‘( ) After subsection (2A) (as inserted by subsection (4)) insert—
“(2B) Where the Privy Council is considering whether to make an order under subsection (1) above specifying an institution as mentioned in subsection (1)(b) above, the Privy Council may not make the order unless—
(a) the institution gives the Privy Council a statement setting out what it proposes to do as regards making arrangements for securing that any person granted an award under or by virtue of any power that would be conferred on the institution if the order were made (other than the power described in subsection (4A) below) has an opportunity to progress to one or more particular courses of more advanced study, and
(b) the Privy Council considers that the proposals are satisfactory and are likely to be carried out.”’.
‘( ) After subsection (2A) (as inserted by subsection (4)) insert—
“(2B) Where the Privy Council is considering whether to make an order under subsection (1) above specifying an institution as mentioned in subsection (1)(b) above, the Privy Council may not make the order unless—
(a) the institution gives the Privy Council a statement setting out what it proposes to do as regards making arangements for securing that any person granted an award under or by virtue of any power that would be conferred on the institution if the order were made (other than the power described in subsection (4A) below) has an opportunity to progress to one or more particular courses of more advanced study;
(b) the Privy Council considers that the proposals are satisfactory and are likely to be carried out; and
(c) the Privy Council has published the criteria by which proposals are considered satisfactory.”’.
We have come to the most substantive element of the Bill, which some people regard asthe most controversial. Since the beginning of our deliberations, I have been clear that we need as much innovation and flexibility as possible within the further and higher education system in order to respond to the need of business for a higher level of skills. In that regard, we are absolutely right to say that highly performing further education colleges should be able to award their own foundation degrees.
I listened carefully to the concerns expressed, especially by higher education institutions such as universities. I bow to nobody in my respect and regard for the incredibly high quality of provision in our higher education institutions. It is an area in which we are genuinely world leaders. When the Associationof Colleges organised a debate in the Houses of Parliament, David Melville, the vice-chancellor of Kent university, who supports the Government’s proposals, reminded us that at every stage of the expansion of the higher education system there has been significant opposition from existing universities. He related the fact that when the university of London was created there was opposition from Oxford and Cambridge, and similar opposition when the red bricks were created and when the binary divide was removed.
Although there are some genuine concerns, there has at least been an impression of protectionism in some of the debates and discussions. That is wrong in principle, and unnecessary, because in respect of foundation degrees, we are talking about a substantially expanding market moving from about 61,000 qualifications today to 100,000 towards the end of the decade. The small print of the Leitch report and our likely response shows that we may move beyond that. It is important to put the proposal in that context and to address the concerns that have been raised.
A great deal of debate has been stimulated by the proposals, and I am grateful for the constructive approach of the Front Benchers from both Opposition parties and for the way in which they handledthe arguments and put forward their concerns. The Government have listened carefully and have responded to those concerns. The proposals on foundation degree awarding powers have been developed in response to the debate, and a number of Government amendments, tabled in another place, show that we are managing the risks associated with the new measures. It will help if I detail some of those changes.
First, we expect there to be a probationary period of six years during which time the ability of colleges with foundation degree awarding powers to authorise other institutions to make awards on their behalf or to award foundation degrees to students enrolled elsewhere will be restricted. Secondly, an independent report on the effect of the new powers will be made to Parliament within four years. The changes that we are making are important and significant, and it is right that a reportis made to Parliament on their impact. Thirdly, the non-statutory guidance and criteria for applicants have undergone careful revision in response to comments and suggestions.
I now turn to the thrust of Government amendment No. 2 and the question of progression or articulation between foundation degrees and programmes of more advanced study. That issue is exceedingly important, as it bears directly on issues of student experience and the protection of quality standards, which are a major concern.
When considering an application for foundation degree awarding powers, the Privy Council will take advice from the Quality Assurance Agency. The non-statutory draft guidance and criteria that have been circulated to members of the Committee will form the basis of the QAA’s assessment of an applicant institution. Consideration of progression arrangements will be one important aspect of that assessment. The draft guidance and criteria make it clear that progression routes are a core feature of all foundation degree programmes—they always have been, andthey will continue to be so regardless of where the qualification is awarded. The guidance states that progression is expected to be
“to at least one bachelor’s degree with honours, with an expectation that this should not normally exceed 1.3 years for a full time equivalent student in England, or to an appropriate professional qualification or other qualification at level 6 in the National Qualifications Framework”.
It is important not to forget that foundation degrees are a self-standing higher education qualification, and that many employers and learners value them as such. We should not devalue that through our language in debate. Nevertheless, opportunities for progressionto further study are exceedingly important. We are committed to education as a lifelong engagement, and foundation degrees open up opportunities for those who might not have gone into higher education through the traditional routes. The opportunity to study for a foundation degree locally at an FE college would be very appealing to many non-traditional students. The proposals will therefore help widen participation in higher education, which is fundamental.
Making progression arrangements is important in order to ensure that foundation degrees have an equivalent or equal academic value wherever the qualification is awarded. All students will have the opportunity to undertake more advanced study, wherever they choose to take their foundation degree.I certainly do not want a two-tier system of qualification.
Given the prominence of the issue and our concern to protect standards and student experience, we have committed ourselves to addressing the question of progression. My noble Friend Lord Adonis made that commitment on Third Reading in the other place, and I reiterated it on Second Reading in this House.
The Government amendments would prevent the Privy Council from making an order specifying that a further education institution in England is competent to grant foundation degrees unless it receives a statement from that institution setting out what arrangements it proposed so that students awarded one of its foundation degrees had the opportunity to progress to at least one course of more advanced study. The Privy Council must also consider whether the proposals are satisfactory and likely to be carried out. In a very significant way, that addresses some of the concerns that have been put forward.
As drafted, the amendment preserves the flexibility that is essential to allow innovation in the development of foundation degree programmes over time. My noble friend Lord Adonis stressed the importance of that flexibility when he committed to tabling an amendment. The Government amendment does not place substantially additional burdens on applicant institutions, which is important. Making a statement about proposals for ensuring progression would form part of the critical self-analysis that any institution applying for degree-awarding powers carries out, and it will also be the basis for any application for foundation degree-awarding powers.
I should also be clear that we are not introducing an entitlement progression from a progression degreeto more advanced studies. Admissions policies and procedures remain, rightly, a matter for individual institutions. The amendment means that in order to get foundation degree-awarding powers the applicant will have to show what it is proposing to do about providing appropriate opportunities for progression to more advanced programmes of study.
Opportunities must be available to any student who is awarded any of the institution’s foundation degrees, once it has foundation degree-awarding powers. The statement made by an application will need, in a very real sense, to look at the current situation, as well as be forward-looking. It will set out the institution’s strategy for securing progression arrangements for foundation degree programmes that it might establish in future, as well as those that have already been developed.
The Quality Assurance Agency places importance on establishing maintaining progression routes for foundation degree students. It has commented:
“The recommending of a institution for foundation degree awarding powers would be on the assumption that a further education institution would operate its powers in the manner anticipated when the application was assessed. The failure to ensure progression routes would be a serious matter, and might constitute grounds for QAA intervention.”
In support of what the Minister is saying, would he also tell the Committee whether he is satisfied that the powers to require reporting by the body that awards foundation degrees to the QAA are sufficient to make it possible for the QAA to make a proper appraisal? It is all very well to sign things off initially, but it is important that they are monitored in practice, and that progression is assured.
That is an important point, and the criteria and powers are no different in substance from the way in which full degree-awarding powers are dealt with at the moment. By that, I mean that there is an ongoing responsibility on the part of the QAA to monitor progression, and there can be intervention if those progression arrangements fall into disrepair.
It is also important that we should be clear that further and higher education institutions should work together to promote the opportunities that they offer, as they already do. It is in the institutions’ interests to market the programmes and progression routes that they offer to attract and retain students. However, in that regard, I do not agree with the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings, that we need to legislate for that. There is no reason why the proposals in clause 17 will undermine existing good practice in terms of joint promotion of foundation degrees and progression routes. However, I am sure that he will have an opportunity to come back at me, and I shall respond to some of the detail of the argument that he is making.
I turn now to amendment No. 7, tabled by the hon. Members for Brent, East and for Leeds, North-West. The amendment is, in many senses, identical to the amendment that I have tabled, except that it also provides that the Privy Council must not make an order granting foundation degree-awarding powers unless it has published criteria by which an institution’s proposals with regard to progression will be considered to be satisfactory. As I have already said, we have already published draft non-statutory guidance and criteria for foundation degree-awarding powers. They have been developed in close conjunction with the QAA, which will assess all applications for foundation degree-awarding powers and advise the Privy Council on whether the criteria have been met. A copy of that document has been circulated to all members of the Committee, and with the Committee’s permission, I will now say a few words about what that document covers.
To determine whether an applicant institution’s statement of its proposals about progression arrangements is satisfactory, the Privy Council could consider such factors as whether the institution’s academic management is sufficiently robust to ensure that progression routes are and will be established, both now and in the future, and whether the institution can be relied on to renew progression arrangements or to seek new ones if the old ones should lapse, with the help of a third party organisation, such as Foundation Degree Forward, if necessary.
In order to be satisfied that the proposals are likely to be carried out, one of the matters that the Privy Council could examine is the actions that have already been taken by an institution with regard to making arrangements for progression from foundation degree courses that are in preparation. Assuring standards and safeguarding the interests of the learner are paramount. An important aspect of that process is preserving the flexibility and potential for innovation that has already made the foundation degree such a highly valued qualification. Institutions, programmes and the needs of learners and employers change over time and it is right that the QAA should be able to take account of such evolution when it assesses applications for foundation degree awarding powers.
We will conduct a full consultation on the guidance and criteria as and when this Bill completes its passage. That process will provide an opportunity for interested parties to influence development of this document, including the guidance on progression. A statutory provision that, in effect, requires the Privy Council to publish its criteria in those circumstances is, I think, superfluous.
