Content of a plan: equality of opportunity

Higher Education and Research Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:15 pm on 11th October 2016.

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Photo of Wes Streeting Wes Streeting Labour, Ilford North 2:15 pm, 11th October 2016

I beg to move amendment 16, in clause 31, page 18, line 22, at end insert—

‘(1A) The regulations made under sub-section (1)(a) shall include goals for ensuring fair access and widening participation, to which a provider will be considered in agreement to achieving once a plan has been approved under section 28.”

This amendment would require an access and participation plan to include specific goals for ensuring fair access and wider participation.

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 17, in clause 31, page 18, line 25, leave out “subsection (1)” and insert “subsections (1) and (1A)”.

This amendment is consequential to amendment 16.

Amendment 18, in clause 32, page 19, line 12, at end insert—

‘( ) The regulations may include a designation of power to the Director of Fair Access and Participation to set specific targets for a higher education provider where the Secretary of State is of the view that the provider is failing to meet the fair access and widening participation goals under section 31(1A).

( ) Where such powers are exercised, the specific targets for a provider set by the Director of Fair Access and Participation shall be considered a general provision of the plan for the purposes of section 21 (refusal to renew an access and participation plan).”

This amendment would enable the Secretary of State to give power to the Director of Fair Access and Participation to set specific targets when it has been deemed that the institution is failing to meet the goals relating to fair access and wider participation set out in its access and participation plan (see amendment 16). The second subsection would enable the OfS to refuse to renew a plan if a provider fails to meet the targets set by the Director of Fair Access and Participation.”

Photo of Wes Streeting Wes Streeting Labour, Ilford North

Thank you, Mr Hanson, for calling me to speak, and I am glad that we are moving at a slightly faster pace this afternoon than we did this morning.

Further to the discussion that we have just had, these amendments seek to require access and participation plans to include specific goals for ensuring fair access to and wider participation in higher education. The reason for setting that out is that—further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South, the shadow Minister, and my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham—the role of the director of fair access has been, by and large, successful since its inception. However, in light of the wider changes that are being made to the Office for Fair Access itself and by its inclusion as part of the office for students, it is important to make sure that the director for fair access and participation has the necessary powers to ensure that institutions include specific goals in their access and participation plans as well as the power to set specific targets, when it is deemed that an institution is failing to meet the goals relating to fair access and wider participation that it has set out in its access and participation plans. Amendment 18 would ensure that the OFS has the power to refuse to renew a plan if a provider fails to meet the target set out by the director for fair access and participation.

All these amendments seek to do is to make sure that the director for fair access and participation has the teeth, or the muscle, or whichever euphemism people wish to use to describe the director’s powers. However, the danger with the way that the director of fair access is being treated in the rest of the Bill is that they will lack sufficient independence and power to hold institutions to account.

That goes back to the point I made at the outset of the discussion of the Bill, on Second Reading. In the higher education sector, there are still too many institutions that are socially elitist rather than simply academically elite, and there are too many institutions that proclaim to be success stories in widening participation while presiding over retention rates and graduate destination data that ought to make their vice-chancellors blush.

In that context, it is right and proper to have an independent voice and an independent role that can hold institutions to account if they fall short of the expectations set by Parliament and the Secretary of State and, of course, the expectations of students who enrol on courses. These amendments would give the director for fair access and participation beefed-up powers, within the auspices of the OFS, which would give the public and students assurance that we take these issues seriously and that institutions will be held to account if they fail in this regard.

I commend these amendments to the Minister and I look forward to hearing his reply.

Photo of Jo Johnson Jo Johnson Minister of State (Department for Education) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Education) 2:30 pm, 11th October 2016

I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving us the opportunity to discuss this important matter.

Currently, the director of fair access agrees targets proposed by providers as part of their access agreements. The DFA’s powers do not enable him or her to impose targets at present. This approach was founded on the desire to protect an institution’s autonomy over admissions and its academic freedom. Those are fundamental principles, on which our higher education system is based and on which it has flourished. This group of amendments seeks to change that approach to agreeing access and participation plans and introduce greater prescription in this area.

