Baroness Berridge Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Department for International Trade (Baroness Berridge) (Con)
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My Lords, Amendment 76A relates to intervention in FE college and sixth-form college corporations and designated institutions.

The measures that we set out in Clause 22, to which the amendment relates, will enable the Secretary of State to intervene where the education or training has failed adequately to meet local needs. It is, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson, outlined, a new duty under Clause 5, and the corresponding change to the enforcement powers comes in response to putting that duty on local providers. This builds on the existing intervention powers under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 by enabling the Secretary of State to direct the governing body to restructure. This measure is part of a package of reforms, including the introduction of local skills improvement plans and the new duty under Clause 5. However, I can assure noble Lords that the statutory intervention powers are intended to be used only as a last resort—that is, when all other alternative courses of action have failed to secure the improvements necessary to deliver for local learners.

The amendment from my noble friend Lord Lucas seeks to ensure that the Secretary of State takes into account academic qualifications and other local provision when considering how well local needs have been met. I join the noble Lord, Lord Watson, in being fascinated by my noble friend’s descriptions of Eastbourne. I can confirm for him that, at East Sussex College, 118 students are enrolled on A-level courses as their core study course, which is more than 50 in each of the two years. He also mentioned Gildredge House, a free school with around 65 students on level 3 academic programmes. I understand that East Sussex College is undertaking on each of its campuses a review of the specialisms offer that it makes to ensure that it best fits with local needs, and that it is considering enrolment activity and the level of demand from young people.

The assessment we envisage under the Bill will therefore not be restricted to a particular type of provision. Although the Secretary of State must consider the priorities set out in any LSIP, this does not exclude other provisions that are relevant to local needs—including academic provision specifically—also being reflected in the assessment. If there is a failure to meet needs in a local area, there is a responsibility on all the providers serving that area to work together to agree the changes required to bring about improvement. Every college involved in meeting the needs in a local area should be accountable for how well those needs are met.

I hope that these brief remarks provide some reassurance to my noble friend, and I ask him to consider withdrawing his amendment.

Lord Lucas Portrait Lord Lucas (Con) [V]
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My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that answer. I would be delighted to entertain her in Eastbourne for a day or two, particularly in this weather; I think she would enjoy it.

I understand that there are processes that are supposed to deliver what a local area wants, but they seem to be becoming ever more remote and fractured under the arrangements in this Bill. I remain unconvinced that what we are setting up in this Bill will deliver better provision than we have at the moment, but I will read my noble friend’s answer carefully and with interest. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Moved by
76B: After Clause 25, insert the following new Clause—
“Relevant date for purposes of fee limit for certain higher education courses
In paragraph 3(3) of Schedule 2 to the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (the fee limit where the provider has no access and participation plan), omit “before the calendar year”.”Member’s explanatory statement
Certain fee limits for academic years of higher education courses depend on whether the provider had a high level quality rating on a particular date. This new Clause changes that date to 1 January in the calendar year in which the academic year begins from 1 January in the previous calendar year.
Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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My Lords, I speak to government Amendments 76B and Amendment 101 in my name. They relate to the high-level quality rating, which is currently the teaching excellence and student outcomes framework, known as TEF, for providers without an approved access and participation plan.

Higher education providers with a TEF award currently benefit from an uplift to their fee limit, meaning they are able to charge a higher level than higher education providers without a TEF award. Despite the best efforts of noble Lords and the Government, there is an error in the legislation that could prevent a timely link between TEF awards and a provider’s fee limit. For example, currently, where a provider does not have an approved access and participation plan, whether the provider is entitled to the TEF fee uplift in any academic year is dependent on whether it had an award on 1 January in the calendar year before the relevant academic year. This means that a provider seeking to charge the TEF fee uplift in academic year 2022-23 would be able to do so based on an award in force in January 2021, rather than January 2022, which was the original intent of the legislation. This amendment will correct this and ensure a more timely link between fee limits and TEF, helping to further incentivise excellence in higher education. These amendments are of benefit to the institutions that I outlined.

Amendment 101 is a related consequential amendment to Clause 27, which sets out that the proposed new clause in Amendment 76B will come into force two months after Royal Assent. I beg to move.