Government amendment No. 2 is robust. I believe that it addresses this issue in the most appropriateway. The draft guidance and criteria, including the QAA’s foundation degree qualification benchmark,are transparent published documents, which include detailed statements on how progression routes should be established, maintained and promoted, and how an applicant institution should demonstrate to the QAA that it is doing that.
I hope that, in the light of my remarks, the hon. Members for Brent, East and for Leeds, North-West will feel able to withdraw their amendment.
As the Minister has said, we are now turning to the most controversial aspect of the Bill. I want to acknowledge how far the Government have moved since the Bill was first published.
A great deal of amendment and a number of reassurances on record were gained in the other place. Personally, I felt rather frustrated when the Bill was first published, as I realised how little consultation had been undertaken with the relevant sector about this clause, but that is water under the bridge. The Government have moved a long way here and we are not opposed to the awarding of foundation degrees by FE institutions. However, we want to be sure that progression routes are in place and that quality is assured; we will deal with some of those points when we come to the next group of amendments.
It is worth making a few comments about foundation degrees in particular. The Minister said that they have been very successful since they were introduced in 2001. It is remarkable that just over 4,000 students were studying for such foundation degrees in 2001, but the number has now risen to more than 60,000 students and, as the Minister stated, the aim is that it should rise further to 100,000 students. Eighty universities currently deliver or validate these qualifications. Forty-six per cent. of these students are taught in higher education institutes and 54 per cent. in FE institutions. In 2006, more than 2,000 foundation degree courses were running. The figure of 54 per cent. of students progressing on to an honours degree is the most important aspect, and that is the point that we were trying to make in the amendment.
I recognise perfectly well the point that the Minister made, that we should also accept that foundation degrees are an important qualification in their own right—an important stand-alone qualification. I also think that some of the concerns that higher education institutions have expressed about the need to ensure that all students can progress to an honours degree, and only to an honours degree, fail to acknowledge that many students wish to progress to other qualifications. The Minister said that many students wish to progress to a professional qualification, or to another form of work-based learning.
Government amendment No. 2 goes most of the way towards meeting our concerns about progression routes, but we are trying to establish whether those routes are guaranteed in practice. We wanted the Privy Council to publish the criteria by which it will decide whether progression routes are satisfactory. I am grateful to the Minister for putting on record those points about guidance, which were extremely helpful.
In common with the Conservatives, as we will hear when they speak, we wish to ensure that progression routes are in place not only at the moment when degree-awarding powers are given, but in perpetuity. The Minister said that if those routes fell down for some reason, that could be grounds for the QAA to step in. He said that, essentially, the same routes are in place to ensure progression with foundation degrees at the moment; will he clarify that? Currently, there have to be progression routes in place for a foundation degree, but they would quite clearly be with the particular institution that is validating the qualification. We are dealing with a different scenario, because the qualification will not be validated by that higher education institution. There might be a range of relationships with higher education institutions, so different criteria are required to ensure it is clear that progression routes are in place. It is easy for agreements to break down, as they might be quite fluid. We have to ensure that the routes are picked up again for the same students. It is not good enough for the routes to disappear and be picked up again in two years’ time if it means that a cohort of students is unable to take advantage of them.
As I have not yet spoken in the debate, I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Atkinson. I want to make a few points about Government amendmentNo. 2, but I should first like to know whether we are likely to have a clause stand part debate, or whether I should raise general issues now.
As I said earlier, I think thatthe debate will progress better if we have a fairly wide-ranging debate on this first group of amendments. I am sure that the Committee will bear in mind my remarks about stand part.
Thank you for that clarification, Mr. Atkinson.
I begin by stressing to the Minister that, although I think it is important for clause 2 to pay attention to progression routes, it is also important that we do not diminish foundation degrees as a qualification in their own right. I know that it has often happened in the past; as part of a wide range of qualifications, it has sometimes been difficult for foundation degrees to show their distinctiveness.
Universities UK has been right to point out that we should adopt a cautious approach to giving FE colleges the right to validate programmes themselves. The criteria that have been set out, particularly in the appendix that deals with the criteria under which FE colleges will have to bring applications, go a long way towards meeting some of the concerns that have rightly been raised by Universities UK. It is not necessary to diminish in any way the role of universities in relation to employer qualifications, or to say that such degrees should go to FE colleges, because both types of institution can have good relationships with employers. Universities UK has been a bit over-sensitive about that; we want to ensure that universities have the links with employers that they ought to have, and that FE colleges continue with their good links across a range of courses. My FE college, New college, Durham, has excellent relationships with employers. It has a centre of vocational excellence, and it is able to build on that to validate programmes and to bring in employers to do so.
Universities might have been a little reluctant to accept that a number of FE colleges already have wide experience of delivering HE programmes. Some, including New college in Durham, have excellent facilities in brand new buildings which should enable them to deliver the programmes effectively. I am very pleased that clause 17 exists. It is a huge step forward in acknowledging the important role that foundation degrees can play in delivering skills across the board.
I want to ask the Minister about franchising, because there is a legitimate concern about the extent to which, in future, FE colleges will be able to franchise the degrees to other colleges. We might need to pay closer attention to quality assurance and to limiting the extent to which some colleges are able to do that.
As is outlined clearly in annexe A of “Applications for the grant of Foundation Degree awarding powers—Guidance for applicant further education institutions in England”, we should not get hung up on any one progression route. Although it is important that all who are studying for a foundation degree should be able to go on to study for an honours degree if they want to do so, it is critical that a wide range of opportunities should be available to them, and that good careers advice should go alongside foundation degrees. The principal of my local college, John Widdowson, has made it clear to me that foundation degree students sometimes want to have a break from education. After they have completed foundation degrees, they want to stay in employment if they are already in it—we have to remember that a number of foundation degrees are work based and work related—and go back some years later to top them up with other qualifications. Those might be honours degrees, but they could be management or other professional qualifications. We have to ensure that routes are available for such people to continue with their professional development not only in universities but through work-based learning. I am pleased that that is acknowledged in the regulations.
I have just two further points to clarify. I am not clear about what happens if a college applies to award its own foundation degrees and is refused. What is the next stage? Is there a time lag before it can apply again? There could be a diminution in quality if it is not made very clear that there are things that the college must do before it can apply again. Colleges could just go round and round the system, which would not be helpful.
I should also like clarification on partnership arrangements. How do the Government intend to ensure that strong partnerships are maintained between HE and FE institutions? At the moment, many such partnerships are built around foundation degrees. If those are no longer in place, attention will have to be paid to ensuring that strong links are made and maintained.
As the Minister said, clause 17 lies at the heart of the Bill. It is perhaps the most significant part and it enjoyed lengthy and lively consideration inthe other place, having aroused strong feelings. I acknowledge that the Minister has listened to argument. He has responded in a way that does him great credit. His door has been open to all Opposition Members and third parties who have wanted to express their views about this part of the Bill. Understandably, there have been profound concerns about it on the part of some of those involved in further and higher education.
In some respects, the Minister has travelled a long way towards the position of his critics; perhaps, to a small degree, the official Opposition encouraged him on that journey. In other ways, he has not yet gone far enough. However, let me be absolutely clear that, in principle, we agree with extending the awarding powers to FE colleges in the manner given life by the Bill. Our support springs in part from our wholehearted admiration for the work of colleges up and down the country. I mentioned that earlier, but I make no apology for amplifying the point. FE colleges, as I shall demonstrate at considerable length, do a sterling job. They are very important to the life of our country and to the life chances of many of our countrymen. We are convinced that clause 17 is right. Not just the scope and range of college provision, not just the quality of its leaders and teachers or even the degree and extent of their endeavours, but the very nature of FE convinces us that it is right to provide this new opportunity for learners. Let me explain.
In that case I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way at this point.
May I suggest to my hon. Friend that what he is saying is right, at least in part, because if clause 17 were not to become part of the Bill, those who regard further education, quite properly, as a source of good quality education and training would see this legislature as having damaged that view because we would not have given confidence to that impression? It is important that clause 17 plays its part in the Bill so that we can give the necessary confidence to further education as a brand.
Yes. I have argued elsewhere that we need to treat FE as grown up. Part of the case that I made earlier about extending the freedoms of further education colleges through a considered process of deregulation is about just that: recognising the potential of further education, the quality of leadership and the talents of teachers and those who govern FE colleges and giving licence to those people to extend their work for the benefit of learners. My hon. Friend is right: if we sent out the wrong message about this aspect of the Bill it would discourage the very people whom we want to encourage.
I was about to speak about the particular strengths of FE. Perhaps those strengths will support my hon. Friend’s consideration of these matters and reinforce the point that he makes. FE colleges react with a particular responsiveness to local needs and their experience in constructing and delivering modularand part-time courses can play an important role in addressing the entrenched perceptions that preventso many people from considering further learning. Consequently, in my judgment FE must be central to any strategy for widening participation.
Rooted in the community and offering a rich diet of provision, FE colleges are uniquely placed to serve those whose lives are not necessarily designed for university learning. FE is characterised by localness, accessibility and flexibility. Colleges’ proximity to non-traditional students’ homes, workplaces and previous learning experiences give them an easy reach to the under-represented groups in higher education.
The idea of making education accessible via FE is by no means new. The growth in courses, including higher education courses in colleges, over the past 20 years is a quiet triumph. Around 12 per cent. of those studying towards a degree now do so in an FE college. Although like their university peers in aspiration and ambition, most of these learners are far from stereotypical students. The style and substance of their study are far from traditional higher education. Higher education taught in a further education context is a distinctive sub-sector with a unique style of its own.
Around 300 colleges now provide HE courses in widely varying amounts. Some cater to a small crowd of students, while at the mixed economy colleges around half the student body study HE. These colleges are not university satellites. They have their own character and their own value. They are led by people who do not want to replicate the university experience but who wish to provide quality education inrelevant disciplines to those who might not otherwise consider it.
