. For example, not only is approximately 11 per cent. of the higher education student body resident in further education or franchised institutions, but there are people in higher education institutions at universities who are not doing higher education work: they are doing further education, mixed or short-term courses. It is important to clarify that.
The clause also relates to the institutions themselves, because not every institution has a unitary structure. Oxford and Cambridge notoriously have collegiate structures, and issues of liability may need to be considered. Something occurred to me only this afternoon, which I have not had time to check, about some legislation on student unions that I was involved in—it works, incidentally, much better than anyone had anticipated. We perhaps need to know whether the range of the adjudicator's coverage extends to complaints about student unions, which are part of the university but are not run by it.
There may be other issues, for example, with regard to a contractor who works for the university, but is not part of its establishment, whose conduct has damaged, or allegedly damaged, an individual. Those are beginning to sound like lawyerly points, which I am not qualified to expatiate on, but Ministers must give thought to how this measure will work in practice. That is my major concern.
The subsidiary concern is that we should explore the areas that are covered by this provision. As I understand it, it is not a matter of first instance. It is a question of advising students to use the domestic complaints procedure of the institution itself, and to take it on to a higher level only if they are dissatisfied. I mention that, because I had recent parliamentary question and answer exchanges with the Under-Secretary about the old student charter. He quite reasonably—I was not offended by this—said that it had in effect fallen into desuetude. That is the technical phrase that I think we should use. The charter had been discontinued, and it was up to institutions to do their own thing. In one sense, that may well be right. Nevertheless, this measure is imposing an element of central control, or at least accountability on the system. The Under-Secretary needs to explain the relationship between those.
The other area that chimes in with that concerns the various jurisdictions—with regard not only to level and institution but to type of complaint. I do not imagine that Dame Ruth and her staff will be terribly keen to examine issues such as the temperature of the pizza, or whether there were two added toppings in the university refectory. That would be facetious and inappropriate.
However, rather more seriously, the Under-Secretary needs to walk the Committee through the type of complaints that are appropriate to be referred to the adjudicator, those that are entirely proper to the academic world and how they are to be dispatched—because they are precluded from the Bill—and those that might relate to the courts. They might relate to the law of contract—and I seek, perhaps, the advice and support of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) in this—and whether there is a proper case for a student to sue a university. I realise that even—
I am grateful for that, Mr. Hood. I think that it might just be helpful at this point for the Under-Secretary to say what is covered by the provision and how it chimes in with other areas including recourse through the courts. However, this might not be the place to do it and I leave it to his discretion and to yours, Mr. Hood. In addition, although I know that this is already subject to a separate amendment, there is a question about its interaction with the disability inclusion in the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001, and how that is to work.
I will make one final point about enforcement. In a sense this is prompted by my experience of SENDA, in which there are rather different regimes at school, college and university levels—one recourse being through the courts, and another through a special educational needs tribunal, for example. If there are different vehicles for recourse or redress, it may well be that according to the ease and cost of those, there are different take-ups of the particular remedies. They may work in different ways, and arguably may be inequitable.
However, it is quite important that the Under-Secretary explains how redress will be achieved in those various fields, and how the adjudicator's judgments are to be reached and acted on. There may be good reasons for this, and I do not want to debate the substance of it, but if a college feels unable to comply with an adjudicator's decision we need to know who gives teeth to it and what further recourse is available.
Those are genuinely motivated concerns on how this measure should work. I think that across the Committee we all want the measure to work in the best way possible. The only caveat that I issue to the Under-Secretary is that we need to ensure that the institution is adequately resourced and working properly before we think of extending it to cover further ranges of potential difficulty.
I will speak briefly, because I agree with many of the concerns already raised and I am looking forward to the Under-Secretary answering some of those. I have two points to make on what a qualifying institution is. First, what is the position of
private universities? I think that there is only one in the UK at the moment, but in a tuition fee world there is potential for things to change.
I am sorry to come back so quickly. The Under-Secretary may also need to consider a point about which he and I have corresponded: the question of corporate universities such as Unipart university or Barclays university. They exist within companies, but call themselves—if only for marketing purposes—universities, although they may not have the right to a university title. They might or might not be within the remit of the issue.
I assume from what the hon. Gentleman said that those universities award degrees from other institutions, but run the training themselves. I agree with him on that point.