We asked for views on this precise question in our Green Paper consultation, including whether the OFS should have a power to set targets, should an institution fail to make progress. Importantly, OFFA did not agree and said that the OFS should not have a power to set targets. Its response highlighted the importance of providers owning their targets. If targets are set externally, they can become both resource-intensive and a blunt instrument. This can make it difficult to hold institutions to account when progress is slow. Effort becomes focused on the process rather than broader improvements in access and participation. That is why we did not take these proposals forward.

The Bill includes arrangements to call providers to account where they are considered to be failing to meet their access and participation plans. Where it is considered appropriate, there would be access to a range of OFS sanctions. As I said in answer to an earlier amendment, these include the power to refuse an access and participation plan, to impose monetary penalties and, in extreme cases, to suspend or even de-register providers.

I hope I have therefore reassured the hon. Member that the Bill contains sufficient safeguards to tackle under- performance and I ask him to withdraw Amendment 16.

Photo of Wes Streeting Wes Streeting Labour, Ilford North

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply and for outlining the range of sanctions that apply within the scope of the legislation. I think that is in part reassuring. My point is more a message for institutions rather than for the Minister per se, and it is that institutional autonomy is often used as a convenient cover to avoid and escape accountability. Institutions have largely gone along with the direction of travel of higher education policy, both for funding arrangements and the regulatory environment. It seems to me they want all the benefits of having a more marketised consumer-led system without the downsides of accountability and responsibility to—in the most crude and reductive sense—consumers. That is not the language I tend to use, but none the less the brave new world of the marketisation of higher education speaks increasingly of consumers.

I think it is unacceptable and harder questions ought to be asked of institutions. It was my intention that these powers would be used only in extreme circumstances, or in cases of particular failure, because it is not desirable to have external targets set, for the reasons outlined by the Office for Fair Access in its submission. I thought the vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge was rather coy in the evidence session before the Committee. The recent example of the University of Cambridge, where it tried to row back from the previous commitment it had made to access and participation targets, was a good example of the Office for Fair Access working, where robust dialogue behind the scenes and a respectful relationship with institutions can lead to the right outcome.

As we travel further down this system, I think we will encounter further difficulties. It is right and proper that there should be powers for the office for students to hold institutions to account. I am grateful to the Minister for outlining the powers in the Bill and I beg to ask leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Education)

I beg to move amendment 207, in clause 31, page 18, line 43, at end insert?

“(g) for details of individual Higher Education providers, their policies for part-time and mature students.”

This amendment would require universities and other higher education providers to include a policy in regard to part-time and mature students in their access and participation plan.

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 287, in clause 36, page 20, line 15, at end insert

“to include access to and participation in part-time study”

This amendment requires the OfS to report on access to and participation in part-time study in its report(s) to the Secretary of State.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Education)

Amendment 207 picks up on a theme that we discussed earlier, which is the essential need to strengthen the access and participation of part-time and mature students, particularly given the decline in their numbers in recent years.

The amendment requires universities and other higher education providers to include a policy for part-time and mature students in their access and participation plan. It would also require the office for students to consider appointing a director for part-time and mature students to its board. The amendment was suggested by the Sutton Trust, but a large body of opinion in the lifelong learning area believes that it is important—as we have said in relation to other groups—that when the office for students is established, the importance of part-time and mature students is recognised, particularly in access and participation plans.

The discussions that we have had so far have included many references to the Open University. That is not surprising: the Open University is a huge success story for the UK; it is an international institution based in Britain and it has the largest number of adult students and so on. But several other institutions, of greater longevity than the Open University, also have concerns in these areas. For example, Birkbeck College of the University of London has made a couple of points about this. When the Minister was talking about cockney universities, I cannot remember if Birkbeck was one of them, but it is of the same vintage. It was founded in 1823 as the London Mechanics’ Institute with the express remit to open up higher and university education to working people.