Lord Adonis Portrait Lord Adonis (Lab)
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My Lords, in the previous group on Amendment 76A, the noble Baroness did not reply to my point about the international baccalaureate at all. I fully accept that she may not have the data I was after, but I would be grateful if she could put on record a commitment to write to me about it.

Baroness Sherlock Portrait Baroness Sherlock (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for her explanation of these amendments. From what she said, this appears to be a minor change to Schedule 2 to HERA. I gather it will apply only to providers that have a TEF award but not an access and participation plan, which therefore can charge only the basic fee plus a TEF supplement. The legislation currently says that they have to have held the TEF award on 1 January in the year before the course starts, but I presume it should have said on 1 January before the course starts. That is a good lesson to all of us on the importance of careful drafting. Although it went through in 2017, I am glad they have now been able to correct it.

I take this opportunity to ask the Minister a couple of quick questions. First, will any current providers be affected by this? I imagine that none will be, as the last TEF assessment exercise was in 2018-19. All TEF awards had been due to expire this summer, but were extended to 2023 to give the Government time to create a new TEF scheme and make assessments under it. I imagine that means that the only people who will be affected by this amendment, any time soon, are new providers applying for provisional TEF awards. Could she confirm that? Since that provisional award process has only just opened and the awards will not be confirmed until September, I imagine it will only affect courses starting in 2022, but it seems a sensible move.

We are now in the strange position of most providers having a TEF award but being told by the Office for Students not to advertise it, because the assessments that led to them are now out of date. This is a rather sad state of affairs for a system launched with such fanfare, so could the Minister take this opportunity to give the Committee a brief update on what is happening with TEF and when we can expect to see proposals for a new TEF system?

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their contributions, particularly the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and his thanks for this technical amendment to fix an error in the existing legislation. In relation to the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, as far as I understand it, the most recent TEF assessments were from 2017-18. This is a change to make the legislation fit for purpose for when the new round of TEF is announced. I will write to her with any update of the course for the new TEF.

I had hoped, given that these amendments would not affect any underlying policies, that noble Lords would be able to support them but, in the circumstances, I beg the leave of the Committee to withdraw Amendment 76B.

Lord Adonis Portrait Lord Adonis (Lab)
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What about the IB?

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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At least I am consistent in forgetting twice. I beg the noble Lord’s pardon. We have no intention not to fund the IB going forward, but I will write to him with the statistics.

Amendment 76B withdrawn.
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Baroness Sherlock Portrait Baroness Sherlock (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, for stepping into the breach and introducing this amendment and thank all noble Lords who have spoken. I may try to fill in some of the gaps left by the absence of the noble Lord, Lord Storey. I should say at the start that we fully support the outlawing of cheating services.

The Minister needs to address three questions: is there a problem, is it getting worse, and what is the right policy response? I think we now all agree there is a problem. We discussed this recently at the Second Reading of the Private Member’s Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Storey. In responding to that debate, the Minister—the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay—acknowledged the growing availability of cheating services and said that this

“puts vulnerable students at risk and threatens the reputation of our world-class higher education sector … it is reprehensible for essay mill companies to profit from a dishonest business that exploits young people’s anxiety and can undermine our world-class institutions.”

Yes, we have a problem. Is it growing? Again, yes, it is. The QAA believes there are now over 1,000 essay mills in operation.

In that debate, the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, told me that he had not read the paper by Lancaster and Cotarlan published this year in the International Journal for Educational Integrity. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, has read it or that at least she has been given a summary in her brief. It cites the 2015 work by Ardid et al which found no difference in the results students got when they took exams in person or online, provided that both types of exams were supervised. But when students took an exam online and it was not supervised, they got higher marks. That raised the obvious question as to whether students were using contract cheating in online exams. Lancaster and Cotarlan took up the challenge raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, and analysed how one website, Chegg, was used during the pandemic by students in five STEM subjects.

They found that students were using it to request answers to exam-style questions and that these could be put live and answered within the duration of an exam. The number of student requests posted for those five subjects increased by almost 200% between April and August last year compared with the same period the year before. Of course, that was exactly the time when many courses moved to being delivered and assessed online. They conclude that

“students are using Chegg for assessment and exam help frequently and in a way that is not considered permissible by universities.”