My second point is that it would be useful to hear about the position of overseas students and students from the European Union. My reading of the Bill is that there is no differentiation at all in relation to the origin of a student, and that an overseas student studying at a qualifying institution would have exactly the same rights as a European Union student. It would be useful to have that explained so that we know what the remit of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator will be. As we progress to the next couple of clauses, we will see that its work will grow and grow.
Any Member who in their constituency capacity has dealt with a serious case of conflict between a university and a student, as I am doing at the moment, will know how difficult it can be to resolve such problems. Clearly, we need a clearer system of dealing with that. Some questions remain, and it would be useful if the Under-Secretary explained them.
I welcome this first opportunity to serve on the Committee under your chairmanship, Mr. Hood. I feel like a substitute who has just come off the bench towards the end of the game, with my team well ahead and the manager prepared to give me an opportunity. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education for agreeing to assist me by taking on the less significant parts of the Bill, which will not generate any media attention.
It was interesting listening to Opposition Members referring to advisory groups. The Leader of the Opposition is advised by his three immediate predecessors; we understand why Conservative Members would not be keen on too many advisory groups.
Some important issues have been raised about the amendment. First, there is widespread agreement in the sector that this is a long overdue reform. That does not mean that there is unanimous agreement or total consensus, but there is sufficient agreement that this is the direction in which we ought to be travelling. We ought to applaud and commend the sector for having
taken voluntary steps and gone a considerable part of the way so that we are able to have this debate.
The points raised by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale and others focused on what the amendment focuses on: the definition of higher education institutions. It is important that we clarify that. As defined in the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, they are universities—including colleges or institutions in a university, institutions conducted by a higher education corporation, and institutions designated for funding by a higher education funding council. In the context of the amendment, it is important to say that there are 23 designated institutions in England and Wales. It would be wrong arbitrarily to exclude students in those institutions from having access to the complaints process.
In addition to that definition, it is important also to refer to higher education students in further education colleges who are taking courses leading to an HE degree if the complaint is relevant to a specific action of the HE institution. If someone is studying an HE course in an FE college and the complaint is to do with the actions of the FE institution, it would not be a matter for this complaints process, but if the complaint referred directly to the course of study, which is the responsibility of the HE institution, it would be covered by this complaints process. Any student studying in an HE institution, regardless of the course that they are taking, will also have access to this process.
The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale asked about publicity, promotion and clarity to enable students to understand exactly their rights and entitlements. The Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, which is about to be established, will have responsibility. That will be part of its role, function and relevance. It will have a desire to publicise its activities to students. We also expect that individual institutions will make absolutely clear to all their students the different stages in addressing a grievance.
Several other issues were raised: the definition of a complaint; the ability of students to get redress while a complaint is being considered; the actions and extent of the powers of the adjudicator; and the status of private universities. Those matters will be directly addressed by other amendments in the course of our debates on complaints, and it would be more appropriate to deal with them then. With that, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.
We are delighted to hear from the Under-Secretary, who has broken his Trappist vow of silence. He has done so successfully and persuaded me that it would be sensible to withdraw the amendment. Therefore, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I beg to move amendment No. 51, in
clause 11, page 5, line 10, at end insert
(e) any institution offering further (post-16) education'.
May I say how delighted I am to see you in the Chair, Mr. Hood, and to see the Under-Secretary leap to his feet to defend the Minister? I have no wish to press to a vote any of the amendments that my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury and I have tabled. We simply wish to probe the Government on the whole issue of student complaints, and I hope that in that spirit we will have a good exchange and engage the Committee on several key issues.
We have not tabled the amendments, which may come back on Report if a satisfactory exchange is not forthcoming, in order to say to universities or FE colleges that they are failing in their duty to address student complaints. It would be wrong to send out a message that massive numbers of complaints by HE or FE students are not being properly dealt with through appropriate procedures. It is fair to put that on the record. I assure the Association of Colleges that this amendment, about which it seems to be incredibly concerned, is not an attack on it. The association makes it clear that some 94 or 95 per cent. of its students say in survey after survey that they are very happy with the product they receive, and similar satisfaction appears to come out of surveys of HE institutions as well.
The debate is about those on the margins, or on the edge. My contention is that the number of complaints is likely to grow as we enter a market in both further and higher education, and as the cost to the consumer—the person buying the course—increases, their need for satisfaction with what they are receiving will increase. I promise you that I am not straying, Mr. Hood—you would not allow me to. When OFFA is introduced into the system, and there will be plans and perhaps some social engineering in terms of how we get people into our universities and colleges, a whole area of complaint will arise around the issue of admissions. That is not tackled anywhere in the Bill, and certainly not in the clauses on complaints.