Just to illustrate that point in graphic terms, I thought that it would be helpful for the Committee to consider a few statistics. FE plays a key role in helping students from varied backgrounds to access higher education. Students whose previous educational establishment was a further education college account for over a third of all current full-time entrants to undergraduate education in higher education. Unlike entrants from sixth-form colleges and schools, maintained and independent, who are nearly all aged 20 or under, two out of every five entrants from FE colleges are adults—half of whom are aged 21 to 24 and the rest between 25 and 60. FE colleges have a higher proportion of entrants from lower socio-economic groups—34 per cent. compared with 25 per cent. in sixth forms and 21 per cent. in maintained schools. Furthermore, FE colleges provide internal progression and external entry to their own full-time undergraduate courses—mainly HND—and to those delivered in partnership with universities.
As young or older adults, a good number of those embarking on part-time undergraduate education will have undertaken previous further education study, especially if enrolled for vocational higher education programmes to sub-degree levels. FE colleges are the primary location for recognised access courses—some 86 per cent. compared with 2 per cent. of sixth-form colleges and 4 per cent. in higher education. FE is effective in reaching the hard-to-get-at groups who otherwise might not consider higher education. It is better at reaching less privileged groups, mature learners, and learners from different backgrounds, because typically it offers part-time study, modular courses, distance learning and more flexible learning than universities.
Foundation degrees must be integral to the strategy of widening participation. Sadly, however, many barriers inhibit the flowering of opportunity that such qualifications have seeded in the system. Colleges that wish to widen provision by teaching and awarding foundation degrees often face tortuous and convoluted processes—an over-bureaucratic funding regime, a poor fit between funding and flexible provision such as part-time learning, over-regulation of FE and the rigidity between HE and FE.
The disconnection and disincentives resulting from those problems inhibit social mobility by limiting the capacity of colleges to offer flexible learning to a new generation of students. If colleges are to be the vectors of expansion, they must have the freedom to determine the modes of teaching and learning, which are the pre-requisites of broader participation. That is whya determination to widen access depends on our willingness to deregulate FE colleges.
There is a significant problem with university validation. The foundation degree was conceivedas a high-level vocationally orientated qualification delivered by universities and colleges to meet the demands of local and regional businesses. The speed of response to employers’ needs is crucial to its appeal, as has been mentioned already in this short debate. The local, dynamic, industry-focused character of FE colleges allows them to respond well to that challenge, but having been galvanised by an employer’s approach, they find often that engagement with a university during the validation process puts the brakes on their momentum. The measured pace of large university management systems typically is very different from that of smaller colleges, which can result in a culture clash when the two meet to create new foundation degrees.
I accept the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but has he considered the remarks made by Universities UK, which says that it has many examples of where HE institutions have been able to design and validate courses within three months? Is it really the case that all HE institutions are slow and cumbersome and that none have links with businesses, including local businesses?
I said “typically” rather than “all”. It is true that often there are good and productive relationships between universities and colleges, as I shall discuss later, but there are some structural problems in that relationship, some of which I shall describe as I continue. I want to reassure the hon. Lady that I would not want to suggest that those relationships never work well. Often they do work well, as Universities UK argues. But I do think that we can re-examine the barriers that currently exist in some cases to the effective delivery of foundation degrees and an effective validation process.
My hon. Friend has mentioned the hard-to-reach groups. Is he aware that on Second Reading I highlighted the fact that the Higher Education Funding Council had analysed those groups and found that there has been success in getting foundation degrees, as they are currently constituted, to them, particularly to ethnic groups, mature students and so forth?
That is because they are taught at FE colleges. That is precisely my point. The reason why the foundation degree process has been successful is that it is largely delivered through FE with the kind of flexibility that I described. Now we must go further. If we are to expand foundation degrees, allow colleges to mature and build on the initial success, we should be confident in allowing colleges to grow up, as I said at the outset, and award degrees themselves within certain limits with which I shall deal in some detail. It is important that there are appropriate safeguards, and I take some of the points that Universities UK has made, but we need to move on from that start to allow the flowering of the process which the Minister briefly outlined and which I broadly support. I know that there are doubters, and the hon. Member for City of Durham may be one of them.
Will the hon. Gentleman accept that universities have got better at validating foundation degrees and working with FE colleges to put together and deliver degrees? It is no longer necessary to denigrate the university sector in order to argue that FE colleges should be able to validate degrees in their own right. FE colleges themselves have the necessary expertise and partnerships.
Our universities do an important job and we should be very proud of them. The expansion in the number of students at universities has been another triumph—I described the expansion of HE and FE as a quiet triumph, but of course it has been a triumph that student numbers have grown substantially over my lifetime in both our red-brick and new universities. However, I am not sure—I support the Governmentin this respect—whether it is appropriate simply to continue down the current road without allowing colleges to mature as they can if we put in place the right safeguards to guarantee rigour and partnership.
This is an issue of fact: the hon. Gentleman mentioned a moment ago that the increased participation in and accessibility of foundation degrees is primarily because most of those courses are delivered through FE institutions. I said in my remarks, and wish to put on record again, that46 per cent. of those courses are delivered through higher education and 54 per cent. through further education. emphasise the point that the hon. Member for City of Durham made a moment ago: that we must be careful not to denigrate the provision of foundation degrees in higher education, which has been enormously successful and amounts for almost half those degrees.
Yes, that is true, and I have discussed it at length with representatives of the universities and others. But let us put on record the fact that the expansion in the number of students in universities, which has been significant over my lifetime of48 years—I know it is hard to believe, but I am 48; I know that you thought I was much younger, Mr. Atkinson—has largely been within a single socio-economic sector. The profile of students in HE now is not substantially different from the profile in 1958. FE colleges have been disproportionately successful in reaching hard-to-get-at groups, partly because of their localness, partly because of their responsiveness and partly because of their willingness to offer degrees and other qualifications in more innovative ways than is typically the case in universities. I add one more caveat: most universities are trying to address that issue.
I was recently at the Cambridge institute—it is associated with Cambridge university—which specialises in providing flexible courses at degree and sub-degree level. It does a superb job, which I would not want to understate in any way. However, FE has a critical and unique role to play in deepening and broadening participation and I make no apologies for being the champion of further education colleges. That may make me less popular in the dining rooms of Oxford colleges than the hon. Lady, but I do not fear that because I am the people’s choice and the people’s voice, and it is absolutely right to make a case for FE, which is rarely made in this place.
In response to the hon. Member for City of Durham I mention the review of indirect funding agreements and arrangements between higher education institutions and further education colleges published by HEFCE, which said:
“Further education colleges are used to being responsive to rapid change. The rather more complex procedures of a higher education institution almost always slows down the process.”
Those are not my words, but the words of HEFCE. Although I accept the caveat of the hon. Member for Brent, East that sometimes it is much quicker, it usually takes about 18 months of meetings and sub-meetings to secure the validation of a foundation degree after an incredibly bureaucratic process, which obviously places a proportionately heavier burden on the lower-resourced colleges than on the large, well-resourced universities. Principals speak painfully of the labyrinthine process, which is made more difficult for colleges because although its staff are likely to be better equipped to judge matters relating to vocational qualifications and more closely aware of employers’ needs, throughout the long and winding processthe college must satisfy the university’s needs and requirements above all others. The principal of one college testified as much to the Select Committee when it considered these matters. I will not quote him at length; suffice it to say that he said,
“We are very much the middle man, the intermediary” in the relationship, and he described how difficult it is to manage the process.
A culture clash is common in the negotiations because foundation degrees are vocational; the specialism often lies with the FE college but they are also simultaneously higher education qualifications so the authority lies with the university. The resulting tension is not conducive to a fruitful, fast-moving partnership that responds quickly to employer demand. Some embryonic foundation degrees, such as the catering qualification, which have been conceived by employer interest and college enthusiasm, do not even reach the validation stage because the partner university has the power to veto subjects that do not fit in with its pattern of provision.
As if those difficulties were not enough, colleges’ plans for foundation degrees must also filter through the time-sapping sieve of its local lifelong learning network. Although they were established to ease collaboration, these institutional interceptions often have the opposite effect. One London college that I visited had been obliged to hawk its foundation degree around three lifelong learning networks in three separate London boroughs due to the spread of its campuses, eliciting agreements for the qualification from each of them. It is not hard to imagine the bureaucratic bother that that entailed. As the college principal remarked, it was an experience that exposed the absurdity of lifelong learning networks, however well intentioned their aims. All that explains why it is critical that colleges take the power to award these degrees themselves. However, that power entails important responsibilities.
Those concerns were described at length in the briefing that we received from Universities UK and in the debate in the other place. I have the Universities UK briefing before me, but it might be more convenient to consider the comments of Baroness Warwick when she spoke in the other place specifically about this aspect of the Bill. I met her to discuss the issue—I am sure that Ministers have done so repeatedly, and that other members of the Committee have as well—and listened carefully and closely to the arguments made by Universities UK.
Baroness Warwick’s case might be summarised in five points. She is determined, and rightly so, that academic rigour is maintained so that the degree brand continues to be well respected by learners and employers, and others at home and abroad, and she made that point in the Lords debate. She is also concerned that progression from one level of qualification to another is assured through appropriate agreements. The Minister spoke about articulation agreements in his opening remarks. Baroness Warwick stated that
“foundation degrees were originally conceived as a stepping-stone qualification that would enable students to study perhaps, or often, in conjunction with work or while based at a localFE college, but which would also give them the option of topping up to a full honours degree when they gained the confidence”— and the ability—
“to do so.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 13 December 2006; Vol. 687, c. 1580.]
She is right—it is critically important that we consider foundation degrees in that context. They should be a bridge to further learning, but not just that. They have a role in and of themselves, and many who study for the qualification will use it for its own purpose rather than simply as a stepping stone. None the less, progression is an important guarantor of rigour and the kind of positive partnerships that the hon. Member for Brent, East mentioned, and which I, like her, celebrate.