In 2016, the QAA said it that would approach the main search engine companies and ask them not to accept adverts for essay mills and to block them from search engines. That does not work. This week I did a search, and loads of them appeared. I visited the Chegg website today and it still says:

“Ask an expert anytime. Take a photo of your question and get an answer in as little as 30 mins.”


There is even a website which acts as a comparison site for essay mills. I went mystery shopping on one website before the Second Reading of the Private Member’s Bill, and last week I tried another one. This time round I priced up an undergraduate essay on Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God, with three sources and Chicago referencing. With a new customer’s discount, I could have had 750 words in just three hours for £72. A full 2,500-word essay could be mine in 12 hours for £193. I did not even have to subscribe to find that out.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, is quite right: if I were a student and I succumbed to this, as well as risking my academic career, I could be putting myself at risk of being blackmailed. The HE blog wonkhe.com has given examples of students who had problems either because they felt the quality of the work was not good enough or they got cold feet, and were told that if they did not pay the fee, and sometimes pay more money, the site would tell the university that they had used an essay mill.

We accept that we have a problem and that it is growing. What is the policy solution? In the past, Ministers have insisted that legislation was not needed, and they would get sector bodies to get tough and issue guidance and penalties. The noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, said that the Government have been working with the HE sector and tech companies but concluded:

“Despite that work, cheating services remain prevalent.”


That takes us to legislation. It is now three years since 46 vice-chancellors wrote a joint letter calling for these websites to be banned. Meanwhile, other countries have banned essay mills, including New Zealand, South Africa and, most recently, Australia and Ireland.

On 25 June, the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, mentioned emerging evidence from Ireland and Australia which

“suggests that those laws are deterring essay mills from providing services to students, and regulators there have reported that having the legislation has provided them with more tools to engage students, higher education providers and cheating services”.—[Official Report, 25/6/21; cols. 536-37.]

Can the Minister tell the Committee why the Government do not think British students deserve the same protection from being preyed on as students in those countries? Contract cheating is a growing problem which puts students at risk and threatens academic integrity. If it keeps growing, it will start to disadvantage students who will not cheat, and that is a problem for all of us. We need to know that our doctors, engineers and lawyers have qualified based on their own merits, not on those of strangers on the internet.

So when will the Government act? If the Minister does not like this amendment, fine: she can bring her own back on Report. But if she does not, how long will we have to wait for another legislative opportunity to deal with a problem which even Ministers acknowledge is real and growing? I look forward to hearing her reply.

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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I begin by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, for moving Amendment 77 on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Storey. It would make it a criminal offence to provide or advertise academic cheating services in connection with post-16 education. I pay tribute to the tenacity and detail with which the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, has given your Lordships examples of the situation, which the Government accept is a growing problem. The noble Lord, Lord Storey, is obviously to be commended for his unstinting efforts to clamp down on essay mills, where unscrupulous online operators write assignments and other pieces of work for students for financial gain.

The Government have consistently made it clear that using these services is unacceptable. Research indicates that cheating services are prevalent, and the evidence suggests that higher education is the area of greatest risk. This is despite the Government working closely with the higher education sector to clamp down on the cheating services, and we have worked with the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, the National Union of Students and Universities UK to produce guidance for providers on how to combat contract cheating. On a specific point raised by several noble Lords, we have worked with the National Union of Students, which has also provided advice for students so that they are aware of the consequences of contract cheating, sending a clear message that these services are not legitimate.

The use of plagiarised assessments is, of course, unacceptable and, as my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe said, it devalues the hard work of those who succeed on their own merit, as well as potentially undermining the reputation of our world-class higher education sector.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, will know, that is why the Government welcomed the principles set out in the Private Member’s Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Storey, the Higher Education Cheating Services Prohibition Bill, at its Second Reading, and we agree that we should put an end to the scourge of essay mills.

However, the noble Lord’s amendment would make the provision and advertising of cheating services to all post-16 further education and higher education a criminal offence. Although we support the principles behind the amendment, there is little evidence to suggest that cheating services are a problem in post-16 and further education providers, as they are for higher education. We are therefore of the view that this Bill is not the appropriate vehicle for this important policy.