What worries me about setting up an Office of the Independent Adjudicator simply for higher education is that it makes further education students seem like second-class citizens. It is clear that if, under section 72(1) of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, 55 per cent. of students in an institution are on higher education courses, the institution is covered as far as the new adjudicator is concerned under the Bill. If the proportion is less that that, it will be excluded. That could give rise to a ridiculous situation whereby students from higher education institutions studying for foundation degrees in FE colleges are not protected. The Under-Secretary has constantly said that he expects the growth in numbers of about 250,000 people between now and 2010 in the higher education marketplace to be caused mainly by those on two-year foundation degrees, most of whom will receive their degrees in FE.
I would like to challenge the hon. Gentleman slightly on his point about there being no protection under the law. I do not think that he would wish to make difficulties for the Committee on the subject, but he may want to question whether the measures will work. If a student has a complaint in relation to a further education college, whatever course they are on, they have the option, if they feel that the college has not met their complaint adequately, of having recourse to the learning and skills council. It is important that that point is clarified before the debate proceeds.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. What he mentions is, quite frankly, one of the reasons why I want further education colleges to be included. If he is saying that an instrument of Government, appointed by the Secretary of State—and that is what the learning and skills councils are—is the natural adjudicator and the final port of call for complaints, I am sorry but I do not agree with him. I believe that we ought to have an independent complaint system in both further and higher education. That is not to cast aspersion on, or to doubt the integrity of, those concerned. I just do not believe that that system gives the air of independence that we are seeking.
If we are looking ahead—and any piece of legislation has to; we will certainly be doing so with top-up fees on Thursday and for the two weeks after that—we will have to look at the system of delivery, and what level three and level four qualifications will be in future. There will be none of the simple demarcation lines that there have been in the past in further and higher education; we will be moving on. To be fair to both Ministers, they constantly make the point that we need a system in which students flow between FE and HE. Our policy, which we have laid out, is that we want a sort of scaffold in terms of courses and qualifications. Students could then move along and come down as they need to gain new skills on their journey and progress through lifelong learning.
The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) has already pointed out that somewhere in the region of 11 or 12 per cent. of students doing higher education qualifications already do them in FE institutions. I have made the point that if another 250,000 students are added by 2010 we will see a rapid rise in the number of students in FE colleges doing higher education courses. On those grounds alone, there is a sound argument to say that FE should be covered by a single adjudication system—I shall come on to the issue of ombudsmen on a later amendment—rather than having separate systems for two sets of students. This position would point out quite clearly that if one is a higher education university student, one is elevated, and if one is an FE student, one does not have the same recourse to those complaint support mechanisms.
We already have, within FE, an unregulated market in terms of fees. If this Bill goes through we will have the anomaly of a regulated market, or a semi-regulated market, in higher education, but not in FE. I ask that the Government consider seriously whether FE
colleges and the students within them should be covered, rather than just higher education institutions—rather than having the situation in the 1992 Act updated to a 2004 Act—and whether all post-16 students should be covered by an independent adjudicator system.
There were a couple of things that the hon. Gentleman said that I could agree with. I agree that it is very important that we should all put on record that we do not believe that there is a serious problem in the relationship between colleges of further education and their students. I was also encouraged by how he started, when he said that this was only a probing amendment. However, I must confess that I was a little puzzled, because he then explained at some length why it was an extremely important amendment, and said that he reserved the right to return to this matter on Report, which implied that he was not really probing, but actually means it. If he does mean it, he should not.
The Association of Colleges made a very clear statement on this—in fact, the hon. Gentleman referred to it in passing himself—in which it says that further education colleges have established effective complaints procedures, and that the scheme is approved by the Learning and Skills Council. It also says:
''It would be extremely unsatisfactory for FE colleges offering HE to be subject simultaneously to two different complaint regimes.''
That is what the hon. Gentleman is proposing. The Association of Colleges also says that it would like confirmation that it is the Government's intention that the new student complaints procedure should apply only to universities and other higher education institutions. I hope that the Under-Secretary will be able to give them that confirmation.