The third issue that we have pressed, as has Universities UK—again, rightly so—is that such matters should be closely monitored and reviewed, and that there should be a robust reporting process. As the Minister knows, we have argued that it is vital that Parliament should take a view about the effectiveness of the new awarding regime. Indeed, the Ministerhas proposed that there be a review period—a probationary period—and that after six years the matter should be considered in some detail.
Should we find that the process is not proceeding along the lines that we all hoped it might, I have no doubt that we could revisit the whole subject. If the process does not work, we need to be honest about it. My judgment is that it will work providing that we are sure about rigour. We have the right agreementsin place, and we are clear about the quality of the qualifications and their relationship with furtherand higher qualifications. None the less, accountability must be built into the process, and I am grateful to the Minister for his response in that respect.
While my hon. Friend is on the subject of the review that will take place, does he agree that it is highly probable that it will find that a large number of further education colleges have continued to have their degrees awarded through higher education institutions for precisely the reasons that were set out by the hon. Member for Brent, East and others? They value the relationships, closeness and effectiveness of relationships that have been built up over time.
Yes, I agree with that, and I do not agree on this particular occasion with the case made by Universities UK, which, in what I might describe as a vain threat when the issue was debated in the other place, suggested that universities might, in effect, take their ball home. Baroness Warwick said that she would not be surprised if some universities withdrew fromthe process, that they might choose not to work in partnership with FE colleges and be involved in foundation degrees.
I do not think that that is right. I think that it is true to say that a small number of colleges will satisfy the necessary criteria and move to full degree-awarding powers, but many other colleges, emboldened by the Bill—because of the point that my hon. Friend made earlier—will continue to teach foundation degrees, but with the university still awarding the qualification. I see no incompatibility between a relatively small number of colleges moving to full degree-awarding powers and many others, as my hon. Friend suggests, continuing in the vein they are now in, working with the university to award degrees through the university. I am not sure that I agree with Baroness Warwick—for whom I have the highest regard—that universities will take their ball home and withdraw from the process.
The next of my concerns, which are shared by the critics of this part of the Bill, relates to franchising. The hon. Member for Brent, East will speak about that, because she has tabled an amendment. I think that she and I have a similar doubt about the issue. It seems right that if we are to be clear about partnership, progression and rigour, we should be nervous about the idea of franchising, at least at this stage. I shall leave the hon. Lady to say more, because I would not want to steal her thunder. She will be heard with a sympathetic ear by Conservative Members, because the Minister has yet to be absolutely convincing about how franchising might work, given the other concerns that I have briefly articulated.
Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab) rose—
Will the hon. Gentleman concede that the issue of franchising ought to concern us generally in the provision of education and not only in relation to the particular set of relationships between higher education and further education or between FE institutions? The franchising needs to be of a high quality wherever it is done and whoever issues the franchise.
Yes. We are all determined to ensure that quality lies at the heart of the process. We would be short-changing learners if we did not take that view. The hon. Lady is right to say that there is a bigger issue about franchising: the subcontracting of provision, if one can put it like that. However, there is a particular issue about the extension of degree-awarding powers in respect of franchising, because it exacerbates some of the fears that the critics have that there will be a lossof control and some diminution of the quality of the brand. The fear is that people will not see degrees in quite the same way as they once did.
That might affect take-up. Indeed, that point was made by Baroness Warwick, whom I am using as the spokesman for the universities in this respect. She said that there might, perversely, be declining enthusiasm for foundation degrees as a result of the change. She feels that it might lead to fewer people being interested in taking them up, because there might be a perceived decline in the strength of the brand.
The hon. Gentleman is very generousin giving way again. Franchising does take place at present; HE institutions franchise within FE settings even now.
Surely, if people or institutions had concerns about franchising, they would have been expressed by now in relation to the current arrangements.
That is a good point. The hon. Lady always make pithy and incisive contributions in these Committees; I enjoyed our exchanges during the passage of the Bill that became the Education and Inspections Act 2006. She is right, and more than that, to some extent some critics of this part of the Bill really want to have a debate about foundation degrees per se. To hear some of the people who have commented on the Bill, one would think that we did not have foundation degrees in place that were being jointly managed and run by HE and FE and that we were having a debate about their inception. In fact, as the hon. Member for Brent, East said, foundation degrees are a well established and very successful product. We are talking now about the next stage of its development. This is not a fundamental debate about whether we should have them at all. I happen to think that they are very important and I support them. She is right; part of the debate has been almost about what might have been, rather than what is and what could be. I have some doubts about the provisions, but I take her point that not all the arguments that have been advanced are as robust as others.
Finally, there is considerable concern about the maintenance of partnerships that are in place and the strength of the relationships between FE and HE, which was alluded to by the hon. Lady. There is a concern that the provisions might set universities against colleges, which could result in unhealthy competition. That is a legitimate point. We need to ensure that we cement partnerships rather than endanger them. I believe that there should be a duty on colleges and universities jointly to market such qualifications, one of the purposes of which would be to cement their relationships and to add value to the product. Let us imagine going to Peterborough regional college to do a foundation degree jointly marketed with King’s college, Cambridge, notwithstanding what I said about the high table at Oxford—I have no prejudice against Oxford and Cambridge. I think that I would be quite attracted to the idea of a jointly marketed product with involvement from both institutions.
I take the same view. I think that HE and FE institutions should share resources a great deal more. We should be much more imaginative about how the skills and resources of HE and FE can be shared where appropriate. [Interruption.] I think that you are about to rise and tell me to abbreviate my remarks, Mr. Atkinson.
I was not going to tell the hon. Gentleman that, but of course I would encourage him to do so. I was going to say that although I encouraged a wide-ranging debate, this one has gone rather wider than even I should tolerate. I ask him to keep his remarks short.
Yes, we have entered the junior and senior common rooms of Cambridge and Oxford colleges, so perhaps we are straying a little from the purpose of our considerations today.
I turn to the subjects dealt with by the starred amendment that has not been selected, which I think would have addressed some of the issues that I have described as proper and legitimate concerns of Universities UK and others, who have been doubtful and sceptical about this aspect of the Bill. I would want to build on the Government amendment by adding robust conditions to ensure that any FE college being considered for foundation degree awarding powershas arrangements in place for the progression of foundation degree students to more advanced study. There is an argument for putting that in the Bill.
There is a fine distinction between what is written in the Bill to reassure people about progression and rigor and what is contained in guidance. I acknowledge that that has been the subject of some discourse between the Minister and myself. It is a difficult path to tread because we do not want to make the Bill unnecessarily inflexible, but I think that it might be useful to put more in the Bill to address progression. Also, in our starred amendment No. 37, we have said that there should be written confirmation from the relevant body validating a more advanced course that will build on a foundation degree. The relevant bodies in this instance are often universities, which are defined in section 76(1)(a) of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, or bodies that validate professional qualifications. It is important to add “professional qualifications” in that regard, because some people might progress from foundation degrees not to the BA, BSc or university courses that we might assume they would go on to pursue, but to other professional qualifications relating to their original learning. The Minister should consider whether such professional qualifications should be specified, either in guidance or in the Bill.
We also need to ensure that FE institutions continue to secure guaranteed arrangements for progression. Our amendment puts that rather more strongly than the Government’s amendment, which only requires the Privy Council to check that an FE college has a progression plan when it first applies for a foundation degree. There should be some evidence of continuing commitment to progression, rather than simply a plan at the time of application. That is a reasonable way of satisfying the concerns of those who feel that this might be the beginning of a slippery slope toward the dilution of the degree brand, because it means that a college should always have a progression agreement in place.
Such changes would address a number of omissions from the Government’s amendment. Ensuring that agreements between institutions are explicit would help to keep the links between FE and HE institutions strong and transparent. Because the circumstances in which academic progression and agreements between partner institutions occur will undoubtedly change over time, students must have a guarantee that theywill always be able to build on their foundation qualifications if they wish to do so.
The addition of professional qualifications as courses of study to which people might advance, a change in the nature of participation agreements in order to provide assurance that—given the dynamic nature of study—a foundation degree will always lead to the opportunity for further study, and a duty on both organisations to advertise and market courses would go some way to satisfying critics of the proposals.
The strength of this part of the Bill is, as I have already argued, that it would go a considerable way towards guaranteeing wider participation, cementing the position of foundation degrees as a part of that wider participation and building on the successes that colleges already enjoy. I hope that the Minister will go a little further to satisfy the concerns and doubts of critics of the provision. I have set out my position from the outset. From the very beginning, the official Opposition have made it clear that we are in favour in principle, because we want to be straightforward with the Minister, the Committee, the whole House and the other organisations involved. It would have been easy to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, but I avoided that temptation. However, having done that, we should, responsibly and in a measured way, take full account of the concerns of universities and others.
We believe that FE institutions will be crucial to widening participation in learning. They contain an immense amount of untapped capacity and are willing and ready to do more; indeed, FE colleges alreadyplay a key role in teaching HE. They are the singlemost significant opportunity for expanding HE participation, and the foundation degrees are critical to that. On that basis, and with my points begging for a detailed response from the Minister, I support in principle clause 17. I recommend it to my colleagues and to the whole Committee.
I had not intended to intervene in the debate, but I have been stirred into such a frenzy of excitement by the inordinate lengths to which the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings went to support Government policy. It is an example to be followed by the rest of the Conservative party: support Government policy and do so at length.
I intervene to make two brief points. First, I welcome the clause and the provision for FE institutions to give foundation degrees. In Grimsby, we have an excellent institute. It has been upgraded to an institute, thanks to my bartering my vote on student fees. Its status has improved, but all the studentshate me for giving way on the fees argument. That isin passing, however. The institution is undertaking enormous initiatives to develop as a university college campus with the university of Hull, but that does not preclude the need for it to develop in its own way, asthe hon. Gentleman said. The measure is a way of strengthening that development by giving it an effective, independent role, so I support it from a local and a general point of view.
