It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams, and I thank Mr. Speaker for granting me this important debate. The issue is extremely important to my constituents in Kettering, as well as to those of my hon. Friend Mr. Bone, who is in the Chamber, and of the Minister of State, Department of Health, Phil Hope.
The Government launched their university challenge in March 2008. In response, a local partnership was formed in north Northamptonshire comprising all four borough and district councils, the county council, Tresham institute of further and higher education, the university of Northampton, Northamptonshire Enterprise Ltd, North Northants Development Corporation and the Learning and Skills Council. That partnership has pledged its commitment to preparing a business case for the university challenge proposals for a multi-site, dispersed higher education centre that will provide a full offer of higher education in response to student demand.
Tresham institute currently offers a small number of higher education programmes in Kettering, Wellingborough, Corby and east Northants, but it would be able to deliver a wider range through its three existing campuses in Kettering, Corby and Wellingborough if the university challenge application were successful. A large local petition is supported by the local Evening Telegraph and has attracted thousands of signatures. The partnership submitted an expression of interest to the Higher Education Funding Council for England in October 2008, and I am delighted that the scheme has been shortlisted as one of the 27 that are being put forward for the 20 available places. Consultants acting for the partnership are preparing our business case, which the partnership intends to submit to HEFCE by June 2009.
The university challenge project is one of the Government's better ideas. When it was announced, Ministers said that they believed that
"a local high quality higher education centre can open up the chance of higher education to more young people and adults who previously may never have thought about a degree while helping drive local economic and social regeneration. Economists estimate that every extra job a university creates is matched by another elsewhere in the economy."
When launching university challenge, the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills said:
"In these challenging economic times never have universities and colleges been more important to education, economic development, regeneration and the cultural life of our rural areas, towns and cities."
I could not agree more. Indeed, a delegation from Kettering, Corby and the rest of north Northants went to see the Secretary of State in his office in June 2008. After that meeting, he said:
"I thought it was an impressive presentation. The team that came to see me have really understood the main points of the university challenge and how they can bring economic development to" their local areas.
Under the rules of the university challenge project, an expression of interest has to be made by a sponsoring university. The university of Northampton is heading the bid to HEFCE for a university in north Northamptonshire and it is strongly supported by the second sponsor, the university of Bedfordshire. The expression of interest, which was submitted in 2008, said:
"The Secretary of State's...'New University Challenge' was warmly welcomed by local authorities in the north Northamptonshire area, by Tresham Institute of Further and Higher Education (TI) and by The University of Northampton (UN)" and others, because it provides
"both a stimulus and an opportunity significantly to enhance, extend and deepen access and wider participation to higher education in the north of the county."
"UN has been developing its relationship with TI to this end, but the Secretary of State's paper has generated a multi agency commitment to and support for the establishment of (a) formally recognised Higher Education Centre(s) to serve the needs of both young and mature HE learners in the Corby, Kettering, Wellingborough and East Northamptonshire Boroughs" and districts. It went on to say:
"The initiative also has the full support of Northamptonshire County Council (NCC), the Northamptonshire Enterprise Limited (NEL), the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) and the North Northamptonshire Development Company (NNDC). NNDC has agreed to provide overall leadership and co-ordination of the preparation of a bid, via The University of Northampton, and the University of Bedfordshire has expressed its willingness to join the partnership."
I want to point out early on that the bid is a unified and united one. Whatever the political differences between elected representatives in north Northamptonshire from time to time, they have all signed up to the bid. Everyone has put their signature on the same bit of paper, and there is no difference between any of us, because this issue is so important to the future of our local area, particularly for economic growth.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful case, as always, on behalf of not only his constituents, but the constituents of all north Northamptonshire Members. We certainly welcome the idea of the university, but is my hon. Friend concerned about the Government's commitment in this area? The further education college at Tresham institute was due to expand—approval had been given in principle—but the Government have since rowed back, and there does not seem to be the same commitment as before. Is he concerned that that might happen with the university as well?