To note the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, the amendment lacks sufficient legal detail and precision to demonstrate how it would work in practice. We shall, however, be working with the noble Lord, Lord Storey, on his Bill, which covers much of the same ground. It is important that, when we legislate in this area, we legislate correctly and make clear the implications for those who use these services. Sometimes, that can be a response of support for vulnerable students; but, in certain situations, that will be a sanction. We need to make clear, as the amendment does not, what will be the penalties for either advertising or being a service that offers cheating services, or essay mills, and what sanction will follow. I therefore hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, will feel comfortable in withdrawing the amendment.

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Some education providers will always be happy to accept credits from another organisation where they are assured that these credits meet their own criteria, but we really do not need this in legislation. It must be left to each provider to decide whether it will accept the standards and credits of another body. I readily acknowledge that credit transfer could be useful and positive but I have no wish to see education providers compelled to accept credits from other bodies where they are inappropriate, dubious or extremely difficult to accommodate administratively—which is another aspect of this. Let us be happy for those organisations which do accept the standards and credits of others, but please do not put credit transfer into legislation.
Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the Noble Lord, Lord Watson, for tabling this amendment and have great sympathy with its purpose. The Government know that many learners need more flexible access to courses helping them to train, upskill or retrain alongside work, family and personal commitments, as both their circumstances and the economy change. We also recognise that the current lack of a systematic and widely used practice for building up credit across different providers is a key barrier to flexible lifelong learning.

The Bill will deliver that flexibility, underpinning the Prime Minister’s lifetime skills guarantee. This is part of our blueprint for a post-16 education system that will seek to ensure that everyone, no matter where they live or their background, can gain the skills they need to progress at any stage of their lives. We want people to be able to build up learning over their lifetime and have a real choice in how, where and when they study to acquire new life-changing skills. In particular, as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, outlined, this will hopefully lead to an expansion of provision within further education colleges and other providers.

To enable flexibility, learners must, where appropriate, be able to accumulate and transfer credits between providers to build up to meaningful qualifications over time. The Bill and the government amendments tabled on the LLE provide the building blocks of a modular and potentially credit-based loan funding and fee limit system. It is precisely defining what a module is that will ensure consistency across the system.

We are working closely with the sector to understand current incentives and obstacles to credit transfer and recognition. Obviously, the system is not simple or straightforward, as the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, outlined. We intend to consult on the scope and policy of the lifelong loan entitlement. We will examine how to support easier and more frequent credit transfer between providers, working towards well-integrated and aligned higher and further education provision, with flexibility that enables students to move between settings to suit their needs.

It is important that we consult and engage closely on this to ensure that we build a system that works. The consultation will be later this year and it is important we get the detail right. Although higher education is a devolved matter, we are of course engaging with the devolved Administrations. It is important that any system in England provides consistency and works alongside the other three nations. We must not pre-determine the outcome of any consultation and pin the Government to a path that the sector and learners may tell us in consultation is not what is needed. I therefore hope that the noble Lord, Lord Watson, will feel comfortable withdrawing his amendment.

Lord Watson of Invergowrie Portrait Lord Watson of Invergowrie (Lab)
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My Lords, I am not comfortable withdrawing my amendment, as the Minister suggests. The amendment has been rather too easily dismissed by the Minister and by the noble Baroness, Lady Garden. I recognise the experience of the noble Baroness with City & Guilds, but I also recognise her experience as a Minister in the coalition Government—and that sounded very much like a ministerial speech. She was drawing on her experience of those years when she counselled against legislating in this respect.

There is a greater need to give people confidence when they are trying to provide what the Minister called building blocks for a degree or qualification, so they have a guarantee that there is somebody whom they can call on to make sure that they can use those effectively. I noticed that my noble friend Lord Adonis made the point about the degree apprenticeships. Many of us are a bit dubious about degree apprenticeships, but clearly they will have a role in this. He drew the line, and I think he was drawing the dots from a practical apprenticeship and moving it on bit by bit, perhaps banking some of the experience to go to do something else—perhaps raise a family—and then come back to it, ultimately with a degree. That is very important.