I thought that the Universities UK memorandum was a little sniffy. Universities are conservative institutions; they started off as old conservatives, which is to say that they thought that nothing should be done for the first time, and they have now become modern conservatives, who say that it should be done, but not now. The Bill provides effectively for a regulation procedure that will ensure the maintenance of standards. Foundation degrees are something of value, as the hon. Gentleman said. I shall say it at shorter length. The safeguards are well in place.
Secondly, with regard to the Liberal amendment and the argument in the Universities UK memorandum about franchising, I should like to ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether franchising is not precluded by subsection (11), which will insert into the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 a new section 76(6A), which says that an order
“may provide that the institution is not to grant such an award to a person unless he was enrolled at the institution at the time”.
That surely must preclude franchising.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr. Atkinson. I should like to add my welcome to that of other hon. Members to the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Corby. It is excellent to see him back in his rightful place. I am sure that his absence had nothing to do with the lengthy orationof the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings; as always, it was a superb summary of the many issues involved in this debate.
Clause 17 will amend section 76 of the 1992 Act, so as to enable the Privy Council to make orders granting further education institutions the power to award foundation degrees. We all know that. That means that those FE institutions that now provide courses leading to foundation degrees will be able to apply for the power to award those degrees themselves, which isthe central issue today. By any standards, that is a profound change that has caused enormous concern in the higher education sector, all the more so because there was little or no consultation with higher education representatives about the measure, which led to exasperation in that sector.
I acknowledge the movement in the House of Lords, where a number of amendments were accepted during the Bill’s progress through that place. I welcome those amendments, as they have done a lot to ameliorate some concerns. However, as the Minister indicated, Government amendment No. 2 is an attempt to deal with some of the remaining concerns raised with and by the higher education sector, not least on the issues of quality and progression. I do not think that it will completely satisfy the sector; indeed, one representative has described it as “very weak” and “of little assistance”.
I hope that we can find a way of strengthening the clause, as there seem to be three outstanding concerns in the sector. I make no apology for repeating them. The first is the status and value of the new higher education qualification; the second is students’ opportunities to progress from further to higher education—known as progression, as we have heard in the debate—and the third is existing and future partnerships between HE and FE institutions. Much of the concern could probably have been satisfied by the acceptance of amendment No. 37, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings, which was not selected.
As I asked on Second Reading, does not anybody else find it very strange that an FE college will beable to award an HE qualification but not the FE qualifications that form the bulk of its own provision, such as GCSEs and NVQs? I wish to mention some of the unintended consequences that may run from that if we do not firm up the Government amendment. The first is that there is a risk of undermining the HE status of foundation degrees, which could lead to a fall in demand from both students and employers and a decline in the number of HE institutions prepared to offer them. That would undermine foundation degrees and their impressive take-up to date. As hon. Members have mentioned, 60,000 students are taking foundation degrees this year.
The second possible consequence is that the progression to higher qualifications could be adversely affected, as higher education institutions will not be involved in the design or delivery of foundation degrees. That fear has been partly allayed by what the Minister said and by the amendment.
Thirdly, many higher education institutions work collaboratively and in partnership with FE institutions. A serious question is whether those relationships will be put at risk when the institutions are in competition. Will not allowing FE institutions the opportunityto franchise degrees, even after six years, ensure competition between the sectors where once there was a strong element of collaboration?
Fourthly, will a degree given by an FE institution have the same pulling power for a student as an HE degree? Will not students and employers have concerns about the quality of those degrees? There is a danger that foundation degrees will become a signature qualification for FE, with a few large FE institutions franchising wide-scale provision to smaller institutions. That is a genuine concern. Is there not at least a risk that that would destabilise progress towards embedding a fairly new qualification?
Some people have said in the past that the party is revolting, but not today. It is perhaps a difference of emphasis rather than a revolt. As I said, I make no excuse for making the concerns of higher education institutions well known and putting them on record. It is important that that be done. There are considerable concerns because of the failure to consult those institutions properly, which is why at every opportunity in Committee and on Second Reading I have taken up those concerns and tried to articulate them on their behalf. I say again that the concerns are substantial and the Minister needs to deal with them. He has an opportunity this afternoon to reassure Members such as me who have profound misgivings about the foundation degree-awarding powers.
Issues such as quality, guaranteeing progression and allowing franchising are not sufficiently robust in clause 17 as it stands. As I said on Second Reading, the Government risk producing the opposite effect to the one they intend with the Bill. Instead of encouraging more people to study for foundation degrees, they may end up reducing the opportunities and the incentivesto choose this qualification. If we are to go ahead and give colleges degree-awarding powers, we need to be sure that they really can offer the same quality that our universities currently guarantee.
This has been a fascinating debate. I draw great comfort from two factors. The first is strong support for the FE sector on its own merits onboth sides of the Committee and some words of encouragement which are overdue and thoroughly well deserved. If FE has any problems, they sometimes centre on a certain lack of self-confidence as to mission and as to the quality of delivery when that is not appropriate. There is excellent provision in FE and we should celebrate it. I am glad that we have taken some steps to do that.
There has been a genuine concern, which is cardinal to the amendments and the clause, to ensure that there is proper articulation between the FE and HE systems and that one can progress from one to the other. If we are seriously interested in progression and in widening the opportunities for people, often from disadvantaged or hard-to-reach backgrounds, it is important that that should be achieved.
That is one side of the story. I am, and will remain throughout my life, a keen supporter of FE. On the other hand, I think, even modestly—if one can do that as a former Minister—I retain some friends and interests in the HE sector. It is right that these matters should be debated. Indeed, I have recently been appointed to the board of a higher education corporation in Wales; I have Welsh connections, as I have mentioned. Therefore, I might be said to have an oblique interest as well as that as an officer of the parliamentary university group.
I did not completely share the emphasis of my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East, but his concerns are entirely proper for consideration. He said that some of these concerns arise from the sadly characteristic handling of the issue by the Government. It was hatched and then considered later. May I say in fairness to the Minister, before he becomes depressed, that he has made a good recovery because he has listened to the points that have been made? My judgment would be that we have reached an acceptable position, broadly speaking, with just one or two reservations which I will enter at the end. I will be happy to support the clause and the amendment in the form that it has reached.
It may assist the Committee if I briefly go through the process in which I have considered this matter. The first point to remove from the concerns should be any political or business-led desire to get on with this and to change the nature of the agenda. It is quite proper for the awarding of degrees—a brand or a badge, as somebody described them—to be an academic issue primarily. We should not allow anybody else to nobble that process for their own agenda. There ought to be some resistance to any erosion of that important principle.
Having said that, we should note that in the real world distinctions are not quite as precise or absolute as they are sometimes said to be. My first point is familiar and has been touched on in Committee. Something like 11 per cent. of higher education provision across the piece is delivered, and very well delivered, in further education colleges. There is no absolute distinction by institution as to sheep and goats. Secondly, within the higher education sector itself there are different levels including different levels of approval.
There is the issue of foundation degrees, which is somewhat separate from what we are discussing now, but there is also the issue of institutions that have taught degree-awarding powers or research degree-awarding powers. There are steps and progressions which may or may not be considered. We should not simply take this as a matter of false antitheses in deciding what we should do.
When I looked through the reservations and considered those that had been expressed to me by the higher education sector, it seemed that they fell into three categories. The first one, which, as I have already indicated, is entirely proper, is to ensure that quality informs the process. That falls within the single remit of the Quality Improvement Agency. It may not be perfect, but at least we have a coherent method for assessing quality on the same basis and at the same level of rigour. I would not expect anything otherwise; nor would the FE institutions that might enter their foundation degrees, for a reason to which I shall return.
There are also issues about the acceptability of degrees or process abroad, and the Bologna process. The Minister responded to my concerns about them on Second Reading, and he gave some assurances which I do not need to repeat today. Whether the degrees are accepted by institutions abroad any more than they may be accepted by UK employers and higher education institutions—tacitly, in terms of their admission policies—may not be quite so clear. Until it has been proven to the contrary by a period of rigorous study and then the review after four years that the Minister promised, there will still be a danger that they will not be accepted. We need to show that the quality is absolutely up to the standards of higher education.
The second area, which I do not think has really been discussed in the Committee, is the possibility of what might be termed “mission drift”. I do not want further education colleges to take their eye off the ball—that is, off their mission generally. I do not think that there is any need for them to do so or likelihood that they will, but there is the experience of ex-polytechnics—modern universities—deciding that they would like to become Russell group universities or severe academic institutions, get involved in transfer markets in five-star rated departments and so on. I am not sure how much that adds to the sum of human knowledge, and I hope that it will not happen as a result of this process.
My third concern is about the nature of the process itself. I have already had an exchange with the Minister, which I need not repeat, about the importance of reporting and reviewing the continuing position. That is not a document check whereby, once all the boxes have been ticked, an institution gets foundation degree-awarding powers. That is, perhaps, the beginning of the process, but there also needs to be a programme of continuing assessment under which there may be sanctions, some of which—an adequate number—have been written into the Bill as safeguards.
The Bill should include two main objectives in respect of assurance. Other higher education institutions and, of course, employers need assurance that the foundation degrees on offer are appropriate, high quality and fit for purpose. If they are specified by employers, and if they are conducted with the right quality assurance, that should be self-evident, but I remind the Minister that there is also an important need for students to be reassured. The last thing that a student wants is to devote two years of his or her time to a process, often conducted part-time and in considerable personal difficulty, and to end up with something that is not worth having, or that nobody will accept as being worth having. We must avoid that.
My judgment is that, on the whole, the Minister has got it right. We have a quality assurance process, and we have understandings about a proper review after four years.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the importance of professional qualifications being added—indeed, stipulated—in the considerations. I made a point about that earlier. There is a course at City and Islington college on crime scene and forensic investigation. A student who successfully completes it gains a professional qualification that is recognised by the main employer in the field: the Metropolitan police. That is precisely the kind of link between what is studied, outcome and subsequent professional opportunity that my hon. Friend is describing. That is why I am keen to press the Minister to specify professional qualifications, either in the Bill or in guidance.