It is an uncertain time for Tresham institute, which is one of the colleges whose application for funding has been caught up in the crisis at the LSC. The chief executive of that organisation resigned only yesterday, and I very much hope that the Department will get on top of the issue soon, because it would be a sad day for north Northamptonshire if Tresham institute had to put its plans for expansion on hold due to a central Government funding mix-up.
North Northamptonshire is located in the biggest growth area outside the capital city in terms of future housing development. It is a designated Government growth area, and its population of 310,000 is due to increase by 30 per cent. to 400,000 by 2021. Some 52,000 new homes will be provided, as well as, we hope, 47,400 new jobs, although rather more might be required due to the economic recession. It is the largest and fastest growing housing growth area outside London, and the combined area will become the size of Bristol or Nottingham, and larger than Milton Keynes or Peterborough. However, all those other places have higher education centres, while north Northamptonshire does not, and no plans have yet been approved for higher education to be expanded in our local area.
Future employment and inward investment opportunities in north Northamptonshire will require a talented work force with higher vocational skills and qualifications than we currently enjoy. The need and demand for vocational higher education in north Northamptonshire is strong. The existing skills base in the northern part of the county is lower than it could be, and the accessibility of locally situated higher education campuses in Kettering, Corby and Wellingborough is the key to unlocking local talent.
I should like to read from a letter that I have received from Jim Hakewill, the leader of Kettering borough council. It says:
"Congratulations on securing this debate which relates to a vital part of our intention to create sustainable communities in North Northamptonshire...Some six years ago a non-retractable deal was struck with government that if we"— local councils—
"were to accept being part of the government's sustainable community's strategy, the sequence of events would be Infrastructure - Jobs - Homes. Local people expect no more, or less, from their community leaders to deliver on this deal.
As soon as the opportunity to bid for the expansion of University education, available to all, was announced we (local government and education partners) set aside any political or geographical barriers and embraced the opportunity to bid for this investment in our and our children's future...The North Northamptonshire University locations will enable people who otherwise would have no opportunity to gain these qualifications to do so, throughout their lives, not just as they leave school or college.
Drawing down infrastructure investment and bringing the skills and opportunities required to enable University education to be available in North Northamptonshire is a pre-requisite for fulfilling existing and future employers' investment in our area. It is therefore also a crucial factor in the 'deal' made with government to accept growth in our towns and villages. Since those first expressions of interest the position has become even more crucial with the economic crisis the country faces and the obvious impacts on our existing local economy. There are particularly young people whose families cannot meet the cost of their children moving away to gain a university education."
Councillor Hakewill goes on to state that through Kettering borough council's
"to put forward projects that can be quickly brought to completion and which will help boost the economy. I can see few better opportunities to achieve both the government's and local people's ambitions for North Northamptonshire than to fast track the decision-making process and allocate the relevant funding to establish this much needed educational opportunity."
This is surely the point. Under the Government's sustainable communities plan, it is intended that 47,400 new jobs will be needed in north Northamptonshire by 2021. However, even before the economic recession got a grip, current trends suggest that it is not yet clear from where at least 19,000 of those jobs will come. Although manufacturing accounts for 22 per cent. of the north Northamptonshire economy— compared with just 11 per cent. in the UK as a whole—the area is starting to move away from the traditional industries of the 1980s and it needs relevant high-level skills to accommodate change. At the moment, a local higher level skills shortage is restricting future potential growth.
Wellingborough is faced with an unusual situation in that unemployment is more than 50 per cent. higher than in 1997. Some 17 per cent. of the adult population have no qualifications at all, compared with the national average of 13 per cent., so there is a real need to improve the skills level in Wellingborough.
My hon. Friend is right. One of the important things about the university challenge bid is that the locations for a further education offer are already in place in Corby, Kettering and Wellingborough. A university could be bolted on to such locations. The template exists locally in the three major towns in north Northamptonshire to provide doorstep access to higher education for many local people who currently do not aspire to it. If people do aspire to higher education, they currently have to go further afield to access the higher education that they seek.