The way in which the Minister says that the Government will consult, as I understand it, meant only that they would consult on the scope of the lifelong loan entitlement. There has to be something specific on credit transfer. Like other noble Lords, I have had briefings from organisations in the sector which are very concerned and want to make sure that there is something of a solid nature on which they can build in future. I heard no mention of the international aspect, which was certainly raised with me by the QAA. It is concerned about the international reputation if we do not have a UK-wide structure that people in other countries can look at, understand and then have the confidence to come and use.

The Minister was saying that this was a bit premature and talked about another consultation. We will be inundated by consultations as a result of the Bill. As an aside, let me say that the noble Baroness, Lady Penn, mentioned earlier a consultation that concluded in September, and we have a consultation on initial teacher training in schools which concludes in August. When we have consultations, can we please not have them over the summer holidays? It may help officials, but it does not help those seeking to put together a response to consultation and it surely dilutes the amount of response received.

I hear what the Minister says, but I am not convinced. I shall come back on Report to try to tease out some of the arguments a bit further and invite her to respond in a bit more detail to the points that I put after she has had her chance, with her Ovaltine this evening and a copy of Hansard by her side, to consider them in greater detail.

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Baroness Wilcox of Newport Portrait Baroness Wilcox of Newport (Lab)
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My Lords, I support Amendment 86 in the name of my noble friend Lord Touhig, which would grant the Secretary of State the power to allow sixth-form college corporations to convert to academies without losing their current statutory protections. It would secure the religious character of the Catholic sixth-form college when it converts and therefore enable dioceses to include these new sixth-form academies within their strategic planning of Catholic multi-academy trusts. It will be on very few occasions during the passage of this Bill that I will support the Secretary of State taking back power and centralising control, but this is one of those rare occasions.

The immense change in the education landscape brought about in the English education system by the Academies Act 2010 has required all schools and colleges to consider their future with the Government’s intention to move towards a fully academised system. We have no academies in Wales; we have comprehensive schools run by local authorities. I look forward immensely to the introduction of the dynamic new curriculum—the four areas of learning developed by teachers being introduced to all schools in Wales this September. However, we are talking about England.

While schools and FE colleges can become academies, the 14 Catholic sixth-form colleges in England are prohibited by the current legislation from planning strategically to secure their future. This is a result of the earlier academies legislation, as other noble Lords have mentioned, which failed at the time to address the unique legal structure of these 14 colleges. This amendment would grant Catholic sixth-form colleges the same academy opportunities that all other schools and colleges currently have to strategically plan their future. It is a good example of the unintended consequences of a Bill that is inadequately prepared to work in practice once enacted.

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, for bringing forward his amendment. Although it is always a pleasure to stand at the Dispatch Box on behalf of the Government, it is a double pleasure when—for I think the only occasion in the Bill—the issue falls within my ministerial responsibility. It is a pleasure to speak to it. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, made reference to Harris Sixth Form; my old sixth-form sadly closed but was reopened a few years later as a 16-19 academy called Harington school, which is an outstanding school in Rutland.

There has been a really vibrant place in the system for sixth-form academies, but there has also been the situation which the amendment seeks to address: sixth-form colleges with a religious designation, if they were to convert to academies, would not retain that designation and would lose some of their religious character and associated freedoms. The Government are committed to supporting existing sixth-form colleges to convert to academy status. I am pleased that a significant proportion of sixth-form colleges have already taken this step and have made a strong contribution to strengthening the academies sector. It was a pleasure to meet Bill Watkin and James Kewin of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, who mentioned the situation with the other section of sixth-form colleges and expressed their desire to look at academisation.

We recognise that there are currently barriers preventing sixth-form colleges with a religious character from converting to academies. This is because it is not presently legally possible for 16-19 academies to have a religious designation, which is of course necessary for Catholic sixth-form colleges in order to retain their religious character around collective worship, RE, recruitment of staff and so on, as the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, outlined. At present, any sixth-form college with a religious character converting to an academy would lose that designation.

We remain keen to take action to facilitate all sixth-form colleges, including those with a designated religious character, to convert to academies. I know that existing Catholic designated sixth-form colleges are keen to join Catholic multi-academy trusts, and I am sure they would make an excellent contribution. We have received further communication from Bishop Marcus Stock, who is the lead Catholic bishop on education and supports the principle of allowing these Catholic sixth-form colleges to become academies. As the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, outlined, if there is any change in the law, it would ensure that other faith groups that establish 16-19 academies can designate them as having a religious character appropriate to them.