That was a helpful intervention. It is important to the process that the employer should have some influence, but also that the student should be able to produce a qualification that is current. Above all, we want to avoid the friction that may occur if somebody does something in good faith and is then told that he needs an additional module or whatever in order to meet the requirements. I suspect that that is work in progress. My cardinal concern was that we should tie down the quality standards, and my secondary concern that there should be reporting to validate those standards in practice. The Minister has very satisfactorily offered a review process after four years.
My only residual concerns, which are not subversive of my support for the clause—I should not want to signal that—are about points that have been made ina number of quarters about franchising. Formally, within the quality assurance system, franchising should work to exactly the same effect as direct provision, and those of us who are interested in outsourcing would not regard it as being in any way improper. However, it is true that there have been failures in the past in both higher and further education. We could debate that at length and produce examples from abroad and from the United Kingdom. I can think of a FE college that is fairly close to my constituency in which a problem arose. Many people with experience of the sectors will know that it is something of a weak link in the provision, so Ministers need to keep the point under review, particularly with reference to the Quality Assurance Agency.
That leads me to my final point. One should not raise points without knowing the answer, and I do not know the answer when it comes to the withdrawal of accreditation or awarding powers of an institution. We would not wish ever to have to countenance that situation, but if an institution is doing so badly in terms of its offering in education or training, it may fail commercially and then the Minister will face a different issue. However, it might be useful for the Minister to consider—not only in relation to foundation degrees but more generally—whether it would be appropriate to have powers to rescind a Privy Council decision and to strip an institution of its powers where there had been manifest misconduct or misfeasance, or academic failure. That would open a wider debate.
Let me just say to the Minister that we should not create a monopoly in any area. The higher education sector has a proper interest in the matter, and we have a proper interest in seeing that its concerns are met. Above all, there should be no dilution of quality. Subject to that, I am happy to widen the opportunities available to FE colleges and to people to study at them and to acquire qualifications. We should not just do that through clause 17 and then walk away. The process must be carefully and continuously reviewed and if anything goes wrong before or, if necessary, after, four years, we should be ready to step in and say, “This is discrediting the British concept of a degree, and it should no longer continue,” and find a means of stopping it.
We have had a good and instructive series of exchanges on these two amendments. It is particularly interesting and welcome that, certainly across the three Front Benches, there is now no disagreement on the principle of degree-awarding powers for foundation degrees in respect of FE colleges. We have established an important consensus.
Let me start by picking up on the comments of the hon. Member for Brent, East. She referred to the suggestion—others have also made the claim—that there was little consultation on the concept of giving FE colleges powers to award their own foundation degrees. Andrew Foster, in his report on and fundamental review of the FE sector, made it clear that the issue would need to be examined. Indeed, there has been a significant debate within the further education sector about the desire on the part of FE to gain these qualifications. Furthermore, since the publication of the Bill, we have—rightly in my view—consulted and I think that we have given a strong degree of reassurance.
I also certainly welcome the support of the hon. Member for Brent, East for the significant progress that has been made since the establishment of foundation degrees, from 4,000 students initially taking such degrees to 61,000 students today. She also said that we have gone most of the way towards reassuring her on this matter. I think that we have gone as far as is appropriate and I would not go as far as she has suggested, in particular because I do not wish to establish, as it were, a set of two-tier qualifications. We would risk doing that as we would be setting a precedent, because we do not, in statute, prescribe the publication of criteria for any other award. If we were to do that exclusively in respect of foundation degrees awarded by FE colleges, we would be setting that precedent and we would create a two-tier system.
What we have asked for is not the criteria for awarding foundation degrees; we have asked for the criteria for making sure that progression routes are in place. The Minister has got that slightly wrong.
I will come back to that point. However, regarding the criteria for awarding foundation degrees, there would be a significant problem. I want to come on to the issue of publishing the progression routes for foundation degrees later.
It is also important that we address the question of “what would happen if?” to which a number of hon. Members have alluded. What would happen if, once a college had been granted foundation degree-awarding powers, it subsequently failed to adhere to the proposals regarding progression that it had submitted at the time of application? That is an important area and it is right that we give some absolute clarity. It is a matter that would be picked up by the Quality Assurance Agency, either through one of its regular audits of higher education provision in FE institutions or through its procedures for handling causes of concern in institutions providing higher education.
A cause for concern can indeed be declared at any time; there is no need to wait until the institution’s next audit. If the cause for concern is substantiated, then swift and appropriate action can be taken to rectify that shortcoming. There is no need to legislate for there to be consequences for a college that fails to ensure progression from its foundation degrees after it has been awarded foundation degree-awarding powers. The QAA has confirmed that failure to ensure that there are progression routes would be—rightly, in my view—a serious matter and could constitute grounds forQAA intervention. I hope that that provides some reassurance for Members.
The Minister is right to address the particular issues about progression and we understand the role of the QAA in that area. However, I want him also to assure the Committee that, if the QAA found other failings in terms of rigour or quality—progression is part of the story and part of the guarantee of rigour, but it is not the only guarantee of rigour—presumably it would act in a similar way and the capacity to award degrees could be similarly withdrawn.
The provisions for QAA intervention are the same for foundation degrees as they are for other higher education qualifications; that is one of the reassurances that we have given. Those provisions are robust. If there is a problem, it is clear that the QAA can intervene and that it has the ability to do so.
I would like to pick up on the comments made bymy hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham. I strongly agree with her assertion that we should not diminish the importance of foundation degrees in their own right. Indeed, at the moment 46 per cent. of students who undertake a foundation degree do not immediately progress to a higher level qualification. Where it is appropriate and in the interests of the students, I want those progression arrangements to be available, but I do not want us to undermine the importance for many students of getting to that first base, in terms of gaining a foundation degree. I also agree with her assertion that there are many higher education institutions that have a strong and positive relationship with employers and that many flexible, innovative higher institutions are responding in a very real way to the needs of business.
My hon. Friend then made some comments, as indeed did many hon. Members, about franchising. If you will allow me, Mr. Atkinson, I shall not comment on that now, because I believe that we are coming to a series of amendments dealing directly with those issues, at which stage I hope to give some reassurance.
My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham and the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings raised the important issue of progression, not only on to an honours programme, but on to management qualifications. That is provided for and is set out clearly in the draft criteria. The hon. Member for Brent, East asked when a college could reapply if an application were turned down. In theory, it could reapply straight away, but, rightly, that would be a time-consuming and expensive process, and in those circumstances, before making a resubmission, a college should consider and act upon what the QAA said when it turned down the application.
Yes, that is most certainly the case.
I shall move on to the comments by the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings. First, I would like to congratulate him on his well-developed sense of irony in describing himself as the people’s champion and the people’s voice. However, he made an important and serious contribution. He started by setting out a litany of obstacles that he claims are in the way of the expansion of foundation degrees. However, the evidence demonstrates that we have gone from 4,000 to 61,000 foundation degrees. I do not believe that those obstacles exist. Everyone to whom I have spoken in the FE and HE sectors believes thatwe are on track to hit 100,000 foundation degree qualifications by the end of the decade.
I agree with the hon. Member for Brent, East when she intervened on the hon. Gentleman. I think that he has been too pejorative in his attitude towards the ability of HE institutions to respond genuinely to the needs of employers and business. I am not going to take a stance critical of how universities have dealt with foundation degrees, but, in order to face up to the skills challenge set out by Sandy Leitch, we need as much flexibility and innovation as possible in order to meet the needs of business and the world of work. In those circumstances, it would be wrong to exclude highly performing FE colleges from contributing to that process.
I put to the Minister the point that I put to my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings: does he think it likely that when we review the position we will find that many FE colleges are still working in conjunction with HE institutions because the system is working very well, and will continue to do so?
I believe that to be the case and have argued so consistently. Those powers are available, although not every FE institution will seek to take them up. Each will make a judgment depending on the circumstances; some FE colleges will find that their existing arrangements with partner HE institutions are working effectively and would seek to continue with them.
Returning to the comments of the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings, I must say that I definitely disagreed with his comments on lifelong learning networks. He described them as self-serving networks, but I think that they are invaluable and it is right that local FE colleges and HE institutions work together on a range of issues. Lifelong learning networks allow institutions to share out student numbers and, therefore, encourage collaboration in a way that he advocated. They do not have formal validation functions now, and nor will they have under the proposals in the Bill. If a particular network is not working well, it is down, rightly, to its members to change it, learning from good practice elsewhere.
I should make clear the review procedures that we are setting in place under the proposals. There has been some confusion in this debate. We are saying—rightly, in my view—that we will have an independent review that will report to Parliament on the general operation of FE colleges and their ability to award their own foundation degrees after four years. Alongside that we are saying that after the initial award of foundation degree-awarding powers to an FE college there will effectively be a probationary period of six years. If, however, at the end of that period it has been successful, it will be possible for the Privy Council to award a college those degree-awarding powers on an open-ended basis. There will be two processes taking place.
That is certainly possible under the proposals that we are putting forward, but we should not start on the basis that that is the expectation. I believe that the highly performing further education colleges to which we have referred have the ability to take on the task successfully.
The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings rightly mentioned the importance of the strength of partnerships between further education colleges and higher education institutions, and the need to cement those partnerships. He then advocated, as he has both publicly and privately to me in the past, a legislative requirement on the two sides to market foundation degrees jointly. Although I respect his motivation, I disagree with that proposition. It would be over-bureaucratic, and to place that requirement in statute would be to go too far. We need to trust institutions to take the matter forward rather than micro-manage them.
I understand the Minister’s comments on that suggestion and can see why he is reluctant to build it into statute. Will he go as far as to concede that inthe positive partnerships that both he and I envisage,the joint promotion and marketing of a qualification would be almost implicit?
Is it something that we would perhaps not demand but certainly expect of the partners? The Minister might have a role in giving guidance, might he not?