Tresham institute is already developing its higher education offer. However, if the university challenge bid were successful, it would provide some rocket fuel to those ambitions. Tresham institute's concept and approach to higher education in north Northamptonshire includes:
"The validation of Higher Education and Higher Level Skills that relate to the economic and skill needs of the community of North Northamptonshire.
Significant opportunities to attract 'new learners' who might not have previously considered Higher Education and Higher Education Progression.
Diploma line developments and a linked line to Higher Education and Higher Education Progression Opportunities from the schools sector", and supporting
"employer engagement and enabling part-time flexible upskilling."
This year, Tresham is establishing higher education programmes in business and fine art, and level 5 in accounts. Next year and in 2011, there will be further higher education programmes in health and care, sport, public services and additional education programmes. A further seven higher education programmes are planned for 2011 to 2013.
In the guidance that HEFCE has issued on what will make a successful bid, it lists among the criteria some of the following, all of which are met by the bid from the north Northamptonshire education partnership: increasing higher-level skills, particularly for those with no previous experience of HE; the creation of a highly skilled work force, with relevant skills for the local business community; supporting appropriate progression arrangements; supporting a sustainable demand for studying; stimulating a sustainable demand for studying; collaboration between higher education institutes, and between HEIs and further education colleges; and strong, coherent support for local partners. In addition, it also states that a new higher education centre would contribute to meeting the needs of local, regional and national employers.
The bid from north Northamptonshire is strong and has already impressed the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills. Everyone in the local area is signed up to it, and considering all the house building that is expected to take place, it could make a real difference to the future of north Northamptonshire. We could even go as far as saying that if north Northamptonshire does not get a university and approval for its university challenge bid—I believe that it is the only one in the east midlands region out of the 27 successful bids so far—it is not clear to those involved in the process of regeneration and housing growth in the local area that the employment targets for the local area will be met.
Of the 47,400 jobs that the Government plan to create by 2021, there is a shortfall of at least 19,000. Those jobs could be provided by the economic stimulus that a new university in north Northamptonshire would provide. If the university challenge scheme is unsuccessful, there will be a big black hole in the employment prospects for north Northamptonshire. We will not have a sustainable community, as the Government intend. Instead, we will have lots of houses, not enough jobs and insufficient infrastructure.
My task is to impress on the Minister the importance of this bid—not just for local education opportunities, but as part of the Government's whole approach to getting some growth into the north of the county. I hope that when decision time comes on the issue, the Minister and HEFCE will look favourably at the proposals for a university in the north of Northamptonshire.
I congratulate Mr. Hollobone on securing the debate. I also congratulate Mr. Bone and the Minister of State, Department of Health, my good and hon. Friend Phil Hope on their work towards and long commitment to getting a university centre in north Northamptonshire. The hon. Member for Kettering spoke on the subject no less convincingly than he has spoken on previous occasions when he has raised the matter in the House and made direct representations to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.
I must make it clear for the public record that the final decision on whether to establish a university centre in the Kettering-Corby-Wellingborough area will not be taken by me or my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State; it is a decision for the Higher Education Funding Council for England. That body will take that decision on the basis of assessing the bids against the published criteria and according to their comparative quality. It would not, of course, be proper for members of the Government to intervene in that process.
I know that the hon. Member for Kettering is already aware of all of that. His confidence in the Northamptonshire bid's prospects for success on its own merits was evident from his speech. That does not lessen the effect of his eloquence today, nor of the fact that the proposal in whose favour he has spoken has the merit of commanding cross-party support in his area as well as the support of many local businesses and other organisations.
I know that because just two weeks ago I was able to witness for myself the good work being done in Northamptonshire when I attended the signing of the higher level skills strategy for the county. It is an agreement between the university of Northampton and partner colleges Moulton college, Northampton college and Tresham institute. The strategy is an important initiative, and I was pleased to launch it. It would be right to say that it and the ambition for the wider area are partly based on the hope and expectation that a new university might come to the area.