Birkbeck has a teaching model with a flexible course structure, allowing students to complete a degree in the same length of time as regular students studying in the daytime at other universities. Some Members here may even have members of their staff who have done exactly that sort of thing at Birkbeck. It is a very broad-based and world class research-intensive institution and has very good statistics in that respect. But Birkbeck is concerned about a number of issues in the Bill, not in terms of commission but of omission. It says:

“The vast majority of our students are aged over 21, most choose evening study because they work full-time or have family commitments during the daytime. Provision for part-time and mature learners is important for social mobility. Part-time study is frequently the route into higher education for most non-traditional and mature students. Part-time study is also, by definition, local. In 2015-16 one in five undergraduate entrants in England from low participation neighbourhoods chose or have no option but to study part-time, while 38% of all undergraduate students from disadvantaged groups are mature. Part-time study also cannot be ignored if we want to see economic growth. In 2011-12, there were nearly half a million people in the UK studying part-time at undergraduate level, but the decision to withdraw funding from universities in England and introduce a student loans system led to the tuition fee increase that we know about and to the very significant and dramatic downturn in part-time student numbers.”

The Minister will no doubt be relieved to know that I do not intend to bash the Government over the head any further on the matter at this point in time, but merely to make the observation that whatever the circumstances, we are where we are with those numbers. The Government have taken a number of relatively modest steps to try to address the issue, but that will not happen overnight. That strengthens the need to include the emphasis on the issue as part of the remit of the OFS on the face of the Bill. That is why Birkbeck and others believe that it is important that the duties of the proposed office for students are expanded explicitly to promote adult, part-time and lifelong learning. They have already said that they would like to see a clearer commitment to part-time provision through a requirement—not a “hope” or a “we’ll see about it”—that the OFS board includes expertise in part-time learning among its members, and to think also about the diversity of the UK student body as a whole.

The Minister will be familiar with this argument because he has employed it himself. If we are to succeed and prosper economically and socially, and if we are to fulfil people’s life chances, we are going to need to focus more and more on mature students, many of whom will be part time. The reasons for that are clear and demographic, and are repeated in the Government’s White Paper. I do not intend to repeat them further today, but they sharpen the focus on why we need this provision in the Bill.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union)

It is a pleasure to speak to my amendment 287 with you in the chair, Mr Hanson. The amendment complements the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South by adding a responsibility on the OFS to report on access to and participation in part-time study.

I echo some of my hon. Friend’s points. One of the many things that distinguishes our great higher education system in this country is the large number of part-time students, which is something like 40% at postgraduate level and 20% at undergraduate level. Many of them are of course studying in the Open University, to which my hon. Friend has rightly drawn attention as a great success story of British higher education.

We need to focus on the issue of part-time students in the context of the Government’s ambition for higher education and for social mobility within higher education. I think the Government’s own vision is that we need to move away from conventional models of higher education, and that is partly behind some of the thinking—that the Opposition do not fully agree with—on some of the new sorts of providers that the Government have in mind.

The vision of a higher education system that moves beyond the conventional route of leave school, go to university, study full time for a number of years, come out with a degree and then leave it behind, is no longer relevant in the challenges that people face in today’s economy. We need to talk confidently about a system of lifelong learning in which part-time study has an increasingly important role, which will not simply be provided for by the new providers that the Minister has spoken of in the past. We should be deeply concerned that, following the introduction of the new fees structure through to 2014, part-time student numbers dropped by 50%. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission described that as

“an astonishing and deeply worrying trend”.

It is one that we should really look to address.

In the case of part-time study, funding is key. The Minister spoke eloquently earlier about the number of students still applying to higher education from disadvantaged backgrounds, despite the funding changes, and I accept those figures, although the changes have had an impact on choice in higher education and work is needed on how some students from disadvantaged backgrounds have limited their choices by going to universities closer to home to keep their costs down. Nevertheless, we know that for part-time students, funding is key and we know that partly because the Labour Government made mistakes on that. The introduction of equivalent or lower qualifications, and limiting options for people to take second and subsequent degrees based on earlier qualifications, led to a significant reduction in part-time students in the past. I welcome the fact that the Government have learned from those lessons and are changing their position on ELQs.