The Secretary of State for Education made clear, when speaking in the other place, that we would look at all legislative opportunities to see how this can best be done. We are committed to making this happen at the earliest opportunity. Sadly, however the amendment as drafted could have undesired effects, as it provides that any 16-19 academy so designated is a school in law. This will create legal uncertainty as to the status of 16-19 academies, which are expressly defined in legislation as not schools. A new power would be required to achieve what the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, wants from his amendment.

However, we none the less want to facilitate access to academy status for all sixth-form colleges that wish to convert by enabling the religious designation of 16-19 academies. While this amendment is not the vehicle for it, we remain supportive of the principle. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, feels able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Touhig Portrait Lord Touhig (Lab) [V]
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I have observed the contributions of Members on a host of amendments in these last hours and pay tribute to everyone in the Committee for their hard work and commitment in making this a better Bill. I thank my noble friends Lord Adonis and Lady Wilcox, and the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, for their reasoned, informed and encouraging support. I am most grateful.

I hope the Minister might have something more to say as the Bill progresses. I assure her that, if she does, she will be on my Christmas card list. I await further developments and look forward to working with her and her officials to achieve what we all want from this legislation. I beg leave to withdraw.

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I realise that I am being difficult and looking for problems. That is kind of my job: I am in the Opposition, and perhaps I have been there too long. However, as always, the noble Lord is thinking creatively, and I will be very interested to hear what the Minister makes of his suggestions.
Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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My Lords, I shall first resist the temptation to respond to the noble Baroness’s comment that she has been in opposition too long. I pay tribute to all noble Lords who have outlined the role of the Student Loans Company. It has no statutory functions of its own but exists as the student loan delivery arm of the Secretary of State, exercising powers delegated by him or her. The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, is correct that my noble friend Lord Willetts is suggesting a fundamental change of role for the Student Loans Company, whether as a post box, a communications agent or a marketing agent. While I thank my noble friend for his amendment, I do not believe it is necessary or wise.

The Government already publish a wide range of data, including earnings information by higher education provider and subject of study up to five years post graduation. It comes from the longitudinal education outcomes database, commonly known as LEO. The database has a wider coverage than the Student Loans Company, as it considers all graduates rather than just those who take out a student loan. Secure access to this data is granted to accredited researchers through the Office for National Statistics, to answer research questions. So while HE providers, although they do some of the best research themselves, cannot access LEO data to look at individual graduate outcomes, the data that is already published is sufficient to meet those research needs. On the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, the LEO database holds data by subject, provider, gender and region—so it does provide good access.

In relation to the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, obviously the data that I have outlined is only one factor in the value of a higher-education qualification. I hope that all noble Lords will agree that we see the value immensely of her education, and the roles that some people undertake for very modest salaries are incredibly valuable. We have seen that a lot during the pandemic.

The second part of my noble friend’s amendment includes a duty to facilitate universities’ communication with their graduates through the Student Loans Company, without passing on any personal data, unless a graduate has specifically opted out. I noticed the Member’s explanatory statement states:

“This amendment enables universities to use the SLC to communicate with their graduates to encourage greater uptake of lifelong learning opportunities.”


As I have outlined, the SLC is not really there to be used by the universities. It is there for the students and to ensure that there is proper finance. The Student Loans Company should hold data only on students who own or are repaying a loan, so not all graduates are captured. Again, the onus is on the graduate to ensure that the Student Loans Company has their most recent contact data after they complete their studies. It will not surprise noble Lords that, unfortunately, not all graduates do this.

To answer my noble friend’s question, are we really looking now to place a duty on SLC to chase down the graduates for contact information when it does not have it? Such a system, as outlined in the amendment, to facilitate communication between the universities and the Student Loans Company, unfortunately would incur up-front and ongoing costs, plus potential data implications, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, highlighted. The roles suggested would involve a considerable burden on the Student Loans Company. It is best left to universities to reach out to their alumni directly through existing communication channels. As I mentioned in relation to the Member’s explanatory statement, if the Student Loans Company were to take on a role of communicating about lifelong loan entitlements, would it be after just one university, or three institutions, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, outlined? This is a considerable administrative, communication or marketing task that we would be asking of the SLC.