Because we do not want to be overly bureaucratic, I am not going to put that into guidance, but there will be an expectation that there will bejoint marketing of activities by the relevant further education college and university. Frankly, it wouldbe crazy, and contrary to the interests of those institutions, were they not actively to take on that task. Where that framework exists at the moment, that is taking place.
On the hon. Gentleman’s points in starred amendment No. 37, which he tabled, I understand his concerns. Had we been able to debate the amendment, I would have argued that it goes too far. The statement that an FE institution will produce for the Privy Council will need to show what it is doing to provide progression opportunities, as I have made clear. That sits in the context of the wider working relationship to be promoted between further education colleges and higher education institutions.
The FE institution will also need to be able to tell a coherent story about the options and opportunities open at the end of a foundation degree. That will rightly be done through the institution’s prospectus, and options will include honours degrees as well as appropriate professional and higher-level qualifications, as I have said. Institutions will want to promote the full range of progression opportunities available to foundation degree students. I should reiterate that although more advanced study following a foundation degree will most often mean the completion of an honours programme, progression could also be through an appropriate professional or higher-level vocational qualification.
The point that I made in my all-too-brief remarks and in the starred amendment is that it is important for an FE college to show that progression can be guaranteed in perpetuity. My worry is that colleges will put together a plan that assures progression at the outset, but that as things change, so will the capacity for progression. Will the Minister comment on how progression can be guaranteed over time?
I know that it has been a long afternoon, but I believed that I already had commented to that effect. If the progression arrangements fall into disrepair, that could be grounds for intervention by the Quality Assurance Agency. On the hon. Gentleman’s proposals, the draft guidance specifies that when an FE institution applies for foundation degree-awarding powers, the QAA will invite the institution’s existing validation partners to comment on the nature oftheir operational relationship. That will constitute a relatively small element of the full assessment of applications carried out by the QAA.
The Government have rightly supported collaborative arrangements between FE and HE institutions and continue to do so. Lifelong learning networks often involve two or more universities that may compete for students yet can work together. I believe that that will continue to be the case with universities and FE colleges. Partner organisations, such as Foundation Degree Forward, lifelong learning networks and regional skills partnerships, can work with FE colleges and HE institutions to support collaborative working. I hope that that explanation reassures the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings.
My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby, who is not in the Room at the moment, made an important contribution. He rightly values the work that is undertaken by Grimsby institute of further and higher education and he rightly underlined the degree to which the arrangements that we propose will maintain quality and standards.
The hon. Member for Reading, East perhaps expressed the one contrary view in the debate about the principle of FE colleges gaining powers to award their own foundation degrees. I disagree with the underlying thrust of what he said. He quoted an unnamed individual from a higher education institution saying that the amendments that we have made are very weak and are of very little assistance. That is not the thrust of the argument being advanced by the generality of universities. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the report that Universities UK submitted for this afternoon’s debate, he will see that that remark is not consistent with what Universities UK has said.
It was interesting to note the very different tones used by Universities UK and the CMU. The CMU was most concerned about the amendment that the Minister has proposed. I tried to say during my remarks that I thought that some of its concerns related to the idea of progressing only to higher education. I disagree with that idea, because I think that a range of different routes are needed for people to progress, but it is specifically the CMU that is very concerned about the amendment.
I understand that. It is also fair to say that the CMU institutions probably have the biggest vested interest in the current arrangements. It is important that we make it clear to those institutions, as I have repeatedly done, that this is an expanding market and that even with the FE colleges that gain the right to award their own foundation degrees, there will continue to be significant opportunities for CMU institutions. When the Bill was in the other place, I met a numberof peers who expressed concerns on behalf of those institutions. I asked officials to go through some modelling on a case-by-case basis with the institutions, and significant reassurance was given as a result of that process.
My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby highlighted the fact that the hon. Member for Reading, East appeared to say something that was completely at odds with his Front-Bench spokesman. I think that my hon. Friend was being very unfair. It is clear from the debate about grammar schools that in the modern Conservative party it is possible to have two completely contradictory policies at the same time.
I agree with the analysis by the hon. Member for Daventry that historically some parts of the FE sector have lacked self-confidence. That lack of self-confidence has been unjustified, based on what FE colleges have achieved. Those colleges take on a variety of functions, but the core mission for FE colleges—this was set out in Andrew Foster’s review and our further education White Paper and is encapsulated in the Bill—is the skills mission. It is right that high quality FE colleges have the ability to award their own foundation degrees, which is completely consistent with the core skills mission. On the hon. Gentleman’s concern about mission drift, I say again that these proposals fit within the core skills mission, which should provide reassurance.
Having given that explanation, I hope that we can move on. I hope that the Committee will support Government amendment No. 2 and that the hon. Member for Brent, East will not press amendmentNo. 7.
Amendments Nos. 8 and 9 deal with the concerns that hon. Members on both sides ofthe Committee have expressed about franchising. I acknowledge that the Government have moved a long way on the matter; there is now a six-year probation period for individual colleges and the four-year review of legislation, which we will discuss in a moment. However, the Minister has not adequately explained why he wants colleges to have the franchising power, and I want to give him an opportunity to do so. I have acknowledged the need for colleges to have the power to award degrees, but I am yet to be convinced of the separate need for them to be able to validate courses provided by other institutions, and I continue to have concerns about quality.
It is worth reminding ourselves of some of the roles that higher education institutions play when they work with further education colleges to validate degrees, not all of which are acknowledged. We understand someof the more widely recognised roles, but others are worth putting on the record. Obviously, they provide academic and administrative support and advice for course development, review and validation. However, they also provide access to staff development and training, access for students to services such as libraries, academic and administrative representation at exam boards and the production of student certificates and transcripts, as we would expect. They share responsibility for disciplinary procedures and ultimate responsibility for student complaints and appeals, which we might not expect.
Giving colleges the ability to award degrees for the first time means that they are not only doing all those things for themselves, but taking responsibility for ensuring that those things happen in the other institutions where they validate courses. For the first time, they will take responsibility for issues such as external examiners, copyright, student concerns, complaints and appeals in not only their own institution, but all institutions. We should acknowledge that the colleges will be required to take on a wide range of responsibilities.
The hon. Member for Daventry has said that issues have arisen in respect of institutions franchising courses internationally. Will the Minister say whether the new franchising power, especially in institutions that are not accustomed to it, might have an impact, if they are franchising courses that are being provided abroad?
The hon. Member for Reading, East, who is not in his place at the moment, said earlier that most ofthe qualifications offered by FE colleges—GCSEs, GNVQs and so on—are not awarded by them. The rest of the Committee accept the need for foundation degrees, but it seems curious that we would allowthose colleges to validate awarding powers in other institutions when they cannot do so for the qualifications that they deal with in their own institutions.
When I discussed the matter with the Minister outside the Committee, he said that there is a danger that the amendments would lead to a two-tier system, but we have a multi-tier system already. There are foundation degrees that are validated by higher education and delivered in higher education institutions, and there are foundation degrees that are validated by higher education institutions but delivered in further education institutions. We now have further education-validated courses delivered by that institution. Franchising would allow further education-validated courses delivered by another institution. It is not a two-tier system. We already have a three-tier system, and I wonder why we need a fourth tier. The argument has not been adequately made, and I would appreciate the Minister responding to my concerns.
The Committee will know from my earlier remarks how enthusiastically I support further education colleges. In that context, I give my warm support to this part of the Bill, with the important qualifications that were made from across the Committee about the need to ensure rigour, progression, partnership and so on. In that spirit, I speak with some concern about franchising.
The hon. Member for Brent, East has made a persuasive case for ensuring that we keep close control of the process in its early stages. The Minister has made it clear that, through a combination of the QAA and his Department, the necessary safeguards will be put in place to deal with some of the points that the universities and members of the Committee have made. I am concerned by the impact that franchising would have on the capacity to ensure those safeguards, although I see why the Minister might take a different view. I do not want to anticipate his every word, but I understand that he is fearful that making one setof rules for colleges and a different set for other institutions might establish what the hon. Lady has described as a two-tier structure.
We have acknowledged that this is a bold measure that will require a proper degree of caution from all concerned, and we have accepted that it is a probationary measure. As it moves ahead, the colleges that handle the matter in the way in which we expect will acquire additional powers. We know that a small number of colleges are likely to be involved at the outset, which the Minister has acknowledged both publicly and privately. It does not seem unreasonable to say that if a small number are involved, the best way of maintaining rigour, quality and progression is not to let that number burgeon through franchising. Being kind to Liberals is always difficult for me, but I think that the hon. Lady has done a service to the Committee in tabling the amendments and allowing this debate on an important aspect of this part of the Bill. Unless the Minister can offer strong assurances, I would be inclined to support the hon. Lady, were she to press the matter.
There are some legitimate concerns on this issue, and the Government’s response has been proportionate. I hope that I can justify that statement. Proposed new subsections (5A) and (6A) were added to the clause by a Government amendment in response to the debate in another place. The subsections recognise that it is right to allow the Privy Council to place certain conditions on foundation degree-awarding powers, especially when they are awarded for the first time. It is important that the powers should be used with care. The powers are also enabling, and it would be perverse to say that we have limited trust in further education institutions, especially when they have proved their abilities. The Privy Council will take advice from the QAA.
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister so soon after he has begun. I just want some clarification. He describes the legislation as enabling, but would not the colleges automatically be awarded franchising powers at the end of the six-year probationary period? Or will they be given degree-awarding powers, with a separate decision being made on whether they should also be given franchising powers?
I will hopefully go on to explain that in some detail, but it is not an automatic provision for the institution to gain permanently the degree-awarding power. That will be an option for the QAA.
That was not quite what I meant. If the college passes its probationary period and is allowed to continue with its degree-awarding powers at the end of the six-year period, is it automatically allowed not only to award degrees, but to franchise others to award degrees? Are those powers separate, or are they combined?
Both issues would be examined by the QAA and separate decisions could be made. Let me respond in detail to the hon. Lady’s points. It would be wrong and perverse to say that we have limited trust in FE institutions, especially when they have proved their abilities.