Photo of Wes Streeting Wes Streeting Labour, Ilford North

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting this important issue. He is right to draw on some of the shortcomings of policy under the last Labour Government on ELQs. Does he also agree with me that aspects of the coalition Government’s student finance reforms should have been beneficial for part-time students, but did not necessarily lead to the increase in participation that was intended? Because of the complexity governing part-time students, and the law of unintended consequences, it is even more important to have a specific focus on part-time students in the report to the Secretary of State from the director of fair access and the OFS.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union) 2:45 pm, 11th October 2016

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is absolutely right. In fact, the changes in the coalition Government’s proposals that he cites were used by some in the Government to celebrate the progressive nature of those proposals—we would not wholly agree with that. We need to understand, though, the difference between the impact of funding changes on school students, who may well have been—and certainly seem to be—willing to take on debt, compared with those who are in mid-career or later in life.

Photo of Ben Howlett Ben Howlett Conservative, Bath

We have been doing some work on this in the Women and Equalities Committee. One thing that is clear is the lack of data. Many hypothetical scenarios have been analysed, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is an opportunity here to get to the nitty-gritty of the argument and find out the data behind the reasons why participation levels are falling among part-time students, particularly for older workers? In some instances, it might be the fact that there are other options available to them, such as apprenticeships and all the other Government schemes. In other instances it might be the provision of finance. We need an assurance from the Minister about what proposals he has to create more data, to analyse the subject more.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and, indeed, for the work we do together on the all-party parliamentary group on students. That is a fair point. I was concentrating on some of the funding factors. For older students, the fact that they have mortgages and families, or that they are at albeit modest salary levels that trigger immediate repayment, are apparent disincentives. Matching the introduction of the new funding regime and the cliff-edge drop in the numbers of part-time students would suggest that there is a relationship. He is absolutely right that we should be looking at all the data and doing research properly to understand what is happening. I agree with him, and that is at the heart of my amendment: the OFS should have the responsibility to think deeply about part-time participation and draw up recommendations to address that.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Education)

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case for his amendment. Does he—and, indeed, the hon. Member for Bath—agree that we do have indications of how the process affects older people in particular, though it is not exactly anecdotal? We have those indications from what has happened with the take-up at 24-plus of advanced learning loans, which are designed for students at level 3 and above. That was presaged, in my mind, by the discussions I had on that process; I talked to many women who said that they would not have progressed if they had had to take out loans at that juncture rather than having grants.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union)

My hon. Friend makes an important point to which we should pay attention, and he is absolutely right. Earlier, he cited Birkbeck’s important role in creating opportunities for social mobility through modes of part-time learning over many years. He—and, I hope, the Minister—may have seen the Gresham lecture given earlier this year by the long-time Master of Birkbeck, Baroness Blackstone, in which she focused on some of these exact issues with funding and proposed radical solutions, which at least deserve attention. For example, recognising the strategic importance of part-time learning, in the same way as we recognise the strategic importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, she argued that perhaps we need to look again at the funding model to provide support for the delivery of part-time education, which in many ways is more expensive for universities than conventional learning. For example, she argued that maybe we could look at incentives through adjustments to the national insurance system.

A number of interventions made today deserve serious consideration, but I simply propose my amendment in the spirit of the comments made by the hon. Member for Bath. We need to do much more work on this issue, which should be a central responsibility of the OFS.

Photo of Jo Johnson Jo Johnson Minister of State (Department for Education) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Education)

I am sympathetic to the aims of the amendments and grateful again for the chance to discuss them. I have always been clear that fair and equal access to HE is vital. Everyone with the potential to benefit from education in every form should be able to do so. Studying part-time and later in life brings enormous benefits for individuals, employers and the economy, so let me reassure the Committee that the Government are acting to support part-time students and part-time provision. Funding, as the hon. Member for Sheffield Central said, is obviously important. Over the course of the past few years, the Government and the predecessor coalition Government have taken significant steps to transform the funding available for part-time study. Going back to moves made in 2012-13, we started to offer tuition fee loans for part-time students so that how learners of all ages choose to study does not affect the tuition support available. Looking forward to 2018-19, we will, for the first time ever, provide financial support to part-time students, comparable to the maintenance support we give to full-time students with the introduction of part-time maintenance loans.