I should make it clear that I do not wish to take issue with the basic argument that a new university centre would bring great benefits to north Northamptonshire. I clearly recognise that a new university centre would make a key contribution to the regeneration of the area by unlocking the potential of the local towns and people and by driving economic growth. I say that as someone who spent seven wonderful years at school in Peterborough, just next door. I am acutely aware of the nature of the people and the environment, of the histories of the area's market towns, and of the contribution that a university could make.
There was a time when most people regarded universities as separate from everyday life, and certainly as largely separate from the lives of the communities in which they were situated. That is no longer true. Universities and their communities have drawn closer in recent years and, if anything, the effects of the economic downturn have given added impetus to that process. Businesses and ordinary working people are becoming increasingly aware that the world of higher education has something important to offer them. I was pleased when I was in Northampton that so many local businesses and the local chamber of commerce were there alongside the university and the colleges. That indicated the strength of ambition in that important growth area of the country.
At the same time, the universities have come round to the view that the unprecedented levels of public funding that they now enjoy confer a responsibility on them to demonstrate their value to the generality of the population, not just the 2.5 million or so people who are taking degrees at any one time. That was demonstrated graphically by Universities UK's aptly named brochure on higher education and the economic downturn, "Standing together: Universities helping business through the downturn". It was published at the end of last year and contains many examples of how universities are working in partnership with local and regional employers.
All over the country, universities are now getting involved with local authorities, regional development agencies, chambers of commerce and bodies such as Business Link. They are sitting down at the table with those who are making strategic decisions for the local area. They are representing future skills needs in those conversations, and it is hugely important that they are able to drive the ambitions of our local communities.
The universities are looking to take more of their knowledge and innovation out to the marketplace through knowledge transfer. They are taking more of their tuition off campus and out to the workplace itself. That should be welcomed by everyone who is interested in social and economic development. In short, it means that universities are becoming an ever more integral and, indeed, indispensable part of the economic supply chain and our social fabric.
When we talk about a knowledge economy, it is important to think about what underpins it. It was clear from the hon. Gentleman's contribution that an area with the rural-industrial past that his has needs real drivers to achieve ambitions. We all know that it cannot be about housing stock only. It has to be about infrastructure that lifts the aspirations not just of young people but of adults and parents as well.
That is why HEFCE is now offering new support for co-funding of courses by universities and employers. It is why the research councils are now scrutinising the economic impact of the projects that they fund, and, not least important to this debate, it is why the new university challenge that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced last year will bring a higher education presence to communities in parts of the country that have not previously benefited from or been served by one at all. Our ambition is that 20 new university centres will be opened or committed to over the six-year period up to 2014. They will provide places for 10,000 extra students when fully operational.
The new university challenge has generated significant enthusiasm in the hon. Gentleman's area and elsewhere. Applications from no fewer than 27 areas were submitted to HEFCE last November. That demonstrates the appetite for high-level skills and understanding across the country.
Formal applications for university centres must be made to HEFCE which, as I said, will judge them on a fair basis against the criteria. HEFCE published its detailed guidance for applications on
Crucially, applicants need to be able to demonstrate support from local partners, as well as long-term sustainable planning and management capacity. Those are all good reasons for hon. Members to continue to lead in making the formal case for developments to the funding council with the support of local people, local businesses and funding bodies such as the regional development agencies.
Although challenging, the criteria are sufficiently flexible to be adaptable in principle to any part of the country. I can therefore assure hon. Members that the final choice of successful applications is in no way a foregone conclusion. There is no single model for a new higher education centre nor a defined set of acceptable models. In most cases, we anticipate supporting new higher education centres that are based in or linked to existing providers offering new opportunities. We do not rule out the possibility of the creation of a genuinely new university in the longer term if a strong case can be made for one.
The hon. Member for Kettering is a powerful advocate for the creation of a new university presence in north Northamptonshire. He has been supported by the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby, and by the hon. Member for Wellingborough. I congratulate them on continuing to make the case, and I am pleased to put on the record not just the important—
Sitting adjourned without Question put (