The final part of the amendment proposes facilitating the National Employment Savings Trust to communicate through the Student Loans Company, effectively encouraging students to consider saving into the NEST pension scheme once they get towards paying off their student loans. Automatic enrolment has achieved a quiet revolution through getting employees into the habit of pension savings, reversing the previous decline in workplace pension participation seen in the decade before the start of the reforms. As my noble friend Lord Willetts mentioned, it has succeeded in transforming pension saving for millions of workers. Since 2012, workplace pension participation rates for eligible employees aged 22 to 29 increased from 35% to 86% in 2019.

While encouraging graduates to work towards future financial resilience is right, the Government do not agree that this amendment is the right means to do so. A graduate or postgraduate would not be able to join the NEST pension scheme directly. NEST was established to support automatic enrolment and operates under a public service obligation to accept any employer who wishes to use the scheme to meet their automatic enrolment duties. Given that NEST is a workplace pension scheme, this means that most people typically would join through their employer but, in some cases such as self-employment, people can enrol themselves. In addition to operating under a public service obligation, NEST also receives a government loan to cover its running costs. This amendment would be seen as giving NEST an unfair advantage in a competitive pensions market. I am sorry to inform my noble friend Lord Willetts that this too would not be possible.

I have to say that I also agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, that this would also take away from the core role. Like any organisation, the Student Loans Company has a limit on what it can deliver at any one time and there is already an ambitious reform programme, including the delivery of the lifelong loan entitlement, which I assure noble Lords will keep all those employees, mainly in Darlington, very busy over the next few years.

Laudable though the aims of this amendment are, the Government’s position is that changing the role of the SLC is not the vehicle to deliver this. It is unfortunately not a treasure trove, as my noble friend Lord Lucas outlined. I thank my noble friend Lord Willetts for his amendment but hope that, having considered these points, he will withdraw it.

Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con) [V]
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My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for a very interesting debate. I particularly agree, of course, with the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and my noble friend Lord Lucas. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, that—although it was fascinating to hear her personal biography, which is indeed a reminder that there is more to universities than subsequent earnings—there is nothing in this amendment that says that is the be-all and end-all of universities. It simply recognises that we have this organisation, the Student Loans Company, in place and that we have a problem, which I very much regret was not acknowledged by the Minister: most universities have no means of communicating with most of their graduates. That is a real barrier to the Government’s own objective of promoting lifelong learning, although there are other objectives as well and the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, about mentoring seemed to me very relevant.

Meanwhile, a separate government agency is communicating with graduates—namely, the Student Loans Company. Of course it is correct that, at the moment, it is simply collecting money from them, but I do not see why that is not also an opportunity to do something additional. I am very much aware of the practical operational problems of the Student Loans Company, having wrestled with them myself for several years, but this request would be under ministerial guidance; Ministers and the Department for Education, together with the Student Loans Company, would have the ultimate say on what messages were communicated. It seems to me that the Minister is in danger of missing out on a really important opportunity to achieve one of her own objectives.

This is the kind of debate that we might have had about NHS data 15 or 20 years ago, when some Health Minister turned out to say, “No, it wouldn’t be acceptable for hospitals to communicate with people who have had appointments or been at the hospital”. The fact is that data and communication matter. We have to be imaginative in harnessing the opportunities that we have to communicate.

I very much regret the Minister’s approach. I will, of course, withdraw my amendment now, but I hope it might be possible to consider further ways in which some version of this thoroughly innocuous amendment can be used to achieve an objective that is shared across the House. It should be done only within the capacities of the Student Loans Company, and only for purposes of which Ministers approve but I think that, if Ministers do not take this chance, there will be a moment in the future when they say, “Why on earth didn’t we do this? It would have been so useful”. We could be providing universities with more information about their graduates; we could be enabling graduates to have more information about what their universities can do for them and what they can do for their university. In the light of the debate so far, however, I beg leave to withdraw this specific amendment now.