As the hon. Gentleman said, other factors are also an important part of the picture of what is happening in part-time provision. He was gracious enough to allude to the Labour party’s introduction of the equivalent and lower qualification restriction, which has undoubtedly also been a contributory factor to the decline in numbers. We have started to lift this restriction, principally by providing financial support from Government for a second degree if people wishing to study retrain part time in a STEM subject from September next year. This will allow more people of all ages to retrain in key STEM subjects.

Amendment 207 relates to providers including part-time and mature students’ provision in access and participation plans. Let me reassure the Committee that we agree that a focus on part-time and mature students in access and participation plans is important. That is why our recent guidance letter to the director of fair access in February this year asked him to provide a renewed focus on part-time study in his guidance to institutions on their access agreements for 2017-18. This should be of particular benefit to mature learners.

I am pleased to be able to tell the Committee that mature learner numbers, which dipped following the change in the fee regime in the middle of the last Parliament, have now recovered significantly and were at record levels at around 83,000 in 2015—compared with the previous high of 81,000 that they touched in 2009 and the 2006 levels of about 56,000 to 57,000—so they are now moving back in the right direction.

The Bill will help further by giving the OFS the flexibility to ask providers to focus on key areas that are important to widening participation and social mobility, in the same way that the Secretary of State’s guidance to the director of fair access currently allows. Clause 31 covers the general provisions that might be required by regulations. These arrangements provide flexibility in access and participation agreements so that they can focus on widening participation for different groups of students. I therefore believe that the Bill already delivers the aim of this amendment.

I turn to the amendment on the OFS’s duty to report on part-time higher education provision. The OFS has a duty requiring it to consider the need to promote greater choice and opportunities for students in the provision of HE in England, and a duty to cover equality of opportunity. It must prepare a report on the performance of its functions during each financial year, which will be laid before Parliament. The Bill also contains powers under clause 36(1)(b) for the Secretary of State to direct the OFS to report specifically on matters relating to equality of opportunity. That could of course include part-time learners.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union)

I welcome the direction of travel of the Minister’s comments. Could he share with the Committee whether he would expect the OFS specifically to look in that work at the issue of part-time students as an early priority?

Photo of Jo Johnson Jo Johnson Minister of State (Department for Education) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Education)

Yes, that was the purpose of our guidance to the director of fair access back in February, to signal that we wanted to see further progress on institutions making part-time study a core feature of their offer. So, yes, I would imagine that this would be priority focus of the OFS. In conclusion, I do not believe the amendment is necessary. There are sufficient provisions in the Bill to ensure that part-time and mature study are priorities for the OFS and the director of fair access within it. I would therefore ask the hon. Member for Sheffield Central to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Education)

I have heard what the Minister has to say. The direction of travel, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central says, is extremely welcome as are, indeed, the figures that the Minister quoted, but I would gently remind him that, for all the demographic reasons that I have spoken about, we need to speed up that expansion of participation. However, I hear what he has to say, will look forward to further discussions on it in this Bill and possibly subsequently and, with that, I am content to withdraw our amendment.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union)

Equally, I welcome the statement made by the Minister, particularly in relation to his expectations of the OFS, and specifically in relation to part-time study and I will not press my amendment to a vote.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: 74, in clause 31, page 19, line 7, after “include” insert

“education provided by means of”.—(Joseph Johnson.)

This amendment makes the language used in clause 31(5)(b) (the definition of references to “higher education” in that clause) consistent with that used in the definition of “higher education” in clause 75(1).

Clause 31, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 32 and 33 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 34