In clause 12, under qualifying complaints, the hon. Gentleman will find that, under the present regime, those studying HE courses in FE institutions will come under this independent adjudicator. Therefore, there are two systems at work here, and I think the point made by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough is correct. [Interruption.]
Not on FE matters, as my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry says from a sedentary position. The clear point here is that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said that the amendment was designed to probe. I hope that that is the case. I have to tell him that if he does push it to a vote, he will not have Conservative Members' support.
It will be a struggle to debate the definition of probing, so I shall leave that until another time. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough raised a reasonable point, which generated a worthwhile debate. It is true that the Association of Colleges reflects the widespread view that is shared by the Conservative party that, if it ain't broke, why fix it? By that, I mean the existing complaints process within the further education sector.
I say to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough that we agree about the progression of students from further education to higher education, although I suspect that he meant to use the term ''climbing frame'', not ''scaffold'' in that context.
The hon. Gentleman has a fixation about moving to a market system and linking it with the desire of users of public services in a modern world to have high expectations of those services. I assure him that, whatever model we choose to adopt or refer to, at the beginning of the 21st century users of public services rightly have high expectations. We as politicians cannot afford to ignore those expectations or to avoid sometimes making it clear that we expect providers of those services to be accountable and transparent.
If I have one criticism of the hon. Gentleman, it is that he frequently—almost entirely—sides with the provider, not the user. It is more important that we achieve the right balance between the providers and users of public services in the modern world. However, we certainly agree that further education students must not ever be regarded as second class. That is one of the reasons why I resent the fact that some politicians and commentators want to have a choice in our society between higher and vocational education. That is an entirely false choice in a modern world. We need more people who are skilled to a high level and more graduates to meet our social and economic imperatives.
Towards the end of the proceedings, I wonder whether my hon. Friend will set some homework for the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough. If we do not currently have a market in higher education, what do we have? It may be an imperfect market, but there is a market, so we need to intervene. I asked my hon. Friend that question on the Floor of the House. Will he ask the hon. Gentleman to take it away for the next 48 hours and perhaps come back with an answer?
I was not aware that part of my brief was to set homework for members of the Committee. I am delighted to see my brief expand even further and I urge the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough to take up my hon. Friend's challenge.
Even if the Liberal Democrats did any homework, that would not make any difference unless they were studying various spending commitments that the Prime Minister likes to discuss from time to time on a Wednesday.
We share the aspiration that further education students should never view themselves or be seen by us as second class. Let us consider the complaints process to which further education students have access. Obviously, students can go to the institution. If they exhaust its procedure and are not satisfied, they can go to the local Learning and Skills Council. If they are still not satisfied, they can contact the national Learning and Skills Council and then, as a result of new legislation, they can contact through their Members of Parliament the parliamentary ombudsman, who is an entirely independent person.
Moreover, in many ways, further education students know more about the choices that are open to them—before they make them—than university students. Let us consider the role of Ofsted and the Adult Learning Inspectorate when inspecting further education institutions and the provision of reviews by the learning and skills councils, which is an ongoing monitoring of the quality of provision in further education institutions.
It is legitimate and reasonable for the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough to raise such an issue, but our view is the widespread view of the sector. As he knows, it is the view of the Association of Colleges, but it is also my experience that the existing complaints processes work exceptionally well in the further education sector. On that basis, I ask him to withdraw the amendment.
May I put the Under-Secretary right on one thing? Where an amendment would extend students' right to a complaints system, it can hardly be classed as being for the producer interest. I hope that he will take his homework away and realise that there is a difference between the two.
If the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) thinks that increasing the market in higher education by introducing costs into it does not in fact accelerate the move to a market system in higher education, he needs to think again. For the record, I abhor the fact that for the 30-odd years that I have been in teaching—working with youngsters from poor backgrounds—those youngsters have not been able to access higher education because of an unofficial market. I would like to do something about that, not make it worse.
Returning to the amendment, it is convenient for the Conservatives to misread the letter from the Association of Colleges. It is also wrong that the Under-Secretary does not recognise that both NATHFE and the Association of University Teachers, who work directly with students, support the amendments. If we are going to have a balanced argument, we should not consider the issue purely from the view of college principals and vice-chancellors. The debate on the Bill has all been about what vice-chancellors want, not about what students want.
However, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 11 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Further consideration adjourned.—[Mr. Twigg.]
Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes past Five o'clock till Thursday 12 February at ten minutes past Nine o'clock.