The Privy Council will take advice from the QAA before making an order granting foundation degree-awarding powers. The QAA will make a rigorous assessment based on the non-statutory guidance and criteria document, which we have published and circulated to the Committee. It rightly sets out a very high standard based closely on the current standard for full taught degree-awarding powers, and only top-performing colleges with significant experience in delivering foundation degree programmes could meet the required standard.
It is expected that when an FE institution is granted the powers for the first time, the Privy Council will make a time-limited order of six years and impose two restrictions to prevent FE institutions from authorising other institutions to grant awards on its behalf and to require that any student to whom a foundation degree is awarded must be enrolled at an institution with foundation degree-awarding powers. In the interests of quality assurance, it is right to place those restrictions on an institution granted new powers for the first time. I think that there is a consensus in the Committeeon that.
A six-year probationary period would be an important testing period in which the FE institution will take full responsibility for delivering and awarding its own foundation degrees. The Government accept that there will always be a level of risk when a new measure is introduced. We are trying to manage that risk. Having listened to points raised when the proposals were debated in another place, we agreed that there would be an independent report to Parliament on foundation degree-awarding powers within four years. Clause 18 imposes in primary legislation an obligation on the Secretary of State to lay that report, which I think is a welcome move.
The terms of reference that we have publishedmake it clear that the report could look at whether restrictions in proposed new subsections (5A) and (6A) should continue to apply beyond the probationary period. When an institution applies for a renewal of its powers after the expected six-year probationary period, the QAA will advise the Privy Council again, taking into account the way in which the FE institution has exercised its powers during those six years. Having first awarded limited foundation degree-awarding powers to successful applicants, having then undertaken an independent review of the wider use of the new powers and, finally, having reassessed applicants after six years, I do not believe that it will be necessary to continue imposing blanket restrictions, as this amendment would require.
The Minister is making his case with typical clarity. He knows that I am extremely pleased about the four-year report to Parliament; I have pressed very hard for it. However, I want to be absolutely clear about what might happen at the end of the six years. He talked about a blanket restriction. Does he mean that there could be particular restrictions affecting certain colleges? Are we to assume that all colleges would automatically have not only the power to award degrees in perpetuity, but the full range of powers to franchise? Or could some colleges franchise, but others not?
There could be some variation depending on the circumstances of the college and the degree to which it has managed its affairs. There is no automatic progression to open-ended provision of those powers. In those circumstances, the QAA will make a judgment.
I do not want to detain the Committee unduly on this point, but it is important, as the Minister will recognise. Perhaps we should look at where the presumption will lie. Will the presumption be that every college will receive those powers unless there is a good reason that they should not, or will it be the reverse? In other words, will it have to be demonstrated to the QAA that the college in question ought to have the full range of powers to franchise? He will recognise that that is an issue of confidence, particularly among the HE institutions, which we have talked about. We need to ensure that the HE institutions are fully on board with the procedure. They would be considerably reassured if it were clear in the legislation, or any guidance that he might supply, that there will be a presumption against those powers being given widely, unless it can be demonstrated that it is appropriate.
If I can make some progress, I shall allow further interventions. The issue is important, and we must get this clarification on the record.
When an institution has proved its ability to take full responsibility for its foundation degree programmes and shown that its academic management procedures are robust, there should be the option to grant it the full powers without further restriction, but that will not be an automatic right. The QAA operates an ongoing quality assurance cycle, and any FE institution granted foundation degree-awarding powers will rightly be subject to regular monitoring.
The institution will need to continue to demonstrate that it is able to guarantee the quality standards of provision for students on its foundation degrees, wherever and however that provision is delivered. Failure to do so, irrespective of where the provision is delivered, could lead to intervention by the QAA. That could occur as part of the regular cycle of quality audits, or it could be picked up as a cause for concern at any time. The QAA has a robust mechanism for dealing with causes for concern in higher education, whether they occur in HE or FE institutions.
I intervene in the hope that the civil servants might be able to pass the answer to the Minister if he is not immediately aware of it. If he can stipulate that there is in the current guidance, or give an assurance that the new guidance will contain, a clear separation of the two points—degree-awarding powers and franchising—I will be happy to withdraw the amendment. If that will not be in the guidance, I shall press the amendment to a Division. I would like an assurance that that is in the guidance now or that the Minister will agree to put it in. The point is thatthe decision should be taken after the six-year probationary period.
I think that I can give the reassurance that the hon. Lady asks for. If I slow down my comments, I am sure that we will be able to get it on the record in the appropriate form.
In a helpful spirit, may I ask the Minister to give us a further reassurance? If the QAA decides that it is appropriate for franchising powers to be granted to a particular college, it will have to assess what is required of secondary colleges that may then be franchised by that college. Will information about that be available in guidance, or can it be made so?
I want to come specifically to giving significant reassurance on the issue of franchising, but I shall continue where I was.
Of course, failure to gain a judgment of confidence from the QAA would rightly have serious consequences for an institution’s reputation. We should place confidence in the ability of the FE system to work to the same standards as the HE system in deliveringand awarding foundation degrees. There are some outstanding institutions in the FE sector, and it is right that their excellence should be recognised and rewarded. It would be disappointing if Members felt unable to invest their full confidence in the sector.
I shall deal specifically with the concerns that have been expressed, which I understand, about the practice commonly referred to as overseas franchising. By franchising I mean the practice of one institution authorising another to make awards on its behalf, and one institution making awards to students who are not enrolled in it. When we initially consulted on the proposals in November, we explicitly signalled that we were seeking views on the issue. It has been debated at length, and I can offer the hon. Member for Brent, East and other hon. Members the following reassurance. First, the QAA currently examines the international activities of higher education institutions through a programme of overseas audits. It is possible to include FE institutions with foundation degree-awarding powers in the scope of those overseas audits. Secondly, a periodic special review of foundation degrees delivered overseas could also be considered bythe QAA.
This is a complex subject, and the Minister is taking us through it point by point. The audits that he is describing—we know that they are widely used now, as a number of universities, including my own old university, do extensive work with overseas campuses—are rigorous. Are we to understand that the audits that would apply to FE colleges would be precisely the same as the audits that currently apply to those universities that have overseas satellites?
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. His reassurances are helpful. Will he also consider a situation in which somebody is unhappy about something and draws it to the attention of the QAA? Will he confirm that the QAA could carry out an immediate investigation, either abroad or within the UK, to determine whether there was any substanceto it?
That is most certainly the case.Under the existing arrangements for higher education institutions and in respect of these proposals for foundation degree awarding powers, the QAA has those powers of intervention. It has them currently, and it will continue to have them.
I was saying that there would be a periodic special review of foundation degrees delivered overseas and that that could be considered by the QAA. The QAA is also currently reviewing its work with regard to transnational education and will shortly deliver a revised strategy. Foundation degree awarding powers could be included as one of the factors to be considered by the review.
Under clause 17, there is no necessity that any college will ever acquire the right to grant foundation degrees to students taught overseas. We have introduced a number of measures to safeguard the international reputation of the UK degree brand, of which we can all rightly be proud. As I said, we made it clear that for the first time-limited grant of the new powers the QAA will advise the Privy Council so that so-called franchising could be ruled out. This is a significant departure from precedent and I think it provides an important safeguard.
Secondly, we have said that the independent review of the use of the new powers will look at the case for allowing franchising. Thirdly, when a college applies to have its foundation degree-awarding powers renewed, full powers, including the power to award foundation degrees to students taught overseas, need not always be granted. In making recommendations to the Privy Council, the QAA will look at the general conclusions of the independent report and at the specifics of the college’s applications.
We have set out a comprehensive approach to managing the risks that have concerned hon. Members. I repeat that under our proposals we are not sayingthat awarding foundation degrees to students taught overseas should definitely be ruled in. To respond directly to the question raised by the hon. Member for Brent, East, the guidance can be separate but the guidance on franchising will not come into play forsix years and it will be drawn up to take account of the independent review after four years. That is the point that I was making a moment ago.
We have put forward a significant degree of reassurance but—this is the crucial element of this debate and it cuts to the heart of the matter—the amendment goes further. It says that this practice should be ruled out permanently, for ever and a day. Here, for all that we have worked constructively together to achieve consensus around workable proposals, we have an element of disagreement. The whole basis for the Government’s approach is that, subject to appropriate quality control and the management of legitimate risk, we should give greater freedom to the top providers of higher education within the further education sector.
In the end, this principle applies to overseas operation as it does to the basic awarding of degrees to students at home. The controls need to be greater because the risks are greater. But if it is argued that top colleges could never be trusted with these proposals, I fundamentally disagree. I would be surprised if that were the contention that was being put forward this afternoon. We have provided reassurance. We have put forward a proportionate set of reassurances. There is no automaticity and I would hope on that basis that the amendment can be withdrawn.
I am a bit disappointed with the Minister’s response. What I think he has just said is that the review of the franchising powers will take place within the four-year review of the legislation rather than what I asked for. I asked for a separation, clearly stated in guidance, so that at the end of the six-year probationary period, the Privy Council could decide whether, first, the college could continue to award degrees and, secondly, having been granted the ability to award degrees, it could also validate the award of degrees by others.
I am sorry if I have not been clear. I have been trying to say that two separate functions will be available to the QAA at that stage.
I believe that that reassurance is there. It certainly exists because of the debate that has taken place and the statements that are on the record, both here and in another place. However, I shall seek to ensure that that is made abundantly clear in the regulations.
I thank the Minister for that reassurance; that is what I was seeking. If it is written clearly into guidance, I shall be happy to withdraw the amendment. All that I want is to see the two points separated at the end of the probationary period so as not to remove the possibility of franchising for all colleges in perpetuity. The Minister has given me the assurance that he will reconsider the guidance. If I am still not happy later, I shall bring forward new amendments on Report. However at this stage I am happy with the Minister’s reassurance and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.